Tuesday, July 4, 2023

RM Haines : On Dead Mall Press






Dead Mall Press is a chapbook micro-press that is anti-capitalist, DIY, and committed to transparency in how money is handled, how books are made, and how well they sell. It stands against prestige and professionalization in the literary world, and it donates half of its earnings to mutual aid, anti-carceral, and social justice organizations. I started the press in the spring of 2022 by publishing four chapbooks of my own, and then in 2023 I began publishing chapbooks by other writers: Amalia Tenuta’s The Primitive Accumulation of Realness; Franziska Hofhansel’s Sorry to Miss You; Tim Carter’s The Pigs; and MJ Stratton’s River, Our River. One of the most surprising and rewarding aspects of the press has been the love I’ve felt for these books and the gratitude I have toward the writers who’ve entrusted me with their work. It’s been an amazing experience to help make their work a concrete thing and to help launch it into the world.

So far, no book has lost money. I keep costs as low as possible by doing everything myself: I design the books, print them at home, fold them and trim them by hand, and mail them out. I use relatively cheap materials, but I’m also mindful of quality and I do things with care. With each sale of my own work, I split it down the middle: half for me, half for donation. With other writers’ work, I pay them 50% and then split the remaining 50% between the press and a donation. Donation recipients get chosen jointly with writers, and by publishing two writers at a time, the amount ends up being somewhat substantial despite small margins. In just 15 months, we’ve managed to put over $1600 into donations – each one between $220 and $500 – and you can find detailed receipts for these on the website.

I started the press in part to learn more about small press publishing, but, in a way, the press is operating outside of publishing. That is, if we define “publishing” as something capitalists and professionalized/prestigious non-profit enterprises are engaged in – marketing a product to relatively large audiences and competing for funding and awards – then what are presses like mine actually up to? What is the purpose of just circulating texts among a few dozen/few hundred people – hand-made, direct-to-reader, no ISBN, DIY, “econo” (in the spirit of the Minutemen) -- and what do you learn and create through this approach? Well, I think it’s true what André Breton said: one publishes to find comrades. You’re trying to connect on a human scale with other people who may share your interests, values, and engagements. Ultimately, you don’t want customers and fans but collaborators. And with that mindset, the whole idea of “success” starts to alter. While a book that only gets into the hands of 35 people might seem a “failure” to someone chasing prestige, it could turn out to be very effective in helping me, or the writer, or the reader, find comrades and help advance their own practice and understanding.

Scale is a tricky issue. I don’t want to get very big, but I do want to grow a bit (i.e. selling 100 copies of each book would be cool), and I definitely want to do right by the writers I publish. I’m very upfront with writers about how much they’ll sell in the short-term, which so far has been between 30 and 50 copies. And everyone has found that scale to be fine, but I also do what I can to sweeten the deal: besides the time and labor I volunteer into making, promoting, and shipping the books, I also give each writer 20 free copies (additional copies at 75% off), design an eBook, and keep the book in print through my homespun print-on-demand services. I also interview the writers for the website, and I host an online reading to celebrate the release. It’s all still new, but it’s worked out well so far, and I’ve gotten an average of $250 to all the writers. And on top of all of this, we also raise money for donations for political purposes, some of which are very central to the writers’ concerns. So, in the end, there is more going on here than just the publishing of a book.

Despite the press’s stated politics, one needn’t be an avowed communist/socialist or write radical literature to publish with me. I mean, I would never publish someone whose politics I had reservations about, and I would never publish a racist, sexist, transphobe, homophobe, right-winger/fascist, or abuser. But among leftist and left-leaning writers, I don’t worry about policing specific micro-tendencies and enforcing any kind of ideological conformity there. In general, I feel like anyone who understands and embraces what the press is trying to do is already in the ballpark. And if you look at the books on the DMP website so far, there is a range of ways that the political is either declared or implied.

For now, I’m trying to avoid doing open submissions. Frankly, I just don’t like the idea of rejecting people and the way it turns the whole thing into a market and competition. And I’m staunchly against contests. So far, it’s been OK playing things by ear and just seeing what comes up, but that might not be sustainable long term. We’ll see. Of the 6 books I’ve accepted, half came from people I reached out to, and half came from people who reached out to me. And until this way of working breaks down, I’m going to stick with it.

Looking ahead, I’m excited for this fall when I’ll be releasing What You Want, by Corey Qureshi, a great collection of poems about work, class, and finding your way without credentials or safety net. I’m also eager to work with books by a handful of other writers I’m conversing with, and I’m itching to reach out to bookstores to see if I can get some of the press’s books on shelves. Additionally, I’m going to begin experimenting with ways to make full-length books by hand, and this could open up a whole new world. In general, I’m optimistic about the future for the press.

OK, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about the press, and thanks for collecting all these testimonies from other publishers! It’s such a great resource you’ve curated.






RM Haines is a writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. He runs Dead Mall Press and edits the Poets Union website. His work includes the full-length book of poems A Dark Address (self-published e-book, 2020), and the chapbook Interrogation Days (Dead Mall Press, 2022). In 2020, he wrote his most well-known work, “Poets Should Be Socialists,” an essay arguing for a rejection of the professionalized poetry world. This summer, he will be launching a Substack newsletter, Out of Its Wooden Brain, featuring poetry as well as essays about art under capitalism. He is an adjunct instructor of English and creative writing, teaching both online and at a community college.

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