Debra Di Blasi

Posted: March 10, 2011

interviewed by Chris Richards, December 2010

Debra Di Blasi owns Jaded Ibis Press, a multimedia company producing fine and unual works of literature, art, and music. The company takes a unique position in the publishing industry, providing an outlet for creativity rarely supported by big publishers, as well as making an effort to be as sustainable as possible in their practice. We were fortunate to catch up with Debra and hear what she has to say about the company and its progressive stance in the industry.

Greetings, Can you give us a brief explanation of who you are and what Jaded Ibis Press does?

I’m founding publisher of Jaded Ibis Press whose mission is to bring together diverse art forms, and give wider exposure to literary, visual and musical artists of exceptional talent.  I’m also a multi-genre, multimedia writer and artist who teaches and lectures at universities and conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada on the topic of 21st narrative forms. Much of my recent writing is political and social. My forthcoming book, Skin of the Sun, in part explores the gap between Third World and First World cultures. My husband and I spend part of almost every year in South Africa where Third World crises are shockingly present. The book I’m currently writing explores environmental and personal extinctions and attempts to express our inexpressible grief by messing with grammar and coining new words.

There are a number of things that make Jaded Ibis unusual:

(1)   We’re trying to bring sustainability to the publishing industry.

(2)   We produce each book in four formats and four budgets: ebook (under $10), black & white paperback ($12-18), color paperback ($49-60), and fine art limited edition (from $2,000-20,000).

(3)   Every project includes music and art created specifically for the book.  For example, I just received DJ Spooky’s groovy remix of Bach’s Goldberg Variations 1-3 that he created for Davis Schneiderman’s book, Blank, a 200-page novel that contains only chapter titles and pyrographic (burned) drawings by Susan White.  The remixes will be “embedded” in the fine art edition, on a recycled, bamboo flash drive.  Eventually, we’ll include it in a CD compilation of all music composed for our first 10-12 books.

(4)   We’ve also started inviting video artists to create innovative “book trailers” that experiment with the medium. These are works of art, not those awful TV spots advertising the murder mystery.

What Goals do you have for Jaded Ibis Press and its impact on the world?

I’m passionate about promoting writing that breaks rules, building interconnections between art disciplines, and moving books into the 21st Century.  Literature is really the only art whose form is still tied to the 19th Century, and where “thinking inside the box” is rewarded rather than frowned upon.  That problem applies to the publishing industry’s business model, too. (More on that later.)

Our projects facilitate conversations between participating artists and their readers, listeners and viewers, and show them extraordinary works they might not discover on their own.  It’s a way to expand audience for everyone involved.  For example, by reading Janice Lee’s novel, Daughter, someone gets introduced to the photographer Rochelle Ritchie Spencer and the band Resident Anti-Hero. I hope fans of the band and photographer might then pick up a copy of Daughter and begin to realize how these projects are related.  Here’s my diagram of the process:

I like the idea of musicians and artists riffing off something they read in one of our books.  It might be a single sentence that struck them as profound.  Or an image they couldn’t shake.  Or it might be just a tone or texture.  But in the process of responding, they’re somehow changed for the wiser.  The more compartmentalized a creator, the more stagnant their creations become over time.  Exploring and using other art forms for inspiration adds another level to the creative process.

It’s also really interesting for our authors (and me) to see how others respond to their writing.  What comes back to them in music and art inevitably and positively affects the way they will approach their next book – whether they’re conscious of it or not.

What message or messages are you trying to instill in your audience?

The idea that a book (or song or painting) has a “correct” meaning is a lie that’s been pounded into us from well-meaning but misdirected teachers and critics. Books have as many different meanings and different ways to read them as there are different readers, much in the same way a song elicits different feelings and ideas from different listeners. Often a reader will come up to me and tell me something about one of my books that I hadn’t even thought of while writing it.  And that’s swell!  It means my writing went out into the world like water instead of a brick – fluid enough to allow personal interpretation rather than knocking the reader over the head with forced meaning.

And the best works (like those we publish, wink-wink!) really are a lot of fun if you read them as if they’re works of art that happen to use words.  Don’t look for answers, look for questions.  Why is this person writing this book in this style at this time in history?  What does this have to do with me and the way I live now?

In the publishing industry, far too much focus is put on the product at the expense of the process. Literature has become a manufacturing commodity above all else – not unlike Hollywood, where the room for experimentation has been virtually stripped bare. Reading is a creative process, too.  It’s experimental.  You learn from the act, you get better at it, you begin to see patterns everywhere.  This growth happens quietly but surely. One day you pick up something you read ten years ago, a book you found challenging then, and you reread it and realize how much you’ve learned in those ten years.

On the Jaded Ibis Press website, I came across a couple statements: “We support Originality” and “We Respect Creators”.  What do those statements mean to you and how do they influence decisions at the company?

As a widely published author of experimental writing I know firsthand that most groundbreaking authors end up dangling from the bottom branches of the power tree, even though they are in fact the seed, the roots and the sapling.

Culture evolves because of creators and innovators.  That’s why I choose manuscripts that strive to break boundaries and ignore preconceived notions of what is “fiction” or “poetry” or “memoir”.  Some books appear to break only a few rules – like Patricia Catto’s family memoir Aunt Pig of Puglia that looks conventional on the page but sets her childhood in Puglia, Italy, even though she grew up in Auburn, New York – so you have to ask yourself what doing something like that says about the idea of a memoir, about family myth-making, about the importance of the emotional recollection versus the rational one. Others simply throw away rules altogether, like the above-mentioned, Blank.  These books force us to question the many rules we live by and whether those rules are valuable or just methods of maintaining the status quo.

All of our books are amazing inventions, and our authors work hard at finding new ways to comment on the way we live now, at this peculiar time and place. I pay my authors four times the standard royalty rate because they earn it.  I’d pay them more if I could find a way to reduce my bottom line.  Same goes for the artists who receive 10% royalties, and the musicians who will share a 60% of our proceeds from the CD compilation we’re putting together at the end of 2011.

Also on the website, under the “You Should Know” section, some information outlining the wastefulness of the traditional publishing industry is provided.  Can you briefly summarize this and explain how Jaded Ibis Press strives to provide a unique and more sustainable model for the industry?

There’s so much waste in publishing! Every year an estimated 150 Billion (150,000,000,000!) pages of books are printed and bound, plus book covers and book jackets.  The shipping industry uses rare, unsustainable hardwoods to transport these books from one end of the continent to the other.  Consider the resources and energy burned to print, package, transport, return, warehouse, re-transport, and shred half of those 150 Billion pages because no one bought them. Yes, shred! Even if those estimated 75 Billion pages are recycled, that process requires huge amounts of energy and resources, too.

Print-on-demand services like Amazon’s CreateSpace reduces so much of this waste because you don’t print more than you need.  It’s closer to a 1-to-1 seller-to-buyer ratio.  Ebooks, of course, appear to be even more sustainable since the only consumer product is just one e-reader, like a single Kindle that can hold up to 3,500 digital books.  I try to use digital versions to promote our books, too, but I’m finding that most book reviewers, critics other journalists and some writers still demand a hard copy.

Finally, we try to use sustainable and/or recycled materials whenever we can to produce our fine art limited editions. Anna Joy Springer’s, The Vicious Red Relic, Love, takes the form of a quiver of arrows. The quiver’s strap, top and bottom are made of recycled leather; the arrow cores are bamboo, one of my favorite materials. Co-authors of No One Told Me I Was Going To Disappear, J.A. Tyler and John Dermot Woods, make an overt comment about value and waste by designing their fine art version in two forms: (1) The text is printed on recycled paper and gift-wrapped in exquisite paper printed with the book’s images. (2) The art is printed on recycled paper and gift-wrapped in exquisite paper printed with the book’s text. The reader must destroy the art to read the words, and vice versa.

Sometimes, however, a book design will require me to purchase a material that reflects less our sustainable approach and more the book’s concept, as in Christopher Grimes’. The Pornographers, a 148-page sentence that examines the porn industry, 9/11, and pregnant women doing yoga. The sentence is coiled inside a plastic breast that’s locked inside a plexiglass box full of scented K-Y Jelly.  We have a sense of humor, too!

What first led you to the decision to utilize your efforts at Jaded Ibis Press to provide a revolutionary model for both the industry and the authors you publish?

First, my amazingly talented friends couldn’t get their books published because they were writing toward the future and the industry was publishing toward the past.  Or, like David Hoenigman, had been published but not treated with the respect he deserved based on the brilliance of his book, Burn Your Belongings.

Secondly, when digital technologies became accessible to the general public and the quality of print-on-demand books improved, I realized that I could step into the role of publisher without a big startup investment and begin to fix the problems I saw from the perspective of writer.

Thirdly, my husband is an architect for a Seattle firm who specializes in sustainable (green) design. Listening to him talk about energy issues caused me to investigate the waste created in publishing.  I started deconstructing the word “sustainable” as it relates not only to the environment but also literature and the arts.  What sustains us now?  What will sustain us later – not just environmentally but intellectually?

Do you have advice for other writers, musicians, or artists who are also interested in re-inventing the industry?

Collaborate.  Cooperate. Expand your aesthetic and intellectual horizons.  The world consists of interconnected systems: ecological, social, political, cultural….  Use that underlying structure to design partnerships with like-minded artists and business people and therefore create a greater sphere of influence.  A single thread doesn’t catch many flies in the spider’s web.  Form symbiotic relationships.  Seek common ground, not differences, and work from that point forward.

Would you say Jaded Ibis Press is attempting to provide an outlet that puts the power back in the hands of authors?  Is there any hope for success?

I’d say we’ve already achieved a noticeable level of success in this area.  It’s obvious that our authors are having fun, cross-pollinating, so to speak. They, and others, are excited about what Jaded Ibis might mean for the future of literary arts. Because we approach every book as collaboration, the “business” process not only has a sense of play to it but also makes me a more astute manager, as I’m constantly learning from the writers, musicians and visual artists.

Although I have veto power – and sometimes use it – our authors are given far more creative reign than big publishers who typically view writers as milk cows.  After all, our writers are innovators; their ideas often astonish me, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t listen and learn from them.

I also strive for transparency in all areas, including financial, and insist they ask me about anything that doesn’t make sense.  But I don’t burden anyone else with the Press’s extraneous finance, like general office overhead; that’s my responsibility.

What personal lifestyle choices have you made which reflect the views and opinions expressed through Jaded Ibis Press?

I read science and technology news to learn the latest findings regarding the environment, manufacturing, human ecology, inventions, etc.  This helps direct me toward living with integrity.  What I sometimes discover is that a behavior that I thought was “green” or “ethical” is in fact quite the opposite because of peripheral factors.

Generally, however, I try to keep my own carbon footprint low by living in a sustainable apartment (rated LEED Silver); walking the 27 blocks to my office (I love walking!) or, in really bad weather, taking the bus; buying local when I can; not buying at all if I can find a way to reuse or fix what I already have; recycling; turning off lights and water…the usual. Of course, flying across the country to lecture at a conference or visit our place in South Africa adds a fat sixth toe to that carbon footprint, doesn’t it!

I’d really like to get the message out to print-on-demand services to operate greener: 100% recycled paper, for example, and environmentally smart inks. (I was going to say soy-based inks, but here’s a example of science research making me rethink my “green” impulse: overproduction of soybeans can lead to devastating crop disease, spread of genetically-modified plants, and deforestation that contributes to global warming and rapid extinctions.  You see?  Every decision is often — if not always — more complex that we initially think.)

Last but not least, I support the arts whenever and wherever I can because I believe the humanities teach us how to become better human beings, and to evolve toward our full positive potential as a species.