Mergers and all that will go on and on and on and probably only get more and more sick in the future. I’m not happy about it. It scares the hell out of me, but it hasn’t made me want anything different from art… We need to keep in mind that even if AOL owns most everything you can touch, it’s all on paper (even if that paper runs headlines for the world to see) and it doesn’t change what makes people need art in their lives…”
interviewed by john richen
Thumb through the pages of Little Engines and you will find inspired fiction and idea-provoking interviews from a collection of writers from across the country – folks surely with differing points of view and frames of reference independent of any collective point of view. Gerald Beckman’s “Cowboy Café” and Jim Munroe’s “Bugkilla 48” are compelling short stories taking form within completely different realms, but between these covers they seem to work perfectly together. Read Andy Jenkins solid “No Good For Your Heart” in this issue of Smokebox for a sample of what’s in store when you buy the real thing.
Little Engines is the brainchild of TNI’s publisher Adam Voith. Smokebox publisher John Richen hooked up with Adam in April, the month their inaugural edition was released, and chatted about Little Engines, the nature of small publishing ventures, and the abrasive concept of compromise.
Smokebox: A short history TNI Books:
Adam Voith: When I graduated from school in Indiana, I had been working on some short stories. After I moved to California, I’d written a bunch more and they all fit together in some way for me, so I decided I could put them together in the form of a book. I had no idea how the publishing world worked, but one day I had a print run on its way to my apartment in Oakland. I did a small hand bound edition and sold out quickly, so I did another larger (still pretty small) run. Just after I printed the 2nd run I moved here to Seattle and started selling them via mail order, at a few stores, and eventually through a larger distributor that got the books in some of the chain stores. Through all of that, I learned a lot about how a small time publisher works. I’m still learning more of this each day, and I’ve come to enjoy that whole aspect in a way that’s very different from the actual writing….
After that first book, we released a spoken word CD made up entirely of conversations and phone messages found on cassettes at thrift stores by my friend Damien Jurado, who’s primarily a song writer but gets into off the wall projects regularly. Then came a children’s book that was packaged with a record from the band Pedro the Lion who are buddies of mine. And now… the 1st issue of Little Engines.
That’s the basic release history. All in all, it’s a small operation with high hopes. I’m teaching most of this stuff to myself, and it’s been crazy rewarding. Perhaps, sometime in the future, that’ll be coupled with some type of financial reward, but I’m not holding my breath…
Smokebox: Why did a publisher of books decide to jump into the magazine game?
Adam: Well, we’re moving at a slow pace here. We don’t have a lot of money to put into novels and full-length books, although that’s certainly in our plans again for the future. A magazine gives us the ability to bring new voices to readers in an easy to access format where tricks and experiments are still allowed. Costs can be covered somewhat by selling ads to other independent companies. Distribution channels are a bit more open to magazines, etc etc etc. Again, in the future we plan to release books from assorted writers and a quarterly magazine will allow us to “introduce” writers who may be working on a book as well. To me it just feels like a very open medium and I’m so excited about how the magazine has opened up new ideas that wouldn’t necessarily work in a straightforward book format.
Smokebox: You talk about magazines being a more “open medium” than straightforward book format. In what ways are magazines freer than books? I’ve always sort of perceived it the other way around.
Adam: I guess I’m thinking about the way Little Engines allows us to publish things like comics, interviews, and odd little pieces all in one package. I suppose a short story collection might be able to do the same, but then… it’d be more like a magazine or journal than a short story collection, right?
Smokebox: Does the urgency of a magazine deadline complicate your work on other publishing projects, or is Little Engines now the primary focus of TNI Books?
Adam: For now, Little Engines is the focus since we’ve just put out the first issue. I’ll have to get back to you on how it complicates the other stuff we try to do at the same time. Until then, one foot in front of the other…
Smokebox: Why the title “Little Engines?” Is there any significance to the name that you attach importance to?
Adam: The title was taken from a song by my friend TW Walsh. He writes damn good songs. I also like the connection to “The Little Engine That Could” with the “I think I can” notion… We here at TNI Books “think we can” … maybe.
Smokebox: Did you find it difficult to corral such an impressive and diverse set of stories for issue one?
Adam: Amazingly, it wasn’t so difficult. I’ve made lots of great contacts doing this and folks were really eager to help out. One of the greatest parts of starting this magazine has been the support. Even outside those included in the magazine, quite a few folks were helping behind the scenes and to those people I owe a gigantic pat on the back.
Smokebox: I must confess that your friend Damien Jurado’s “The Munday Series” kind of surprised me. When I read the premise (transcribing audio tape from answering machines procured at second hand stores) I thought it sounded like a gimmick: one of those devices writers sometimes rely on when they don’t have much to present. That wasn’t the case at all. It really taps into our subverted voyeuristic tendencies doesn’t it?
Adam: Sure does! That release really hit a lot of people in strange ways. It does have a “gimmick” feel to it on the surface, but if you sit and talk with Damien about these tapes, he’s just as into it as he is when he talks about his songs. It’s totally real life, unedited. There’s no gimmick there. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from a gimmick!
Smokebox: Little Engines is primarily for and about writers.
Adam: I hope not. This is something I really want to steer away from. One of the reasons I decided to self-publish when I started TNI Books was because I had this frightening sense that the established publishing circuit was somewhat self-serving and plenty of really great writing wasn’t getting outside of the college towns and New York City. I really have no meter to gauge this, but I get very excited when people tell me something that TNI Books released something that got them excited about reading when they’d been bored or disinterested before.
Smokebox: You mention the established publishing circuit being somewhat self-serving. Do you feel that this is a trait limited to established literary ventures? I sometimes get the impression that much of the independent publishing corps, a group in which I include independent newspapers, are writing more to impress and entertain each other than a broader readership (in as much as that can be defined). In the Little Engines interview “The Sellout Secret” Todd Dills and Jim Munroe touch on the concept of material written “for zinesters, by zinesters” which in essence destroys their ability to appeal to a larger audience. I believe the word they use is “terminated.” Whether this is intentional or not, it would seem to present a legitimate concern for any independent publishing project. Have you given this much thought?
Adam: I’ve definitely given this thought. I’m sure you can find examples of the indie press writing and publishing just to jack one another off, but I really don’t think that’s any type of majority. Indie publishers are, in most every case, either losing assloads of money or just getting by. And I’m pretty sure most of us aren’t getting enough sleep. I don’t think anyone wants to put themselves in that position just to impress their friends.
Smokebox: In the same article, Dills and Monroe discuss the notion of ‘literal audience.” Who constitutes Little Engines‘ literal audience or is that demographic identity of any concern at this juncture?
Adam: Well, we’ve pushed TNI Books first and foremost to people that pay attention to the independent art (primarily independent music). I grew up involved with all that and watched little record labels running out of apartments and saw that you don’t need to be a major label to put out and sell great records… Many of the writers / artists I’ve worked are better known in the music world, and that draws a chunk of music fans to TNI Books… And that scene touches the zine world… And from there, lately we seem to be catching the eye of a lot of folks into skateboarding… So in that sense, there’s a literal audience, and it only makes sense that when something’s done on some type of grassroots level that the audience will be similar to the artist. My hope, with Little Engines, is that we can build on that audience and also branch out to other areas as well. There are plenty of people that like to read and don’t give a damn about rock, so we’ll try to find them, too.
Smokebox: Considering that audience definition, would it be fair to assert that Little Engines takes issue with contemporary consumer culture? Is the magazine inherently activist?
Adam: I think there’s a cultural aspect to a lot of the pieces. Or maybe a cultural “flavor” would be a better word. I hope there is, but in terms of politics and theories… You’re right. That’s not a huge part of why I’m doing this. I do think, however, that a small press is by its very nature activist. When you’re up against huge chain stores and massive publishing conglomerates, it’s impossible not to think of yourself as some minor renegade, I suppose. That’s in no way supposed to sound like I’m fighting some battle with TNI Books, because I’m not. But for sure, TNI Books isn’t really taking the safe road here.
Smokebox: Considering all the mergers and takeovers of our conventional media sources it’s certainly true that all the small publishing outposts are by their very existence “renegades.” I just wonder if they find the principled concept of doing what they believe in for philosophical as opposed to commercial reasons ultimately energizing or demoralizing? I don’t know about you, but I’m not entertaining any notions of publishing an economically viable digital magazine in the near future. Are we setting ourselves up to become disengaged “ex-publishers” here?
Adam: Maybe we are. I try as much as possible to think more about what I’ve done so far and what I’m working on right now, and leave the distant future out of it. I think we’ve all seen that even the biggest mover and shaker in our lifetime (the internet) didn’t change all that much in terms of what folks want, need, like, etc. Mergers and all that will go on and on and on and probably only get more and more sick in the future. I’m not happy about it. It scares the hell out of me, but it hasn’t made me want anything different from art… We need to keep in mind that even if AOL owns most everything you can touch, it’s all on paper (even if that paper runs headlines for the world to see) and it doesn’t change what makes people need art in their lives. This stuff gets very close to conversations I feel totally unqualified to take part in. Politics and finances and trends… It’s makes me a bit dizzy. So, maybe we’re all doomed to become disengaged “ex-publishers”. But if that happens, it means at one time we were all publishers and the stuff we published remains out there. I sound like a huge optimist and maybe even a hippie. Sorry…
Smokebox: It would seem that for a tremendous number of artists, the line where art and commercial viability have to meet becomes a sort of diabolical force on their ability to create work that is true to their spirit. In that sense, it would seem that freedoms granted in independent publications like Little Engines are critically important to the overall vitality of the general publishing medium.
Adam: This is key. Everything is tied too closely to money and all the mergers and such are only the natural result of an economy built like ours is… So for sure when you’re the little guy you gotta hope that the independent spirit plays some role in the vitality and validity of what you’re doing, and that those factors might have an effect on the overall climate of culture.
Smokebox: Ten years from now how are folks going to look at Little Engines? Does your vision for the magazine extend that far, or is the one foot in front of the other track you alluded to earlier still the mantra of choice?
Adam: I hope they can look back and forgive any typos they find and see a collection of stories that gives them a little piece of 2001. Magazines don’t usually stick around longer than their cover date. I do hope that the format of Little Engines (which is similar to a book) will help keep it on the coffee table or book shelf a little longer.