Counterpath's Tim Roberts on the importance of small press publishing

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Counterpath was founded in 2006 as a small press publisher, but since then it has expanded into much more. The nonprofit now not only publishes experimental work, but is also a physical space that sells other small press books and hosts art installations, readings, and film screenings. Tonight at 7 p.m. the press is bringing St. Louis writers fellow publisher Flood Editions to town to talk about their own work. We caught up with Counterpath publisher Tim Roberts about tonight's event, what he looks for in work to publish, and the place of the small press.

Westword: What do you look for in work to publish?

Tim Roberts: That's always a tough question, but I think experimentation in some ways, even though people don't like that word. I think it's there in the books we've published and the kind of traditions that they draw on. It's not easy. It changes; we're constantly learning as we go along and that's one of the big bonuses of doing this is we're always looking to revise what we think is aesthetically worth committing to. It's hard to just say "This is what we want," because we're constantly saying "What is it that we want?" We're thinking about small presses and what's the role of the small press in this day and age when digital books are moving along. You can get work out there in so many different ways. We're really interested in re-evaluating the foundation of what can possibly be done with this format. We really enjoy work that's doing the same thing, that's reevaluating what a book is and what it is to write, or new definitions of writing itself.

What made you want to sell other small press books in the store ?

It made a lot of sense to devote space to selling books that are published by small and independent presses around the country. We usually carry all the books by any given press that we possibly can. So we felt like that was a good moment to look outside of just our own activity as a press and start to support other folks who are publishing books in the kind of contemporary environment where books are just sort of a money loser. It's a recipe for disaster if you say you're going to publish books. And it's even worse if you're a small press publisher. The sales are very low. And then at the same time you're also asking for trouble if you're starting a book store, particularly if you're gonna sell small press titles, which it turns out are really impossible to find in other outlets.

What do you think is important about selling these hard to find titles even though it can be tough?

The work that comes from small presses is often work that won't be accepted by larger publishing companies. In fact, over the past 30 years or so there's been oceans-worth of work that's been kind of intellectually red-lined or excluded based on the fact that it won't cross a certain threshold of sales. We feel like that work is really quite valuable, and it's often the work that doesn't really sell, particularly right away, that often has the most to say to folks. The small presses, that's where you're seeing experimentation going on with language and genre and things like that that really doesn't play for larger presses. It's work that's challenging, that's difficult, that's often seen as boring and is doing things that aren't usually seen as narrative or something that's gonna be entertaining. That's a dichotomy that's existed for many years before we came along, and I feel like the small presses that we support and carry here are on one side of that, and that's kind of where we've planted our press, and I feel like this space is an extension of all those ideas and dynamics. We want to give those ideas a literal kind of storefront and a place to exist in a physical space.

What was the idea behind tonight's event?

What we've been trying to do is have features of small presses here. One of the categories of events that we're doing is looking at presses that we carry here and trying to have the publisher of the press actually show up and talk about the press and then have one or more of their authors show up at the same time. So this event is centered around Flood Editions, which is based in St. Louis and started in 2001 by Devin Johnston and Michael O'Leary and they've published some fantastic books over the past decade. I think one or two of them were finalists for the National Book Award. One of his authors, Graham Foust is gonna be here in town, too, so Devin's gonna come over and read from his work and talk about Flood Editions, maybe asking some of these same questions that we're talking about. You know, why do you do this? What kind of work are you looking for? What do you think about the place of small press? Just kind of thinking out loud a little bit. I think it should be really exciting.

Tonight's free event starts at 7 p.m. at Counterpath, 613 22nd St. For more information about the press and its recent releases, visit www.counterpathpress.org.

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