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Bookmarked: Publisher Rising

With the release of their first book, The Rust Belt Rising Almanac, The Head and The Hand Press makes a case for the craft of the book.

On June 7, a new press will release their first book, The Rust Belt Rising Almanac, which recalls the long Philadelphia tradition of the almanac (viva Ben Franklin!), while giving literary form to cultural movement that is inspired by—and in turn reshaping—our old cities. Rust Belt Rising will be followed by The Asteroid Belt Almanac (April, 2014), on science and technology , The Corn Belt Almanac,  on food and farming, and The Bible Belt Almanac, on religion and philosophy in the US.

The publisher, The Head & The Hand Press, is the brainchild of Nicolas Esposito, an urban farmer and writer, who has assembled an editorial and marketing team with the idea—contrarian enough in this age of e-books and print-your-own—of publishing books as objects meant to last. Located on the second floor of an old Kensington print shop, the press also holds regular workshops for writers honing their craft. The craft bookmaking idea isn't exactly new, but few publishers have aimed for handmade quality and a wide audience. That's exactly the publisher's strategy and he's engaged a printer, the Michigan-based Thompson-Shore, the same shop that prints and binds books published by Dave Eggers' imprint McSweeney's, to help do it.

Rust Belt Rising includes work by novelist Liz Moore, photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge, and illustrator Julia Kuo.

Esposito and his team will present the ideas for their almanac series and the press itself at the Free Library, June 19, as part of the author event series and will celebrate the release of the Almanac on Friday, June 7 at the Frankford Avenue First Friday.

The second Head & The Hand book, it's worth revealing, is a novel of my own, Lion and Leopard, about the Romantic movement that shook the foundations of the American art establishment in the early 19th century. Lion and Leopard is due out October 8. In the curious way literary circles go, Esposito writes for the Hidden City Daily, which I co-edit; there, he's created a series of excellent monthly reportage-style pieces we call "Behind the Façade."

The press's third book, due out in January, 2014 to be timed with the US troop pull-out, is an Afghan war memoir called War Correspondent by Adrian Bonenberger, a vet and former New York Times war blogger.

Last week, I caught up with Esposito and we talked about his ideas for the press and The Rust Belt Rising Almanac.

Nathaniel Popkin: In the great deconstruction of media, perhaps anything is possible; perhaps it isn't. What's the vision for The Head & The Hand and why do you see it succeeding?

Nicolas Esposito: To an extent, there has been a revolution in publishing. The means of production are definitely in the hands of many more writers and the decentralization of the systems definitely allow for more outlets to produce work across the country. But in this deregulated marketplace and this abundance of opportunities for writers, publishing houses are now more relevant than ever, needed to provide that filter and quality control for work that is being produced. But when industries evolve, there's always a giddy tendency to want to tear everything down and start anew. Deconstruction is a great word because in this era of media that's what is happening.

The old system has just been deconstructed and a new one is being built. So at The Head & The Hand, we want to take all of the good materials and tools from that deconstructed system, such as the market infrastructure and best practices. But then we want to leave behind situations where an author has limited contact with his editor, never meets the marketing and publicity team, and doesn't have input as to what the finished product looks like. We want to create collaborative relationships between our authors and every facet of what gets a manuscript from an idea to a book on a shelf.  It may seem counterintuitive, but unless the author was super famous, it seemed like the old system looked at less prominent writers as just a cog in the production wheel, no matter the talent. But we want to put our full effort into every title we work with and we want our authors to have the same level of investment. And it's that mutual investment that we think will make us successful. 

NP: I've heard you talk about McSweeney's and Dave Eggers as a model for your press, but how, exactly?

NE: Well, the first thing I can say is that in an era where everyone is proclaiming the print book dead, it's the attention to aesthetic detail that McSweeney's has that will keep print alive. Their books are beautiful and we hope to produce the same quality of work.

But this also goes back to what we were just talking about. When starting a publishing company was much more onerous, and there were fewer players, publishing houses could let the work they produce speak for their company. But with so many houses out there, publishing companies need to have their own personalities and diversify their scope to remain relevant. McSweeney's has a personality and they have tons of different media that keep their name out there. We're trying to do something similar by forging our own personality and innovating into as many forms of media as we can—whether they are almanacs or story telling podcasts.

NP: You're calling what you're doing craft publishing--and this is something like craft brewing, craft coffee roasting, craft metal work, etc....and it's meant in a similar way to resonate with the ruins of industrial landscape we inhabit. Are you making an explicit connection to Philadelphia's once vital publishing industry—or is that not exactly the point?

NE: I don't think we had Philly's historic publishing industry in mind, but we certainly were influenced by Philly's ethos as a city. When you look at the history of Philadelphia, particularly Kensington where we are located, it wasn't known for huge industry. Instead, it was known for industries that emphasized craft, hence the moniker "The Workshop of the World."

I like the word craft because it forces us to live up to the image of the craftsman. Although I want to run a profitable and successful business (which means we have to sell a lot of books in the process), I never want to get to a point where I'm no longer involved in the actual processes that create the books like editing and marketing. And as we move forward, we've created systems where our editorial team can collaborate with marketing and vice versa. To keep this level of collaboration, it benefits us to stay small, to focus more on the quality of the titles as opposed to how many we can crank out.

NP: The Rust Belt Rising Almanac, which will be the first book published by The Head & The Hand, due out June 7, is meant to revise the almanac tradition (an old one here) while also making a declaration about what's happening across the Rust Belt, from Philly to Detroit (you even include a map). What's the relationship of the stories, poems, art, essays, and interviews to the act of forging a new city out of an old one? Are they somehow intrinsically tied?

NE: I'm not sure exactly why I got the idea to recreate an almanac. But after mentioning it to my editorial director Linda Gallant, she suggested a trip to the Rosenbach Museum in Center City where we found a literal treasure trove of almanacs. After reading original copies of Poor Richard's Almanack, as well as a ton of other great ones, and seeing all of the innovative and witty compartments to the almanac, such as maps, astrological charts, satirical essays, poems, prose, etc., we found our form.

And that's where I feel the tie in is with the city. Although I can claim many short story or poetry collections as some of my favorite books, I always felt like these anthologies sometimes lacked a certain curatorial polish. And by having the theme of the rust belt, with the structure of the almanac, we were able to not just give context to the pieces, but to also really make them live and breathe in relation to the other pieces around them. And as we reimagine these cities, we want to do the same thing. We don't just want to build houses and amenities, but we want to intentionally cultivate these necessities into the urban landscape to enhance the quality of living and creativity of our environments.

NP: You employ a pseudonymous editor, Jaheymus Joyce Zeit-Geistman, whose essay introduces the reader to the content inside. This is a pretty damn funny "letter from the editor," but it comes out of the almanac tradition—as does the critical-political edge that infects the content. What's the inspiration?

NE: As people will read in the essay, Mr. Zeit-Geistman is the quintessential caricature of the academic; a slew of degrees, an arduous vocabulary, a hyphenated last name. We realize this is over the top, but through this playful lambasting, we wanted to set the tone that these stories are not "studies" of life in the rust belt. They are stories by people who live in these cities and who have faced the struggles, triumphs, and sheer insanity of living in a post-industrial landscape. I have a neighbor who is an educated professional, and every time I see her walking her dog, she tells me another story of something she saw in the neighborhood and always finishes her story with the line, "You can't make this sh*t up." There's something about actually living in these neighborhoods that an academic paper just can't capture."

NP: At the heart of the almanac seems to be a desire to push back: against labels, against easy answers, against simple solutions, while also accepting the rust belt landscape for what it is on its terms. And so amidst the open-ended stories are essays—on toxic pollution, on prostitution, on sports failure. Can you describe the balance here?

NE: The balance is that although we do think the rust belt is rising, hence the title, anyone who comes here knows that these cities are far from stable and life is far from normal. There is still a lot of work to be done and we wanted to capture the nuance by presenting stories of revitalization right next to stories of degradation because both exist. I think Liz Moore said it best in the photo essay she did with Jeffrey Stockbridge when she said of our neighborhood, "Kensington, while desperate in certain ways, is also thrilling. It's brilliant. It's alive and dead at once."

NP: Finally, Philadelphia was once the capital of the British North American colonies, the United States, the state of Pennsylvania, the American commerce system, and the American industrial system. It appears in this Rust Belt Rising Almanac to be at the center of an imagined Rust Belt nation—the biggest, most cosmically screwy of all and with all the that part of the point or just the accident of the first volume?

NE: It actually was a little strange that because the city has had so many personas, a lot of people don't think of Philadelphia as a rust belt city. But to me there's no better example. Just drive into the city over the Ben Franklin Bridge and one of the first things you see is an old factory with rust on it, right near Center City.

But I don't think we intended Philly to be at the center of this anthology. As a new company based in Philly, we just had more exposure here for submissions. But the real point is that there is no center. A huge motivation for this almanac, and our company in general, is to defeat the notion that the real centers for art and culture are in New York and San Francisco, and that what's done in Philly is just quaint and local. That's patronizing to me, especially because it's not true. And if we do nothing else, we hope that the people who read the almanac agree.