Conversation with Blue Hour Press

Justin Runge of Blue Hour Press graciously answered the Constant
Conversation small press profile this week. In their own words, Blue Hour Press ” is dedicated to bridging the gap between the beauty and tradition of print with the accessibility and possibility of the web, releasing digital chapbooks that are satisfying, respectable, and innovative.”

Tell us a little about the history of Blue Hour Press, where the idea came from, and what makes your press unique.

The idea for the press came from what I saw as a worrying trend in online chapbooks: the ease of designing and publishing anyone’s anything had allowed the bar to be set low, in my opinion. I don’t want this to be confused with a criticism of the work that went in to writing the book—that was exactly the problem. If a poet puts time into their writing, the execution of that work on the publishing side of things should be just as strenuous and dedicated, even if the technology allows for ultra-quick dissemination. I just wanted to bring an honest design and editing eye to the e-book.

Quite frankly, the first Blue Hour book was a matter of nepotism and academia, but the result was so satisfying for all involved that it made me want to push the press out of the pet project zone and into something more serious.

What are your thoughts on the accusation that the rise of MFA programs and the relative affordability of starting a small press or a journal are creating a glut of poetry—that there are more people writing poetry and seeking a publisher than actually reading poems?

With the Internet, I don’t think poetry is the only art form suffering from a flooded market. There’s so much content everywhere, from music to video to visual art. I think the key is providing people with something they’ll want to experience, want to spend time with. Strong work, thorough editing, and aesthetic appeal have a lot to do with this. Blue Hour can only offer the best content it can, and hope that’s attractive enough to poetry readers out there. (And the fact it’s free doesn’t hurt its chances of being read.)

What is the role or place of the small press in the larger publishing world? Is it hurt or helped by the current publishing and bookselling climate?

It’s always harder for something enormous to change direction. Traditional publishing is like an oil tanker trying to make a hairpin turn. All of us in our speedboats should make the turn if we can—the turn towards digital publishing, device implementation, collaborative, live content. The big publishers want to (and know they have to) but it’s going to take them a few years. Anyone with enough spunk could make this happen next week. That’s totally exciting to me, that small presses can be on the vanguard.

What is your feeling on e-books versus the printed book as an object?

I’m obviously sympathetic to the cause of e-books—that’s all Blue Hour does. I do, however, understand the appeal of the object itself. Without web reader technology like Issuu, I wouldn’t have a desire to try and approximate a book feel online. I think Blue Hour would be something very different, more HTML- and CSS-driven. Every format gives artists a new set of opportunities, and I think we have great examples of browser-based literary experiences: Octopus, Fou, Lamination Colony. But I do think things like Issuu make the transition for more traditionally-minded readers a bit easier.

Again, I believe the thing just has to look good—style and polish attract quality writing, because good writers know what the right venue for their work should look like. That is something a writer should be picky about—not necessarily whether it’s a screen or a page. For me, that’s just stubbornness that won’t hold up for people who truly want to publish in the next ten years.

As a poet, I’d be outrageously excited to see my work on the iPad. I saw a video done by Wired, demonstrating their implementation of the iPad, and my jaw dropped. Tablet technology is going to open a lot of doors for readers and writers, especially those interested in how poetry can begin to interact with other forms of art, like video (which poets like Kate Greenstreet and Zach Schomburg have already begun to play with).

It’s a given that small presses don’t necessarily have the marketing budget or the name recognition of larger presses, so what is your approach to getting the word out there?

Social networking is critical. Any book release or news item goes through lots of these channels: Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, blogs. Word of mouth has been terrific, and we’ve been mentioned on personal and lit blogs—it’s nice to see something new on a Google search. I’ve thought about print ads, but the idea seems a little contradictory.

What do you look for in a poem or a {chap}book as a whole?

As an editor, I look for work that baffles me, whether that bafflement be the result of a line that just bowls me over, an idea that will take a lot more massaging on my part. I like concepts that generate energy. A chapbook is a great opportunity to pursue a “concept,” whereas a longer book might be burdened (or a burden) with a concept. The smaller a book, the more cohesive and airtight it needs to be. Concepts can often seal the cracks in a chapbook—not to say they can’t often be diversionary tactics, too.
As a designer, I look for books that I know will be beautiful when they’re typeset, that have a little visual daring.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the small press community today and what is its best advantage?

The biggest threat to the small press is, again, the ease of publishing. The small press is still a mark of quality, of personal attention to a project, of discerning taste and distinctive perspective. We don’t want “small press” to become a stigma, something that represents the opposite of those positive traits. Small presses, again, benefit from the ability to quickly react to changes in publishing, in taste, in whim. I think that makes them vital and exciting.


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