John Martin: A Happy Publisher (1980)

John Martin is a lucky Santa Barbaran whose publishing firm, Black Sparrow, succeeds at selling books of poetry, fiction and literary nonfiction (and only those). At a time when the larger New York publishing houses are “cutting back” to only a token few volumes of poetry and “literary fiction” each year, Black Sparrow continues to specialize in Literature and to publish a good deal more of it.

Not unlike other small publishers, John Martin operates out of his home, a villa on the north end of Santa Barbara. Behind his house is a separate building, roughly fourteen feet by twelve, that was originally a bath house. Here he has his Black Sparrow office, his addressograph machine, two typewriters and his postage stamps. (Metered postage is not his style.) The glass walls of his office look out at the Santa Barbara mountains, and also in the backyard, twenty feet away, is a fair-sized swimming pool.

Born in 1930, in San Francisco, Martin grew up in Los Angeles, discovering Literature as a teenager; and one reason why he dropped out of college, during his first year there, was that his favorite modern authors—Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and Wallace Stevens among them—were not then taught. Instead, he went to work in an office supply store, beginning as a factotum; within three months he was managing the place. A dozen years later the company had grown from three employees to forty. Since he had access to printing machinery, he issued five broadsides of the poetry of Charles Bukowski, a Los Angeles writer who extends and exceeds Henry Miller in his vivid portrayal of underside living; and Martin gave them freely to the secretaries and clerks in his office supply company. (These broadsides are now worth several hundred dollars apiece.)

On the side he collected first editions of the modern masters, which he found in used bookstores mostly around Los Angeles. “Instead of smoking,” he reminisced in California tones, “I spent twenty years’ cigarette money scouring for first editions.” By the 1960s, luckily for Martin, the libraries of expanding universities wanted first editions they did not have. In 1965, he sold this collection for $50,000, keeping $35,000 for himself after commissions and taxes. With this money he started Black Sparrow, quitting his job and intending to live off his publishing until his back accounts ran dry. Unlike other American literary publishers who based their firms on inherited wealth, Martin had only his own money; and to this day his only assets are his car, his house and his business.

The first full-length books he did were Ron Loewinsohn’s L’ Autre (1967) and Robert Kelly’s Finding the Measure (1968). Before long the several hundred copies of each title sold out, “giving me enough money to pay off the printer and make a few hundred dollars. I discovered I could make a living doing so.” Since his favorite modern poets were Stevens and Pound, he thought at first he would concentrate on “their legitimate descendants,” as he now calls them, and so published writers associated with the Black Mountain school of American poetry—Robert Creeley, Fielding Dawson, Paul Blackburn, and Diane Wakoski. “All the authors I really liked, who were productive and living, would give me all their work or, if they had contracts elsewhere, were delighted to give me some of it.” He paused to savor his view. “All these people I’m pleased to have discovered on my own. No professor told me.”

From the perspective of 1980, he can see that his business “turned” in 1970. Then was his nadir: “when I had $100 in the bank account and thought to myself, this is it, I’ll have to get a job.” The second crisis came in 1973, when he published D. H. Lawrence’s The Escaped Cock, which is the original, unexpurgated edition of a text previously published in 1929 as “The Man Who Died.” Before publication he had orders for 2,000 copies and so for the first time hired a shipping clerk. “Until then I did everything myself —shipping, receiving, bookkeeping, invoicing, production management, dealing with authors. I did everything except book design, which my wife Barbara did. I worked eighty hours a week, out of a small Los Angeles apartment.”

Meanwhile, Martin has been privately collecting first editions, manuscripts and other literary materials of D. H. Lawrence; and in 1975 he sold this collection to a university library for a high five-figure price. This check he luckily used to purchase the Santa Barbara nest that currently houses Black Sparrow. The books are stored on neat shelves in the Martins’ basement. He is his own stockboy, personally filling orders that are meticulously mailed with newspaper wrapping and cardboard backing from a shipping table in his garage. To his office each working day come a full-time assistant, a part-time shipping clerk and a part-time bookkeeper. Nowadays, Black Sparrow each year ships 150,000 books, grosses around $500,000, pays its authors over $75,000 in royalties, publishes fifteen new titles, and rewards its master with $20,000 annual income. To this day he has never incorporated, because, he explains, “I do business as myself, not as a corporation.”

One way that the firm has recently changed is that it is now publishing more fiction than before (if not more fiction than poetry) and more literary nonfiction as well. Among its titles for mid-1980 are Henry Miller’s notes on D. H. Lawrence’s novel Aaron’s Rod, Ekbert Fass’s book-length critical essay on the poet Ted Hughes, a novel by John Fante, and two volumes of the complete correspondence of the Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. Having once published books in editions of less than a thousand, he now issues at least 2,500 copies; and his bestseller for 1979, Charles Bukowski’s Women, sold 25,000 copies.

In characterizing his company, Martin uses the term “independent publisher” to distinguish it not only from the commercial publishing houses but also from those that are economically dependent upon literary grants. Independent means to him that he is “independent of market, of pressure groups, of literary establishments and granting agencies, and of the authors themselves. They can literally publish what they like. I am a totally literary person. I have no desire to publish anything in any other area. I want to die never having been to Las Vegas, gone to Disneyland, or watched a whole TV show, except for sports.”

One reason why he moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara was that his printer was there, Macintosh and Young; and this printer remains a keystone in Santa Barbara publishing. Upstairs from it, in the same building on Santa Barbara’s State Street, are the offices of Noel Young’s Capra Press, which specializes in literary and lifestyle books; Ross Erikson, which does literature and Eastern mysticism; and Mudborn Press, which does poetry, fiction and autobiography. Nearby in Santa Barbara are other independent, mostly commercial publishers who are likewise specialized: Woodbridge for food books; Pat Bragg for health books; Parachute for books on parachuting and hand-gliding; Turkey for poetry and art; and ABC-Clio for scholarly art books.

However, even among his immediate peers, John Martin is special. As Noel Young put it, “He’s oblivious to the procedures of publishing, or what they are supposed to be; and I don’t know how he gets away with it. He doesn’t advertise; he doesn’t apply for grants or get loans; he pays his bills on time; he doesn’t call sales meetings; he doesn’t go to book fairs or booksellers’ conventions; he doesn’t do commercial books to support his literary titles; he doesn’t go to parties that authors or bookstores arrange for his books.” Conversely, Black Sparrow establishes an enviable standard. To Judyl Mudfoot of Mudborn Press, “Our whole view of publishing is different because of John. His example makes surviving and succeeding as a literary publisher possible. I would view it entirely differently if I never met John.” Even outside Santa Barbara, many small poetry publishers are imitating Black Sparrow, not only in the design of their books but in their manner of operation; but none are yet as commercially successful.

True to his image of himself as independent, Martin has conducted his business in isolation. Remarkably few of his writers have met him more than once, and some have never met him at all. Even though he has so far published nine of Joyce Carol Oates’s books, for instance, they have never met. “That means,” he explains, “I keep my attention on their work, rather than on their personalities.”

By 1980 the business of Black Sparrow has settled down. There are on hand hundreds of “standing orders” from libraries, taking hardback editions of every Black Sparrow book; and he will soon celebrate his own success by publishing a bibliography of the first 300 titles. He is also founding a new literary journal entitled “Blast,” after an earlier magazine published by Wyndham Lewis (his current literary hero); and “Blast” he promises “will be the most important literary journal of the eighties. It will be mean and lean.”

Glancing from time to time at the distracting view, he said, “At bottom every successful publisher has an altruistic love of literature; but as businessmen they let commercial considerations override their personal taste. I’ve had at least ten or fifteen commercial publishers tell me that they wish they could do what I do. Whereas I get a high out of every book I publish, their satisfactions are fewer and farther between. I get fifteen highs a year, while they get only one every two years.”