The Story of Dzanc Books

by Jeremiah Chamberlin

Feature

Online Only, posted 10.19.10

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But one thing they won’t let numbers dictate is their list. Unlike some publishers who let their marketing department have the final say on a book’s acquisition, Gillis and Wickett are committed to books they love. “That was the first point that Dan and I agreed upon when we were forming Dzanc—if we like a book, we want it. We’ll worry about how to sell it later. We’ve taken on some strange books, but if they’re great, then we’ll figure out how to sell them. That’s all that matters.”

And one way they’ve been able to bring their books to the masses is through their enormous influence of and participation in the online literary community. Wickett, of course, brought with him the many connections and friendships that he’d fostered through the Emerging Writers Network. But Gillis had also been an early believer and participant in the online publishing world. The two also recognized the great literary talent that the Internet was nurturing. This is, in no small part, the reason that they created the Best of the Web anthology that they publish each year. “The writing online that’s taking place in some of these journals is phenomenal,” Gillis said. “I don’t want to have to say it’s better than print, but it is, without question, as good as print. And you see print journals migrating online.”

Still, both are aware that there exists a lingering bias toward online publishing and even, to an extent, independent presses. But Dzanc is working to change that on both fronts—both by who they publish and now they treat those authors. “What independent presses do is that they really work with you,” Gillis explained. “Our authors have cover say, we talk with them frequently, we do tours, and we have in-house editors and copyeditors. Some New York houses don’t. We want to nurture authors. That’s our goal.”

When I spoke to Laura van den Berg she confirmed this sentiment: “Dan and Steve are working to create a real sense of family at Dzanc. As an author, it feels good to be a part of that.” She also appreciated their vision. “They’re so forward-looking and ambitious,” she said, “always trying out new ideas and strategies—the opposite of complacent or stagnant. They’re constantly evolving. “

And perhaps it is the coupling of these two things that particularly exemplifies Dzanc—an organization that is as committed to creating a sense of community as it is to innovation. A perfect example is the Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions. “Students,” for lack of a better word, can sign up online to work one-on-one with more than a hundred authors around the country, include such writers as Kathy Fish, K. Kvashay Boyle, Rebecca Barry, Kevin Wilson, Abby Frucht, and George Singleton. The sessions are relatively inexpensive and set on a sliding
scale ($20 for an hour, $30 for two hours, $50 for four hours). And because these authors have all volunteered their time, 100 percent of the proceeds go to other charitable programs that Dzanc administers.

And in the spirit of constantly evolving, Dzanc is even expanding abroad. Next summer they will hold their first summer workshop, which will take place in Lisbon, Portugal. The faculty includes such writers as Kim Addonizio, Brian Evenson, Frank X. Gaspar, and Josip Novakovich. Additionally, Junot Diaz, Jumpha Lahiri, and Richard Zenith will be guests. The goal of the conference is not only to work with such talented writers, but also to meet authors from another culture, to encounter their rich literary history, and to experience their country.

When I asked what else the future held for Dzanc, the two men looked at one another and laughed. “How do we paint this picture?” Gillis asked, then paused, looking for the right words. “I’m insane; Dan is my ballast. We could not function if we didn’t have this relationship. I’m always jumping—‘We can do this, we can do this, we can do this.’ And ninety-nine percent of the time we can do it. I figure out how to get the ball rolling, and then Dan figures out how to make whatever crazy idea I’ve come up with happen.

“We’re learning. As long as we can figure out a way to make our programs provide us with the funds to do the charity work that we want to do, we’re going to just keep expanding. And with our publishing, we’ve already acquired titles into 2013. We’re excited about our publishing and excited about the charity work we want to do. We just need to be fiscally prudent, and hopefully more people will recognize what we’re doing and support us. If nothing else, they can help us by buying our books.”

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

“Unlike some publishers who let their marketing department have the final say on a book’s acquisition, Gillis and Wickett are committed to books they love. ”

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Comments

GAYF says...

In this era of retrenchment from all things creative, lovely and life sustaining--particularly the commercialization and conglomerization of language-- one success story is a breath of clean air. Thank you.

Interesting and important it is, that the founders of Dzanc Books have skills that are agreeable to the corporate model that contributed to the production and promotion of their venture.

I note, though, that only after a known "establishment"--"Publisher's Weekly"-- gave the company a positive review were theycontacted and able to advance.

My father often said that "contact" was the most important component one could have. He meant, "contact" with someone who has the ability to assist. you. Publisher's Weekly was the "kiss of death" for my first publication. Giving my work to someone who was unqualified to evaluate it provided a devastating review, despite George Garrett, the Dean of southern writing, having given it a superlative review--and inclusion in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Yearbook 2002.

The luck of the draw?