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Kevin Sampsell

By Posted on 29 8 m read 1.9K views

Kevin Sampsell is one of those guys who gives indie publishers a good name. He chooses books that push boundaries. He chooses authors who are ready for prime time and takes good care of them. He is active and engaged in the literary community. He reads the kinds of books you’d read if you’d heard of them. And he’s one hell of a writer in his own right. It’s worth it to watch the poor quality video of him reading on his MySpace site because he’s that good.

Okay, and he’s cute.

I’m happy to introduce you to Kevin today, and I hope you’ll check out his site, his books, and join the conversation.


Describe the many jobs you do within the book world.

I make my living working at Powell’s. I oversee the events at the big downtown store and also run the small press and zine sections. I’ve been there for nine years. I love it. When you say jobs, I assume you mean things I get paid to do. So the 2nd one would be my work with Associated Press. I write book-related articles for them. Usually one story a month. I never know where these stories will end up. My mom will send me clippings when they run in my hometown paper back in Washington state.

My publishing feels like a job at times too, even if I don’t make money from it. I do it for the love of it, as they say. Not only do I publish two or three chapbooks a year but I edit this series for Manic D Press and right now I’m working on setting up the book tour for our newest author, Myriam Gurba and her book, Dahlia Season.

Tell me about Future Tense Books and some of your authors.

I’ve been doing Future Tense since 1990. I was 23. It was really scrappy for the first couple of years and then I moved to Portland and got more serious about it. I try to publish a variety of stuff, but of course the first rule is that I have to really love it myself. No one else makes decisions for Future Tense. It’s a not a committee. It’s not a bunch of people in a boardroom. If I really like something I’ll do my best to help it get out into the world. I’ve published some old vanguards like Richard Meltzer and Lyn Lifshin as well as some new upstarts like Zoe Trope, Charles Ullmann, and Elizabeth Ellen. Some of the authors I’ve known for a long time like Magdalen Powers and Dayvid Figler and others are people I just met randomly on-line or through e-mail, like Shane Allison and Mike Topp.

What kind of books are you seeking? And how do you prefer to get your submissions?

I prefer to publish collections of stories, flash fiction, essays, odd literary experiments. And I prefer it when people email first to tell me what their book is. Since I only publish a couple of books a year, I rarely ask to see the manuscript. It’s getting harder for me to look through stuff because I do get a lot of emails. I’m extra choosy these days. And I hope this doesn’t sound snobby but I am more interested in writers who have been published in a few places.

When CLMP director, Jeff Lependorf, was on LitPark, he spoke about the difference between printing and publishing a book. He said a lot of indie publishers and self-published writers fail because they think printing the book means it’s published. How do you go about getting your books into the hands of readers?

The way you phrased that question reminds me of something one of my Powell’s co-horts says about print-on-demand authors. He says sometimes when P.O.D. authors tell him, “I got a book published by iUniverse,” I correct them and say, “No, you got a book printed by iUniverse.” In other words, some of those print-on-demand places cheapen the term “publish.”

Designing and printing a book and then actually selling and promoting it are two separate things. And people, and smaller publishers, sometimes forget that. You have to get the book into readers’ hands in the sneakiest ways sometimes. I mean, people just don’t like to read much these days. Sometimes you give out your books or just sell them for as cheap as you can. With small press books the best way to get them to people are bringing them to the people – going on tour, finding venues to read where your ideal reader might be. Guerilla marketing. There’s nothing wrong with a gimmick sometimes. Selling on the web is a good option too of course, especially when most bookstores won’t carry little small press books.

Describe your marketing in detail, if you don’t mind. Which blogs, ads, newspapers, catalogues, conferences, etc. have had the most impact on sales?

I think you’ve overestimated me. I don’t have money for ads or catalogues or attending conferences (unless I go through my work at Powell’s, and in that case I’d say that BEA is obviously the most exciting conference, but then again I’ve never been to AWP). I do send books sometimes to blogs and newspapers. Word of mouth is my best weapon really. I’m lucky that I’ve been doing this for a while and so when I promote something I have a cadre of friends and fans who talk about it.

Tell me why indie presses like readers to buy directly from them rather than Amazon and the others.

As far as cuts go, most small presses, when dealing with any bookstore, offer a 40% discount on the books. If your book is $10 retail and I order 20 copies. You’d get $120. Some stores though, if dealing with you directly, will only work on consignment. So that could be a pain.

How badly does Amazon hurt you?

I have nothing against Amazon really. I know it’s an easy option for many readers/shoppers. They do take a big cut (about 55 or 60% I think) but I figure you’re at least breaking even on those sales so the convenience to your fans is worth it. I know that Amazon does affect some indie bookstores, but at least they actually pay every month.

We both agree on the ease of Amazon, and most are more comfortable giving their credit card number to a known company. But as an indie bookseller, if you could spread the word, what changes could book lovers make in the way they purchase books that would have the most positive impact on someone like you?

The best option for customers to help small publishers like me survive, would be to order directly from us (off our web site) or a bookstore that we recommend or have a tight connection to. For me, of course, it’s Powell’s.

Okay, let’s say a small press book does very well with sales made directly to the press’s website. How would any of “the lists” (Booksense, bestsellers, etc) know that a bunch of books were sold? How would those sales generate more sales? Does that question make sense?

I’m not sure what you mean by the lists.

By lists I mean Booksense picks, NY Times Bestseller list, and all the much smaller lists. I’m still not understanding how an indie bookseller who handsells at AWP or gets most of their sales off of their website can ever get notice if they happen to sell a lot of books. Say, for instance, you sell 500 books in a day, but all from a small, indie storefront or from a website. How will anyone know?

I think the bestsellers list come from Bookscan, which monitors book sales from a selection of major bookstores. So selling books at a festival or off a web site probably won’t land you on a bestseller list. You have to sell a bunch through the chains mostly.

What’s the best/most frustrating aspect of your work?

The best part is getting a book done and serving it to readers like a hot pan of cookies. The most frustrating part would be the little things that I’m personally not that good at, like updating my web site and designing book covers. It’s a good thing I have friends that can do that stuff for me for little or no money. I’m learning to update my site but I think my brain is too full to take things on sometimes.

What do you hope for Future Tense Books in the next 5 years?

I just want to keep putting out great stuff that’s going to always delight and surprise people. I know it’s hard for a lot of presses to survive but I don’t worry about it much with Future Tense–we’re so small, it’s easy to manage. I do hope we gather more and more readers and that the writers we work with go on to further success. I also like the fact that some people collect our books and I hope that continues. Who knows, maybe they’ll be rare and valuable someday.

Who are you reading these days?

I just read the debut of Willy Vlautin, a Portland writer who is also the singer for a band called Richmond Fontaine. His novel, The Motel Life, is not just about a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers, but also a story about the power of storytelling and dreaming of something better in life. It’s amazing. I’m also enjoying the Pia Z. Ehrhardt story collection that MacAdam/Cage is putting out in June. Her stories are like dangerous seductions. I’ve also read new stuff by Amy Fusselman, Monica Drake, Lisa Carver, Anthony Tognazzini, and I like those 33 1/3 music books too. I like those because they’re small and they fit in my pocket for the train ride to work.

And now tell me about your own writing. What’s available to read now, and what can we see from you down the road?

My last collection was Beautiful Blemish on Word Riot Press. That came out two years ago. I have a few chapbooks that people can still order (The Patricia Letters, Invisible Radios) and I’ll have a new collection – my biggest one yet – out from Chiasmus Press later this year. I just turned it in. I’m also popping up in a few magazines and anthologies (one from Serpent’s Tail: The Empty Page, stories inspired by Sonic Youth songs). And I am working on two other things that I hope will become books – one is an expanded version of my out-of-print memoir, A Common Pornography; and the other is a weird little book of newspaper headline collage. It’s more like abstract poetry.

Oh yeah – I almost forgot. A Portland printer is putting out this beautiful edition of Haiku Inferno stuff really really soon. Haiku Inferno is a group I’m in with Frayn Masters, Elizabeth Miller, and Frank D’Andrea. We do shows around the northwest that combine rapid fire haiku, political angst, and ridiculous humor.

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What do you think?

  • Robin Slick
    April 11, 2007

    Hey, that was both informative and ultra-cool, Susan and Kevin.

    Kevin, I have a question. Well, it’s not really a question; it’s more of an observation. If you see my remarks on Monday, I’ve found it a huge problem to direct readers to my publisher’s website even though, as you say, that’s where we all make the most money. Truth to tell, it’s been my experience that the average reader would much rather order off of Amazon or buy our books at Borders. Even on my own blog, I use the Amazon link for my paperback book because it just seems more, I dunno, legitimate? Trust me, I know that’s really dumb but do you see what I’m saying here?

    Anyway, as a side note, I’m a huge Elizabeth Ellen fan. I need to order that book today!

    Off your website, of course.

  • Myfanwy Collins
    April 11, 2007

    Another great interview. Thanks, Susan and Kevin. Kevin, I believe I met you ever so briefly this past summer at Laila Lalami’s house–a bunch of us from the Tin House workshop were there for a party.

  • Ric Marion
    April 11, 2007

    when P.O.D. authors tell him, “I got a book published by iUniverse,” I correct them and say, “No, you got a book printed by iUniverse.”

    The perfect illustration of why Indie presses are so important to all of us. Having someone validate your work by saying, “I must publish this.” Even if it sells the same number as Aunt Maude’s iUniverse book, yours was really published, by someone who cares and nourishes your work.


  • lance reynald
    April 11, 2007

    high fives all around!!

    great interview, ready to pack my stuff and drive up to Portland just because I’ve gotta be able to have coffee with Kevin…he gets it!!

    (big smile…it’s gonna be a great day! Thanks to you both!)

  • Susan Henderson
    April 11, 2007

    Guys, I’m going to continue to be behind on comments and email until my mother-in-law leaves. (I know everyone understands and sympathizes, especially those of you who have heard my mil stories over the years.) But I am popping in and enjoying what I’m reading. And I’ve also seen a lot of wonderful people over at Brad Listi’s Nervous Breakdown, including my wondertwin, Lance Reynald.

    As always, I recommend people go here whenever possible to get inspired:

    And BPM Smith over at Word n’ Bass gave a nice plug to my just-sold novel right here:

    Thanks, Bryan! I’ll link you properly on Friday.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    April 11, 2007

    In the travel industry we call the small, independent hotels “boutique hotels.” These boutique hotels often join independent marketing groups that give them a competitive edge against the big chain properties.

    I know there are book distribution companies like Ingram, and book/media publicists for authors/publishers, but are there any sales and marketing groups who represent select “boutique presses”?

    You’re probably thinking it all comes down to funding. No money to pay a marketing group. This is where guerilla marketing comes in. Every big city probably has devoted readers who have enough business sense and passion for books and authors to join a collective led by a savvy book marketing guru.

    Just an idea.

    Great interview, Susan and Kevin.

  • Betsy
    April 11, 2007

    Great interview, Susan, and Kevin, all your books sound like ones I want to pick up.

  • James Bernard Frost
    April 11, 2007

    I find people like Kevin incredibly inspiring. As a writer, I am often troubled by the dearth of readers out there. Sometimes I hear fellow writers say, “I don’t really read very much, I just like to write.”

    The world needs more Kevin Sampsells: people who not only read but who dig deep into the stacks to find books that would otherwise get ignored. Oh and thanks Susan for digging up Kevin and interviewing him!

  • Noria
    April 11, 2007

    Tres cool. Can’t wait to check out Elizabeth Ellen’s book and Dahlia Season. I love the idea of serving up a book like a hot pan of cookies.

  • Jordan E. Rosenfeld
    April 11, 2007

    Great Interview, indeed. I wonder if the thirst for more original writing will drive up the demand for more savvy indie publishers. I HOPE so.

  • Aurelio
    April 11, 2007

    Very informative – I’m soaking it all in. Thanks to you both.

    (The pan ‘o hot cookies metaphor made me drool.)

  • Lori Oliva
    April 11, 2007

    Great interview. Kevin, while I haven’t read the books you mention (yet), I am very intrigued by the topics and the covers. I love independent presses because they push the envelope and they don’t play it safe. I have a feeling your choice in books is excellent (and from your MySpace site, your choice in music is excellent too!)


  • Carl Miller Daniels
    April 11, 2007

    Kevin Sampsell is brilliant!!
    He knows about life, world, universe, everything!
    Best wishes,
    Carl Miller Daniels

  • Roy Kesey
    April 11, 2007

    Terrific interview, folks, and thanks very much, Kevin, for the inside look.

  • Jonathan Evison
    April 12, 2007

    . . . go kevin! go powells! go indies!

  • Susan Henderson
    April 12, 2007

    I know a lot of you had relationships of some sort with Kurt Vonnegut, who died overnight. So if you have something you want to say about him, feel free to leave a comment in this thread.

    My mother-in-law leaves this afternoon, so I’ll be able to catch up tonight and tomorrow. Thanks for being patient. And thanks for all of these great comments.

  • Ric Marion
    April 12, 2007

    Professor Don Morse, sporting a Vonnegut moustache, introduced the odd and irreverent author in a writing class my freshman year. Just the ticket for the early ’70’s, question authority, question everything. They both combined to make me a better writer.

    I recall getting a paper back, on a Vonnegut work, with the simple admonition, ‘you missed the point, try again’, leaving me to figure out what I did wrong. When I turned it back in, the typed page looked like a church key (sure, it’s easy to do now with text wrap around, but on an old smith corona, it was difficult) Was my first college A+.

    Rest in peace, Kurt.


  • Pia
    April 12, 2007

    I’d like to order up another hundred Kevin Sampsells, please. He is nothing but goodness. So, Money. Mouth: I’m off to buy books from him. (Love Richmond Fontaine – The Fitzgerald!)

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    April 12, 2007

    It’s so fitting that I heard of Kurt Vonnegut’s passing here at LitPark. Thanks for sharing, Susan.

  • Juliet
    April 12, 2007

    I had so much to say… wrote it all out pressed “post” but alas…. it went nowhere.

  • Nicole
    April 12, 2007

    He is cute!

    Interesting article.

  • Kevin Sampsell
    April 12, 2007

    Thanks for all the nice comments from everyone. Hi Myfanwy– that was a fun party at Laila’s. You coming out to the Tin House workshops again? Hi Pia– thanks for the book order! Robin– linking to Amazon is fine. Powell’s is even better! But I know what you’re saying. People are used to ordering from Amazon. James– I really like it when authors say they read a lot. I’d rather work with a writer who reads a lot as opposed to those who take a bunch of workshops. All my writers are great readers too.

    Also, I feel like I have to apologize to those visiting the Future Tense web site. It’s being a little goofy on some of the pages right now. I hope to fix it soon.

    RIP, Kurt, one of my all-time favorites.


  • Susan Henderson
    April 15, 2007

    Robin – I agree with you about Amazon. That’s a tricky one for me. I want to support indie press and indie bookstores, but Amazon is so easy and already has my credit card number and has never been out of stock with the book I want to buy. It’s a tricky one, but I’m going to try to make more of an effort to buy direct.

    Myfanwy – What a wonderful thing to hang out with Tin House people at Laila’s house. That’s the life!

    Ric – One thing to remember about most POD and self-published authors, though, is the process of being a writer and sweating over a manuscript bonds us. Big time, small time or unpublished and knocking at the door – we’re all writers who want to share our work.

    lance – Hey, wait, I want to have coffee with you, too.

    Carolyn – I’m going to stick to my guns here that word of mouth trumps all. If you read a book and love it, talk about it to everyone from your friends to your hairdresser to the grocery store clerk, and talk about it on your blog. I think we have as much or more power as marketing teams if we’d just use it.

    Betsy – I was thinking the same. My to-read list is getting really long.

    James – How is your sticker campaign going? I agree with you – who wants to read writers who don’t read like maniacs?

    Noria – I’m liking the hot pan of cookies, too.

    Jordan – Me, too!

    Aurelio – It was informative for me, too. I’m glad Kevin was patient with me because I had a tricky time formulating my questions – as you can see.

    Lori – I’m not one who wants to read someone playing it safe, either.

    Carl – Welcome!

    Kesey – Well this seems like as good a time as ever to re-plug your book, Nothing in the World.

    Jonathan – Go rabbits!

    Ric – Thanks so much for the Vonnegut story!

    Pia – It’s so great to think of you and Kevin at the same reading. I’ll definitely be at your Happy Ending reading. HE and KGB are my #1 favorite spots to hear writers.

    Juliet – I’m so sorry your post didn’t go through!!

    Nicole – Yeah, he’s way cute.

  • Greg
    April 16, 2007

    Susan – what an amazing interview! I found this so interesting.


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Susan Henderson