This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

This is the third in an ongoing series looking at small press America.

October 1, 2002 — Even for self–publishing, it started as a small–scale effort.

"It was something I did so I could give my stuff to people at readings," says Kevin Sampsell, talking about how, when he was in his early twenties, he used to collect his poetry into self–produced chapbooks to hand out in the cafés of Spokane, Washington. "I had no aspirations to make it into a, you know, regular thing."

But soon, especially after Sampsell moved to Portland, where he eventually became a staffer at the famous Powell's Bookstore, he began offering to make chapbooks for some other local writers that he liked. And his little press "sort of flourished from there."

Now, ten years later, what started as a kind of underground vanity press has indeed become a regular "thing" — a full–scale publishing house, although it's not exactly regular by other standards, nor is it very large. But Sampsell's Future Tense Books has become one of the most quirky, risqué, and innovative small presses in America, championing a wide variety of outsider writers in small, wildly designed inexpensive paperbacks and chapbooks.

Among the writers Sampsell has published are some big names from the literary underground, including performance poet Ritah Parrish, Mike Topp, a poet and fiction writer famed for his contributions to McSweeney's, and Richard Meltzer, the man whom, Sampsell notes on the Future Tense website, "is known for creating the gonzo art of rock journalism." (Meltzer's Future Tense book is a golf book called "Holes," about which the website warns, "Grammar, punctuation and English purists may want to drink some hard liquor before this one!")

In fact, Future Tense seems to have become a roosting place for offbeat royalty. For example, while Karl Koweski's short story collection "Playthings" is his first book, the author is well known to followers of the zine scene.

Other books Sampsell is currently hawking on the Future tense website include "Doll Head Eater," by Gregory Tozian ("Think of a Raymond Carver story immersed in alien radioactive ooze"); "paper or plastic," by Michael Walsh ("Subliminal piano noise or dyslexic diary?"); and "The Diner Anthology" ("Highlighting the quirky and surreal world of eating and drinking out"), a good introduction to who's who in underground literary America.

By the standards of the chapbook kingdom, many of Sampsell's books have done quite well. "Grosse Pointe Girl," a memoir of life in that affluent suburb by Sarah Grace McCandless, has sold about 1,500 copies, a huge figure for the micropress world.

But one of the press's books — the 44–page chapbook "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" — has done phenomenally well by anyone's standards, to the point of earning its 14–year–old author, the pseudonymous Zoe Trope, a six–figure contract with HarperCollins for an expanded version.

Sampsell discovered the author when he was roped into doing something he doesn't like to do — teach a creative writing class, in this case for local eighth graders.

"It was like an every Wednesday after school kind of thing," he says. "I was talked into it because another teacher had cancelled. And Zoe was one of the students. She was really talented at the time. But I didn't discover her real talent until after the class was over and she started e–mailing me journal entries about her freshman year."

Sampsell says he told her, "Keep writing these and we'll put out a book."

The result, published in October, 2001, was a memoir cloaked as a novel (to avoid legal suits), and "the biggest thing I've published," says Sampsell. "For a chapbook it's pretty amazing — we've sold about 1,600 copies."

Those were astronomical figures for a press where the first run of a book is typically 100–200 copies. And gaining the interest of a mainstream publishing house such as HarperCollins was also a surprise for a renegade publisher, some of whose titles are too risqué to repeat in a family newspaper. (And some of whose fare borders on the pornographic — Sampsell's own "Let's Start Something Special" comes with the advisory, "18 and older please.")

But the success of "Freshman" — from which Sampsell got 10 percent of the deal — doesn't seem as if it's going to change things at Future Tense. Sampsell says he hopes to publish a few more paperbacks, as opposed to chapbooks, and "sell enough to break even."

"But," he says, "if I have to keep doing chapbooks, even if I can only do just one book a year, I'd like to do it for the rest of my life."

Last Week’s Column: HE'S BAAAACK! THE RETURN OF J-FRANZ A multi–millionaire author wouldn't even apply for, let alone accept, scant taxpayer funds earmarked for struggling writers . . . would he?


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.