An Interview with Zach Dodson

Zach Dodson is an author, illustrator, book designer and professor, who co-founded featherproof books in Chicago in 2005. His book Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel published by Doubleday in 2015. He is now a professor at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, where he teaches hybrid storytelling and storytelling and leads the Visual Narrative MA program.

What are you teaching in Helsinki?

I’m a professor of design, but I’ve started a new program at the school, which is visual narrative. It’s design plus creative writing. It’s media-independent, so students might be working on a graphic novel, or an animation, or a children’s book, or a video game — just something where they’re drawing and making the artwork, but also writing and telling a story. It’s a master’s program. We’ve got great students, and great teachers, and I’m really happy about the whole thing. It’s obviously what I love to do, so it’s been really fun to design a program around that.

How did you approach the creation of Bats of the Republic, in terms of balancing the writing and the design?

I told myself that I had to write it before I got to design it. But that didn’t really happen. I wrote a bunch, then I designed some things, then I changed some in the story, then had to change the design, then went back and forth. So really, the approach was a mess.

Was writing and designing together something that you had done before, or was it an experiment?

I think it’s always an experiment. That one was the biggest. I’ve done some smaller experiments, like short story size. And then I wrote another novel (boring boring boring boring boring boring boring) that I put out on Featherproof in 2008, and that one I also wrote and designed.

You’ve been a publisher, and you’re a writer and a designer. It’s a unique combination of skills. How has being a publisher informed what you do as a designer and writer?

When I design a book now, I’m very aware of costs, because that’s the publisher’s primary concern. How to use design tricks and special finishing, but within a pretty tight budget. Bats of the Republic is a good example: That book looks like it cost a lot more than it did, but when I took it to Doubleday, I had already designed it in this way that would be efficient to print, and economical. It was three-color, so a slight savings from four-color. It was black, green and brown. That had to all be set up from the beginning.

And then there’s being aware, when I’m designing covers, of the publisher’s concerns. At a publisher, everyone has a vested interest in the cover, whether it’s the marketing people, or the author of course, or the editor, and the designer themselves. I think I understand multiple perspectives, which makes it a little easier.

On the writing side, at Featherproof, I did the design, I ran the business, and I did some editing. Usually there was some person who was the real editor and better at it than I was, but I always took a swing at it, too, to give the author feedback, because we were so small. And I still do design for Featherproof, but now somebody else runs it and does the publisher role.

But I think that experience of editing other people and watching other people get edited, and how they reacted to their editor — what they took and what they didn’t, whether they got their feelings hurt or not, how they handled that situation — I think that prepared me to be a much easier writer to edit. I realized, coming from the other end, that it’s not personal, and whoever’s editing your book, 99% chance they have a vested interest in making that book better. They’re not there to make you feel bad. It’s not a personal thing.

Were you able to keep the full design — the cover and everything — the way you wanted it for Bats of the Republic?

Not exactly. The interior, yes. But the cover, like I said, everyone’s got a vested interest in. So that ended up being a compromise. I designed it with a lot of input from the Doubleday designer, and the marketing department.

What are your thoughts on the potential of digital for storytelling and design?

It’s a new frontier, it’s the Wild West, and there’s a lot that could be done. Stuff like the Kindle, they’re designed from a different perspective. They don’t really allow book design like the kind I’m doing in the print book. They’re set up to have text files that flow, and those text files can be changed by the user to change the font size or change various parameters. It’s a user interface design, and not about the content.

But of course digital things are so powerful and can do so many things that I think there’s a lot of potential to see how intersection and how storytelling can go using some of the advantages of the digital stuff. I feel like the ebook, Kindle, and stuff like that are just trying to replicate print in this way, and that’s kind of strange. Print has its own advantages that can’t really be replicated. I think print still has room for innovation, too; I think that’s part of my deal with Bats of the Republic, that there’s stuff you can still do in print that you can’t do in other media.

And of course there’s a lot you can do in digital. I think some people have made interesting experiments. The Silent History; Visual Editions just did this Editions at Play collection of short stories that have interactive elements. There are some good examples in video games. I’m collecting a handful of examples where I think, “This is making an interesting move the you could only make in digital.”

What kind of platforms seem the most promising in terms of what people are using to create those experiences? Is it working within EPUB3, or is it something totally different, more of an app experience?

It’s not really about the platform for me. It’s about how the platform works with the particular story, or experience. I think you can do really interesting things with an EPUB. There’s a function where you can do a basic choose-your-own-adventure branching narratives. And of course, once you get into apps or games or things like that, then the possibilities really widen. It’s not like one format or medium is better than another; every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s about how people are playing to those.

One of the first games for the Apple iWatch was this game Lifeline. It was probably written in a few days, in a branching narrative software. On the watch, you get text messages from this kid who’s crash-landed on the moon. And he says, “Help me, what should I do, my spaceship crashed.” And he asks you questions: “Should I go toward the mountain over there, or should I stay by my ship?” And you say, “Well…go toward the mountain.” And he says, “Okay, I’ll text you in three hours when I get to the mountain, it’s a long walk.” Then three hours later, you get another text message on the watch: “Hey, I’m at the mountain, what should I do now?” And it’s great. The story is really simple, but playing with that element of time and texting makes the character feel real, because it’s a three- or four-day experience, and he becomes this background person in your life, that’s texting you semi-regularly over a few days, and you’re trying to help with the problem. Somehow it really brings it to life. That’s about the platform, but about its creative use, best use.

You’ve got such a mastery of print; it’s interesting to contemplate how people might use the same level of artistry with digital.

I’m sure they will. They are already. Lifeline is a good example — it’s just text, very simple. It’ll be interesting to see more experiments that are more complex. VR seems like such a compelling experience. Nobody’s made the right content, or the art of it yet. I feel like art in video games is just beginning to happen, where you see literary or expressive things. When that happens in VR, who knows what that will be like? It won’t be like a movie, it won’t be like a game. It’s going to be a new thing.

It’s a new language. Movies, it took a while: The first movies, it was a thrill ride, it was a train coming toward you. Then it was a replication of theater: They just set up a camera in front of a theater set, with theater actors, and did a play. I think a lot of these technologies are at that phase now, where we’ve got a cool toy, and we’re replicating some of the art forms that we know, and nobody really knows what the new art form will really be.

What other works that you find especially promising, or any artists in general that you think are doing groundbreaking or interesting work?

When I was talking about video games coming into their artistic form, I think there are some good examples of that. There’s this game Journey, which was done in a team, but there’s a woman, Robin Hunicke, who really was behind a lot of the creativity.

I’ve only gotten into games in the past year. The academic department I’m in has a games program, so we’re next to the gamers, and that’s leaked over. A lot of the grunt work or bad experiments in terms of interactive fiction has already been done in games, so you can find out a lot about what not to do by looking at games. I don’t know if you can find out what TO do—the bad examples outnumber the good—but they’ve been trying to do this for a long time, to make a story experience that’s like a movie or novel, but in a game. And story is difficult once you introduce interactivity and player choice. You give up some degree of authorial control, and then you can’t control your narrative as tightly. So how much you give up, and when, and how, and how it all balances out, really makes a difference.

This game Journey is again a pretty simple game. You’re this little robed creature in a landscape. The music is very beautiful. It’s very cinematic, actually. It’s silent—there’s not dialogue. And you just run towards this mountain, or this castle, and you can collect pieces, but it’s not really objective-based. You’re exploring. It links you live with one other person who’s doing the same thing, so you see this other person, but unlike other online interactive games, you can’t chat with them or type things to them or know who they are or anything about them. The two little creatures can just honk at each other. So you start playing together, and you say, “Honk, honk,” like, I found this thing, it’s pretty cool. And you follow, and it’s maybe a two-hour experience, it’s like a movie experience. And it takes you through a journey. You’re doing it with another person that you don’t know, and it’s this incredibly powerful experience in the end. People have written about it, and how they cried, and how they searched everywhere, trying to figure out who they played it with. There are all these online message boards, saying, “Is this you? On this day, at this time?” because people have really emotional reactions. And it’s great. It does the exact kind of thing that we’re talking about: uses the parameters of the medium in order to create some kind of emotional experience that’s specific to the medium.

How do you envision publishing moving forward from this point?

That’s a tough one. I’ve stopped thinking about that as much, since putting down the reins of Featherproof. When I was running a publishing house, of course I needed to pay very close attention to that and figure out where things were going, because that’s what I was trying to do. Now I have the luxury of thinking about my own work more. I still read all the Featherproof books, discuss them with those guys and design them, and stuff like that, but I get to think about it only from the art side and don’t have to worry about the market and distribution and all that.

I think in the publishing industry—not dissimilar from what’s happening in the film industry—you have major companies that are conglomerating more and more, merging more and more, becoming more and more conservative, more and more about making money, less and less risky, just betting on a few big books or movies every year because of the market.

And then there’s this bubbling underground of indie filmmakers and small presses that have popped up everywhere to fill the void of the wide breadth of taste and appetites out there. They have the classic problems of distribution and discovery, which the Internet solves and also makes impossible.

For many years in the publishing industry there’s been a lot of handwringing over ebooks. The big publishing companies especially were afraid that ebooks would come and do what the iPod  did to the music industry, which was basically destroy it. And it didn’t. ebooks grew and then leveled off. There’s a market now, and it’s a small segment of the reading market, and it hasn’t changed much in the past couple years. It’s had an impact, certainly, but it’s not the sea change of MP3’s and iTunes, that kind of total obliteration.

I think ebooks get a lot of attention and blame for changing the industry, when it’s not really true. I think that if the Internet changed the industry, it’s more about Amazon shipping books, instead of bookstores. That changed the industry. That had a huge impact on publishers big and small, and writers and readers. If there’s a big problem in the industry right now, I don’t think it’s ebooks, I think it’s distribution, and this model of returns that makes it really difficult. It’s a really difficult business to do business in. The margins are small, consumers are used to paying a really small amount of money, compared to what it costs to make and promote books. And no other industry is like that. I mean, if you’re Target, and you’re selling beachballs, and you’re not marking them up 300%, then it’s bad business, and you replace it with something else. And if you’re Target, and you buy a bunch of beachballs, and they don’t sell, you can’t return them to the beachball manufacturer and get your money back, half of them destroyed. No other industry works that way.

What value can a publisher add, especially a small publisher, to warrant somebody going through the publishing process with a them, vs. being self-published? How did you as a small publisher address that?

It depends on the small publisher, and it depends on the book, and it depends on the author. It also depends on what your goal is in putting out a book. This is something that a lot of authors and even some publishers don’t think of: What’s the goal, and what’s the measure of success? For some writers, the measure of success is, “I did it, I wrote a book.” For others it’s, “I wrote a book that I can hand to my friends and family.” For some it’s, “I wrote a book, and it’s on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.” And for some it’s, “I wrote a book and it’s in the New York Times Book Review, and until it’s there, I haven’t done anything.” The measure of success is really different and should always be taken into account. It depends on what you’re looking for with your book, whether you want to go with a small publisher or not.

With Featherproof, we have a built-in audience. We have people who follow us as a press, as a brand. And we’re willing to do the PR and marketing stuff. Of course, we’re small and have limited resources for doing that, and the author has to pitch in a lot. If an author is very motivated to do their own marketing and press and stuff, then more power to them. I think that’s a great approach for some people too. At Featherproof, we were lucky enough to get distribution, so that’s something else that we brought to authors. After a while, after a number of years of establishing ourselves, I feel like we came a little bit of a farm league. I know a few editors in New York who watch Featherproof, and most of our authors now — Amelia Gray, Blake Butler, Lindsay Hunter — put out their first book or collection with us, then have gone on to sign contracts with the big publishers. Sometimes, it’s a step into that world, or a flag for somebody else to see.

How did you create the brand that was Featherproof? How did you create the identity that became so strong?

I think we were young, and we had a lot of energy, and we were very vocal about what we were doing. We were 24 when we started this press. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no connections to New York or the publishing industry, and all our friends were in punk rock, indie rock, record labels. So we were like, “Why can’t we just do a record label, but for our books?” We didn’t know how to get into the New York publishing world, so coming from DIY culture, we were like, fuck it, we’ll just do it. So we did it, knowing nothing about it, and made many mistakes over the years and slowly figured things out.

I think design helped in terms of making the brand. And 2004 was also an earlier day for the Internet, but we weren’t shy about being on the Internet a lot and having a big presence there, when that wasn’t such an ubiquitous thing. The other publishers or small presses weren’t worrying too much about that yet. Especially with Blake Butler and that whole crowd, we thought there was some Internet interest in literature.

We also toured the country with vans multiple times, did all sorts of public events, public readings in Chicago all the time. We were really out there.

Chicago — what a great place to launch from.

Chicago is great. It’s got a great arts scene, for most of the arts. For literary stuff, but also for art and music. Unlike New York or L.A., there’s not too much at stake. There aren’t literary agents circling, there’s no money, and nobody cares, so you get a community that supports each other. The scene that we came up in, if you gave a reading, 50 people would come. And one of them would throw a reading, and everybody would go, and everybody was supporting each other, so it was this great community of support, and it was only about the art.

Jonathan Messinger, who I started Featherproof with, had this Dollar Store reading series. It was early, before Featherproof even. Lindsay Hunter and Mary Hamilton did this Quickies! reading series, which was how we discovered them. Lindsay Hunter has this fantastic stage presence. After a couple of her readings, Jonathan and I both went to her, begging her to give Featherproof a book.

It was a live performance thing in Chicago, and still is. The reading scene is still viable there.

Arts journalism, especially in newspapers, has been very hard hit in recent years. Has that been a problem for you, in terms of how you get books out into the world?

I don’t think, especially at first, we were ever worried about coverage in the major, standard outlets for arts media. Of course it seems distressing that the number of those outlets is shrinking, but the reality of it is, I don’t think that energy is going anywhere. In fact, I think it’s growing. I think more and more people care about books, are talking about books, are thinking and writing about books, sharing books. It just happens in different ways. It used to be that newspapers were the only media, and that was the way that culture was communicated. It’s not that way anymore. Now, culture is communicated on the Internet. I wish that some people still got paid to do that. (I’d have loved to get paid to do that.) But that’s not the economic model anymore. But I don’t think the energy is gone. Whether paid or not, people have always done this stuff for the love of it, and the love of sharing it, and that’s not going anywhere.

The other thing: okay, New York Times Book Review, but in terms of Featherproof, is that even our audience? Does that even matter? I can tell you, Bats of the Republic got a good review in the Washington Post, and I don’t think there was much of a jump of action around that. But then it was in the Morning News Tournament of Books, and then it had a huge jump, and all these people added it to Good Reads, and talked about it on Twitter. You could feel that suddenly there was energy around people arguing about it.

I really think that, let’s say 82% of the time, the reason that somebody reads a book is because somebody they know, their friend, says, “Oh, my god, you should read this book, it’s a really good book, I think you would really like it.” And you say, “Oh, well, I’ll read that.” And then 18 percent of the time, you read it because you picked it up in the bookstore. You liked the cover, there was a good blurb on it. Like two percent of of the time, you read a review of it, and you think, “That sounds good, I’ll buy that.” Books that are huge, or that snowball, like Harry Potter, it takes years for that kind of word of mouth to actually work. The Time Traveler’s Wife sold nothing for two years, until bookclub after bookclub snowballed it. That was individual people, one at a time, saying, “You should read this book, it’s really good.” It’s disheartening in a way, because there’s no way to do that, no way to force that to happen. But it’s heartening in a way, because it means that the one thing you can do is write a really good book, a book that’s good enough that somebody will read it, and at the end, won’t just be, “Oh, okay,” and put it back on the shelf, but will instead turn to somebody else and say, “You have to read this one.” So I think it’s empowering in this way. The best marketing you can do is write a good book.

(This interview was done for a short blog post on the website of Ooligan Press at Portland State University. But Zach was so interesting that I wanted to include the whole thing here.)

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