Interview: M.K. Rainey of Dead Rabbits Books
So, last week we got the perspective of the author. This week we will be getting the perspective of the publishing house. Cool right?
M.K. Rainey is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Dead Rabbits Books. She was gracious enough to answer my exhaustive list of questions on the flight from Portland, OR, to the Dead Rabbits home base in New York. And while our author set the bar for transparency and honesty very high, M.K. Rainey absolutely met the standard. Let’s get to it…
A little back story. I am not a writer. I am not a person who has a story to tell. And if I did, I am positive I would not have the ability to actually sit down and write it. But, I am fascinated by writers. And since joining Twitter/the blogging community in late 2018, I have been given a peek into the world they inhabit. The process, from the outside looking in, seems to be terribly frustrating. I see writers tweeting about their mental blocks, asking for help with setting and scope, and a myriad of other hurdles.
However, the one theme that seems to leap out of the mix is publishing and rejection.
You are the Editor-in-Chief for Dead Rabbits Books. Let me start by asking the one burning question. Do you look for books or authors? I ask that question because the recording industry looks for artists first, and material is an afterthought. This is because most record companies have stables of songwriters and support staff to develop the budding artist and help them see their potential. Do publishing houses have similar processes?
That’s a really good question. I was going to say books, but stopped myself. We took someone under our wing pretty recently who’s only just started writing, and a number of people at different reading series and literary events possess talent enough to spend time reading their stuff, working with them, counseling them, etc. Because our company is so writer-centric, we’re about nurturing the art in whatever form that comes, whether that’s a complete and polished book or a scrap of something someone reads that still needs to be developed.
Now, we certainly don’t have a whole “stable” of staff to support our writers. Right now, there are only three of us and we spend all of our free time working with our writers to produce the best work they can, edit their work, develop a platform for promotion, etc. We do that because we love it. Finding either a book or an artist that excites us is what this is all about. So I think the answer to your question, for us, is both. There’s no one path to publishing, especially with us. We can come across a wholly polished and ready-to-publish-book, but that doesn’t mean we won’t focus on the artist and help them develop their next work as well.
From what I have seen of the publishing business, the tendency seems to be the opposite. Traditional publishing houses are looking for the product?
I was going to answer this in the last question but you went ahead and asked it for me. Yes, when it comes to other houses -- particularly the Big Five -- I feel pretty confident in saying that they’re looking for books over writers; the day and age of cultivating careers within corporate publishing is long past, and even writers with significant past success can find themselves out of a book contract after just one or two flops. Which is why we feel we’re doing important work in recalling how important it is to nourish artists.
A lot of what I’ve seen lately is the two-book deal, where authors catch a publisher’s eye with a complete book, but have to write a proposal for a second book in order to get a contract. Or, short-story writers are asked to come back when they have a novel. It’s all a matter of making sure the publisher has something else guaranteed from the author. This isn’t a sustainable method of cultivating true art, and that’s one of the things we’re here to change.
Additionally, the sense I get from the writing community is that each one of them is striving to create the book that will put them on the map. Now, I realize I am asking you to speak for the entire publishing world, but as someone who reads submissions for a living, is it about that one book?
In a way, that was three ways to ask the same question, but it’s poignant that you did so because it comes from three perspectives: the indie press like us; the big house (like Penguin Random House, etc.); and the writers themselves.
The answer to that is yes and no. Yes in the sense that everyone should be putting out their best effort, and, in a perfect world in which all styles of writing and perspectives are valued equally, any best effort should have the chance to become the book. However, generally speaking, for us it’s definitely not about one book. We’re absolutely looking for writing that we love -- language so good you could eat it, daring stories, risk-taking, all that -- and that could come in the form of an incomplete manuscript. If it does, we’re not turning that writer away. We’re interested in cultivating relationships with those artists and developing their craft.
Dead Rabbits. The name of your company, based in New York City, is shared by (or perhaps taken from) a fairly notorious street gang from the 19th century, also based in NYC. I’m assuming you took the name from the gang. Having read their history, I can see tenets worth trying to live up to. But, I can also see the thug factor. Are you literary thugs? Please explain how the name of your company relates to the gang, and what it stood for.
Ha, literary thugs. I like that idea, although I’d say we’re more like literary Robin Hoods -- only we don’t need to steal from the rich to give back to the community.
Yes, the name comes from the same Irish gang, or rather Gangs of New York -- the Scorsese film. We started as a reading series, which runs monthly on the UES of NYC, over five years ago: the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. My co-host, Devin Kelly, named it after watching the film on loop one week. We liked it, so we went with it. Something about the name made us feel less pretentious, more loose and fun than other reading series we’ve attended -- more roguish than thuggish. Because of the series’ success, we kept the name for the press as well.
Or maybe I am way off the rails. It wouldn’t be the first time. Does every book purchase come with a dead rabbit? That would be awful and awesome at the same time.
Oof, that hurt my heart a little. As it turns out though, both myself and Devin have childhood trauma stories involving dead baby rabbits. So maybe subconsciously that’s where the name comes from. Let’s just say we turned up a couple unfortunate warrens in our backyards as youngsters.
On the company website, you state that your mission is to publish books that matter, in ways that matter. I have read this mission statement, and it’s explanation, several times. I still do not have a clear picture in my head as to what that statement means. Please explain.
Great question. A smart-ass might’ve added that all books matter in the most literal sense, and I would’ve respected that, but I also respect your etiquette.
When we started the press, we each came up with a list of values we wanted to bring to the company. We found where our commonalities were and started to put them together, sublating some kind of mission statement. We found two main things that we were focused on: what we publish and how we publish it. I think for a lot of presses it’s easy to say what you want to publish, e.g. poetry, genre fiction, historical nonfiction, etc. For us, it’s quality literary fiction and creative nonfiction that takes risks, is playful, and challenges us as readers.
However, we don’t see a lot of presses turning the lens inward to talk about the ways they publish. That’s really important to us because at the heart of it all we are writers and want to care for the writers we serve. So we felt that we had to be intentional in the way we publish our books, empowering our writers through the entire process by being transparent, collaborative, and writer-centric. We want our writers to be knowledgeable and involved in the publishing process, so that’s why it’s in our mission statement.
A fun note: we were caught between “books that matter in ways that matter” and “by writers, for writers”. I still really love “by writers, for writers,” but I’m happy with what we went with.
Books That Matter, In Ways That Matter. That statement is honestly what caught my eye when looking for people to approach for interviews. That statement is why I asked to interview you. It suggests that you are looking for a specific kind of book. It also suggests that some books may not be Dead Rabbits material.
If your company had been around 20 years ago, would Dead Rabbits have had any interest in publishing The Twilight Series? The Da Vinci Code?
Sorry, that’s not for us. But I guarantee that if Sergio De La Pava (don’t know him? You should! His story is wild) had approached us, we’d have snapped up his first novel in a heartbeat.
For context: Sergio De La Pava wrote a novel over a decade ago called A Naked Singularity, a tome of a book that’s as wild and cerebral and brilliant as they come. He couldn’t for the life of him get the damn thing published. So his wife, Susanna De La Pava, self-published the book for him and then sold something like 30,000 copies on her own. After that, the University of Chicago Press picked up the book, and now Sergio publishes with Pantheon. I highly recommend his books and reading more about his story.
Also, your question reminds me of Anthony Doerr’s take down of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code in a craft talk he did on defamiliarization. Super funny stuff. I highly recommend looking that up. Though we totally respect Brown’s ability to draw in so many readers -- no one should categorically malign someone that can bring more people into the bookstore -- that craft talk pretty much sums up how we feel about The Da Vinci Code.
Dead Rabbits is a new company. Would you please illustrate for us how the company came about and how long you have been in operation?
We’ve had the idea for years, but it only really became a possibility when our Director of Operations, Jon Kay, approached us late in the summer of 2018 about doing it. Without his business sense and investment, this wouldn’t be possible at all. Or at least not at all on the scale we’re working towards. Like I said before, this press was born out of a reading series we’ve been running for the past five years, through which we’ve had the privilege to host over 250 writers and artists as well as 50-something audience members during each monthly reading. We’ve been cultivating our community for quite a while and that has been critical to our taking this work to the next level.
That being said -- and at the risk of bleeding into brag -- we’ve come to this with as many tools as we could think of. Whether it’s capital, a platform, technical/digital skills, or, of course, literary taste, we feel like we’ve either got it covered or have the chops to cover it. If it’s any testament to this fact, I was only slightly hesitant when Jon first approached us with this project, because I knew how much it takes to not only start a press, but to do so successfully. But once I read his business plan, I was 1000% confident that Jon would be able to plug the gaps that had concerned me when considering this project in the past.
Social Media, Podcasting, Reading Events...etc. Dead Rabbits is a new company. Your first novel is due to be published this fall, I believe. Has the new media/social media you are doing, served to create buzz about the company and your product?
Absolutely. And thank god, because we’ve been working our asses off for that very reason. We’re just coming back from AWP right now (the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference) and being there truly helped us gauge how we’re doing. We hosted a reading in Portland in partnership with another reading series - Razor Blade Reading Series here in NYC - and a lot of people we didn’t know turned up for the event, many that follow us on our social handles and/or podcast. These were great litmus tests for the amount of people who are hearing about our work.
Though we didn’t have a table this year (mostly because we don’t have books to sell yet!), I received numerous messages throughout the conference from people asking where they could find our booth and meet up. We were recognized by a lot of people, which is frankly a new phenomenon for me, so something we’re doing is working. At the end of the day though, what we’re building is meant to serve our authors in the future. We want their work to have the love and life it deserves out in the world. So that’s why we’re doing all of this work now.
You have some really great merchandise available for purchase on the website. I will be buying one of the coffee mugs. As a new company, how important is it to find nontraditional revenue?
The answer to your question I think is, yes, alternative sources of revenue will always serve your company in the end. And we do have a litany of ideas for expanding revenue in unorthodox ways, most if not all of which I’m not at liberty to discuss quite yet as they largely involve proprietary trade secrets. But it’s safe to say that we’re excited to give ourselves license to be creative in a general business sense. We feel it’s important if at least to feed more capital back into the business in order to keep publishing innovative books to larger and larger audiences. We see it as, the more money we make, the more life we can breathe into our books. For example, Dead Rabbits co-founder Brian Birnbaum will be reinvesting every penny earned from his book, Emerald City, back into the company.
Our merchandise came about because I know a ton of artists in my arts education career and I got the idea to populate the website with different iterations of dead rabbit drawings created by these talented people. It was one of those artists who gave us the idea for merchandise and when he said it I was like, “Well, duh, we should be selling stuff!” That way, both we and our artists make money off of the product. A percentage of every purchase goes to the artist that created that work, so by buying you’re not only supporting thoughtful literary work, but also a local artist!
At this point in the life of Dead Rabbits Books, I am assuming that finding product to sell is at the forefront of your focus. Sell your company to the writers reading this interview. Why should they choose to submit their work to Dead Rabbits?
I love that. I think publishers should have to answer that question, because they demand so much of the writers that submit to them.
Basically, we’re workaholics. We love this work and we love literature, so if you end up publishing with us we’re going to work our tails off for you. You’ll know what we’re doing and you’ll be involved every step of the way. Furthermore, we simply have the resources to compete with bigger markets -- and further-more-than-that, we’re willing to outpace them.
For us, it’s really about developing meaningful relationships with our writers that last and grow over time, which begins and ends with committing the full force of our love, ability, and resources to the books we acquire.
Do you, and your co-workers, actively seek out authors? Or do you rely upon submissions?
Both! There’s no one way to find an author just as there’s no one way to publish a book. As mentioned earlier, we recently plucked up a young writer from our reading series and are working closely with them on a first book-length project. But we also look for writers through traditional channels such as journals, magazines, and regular ‘ole query submissions.
What are you going to do for them? How does your company promote and distribute? What kind of “push” can an author expect to get from Dead Rabbits?
That’s a big question. Can I just show you the spreadsheets of timelines and contacts we work with? Because that would be so much easier...
Right now we’ve got an in-house publicity arm (me) and an outside publicity company working with us, JKS Communications, who’s starting with us in April on both publicity for the press and our first book. We’re looking to have a big platform to jump off of and, depending on how that outside publicity works out, we may continue that relationship in the future. Most small presses don’t have the resources to hire an outside publicist, so that’s a definite plus for any author working with us.
We’re part of a community in NYC, the Reading Series of New York group, which makes connections for book tours and publicity so much easier. Additionally, we’re connected with literary podcasts around the country. We’ve got friends in presses, magazines, journals -- we’ve spent many years cultivating our community, which is a huge advantage to any author who publishes with us.
On the other side of that, we’ve got our business/tech guru, Jon, who worked for Amazon for almost ten years. His experience and tech-savvy ways have gotten us further than most already -- including some of our aforementioned business plans (moo-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa) -- and we don’t even have a book out yet. There’s a lot we have to offer potential authors, and it’s only going to become more apparent as time moves on.
Where do you see your company in the next five years? How many Dead Rabbits Books are on shelves?
Right now, we have the first three-ish books figured out. I say “three-ish” because my novel is slated as third, but frankly I don’t think it’ll be ready in time (not with the amount of work we’ve got on our plates with this press), and we’re working with a couple other writers whose completion dates are TBD. We’ve only recently, and quietly, opened submissions. We’re on the hunt for our next books, but we don’t want to be overwhelmed with submissions at this time -- mostly because we want to give each submission the care it deserves and not make authors wait in limbo for months on end. There are only three of us, so it takes time.
In terms of what we hope to put out, well we’re still figuring that out. We’re basing a lot of our goals on how the first two books do. After that, we’ll reassess and see how our model served us over time. But it’s safe to say that, within five years, we’d like to have scaled to the point where we’re putting out somewhere between five and fifteen books in a given year.
I read an article you wrote. On The Importance Of Having A Community https://www.livewritethrive.com/2019/03/25/on-the-importance-of-having-a-community/
I am sure you don’t need me to tell you that it is an outstanding explanation of networking’s importance among creatives. You mention the wonderful simplicity of grassroots face-to-face. You speak of building relationships among peers and all-hands growing because of it. But what is the next step? For you it was starting your own company. For the writer who is juggling creating with a full-time job and a family, how does networking and community benefit them?
Community is so important, especially if you hope to sell books at some point.
Take me for example. I’ve spent so many years being a champion of the literary community and building up my platform, but for what reason I wasn’t 100% sure of until recently. I was confident that community would serve me as much as I served it in the end, but for what purpose I didn’t know until I started my own company. I think, as a writer, you don’t really have to know how it’s going to benefit you just yet (a truism translatable to the writing itself). I think you also don’t have to feel pressured to build up a community as fast as we have either. Do what you can, when you can. I mean, I work a full time job for an arts education nonprofit on top of this press, and I still make time for community.
Look, we will of course take artists based on their art and not based on their ‘platform,’ but if they’ve built a community already, that’s going to guarantee a better life for their book in the end. So having a community/platform of your own isn’t only to serve your publisher, it’s to serve you and your art. Those are the people who are going to buy your book first, support you first, and help give your work the love and attention it deserves.
My suggestion in terms of next steps for someone with limited time would be: go to a reading and support other writers. Anytime you read a book you love, post something about it and tag the writer. Make a connection via social media, etc. It’s not hard to post what you’re are already reading (and if you aren’t reading, I don’t really know how you’re writing in the first place) and making a connection with another author is going to serve you in the future. You can start small. You don’t have to launch your own press to make a community.
Blogging. I have been very public with my views on blogging in 2019. I have a fairly low opinion of blogging and bloggers in general. And yet, I am one of them. My issues with self-loathing aside, are bloggers writers?
Issues with self-loathing, huh? You sure you’re positive you don’t have a story to tell?
Like anything, the form and apparatus matters less than the work itself. Which is to say, of course bloggers can be writers! Many writers have gotten their start blogging. With the right blend of uniqueness and internet-savvy, it can be a great way to get your work out there and build an audience.
And, if anything else, it’s a great way to practice your craft and build stamina for daily writing. I love how open and vulnerable bloggers can be.
Is blogging a medium that helps creatives in any way?
Again, of course. Look at what you’re doing. You’re holding very thoughtful interviews with people and you’ve asked me some great questions today. That’s going to serve you later when you need a favor from me (I’d be happy to help out), it’s going to serve us by getting the word out about Dead Rabbits, and it will ultimately serve readers and writers who just want good books to be published and read.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? And what is it about the content interests you?
I do read blogs/online articles, mostly writing related ones these days. Here are a few that I check out frequently:
Literary Hub - like anything posted here
Live Write Thrive
The Podcast Host
As a talent scout, would you ever make contact to encourage a blogger to make the leap into writing novels?
This is one of those questions that I feel compelled to answer first with the dreaded ‘it depends.’ Which, yes, is obvious and vague and etc. We would probably need clear evidence that they’re either working or considering working on a longer book project. So when it comes down to it, yeah, of course. If they’re good, and if they’re passionate, why not?
If you could look back throughout history and choose one author to pluck from obscurity and publish, who would it have been?
Well, Sergio, as I said before. However, we’re actually doing that very thing with our second book, Anthropica, by David Hollander. Back in the early 2000s, David put out a debut titled L.I.E. that was widely circulated and did well, even though it was considered “difficult” and “experimental.” However, after that he had trouble publishing his next book. Six years ago, he was my thesis advisor and for two years straight I battered him until he let me read his book -- that’s my real talent here… talking people into things. When we started this press, he was the next person I went to and immediately demanded that he give me his novel to publish. And now we are.
There is a submission page on your website. Deadrabbitsbooks.com. On the page you detail what you are wanting from an author who is wanting to be considered. You also mention that “queer, non-binary, women, and POC are highly encouraged to submit.” I have to be honest. I have no idea what POC is. But, are these groups of people considered minority groups in the collective? Or are you specifically wanting to showcase works generated by people fitting this criteria? Why mention these groups by name?
Better question. Does a member of one of the aforementioned categories go to the head of the line?
POC = People of Color.
No, they don’t jump to the front of the line - we want people because of their art, not because of their skin color or gender. That line is there because our first two writers are culturally white and male. The first book out from our press is Co-Founder and Executive Editor Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City, the second is our friend’s, and the “third-ish” is mine. That’s intentional because frankly we don’t want to make mistakes on other writers’ books. But because of that, the pool is less diverse. So we want to make sure we’re encouraging writers of color, writers with disabilities, etc. to submit. I know a lot of writers of color who will not submit to presses if they see that they’re only publishing white people, same with women or folks with disabilities. We want them to know that that is not our intention. We’re just using our books as the guinea pigs so we can work out the challenges now, rather than on someone else’s book.
Please include any information, links, scheduled events...etc that you would like my readers to check out.
Gladly! I would encourage any of your readers to connect with us in person at our monthly reading series in New York. Our next reading is at 8pm on April 14th at DTUT (Downtown Uptown), which is on the Upper East Side. If you can’t connect that way, hit us up via social media. We’re very friendly folks and we love to support other writers on social media. Additionally, you can check out our podcast here.