Small presses have always existed in one form or another providing opportunities for talented writers to cut their teeth and create a reputation within the industry while developing a readership.
Although self publishing continues to have the taint of vanity on it, by contrast small presses are seen as avant garde and arty. By their very nature, a small press exists for the writing and not necessarily the bottom line. Even though consideration is given to profit margins it is not the fuel that runs the engine of any small publisher, it is always the words.
Since the advent of the internet there has been a massive influx of small presses to suit every taste and genre. Consequently, because of the additional opportunity this affords new writers, an exodus of sorts has taken place among those seeking publication of their novels. A less rocky path to publication is attractive to any struggling author who has found themselves a victim of the automated rejection letter or a regular visitor to the slush pile of larger publishing firms. This is especially true for those who cannot be confined to a particular niche or whose work is geared to a smaller demographic. Of course the writers are only half of the equation when it comes to the fruition of a complete novel or volume of poetry. The life blood and the deciding factor of any small press are the editors who make the decisions regarding which manuscripts make it to publication and which don’t. Often times the work of an editor is underrated but in fact it can determine the success or failure of any publishing enterprise. An eye for quality and talent is not learned, it is a gift and when you discover a press with keen editorial eyes you will also find a roster of amazing writers. Tiny Toe press is one of these entities, a combination of quirk and more than a healthy dose of ground breaking optimism. Editor Michael Davidson of Tiny Toe Open/ End press took some time from his busy day to discuss the ins and outs of a fascinating enterprise with me, as well as his feelings about the nature of publishing.
VBR: What was the impetus for starting Tiny Toe press/Open End and what is the origin of its name?
MD: First off thanks for having me on Tuck, Val. So cool to be here. Please note, however, that I’m only 1/2 of Tiny TOE Press, the other half is Bridget, so my answers are strictly representative of my thoughts, not hers, although she might agree with everything I say here.
In the order you asked: Tiny TOE Press happened because of TheOpenEnd. Here’s the earliest existing ‘about’ page for TheOpenEndAbout. From this idea that got into motion somewhere in the month of December 2008 sprang forth the current iteration of TOE, as well as the indie imprint, Tiny TOE Press.
‘Tiny’ because the actual jig I handpress books on is small. TOE because it’s an acronym for ‘The Open End”. What is neat about our abbreviated name is that TOE is also an acronym for ‘Theory of Everything’ which I find fitting.
VBR: You are doing some unique things that others presses are not, such as hand binding your books and then sharing the technique via video. For most of us in this technological age, book binding is a lost art and a bit of a mystery but one with an important purpose: to communicate ideas and feelings between writer and reader in a very tangible way. This is missing now in the world of large publishing houses, with the sole intent being the bottom line and I feel readers are craving this sort of personal touch. Now more than ever it is important to bring it all back to the basics and there is an irony that we are online discussing this. As a small press, what are your feelings about the survival of printed books in an era of ebooks and do you see a trend one way or the other among your readers regarding a preference?
MD: Yes, handpressed paperbacks do add a personal touch to the idea of books, don’t they? They are very tangible, they feel very authentic in your hands. Handpressed books are also very much a lost art in this digital age. It follows that they are a hard sell over the internet. In person our books are impressive, even sexy, but over the internet they are simply a handpressed book, which is whatexactly? I’ll tell you what: not an ebook, not something that can be bought and delivered online for instant gratification. This is why the majority of ‘physical book’ sales happen in the months following each release. But I’m working hard to increase online demand. I believe in the day when people will want to get their hands on one. Priced at ten dollar a book, I think this is a reasonable thing to believe in.
Ebooks are a different story. Without ebooks it would be a formidable task indeed, finding readers. The presence of ebooks changes the game for writers, not handpressed books. I am grateful for ebooks and the advent of promotional opportunities on Amazon. It’s a great thing. I think, in the long run, ebooks will make for a more literate world. Ebooks reach more readers with lower cost and less effort. Why? Because they’re actually on the internet. You buy them on the internet and read them near the internet. They’re better adapted to the digital age. They are the digital age.
Handpressed books, on the other hand, are for the bibliophiles, the connoisseurs. The diehard readers. Tactile people. Luddites. Collectors. Placed on the right shelves, in the right stores, they will sell, and because of this undying demand, they will continue to be produced forever, each of them enjoying the special privilege of living a life of their own and becoming artifacts.
VBR: Looking at your author list, it is obvious your writers are all very different in background and creative perspective with the spectrum of subject matter broad and difficult to define. There is a bit of experimental genius going on at Tiny Toe/Open End, with the types of stories you publish being almost visionary in the approach to what you put out there for your readers. You guys are not publishing the usual fare and it is damn refreshing to see. Based on this, when you do receive manuscripts to consider, what is it about a book that will give one writer an edge over another enough to excite you as both a reader and editor?
MD: One thing that’s great about handpressing books is that there are inherent constraints, like length of a manuscript, which is mostly a function of word count. Miss Gone-overseas, The Mosquito Song, and now Heart of Scorpio are novellas with around ~25,000 words. Our only novel so far is Austin Nightsat around ~65,000 words. That’s our sweet spot, somewhere between 20,000 – 70,000 words. But we are reading a number of longer manuscripts that have us thinking about pushing our upper bound even higher.
Submissions that fall somewhere between these two extremes need to be engaging in the usual ways a good book engages its reader. This means tight prose, maintaining/increasing momentum as the story unfolds, strong and unusual voice. Interesting of you to say the thread connecting our titles is difficult to define. As in the original ‘about’ page of TOE: “This site is open to all possibilities, hence its name.” The same can be said for this press. It is open to all possibilities, hence its name. It’s also tiny.
VBR: You have a new release out this month: Heart of Scorpio by Joseph Avski with a translation from the original Spanish by Mark David MrGraw. The story itself is written in an interesting format that deals with the compelling emotional terrain of the life of an ex champion boxer in Colombia and it does it more succinctly than if it had been written another way. Why did you decide to take on this book and do the translation, what was it about this story that grabbed you enough to believe in it?
MD: I feel like you deserve an A+ for clairvoyance. Hahaha. Your description of Heart of Scorpio is spot on, which is strange since the book isn’t out yet. I’m impressed and slightly suspicious. Heart of Scorpio is a multi-voiced novella that reminds me of Pedro Páramo, the short Mexican novel by Juan Rulfo. I’m not sure exactly how, but however it does it, it’s beautiful. Like imagine listening to the dirge for Pedro Páramo . . . OK . . . it sounds like Heart of Scorpio.
The author, Joseph Avski, contacted me after he watched the time-lapse of me handcrafting a copy of The Mosquito Song. He had already shared the video with his translator, Mark David McGraw, and together they felt Tiny TOE Press would be a great house to make Heart of Scorpio a real thing, so they told me about their book, and I was immediately interested. Their book is about a world-famous boxer, Antonio Cervantes, “Kid Pambelé.” He was the first world champion in Colombia, and he brought the belt home to his equatorial country twice.
My mother and that half of my family are Colombian. My abuelo and abuela remember watching and reading about “Kid Pambelé” on tv and in the newspapers. Moreover, I lived in Colombia for 4 years, in Barranquilla, which is on the coast. I think highly of the art that comes out of this part of the world. Having the opportunity to play a part in adding to the texture of Colombia, the culture of what it means to be Colombian, by publishing this book is really a great opportunity, something I would never have dreamed of happening. I feel like it was written in the stars.
VBR: Your approach to your contributor list is irreverent and witty, very much in line with the characters of the writers listed on the page. It is as if you are amassing a family of writing gypsies. Do you feel allowing writers the freedom to be themselves rather than forcing them to don a type of literary uniform is more conducive to the growth of an author and their art? Do you feel this lack of artistic leg room is perhaps one reason why we are not seeing many risky cutting edge stories being published by the larger presses?
MD: Hahaha. Bridget sometimes calls me Gertrude for that reason. Yeah, you’ve hit it head on. My idea is not to confine writers. Even as an editor I refrain from meddling with the text as much as possible. Any changes I have in mind go through a number of stages during which I reflect more than usual. This means my hair fros up from touching it, pulling out thoughts. If, at the end of this interoceptive journey, I cannot convince myself the story would be ruined without this change, mum’s the word.
I can’t slander larger presses in any way. They certainly have different incentives when they decide to take on a new title, but they sure have made some great books. Writers like Bernhard and Borges and Beckett. Sebald and Saramago. Coetzee, Kafka, Kerouac. Cervantes. These all seem risky to me. So even with different incentives and constraints, larger presses are not only building but also improving upon the literary landscape. Tiny TOE Press is too, but it’s doing it with books that come to life for different reasons.
VBR: As a publisher and Editor, what has surprised you the most about taking on such a huge venture that is at times an avalanche of work, albeit some of the most fulfilling and satisfying work anyone in publishing can do? Based on the investment of time and energy, how many titles do you release a year and is this number static or do you vary it yearly dependent on other factors?
MD: I didn’t realize how many emails I’d be writing and how important each one would be. Sustaining an online dialogue is a barometer for how much potential you’re opening yourself up to. Handpressing the books is the most rewarding. There’s something about it that’s very gratifying. To hold a book in your hand after it came to you as a ream of paper and un-scored cardstock, both of which were designed in-house. I don’t take enough pictures of the process really.
We’re almost 1.5 years old and we’re releasing our 4th book this month. We average ~2 titles/year. I think I said in another interview (on the FM radio!) that we’d like to release 4 handpressed titles/year: writingontheair. Now, being more experienced, I know this is an ambitious goal, but we may go for somewhere in the middle to stave off complacence.
VBR: What is your dream for the future of Tiny Toe/Open End? Are there any plans to diversify or is this a constantly evolving entity with a mind of its own?
MD: As a kid I watched The Blob full of enrapture. Something about the way this tiny globular thing could collect into a giant globular thing that, despite its mass, could seep through air vents and underneath door cracks to claim an entire person, after which it grows even more massive, held my attention fast. And The Blob’s motto: Indescribable… Indestructible! Nothing can stop it!
TOE works hard to always be a benign Blob. If it stays its coarse it’ll amount to, if nothing else, an interesting history: theopenend