A Conversation with Erika Goldman, Publisher and Editorial Director of Bellevue Literary Press
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press—a small, nonprofit publishing company who raised the bar for (and the spirits of) all independent publishers across the planet when their novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding, won the Pulitzer Prize.
After my seven-year stint in the music industry (where my experience was much less indie), I continue to be impressed by the amazingly committed and passionate independent publishers and editors I’ve met over the years. There’s no aspirations to fame or fortune—there is, though, a love of books.
Erika Goldman of Bellevue Literary Press exemplifies this love of books, this commitment to literature, so perfectly, and I was honored when she took the time to speak with me a few weeks ago.
While our paths have crossed at various publishing events over the past few years (especially since we share the same distributor), I got to know Erika when we were both invited to participate on a panel at the Yale Writers’ Conference last summer. Erika is, in my opinion, a perfect panelist to represent independent publishers—she is well-spoken, honest, and has a wry sense of humor. She is smart without being pretentious, and for anyone interested in the publishing industry, she has a wealth of knowledge and experience that she shares warmly.
The first thing I learn in my interview with Erika is that she lives three blocks from me in Brooklyn (!), in the house where she grew up, which she inherited when her parents passed away.
“My parents bought the house in 1961,” she says, “and as a result I have a lifestyle and a home life that I could never, ever have afforded coming up in the publishing business.”
In another isn’t it a small world? moment, it turns out that Erika also graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, which is Johnny Temple’s alma mater . . . and where he’s currently teaching a publishing course.
“I loved Wesleyan,” she says, “and was lucky enough to fall in with a group of people who have remained some of my closest friends. I just found it to be a wonderful, rich environment and I feel very privileged to have been able to go there.”
From Wesleyan, where Erika studied French and English literature, Erika went out to rack up an immense amount of experience in the publishing industry:
“The best I could do in terms of career envisioning was to pick a job where I get to read all the time, so that’s what led me into publishing. I went into publishing right out of college and worked in an array of mainstream, commercial houses, starting at St. Martin’s. I worked briefly at Simon & Schuster; I worked at Scribner’s before they lopped off their final ‘s.’ And then I shifted over into popular science publishing because a job came up and I needed it. I didn’t expect to stay there, but I ended up doing so, finding that some wonderful literate, even literary writers were writing in that area. And it was a great way to learn about things that I had really very little background in, because I was an English major at a time when Wesleyan had no requirements. So I went through college without science and math, and learned that science and math could be quite interesting.”
After a few more career moves and some time as a freelance editor, “the opportunity came up to cofound this bizarre publishing project.”
Bellevue really does have one of the more unique mission statements I’ve come across in publishing: Bellevue Literary Press has been publishing prize-winning books since 2007 and is the first and only nonprofit press dedicated to literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences. We believe that science and literature are natural companions for understanding the human experience. Our ultimate goal is to promote science literacy in unaccustomed ways and offer new tools for thinking about our world.
I prompt Erika to tell the story of her “bizarre publishing project.”
“I cofounded the company with a physician and august member of the (NYU) medical school faculty, Jerome Lowenstein, who had been my parents’ physician for many years . . . After the decease of my father (my mother had died some years earlier), Jerry contacted me and asked me, knowing I was an editor, if I would work as a consultant editing his novel. We worked together for the better part of a year, and the moment that we were having our farewell lunch because he was ready to send it off to an agent, I pitched the idea, sort of off the top of my head, of a line of books that would be related to the subject areas that were being covered in the successful and relatively recent Bellevue Literary Review. It occurred to me that it would be a wonderful way for me to combine my interests and experience in both the sciences and literature, because that’s what BLR does. He said, ‘Well, it sounds interesting. Write up a business plan and I’ll present it to the chief of medicine and colleagues at the BLR and we’ll see what they say.’
A year later (2005), cutting to the chase because there are a lot of boring details, I was sitting in an office at Bellevue Hospital with this new press, Bellevue Literary Press. And we were given the go-ahead as long as we could find our own funding. We’re not funded by the medical school or the university. We were given offices by the university, and they said, ‘If you can find a distributor you have our blessing.’ So that’s how it happened.”
I note that a lot of her experience before Bellevue was with for-profit publishing houses. “Exclusively,” Erika interjects. I’m eager to hear her talk about the differences of corporate for profit vs. indie nonprofit. I have ZERO corporate publishing experience or, for that matter, experience at a nonprofit. In fact, fine . . . I have no experience outside of the weird, idiosyncratic world that is Akashic Books. So I ask this woman, who has such a varied and interesting wealth of experience, to talk a bit about the pros and cons of being a nonprofit, independent publisher.
“There’s no such thing as a model for independent publishers . . . One of the things that’s so dynamic and wonderful about the independent publishing world is there are so many ways of making it happen, and that’s not the case with the mainstream. I came through the mainstream and was trained in the mainstream as to what publishing is about.
“I’ve learned an enormous amount and found a lot of freedom getting to know the indie press community. It’s been very exciting and encouraging to me, largely because the kind of publishing I love to do is no longer possible in the mainstream. Certainly not in the way that we as independent publishers do it—with no apologies, putting ourselves out there as lovers of literature and idealists who believe that there is a readership for the things we’re passionate about, as opposed to having to sneak some of our more literary projects or substantive nonfiction projects a little under the radar by couching them in terms of their marketing hype.
“We all know how important marketing is, but we lead with our editorial vision, which is something that I had pretty much beaten out of me over the years in mainstream publishing.
“I am resolutely a midlist editor and publisher,” Erika continues, with pride in her voice. “And that is really, really bad news if you want to make it in the mainstream. So being the kind of editor that I am, I couldn’t survive in the mainstream anymore. And the mainstream has shifted so much to a kind of high-concept model that a lot of the books that I as a reader and editor love are not viable in the mainstream. And I understand that, running a small press and seeing the economics of it. We’re doing it as a nonprofit . . . It’s the only way for us to do it. Unless you choose to bolster your list with projects that are much more commercially viable, there’s just no way to make it work. If we’re alive today, of course it’s because of the success of Tinkers as a result of the Pulitzer Prize.
“You’ve heard me tell the story that we were about to fold before we were awarded the Pulitzer. And the Pulitzer Prize is not a business plan. So it’s essential for us to be a nonprofit. And it’s also a baseline requirement for being part of NYU. So in other words, we came into NYU, and we are therefore necessarily a nonprofit.
“But it’s very lucky because we couldn’t be as resolute in transmitting our editorial vision if we weren’t nonprofit because no venture capitalist would see this as a good investment.”
I laugh here, as so much of what she is saying rings true to me. Akashic is a for-profit independent company: we have no backers, and for the first several years, my salary—and much of the company expenses—was covered by Johnny’s music career. Akashic has sometimes talked seriously about becoming a nonprofit. We have also explored having investors and losing a bit of our independence. After years of barely squeaking by, we had our surprise hit with Adam Mansbach & Ricardo Cortés’s Go the Fuck to Sleep—the most commercially successful book we have ever published, and a book that allows us to put aside talks of investors and nonprofit status for a few years.
In closing, I ask Erika to talk a bit about what keeps her so excited, so engaged, so passionate, so positive after many years in this industry.
“What keeps me excited is the opportunity as an independent press at this time in history to publish books that reflect my editorial vision so fully and have them recognized as not only valid, but as interesting to a broad community of people. One of the things that I think we all experience in publishing is this sense of isolation . . . And when you put something out there that you’re passionate about and other people respond . . . there’s nothing like it. Really.
“You know, you feel as though you’re a citizen of the world in a way that is important to you. And that’s something that I get from being part of the indie press community, where there’s a lot of support and people that are passionate about things that are similar to what I’m excited about. And it’s a wonderful feeling, as opposed to being in the mainstream where it’s all about bottom line and marketing and corporate culture. It feels brilliantly subversive, and at the same time . . . it’s encouraging at a moment when so much is in transition to be reminded that there are some enduring values that have to do with culture and literature.”
Posted: Feb 28, 2013