Zach Dodson is an author, illustrator, book designer, and professor who cofounded 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 leads the master’s program in visual narrative.
What value can a publisher (especially a small publisher) add to warrant somebody going through the traditional publishing process rather than self-publishing?
It depends on the small publisher and on the book and on the author. It also depends on your goal in putting out a book. 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 I can hand to my friends and family” or “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.” The measure of success should always be taken into account.
With Featherproof, we have a built-in audience—people who follow us as a press, as a brand. We’re willing to do the PR and marketing stuff. We were lucky enough to get distribution, so that’s something else that we brought to authors. After a number of years of establishing ourselves, I feel like we became a bit of a farm league. A few editors in New York watch Featherproof, and our authors—Amelia Gray, Blake Butler, Lindsay Hunter—have gone on to sign contracts with the big publishers.
How did you create the brand that was Featherproof?
We were young, and we had a lot of energy. We had no connections to New York or the publishing industry, and all our friends were in punk rock. So we were like, “Why can’t we do a record label, but for our books?” So we did it, knowing nothing about it, and we 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 having a big presence there, when that wasn’t such a ubiquitous thing. We also toured the country with vans multiple times and did all sorts of public events and public readings in Chicago.
Arts journalism has been hard hit in recent years, especially with respect to newspapers. Has this 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 I think more and more people are caring about books, talking about books, writing about books, and sharing books. It just happens in different ways.
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 it had a huge jump.
I think that 82 percent of the time, the reason somebody reads a book is because somebody they know says, “You should read this book.” It takes years for that kind of word of mouth to actually work. It’s disheartening in a way, because there’s 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, turn to somebody else and say, “You have to read this one.” So I think it’s empowering; the best marketing you can do is write a good book.
To read a longer version of this conversation, please visit StephanieArgy.com.