A Conversation with David McNamara, Sunnyoutside Publisher

A Conversation with David McNamara, Sunnyoutside Publisher

Interview by Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009

David McNamara, publisher of the Buffalo-based independent press Sunnyoutside, talked with me about the origins of his press as well as his approach to print publishing. I had the chance to talk with him before he embarked on his October tour. I always look forward to receiving galleys and advance review copies from David because I know that every time, they will be top-quality in terms of craft and production value. From Michael Kriesel’s 5-by-5-inch Moths Mail the House to Lawrence Millman’s Going Home: A Horror Story (to which I have bragging rights for possessing the single extant copy stitched with red thread), each book is very different—as individual as the finely-wrought manuscript contained within.

CR: What motivated you to start Sunnyoutside?

DM: Sunnyoutside actually started as an e-zine, which I started after I had folded )ism(, mainly due to the cost of printing, and got the itch to publish again. The name was mostly tongue-in-cheek—sort of, “Why are you on the Internet when you could be out doing something?”

So after doing that for a while, I then wanted to return to print work—mainly because typography and production is so limited (in some ways; obviously the inverse is true in others) online. And the truth is, I don’t really like reading online extensively, so it sort of seemed silly to be publishing that way myself.

And then I went to grad school at Emerson for publishing. Having worked in the industry most of my adult life, I knew the editing and production side of things, but wanted to learn more about the marketing and business end. Since I already had the website and was still fond of the name, I just took that name and the logo and went with it, making the first few titles my capstone project.

CR: How do you determine the appearance of a book? Do you let the manuscript dictate its final form? If so, how?

DM: It really depends. I have an aesthetic or format or size or typeface (or whatever) the moment I read some manuscripts. Others develop during the editing, and others sometimes start with a simple concept—a drawing the author likes, or a typeface that conveys the feel I’m looking for, et cetera—and then we build the rest around that.

But it’s a dynamic process; sometimes there are fixed points, but most things are decided as part of a whole. Although that all certainly applies to the chapbooks more, since our standard size for paperbacks is 5×8 (inches), although we’ve deviated from that a few times, too. But in all cases, the intent is to best represent the text.

CR: Looking at where you’ve been as a publisher, and where you’re headed, has the business thrown any surprises at you, or have things more or less continued in a linear progression?

DM: Well, you sort of know going into it that you’re not going to get rich selling poetry. An old joke comes to mind: How do you make a small fortune in publishing? You start with a large fortune.

But then I’m also reminded of a couple quotes by the legendary publisher David R. Godine. I’ll butcher them, but the gist of one is that it’s very difficult not to break even if you know what you’re doing and you proceed prudently. And the other, which is the one thing that kept me going early on, went like this:

A publisher is like a giant ship: it takes a lot of work to get it moving, but, once it’s moving, it takes a lot of energy to stop it.

Sunnyoutside is quite young yet, in the grand scheme of things, so we’re sort of just hitting stride, and this without the large fortune to start with (which I suppose would have expedited things). There have been speed bumps, but yeah, it’s been pretty linear.

CR: Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges of being an independent publisher in this day and age (I hesitate to say, “in this current economy…”)?

DM: I suppose it’s a bit subjective, but I would say there are far more “opportunities with caveats” than “challenges” currently. The affordable cost of software and digital printing finally attaining passable quality have made it easier for someone to produce quality work than ever before, and the resurgent popularity of letterpress printing means there’s likely a book arts center or workshop not far from you.

Of course, the other side of egalitarianism is the quality of a lot of work out there, on all sides. My general attitude is that it’s great that anyone wants to publish literature, and it’s great that it’s more accessible, but the overall quality of work seems to have suffered. It’s the bane of any trade, though—I remember an interview with Alexander Parsons where he’s asked what’s the worst thing about being a writer. He responds with an anecdote about being on a plane and the guy next to him asking what he does for a living, and when he responds that he’s a writer, the person inevitably responds that they’ve been thinking about writing a novel, and how frustrating and disrespectful it is that people think you can just do it and not study and work at the craft. Of course, anyone who wants to write should write, and likewise with publishing, but the irony is a bit obvious.

CR: What have some of the high points been, running a press?

DM: It may seem a bit goofy, but the best feelings have come with kind comments from readers, happy authors, and positive reviews. It’s always a bit fun to get introduced as a book publisher, too—people seem to fancy it far more glamorous than it is.

CR: Can you discuss where the press is headed?

DM: Ideally, our sales will dictate print runs that allow me a little more freedom with the production, but I’m quite content with where the press is currently. There are a number of titles coming up, including Three Islands by Micah Ling, which is technically being released as I type this, and After the Honeymoon by Nathan Graziano. Coincidentally, I’ll be hitting the road on a poetry tour with Nathan and Micah in October, where we’ll also be joined by Andrew Scott (author of Modern Love), and B.J. Best and Michael Kriesel (the forthcoming State Sonnets and Whale of Stars, respectively), among other talented writers. There are, of course, many other titles in the pipeline: fiction from Rusty Barnes and Chelsea Martin; poetry by Richard Krech, Thomas Rain Crowe, MRB Chelko, Brian McGettrick, Jill Osier, Andrew Rihn, Noel Sloboda, and J. A. Tyler; and a collection of essays from Curtis Smith.

CR: What advice would you give to someone considering going into print publishing?

DM: The advice is simple: respect it as a business and as a craft. One ought to learn typography and printing processes and budgets and accounting if you want it to be anything other than a hobby. Know why you’re using a typeface and whether it’s appropriate, invest in fonts of decent pedigree and proper design programs, and treat every manuscript as if it were your own—I’ve always said that the day I stop getting nervous looking at a finished book is the day I should quit.

David McNamara was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1973 and spent the first decade of his life believing Erie was nicknamed “the mistake on the lake” because of him.

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