Interviews with Andrez Bergen and Kristopher Young
Part 2: All up in the Sky
Hi Kristopher, welcome to Solarcide. First, I’d like to ask you about Another Sky. The model you are using is very interesting, I’d heard of similar things being done in the music industry but you guys are the first I have seen using the system for publishing books. Could you explain how this project came about, how you got it off the ground?
Sure. Another Sky Press officially started way back in late 2005/early 2006, but existed as a developing idea for years before that. I’m a big believer in putting idealism into action — that is, ideals are great, but if you don’t live by them, they’re just another flat currency with nothing backing them.
It’s only been in the last decade (less, really) that the barriers of entry for book publishing have finally dropped to a point where pretty much anyone with access to a computer could start a publishing company – thanks to print on demand, digital distribution, online retailers with no need for brick and mortar shelf space, etc. This is the same revolution that began in the music industry decades ago, first with cassette tapes and then recordable cds and then mps3.
For the majority of my developing years, I’d been devouring books on media theory, memetics, all that sort of stuff. And I wanted to put forth my take on commerce — one in line with my personal ethics. I had a ton of inspiration to work from — from forefathers like Dischord Records, floppy disks full of shareware (do they even still call it that?), even the free museums in NYC. Shareware… man, that was such a revolutionary concept – that was, in many ways, the beginning.
But while I drew ideas from others, I was also trying to solve some of the issues others hadn’t completely addressed – at least, not from a publishing stand point. I ultimately attempted to break every single issue down to its core and rebuild, choosing the most artist/audience friendly solution that I could think of at every step.
An easy example would be the royalty system. How much should Another Sky Press take off the top? How much should the author make? Every answer seemed arbitrary, and it’s because the questions themselves are framed wrong. I realized the most ‘pure’ solution would be to give the author 100% royalty as creator. Then, they, as creator, could work out what % to ‘tip back’ to the Press, the cover artist, the editor, etc. In other words, we let the people involved work out their own royalty breakdown – even what the Press itself does or doesn’t make. We only ask that the author keeps at least 51% — a numeric reminder that this is their book, always.
It’s a bit weird, now, talking about it. Even something as basic as allowing people to read your entire book for free was such a radical concept only a few years ago (well, except in libraries, but that’s a whole different issue). Cory Doctorow, among others, was preaching the good word, but for the most part, if I’d say something like ‘it’s far more important to gain a reader than make a buck’ you’d be surprised how many people would look at me cross-eyed. Some people got it, certainly, but… it just wasn’t accepted back then – people were still freaking out about mp3s ‘destroying’ the music industry.
I’ve been signing physical copies of Click with the same personal statement since it released: “Everything we take for granted was once considered revolutionary.” It’s only been 6 years or so, but the entire playing field has changed — in our favor.
Back when we started, ‘pay what you want’ wasn’t even in the vernacular. I came up with the term ‘neo-patronage’ (though that term is not nearly as catchy) to define the philosophy behind it and to explain how, from a theoretical perspective it is a technological evolution of patronage that removes many of the serious drawbacks patronage has/had. It wasn’t until the already-mega-famous Radiohead did their ‘pay what you want’ experiment in 2007 with In Rainbows that we saw the tipping point (pun intended). After that, people started nodding their head — understanding without me/us needing to explain the concept. People absolutely ‘get it’ now. And I think, deep down, people always did. Supporting what you love comes naturally.
What kind of reception have you been getting? I’d say the benefits to the readers are pretty obvious, but what kind of feedback have you been getting from the authors? And have traditional print presses been hiring cloaked killers to sneak into your house and end your rebellion?
From our authors? Great feedback. I love all of our authors — heck, I feel like I’m best mates with Andrez Bergen at this point and I haven’t even met him, a full world apart. That’s what happens when you spend a couple years mentally entwined on a project. But overall, I’d say Another Sky Press is incredibly pro-author. We want the author to be absolutely happy with everything about their book, from the words on the page to the art on the cover. We look at each project as a labor of love, not as a bottom line. That’s the beauty of many small presses today — the ability to take projects on that the bigger guys can’t, or won’t, necessarily risk – which is especially relevant to any first time novelist today, given how risk-adverse the industry is becoming. As for other authors’ opinions of our system, we can only judge by the people we’ve talked to, who all seem very hip to the idea. We get inundated with submissions, which almost makes me feel sad, since it can be overwhelming and we’d love to take on more projects than we actually can. We spend a lot of time on each project. Layout, editing, cover design… it’s a process.
As for mainstream publishing? They haven’t tried to kill me. I wonder if they know if I exist? Probably – I know some certainly do. But they are moving in our direction, which is nice. Technology is an unstoppable force. I mean, heck, Gutenberg, right? His printing press is the ultimate example of technology changing the face of the world. When the barriers of entry fall, when the means of distribution are in the hands of all, we find true freedom of ideas.I think they’d definitely look up from their books if a well-known author gave us a chance. One of the biggest hurdles we face is simply that as a small press we need to constantly battle obscurity. We’re not tapping into an existing fan base, we’re creating our own from the ground up. We rely on word of mouth – we’re not mentioned in trade mags, we’re not on Oprah, we’re not face out at bookstores, or on best seller lists. We actually dohave books doing well for themselves, but it would be incredibly interesting to me to see how someone with an pre-established name faired – the Radiohead effect, if you will. My educated guess? They’d do very, very well. And that’s probably when the ninjas would be sent.Our tag line is “Read Free : Support what you Love” and it’s been our experience that people find it really rewarding. Of course, trusting in others requires trust in yourself, and a commitment to quality, not hype.
It was a tremendous help; there were scenes or settings that I had no idea were even references to noir films or books that he’d instantly recognize, which is extremely useful in terms of making sure the details are correct. It really let Andrez and I concentrate on the story, on his voice, on Floyd.
I’m very grateful to Andrez for being, perhaps, the easiest person to work with I’ve ever (not) met. I don’t really think a word exists for my relationship with Andrez and Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. Editor isn’t quite right – it’s more like Andrez, Floyd Maquina, and I were a symbiotic triplet for three years. There were entire chapters deleted. Entirely newones added. Plots hammered into shape. Characters reworked, combined, split. Welding torches. Shotguns. Carving knives. Spray paint and whiskey.The editing process for TSMG was, in very many ways, a writing process as well. The original manuscript was, as Andrez will attest, the combined outpouring of over a decade of his ideas and efforts, and the end result was a ball of huge potential that needed shape. He’d have a short story he wrote jammed in there, two sections written years apart conflicting with each other… that sort of thing. All very natural — this isn’t a criticism of Andrez because I think most authors have been here. I know I have. It was a manuscript in need of some serious guidance.While Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat isn’t the first thing I’ve edited for others, I think my own experiences with my own novel, Click, helped out tremendously. Click’s a bit… abstract… for lack of a better word, and I spent a massive amount of time with it rewriting, adding, rearranging, finding synchronicity and significance. That… obsessiveness… came invery handy with Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat.And, as mentioned, Andrez is really easy to work with. I’m sure some of my emails came across pretty brutal (especially in the beginning, when I was still wielding a sledgehammer), but he read em, thought my points over with a cookie and some tea, and we worked every single issue out, every time.
I don’t know that any other author other than Andrez could have survived it. It can be hard to tell an author that this or that doesn’t work, or that this obviously heartfelt section comes off way too sappy, or this line of dialog is really off-putting, or whatever. I don’t really mince words. I do, however, explain my position as best I can. In most cases, it was really simple. Often, Andrez already knew this or that didn’t quite work, but was keeping it in there for sentimental reasons and just needed a nudge here or there. Or, often, it was just finding a new home for things. There was one bit, for example, that used to be at the very, very end of the story. It was a bit between Floyd and Laurel, and, well, it just didn’t quite work- had a very ‘out of nowhere’ feel to it. When I pointed this out, it was clear to me Andrez was distressed — for personal reasons, the section was vital to him. The solution ended up being reinventing that bit, swapping it right into the thick of things – and it ended up becoming something that really drove Floyd’s relationship with Veronica (not Laurel!) home. Andrez was absolutely correct – it was an important bit to have in the novel, but it was our ability to work together that not only kept it in the novel, but converted it from something out of place to something that added quite a bit of character depth.
As for working via email? Let’s just say we almost brought down the infrastructure by ourselves. Imagine an email with 500-1000 individual issues, quoted, described, analyzed (an entire essay on why one adjective should be replaced by another adjective, for example)… then a response email with many of those issues in turn reworked, debated, and… on and on and on. And entirely new emails with a whole new set of issues cropped up every other week or so, so we’d even have these things going in tandem. For years — three years, to be specific. Those emails were Behemoths crossbred with Hydra. That about sums it up. To put this in context? I think we changed about 3 words of the manuscript Barry Graham sent us for The National Virginity Pledge, and probably could have gotten away with changing none, it was so tightly written to begin with. But a different beast is a different beast, and Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat needed that level of intensity – because Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat needed to see the light of day. We believed in it that much.