Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin
In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture. This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and economics?
I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been talking to a wide variety of people in the book business, mostly about the future of writing, publishing, and reading. But the future is always built on what has gone before now. And there has been so much incredibly creative and wonderful publishing work done in recent years, I’ve wanted to share some of the experiences of people who have accomplished so much, with vision, talent and amazing effort.
I’m very pleased and honored to present my interview with John Martin, founder and publisher of Black Sparrow Press for 36 years, from 1966 through 2002. While best known for his discovery and commitment to the work of poet, Charles Bukowski, John was responsible for publishing an incredible range of writers, poets and critics an established a truly historical breadth of work. Black Sparrow books were notably beautiful (all designed and produced by Barbara Martin), and established a singular and unmistakable brand that told readers that they could expect quality books with writers whose work was selected for aesthetic rather than commercial reasons. And on that commitment to quality, Martin built a very successful and profitable business.
When I was a young poet and publisher, I admired no publisher more than Black Sparrow, and I am sure I am not alone among independent publishers in appreciating John’s achievement over such a long period of time. The list of writers and poets Black Sparrow published is incredible, including Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakoski, Paul Bowles, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Clark, John Fante, Charles Reznikoff, and many, many others.
Martin famously promised to pay Charles Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his job at the post office and become a full time writer. What a brilliant and creative gesture. Brave and perhaps foolhardy too, but that single act changed literary history and probably enabled Black Sparrow to become so successful. A great investment, risking one fifth of his personal income to support a writer whose work he loved. Bukowski wrote his first novel, Post Office, and Black Sparrow published it in 1971. As John points out, that book sold forever, along with a number of others, and became the backbone of his business.
Black Sparrow Press was started in 1966 with a single broadside poem. After 36 years of long rewarding hours and hundreds of titles published, John Martin decided the business had changed enough by 2002 that it was a good time to get out. He guessed that the consolidation of retail would spell the end of the golden age of independent publishing, and based on that prescience, sold his most valuable assets, his deals with Bukowski, Paul Bowles and a few others, to HarperCollins’ Ecco Press imprint, and the rest of the inventory (but not the contracts) to fellow independent publisher, David Godine, who renamed the list Black Sparrow Books, and who has continued to publish a fine, though smaller list of books in the Black Sparrow vein.
I recently discovered a wonderful letter written to John by Bukowski in 1986. In it he says “To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.” That seems a pretty good description of what John Martin did himself and a worthy goal for any of us to aspire to. (You can read the entire inspiring letter at a great site called Letters of Note.)
There’s a really well done history of the press, with quite a bit from John himself, written in 2002 here. The Black Sparrow archive is at the University of Alberta and quite a bit of it can be viewed online. I’ll be posting interviews with a number of other independent publishers over the next few months, in hopes of helping to document what has been and remains an amazing era in American literary publishing. (Warning note to listeners: this is a long interview but hopefully well worth your time. Enjoy!)Photograph of John Martin from Metroactive by Michael Amsler.