Arts & Culture » Calendar

Chi Lives: Curt Johnson tries publishing for profit

by

comment

Longtime Chicago editor-writer Curt Johnson hopes that, at 58, he has created a modest pension plan that will enable him to write his fiction, publish a few books, and comfortably live out the rest of his life. This month he published the first volume of Who's Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets 1986-1987, a handsomely produced purple-and-gold book containing 600 pages with 61489 biographical entries, and is now working on a second volume.

This is not Johnson's first publishing venture, but it's the first independent one from which he expects to earn money, the first one undertaken for the express purpose of making money, though even this one has some of the earmarks of a typical Johnson venture -- as a contribution to the literary world.

Since 1963, Johnson has owned and operated December Press, one of the first of the now over 2,000 small presses dedicated to writers and their hard-to-publish works of fiction and poetry, and December, an irregularly published little magazine started in 1958 by the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Johnson inherited December from his poet-mailman, a summer workshop student who started the magazine but couldn't produce it on his meager salary. "I had always wanted my own magazine," Johnson says, "but I was more than ten years older than anyone starting a little magazine. I was 35, living in the suburbs, raising a family." He wasn't deterred. Johnson met Raymond Carver and published him for ten years in December before he was "discovered" by mainstream publishers. He has also published James Dickey, Richard Kostelanetz, Joyce Carol Oates, Robie Macauley, Andrew Sarris, and William Stafford when they were unknowns.

December has a couple hundred subscribers and, with the press, runs in the red about $2,000 a year. Only once in its 24-year history has December Press made money, and that was with The Otis Ferguson Reader, edited by John Wilson, a collection of jazz and other writings by Ferguson, a highly regarded critic of the 40s. The book was turned down by 35 publishers in ten years, but under the December label was widely and well reviewed. Benny Goodman bought 250 copies.

Why does Johnson continue with December? Few little magazines and small press publishers last more than a few years. "Because I can do whatever I want," Johnson says. "I get a great deal of satisfaction from it." Johnson has carved out an identity as a small press publisher throughout the underground literary world. In 1986, he published under his own label Green Isle in the Sea, a collection of essays by small press editors about the history of the small press since 1960. The other editors' essays make it clear that he is a hero to many of his peers.

This soft-spoken, hard-drinking, big bear of a handsome man, now married for the third time, has had at least 20 jobs in publishing and advertising ("I always find it hard to put up with the bullshit"), but he feels excluded from mainstream publishing, and -- because of a hostile piece he wrote years ago about books coverage in the Chicago press -- he thinks he's been excluded from local newspapers too.

Of course he is not alone; he has company in the world of the small presses and little magazines, where, he says -- and others agree -- "most of the significant poetry and fiction are being published." He started thinking that way early on, when he was a student in the English department at the University of Iowa. He quickly decided that he could write better stories than those being written in the famous Writer's Workshop. "I was mistaken," he says, almost contritely, one of the few mistakes that he'll admit to. "I'm more mellow now," he says, smiling; but not so mellow that he's softened his opinion of big-time publishing. His mellowness has a crust around the edges.

With his antiestablishment background, it's not surprising that some of the writers Johnson invited to participate in his Who's Who didn't take him altogether seriously. they answered his questionnaires, sometimes at great length, but wondered if they'd ever see any results. One writer said, "I thought it was a wonderful joke, though I knew Curt usually comes through with what he plans. Still, it was almost too funny to be true."

Imagine the doubters' surprise when, only 15 months after he'd begun, a handsome, professional-looking volume came off the press. What those people didn't realize, because Johnson doesn't talk much about his work, is that he has published, for December Press and others, about 1,200 books.

It wasn't only offbeat friends who answered the 80,000 questionnaires he mailed. The respondents included Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Isaac Asimov, John Hawkes, Mark Harris, William McLaughlin, and Toni Morrison. Poets, novelists, and short-story writers; editors of journals, periodicals, and books; nonfiction writers; translators; critics; playwrights; scriptwriters; and biographers are included. They are well known and not so well known, and even unknown. Some are obscure specialists, like the man who spent his life writing about the plants of Illinois and has a long list of publications. "Then there's the guy," Johnson says with a broad smile, "who writes prolifically about cultivating angleworms."

Johnson worked at the Marquis Who's Who for about a year and learned the tricks of that trade. In fact, it was at Marquis that he got the idea for this book. When he was fired, after Marquis was sold to MacMillan, he decided, at 57, that finding still another job was not in the cards. Instead, he created this Who's Who, hoping to earn a modest income for the rest of his life.

He used stock he had inherited from his father and a grove of walnut trees he owned in Elizabeth, Illinois, as collateral, and borrowed $40,000 for the seed money to get the book into production. About 1,000 writers and others who had faith in the project each sent him $61 (the prepublication cost) for advance orders. Some bought as many as six copies. The volume lists what Johnson estimates is about 60 percent of the current literary workers in America.

While this volume is not the only one of its kind -- there is an English edition that comes out every few years, a simple list of American names of poets and writers, and an international directory published by Saint Martin's Press every few years -- Who's Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets is the first to offer complete entries, to include editors, and to plan an annual edition. In 1899, 9.4 percent of the entries in Who's Who in America were for creative writers. By 1982, this figure had diminished to only 1.5 percent, Johnson says.

Sixty thousand dollars was a pretty small budget for such a large undertaking. Johnson went to a dozen typesetters he knew without finding one who could work within his limits. He finally went to Dubuque, Iowa, and, agreeing to do all the proofreading himself, got a price of $18 a page (compared to the $25-$125 asked for in Chicago). Next he went to Kansas and found a printer with a price he could handle. Now he is negotiating with a couple of companies to distribute the book. He expects to sell copies to a goodly number of the 3,300 libraries in the U.S. and some abroad, to corporate libraries, publishing houses, literary agents, and researchers.

Johnson's volume is as professional as anything put out by Marquis Who's Who, but it also contains some characteristic Johnson touches. He ends his preface with a quote from the questionnaire submitted by writer William Dale Childress: "After 26 years of extremely active writing in poetry, fiction, and articles, I'm on the verge, after a Pulitzer nomination, of beginning to maybe perhaps just possibly but not quite believe all the starvation, frustration, depression, envy, jealousy, spite, bad jobs, divorces, etc., have all been worth it. But I still ain't sure." Johnson adds, "Which pretty much sums up."

And in the section for the letter X, for which he received no entries, Johnson published, as is, an exact copy of the four-page, single-spaced reply from novelist Richard Kostelanetz, who listed, it would seem, every item he has written since his high school days in the 60s; every award, every grant, every job, every proposal, indicating the width and breadth of the ego of at least one of our literary lights, providing one of the few single pieces of wit in an otherwise very dry book.

The volume is available from December Press, P.O. Box 302, Highland Park, IL. 60035, for $88.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment