Site-Member Interview in-Depth: CCLaP’s Four Year Anniversary!

CCLaP – the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography – founded June 2007 – is as a private for-profit company; established to champion the best of today’s bleeding-edge, ultra-contemporary work.

ClaritySol: Congratulations on your Four-Year Anniversary! Now, like many start-ups, you’re self-funded, so you’ve been slowly growing CCLaP’s client-base and community. Your pattern has been to publish one book each year electronically, complementing your extensive book reviews and essays (such as the ever-popular series about literary classics called “The CCLaP 100”). Now in the last year you’ve stepped things up considerably..

CCLaP: Yes, I’ve been publishing books since 2008 now, just with all the past ones being electronic only; it’s just this summer that I’m finally getting paper versions of them out for the first time.

2011 has been a year of significantly increased activity: after publishing only one book a year previously (Ben Tanzer’s “Repetition Patterns” in 2008, Sally Weigel’s “Too Young to Fall Asleep” in 2009, and Tanzer’s “99 Problems” in 2010), starting this year I’ve upped the schedule to four new titles every year . In 2011 the four books include Mark R. Brand’s “Life After Sleep” and Jason Fisk’s “Salt Creek Anthology” already published, with the compilation book “American Wasteland” and Katherine Scott Nelson’s “Write Me Back” still to come.

So that’s been a significant increase in work, needless to say, especially since I’m now adding paper versions to each release. So time that I had before been dedicating to extensive reading and high-octane book reviews (which are posted on the CCLaP blog) is going to these newer activities instead.
Accordingly, I started the long-term hunt for other staff writers who can do book reviews in the CCLaP “ethos,” if you will, so that I can keep the daily posting schedule up at the blog while still devoting my own time to more publishing-related activities.

ClaritySol: Would you like to give the audience a brief bio of yourself, your journey to opening CCLaP? Did you always have an entrepreneurial bent? Or had you had a different life vision, and then things shifted and this became the optimal path? I have heard you state over the years that you used to write, and then you stopped. Yet currently you write book & film reviews and various other things.

CCLaP: I suppose I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent, now that you put it like that; by the age of six I was already doing puppet shows for neighborhood kids and charging admission, putting out a subdivision newsletter, things like that. I’ve had a whole series of different career focuses over the decades, mostly due to just a wide range of interests — first I was all set to enter college on a high math track and eventually become a computer programmer, then suddenly switched to political science for four years, then studied photography for four years after that, then became a publishing author and performance poet for a decade, after moving to Chicago in the mid-1990s.

When I say that I “stopped writing,” I mean only the creative fiction; as you point out, I’m still penning almost a quarter of a million new words a year at the CCLaP site, only all of it in the genre of critical and personal essays.

CCLaP itself came just very slowly and organically over the course of several years, as I first hit middle-age and became more and more dissatisfied with pursuing a career as a solo creative artist; it’s a way essentially for me to still work in the milieu I love, while hopefully bringing the kind of stability to my life that I simply didn’t need when I was younger.

ClaritySol: The close relationship between the artist and the fan, is that the main benchmark of success for you, the overriding goal?

CCLaP: Well, perhaps it’s better to call that a business goal, in that I ultimately view CCLaP in competitive terms to other larger institutions that do a whole variety of creative things, like perhaps the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Old Town School of Music; the center isn’t even close in size or scope to those examples, let me make it very clear, but that’s the eventual hope of where I’d like to see CCLaP heading as the years progress.

And what I feel is a good way to compete in that field is to pay very close attention to what your readers, your audience members want, what they really respond to, what they’re mentioning to you in emails and at dinner parties and things like that. I feel like a lot of creative institutions have lost sight of that, that many of the bigger ones especially that started back in the Modernist era have become so insular and so totally focused on grants, corporate partnerships, and just the mere struggle to stay alive at the level they’re accustomed to.

I feel a good way for a tiny organization like mine to differentiate itself from that is to be much more responsive to our customers than those groups are. But there’s of course a tricky balance to maintain, because as a creative curator, people are coming to CCLaP many times precisely FOR my recommendations of stuff they’ve never heard of or sometimes even thought about. My job as CCLaP’s owner is essentially to listen to all these people, listen to what they’re saying, and then think, “Well, if they say they want THIS kind of thing, I’ll bet that they’ll really be into THAT kind of thing too.”

ClaritySol: What is the unifying element of the work you publish?

CCLaP: My focus is on trying to get the best work possible out of that writer. I really look at an author’s entire body of work and where they are in their career, and think about what I consider the best thing they could possibly be doing right now for their particular style and where they should be next professionally. That guides what the finished book looks like more than an adherence to any particular type of genre, length, etc.

As far as the paper books go, I’m selling them literally as fast as I can make them right now, which is a double-edged sword; I could be selling more if I could simply make them faster, but the reason there’s such a strong interest is because everyone knows how long they take, and what a high quality these handmade editions have at the end because of it. Sigh!

ClaritySol: Who is your target audience?:

CCLaP: My main core target audience are people known by the term “creative class” — twenties to fifties, with creative careers but that still lets them be middle-class, essentially a lot like my personal friends here in Chicago, urban-dwelling and politically/ecologically aware, with only a certain small amount of money and time they can dedicate to the arts anymore, and wanting not just a good experience for their money but an opportunity to take a part in the process, even if just a little bit.

I think people of my generation and in my circumstances are a little burnt out on the “totebag syndrome” as I call it of older cultural institutions, where the idea is, “Give us a yearly check and otherwise just shut up and enjoy the splendor of it all, and here’s your token gift thanks very much.” I think creative-classers would like a much more direct say over which artists are being featured there, or at least what kinds of artists, and would enjoy an opportunity as a patron of one of these groups to occasionally be able to talk straight to the curators and decision-makers, literally say to them, “I saw this band or this photographer at this gallery or that pub, and they’d be perfect for your place.”

ClaritySol: How has your internet presence birthed/supported your business? Will you be enlarging it, and enlarging your business? Is there a particular size or scope you are aiming to attain?

CCLaP: Well, I have personal things to gain from maintaining an international audience, which ultimately is the simple answer in my case — I like traveling internationally, and hope to do so a lot more in the future, so it’s worth it to me to cultivate an online presence just for that alone.

Commercially it’s a trickier question; because although electronic content is great for building a passionate audience, it’s still through actual physical merchandise and physical events that most artists make the majority of their actual money, whether that’s a publisher or a photographer or an indie musician, so the question of a spread-out audience in that case ties in more with how easy or hard it is to ship things to them, whether you’ll be there regularly on tours or not, etc.

But then, I know for a fact that one of the things that a lot of CCLaP’s audience members like the most about the site is its international focus, so just from a curatorial aspect there are positive things to be gained — I read much more interesting books and see much more interesting movies because of it, feature a wider range of photography, get a wider range of perspectives.

ClaritySol: How involved are you in the Chicago Literary Scene, and is that important to CCLaP?

CCLaP: I’m unfortunately not too terribly involved with the local community anymore, for a variety of reasons. I’ve been changing that this summer somewhat, because I’ve been taking my new high-def videocamera out and shooting at least one live literary event in the city a week, then cutting it into just a little 60-second highlight reel and posting them at YouTube all year; that’s at least had me out and being a lot more social, and getting the word about CCLaP out to a brand-new audience.

While all of CCLaP’s authors have so far been Chicagoans, and all but one book have all been set in Chicago; that’s partly random, and partly that I skew a little heavily towards Chicago authors and projects from the mere nature of being here. But I’m certainly up for publishing people in other cities as well.

ClaritySol: Four year anniversary, very exciting – congratulations! Did you always expect to reach this point (and beyond)?

CCLaP: Well, thanks! As mentioned, the goal in my head has always been to go even a lot longer than this; but that said, it’s still a treat to actually make it to four years, given how many artistic projects are launched with such full confidence every year and then fall apart six months later.

ClaritySol: What about the past (four) years has surprised you the most?

CCLaP: I suppose the biggest “surprise” has actually been the anti-surprise of studying small business beforehand, and learning that just about each and every little thing I read about when studying small business has come true while actually running one.

ClaritySol: Are there things you would do differently if you could have a do-over? What lessons have you learned about entrepreneurialism in the real world?

CCLaP: If I had a chance to start over, probably the biggest change would be much less of a focus on live events at first, and a much bigger push into paper publishing from the get-go, learning in hindsight how much interest there’s been in it since actually starting it.

These are just little lessons you can only learn by actually opening and trying stuff out, which is another basic lesson from my “self-taught MBA” days that has absolutely come true: that it’s best at first to keep this sort of open, semi-flexible framework to what you’re doing, so that you can try some various things out without too terribly much commitment, and quickly shut down the things that aren’t working, even if they’re sentimental favorites.

I’d love to be doing more really big live events, like the one I did with Nathan Rabin last winter, but it just hasn’t been in the cards so far in terms of CCLaP’s audience being willing to support it, which as a business owner I have to pay more attention to than whatever personal desire I have to be sitting on a stage talking to someone cool and famous.

ClaritySol: New developments: you have an intern now! How is that going – I know for lots of folks that shift from one person to two people is a big one.

CCLaP: Oh, it’s been just about as minimalist as possible, to tell you the truth, and frankly I’m not sure if I’ll be doing it again for awhile; Traci Kim has been great, but the fact is that as a one-person, home-based business, there’s simply almost nothing for her to actually do. I’ve instead put her in charge of her own themed anthology, which we’ll be publishing at the end of the summer, which she mostly does on her own from home.

I just wanted to try hosting an internship at least once, since I had this opportunity just fall in my lap (Traci literally just wrote out of the blue this spring about it), just to see how it would go; I’m not sure if I’ll be doing it again until after CCLaP finally has its own permanent physical space somewhere in the city, and there’d be a lot more intern-type stuff for an intern to do.

ClaritySol: You’re producing blank journals – that seems a great idea – wide-open future sales. Congrats!

CCLaP: Yes, at Etsy, with me and ten million middle-aged moms! Stop by and purchase one, please!

ClaritySol: How does the Photography part of CCLAP – is that more of a future aspect of the company?

CCLaP: Yes, I have a lot more plans for photography, but they unfortunately almost all involve significantly more money than I currently have, and with a lot of it tied to finally having a permanent physical space in the city somewhere: at that point I’d like to have a full-time gallery, and also publish a book and giftstore-type merchandise with each show, which only makes sense if we literally had our own giftstore, etc.

I have a long-term view in mind with CCLaP, which at least makes it a little easier to decide to shelve certain things for now.

ClaritySol: Anything else you’d like us to know about your plans?

CCLaP: Well, just that CCLaP will have another four original books out in 2012 as well, one every three months, and mostly female-focused next year too — first a new story collection by Sally Weigel, then the new surrealist novel by Lauryn Allison Lewis, and then a new post-apocalyptic thriller of all things by Amy Guth, although political as well in that Margaret Atwood feminist-SF style, and then a winter slot I haven’t filled yet.

I’m going with an entirely new binding style for 2012, and all four books will be done in this similar style, so that in the future you’ll be able to just glance at CCLaP books and know which year they were put out.

Both the 2011 books and these coming 2012 ones are sold at a special subscription rate at the website, which is the main piece of news I’d like to get out, for those who really believe in the center and want to make a substantial financial contribution to it.

I encourage people to think of this like becoming a member of their local art museum or NPR station; only instead of a totebag or coffeemug, you’re getting a whole shelf of special handmade, hand-numbered, high-quality original books, ten altogether plus free shipping if you purchase both subscriptions for a total of $140.

Thanks again for giving me a chance to talk about the center and everything that’s been going on; I hope this has been of some interest.

ClaritySol: You’re very welcome, Jason! This has been a wonderful peek into your exciting, successful company. Wishing you all the best success for the future!


For more information about CCLaP, check out the installment at Clarity Solutions Google+ page:


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