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Keeping Something Happening

Russell Chatham
of Clark City Press, Livingston, Montana
in conversation with Noel King

Russell Chatham was born in San Francisco in 1939. He moved to Montana in 1972. He is a self-taught painter, print-maker and writer. Since 1958 he has had more than three hundred one-man exhibitions of his art, which has been enthusiastically collected by the rich and the famous including Peter Matthiessen, Eudora Welty, Hunter S.Thompson, Peter Fonda, Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson. He has written hundreds of articles, reviews and stories about fly fishing, bird hunting and conservation.
      He founded Clark City Press and since 1989 has published 28 books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art and photography. You can visit his Website at
      Russell Chatham lives on an old homestead at the head of Deep Creek, eight miles outside of Livingston, Montana.

Noel King: What role do you think the small press plays in relation to the overall culture of book publishing?

Russell Chatham: My view of things, and it’s promoted by being physically distant from any publishing centres, derives from the fact that I was discouraged by experiences I had with larger publishers. As time has passed it seems they have taken less and less interest in what you might call serious books, or literary books, and look primarily toward large-profit items. And I suppose you can’t blame them: this is the world they live in and that seems to be what’s happening. That’s a discouraging situation for a lot of writers. When I started Clark City Press, it was always going to be a very small press; we could only think of publishing five to eight books a year. This was a lot for us but not much relative to the possibilities out there. And one of the things that was an eye-opener for me was how many manuscripts came unsolicited to us; hundreds, if not thousands, many of which were eminently publishable. What that showed me was how many serious writers had nowhere to turn, they were scratching at every possible opportunity to get their work published. And then you realise that the larger, traditional publishing houses aren’t picking up on these works. According to the sources I have, those companies no longer even have readers. Twenty years ago a person could say, ‘send a manuscript in to Doubleday’ and somebody would sit down and read it and if it was good, they might even consider publishing it. That doesn’t exist any more. So, particularly for younger people or people just starting out, it’s a very discouraging landscape to view.
      I wanted to avoid that situation. I had a few of my own books I wanted to see in print and I knew I had the capability of designing and manufacturing them properly, doing a first-rate job, bringing out a handsome edition with no typographical errors! That seems so obvious but it’s a lot to ask these days and to me that’s preposterous. A couple of decades ago a typographical error in a book was a tremendous embarrassment and you had to print an addendum to ‘fess up that you’d made a mistake, even one typo in an entire book. And now it’s not unusual to pick up a novel and find numerous errors and no-one seems to care.

¶ What are some of the main things that you think have changed in US book publishing and book culture?

Once you turn the reins of a publishing house over to the book-keeping department rather than the editorial department then the whole focus of the company changes. Publishing has always been a financially complicated and difficult business. However, certainly at the time I was growing up, a publishing house was run by publishers and the accountants worked for the publishers. Now it seems the other way around. I think this is symptomatic of every bit of what could come under the label of ‘culture’ in America, not just the publishing industry. It’s all money-driven.
      The only place in literary culture where the industry isn’t money-driven is with the independent booksellers where, generally speaking, you’ll find the owner is in there because he or she loves books and they’re not making much money. On the other hand the publishers themselves are money-driven, just as the movie-industry is, just as the art industry is, completely. The people who aren’t money-driven are people like me who are off in some backwater like Livingston, Montana!

¶ Speaking of that, you’ve been here about twenty-five years now, having initially come up from the Bay area, San Francisco to visit Tom McGuane?

That was the initial reason for the visit. At that time Tom had had some luck with his first couple of books and he’d always wanted to have a place in Montana and a place in Key West, the Florida Keys, for fishing and hunting reasons as well as living reasons. So I just came up here for a visit, to fish, but I already had a clear sense of what was happening to California and it was very discouraging: a population explosion, it’s slowed now but they’re bursting at the seams. It’s just too crowded, and I knew I needed to be some place where there was space, a less expensive life, that was an issue too. Throughout history, artists and writers have always looked for places that are both beautiful to live in and cheap to live in. And this place qualified.
      That fishing visit was in the fall of 1971 and I found a place to rent but we couldn’t quite make the transition with winter fast approaching and so we waited until spring and came up here in April. In those days, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought this place would be discovered by anyone, and now it’s all anybody can talk about.

¶ Why do you think that has happened, this intense focus on Montana as ‘the last good place’?

I think it’s the last of the romance in America. Everything else has been swallowed up, chewed up and spit out. In the early part of the century, when travel wasn’t so easy, you had a place like Carmel, which, though only 100 or so miles from San Francisco, seemed incredibly distant. Today people commute to work in San Francisco from Carmel. By the same token, the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay was built the year before WW2 started and Marin County was a vacation place for San Francisco people, and considered to be quite a long distance off. You had to take a boat to get there. During the war people were preoccupied with the war effort and defence and so forth, so it really wasn’t until the late 1950s and into the 1960s that people realised you could drive to Marin County in five minutes or so.
      Now we have a very different situation. With the population having risen so dramatically and with travel so easy, what’s happened is that what once was a vacation spot is now very close. It could be 100 miles or 2000 miles and it doesn’t matter.
      The fact that the landscape here is so big and so unspoiled makes it the last dream that people have. Maybe they want to hunt and fish and hike, maybe they just want to look. And this is what’s left north-eastern; it’s Washington, eastern Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming. For some reason peoples’ imagination doesn’t spread much further east than that because Nebraska has lots of interesting places. My friend, Jim Harrison, has set some of his work in Nebraska and he goes there frequently and finds it full of interesting history and lore. But for some reason that area doesn’t seem to have captured peoples’ imagination, maybe because there aren’t lots of dramatic mountains there, I don’t know.

Airstream trailer at dusk

Noel King: What are your plans with the next phase of Clark City Press?

Russell Chatham: I don’t want to rehabilitate Clark City Press back into a company per se. What I discovered is that either you stay very small, with two or three people and publish just a few books a year or you get into the mid-range where you need six or seven employees and your expenses — especially if you’re bidding for books — means that it becomes very difficult to make it work economically.
      You’re behind the eight ball because you put all this money up in advance to manufacture books which you don’t know for certain people will buy, and then it’s a year or two before you start to get your money back, if then. So it’s a very difficult business.
      It’s also hard because when you start out, by definition you have no back list to support you.
      The back list is the whole idea. What I tried to do was not publish a book that I wasn’t committed to keeping in print forever. That’s proved to be a workable thing. We just published a new catalogue, our first in two years and it went out a week ago to around 3000 people, all the independent booksellers and a number of individuals. That way at least people know the books are in print and you have an ongoing audience.
      We’re starting to get some response to the issuing of the catalogue and over the last couple of years we’ve sold enough books to pay the bookkeeper’s salary and to retire a huge amount of debt that had accrued in the last year of the company’s life, about $250,000 owed to printers and binders and this and that. It was a situation where most businessmen would have declared bankruptcy and let it go but if I’d done that it would have pestered my conscience. After all, the people sold me the goods in good faith and I really didn’t want to have the name of Clark City Press destroyed by that kind of thing. So we now have our new catalogue out, orders are coming in, and here we sit debt free, and we’re reprinting two of our best-selling books.
      The reason it’s going to be economically viable this time is because I’m going to change the system completely. I have my own press now so I don’t have to buy printing at retail — which is a disaster, cost-wise. And since the modern world exists on computer terminals there’s your typesetting, another big bill you don’t have to pay. The only thing you really can’t get around is your binding bill but you can keep yourself from getting into financial trouble there by printing the press sheets — let’s say you’re doing 10,000 books — by printing the press sheets flat. You’ve made a little investment in paper and some printing time but it’s not a big deal. So maybe you bind 1,000 books and it costs you 3 or 4 dollars apiece, now you’re into the project for 3 or 5 thousand instead of 45,000 or 50,000, which is where you’d be if you’d gone through the normal procedures. Now you actually have a chance to sell enough books to pay for the manufacturing so that you can go into the next project. So that’s the way I plan to go now.

¶ Your books have high production values, good paper, lovely covers...

That’s not that hard to do. You just have to want to do it. I’ve seen a couple of books recently where I thought the production standards were kept quite high: Chez Panis does very good books. This change in the publishing industry has pretty much happened over the last ten to fifteen years. Over the last seven years or so I’ve been asked by New York publishers to help design or help out with almost thirty books. They never take your advice!
      You lay out the cover for them, show them what colour to make it, how to arrange it, how to do the type, then they send it down to their art department where some idiot with a degree in graphic design thinks they know better. Usually they’re afraid of simplicity and they want to do something curlicue and busy just because it makes them look as if they have an important job, and the result is a crumby looking book.

¶ When you refer to this change in the dynamics of publishing you mean the shift from publisher-oriented companies to accountant-oriented companies?

Yes, I don’t have a lot of contact with that world. I know the fellow who owns and operates Atlantic Monthly Press and he’s trying to do it right. And I suspect that Farrar Straus is probably still hanging in there reasonably well, and someone reported to me that Charles Scribner III is still hanging on by his fingernails. But the other big houses have just gotten bigger.

¶ What other small presses do you admire?

When I first got into this business I found out who the other small publishers were by going to the American Booksellers Association. At that time, and I suppose this is still true, Graywolf was doing a good job and certainly had an interesting list.
      And very sadly, about the time I had to make the decision to suspend publishing for a while, North Point Press collapsed, and that’s too bad, because they were doing it right. But I know why they collapsed. You can’t spend a whole bunch of money to produce a scholarly text, for example, that can’t ever possibly earn its money back. You’ll just continue to accumulate debt and unfortunately that’s what happened to them. A lot of the books they published should have been published by University presses; speaking of which, University of Washington, University of Chicago — very, very sound publishing going on there. So there are these little corners.

Steerforth Press in Vermont seems to fit this pattern.

Well, that’s where you’re going to see these good quality, interesting books. There will always be a certain number of serious writers whose work can translate into what we would call a best-seller, someone like Amy Tan, whose work hits a chord in the public consciousness and something happens. But the interesting and ultimately discouraging thing is that what constitutes a literary best-seller is pretty small numbers. And I didn’t know those numbers when I started out.
      I was good friends with Seymour Lawrence who passed away here a couple of years ago. The last house he was with was Houghton-Mifflin, and he published Jim Harrison and Rick Bass. I designed a book he did with Rick Bass and he was anticipating a press run of 10,000 books.
      Well, at Clark City, when I did Jim Harrison’s Just Before Dark we printed 15,000 and we pretty much sold most of them. But that was about as far as we could get and that’s a fabulous book, one that has an unlimited life; that was the best we could do given that we don’t have money for advertising, sales people, we have to rely on the distributor.
      William Yardsberg wrote a mystery recently and I was talking to Morgan Entricott at Atlantic and they were anticipating a first run of 75,000. I don’t know what ultimately happened to the book but that’s a big commitment, it means they’re expecting a best-seller. So we’re talking about successful novels in American editions in numbers of under 100,000 and frequently under 50,000. With good foreign language sales the whole project can become a profitable scenario. But the thing that makes you see the industry in proportion is when you see the gold-stamped books in the supermarket; they’re selling 3, 4, 5 million copies of nonsense books.

Winter Light, by Russell Chatham

View of Winter Light, an original lithograph by Russell Chatham;
copyright © Russell Chatham 1998

Noel King: What effect do you think the chains have on publishing in the States?

Russell Chatham: There’s no question that the power of the chains disadvantages the very people who used to be the backbone of the book business, the small, independent bookseller. Now, what they call ‘book supermarket’ people — whether it’s Dalton, Barnes and Noble, Doubleday — buy a few copies of every book that’s available and create a book supermarket with thousands of books, and they hire someone at minimum wage to stand by the cash register. That’s not bookselling.
      Some of the independent booksellers are very big — Elliot Bay books in Seattle, Borders, Powells in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver is four or five floors — but those companies are motivated by wanting to hand-sell books. But they don’t have the buying power of the book supermarkets and they’re definitely being hurt, no question. That’s all part of the money-driven trend of publishing.

¶ The book-malling of America...

Exactly, and if they choose to do so they can really make the tail wag the dog big time. Let’s say a store like Dalton or Barnes and Noble makes a deal with a publisher. Let’s say the publisher comes into a meeting — someone like Dell or Doubleday, someone with a great deal of resources behind them — and they say we’d like to print 500,000 copies of this novel by X, and we’ll do that if you’ll promise to put 10 copies in every one of your stores, on the front table or in the window. So it’s all a deal, it’s nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, or anything else, it’s a deal, and that’s not helping.

¶ Has Clark City Press ever applied to any Foundations for assistance with its productions?

It’s never occurred to me to do that; I always figure I can spend that time thinking up some way to earn the money. But some presses do. Graywolf, for example, converted their operations to non-profit status, which enables them to become eligible for various grants that are not available to businesses. There are some very wealthy Foundations but it becomes a particular talent or trick to know how to write the requests for grants. There’s an art museum in Billings and all they do all day is write grant applications to try to get money; they have people on staff who only do that, who specialise in that.
      I think there are certain Foundations that probably would make grants to a commercial company if it could be demonstrated that the company is trying to operate in good faith and is simply having a hard time making ends meet because they’re refusing to compromise on the quality of the product. Some Foundations probably would support them on specific projects. Most, if not all the small publishers I’ve come across have financial problems and the only way they’ve been lessened is via wealthy benefactors. I have a feeling about both ends of the financial spectrum: it isn’t healthy to make too much money and it isn’t healthy to make none.

¶ How did you come to publish a couple of books by Barry Gifford?

He’s a very interesting writer and he submitted a manuscript to Jaimie Poltenberg (Jim Harrison’s daughter) who was in charge of production. It gave us another dimension, another voice that was quite different, and each book was appropriate to a small press. Both Jamie and I liked the work, so we did a couple of things with him.

¶ How did your list come together in the first place?

It was quite organic. It started out with some things of my own that I wanted to get back in print, and I knew of some poetry of Jim Harrison and Dan Gerber that deserved to be in print but wasn’t.

¶ How did you come to reprint a book like Kathryn Marshall’s My Sister Gone?

Because Kathryn Marshall lived here! That’s a very tough book but it’s a good book and it should never have gone out of print. And that was my attitude. If you found something that had some foundation to it but had gotten lost between the cracks you should try to bring it back.
      For example I’ve got a book of poems by Craig Keillor that I hope to get a chance to do this year, and another poet, Keith Wilson, who did Graves Registry, is a major American poet and all his work is out of print, it’s insane. I’ve corresponded with him and what really should happen is that a definitive collected edition of his poems is printed and stays in print. Over the years his work has been published in little chapbooks and so on. They’re very nice but they get lost, get out of print.
      So one of the things I’d like to do with Clark City Press is each year get maybe one or two of these things that seem important back in print and hold them there. Get them in the catalogue, get the catalogue good distribution and that way at least people know the books are in print and you have an ongoing audience. If you have a book in print, maybe it sells two or three copies a week, maybe eight or ten a month, who cares? So long as that keeps happening over the weeks and months, that’s all you need. That’s why you’re there, as a resource to new readers or old readers who’ve lost their copy, whatever. The thing is to keep it going, keep it alive.
      That’s how I view what’s going to happen with Clark City Press; nothing particularly unusual or outrageous, just to keep something happening, keep acting as a resource.

Noel King teaches at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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