About Charles d’Ambrosio and Clear Cut Press as best as I can figure

Orphans: Essays, was released last year by Astoria-based Clear Cut Press, about which he says, “I have so little good to say about them I am refraining from saying anything.” — Karla Starr’s profile in the Willamette Weekly of first-rate writer Charles d’Ambrosio

Matthew Stadler, the publisher of Clear Cut Press, said it was like a divorce. “He won’t return my e-mails,” Stadler said.

Here is what happened with Charles d’Ambrosio and Clear Cut as best as I can tell. D’Ambrosio tried to resell Orphans to Random House (Knopf), something he is free to do under Clear Cut’s utopian terms.


All was going fine in this plan until Clear Cut actually published Orphans. Publication means they sent out galleys to book reviewers, had copies printed and sent to distributors and subscribers. At the time of the book’s release, d’Ambrosio said, “Clear Cut hopes to sell books primarily through subscriptions (and also, but secondarily, online and in a smattering of bookstores).”

Clear Cut, as a small press, is only equipped to sell through mail order, online, and through a smattering of bookstores able to deal with their distributor, the great, SPD. SPD is a nonprofit with the specific function of supplying poetry, cultural criticism (like Orphans), experimental novels, short story collections, etc pretty much only to independent bookstores. Even here, not all independents can readily access books from SPD for some reason. Their books show up as special order, for instance, through the Booksense Program. This in effect means the book is published but difficult to get through the regular channel of book commerce: the brick and mortar bookstore. It also means that many of the commercial mechanisms of the large bookseller don’t come into play: book reps, trade shows, store placemen, payoffs to the various chains promo channels such as The Barnes and Noble Discovery Series.

By the time of the book’s release, industry reviewers went crazy for Orphans. It got three stars in Kirkus Reviews, I think, and ended up getting very widely reviewed for a small press book. Even though the book (from my angle) is really good, I suspect the size and volume of this praise had mostly had to do with the fact that when d’Ambrosio made plans to publish Orphans, he hadn’t really been publishing stories for ten years and then his fiction began to appear regularly in The New Yorker and Best American / O’Henry series. So by the time Orphans actually came out, the trade was ready for him.

I think d’Ambrosio’s plan to resell Orphans was actually a good and one and fair. It sounds in line with the situation at McSweeney’s. Clear Cut even less than McSweeney’s doesn’t share the same audience as Random House (Knopf). With Random House (Knopf), D’Ambrosio is hoping to hit the readers who frequent the Borders in stripmalls across the nation, a market Clear Cut will never reach. For David Eggers or Neil Pollack books come out through McSweeney’s and then through Vintage or what have you; the mass market paperback is where these writers found a potential mass audience. In this kind of scale, which is the kind of thing that seems far beyond my own modest means, Clear Cut has actually added value to d’Ambrosio’s book. They have created a word-of-mouth among people who have paid close enough attention to have heard of Clear Cut. What is Clear Cut’s 1,500 copies to Random House (Knopf) infinite supply?

A recent study demonstrated, for instance that used book sales actually increase the overall market, which is kind of counterintuitive. “The used book market creates a lot more value than it destroys,” The New York Times. The logic I guess is that there are readers who will buy books if they know they can resell them and there are readers who will only buy used books. A similar logic must behind the tradition of publishing a hard copy book and then a paperback edition. It follows that if another layer is added, a semi-secret small press layer, that this would also increase the overall commerce associated with the book. A similar effect can be observed in retail, where competition results in an overall increase of consumers because in order for two companies to sell coffee for instance, they don’t just steal each other’s customers but increase the overall number of consumers.

Random House (Knopf) then actually benefits from small presses bringing them future readers of future d’Ambrosio, Eggers, Pollac, etc. books, much less readers who may prefer the actual Knopf product over Clear Cut’s product.

On Amazon, someone even says this of the Clear Cut edition of Orphans

HOWEVER, this book’s format is an insult to the first-rate work it contains. The book is only slightly larger than a deck of cards, and if your hands are any bigger than a small child’s, it is problematic to hold. The pages resist opening in such a way that it’s often a pain to read the words closest to the inner margin. The print is small and tightly packed, and, physically, it’s just ridiculous. I feel a bit irritated on behalf of D’Ambrosio, whose wonderful work is given shoddy packaging that will not age well. I hope a real publisher gets the rights to this book some day, and prints a decent edition.

So, clearly we are looking at least one reader who would cough up 23 bucks for a new edition. With the advent of easy on the eyes typography for aging boomers, there could be a real need for a special reading edition.

Of course Random House (Knopf) big behemoth that it is, doesn’t think this way, I guess because they pulled the contract for Orphans. This is typical when numbers are applied to books. Black Heron Press has a hard time selling paperback reprints for their books because if their books do poorly, the industry doesn’t think there is a market for them, and if they sell well, then the industry things Black Heron has sold books to all of the readers who want to read the book.

On the Emerging Writers Forum, d’Ambrosio expressed regret once he realized he had to make a decision to either publish with Random House (Knopf) or Clear Cut. Never mind the sequence of events that Clear Cut had planned to publish this collection years before Random House (Knopf) had entered the picture, in retrospec picture d’Ambrosio saw that a clear choice had been offered, Clear Cut or Random House rather than Clear Cut and Random House:

Clear Cut changed their model, or something, and crossed over into traditional publishing terrain; and as soon as Publishers Weekly reviewed their edition of the book, I realized that I would have to pull my contract at Knopf. I’m a little heartsick at this moment, heartsick and pissed off. Things have been a little frosty between me and Clear Cut. Had I known the full story, I would never have published with them. It just wasn’t smart for me –I lost money, the books won’t ever be on the shelves at bookstores, and Clear Cut just can’t reach the readers Knopf would have reached. Plus, Knopf is publishing my next collection of stories, and it would have meant a lot to me to have both books at the same house. I’ll regret this move for a long time. I lost a lot, publishing
with a small press. I thought I was doing them a favor, I thought I was being nice, but really I was just being stupid.

In addition d’Ambrosio has joined the long line of macho self-styled outsider writers who go about severing their connection to their community and then claim they’ve somehow appeared in whole cloth brilliance before the reading public. Hemingway stole from Gertrude Stein and then spent the rest of his career exploiting a few hunks of her style (to great effect I think); but he also went about portraying her as an old bat. Raymond Carver leaned on Gordon Lish and then distanced himself from the camp of Minimalism, admittedly a container that was shortly filled with gasoline and set on fire.)

I’m not much of a joiner, and at times I’ve bristled at the corporate identity of [Clear Cut Press], its tendency to elevate itself or the group endeavor over the individual writers involved. I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of a band of writers, confederated under an imprint, and the suggestion that we share an aesthetic or political or regional outlook. And even if we did share these things, I’d like to reach out a little further than Idaho for an audience.

As a member of the community he’s rejecting I can’t help but feel rejected myself, although I don’t feel called out in this rejection since I have the sense that he has only regarded me or my work as a part of the general lump of Clear Cut/Seattle/The Stranger, which naturally stings a bit since the first half of The Point is a book I regarded for a long time as an essential part of the architecture of my city.

Even so while I’m attracted to this myth of the isolated genius writer, in practical terms, no writer becomes what they are without other writers, editors, and readers. D’Ambrosio himself, his unknowable personal turmoil aside, owes his presence as a writer to a constellation of editors. Matthew Stadler and Emily White at The Stranger supported his writing of many of the essays in Orphans during the 1990s. Stadler went on to provide work for D’Ambrosio in Nest. The New Yorker’s editorial staff contributed greatly to the six stories in The Dead Fish Museum. I find d’Ambrosio statement disingenuous that he’s not much of a joiner. He has joined the largest corporate identity in publishing, Random House. He joined the most pervasive academic entity in creative writing, The University of Iowa (D’Ambrosio’s alma matter). There is no more readily identifiable brand in the contemporary short story than The New Yorker, aka the envy-addled pejorative, “New Yorker fiction.” Like Hemingway trading the transatlantic review for Maxwell Perkins, D’Ambrosio is trading Clear Cut for Random House (Knopf) and the New Yorker.

Who can blame him? These are the most prestigious venues in the United States, They are, in literary terms, big business.

Doubtlessly, D’Ambrosio has many specific complaints with the way in which Clear Cut runs its business. In my own dealings with small presses I’ve found them to be run by people who love books and words and ideas first and people who are not business people. Whenever I’ve had a business expectation of a small press I have been disappointed in the particulars. At the same time, if a small press was run as a maxium profit business, I doubt it would be in the business of publishing poetry, literary essays, and lit novels. The only reason I can get publishing at all is that there are people who will take the risk publishing my books. Small presses that are run as businesses end up like this.

But to say, “I have so little good to say about them I am refraining from saying anything,” as if they have wrong him somehow or “I’m not much of a joiner,” is self-mythologizing bullshit. It’s an old trope, but bullshit nonetheless.

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