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The mail never stops: Small press interview with Joshua Rothes of Sublunary Editions

By Joseph Schreiber.

Sublunary Editions is an independent press based in Seattle, USA. While still in its infancy, publisher Joshua Rothes has already gone some way in establishing the press as a unique proponent of marginal literature—Sublunary’s output revolves around monthly mail-outs. Each edition couples the work of two writers. It is formatted and printed with care, then stuffed into regular envelopes and mailed around the world, passed around and consumed in the way of samizdat. Dovetailing out of this activity is a foray into publishing small books and postcards, and, seemingly, whatever else Rothes can dream up. He talks to us about Sublunary Editions here.  


 3:AM Magazine: By way of introduction, how did Sublunary Editions begin and what were the goals for the venture?

 Joshua Rothes: I’d love to tell you there was considerable foresight and planning, but when I get excited about an idea, there tends to be a short gestation period. The idea for sending people envelopes full of new writing each month hit me while having drinks with a friend around February of last year, and the first bits of mail were sent to an intrepid group of early subscribers in May.

I have a special fondness for brief forms of literature, and I wanted, first and foremost, a place to showcase those in a way that gave them presence, space in the life of a reader that, in the absence of a substantial printed collection or inclusion in some compendium or another, I thought they seldom received. I wanted them to be printed on good paper, typeset (each uniquely so), the objects of anticipation. Still, as great as it sounded in my head, I had no idea how writers would react to it: “What, you’re just going to fold my story and put a stamp on it?” But people have really embraced it, readers and authors. The short books I’m now starting to dabble in are just the next logical extension of that.

The economics of it was the other side of the equation. It was almost a challenge for me to figure out a way to make it viable to do something like this—individual stories and poems, chapbooks, etc.—and viable to me means paying writers and covering costs, while keeping everything I put out affordable for readers. I’m proud to have been able to pay (or at least offer to pay, as some have very kindly declined, knowing my status as a fledgling press) everyone I’ve worked with so far. If I can succeed, I hope it can inspire others to explore different business models publishing short stories, poems, and weird little books.

I should note that I really hate to talk about literature in such stark economic terms (shoot me if I ever sincerely use the word monetize), because in a perfect world, we’d abolish intellectual property, throw the landlords in jail, and usher in a fully-automated artist’s paradise, but, you know, people still have to pay the bills under late capitalism for now.

3:AM: You are not explicitly modernist in your tastes but you have a modernist sensibility in your approach to publishing; the pamphleteering, for instance, or an inclination to the DIY. And, despite everything, you take an analog view of literature—Sublunary’s output is exclusively in print, with the centerpiece being the monthly mail-outs. Can you talk a little about the thinking that’s led to this approach?

JR: You can minimize chrome, leave all the white space you want, but reading online, you can’t help but feel information encroaching from all sides. Maybe I’m just projecting my own flitting digital tendencies on others, but the printed form, in particular the almost epistolary variety I’ve settled into with the monthlies, seems to me better suited to claim a bit of space back for the short text. Something physical on your coffee table is a much better reminder to spend some time reading something than an open tab in a browser.

Which is not to say that there aren’t countless wonderful online-only publications (eh hem) staffed by skilled editors bringing excellent work into the world, and also not to say I won’t expand Sublunary Editions online in the not-so-distant future, but I’d like it to be in a way that better fits the medium, rather than just post the same kinds of things online that I publish physically. Literature hasn’t, in my mind, found its digital form, just yet. Sure there are daring experimentalists out there, and a whole generation of writers who have grown up immersed in the medium, but “digital” in this space has so far meant clumsy skeuomorphism, an attempt to recreate what we like about the printed page, only on a screen. In that sense, I’m analog for lack of imagination.

3:AM: Taking this idea further, you take a DIY approach to design too, with all design work for the press done by you. How do you approach design? Is this an area you enjoy?

JR: I arguably get the most satisfaction out of design. More so than writing, it’s a discipline in which I know when something’s done. It’s been exceedingly rewarding to turn a knack I developed mostly in self-service on the work of others, to play a minute role in bringing a piece to realization. I’ve heard of writers taking their manuscripts and changing the fonts to something godawful, to see if the prose still hangs together apart from presentation. I’m not sure I have the stomach for it (I’m writing this in Fournier, by the way), but it makes a certain kind of sense. That said, the complete package to me, no matter how stark or simple, is important in setting the tone for the reader’s experience.

Part of the visual fixation is, I believe, related to my synesthesia—I mentally associate colors with almost everything, and thus colors are crucial for me in setting moods. When I was creating music more regularly, I would often think of what a song needed in terms of colors, literally, “How can I make this more blue-green?” I do that with writing as well. I like to write in a defined palate, pale blues, off-blacks, with sometimes bright pops of various colors for effect.

All of that said, I plan to work with more artists and designers in the near future. Yanina Spizzirri is working with me to design an upcoming bilingual volume of Mónica Belevan’s poetry, which I couldn’t be more thrilled with, and the press just sent out a series of postcards to subscribers featuring artwork by Michelle Lynn Dyrness paired with a poem from Tristan Foster and Kyle Coma-Thompson, something I would like to do more of this year.

3:AM: Can you tell us about the writers you’re working with and what’s attracted you to them?

JR: I don’t want to leave anyone out, so pardon the litany. I’ve so far had the pleasure of publishing work from Christina Tudor-Sideri, Mónica Belevan, Judson Hamilton, Noor Al-Samarrai, Evan Lavender-Smith, S.D. Chrostowska, Fabio Morábito (translated by Curtis Bauer), Imogen Reid, Tristan Foster, Kyle Coma-Thompson, José Eduardo Agualusa (translated by Daniel Hahn), Damian Kelleher, Derick Dupré, Ipshita Mitra, Joël Gayraud, and Pierre Senges (translated by Jacob Siefring).

That’s a pretty broad collection of writers, stylistically and geographically, new and established, friends and complete strangers. First and foremost, they’re all writers I like. This is not an entirely selfless institution, after all. But that mix was important to me. It’s about breaking down hierarchies and categories, the quickest way, in my mind, to greater diversity.

I don’t take submissions, but nor have I ever slammed the door in anyone’s face when they’ve approached me with work. I’ve always left it ambiguous, and a tremendous coterie of talented writers have found me just by sending me a message.

3:AM: What are some of the challenges you have confronted in this space so far? Is it difficult working the press into the rest of your life?

JR: The inverse to my impulsive behavior is that I often get in over my head, and I’ve felt that way a few times, though I haven’t had anything approaching a colossal fuckup, just yet. The writers and translators I’ve worked with have been very forgiving of my ignorance when it’s manifested in obvious ways.

As for fitting it into my life, I’ve never been one to have a lot of down time. I have, quite literally for as long as I can remember, always had some sort of all-consuming project in my life. When I was six, it was building a zoo containing all known lifeforms on the lot next to my house. When I was fifteen, it was a thrash metal band. When I was thirty, it was writing, and now I just split the writing with the work involved in the press. I’m lucky to have a very tolerant partner, in that regard.

3:AM: I’m curious to know if you look at any other publishing houses for guidance. Do you have any publishing influences? Is there a model you are following or is this a path you are content to forge on your own?

JR: The closest model to what I do is actually in the music space, a venture called Thesis Project, started by artist Gregory Euclide. The Project proper began with a regular pairing of two musicians, who were asked to produce a 10” record, either through collaboration or complementary pieces, which were then tied together with beautiful artwork/packaging. It was vinyl-only for a long time, but you can now get some of the resultant tracks digitally. Sound a bit familiar? They’re doing all kinds of interesting things in the space of music: a project called Drive which sends lengthy compositions to subscribers monthly on a physical drive, another called Recurring, an app which features an ever-growing collection of one-minute loops by a wide array of artists paired with photographs.

On the subject of music, 12k Records has also been an inspiration. It’s a small label run by Taylor Deupree, and it’s always been a mental model for me in terms of the sense of community he’s been able to foster and the aesthetic cohesion he’s achieved.

In the publishing space, I pull from anyone with good ideas, be it New Directions or Dostoyevsky Wannabe. John Trefry over at Inside the Castle has been a great supporter of me as both a writer and nascent publisher, and his tireless work ethic sets a strong example. He was one of the first people I told about that initial spark of an idea for what became Sublunary Editions, and he was enthusiastic about it from the beginning.

3:AM: In Bad New Days, historian and critic Hal Foster writes: “[The avant-garde] seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order.” You seem to be tracing a few fractures in the industry as it currently stands; for example, an element of the Sublunary Editions project is self-publishing—either Sublunary itself or a subsidiary will be a place where you look to publish your own work. That you have set up a small press which will also publish your own writing is saying something both positive and negative about the opportunities in the industry, isn’t it? Opportunities for those writing a certain form of literary fiction are few, but then it’s easier to start a press than ever. What are your thoughts on the state of publishing in 2020?

JR: I don’t know that I have thoughts on the state of publishing in 2020 any more than I have thoughts on the state of writing in 2020. In both cases, I feel compelled to do it, and in both cases, if I think too hard about it, I’ll grow cynical and drink.

Last month, I did self-publish a short book called The Art of the Great Dictators. I called the imprint A Contrived Press, partially a nod to Jung Young Moon, partially a nod to the clumsy facade of self-publishing under an assumed name, maybe a jab at some of the stigma that comes along with self-publishing in general. It could be reflective of the state of the industry, but honestly, this arrangement is pretty common in music, which I suppose doesn’t have as much of the same gatekeeper’s mentality as literature does. Taylor Deupree, for instance, releases almost all of his own music as part of 12k Records, and it makes complete sense. You’d like to think indie literature, where money is scant but outlets proliferate, would be perfectly amenable to this sort of thing, and many small corners of it are, but stuffy attitudes remain. The means of production have largely been seized, damnit, and we don’t need anyone trying to delegitimize that.

3:AM: As you enter the second year of Sublunary Editions, what are one or two things you’re particularly excited about and which readers should be on the lookout for?

JR: My very next release, 926 Years, a collaborative book of linked short stories by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster, is out-of-this-world good. I wasn’t sure what kind of books I wanted to publish until I saw the manuscript for this one: concise, cutting, infinitely re-readable. It will be out in late January, online and in select bookshops.

After that will be A Luminous History of the Palm, a collection of short texts from author/translator Jessica Sequeira that trace the humbled palm as symbol across time and space, as hope and harbinger. Jessica misses nothing; her sense of what is interesting in the mundane is seemingly endless. You read the book and think, simultaneously, that she could have picked any object and also that she could have chosen no other.

And, as they say, the mail never stops.


Joshua Rothes is a writer and the publisher of Sublunary Editions. As a writer, he has authored a small copse of brief texts, most recently The Art of the Great Dictators (A Contrived Press, 2019). We Later Cities, a novel written with the aid of machine learning, will be released by Inside the Castle in late 2020. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 20th, 2020.