With issue #1 recently launched, I caught up for a chat with the man behind ThunkBook, Joel McCaffery. Here’s how said chat went…
ThunkBook is described as Taiwan’s inscrutable book of letters. Tell us about how the journal came into being and just what makes it pop!
Well, Graham, ThunkBook from its inception has been a wholly—and unabashedly—offshoot of its predecessor, Pressed, A Literary Journal, nee Pressed, Taiwan’s English Literary Journal. By unabashedly, I mean the book is basically Pressed but with a different name. I suppose Pressed felt too generic. We had originally intended to rename the book Taiwanika, and sell it in Taiwan as a literary-cum-educational tome replete with a translated version and a workbook—all to be sold at university campuses throughout the whole of Taiwan. Unfortunately, that enterprise fell through due to domestic responsibilities and a pervasive unwillingness of publishers around these parts to go beyond the bounds of tradition, never mind that Taiwan is in a completely different dimension than the rest of the world. So then we were left with the original—and successful—model of Pressed, which we renamed ThunkBook, just for the hell of it. There is, of course, much more to the ThunkBook story than can be assigned to these lines, but the gist of the matter is that I and my my wife have been rocking this publication in its present form since 2004, from Taiwan—to Australia for one issue—and then back to Taiwan again. And so, what makes it pop?
Submissions, by krickey! Yeah, submissions. Although from the outset we sought out material from Taiwan-based writers in order to make this a truly Taiwan-made (although expat slathered) publication, a torrent of excellence has ever poured in from points elsewhere around the globe. And while this caused a dilemma of sorts at the beginning—that we weren’t being true to the talent available in Taiwan—I realised that at my most essential as an editor . . . the only thing I’m responsible for is blasting the readership with a kick-ass book. So, everyone is invited to submit, and submit they do. From over 150 submissions from around the globe, this inaugural edition of ThunkBook is packed with poetry and short fiction from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, China, Scotland, Germany, the UK, South Africa, Turkey, and Taiwan. Also adding to ThunkBook’s pop is the choice of submissions. With poetry, we always try and mix in some chainsaw-hewn doggerel with the more technically masterful with the absolutely sublime. And with short fiction, it’s all about how the yarn is spun and the retrospective cognizance of it all. Ultimately, the impetus of the book is to enthral discerning readers.
You mention that you make it your mission to include a ‘broad church’ of poetry in ThunkBook – from doggerel to the formal. This seems quite unique to me, as (it could be argued that) the majority of journals publish work that has a more unified voice. I would love to hear how you came to this decision.
The way I see things, poetic import comes from its ability to first strike a chord, and second to linger after its being struck. I’m personally a stickler for the true mechanics of a poem—punctuation, meter, line breaks, enjambment, assonance, etc.—but if something cracks me over the belfry despite all that and leaves my jaw twisting in the wind, I’m all in. Basically, if a poem is truly memorable and is perched on the the graspable side of the creative cusp, it’s worth publishing, convention be damned.
Where do you see ThunkBook fitting into the constantly shifting landscape of publishing? Any plans to embrace new technologies?
Awesome question, and a question I was grappling with last night while talking to the CEO of World Gym Taiwan. He asked me how the ThunkBook launch went and I told him that over the course of the night, where 200 people came to the venue, only 35 books were sold (at a modest 9AUD). He then replied that those numbers were abhorrent and that I should have hired scantily-clad Taiwanese girls to walk around the venue and hawk the books for me—at $15 a pop. I told him that although a good idea from a marketing standpoint, it might fly in the face of what constitutes a literary journal (although there’s some sexy content in the book . . .). Then he asked, ‘Why not sell the book online?’, to which I replied, ‘Nobody cares. ThunkBook’s basically a chapbook, replete with topnotch submissions from mostly amateur writers. The book is basically a one-off.’ To which he replied, ‘Do me a favour: when you go to print your next volume, let me know; I’ll sell the whole fucking thing.’ I went home after that chat imagining hardcore porn ads replete with a flashing THUNKBOOK TWO ad banner.
So, to answer your question about new technologies, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I’m sure that we could could sell a few more copies of ThunkBook in e-book form, but services like PayPal—or Amazon for that matter—take so much of your profit upfront to sell your book (and a large percentage per unit), that unless you’re selling something at at least $10 per book X 200 books, it becomes a bit of a risk. To put things in perspective, we used to print 3000 copies of Pressed and tack them onto to the admission price of live music gigs all over Taiwan—and almost break even. Now we’re making 300 books and selling them at a major loss.
As a side story to funding ThunkBook, get this: I teach at a university in the middle of Taiwan and I approached the Dean of the International College on how to go about funding ThunkBook. He came up with great idea that I should write an email the university’s president (a man who with his brother owns two universities, a hospital, a national cancer research center, and is on the board of two Fortune 500 companies), and ask him for money. And so I did. I proposed to the president that the university cover my printing costs, and that any money generated from the book goes directly to a charity of his choice—in his name. My boss said that the president did get the email, but he never replied. I don’t think he cared. Maybe he dreamt of this haiku, which is in ThunkBook:
atop ambrosial brumes—
hot, hot cow dung
Maybe I should have put the book up on our website and never had printed a hardcopy in the first place. But that’s not my style; not ThunkBook’s style.
I’m glad it’s not your style Joel, or ThunkBook’s. The physical object will always reign supreme for me. That said, what do you think of Print on Demand? Have you had any experience with it and is it something you would consider for ThunkBook?
I actually researched this very topic for a paper I wrote 5 years ago and concluded then, as I do now, that POD is an oddball technology made by and for idealistic futurists. POD may work at universities, where students can bind together their own study-packs, but for literary journals, say, whose core readership is family and friends and a weirdly erudite mob of bohemian thinkers, it just isn’t feasible. At best, most lower-tier and hobbyist authors or editors who use this technology stand to make 10-25% royalties on the cost of a book, which looks good on paper, but not when just 35 books have been sold. And then there’s the problem that hardly any businesses outside of university presses want to change their current (and ancient) business model in doing business with their distributors. E-readers have already derailed physical purchases, causing many bookshops to shut down; the last thing the remaining struggling shops want to do is subvert their infrastructure by gambling on an expensive piece of equipment that nobody may use—just to save a few trees.
And then there’s the question of who needs print on demand when you can fire Moby Dick onto your Kindle for free—or better yet, play Candy Crush on your goddamn iPhone? I honestly believe that beyond the clutch of family and friends of lit journal authors, and the oddball zealots who understand/feel/live the fervent and communal possibilities of grassroots creativity, there resides an exponential indifference to anything that isn’t free—or is more than one remove from the ego.
Do you have any thoughts on how the ‘indifference gap’ might be closed, or at least made smaller?
For us mere mortals, networking seems the best approach. It’s slow, but it’s effective. In the transient vagabond foreign arts scene that is Taiwan, the best thing to do is to get out there and meet people and do stuff like get kicked off the stage at a premier poetry event like I did last Christmas. And another way is to create, cultivate, and preserve a working relationship with writers who have helped make your literary journal a thing of excellence. If you make a name for yourself among the stable of writers who keep your publication in the creative stratosphere, more often than not, they continue to up their game and kick submission details and links over to their likeminded brethren, and things roll from there. Key submitters are invaluable, and can keep a publication at a critical mass until more people get involved—writers and readers alike.
That’s so true Joel… publishing for me has always been first and foremost about realising the vision of the writer. Making sure that as the publisher, I am walking alongside them and ensuring their best foot is put forward. This gets me thinking about the role of critical feedback in the submissions process. What’s your take on this, when receiving a vast number of submissions from across the globe?
For me, giving feedback is one of the most rewarding parts of the process. It keeps me sharp and I think it lends me some credibility in the minds of those writers who would like more insight into their ideas and why I’ve edited their stuff the way I have. I also feel feedback is vital in appeasing those feistier, more defensive authors who would rather eat a bowl of live ants than have me tamper with their words. With these particular writers, I make it my mission to have them appreciate that I’ve truly given their material a keen and objective eye, and that I might even know what I’m doing—or at the very least that I’m not completely full of shit. Sometimes the correspondence can be time consuming, but it’s fun.
And before we wrap up, I want to ask, who does ThunkBook speak to? And in what way (if any) do you hope it will be remembered?
Be remembered? Sounds like you want an epitaph. Let’s hope it speaks to the living:
ThunkBook flung down—
fallen off a cliff,
dead. Debt then laid
flung off a cliff,
laid dead in debt—
ThunkBook, down a
cliff; flung off; fallen
dead; laid in debt.
Joel McCaffery teaches at a university in Taiwan to what he believes are eerily apathetic facsimiles of students planted by the Chinese government to subvert peace in East Asia—and to mess with his mental fortitude and wavering optimism in the human condition. Other than that, Joel writes epitaphic poems in jest, because, by the beard of Zeus, there will be a ThunkBook Two. And it will find critical acclaim in those precious few who will be fortunate enough to read it.