Publisher Talk: Andrew Keating Introduces Cobalt Press

"Cobalt Press is still young. Our first book, a collection of fatherly fiction and poetry by Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer and Tom Williams calledcomes out on June 1."
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Andrew Keating is the publisher of the recently launched Cobalt Press and is the managing editor of Cobalt Review. His first book of fiction, Participants, was published by Thumbnail Press in 2012. Andrew holds an MBA from Johnson & Wales University and an MFA from University of Baltimore. He lives and teaches in the Baltimore area.

Loren Kleinman (LK): You're the publisher and managing editor of Cobalt Press/Cobalt Review and your first book Participants was published by Thumbnail Press. Can you talk about being a writer and a publisher? What have been the challenges in terms of selecting work to publish? Do you let your own writing style dictate what you publish?

Andrew Keating (AK): The obvious answer here is that I couldn't do any of this without such a fantastic staff. Cobalt Review has a dedicated team of editors, and each works to push the publication's boundaries with every new issue. Rafe Posey (fiction) and Samantha Stanco (nonfiction) have been on board since Day One, and we're thrilled to welcome Ruben Quesada as our new poetry editor. The editors do all of the selecting for our quarterly and annual issues, and I only step in if an editor needs a second opinion (which has only happened twice in three years). The only issue of Cobalt Review that I edit is the annual baseball issue in July, which is associated with a baseball-themed writing contest (dedicated to the Earl "The Earl of Baltimore" Weaver, with Stewart O'Nan is the guest judge this year).

So, I would say that my own style has little to do with the Cobalt aesthetic. In fact, don't think there is a specific style that Cobalt looks for overall. Each editor has total control, which makes our publication a hodgepodge of cool and exciting new work.

Writing comes third -- maybe even fourth -- for me (behind teaching and publishing). As much as I love writing fiction, I get so much pleasure from editing and publishing. The same thing happened to me as an undergrad. For years, I was convinced I wanted to be an actor, but the more time I spent in theaters, the more I came to love the behind-the-scenes work.

Establishing Cobalt Press -- the book-publishing arm of Cobalt -- has been atop our list of long-term goals. Early last year, we figured we were finally ready, after 18 months of running the lit mag (six online issues and one print issue), to start publishing full-length books. I handle most book work, but our entire staff has been pitching in. Most importantly, my wife, Stacie, has been serving as associate publisher. She gives the final vote on the manuscripts we select, and we have editing dates at a local café. Since I spend most of my free time working on Cobalt, this is a great way for us to spend that free time together on something that we both care about.

LK: Can you talk about the vision of Cobalt Press and how the lit mag aligns with this vision?

AK: Many presses create an overall vision for their publication, and each editor matches up with that vision. My goal for Cobalt Review is to create variety. Each editor dictates the aesthetic for the work that they select for publication, and we're doing this new thing starting in June: the editors have selected ten works that "blow their mind" or "make their world stand still," and we are publishing these lists in place of the standard submission guidelines. I've asked that each editor selects works that are available online, so that potential submitters can review the list and see where they fall on the spectrum before they send their work in.

Working with our new poetry editor, Ruben Quesada, the staff elected to shift the focus of our annual writing contests in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. In the past, the contests have been non-specific. This re-branding will hopefully demonstrate to our readers and potential submitters our continued dedication to diversity. This year's poetry contest ($500 prize) has been named after Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; the fiction prize ($200) has been named after Zora Neale Hurston, who studied in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, among other pivotal works; and our creative nonfiction prize ($200) has been named after Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes.

Cobalt Press is still young. Our first book, a collection of fatherly fiction and poetry by Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer and Tom Williams called Four Fathers comes out on June 1, and agreements for the next two books were only signed this month. So the vision for the press is still a little blurry. However, I'm seeing a trend toward character-driven works that I get lost in. That's actually the one thing I hear from anyone who reads these manuscripts ("I was only going to read a few pages today, but the next thing I knew, I was turning the last page."). As we publish more books, I'm sure more patterns will emerge. For now, we publish the manuscripts that we fall in love with.

LK: What titles are you publishing over the next year? What kind of titles can readers expect and why should they read a Cobalt book?

AK: Oh, I'm excited to answer this question. We signed two publishing agreements this month, and we already have Four Fathers coming out on June 1. Our next book is a novella by Kate Wyer, who is also from Baltimore (I realize now that I haven't mentioned that we are based in Baltimore), called Black Krim. This will be followed by Jonathan Travelstead's poetry collection, How We Bury Our Dead. John, who lives in Murphysboro, Illinois, was the winner of the 2013 Cobalt Poetry Prize.

Black Krim is scheduled for release on December 21, the winter solstice; and How We Bury Our Dead will be coming out in February of next year.

We haven't found our fourth book yet, but I anticipate wrapping up our first calendar year of publication with four books in the catalog. There are a few readers sifting through the manuscripts, and I am reading a new one every week. A decision will be made by the end of summer, I think.

LK: You've recently launched and completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to get your press up and running. How important was this Kickstarter campaign to the setup of your press? What has the campaign enabled you to do?

AK: Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, or any of the other great crowdfunding companies) provides a few great things for small presses and startup projects. Last year, we were pushing to make a big jump from publishing a mostly-online lit mag to publishing full-length books. We also wanted to brand Cobalt Press as separate from Cobalt Review. As I mentioned earlier, Cobalt Review relies on the individual styles of each editor, rather than adhering to an overall aesthetic. We needed a new website, needed to pay for new design, advertising space, and a whole bunch of ISBNs (because nobody buys just one). And that doesn't even get into the printing and shipping costs.

But where crowdfunding really succeeds is in early promotion. A year out, we had readers not only interested in our projects, but literally invested in the first book's success. Additionally, through the Kickstarter campaign, we generated a decent number of pre-orders for Four Fathers. Those pre-orders are already shipping, well before the release, and getting the book out early will hopefully re-up the hype from last summer's campaign.

LK: What have been some of the struggles of starting a new press? What are some of the more victorious parts?

AK: Separating from the lit mag is the most difficult challenge. Many of our manuscript submissions come with a "Dear Poetry Editor" introduction, because our readers are still seeing the press as a step-child of the review. On the back end, the differences are vast. For instance, Four Fathers does not directly match up with either the poetry or the fiction elements of Cobalt Review; however, this book is everything I could have asked for and more as a first book for Cobalt Press. The writing is dynamic and consuming, and the authors are a thrill to work with.

I am increasingly blown away by the attention that Cobalt Press is getting in such a short time. Each new project pushes us one rung higher, and we've been working with great people along the way. The real testament to our success is the assortment of manuscripts in our submission queue, many by authors that I truly admire and never expected to work with in such an intimate way as to publish their book. It's a terrible thing to realize that we can't publish all of the great manuscripts that come our way, but it's affirming to be selecting from a list that includes some of my favorite writers.

LK: Why should an author choose to publish with Cobalt?

AK: I am all about building relationships as a publisher. Cobalt may be putting the work out into the world, but it isn't our book. We seek to develop a partnership with each of our authors - a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Decisions are made together, and, since we only publish the books that we are truly passionate about, an author can be 100 percent certain that we are in their corner.

One thing that I am becoming more and more excited about is the multitude of ways that Cobalt can demonstrate a commitment to the relationships with our authors. These are really good people, and fun people to work with. We care about the things that they care about. As I was talking to Jonathan Travelstead in April, I had the idea to donate a percentage of the proceeds from the book to a charity of Jonathan's choice, and now that's boilerplate. For How We Bury Our Dead, we are donating proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project, and the charity has not been determined yet for Kate Wyer's Black Krim.

LK: What's your long-term goal as a publisher?

AK: To keep publishing the books that I love. It would be great to say "ten books per year!" but that's not a worthy goal for Cobalt. If there are ten that are too good to pass up, then maybe we will someday publish ten books in a single year; yet, at the same time, if we only have one manuscript that makes us itch to publish it, then that year may only have one release. Oh well. We will just have to love that one book harder.

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