“As long as it’s relevant to the book, I’m up for it.” A conversation with Burrow Press publisher Ryan Rivas
In this week’s Late Night Interview, Burrow Press Publisher Ryan Rivas and author John Henry Fleming discuss the history of Burrow Press, the Florida literary scene, the author-publisher relationship, local vs. national promotion, and the pleasures and challenges of small-press literary publishing.
JOHN HENRY FLEMING: Let’s get this thing off on the right foot. What are you sick of hearing people ask you?
RYAN RIVAS: Lately I’ve been getting a lot of “are you getting any writing done?” It always comes from a good place, so I don’t have the heart to be like, How about asking about the publishing that is, like, my full time job? Have you bought any Burrow books lately? I enjoy writing but publishing is such a wonderful distraction from writing, much less frustrating, and I feel lucky to be in a position to publish work I believe in, so I tend to live vicariously as a writer through the writing of others. What I wanna know is how you do it: how do you balance writing, teaching full-time, and running a lit mag?
JHF: I try as often as possible to put the writing first—as in first in the morning, before the emails and phone calls and cuddly kitten internet videos pile up. Later in the semester, the schedule breaks down. I love teaching, though, so if it cuts into writing some weeks, I don’t get too worked up about it. I’m very lucky to have an excellent teaching job and a steady stream of talented, enthusiastic, and unpretentious students. And those students do the bulk of the work for Saw Palm—reading submissions, choosing art, laying out the issue, and planning the release party where I gladly demonstrate my mad karaoke skills. In fact, that’s my chief role now: Karaokist in Chief.
So you started as a writer but now you’re more publisher than writer. Was that a natural transition? How and why did you start Burrow Press?
RR: There weren’t a lot of fiction writers—that I knew of—hanging around Orlando, where I’ve lived for about a decade. So I co-founded BP with a fellow writer named Jana Waring for selfish reasons, around 2010, when we decided we wanted to meet more fiction writers in town. We put out a call for fiction submissions by Florida authors. The response was positive and we ended up discovering a lot of talented writers who were practically our neighbors. From there we realized there was a need for this in Orlando, for a publishing company and readings and community, and things grew from there, and though Jana handed me the reins in 2012, things have continued to grow ever since.
JHF: What’s been the biggest challenge in running a press so far? What’s been the biggest surprise?
RR: Straddling the line between being intensely local-focused and also wanting to be nationally recognized is a challenge. Some people equate local with amateurism. We do a lot of projects that involve really talented Orlando authors and that are really valuable to the community, like free literary events. We also consciously publish books by Floridians in an attempt to raise the literary profile of our misunderstood state. I think this local angle attracts Florida readers, but, due to all the stereotypes surrounding Florida fiction, other readers might get the wrong idea—even though we’re not publishing books about Florida.
It was a pleasant surprise to get some national recognition for our books this past March. Both your book [Songs for the Deaf] and Vanessa Blakeslee’s book [Train Shots] were our first to be nationally distributed. Vanessa’s won that IPPY and made the Frank O’Connor long-list. Your book is being considered for an honor by the ALA. And we still haven’t heard back from half the awards we nominated the books for. They’re both in second printings. To me, that proves that when you strip away the fact that you both live in Florida, and that a couple of Vanessa’s stories are set in Florida, what you have at the core are two solid books of literary fiction. Can’t we have our local cake and eat it on national television, too?
JHF: Yes we can, and there’s plenty of cake in Florida in the form of good writers. On the other hand, there haven’t been nearly so many good publishers. At a time when some really exciting independent presses have been popping up all over the country, Burrow Press is one of the few based in Florida. Yet Florida is the fourth (and about to be third) most populous state in the country. Why do you think the state has lagged behind in the publishing world?
RR: That is a good question. The heat, the convicts, the elderly, the elderly convicts? I’m not sure what’s stopping anyone other than the fact that you have to be partially insane or delusionally optimistic to start a press. I think that Burrow could have easily dissolved early on, but didn’t because of the community support we have, so maybe there’s a lack of tightknit lit communities in other Florida cities? What’s the scene like over in Tampa?
JHF: Like a lot of Florida cities, Tampa’s sort of a sprawl with weak public transportation, so there’s no centrally located, thriving arts district. But there’s a very strong literary community. We have MFA programs at USF and UT. We have the Wordier Than Thou reading series, as well as all the readers the colleges bring in. We have the Bluebird Book Bus bringing books to the people. And we have a couple of excellent independent bookstores that host events.
RR: What about this state influenced your two previous books [Legend of the Barefoot Mailman and Fearsome Creatures of Florida], which are quintessentially Florida books?
JHF: Florida’s a con, but it’s also a perpetual blank slate and a landscape of incredible natural beauty. In The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman I wanted to capture some of the con and the blank slate, and in Fearsome Creatures I wanted to capture some of the natural beauty—not necessarily with pretty word-painting but with a still-wild environment that means something and is capable of striking back against years of encroachment and degradation.
As Earl Shank thinks in The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, “Florida had a history as a haven for good-for-nothing laggards who used laziness to their advantage—pirates and treasure-seekers, wealthy retirees, pale convalescents, idlers rich and poor, con men and carpetbaggers, entrepreneurs with big visions and flexible morals, anybody looking for a free lunch and a day in the sun.” That was the state of things in Florida in the 1880s, and it’s largely true today; the characters just take different forms. It’s that mix of sloppy hucksterism and the aggressively beautiful environment that makes Florida unique.
RR: Maybe that’s another reason literary publishing isn’t big in Florida. There’s no glory in it (I’m not complaining), no get-rich-quick aspect (still not complaining) and no obvious con (By the way, I received the $5,000 for your next book. We’re sending it to the printer as soon as your check clears.).
JHF: Right—good luck with the check. But, to broaden things a moment, what do you see as the role of the independent press in the U.S. these days? Is it changing?
RR: Since we’re also a nonprofit press I feel that our role is especially important in that we choose books based on artistic merit and not salability. That said, like any other press, our goal is to get our books into as many hands as possible.
In a broader sense, independent presses (large and small) play an important role in publishing because so much good work gets overlooked––sometimes due to the sheer volume of manuscripts floating around.
Case in point, when you sent me the manuscript for Songs for the Deaf, I honestly had no idea why anyone would have turned it down. I just totally clicked with it. I suppose the role of many presses is to scoop up the good work that falls through the cracks and put it out in the world. I wonder: your first novel was published by a traditional publishing house. What brought you, mid-career, to the small press world? How does the experience differ?
JHF: I’d been to Functionally Literate, the Burrow Press reading series in Orlando. I’d been a part of BP’s 15 Views project [which engages local authors to create alternative, non-tourist representations of their communities]. I felt a kinship to this alt-Florida idea because I’ve been striving for similar goals in my work with Saw Palm, the literary magazine I started at USF, and in a different, less intentional way through The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman and Fearsome Creatures of Florida. If you live in Florida for a while, you find yourself either embracing the tourist ideals or struggling against them. I like palm trees, beaches, and theme parks, too, but to live solely in the shadow of those brochures is oppressive. I also admire the nonprofit community work you do—the Page 15 literacy programs and all of the readings and events that you sponsor to build a local literary community. I don’t even live in Orlando! But what you’re doing with BP seems an ideal model for a small press these days. Publish nationally, act locally. It’s in keeping with what I hope is a small-press trend. McSweeney’s does some of this. So does Dzanc Books.
Songs for the Deaf never did get turned down, by the way. When you asked me for something, I had revised the stories and completed the manuscript and was just beginning to send it around to small presses. BP was the first press to respond, and because of the affinity I already felt for BP, and because of your plans to expand BP and distribute nationally, the decision was pretty easy.
RR: Oh, wow, I never actually realized that we essentially called dibs on it. I feel even luckier now. Hopefully we’ve done the book justice.
JHF: I’m really happy with the way things have gone. I know many writers who complain about their publishers, and I’ve had my own bad experiences. But with a small press—if you do your research and find a good one—the publishing experience is more personal and satisfying. You feel you’re teaming up with the press. You feel you have some control over the product and the way it’s marketed. Most importantly, you feel that the publisher is committed to the book and is passionate about gaining a readership for it.
RR: I’m glad you feel that way. That’s another thing small presses can offer: personalized experience for authors. We might not have an entire design and publicity department, but at the same time it’s often a relief, for me, to get the author’s input and blessing on things like book cover and jacket copy.
Based on many conversations with many writers who publish with big houses, my understanding is that an engaged, author-friendly experience is a crapshoot.
I’ve also met authors who don’t want to be involved in production or publicity. What, for you, is a comfortable level of involvement? Do you care about cover design and jacket copy? After having books out on a large and small press, what types of promotional efforts (on your part) are worth it to you?
JHF: I worked after college for a few years as a production editor for a publisher, so I do like getting my fingers into the design and production. Promotional efforts are tricky. On one hand, the internet has made it much easier to advertise books. On the other hand, it’s harder to float above the sea of voices. Unless you have a huge budget for book tours and print ads, it seems you have to rely on word-of-mouth, well-placed reviews, and social media. I like giving readings but hate those soul-crushing bookstore signings where you’re sitting at a table for hours while the patrons do everything to avoid eye contact. I joke with students that the best way to sell a manuscript and promote a book is to first get famous doing something else. What I really need is to get to work on my acting/singing/gator-hunting/political career.
How about you? What have you discovered about book promotion?
RR: I don’t mind sharing what we do but caveat emptor to other publishers: I think different things work for different books and presses. I know that print ads directed at individual readers are usually not worth the money. BP advertises to bookstores and libraries and we’ve had success with those ads. Most importantly, we inundate the world with quality paperback ARCs. That’s an investment we make for every book. And we constantly try to find the right people to give those ARCs to. Getting your small press’ budget to the point where you can print a bunch of ARCs and place a few ads is a good start. Also, we nominate books for awards. It never hurts and it’s not that taxing on the budget. We’re still discovering new ways to promote, and I think that will always be the case. As long as it’s relevant to the book, I’m up for it. We’ll often do a little something weird for each book, like the sentence dedications we did for Songs for the Deaf. By the way, I still need to go your website and dedicate a sentence to my wife. I’m thinking this one: “He told her he was sorry, that it was his fault he’d lost his taste for raw meat and open-air sexual commerce.”
I love that we did that promotion because it totally fits the playful vibe of your prose and, I like to think, avoids pure gimmick. It’s fun. And it helps that you write mind-bendingly good sentences. Do you have a favorite sentence from Songs for the Deaf? One that, given the chance to be a little egotistical, you’d dedicate to yourself?
JHF: I’d have a hard time picking a favorite, but I like these two sentences from “Cloud Reader”:
As one day grays into the next, the slow-circling fog steps cautiously through the denuded limbs of late November.
Or black banks of night’s angry castoffs, rumbling and spitting over the land.
I think I did a pretty good job in the first sentence capturing the eerie movement of the fog and in the second sentence the thunderclouds at night.
I also really like this comic sentence from the foreigner in “Xenophilia”:
America, he thought, always was I saying a doomed country was.
RR: Do you, personally, think America is doomed?
JHF: America, as the foreigner says, is a cock-a-hoop roadhouse diner staffed with pretentious bumpkins and patronized by belligerent women. For that reason, it will survive for eternity.
Find out more about Burrow Press, the Burrow Press Review, and the Functionally Literate reading series at burrowpress.com
Order Songs for the Deaf and other Burrow Press titles here.
Ryan Rivas (photo credit: Chelsea Leigh Simmons) is the Publisher of Burrow Press, a nonprofit independent publisher of fiction and creative nonfiction based in Orlando, FL.
John Henry Fleming (photo credit: Lacie Meier) is the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails, and, most recently, Songs for the Deaf: stories. His short stories have appeared in journals such as McSweeney’s, Mississippi Review, and Fourteen Hills, and have been anthologized in 100% Pure Florida Fiction and in The Future Dictionary of America. He is the founding editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. His website is www.johnhenryfleming.com.