A Conversation with Nic Esposito
Continuing our celebration of Small Press Month, Alternating Current Staff Interviewer Lori Hettler sits down with Nic Esposito, the founder of The Head & The Hand Press and The Head & The Hand Workshop. The Head & The Hand Press is a publishing company and writers’ coworking space in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia that creates innovative relationships between authors and the work they produce. They look for writing that shows a connection from the head to the hand, and they publish stories that have the power to change and to entertain.
After developing urban farm projects in West Philadelphia with the organization Philly Rooted, which he co-founded, Nic Esposito and his wife, Elisa, currently operate Emerald Street Urban Farm, as well as their own homestead populated by their son, Luca, a dog, a cat, and a whole bunch of chickens. He writes about social change, urban farming, and sustainability for blogs and magazines and spoke on urban farming at the 2010 TED-X conference in Philadelphia. He is the author of Seeds of Discent, and Kensington Homestead is his first work of non-fiction.
Lori Hettler: Your three-year-old grassroots, craft-based publishing company, The Head & the Hand Press, hinges itself very heavily on relationships: the relationship between press and author, author and reader, and reader and book. It also promotes, as well, your own personal relationship with consumerism and agriculture. To quote your website,“… just as a farmer is connected to the crop from the seed to the harvest, we think that a writer should be connected to the process of crafting a book from when the first word is put on the page, to when the first book hits the shelf.” Why are these relationships so vital to what you do?
NIC ESPOSITO: I’m a firm believer that in order to create great art, the people involved genuinely need to care about each other, if not love each other. I actually just said this to Linda Gallant, the Editorial Director at H&H. We have had a break in our reading periods as we are in between projects, and haven’t worked together for a little while. But we were back in the writing room working on a piece with an author, and that kinetic energy between the two of us was surging through the walls. She and I have created what I think is an extremely singular editing partnership, and I believe it all has to do with how much we respect and care about each other. Sure, there are certain examples you can point to where a tumultuous relationship between two artists still led to great art. But even in those examples, deep down, I still believe those people still really cared about each other. So yes, building and working on those relationships is really important.
The reason I bring farming into it is because I feel that farming has a lot of parallels with creating art and publishing. A farmer obviously needs to love what he or she does because, quite frankly, there isn’t much money in it, just like publishing. But a farmer also needs to love the people he or she farms with, and genuinely care about the consumer who buys the food. I believe this to be true all the way from the salt-of-the-earth folks to the hippies farming small family farms, to the communities of migrant workers or solo industrial corn farmers in the Midwest. They are all in some sort of community. So it warms my heart when I meet people from the corporate publishing world who I can tell have this deep love for books and who apparently have really tight relationships with their authors. But I feel that we’re really lucky at H&H because we are on such a small level, and we really have the time and space to focus on those relationships. It’s what keeps us going and we hope the intimacy of our relationships translates to our readers.
If I’ve got the timeline down, your first novel, Seeds of Discent, was successfully kickstarted back in 2011; The Head & The Hand is born in 2012; and you release your first anthology, Rust Belt Rising Almanac, in 2013. Walk me through the evolution from self-published author to founder of a small press.
Yep, that timeline is right. I produced Seeds of Discent with my two very talented friends, Carl Cheeseman and Angela Miles. Carl edited the book, and Angela designed it. Again, the book was really born from our relationships together. We had a lot of incredible moments, we made a lot of mistakes. But in the end, I learned that I didn’t just love writing, but also the whole process of producing a book. And as I got Seeds into the world, I also learned that I really loved the process of marketing and even sales. In the past, I felt like taking part in those activities would corrupt the artistic process. But what I actually learned was that it strengthened my process. So I was telling this all to a friend who worked in arts and finance, and was currently managing a few bands. I still didn’t really know what I was doing, and wasn’t part of the publishing industry at all. So for some strange reason, I was asking him to represent me as I wanted to take Seeds to a larger company. He told me that wasn’t his forte. I don’t know if he was just trying to get rid of me, or actually believed in this idea, but he said, “Why don’t you just start your own company? Seems like Philly needs it.” So I got myself in a business incubator, sat down with Kerry Boland, who just finished a masters in publishing at Drexel University, and we started piecing together what would become H&H.
What’s the biggest challenge your press is facing?
I was actually just complaining about this the other day. Our biggest challenge is distribution. Although I’d love for each of our books to get a star in Publishers Weekly, a review in Kirkus or New York Times Book Review, or a spot on an NPR show, we have gained, and continue to get, really strong press from Philly and national outlets, even though we’re pretty small and have a three-person marketing team. But even with all of that great exposure, and by having the privilege of having a very professional distribution representation from Small Press Distribution (an awesome non-profit distributor in Berkeley), distribution is still a nightmare.
We have forged relationships with a lot of bookstores, and we really love our partners, but the staff time it takes to constantly check in on inventory and keep selling those stores on our books, even if a book is selling and getting press, is really tough. I figured that if a book is selling, bookstores would just keep re-ordering. But that’s not always the case, and I guess I didn’t anticipate the amount of follow-up needed to make sure a book stays in a bookstore. And then there’s Amazon. People have a lot to say about Amazon, but what I don’t see them saying is how they treat small presses. We actually go through our distributor to sell on Amazon, but it’s basically the same as doing the Publisher’s Advantage program that Amazon offers to small and even midsize presses. Basically, Amazon doesn’t want to take the chance on giving any warehouse space to small publishers, so they order on this weird ad hoc basis. That’s why when you go on our Amazon pages for our books, it’s not uncommon to see the message “Temporarily out of stock.” That’s because Amazon needs to go to our distributor, ask them for books, get them shipped, and then fulfill orders. If they see a book is selling a lot, they’ll ask for more copies. But it really hurts your business when people see that message. I can’t tell you how many aunts of our writers have emailed us worried because their nephews’ books are temporarily out of stock on Amazon, like we’re the ones dropping the ball and not getting books to Amazon. Sorry for the rant, but as I said, I was just complaining about this the other day.
If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
If I could do it all over again, I would have raised way more money before we started. To put it into perspective, we started H&H on a tenth of the investment that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was started on, and that was in the 1950s. Of course, I didn’t come from the Guggenheim or Straus family like good old Roger did, so I didn’t have that kind of money. But I really wish I did, because we could have bankrolled more positions, worked with more offers, and been a bit more stable than we are right now.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of managing The Head & The Hand.
Keeping in line with the money aspect, I must disclose that H&H is not my full-time job. In fact, I certainly have put more money into it than I have made, which is normal for a start-up small business. But I’m still as dedicated as ever. The work day begins with the old email checking to see what’s on the docket for the day. Then, I usually go to my part-time job with the Department of Parks and Recreation in Philly training park staff on sustainable land care techniques. I want to point out here that this is not that bummer job to pay the bills. It’s a seminal time to work in city government, and Parks and Rec in Philly is one of those really unique places where that love I talked about before really exists between the eccentric and passionate people who are maintaining Philly’s parks and rec centers. Then around two, I’m back in the H&H office. I usually get swamped with distribution and marketing right away because they are usually the most pressing. Then, depending on our submission status, I carve out about an hour to sift through the submissions sent to me through the reader reports put together for the editorial team. On Tuesdays, we have our weekly staff meetings where each department gets together and shares everything that is going on, and finds the ways to collaborate to ensure that the system is running well. Other nights, I’ll stick around for our workshop events and get face-to-face time with aspiring writers or longtime members and contributors who swing by the shop. And peppered through all of that are many lunches, coffees, and beers with the partners who either sell/promote our books, or do fun projects with us. I’m basically the main point person on all of our partnerships, although our Workshop coordinator, Zoe Gould, is really killing it right now on booking classes and speakers in our workshop space.
Tell us a bit more about your workshops. If I signed up for one, what could I expect?
We have two levels for our memberships. The first is a $20 per month level where members have access to one critique per month, as well as our bimonthly classes. Our main incentive is that we are looking to work with our members to find work for our Vending Machine Chapbook Series that gets a writer’s work out to the world in an innovative and awesome way.
For $40 a month, you get all of that, plus a key to come to the space whenever you’d like to work at one of our desks.
But in all, we want our members to feel that the space is “their” space where we’re not only offering all of this programing, but creating a scene where writers can feed off of each other’s energy and where they have access to a publisher that can really get their work out to the world.
How do you make time to focus on your own writing?
So before I do everything I explained above, I roll out of bed around 6 or 7, and depending on when my son wakes up (I’ve read never to wake a sleeping baby.), I take him to day care, or I start writing and then take him to day care. I find that my magic writing time is at the kitchen table, as the sun is coming up, with a cup of tea. I also realize that I begin to really lose my groove and writing energy after about an hour anyway, and start writing crap. So I like compiling many mornings to finish a piece. That’s actually how I wrote Kensington Homestead, and will do so for my next book, as well.
What’s next for The Head & The Hand?
We have two really great books coming out in the spring. We’ll be continuing our Almanac series with The Corn Belt Almanac, all about the sacred bonds to food and agriculture in America. And we are also putting out Waveland by Simone Zelitch. It’s a novel about a woman from the north traveling to Mississippi during the freedom summer of 1964 to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We will also continue to print our chapbooks from our workshop members.
As for the workshop, we are continuing to build our capacity and are in the midst of putting together a much larger and much more awesome artist coworking project in our space. So stay tuned for that.
I’m about to walk by your press’ booth at the next publishing event. How do you catch my attention and make sure I take notice?
This is going to sound extremely ridiculous and possibly lame, but I fancy myself a master at getting people to stop at our table when we do events. I usually start with very friendly and subtle eye contact. If people look for more than a second, I’ll give a humble, “How’s it going?” If they happen to stop, I tell them we’re a publishing company in Fishtown, which either gives them pause because they have no idea where Fishtown is, but it sounds cool, or they wonder about how crazy it is that there’s a publishing company in 2015. If they actually come to the table, I tell them to treat it like a bookstore and peruse away. If I see they like a book, I’ll give my insight into it. And then I let them know the prices, which tells them that we are actually selling these books, and we’re not some foundation-funded public art historical exhibit of the publishing industry of yore. Wow, I feel a little funny revealing my tricks here.
If you could go back in time and add any book in existence to your catalog, which book would it be?
Wow, that is an awesome question — One that I’ve never been asked before. I would have to say, The Grapes of Wrath. Obviously, because the subject matter and the style of storytelling is close to my heart, and therefore, the ethic of the company. But from what I’ve read, I think I would have really liked working with Steinbeck. He seemed like a dynamic guy who was down to earth, and a dreamer who also could treat writing like a vocation and not some precious art. That would be fun.
What’s the best —
Part of basing your small press out of Philly? The best part for me is that super talented writers in Philly only have to take the El to our Workshop to sit right across the desk from us to work on editing and designing their books or chapbooks.
Place to grab a bite to eat? Zahav in Philadelphia.
Book from the past year? Well, I’m going to cheat by picking two, and both were published in 2013, but I read them in 2014. The first is The Unwinding by George Packer. The second is Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.
Thing you’ve heard all day? On a sentimental note, my son laughing. On a funny note, that the CIA once tried to put a chemical in Fidel Castro’s shoes to make his beard fall out, thus causing him so much public humiliation that he would hand the communist country over to the Americans in disgrace.
Interview originally published on 3/20/15