Monday, June 22, 2009

Micropublishing Fiction with Guest Blogger Daniel M. Jaffe

Poets have long published their work in brief, artistically manufactured books called chapbooks. These books are often printed on fine, low-acid papers and hand-stitched in small print runs to satisfy a "niche" poetry market not served by the larger presses. Lately, though, I have been thinking that the moment of the "fiction chapbook" may have arrived. Chapbooks can make sense for fiction writers in a world where we own fewer books, and where the reach of even a short print run may be extended through digital means. Apparently, I was not alone in thinking along these lines. Recently, I got an email from a writer I know, Daniel M. Jaffe, who had just published his own fiction chapbook. I immediately invited Dan to be a guest blogger on Kim's Craft Blog, and to tell us how he came to decide he had a project that was right for "micropublishing," and what the process was like. Here is Dan's story:

I've been writing fiction seriously for the past 20 years. My 3 books and hundred or so short pieces have been published thanks to the efforts of overworked professionals at medium and small presses, journals, and newspapers. My most recent publication experience was with One-Foot Lover, a fiction chapbook published by Seven Kitchens Press, a small publishing house located in Pennsylvania and run by my old pal, the prize-winning poet, Ron Mohring. Ron and I met while studying for our MFA's together more than a decade ago at Vermont College. We fell out of touch for a while, and then, when he was working as one of the fiction editors at Bucknell University's literary journal, West Branch, he asked if I had any stories for him to consider publishing there. I sent him, "One-Foot Lover," my story about a university student who falls in love with a one-legged dancer. Ron chose not to include the story in West Branch. I can't say I was surprised: in various iterations, "One-Foot Lover" had been rejected a total of 60 times, even though it had garnered more supportive feedback from editors than any other of my short stories these past 20 years. Also, it had won me First Place in the Literature Competition sponsored by the John E. Profant Foundation for the Arts. I don't like all my stories, and I have retired literally dozens of them after they were soundly rejected; but "One-Foot Lover" felt special, and I really believed in it, so I continued submitting it to journals.
Then, half a year after Ron turned it down for West Branch, he emailed to say that he couldn't stop thinking about the story, and, by the way, did I know that he'd established his own small press a couple of years before? No, I hadn't known. It turned out that Ron had been publishing beautiful, hand-sewn poetry chapbooks. It also turned out that he'd been thinking about expanding his publishing list to include fiction chapbooks, and would I be interested in having my story, "One-Foot Lover," be his first? He cautioned that there wouldn't be much money involved, that the print run would be small because each chapbook would be handmade. I jumped at the chance to see my story transformed into such a tangible work of art.

The publication process was delightfully intimate, making me feel that here was a publisher for whom my story was as special as it was for me. Ron's a meticulous editor, so he posed some helpful suggestions about adjusting words and phrases here and there, and then he included me in the process of physical creation of the book—he sent me pdf files of proofs, even mailed me sample copies. Also, we batted around ideas for covers, and he found the one we ultimately used, a painting by Brian O'Conner that captured "One-Foot Lover's" imagery in a powerful yet indirect way. So as to honor the story's title and plotline, Ron chose a font called "Footlight." ("I couldn't resist!" he said.) He asked me to write up an Afterword describing how the story had come to be written, which I was thrilled to do because I wanted to pay tribute to my friend Catherine Cole who, after losing a leg to cancer, went on tour with the very dance performance that inspired my story.

My understanding is that it takes Ron half an hour to assemble one chapbook, sewing each copy on his sewing machine. He color-coordinates the thread with the inks on the front cover, and numbers each chapbook. Ron even mailed me a set of title pages to sign so that he could sew them into 25 autographed copies. Wow! To have my work handled with such loving care was nothing less than an honor. And I think how, in a way, this chapbook connects me to the first authors ever published—Centuries ago, the first books were, after all, handmade.

DANIEL M. JAFFE, a prize-winning fiction writer, is the author of the novel The Limits of Pleasure; compiler-editor of With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction; and translator of Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian novel by Dina Rubina. Dan's short fiction, personal essays, and literary translations have appeared in dozens of anthologies and literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. Dan teaches creative writing in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. For more information about guest blogger Daniel M. Jaffe, visit his personal website.

UPDATE:  Dan Jaffe now has a new book out, Jewish Gentle and Other Stores of Gay-Jewish Living (2011). Here's the link:

Also check out This Great Review.


Lauren said...

Dan sent me a copy of "One-Foot Lover" as a gift for our working together for more than two years. I treasure that book both as a wonderful story and as a hand-made book. As he says, it is exquisitely put together. There is something quite extraordinary about having a physical book be of the same creative quality as the writing.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I agree, Lauren. The physical copy is a work of art, as is the story. To be able to feel the thread as I read the story does enhance the reading experience. I have copy #46 of the first edition.

Dan, your story of how this chapbook came into being is fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to share the experience with us.

I recommend Dan's book to everyone, as well as the idea of fiction chapbooks.

Kimberly Davis said...

I suggested in my introduction extending a chapbook's reach through digital means, and I'm wondering if Dan is doing anything like that, either posting an excerpt on or Smashwords, or publishing an accompanying eBook.

Nannette said...

I love this idea and I'm going right over to the website to order it.