BOOKS | Holy Cow! Press celebrates 35 years of literary publishing in Duluth

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HOLY COW! PRESS, NOW IN ITS THIRTY-FIFTH YEAR, is one of the more unlikely but durable publishing stalwarts in this publisher-rich state. After all this time, the press is still coming up with novel projects, while continuing to take care of the particular patch of American literary real estate it has made its own.       

In this interview, Holy Cow!’s editor/publisher Jim Perlman talks about the history, problems, successes, and new ideas of the press with his usual quiet wit.

Ann Klefstad: Holy Cow! It’s been thirty-five years. Does it seem that long?

Jim Perlman: I’m amazed that I’m still standing, given the fact that most small literary endeavors don’t last more than a few years.  I think we’ve been able to survive because of my determination to fill a niche in an area of the country that was not always considered a source of literary strength by people on either coast — though that’s changing.

I started Holy Cow! after editing literary magazines in the Twin Cities for several years. I was beginning to see the limitations of that kind of enterprise . . .  and also seeing all these manuscripts by writers, so I could see that finding something to publish wasn’t going to be much of a challenge. Now, we receive 300 or 400 manuscript proposals a year, about one a day; we have to reject about 98 percent. Because I’m pretty much a one-person shop; three to four books a year is the maximum I can do.

I feel, looking back, it’s just been a great honor to be part of the literary community here in flyover country, a part of people’s careers as poets and writers . . .  and I’m not going to start crying now . . .

How are things different now for the press from when you started?

So much has changed, but much has stayed the same, too. Our mission remains the same: Our projects are usually either single-author collections from the Midwest, Indian authors, or themed anthologies with contributors from all over the country. What has changed is bookstores, marketing, technologies, electronic publishing — and that there are more and more writers out there. This is a mixed blessing. People feel empowered to express themselves, and more people are able now to publish their own books, but it makes for a very crowded marketplace. When I started the press, there were maybe 10 or 20 top-tier writers from the Midwest; now there are ten times that many. We all try so hard to get our authors reviewed and readings arranged  … and it’s hard for readers as well. How do you know what’s worth reading?

For the first 10 years I did all the layout with a waxer and a light table, Xeroxing pages to make sure the lines were straight.  With the arrival of digital publishing, production costs have gone way down, things like spell-check have made it easier … I went many years without a distributor, doing all the marketing, dealing with wholesalers, sending flyers to booksellers, visiting libraries .  But now, for the last 15 years, we’ve been with Consortium, and that has been very freeing. Having that bridge to the marketplace is so essential. Self-publishers don’t have this, and it’s a major challenge for them.

Another change is at the institutional level: There are so many more MFA programs, the children and grandchildren of those first workshops in the ’50s and ’60s. At AWP [the national convention of Associated Writing Programs] in Chicago this March, there were 12,000 writers from these programs. I go only occasionally these days, to sell our books. At AWP, you sell, maybe 40 books, and you come back with that many manuscripts.

What have been your backlist bestsellers?

Twenty years ago we published our best-selling book, and we’ve sold 25,000 copies over the years:  Strength to Your Sword Arm, by Brenda Ueland. Those essays and articles are often reprinted in anthologies as well. Beloved on the Earth came out in 2009 and has sold about 4,500 copies. [This themed anthology] of poems of grief and gratitude for lost loved ones struck a chord with people; we received over 2,000 poems by 700 poets, in answer to the call — fortunately I had three co-editors …

What are some of your most exciting current projects?

We’ve recently been in contact with [famed children’s author] Jane Yolen. [Author’s note: This year Holy Cow! published the collection of poems she wrote after the death of her husband,Letters to a Dead Man. Perlman calls it “tough, angry, and loving” — a good assessment.] We’ll be publishing another project of hers this fall: Ekaterinoslav: One Family’s Passage to America. It’s a memoir in poetry about Jane’s Ukrainian grandparents, who traveled one by one to the U.S. in the late 1800s.  It’s an interesting visual, as well as literary, project, illustrated with family photos and more.

The nice thing about publishing is you don’t know what’s going to happen with a book when you publish it — you can guess, but no one really knows for sure. A couple of our authors are in the news this year. Louis Jenkins’ Nice Fish is the basis for a new play at the Guthrie; [playwright] Mark Rylance is putting this together. And Joyce Sutphen, another of our authors, was named Minnesota’s poet laureate this year.

Are you experimenting with new kinds of marketing, given the changing nature of the book business?

We are starting to do e-books — we did four last year and will do more this year; we do e-book versions of some of our paper books.  Consortium has recently developed an app for short story collections that allows a buyer to pick and choose, to develop their own collection.

Like buying songs on iTunes?

Yes. Tony Bukoski‘s short-story collection, which we republished this year, Time Between Trains, is available for this app.

What’s the publishing project you’re most excited about right now?

Our next project will debut in a show at the Duluth Art Institute this summer, mid-June through the end of August. It’s a project we started 10 years ago, based on 32 portraits of Lac Court D’Oreilles elders painted by Sara Balbin. (She is mainly a sculptor; she recently installed a sculpture on the St Scholastica campus for their hundredth anniversary.) The book has an oral history by each of these elders; many were born in wigwams and lived long enough to see the casino built. [There is] much about Ojibwe culture, going back to its origins in this region on Madeleine Island in the 1700s.  The portraits are extraordinary and allegorical — containing imagery associated with each person’s community presence; a glossary of Ojibwe words is included. We think it will be an important publication for expanding ideas of the region’s history.

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Related links and information:

Holy Cow’s next project needs you—by June 30:

For a forthcoming anthology, Holy Cow! Press would like to consider poetry and personal essays on the idea of HOME–where it’s located in one’s life, how it may have changed over time. We are looking for a wide variety of perspectives and interpretations. Topics might include leaving home, myths of return, politics of home, displacement, and yearning for home.

New work and previously published writings are welcome. Limit per submission: three poems or a personal essay up to 2,000 words in length. A reading fee of $10 per author is requested.

Deadline: June 30, 2012

Please include a SASE (no electronic submissions, please) and send to: The Editors, HOME Anthology, Holy Cow! Press, Post Office Box 3170, Mount Royal Station, Duluth, MN  55803.

And be sure to watch for the Mark Rylance/Louis Jenkins project, Nice Fish, in the Guthrie Theater’s 2012-13 season, based on Jenkins’ book of the same name published by Holy Cow! 17 years ago.