State of the Art #1: Aileen Cassinetto of Paloma Press
Interview with the publisher
At The Nonconformist, we strongly believe that indie publishers and small presses form a creative backbone of today’s publishing industry. At the same time, for many a publisher, as a person, is synonymous with an email address located at the top of a contact page, especially now, in the age of quick electronic submissions. To remedy that, we’ve decided to publish a series of interviews designed to introduce you to the passionate, creative, and dedicated people working behind the facade of every publisher’s logo.
Today, meet Aileen Cassinetto.
Aileen is the publisher of Paloma Press, a San Francisco Bay Area-based literary press established in 2016, which has released 17 books to date. Widely anthologized, she is the author of two poetry collections and three chapbooks. She is also the Poet Laureate of San Mateo County.
We contacted her to discuss the highlights and challenges of a publisher’s life.
The Nonconformist: What was your path to becoming a publisher?
Aileen Cassinetto: It was not something I consciously set out to do. In 2015, I became obsessed with crafting, and everything at home that could be repurposed got repurposed. I even painted bricks to look like books! Then my sister, who is an artist and designer, and I had the idea of making handmade, personalized books for kids (we did one for our nephew, Alistair, and another for our niece, Ella. We enjoyed the process so much that we decided we were going to “make books!”). While we realized quickly that our dream of handmade/letterpress books was not feasible at the time, we knew we had a knack for creating and reimagining art objects. We decided we can still publish high quality works using printing processes that were currently available. In 2016, we laid the groundwork for our indie press, and in 2017, we released our first books. We’ve published a total of 17 books to date.
NC: What were the origins of Paloma Press and its name? Is there a story behind it?
AC: My first poetry collection includes a poem titled, La Paloma (which literally means, “The Dove,” and refers to an early 20th century version of the traditional Philippine dress called “terno” or “to match”). When I wrote it, my husband and I were newly married and we lived in Burlingame (in Northern California), on a street called Paloma Avenue.
Part of my mandate is to elevate poetry, and create a campaign to bridge and engage communities through the literary arts.
NC: Let’s talk about your mission. How would you describe it?
AC: Paloma Press believes in the power of the literary arts, how it can create empathy, bridge divides, change the world. To this end, we strive to give a portion of our proceeds to registered charities; we also prefer to publish writers who advocate for a specific cause (writers already contribute so much to the world, but given our vision, we feel it would be a better fit if our ideals as a publisher aligned with the authors we work with.)
NC: What is it like to be a small press publisher? How do you find a balance between your everyday life and publishing duties?
AC: It’s hard work, and carving out time to do it is the biggest challenge. I’m not sure that I’ve found the right balance between my other obligations and my publishing duties — there have definitely been days when some tasks took up more time than usual, and I ended up working all night. I do try to find blocks of time that are more fluid, and use those to work on time-sensitive projects. I also find that having a day job is beneficial for me (I work at a diplomatic mission in San Francisco); because it’s so structured, it provides relief from life’s other minor stressors. My writing and my publishing duties, in turn, provide relief from the pressures of my regular job! I really think it’s a win-win situation all around.
NC: You’re not only a publisher, but also a poet appointed to the honorary post of Poet Laureate of San Mateo County. Can you tell us a bit more about your work there?
AC: Part of my mandate is to elevate poetry, and create a campaign to bridge and engage communities through the literary arts. My project, titled, “Speak Poetry,” is an ongoing conversation, where we’re given the opportunity to get to know people and the rhythm of their everyday lives. I organize events to highlight poetry, and at the same time, call attention to awareness programs and action campaigns that I feel are important, and advocate for underrepresented groups. I also try to organize events that I think would be fun even for non-poetry readers.
NC: How do you manage to reconcile the sensibility of a poet with the critical eye of a publisher?
AC: I think they actually complement each other. As a poet, I am able to initially assess submissions based on the quality of the writing and whether it will be a good fit for Paloma. As a publisher, though, I have a responsibility to the company to make difficult decisions, such as to publish or not. Some authors already have a platform and it’s a no-brainer. In other cases, the writing is just really powerful, and we have no choice but to take the risk and take on the project. Having said that, we had to turn down a few brilliant manuscripts recently not because we didn’t want to take the risk, but because we currently have a backlog.
NC: How would you describe the current state of the publishing industry from the perspective of a small press publisher?
AC: Cautiously optimistic. Technology is constantly evolving. Twenty years ago, who knew the POD process would revolutionize the whole publishing industry? For that matter, there were predictions that print books will go away, and yet, they’re still here, which is proof that there will always be readers who prefer the tactile experience of actually holding a book. As an example, 695 million print books were sold in 2018, a 1.3% increase from 2017. By contrast, more than 500 million ebooks were sold in 2018, an almost 40% increase from 2017. Audiobook sales, on the other hand, totaled almost $1 billion in 2018, up 24.5% from 2017, according to an APA survey. Given these numbers, as an indie publisher, it’s definitely worth looking into other formats, moving forward. From our perspective, book sales have definitely gone up: we released 4 titles in our first year; the following year, in 2018, our sales went up 1,244% following the release of 8 books (the sales upsurge is due, in large part, to an author’s first poetry collection); and in 2019, sales increased almost 200% from 2018 following the release of 5 books (with a debut novel accounting for almost 80% of our revenue). Interestingly, our bestselling authors are based on the East Coast which makes me wonder about regional book-buying habits, demographics, and preferences, and what we can do to create greater awareness of our other books.
Poetry, historically, has been a tough sell. So, I say, whatever it takes to get people to read and appreciate poetry, go for it.
NC: Optimists claim that poetry is enjoying an unexpected renaissance these days, and that both Facebook and Twitter are perfect for publishing and sharing poems. What’s your opinion on this?
AC: Poetry, historically, has been a tough sell. So, I say, whatever it takes to get people to read and appreciate poetry, go for it.
NC: Which current and forthcoming titles from your catalog should find their way to our bookcases?
AC: I would say the anthology, Humanity, edited by award-winning poet Eileen Tabios, is a good example of what we’re about. To quote Dr. Jean Vengua, “The writings in Humanity are global in scope; but rather than explicating or attempting to impose a global system or authoritarian state upon the reader, these works run on thoughtful exploration of human feeling, experience, and action. Here you will find encounters between profoundly different cultures, the authors working their way through threads of humanity or animality and mythology like fibers twisted in varied textures and hues throughout a shawl…” Also, 70% of our books are by POC writers, and I hope you check them out. For our full catalog, please go to:
GLIMPSES: A Poetic Memoir (Through the MDR Generator) by Leny Mendoza Strobel (2019) Description ELSEWHEN: PIECES by…
NC: What advice can you give to those dreaming of setting up their own small press?
AC: The first question to ask yourself is: Why do you want to publish books? Once you commit to doing it, you have to go in fully prepared: have a business plan; meet with a financial advisor, if you can; know the risks and be prepared to lose money the first couple of years; seek advice from other small press publishers; get the perspective of author-friends who have previous experience working with small presses; treat your authors with the utmost respect, and honor your publishing agreement; and, don’t quit your day job just yet.