An Interview With Dan Cafaro, Publisher of Atticus Books in Maryland

Today we’re kicking off Savvy Verse & Wit’s First Annual Indie & Small Press Month Celebration with Dan Cafaro from Maryland’s very own Atticus Books.  He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his business, books, and some more personal matters, like obsessions.

Rather than provide you with all the connection details at the end of the interview, please check out their Facebook page, the Independent Book Sellers That Rock Our World Page, and Book Blogger Central (you may even find a picture of Dan on one of these pages).

1.  As founding publisher of Atticus Books in Maryland, how long has it taken to make a name for the publishing house in the industry, and what frustrations have you overcome to make it such a local success?

We haven’t yet made a name for ourselves, but writers, damn good writers, continue to find us and that’s more than half the battle for a small press in its infancy. We began in earnest less than a year ago when we signed our first novelist (Alex Kudera) to a book contract. I had just hung our shingle in Kensington when Alex took a leap of faith in me (and I in him).  I was a solo act with no staff support in sight. He was a former adjunct from Philly with a bitterly funny academic satire to sell.  I had worked in print media for 20 years and I had just ended a publishing consulting contract with an aerospace society; trade publishing was a far cry from rocket science; it was a whole new animal and I was elated to be in position to give it a whirl.

When the entrepreneurial muse came calling, little did I know what she had in store.  After exploring every conceivable hybrid book business model known to man and industry insiders—complete with storefront, café, antiques, wine, and/or an espresso book machine (to print books on site and on demand), I elected to conserve my capital, minimize the overhead, mitigate the out-of-pocket risk, and focus my energies on the writing.  My goal became an all-consuming, wildly passionate ambition—to find the greatest writers out there who simply are not getting the attention they deserve. I wake up equally frustrated and intrinsically rewarded every day, knowing in my old-school bohemian bones that I’m driven by a desire that defies all monetary-minded rationale.  If I somehow can make a living at doing what I love by 1.) forming micro-literary villages of likeminded souls online, and 2.) helping innovate a long established (some say, struggling if not dying) profession, then I’ll be the happiest working man-child alive.

2.  What’s the breakdown of books you publish (i.e. how many poetry books, fiction, etc.)?  How many are written by local authors?

We currently have produced three titles of fiction, including two novels and one novella (The Absent Traveler & Other Stories).  In 2011, we have five titles of fiction planned for release, all novels, with other book proposals pending and in development.  We’re taking a serious look at publishing more collections of short stories (a terrific weakness of mine) as I truly admire those who can say more with less, and I believe that the short story form is due a cultural revival. Short stories often provide a taste of better things to come from developing writers, so it excites me to think that I’m supporting a fertile mind from the beginning of its artistic bell curve.  Not that all writers follow this path, but those who have mastered the short form sometimes go on to use those same characters and charming turn-of-phrase aptitude in longer, more fully layered works of magnificence.

Our writers, more than half of whom are college English professors, scatter the map, from Massachusetts, New York (3), and Maryland to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Eric D. Goodman, whose debut novel, Tracks, comes out in the summer, resides in Baltimore. Tracks contains a thread of stories told by characters traveling on a train from Baltimore to Chicago. It’s richly laced with colorful descriptions and insights of the city of Baltimore. Eric is heavily involved in Baltimore’s literary scene and supports the arts regionally through his participation in DelMarVa events, readings on NPR-Baltimore, and his blog.  His dedication to the area and involvement with the Maryland Writers’ Association, the CityLit Project in Baltimore, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Md., factored in my wanting him in our camp.

3.  From the list of authors, online contributors, editors, etc. listed on Atticus Books Website, it seems as though the working environment at the publishing house is very collaborative, almost like a large family.  Was this environment intentional, and how well does it work when deadlines arise?

In an effort to keep this answer short, let’s just say, we’re one happy, dysfunctional family—and the dysfunction comes from none other than the patriarch.  One rule, besides unceremoniously leaving the seat down in the bathroom for Libby and Lindsey (my part-time, guardian angels), is to not take ourselves (and myself) too seriously.  As a former daily news schlep, I work better under deadline, particularly when that deadline is self-imposed and I get to revise it.  Once you’ve survived the pressure of filing stories on time, within length constraints, and without typos under the watchful eye of a half-crazed editor breathing down your neck in a noisy newsroom, a mostly quiet and serene book publishing environment is a piece of cake (filled with buttercream and surprise).

4.  Atticus also has an aggressive environmental policy against using paper from endangered forests, using at least 30 percent recycled fiber, and more.  Some publishers have said adopting an aggressive stance will increase costs so much that making a profit is nearly impossible.  What prompted your decision to adopt the policy, how did you justify it, and has it been as costly as other publishers have indicated it would be?

To be honest, I’m not sure we currently print enough books to know how much impact this is having (or will inevitably have) on our bottom line.  Our books are printed on recycled paper; we’re living in environmentally conscious (and limited natural resource-sensitive, i.e., tree-hugging) times and that practice doesn’t seem to be too much to ask of any business or individual, no matter how cynical or mercenary.  Perhaps if I pinched nickels and was hyper vigilant about economies of scale, I might care to calculate the loss of margin, but that’s not how I operate.  In poetic step and verse with Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, I’ve never set out to be a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  That statement someday may spell my financial ruin, but for now, it’s part of how Atticus Books says grace and carries on.

5.  In these tough economic times, do you think small publishers can make their mark on literature and the book selling market?  How best can small presses accomplish their goals?

If I didn’t think small presses and indie booksellers could make a mark on literature—I mean a real whale of a red-wine, dark chocolate-stain doozy, then I wouldn’t be in this Goethe-forsaken business.  I chose this vocation and lifestyle, partly because my selfless, well-compensated wife and a string of lucky breaks have afforded me the opportunity.  I believe in giving back to society when your circumstances grant you the luxury.  Will I always be in this fortuitous position?  Hell, if I know.  Will I fight the noble fight to the last breath to preserve the legacy of my authors?  You bet your life.

Small presses possess the opportunity to upset the landscape, upend the apple cart, tilt the paradigm, cloud the prism, and spoil the harvest of large publishers just by being.  Existing.  Resisting.  Insisting.  This is a game of Darwinian perseverance and as the inimitable Billie Holiday sang in “God Bless the Child”: “The strong survive while the weak ones fade.”  What makes the strong, strong and the weak, weak?  Beats the Oliver Twist out of me.  I’d rather leave that to sideline prognosticators and armchair quarterbacks.  Small presses need to rattle the right cages and make enough noise or create stirring silence to demand attention.  It won’t be easy, but there’s no such thing as impossible.

6.  Online reviewers, such as book bloggers, have gained additional recognition at Book Expo America and with publishers and PR staff.  Has Atticus Books tapped this market of reviewers to spread the word about its books and how formal or informal and/or important are these relationships?

We (staff aides Lindsey, Libby & I) love bloggers and I say that as a fan of anyone who has the wherewithal to post religiously without monetizing their effort.  Book Blogger Central, a page that we created on Facebook, is a service to those who blog and is a tribute to the work that book bloggers tirelessly perform.  And I say that not in the “brown-nosing, gosh, we need you to like us” sort of way, but more in the respectful, compassionate way that only a blogger (a fellow writer with far more faults and insecurities than time or patience) could understand.

I write (inconsistently).  I blog (just as inconsistently).  And I publish (consistently, I hope, though that’s a relative measurement).  What separates me, besides discipline, from those who do the first two things, but not the third?  Not much, really.  Do I have a pedigree in marketing or a Ph.D. in public relations?  No.  What I do have is instincts that I trust, authors whose abilities I believe in enough to invest hard-earned cash, and relations with individual media of which I’m just beginning to form.  Do I consider the opinion of bloggers as vital as the third rail of publishing (e.g., the New York Times Book Review section, Publishers Weekly, and/or Kirkus Reviews)?  Yes, without hesitation or fear of retribution, I can say I do.  Bloggers have their fingers pressed firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture as much as—if not more than—the establishment. In sum, bloggers, on the whole, are thoughtful, voracious readers who immeasurably influence their loyal, fast growing flock of followers as much as—and increasingly more than—those who represent the view of far-reaching institutions.

Now for a couple of fun questions:

7.  You’ve become a publisher to sift new writers into the market.  Who helped guide you to where you are today and has writing or reading  been a driving force in your own life?

Not to sound cliché  or patronizing, but I’ve been guided mostly by my parents to work hard and believe in myself, and I’ve been guided creatively by my friends and peers, particularly my best friend and contemporary—my beacon of a wife, to follow my dream.  I’ve also been guided by countless teachers, writers, artists, and people of unmistakable (though sometimes misunderstood) honor to pursue an honest living.

As an undisciplined writer and reader with undiagnosed ADD and an aversion to truthiness (vs. truth), I am driven by the responsibility of raising the clout and visibility of this generation’s unrecognized seers—i.e., the distinct, undiscovered voices of meaningful prose and poetry with unpublished works tucked away in the recesses of their underwear drawer.  My hope is that I forever keep in mind the indelible impressions left by those who’ve suffered for art and justice, the proverbial (but oft times, literal) starving artist, who personifies our best-in-class and highest-in-integrity ancestors.

8.  Do you have any particular obsessions, literary or otherwise, that help reduce your stress levels or ensure you remain on track?

My main obsessions are the Mets, Jets, pasta, single-malt scotch, and the security and well-being of my family, not necessarily in that order. These all prove to consume my time, passion, and addictions, usually more so than any Anne Sexton stanza or Edward Abbey diatribe, though I have to admit I’m affected daily by the things I haphazardly pick up to read.  One of the benefits of dropping out of the corporate world is being able to justify just about any casual reading or new literary discovery with research.

9.  When you were a young man, what was your dream job?  What’s your dream job now?

Heavy question, but definitely fun to consider.  I dreamed of being a baseball player and a doctor, but mostly, I dreamed of being a writer because it was the only vocation I thought suited me.  Writers (those who prefer words to just about anything else) are traditionally ill-suited for most conventional careers, not to mention situations.  As I grow older and make compromises (not of integrity, but age- and lifestyle-related), I realize now I’d probably make a good government worker (e.g., contract consultant) who happens to own both a funky small press and a minor league baseball franchise that barely make a profit between them.  As long as I can keep the two businesses in the black, afford to buy a round of hot dogs with relish, and support the career of the next John Steinbeck, then I’m not only living the dream, I’m creating it, too.  And that’s a dream worth pursuing.

10.  If you could give new and local writers one piece of advice about finding a publisher, particularly a small press, to publish their work, what would that be and why?

Explore and loiter on websites and blogs that speak your language; travel in the same circles as the writers and indie presses you admire.  There’s little good in being a lone wolf; run with the pack.  Find a community, a tribe that’s rightfully yours, and claim your stake in it.  Read works (and reviews of books) by small presses of kindred spirits and burrow in their collective skulls a while; plant your thoughts there; read between the lines of their fictional characters; see if you’re cut out of the same tapered cloth.  Then introduce yourself.  Howl at the yellow moon.  Play nice and bare your crooked smile.  Compliment your peer’s efforts.  (We’re all in need of a hug.)  Think of the publishing world as one large playground and the kindergartners have turned it upside down.  The runts of the litter are beginning to twist the upturned noses of the intellectually stunted bullies.  Take part in this leveling of the landscape.  Celebrate the renaissance.  Join the indie movement.

Instead of closing with a shameless plug about Atticus, let’s close with this piece of advice from E.B. White whose writing has inspired me a great deal over the years: “Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without annoying delays:  don’t write about Man, write about ‘a’ man.”

Read E.B. White.   There’s more wisdom in that man’s one pinkie (on his writing hand, of course) than I have in my entire body.

So, what did we learn today from this interview?

I can tell you what I learned:  First and foremost that there is a Indie/Small Press publisher in my own backyard!  How fantastic is that! And this big publisher (at least in my mind because of its ideals) loves bloggers.  What else do we need to know?!

I hope you enjoyed the first stop as we celebrate Indie and Small Press this month, and if you couldn’t have guessed, this was another stop on the Literary Road Trip.