Portrait of a Press: tNY.Press Breaks the Rules of Genre and Publishing




The following is a feature article from the summer issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: Magazine. Click here to get your subscription today.

 

HOW DOES A STARTUP literary endeavor know they’ve made the big time? For tNY.Press (formerly TheNewerYork), a cease and desist letter from none other than The New Yorker was a good clue. First received in October 2014, the letter stated that use of the name TheNewerYork diluted The New Yorker’s brand. Not bad for a press launched as a literary magazine just over three years earlier with slightly more than $4,000 raised from 48 Kickstarter backers and a print edition of 2,000 copies.  

Founder and Creative Director Josh Raab tries to make the best of the situation, recounting:  

What’s in a name? Not much. Hence the rename [of the literary magazine] to The Shrug. We don’t need the name. But we also don’t think our original name was a play off of their name or that anyone would confuse the two magazines either in name or in their actual paper selves. They are totally different. So we changed our name to tNY.Press. The tNY stands for nothing… It was a rollercoaster ride but, shrug.  

He’s playing it pretty cool, but facing a major rebrand in your company’s third year is no joke. Although there was a significant gap between issue three (published in August 2013) and issue four (published in February 2015), The Shrug and tNY as a whole soon found their momentum and have now expanded to include a single author imprint (tNY.Press Books), an online collection of experimental literature (theEEEL), a design services team (tNY Creative), and, of course, the magazine (The Shrug).  

 

Rethinking Literary Culture 

Focused on a love for experimental literature, LA’s tNY.Press was destined to make waves (under any name). In the video for the Kickstarter campaign that funded the second edition of the literary magazine, Raab describes the motivations behind tNY’s particular madness: 

There’s enough English majors out there collecting poetry and short stories and calling it a lit mag, and I didn’t want to do that. And I never want to talk to Jonathan Franzen. In general, we don’t care about the greater literary culture. We simply want to publish the 20-30 lines (sometimes more) that will move you. 

This spirit accounts for onetime tagline: “Too legit to be lit.” Raab lays out the rules of this new landscape: no essays, poetry, or short stories, but instead works that explore form. tNY’s held true to this goal, publishing personal letters, flash-fictions, lists, and other original works of varying shapes and sizes. tNY also doesn’t publish any writing about writing. As Raab explains, “We think writers need to be outward looking, interpreting our world and our place in it, not just talking about writing with writers and doing writerly things.” 

Are writers ready to leave the protective womb of familiar forms and faces presented in familiar magazines and presses? Raab thinks so. And it is working. For the first issue of the literary magazine, tNY received over 600 submissions from all over the world.  

tNY’s method of starting the press was similarly at the forefront of today’s trends. In 2012, they launched their first successful campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. tNY picked a great year to launch a publishing project on Kickstarter — Statista, an online source of statistics and studies, reports that 262,738 people backed publishing projects on the site in 2012. 

But Raab also brought something traditional to the project: 

I wanted to make a nice book, something pretty. I worked at Knopf publishers for a summer and their attention to material, the tactile, color, and the book as artifact, really left an impression on me.  

Raab had a connection at Kickstarter, a friend from New York University, and he was excited to see if the public would support them in large enough numbers to make the project happen; unlike other crowd-funding sites, Kickstarter projects don’t move forward unless they are fully funded. tNY got the turnout they needed, and with their first successfully funded project, they had both enough money to find a “good, custom printer” for their magazine and also proof of concept that people were interested in their approach.  

Asked about the Kickstarter experience, Raab touts the community aspect of the site, explaining that tNY raised $1,200 from people who were simply browsing Kickstarter. Pair that with tNY’s own constantly growing community, and you have a successfully funded venture.  

The model works. tNY.Press, comprised of Raab, Artistic Director Nils Davey, Gallery and Events Manager Michelle Favin Raab, Editors Megan Willoughby, Chuck Young, Melissa McDaniel, Christopher Morgan, and Contributing Editor Steve Vermillion, now has four successful crowd-funding campaigns under their belt and they’ve expanded their offerings significantly. 

 

Creating Tactile Literary Objects 

Inspired by those small, white Salinger paperbacks published by Little, Brown and Company, and by and Steve Almond’s This Wont Take But a Minute, Honey, tNY’s print editions (both their books and the magazine) are both pocket-sized and irreverent.   

The single author book imprint, tNY.Press Books, released their first three books in 2014 with a fourth due out in October 2015, and each is a completely unique reading experience. From Sharpen by Rich Ives — part user’s manual for everyday objects and part vignettes on parenthood — to Small Creatures/Wide Field by John Mortara — a spiral-bound, choose your own adventure that bounces between alternate dimensions starring Cyclops, dragons in glasses, turnip people, and an all too real world of drunkenness, domestic violence, and unsatisfying sex — you’ve never read anything like these books. And you can be pretty sure they’d have given Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish conniption fits. 

Perhaps the most beautiful product of the press so far is their second book, Inevitable June by Bob Schofield. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the matte black-ribbed paper cover of this book wants to be picked up and held. And the silver octopus emerging from a white cloud demands your attention as it pulls an airplane from the sky. The cover is simple yet surprising and enigmatic, much like the writing within. Chronicling the entire month of June, this morning-by-morning account could read like a journal. Instead the reader is immersed in a weird wonderland involving an octopus, cancer, and a glass airplane falling from the sky — and that’s only the start. The days are printed in alternating black on white and white on black and Schofield’s illustrations of stairs, doorways, a boat adrift at sea, and more add texture and another layer of wonder to the already surreal narrative. These integrations and Schofield’s hybrid prose-poetry create a brand-new immersive reading experience that’s inspiring, weird, and delightfully unexpected. Exactly what tNY is aiming for. 

 

The Shrug Literary Magazine 

Formerly called TheNewerYork and once the focus of all that attention from The New Yorker, The Shrug is tNY’s literary magazine and a playground for form. It is filled with un-famous (and unlikely) quotes like this one from Gandhi: “Life is short, get wet.” The pocket-sized magazine also contains glossaries with definitions like: “Shin/SHin/: a device for finding furniture in the dark,” flash fictions (some of which are printed upside down), and a wide array of art including cancelled post cards found on sidewalks, collages, and straight up oil paintings. The effect of throwing all these works together is scintillating — it’s impossible to get through an issue without some sort of sparks going off in your brain.  

 

theEEEL 

tNY is certainly experimenting, and they’ve expanded their love of literature from paper artifacts to an online magazine, a series of literary carnivals, and even a design house. 

The experiment is perhaps most alive with The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (theEEEL), an online sandbox for The Shrug, where new works are tried out before being considered for print. The magazine is alive and comfortably in flux. Recently, Editor Chuck Young posted to Facebook that they were doing away with submission fees to theEEEL and, perhaps more interestingly, they would also no longer going to be reading submissions blind:  

The reason for our blind submissions policy in the beginning was a commitment to destroying the cult of personality. We didn’t want to publish a piece just because it was from so-and-so and we really loved so-and-so’s book or their social media presence or the fact that we partied together […] But the more pressing matter is: we don’t want anything to hide behind as far as accountability is concerned. We’d also really like to relieve ourselves of the constant necessity to be on guard about misrepresentation when it comes to the voices of women and people of color […] From a recent article on Apogee’s website: “It’s also important to consider that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a cultural product and a part of a greater artistic and social conversation. An audience doesn’t read ‘blind’ or ‘for merit,’ they take authorial identity into consideration. Trying to strip a piece of literature from the identity of the person who wrote it is pretending that it exists outside of the culture in which it was created.” 

We hope this change will place our curatorial stance and the stories we publish squarely back in the realm of a diverse and ever-changing culture, as has always been our mission.  

What’s fascinating about this evolution is the way theEEEL is bucking conventions that have become industry standards, like submittal fees and blind reads, while simultaneously diving right into the center of what’s become a standard discussion (although one that’s still very pertinent) about gender disparity in literary magazines. Despite their purported disregard of literary culture, tNY and theEEEL are very much aware of and engaged in creating the literature and literary environment of today.  

The work they publish, even in this early online stage, is as interesting and cutting edge as that put forth in The Shrug. Take “New Tab” by Daniel Schwartz for example. A simple list of tabs you might open on a web browser, the list begins to form a narrative as the reader fills in the interstices between the tabs. It could be a short story, it could be the first steps of planning a trip to Burning Man, or it could be the chronology of a super-awesome (but totally unproductive) workday. The beauty of new forms of work like this is that the reader brings as much to the final product as the writer.

New Tab                  silk road
New Tab                  molly side effects
New Tab                  measles
New Tab                  cryptozoology
New Tab                  map of the california desert
New Tab                  how long can you live without water

At the end of every piece, theEEEL also has a feature where you can tip the author if you enjoyed their work. How’s that for groundbreaking?

 

Literature Played Out in Real Life

Readers aren’t the only ones who can enjoy tNY’s unique approach to literature. Raab and his crew host literary carnivals — theatrical adaptations of each new edition of the magazine organized by Gallery and Events Manager Michelle Favin Raab (who also happens to be Josh’s wife). Starting with a cocktail hour, the visitor is treated to an array of literary carnival booths. The pre-show boasts a variety of quirky activities: an artist behind an easel writing your fictional biography, a Rorschach test where the response is flash-fiction, a poetry-on-demand stand.  

These sideshows are merely the beginning of the evening’s experiments. The main attraction is situated in a theater staged to look like an opium den where instead of chairs and tables the audience finds swathes of Persian-style rugs strewn about the floor. They’re treated to a series of performances based on the works in the newest issue of the magazine. More than just readings, actors and performance artists are brought in to turn the words on the page into spectacles. The evening’s events also include interactive games like Mad Libs of Lolita and The Little Prince as well as translations of Shakespearean sonnets into Morse code.  

The evening ends with a “Letter Lottery” where everyone writes a letter to someone in the room they don’t know. The letters are randomly distributed and if you receive a letter that was written to you, you win a gift bag filled with goodies and posters.  

Josh Raab describes the overall effect of these carnivals as “a poetry reading through a madhouse mirror.” The night, adapted from already experimental writings, evolves into an experience where readers become engaged listeners.  

 

Creativity in Other Forms 

Performance art is not the only way tNY is stepping outside the boundaries of traditional publishing. They also have a design services team called tNY.Creative where Josh Raab is the Creative Director/Project Manager and Nils Davey is a designer. “tNY Creative came about with the realization that we are better at designing books than we are at selling them.” Raab explains, “Also, there is an epidemic of bad design in the indie publishing scene and we want to be a cure.” 

So far they’ve designed a literary magazine, two books, and now they are working on the libretto and branding for an experimental opera. Raab doesn’t see this as a conflict of interest: 

If we were in another industry, or playing in the major leagues of publishing, there might be conflict, but at our level, things seem to be chummy. For instance when we designed the literary magazine LEFT, some of the authors had been published by us, and technically the magazine is a competitor, but, like, whatever. It’s a good magazine, we’re excited to see it in the world, and saying it will cut into our popularity would be as ridiculous as The New Yorker saying we dilute their brand.  

tNY.Creative has also worked on designing corporate sponsorship decks. Although not the main interest or goal of tNY, Raab reveals that it pays well, and as “an avant-garde literary publisher” they “have to follow the money for the time being.” 

Which brings up the question: what’s next for tNY?  

Raab seems to think that there is no telling what tomorrow’s new storytelling medium will look like. But so far tNY has shown a remarkable capacity for evolution — there’s no doubt they will be able to keep up:

Our mission has sort of flipped inside out. What was once uncategorizable is now bizarrely categorized. For instance our book Sharpen is a “fictional tool catalogue” and our book The Inevitable June is a “surreal poetic adventure.” I think perhaps our books are still uncategorizable from a bookseller’s point of view. They always scratch their heads and ask what section the books should go in, so in that sense our mission has been completed.  

That does not mean their work is done. Raab says: 

We have dreams to get into movie making and more routine events. We want to get a theater group together and reserve a theater in LA one Sunday a month and have them perform the newest stories from theEEEL. This sort of explosion of mediums is where we want to grow. We think each of our stories can be turned into all sorts of transmedia experiences and if budget, energy, and interest allows, we will do this relentlessly.  

So. Was TheNewerYork diluting The New Yorker’s brand? Raab may have done the right thing by stepping away from the fray. But whether they’re publishing as The Newer York or tNY, Raab and his compatriots are forging paths all their own, and we all stand to benefit.

¤

Isla McKetta reviews books at A Geography of Reading. She co-authored Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art and is the author of Polska, 1994, from Editions Checkpointed.



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