Talking With Vouched’s Christopher Newgent

In her post about Barnes & Noble, Roxane Gay wrote a great introduction to this interview with Christopher Newgent about his Vouched project. She was walking around the store, saddened by the selection and (more importantly) the detachment from literature that the store promulgates. She wrote:

I walked around some more and thought about the Vouched Books project where Christopher Newgent brings his table of indie books and magazines he can vouch for to various literary/arts events around Indianapolis. There’s a lot to be said for bookselling on such a small scale. I’ve seen Christopher at work at a reading in Indy and he was never without interested people hanging around his table. People seemed really excited to be able to talk to someone about potential books and magazines worth buying and reading. One young man I saw was totally excited to learn about writers he had never heard of. I saw him walk away with like three books. As booksellers struggle with how to stay alive, I think part of the conversation should center around how we can make people feel connected to books.

That’s kind of like the dream scenario. And Christopher’s idea continues to grow. He runs a reading series, has a gang now, and as he announced in their new bi-monthly column at Small Doggies, they’re starting to run reviews (I think I have one forthcoming about that book Chris Higgs wrote). I’ve been excited about Vouched since Christopher first contacted me to order PG books. Before the project gets too big and leaves us all behind, I thought I’d throw some questions at literature’s newest Sam Walton.

I think when Vouched was just firing up you wrote somewhere that the idea came to you and you got excited about it and you just jumped in, cutting down on other projects and your job so you could focus. Can you talk about the beginning?
The idea for Vouched came from a couple conversations with Chris Heavener at the Annalemma blog about how to promote small press lit on a more personal and grassroots level. I seriously think it went from idea to project launch in a week. I was actually emailing small presses about wholesale arrangements before I’d even told my wife about the idea. It all came together stupid quick thanks to a kind and generous donation that practically bankrolled my entire initial inventory. Within 3 weeks, I set up my table for the 1st time at a reading with Brett Jenkins. A couple weeks later, we had to put a new roof on our house.

I had to put Vouched on the backburner while I picked up a couple spare jobs to pay off the roof, but as soon as I could, I quit those jobs so I could focus again. Since I’d cleared my plate of some bigger obligations while working to pay off the roof (namely my co-founding role in INDYCOG–now I just blog for them basically), I could really concentrate on Vouched for a change.

Vouched does more than just sell books — you also do other interesting things, like you have a nice-looking website where you link to online writing that is exciting for you and the other people on the Vouched crew. Are there other things that fall under the Vouched umbrella?
The other big endeavor is the Vouched Presents reading series I just started with the help of the Artifice crew on their recent reading tour. I’d been wanting to start a series in Indy since talking to Jim Ruland last AWP about his Vermin on the Mount series, so when Tadd contacted me about setting up a reading, it just made sense to put it under the Vouched umbrella and focus on bringing in small press authors. So I approached Big Car, a local art collective, about hosting it in their gallery and they were more than welcoming. The Artifice crew was incredible and gracious and powerful and actually made me believe something like Vouched could turn my entire city on its tired head.

We’ve also recently partnered with Small Doggies Magazine to write a bi-monthly column called the Vouched Satellite about goings-on in the small press world. Tyler Gobble and I are each writing a column a month reviewing books, discussing small press community happenings, whatever. The first few are up now, and the concept is still new and malleable.

You also announced today that you’re going to run reviews. Will you be accepting submissions for those?
Yeah. I’d be glad to accept review submissions, with the stipulation that we only intend to review small press books. If you have a good review of a small press book, send it our way and I’ll take a look at it.

How do you sell books? Like, where/at what events and also, do you have any tips for “tabling”? What should numbnut tablers like me know for, say, AWP?
I honestly just set a table up flea-market style at art and literary events. There’s not much more to it. I have a monthly table outside Big Car Gallery during the First Friday Art Walk, which is my primary outlet.

As for tips, booze is handy. I’m kind of an awkward dude, so having a beer or flask handy helps me loosen up. NB: Aaron Burch manning the Hobart table at last year’s AWP. Whiskey helps.

Seriously though, I’m probably not the guy to ask about tabling tips. Making a sell takes me forever because more than selling the books, I love talking about them and connecting with people. My wife helped me run the table at Vouched Presents and we made a damn good team. I’d be talking to people about the books and suggesting purchases while she took money and marked sales. Otherwise, I’d have probably only sold half the books I did that night because people would’ve gotten tired of waiting for me to finish talking to someone else so I could take their money.

About how many books are you vouching for currently?
I currently have 22 titles on the table: poetry, fiction, and a few lit journals. I’m probably going to cap it soon actually, probably no more than 25. I don’t want the table to get too overwhelming in the sense of choice for the customer.

Are there “bestsellers” — like are some easier to vouch for than others?
I’m still kind of learning this myself, really. Some sell really well because something about them catches a passerby, like Lovelace’s Eggs catches a lot of people initially because it’s a bright and beautiful book, and Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets because the funny/provocative title. With that initial interest, it’s easy for me to get them to crack open the book and read a particular passage or poem that gets them to buy it.

Other times, it’s the books that make the jump from books-I-dig-a-lot-and-want-to-promote to books-that-completely-flattened-me-when-I-read-them, like We Take Me Apart or When All Our Days Are Numbered or Easter Rabbit. Often people ask me which books to buy, and I’ll naturally gravitate to 1 of these.

Journals have been easier to sell than I initially imagined, too, and it’s usually to people who are interested in the Vouched project as a whole, in discovering new words. I usually suggest journals to these people as something like a sampler of current writing/writers.

Name one thing you like and one thing you dislike about small press culture.
I think the biggest draw to me is the community, and I love highlighting that when talking to people at the table. A couple times when talking to someone about a book, I’ve almost thought about calling the author and saying, “Hey, this guy’s thinking about buying your book. You should tell them why they should.” I love that. It reminds me of the Beats hitching across the country to get to Gary Snyder’s going away party before he left for Japan.

Of course, with community always comes the inevitable drama. There’s bitching and moaning and posturing and jealousy and envy and the people who feel left out or discarded. And of course that sucks, and I’m not above it myself, but you can’t have a good story without that and I don’t think you can have a good community without it either. I’ve only been a part of it for a little over a year, but even in that short time, I’ve seen people grow through that, both as writers and people. I’ve grown myself.

You used to be thick into bands, right? Do you see any overlap worth talking about between the indie lit scene and the indie rock scene (both of which are mega yucky words for some reason)?
I see huge similarities between the current indie lit scene and the indie music scene of the mid-late 90s when all the indie labels and bands were finally starting to learn how to use the internet to promote themselves on sites like Book Your Own Fucking Life, mp3.com, and later Myspace Music.

I feel like the indie lit scene is perhaps a decade behind on that movement, but the indie music scene didn’t have to fight established prejudices that music on the internet wasn’t as good or legit as printed music.

I should probably stop myself there. I could honestly go on all day about the similarities between the two, but basically, as the music world became more democratic and the underground scene more organized, the more opportunities presented themselves for the independent labels and artists to promote and distribute themselves to a wider and more receptive audience. Once the gatekeepers were no longer as central to the industry, the real cream busting their asses in the underground to create smart and beautiful and meaningful music was able to rise to the top.

What kind of money do you hope to see passing through the Vouched budget? Now that you’ve got your roof fixed, are you actively trying to make this a full-time deal, get a summer house, that sort of thing?
If I could grow Vouched into something that sustainable, hell yes. But, who knows. Right now, I only mark the books up $1-2 more than I get them from the presses, and those proceeds go to growing the inventory, some promo materials like postcards and bookmarks, and hopefully to being able to pay the readers who come in for Vouched Presents. I’m more interested in selling books than making money at this point, though, so the lower I can price the books and get them out into the world, the better.

Will you speculate on the entrepreneurial spirit of groups like yours and Pilot, Weightless Books and Annalemma’s flea market table and so on — groups that aren’t just about publishing anymore? Where is this coming from and where is it going?
It’s strange to me to be lumped into that group, to be honest. I hadn’t even thought of that.

Well, as I see it, the move toward innovative promotion and sales in this niche is a new development. I mean, sure, independent bookselling is an old concept, but doing it punk style like this isn’t. Punk style like DIY or whatever — “Okay, I like that idea, I’ll do it.” Running with it. So, my question to you is — what made you want to take up this end of the business rather than running a journal or a press or (strictly) a review site?
Essentially, I wanted to go where people are. The classic promotional venues are severely limited in scope and visibility. Don’t get me wrong, they have their place, but their primary audience is people who already know where to look. I wanted to go where people didn’t even know there was something to look for.

And, to better connect to these people. The Internet provides a great place to connect and share information, but there’s only so much community that can be built around binary code. I wanted a way to talk with the people about these books, not just at them. Sure, there are comment threads and stuff to facilitate some talk/discussion online, but it’s not the same as waving your hands and gulping beer while you geek out with someone about books.

Are you tabling at AWP?
Nah. I have a really strict rule with myself to not compete against the actual publishers or writers I’m trying to support. It’d be a pretty dick move to table at a venue where the presses are trying to shill the same goods. I can imagine Tadd and Rebekah’s opinion of me and Vouched would be much different if I was trying to undercut them at the Artifice reading. Vouched is about promoting presses and writers, not taking their market share. I actually even mention on the site that I don’t do mail-order, and provide links to purchase them online, direct from the press.