An Impelling Force: Impetus Books
Conceived by author Jennifer Banash and former major publishing house intern Willy Blackmore, Impetus Press has published three books since its founding in 2005. In this interview, Jennifer and Willy discuss the house’s mission, how they got their name, the unexpected perils and pleasures of small-press publishing, and the difficulty of getting props from Iowa City.
Why another independent book imprint? In starting Impetus, what did you feel you could offer that others couldn't?
Willy Blackmore: We started Impetus because we saw a gap existing in between the work being published by commercial houses and other independents. We all know that the larger houses (Random House, etc.) have become exceedingly commercial in the past years with The Da Vinci Code and whatnot and all the independents that have popped up in order to combat that commercialization have definitely created alternative spaces for more experimental/avant-garde work to exist in. But by pushing both ends of the spectrum, publishing has become polarized in many ways and potentially wonderful works go unread because they fall inbetween the commercial and experimental. With that take on the industry, we set out to create a house that specializes in books that are too experimental for commercial houses and too commercial for the experimental houses.
Once you decided to form the company, what was the first thing you did? For all those entrepreneurs out there.
Jennifer Banash: Committed suicide. Just kidding. The first thing we did was to sit down and think of a name. We actually wound up with the name Impetus from perusing the dictionary, of all things. We just liked the idea of pushing forward, having the will and force to move -- which is, in a nutshell, what we’re trying to do with the press; we’re trying to push forward and create an alternate space for readers and writers who are tired of the same old mind-numbingly boring categories the mainstream is pushing, as well as the extremely limited scope of most purely experimental presses. After we decided on a name, we bought the domain name, took out a really big loan, and the rest is history. Actually, I’m making it sound a hell of a lot easier than it was; if we’d really sat down and thought long and hard about it, I don’t think we would’ve done it, but in a way that’s what an endeavor like this is -- a leap of faith. You just have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and jump. It also helps to have a good accountant as well as business advisors -- we use Dierdre and Gary Smerillo of Smerillo & Associates, and they have been an invaluable resources in helping us straighten out the financial end of things.
Has anything that you thought would be a total grind actually been easy? How about the opposite?
JB: I thought it would be a lot harder to obtain help from other successful, independent publishers in the business, but surprisingly everyone has been really helpful -- particularly Richard Nash over at Soft Skull, who now is a member of our advisory board. In general, most people couldn’t have been more helpful, particularly during our first year of business when we really were figuring everything out blindly as we went along. If it weren’t for people like Richard and Jeffery Lependorf over at CLMP guiding us, I don’t think we’d be in business today. The same goes with getting blurbs from established authors; everyone we’ve solicited (begged) has been extraordinarily generous in supporting our titles. I naively thought that getting stocked by independent bookstores would be a lot easier than it turned out to be. Cold calling is the worst -- thank god we have distribution now and we don’t have to worry about that anymore. Because we have nationwide distribution thorough Biblio, we don’t actually deal with independents OR chains anymore; Biblio takes care of all of that for us, gets our books in the stores, and makes sure we get paid, which is a huge relief.
When you're putting a book together, what gives you the most trouble? Printing, publicity, distribution?
WB: Being rather small and rather new, publicity has probably been the most difficult aspect of releasing our first three titles, Hollywoodland: An American Fairy Tale, The Dream Sequence and Fires. We’ve had a lot of luck and received a lot of support from online journals and blogs such as the KGB lit mag, Bookslut, Galleycat and others, and have placed a few reviews in some larger print publications such as Rain Taxi and Time Out Chicago, but we’re definitely still working our way up in terms of the quantity of publicity our titles receive. Getting the attention of the major pre-publication reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly has proven to be quite a task so far, but we’re hoping that with persistence, they’ll give us a break and review one of our upcoming titles.
Everything that goes on in developing a book, such as the editorial work, design and printing is almost completely in our control and therefore hasn’t involved the same amount of time and effort spent making contacts and building relationships with literary publications that publicity has required. But as time goes on and our books and authors and as Impetus as a whole continues to develop and grow, I’m sure that The New York Times Book Review will come knocking -- or at least The Believer.
What problems, if any, do you run into being in Iowa City instead of New York?
JB: In most respects being in Iowa City has been a blessing, not a curse. Inarguably, New York is the epicenter of book publishing, however, with the Internet you can really live anywhere now and run a successful press -- living in NY is just not necessary anymore. The biggest problem we faced in regards to location was, ironically enough, getting Iowa City to take us seriously! We’ve been in business almost two years and we just booked our first reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore in the Live at Prairie Lights reading series, which is broadcasted nationwide on National Public Radio. I’ll be reading there on July 11th from my novel Hollywoodland: An American Fairy Tale, along with Nick Antosca, who’ll be reading from his novel Fires. Since Coffeehouse Press relocated a few years back, there’s no other press in Iowa City doing quite the same thing as Impetus -- as far as I know, we’re the only press in the area solely devoted to publishing literary fiction -- and the only one out there period with the mission statement of supporting serious literary fiction with a pop edge that falls in between the realms of the commercial and the experimental.
What’s coming next from Impetus?
JB: Our upcoming titles for the fall include We Go Liquid, a novel by Christian TeBordo. It’s a creepy, suburban nightmare of a novel in which the main character, a nine-year-old boy whose mother has recently died, begins to receive spam from her (now defunct) e-mail address. The novel itself is an exercise in minimalist literary restraint, while at the same time manages to paint an extremely vivid portrait of suburban life... and death. We’ll also be publishing Dave Housely’s short story collection Ryan Seacrest Is Famous. It is, hands down, the best short story collection I’ve read in years -- each perfectly drawn pop-infused moment made me laugh until I cried. Housely is a master of contemporary satire. We couldn’t have been prouder to be lucky enough to acquire these titles. We Go Liquid will hit stores on September 15, 2007, and Ryan Seacrest Is Famous will be released shortly after on October 15, 2007.
Ned Vizzini is the author of It's Kind of a Funny Story ("insightful and utterly authentic" --New York Times Book Review), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... His work has been has been translated into five languages (forthcoming in Chinese). He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Bookslut, Dogmatika and Underground Voices. He lives in Brooklyn.