What do you usually wish for as an author? Do you want to have your manuscript accepted by a reputable publishing house? Do you want to make headlines and read stellar reviews of every single one of your novels? Or do you wait for the silent recognition of your talent, without much fuss and microphones stabbing you at every step? And what do you wish for when the clock strikes 11:11?
Today, we introduce you to Andrew J. Wilt, an author and indie publisher, who made his wish come true by launching 11:11 Press.
Andrew has been working professionally in writing for over a decade. He is the author of Age of Agility: The New Tools for Career Success, which is currently being used as a textbook in universities, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies. 11:11 Press is a combination of his passion and purpose: writing, business, providing opportunities to artists, and fostering engagement in the arts.
We caught up with him to talk about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into bringing books into the world.
The Nonconformist: What was your path to becoming a publisher?
Andrew J. Wilt: I grew up in the music scene in Grand Rapids, Michigan, playing and going to shows at local venues: Skelletones, the DAAC, and more often, barns, basements, and churches. As teenage musicians, we didn’t have a lot. To be honest, we didn’t really have anything besides the desire to create something that rang more true to our lives than the music being played on the radio. And I’m lucky and thankful for the music scene because we were able to channel our frustrations towards something productive. If we didn’t have the music scene, many of us would have likely turned to drugs or petty crimes like defacing corporate property. Instead, we learned about entrepreneurship. If we wanted to do something like book a show, create a website, make merch, or design fliers to promote our band, we had to do it ourselves. Since it was all DIY the risks were low: if something didn’t work out as planned, we didn’t lose much besides time, and we learned to never make the same mistake twice. We didn’t call ourselves entrepreneurs because no one wanted to get rich, we weren’t in it for huge profits, our only goal was survival — the survival of our ideas and our art. And since we were all in it together, there was a tribal feeling to what we were doing, something like a family. If someone was struggling musically or personally, there was always someone who could jump in and guide them back onto a less destructive path.
My contribution was recording bands. When I was 18, just before high school graduation, I started a low-cost record label with a friend. Since it was expensive to record music at a studio and most of the bands we played with didn’t care about having “studio quality” recordings, we brought our equipment to their rehearsal space and did it on the cheap. It was good enough to upload to Myspace and make an EP to sell for $5 at shows.
In 2012, I moved to the Pacific Northwest. All my favorite authors lived out there and I thought that if I was there some of what made them so good would rub off on me.
In 2009, when the music venue Skelletones closed, the scene began falling apart. By this time, I was writing short stories to accompany every song I wrote, and with the scene losing its most popular venue, I found myself writing more stories and poems than playing music. I decided to focus all my energy on writing and began taking creative writing classes at Grand Valley State University. Though, it wasn’t a smooth transition. I didn’t fit in with the conservative upper-middle-class crowd and was frustrated that a school that labeled itself “liberal arts” was so narrowly focused. The student-run newspaper was unbearably dull, and this was before smartphones were popular, so most people read the student newspaper before lecture began. As a reading alternative, I started a monthly zine called Cohesion, which was my idea of the arts on campus coming together to tell the student body about all the cool things going on in the creative arts. We also published satire, articles the campus newspaper wouldn’t touch (topics about guns, god, and drugs, which were all taboo), op-eds on philosophy, band interviews, and poetry. We eventually became an official student organization with university-backed funding, so I can’t be too hard on the university because they were interested in alternative views, someone just had to be the first one to do it. But we did print the first few issues using a loophole in our free student printing privileges, printing and stapling about a thousand copies for each issue.
In 2012, I moved to the Pacific Northwest. All my favorite authors lived out there and I thought that if I was there some of what made them so good would rub off on me. Coming from a smaller Midwest town, I was determined to learn about “real world” writing and publishing. And I did. I met people who had published books, people who had just gotten their first book contract, MFA students and graduates, editors… I learned about the whole process, about what it takes for a manuscript to turn into a book on a bookshelf. Later, I traveled with a friend across the U.S. to a writing residency and took a deep dive into the politics of publishing, something I quickly learned I wanted to stay away from.
All the while, I had a “real job” and kept up a fiction writing routine and wrote a weekly business blog. One day in 2015, I was approached by my boss at Sustainable Evolution Inc., who had written a dozen books throughout his career, all with bigger publishers, and he asked if I would be interested in writing a book about the work I was doing and blogging about, specifically, the transition from being a full-time student to being a full-time employee. He told me that he was tired of the publishing industry and he wanted to start his own publishing company. It took about two years to write and publish Age of Agility: The New Tools for Career Success, and the whole time I sucked up as much as I could learn about the publishing process. Being on the “inside” it felt like a magician was showing me their tricks, and the process seemed easier than all my academic writer friends made it out to be. I learned that anyone can start a publishing company as long as they know what to do (buying ISBN numbers, registering with the Library of Congress, finding a printer, distributor, or using POD, etc.) and they are willing to put in the hard work to see it through.
I traveled with a friend across the U.S. to a writing residency and took a deep dive into the politics of publishing, something I quickly learned I wanted to stay away from.
Less than a month after my book was released, I started 11:11 Press with my partner, Megan, and our friend James, who is a graphic designer. The spirit of the press is the same as when it started, and it goes back to my roots in the local Midwest music scene. I’m apprehensive to call it “punk” because there are a lot of small presses who advertise their DIY punk roots, so many that it’s now become a cliché, and worse, it’s become a way to “brand” their press. I don’t really care how others classify us, because we’re just doing this the best way we know how and we’re not following a script. We’re definitely operating differently than the bigger presses since, as a small press, we are selling at a lower volume and have a different relationship with bookstores and our readers.
If you’re a small press trying to replicate the big press business model, you’re going to fail whether by overspending, by not giving your authors the support or tools they need, or by having an impersonal relationship with your readers (your readers are super important, and you can’t act like you’re better than them, because you’re not, and they support you just as much as you support them). Once you’ve been in the indie space for a while there is an etiquette or set of mannerisms you learn, and I know it because I’ve been living in this indie space since I was a teenager. Last week, I was talking with a journalist about our approach to publishing and after I explained our processes she said: “Your business plan is just as experimental as the books you publish” and she’s exactly right, and that’s how it should be.
NC: What’s the story behind your press’s name, 11:11 press? You often joke about it on your Twitter feed, like it’s the only time when you accept submissions, etc.
AJW: The name is an echo from our collective childhoods. We all vividly remember playing a game — and like everything in childhood, there was something magical about it. Passed down as folklore from the older kids, we learned to watch the second hand slowly make its way around the old elementary school clocks. Imagine a classroom of eight-year-olds eager to go to lunch, all of them sitting on pins and needles waiting for the second hand to click the minute hand in place at 11:11. One brave child interrupts the teacher by yelling “It’s 11:11, make a wish!” and then all the children follow suit. “11:11! Make a wish!” It’s a strong childhood memory. According to kid legend, if you make a wish before 11:11 turns into 11:12, it will come true. Like many secrets of childhood (underarm farts, the ringing *pop* of a finger snapped against a cheek, shooting a rubber band, and skillfully spinning a pen with your index finger around the knuckle of your thumb) we don’t know exactly how we learned it, but it was for the taking, and 11:11 remains tattooed onto our childhood. To this day, when I pass the digital clock in my kitchen on my way to bed, or if I unlock my phone and the screen reads 11:11, I think to myself: “Make a wish”. And sometimes I do.
I sucked up as much as I could learn about the publishing process. Being on the “inside” it felt like a magician was showing me their tricks.
We named our press “11:11” because it reminds us of a time when we were all truer to ourselves, when we had the guts to follow wherever our spirit took us, and that’s the type of writing we aim to publish. With age, this intrinsic boldness wanes, and our actions become about what society expects and demands. The tough part about middle school and high school is figuring out which parts to give up and which parts to keep. This continues post-school as we grow older; the belief is that materialism will calm an unsettled ego, and with this will come acceptance and respect, or at the least validation from our peers. I’ll have meetings with clients in my nine to five job and leave thinking: there’s nothing left of what was once a truly unique and creative human being; they’ve abandoned themselves and taken on another identity. It’s the same all over, including the Arts. I think there’s a toxic belief about publishing that begins with authors believing that publishers only want books that fit their computer-generated model of success, so authors fold themselves accordingly to fit into a box, hoping at least a glimmer of their true selves can shine in published form. At 11:11, we think this limits an author’s true genius. 11:11 is a call back to a time of innocence when the author was more confident in being themselves. We believe everyone has a story, and you are the only one who can tell it exactly the way it needs to be told. Sometimes this means throwing out the Hero’s Journey because not every poem or story has a “happily ever after” ending. Most stories don’t. In real life, there is more life after “happily ever after,” and we want to hear these stories because they are a true and honest reflection of the soul.
NC: Let’s talk about your mission. How would you describe it?
AJW: I’m most comfortable with the word “indie” because indie presses take risks on meaningful projects the big publishers are not willing to jeopardize their reputation or their budgets for. Since we believe in the unique voice of each author we publish, we let our authors have a lot of freedom. Of course, we also want to make each book the best it can be, so we’ll go through manuscripts and identify places where the books can be made stronger. The final decision is always the author’s since it’s their work and their message to the world. If an author doesn’t agree with one of our suggestions, it gives them an opportunity to think about why they made a particular word or plot choice, and the process makes them more confident in the integrity of their work.
If you’re a small press trying to replicate the big press business model, you’re going to fail whether by overspending, by not giving your authors the support or tools they need, or by having an impersonal relationship with your readers.
Since we have a broad mission, we are publishing a variety of voices: poets, fiction authors, essayists. Some of these authors can be called avant-garde, others are more traditional and take risks in the writing process. I’m a big fan of the Dangerous Writing movement, which began with Tom Spanbauer while he was a student of Gordon Lish at Columbia University. Spanbauer describes the act of writing dangerously as going to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore. To some degree, everyone feels this internal battle and writing about it helps us make sense of it all. Spanbauer says he writes because: “I cannot speak and cry at the same time.” As a press, even more than publishing books or trying to make enough money to fund more books, we hope to encourage more authors to write with this kind of honesty. There’s a Hermann Hesse quote I keep returning to that summarizes this perfectly: “I wanted only to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”
Our goal is to publish books that stick with you for years — even decades — after reading them. The opposite of the books people take to the beach and leave at the beach or take on an airplane and leave on the airplane. Or buy and put on their bookshelf and never read.
NC: What is it like to be a small press publisher these days? How do you find a balance between your everyday life and publishing duties?
AJW: 11:11 is what I do instead of bowling or Fantasy Football or whatever normal people do in their free time. It does take a lot of time and effort, but it’s the thing that keeps me sane. It has never felt like “work”, but rather, it feels like something I’m compelled to do. Sometimes I don’t know how I got here, but it feels exactly where I need to be. That being said, I still have a full-time job, but instead of talking about football games or going hunting or fishing (popular Midwest traditions), I’m talking with authors or people on Twitter about writing or philosophy. Instead of debating with my co-workers about politics (something I’m aware of, but I find a waste of time to talk about with others besides close friends), I put my time towards publishing activities and reading submissions. We all have so much time (something I wrote about in Age of Agility), and most of us use this time in unproductive ways. Instead of watching TV or Netflix, I spend all that time on 11:11. I used to listen to music on my way to and from work, exercising, doing the dishes, or any other mundane household chore, but now I’m listening to submissions (through text-to-speech software) or audiobooks. Also, I kind of have an obsessive personality, and I’m obsessed with my family (my partner and two young children) and with 11:11 Press. That’s all I do when I’m not working my day job. Nothing else really matters.
I think there’s a toxic belief about publishing that begins with authors believing that publishers only want books that fit their computer-generated model of success, so authors fold themselves accordingly to fit into a box.
NC: Could you tell us about your editorial staff? Are you a well-synchronized team or a group of individualists, like a rock band? And if so, how do you resolve creative differences?
AJW: This is an evolving process for us. It started out with Megan and I doing all of the editorial work, and our friend James (author of SAM: A Mundane Love Affair Between Two Men), doing all the layout and design work. Slowly, we added editors to help us manage the submissions and we were able to increase the number of books we publish per year. Right now, our editors Hanna, Sam, and Mike take lead editing books they feel a strong connection to. I’m involved with all the projects and the authors, but I’m excited to have these three take lead on some projects. Megan is a copy editor, and with her background in research and academic journals, she spots typos that are invisible to me. Before a book launches, we have a reading period where we send out advance reading copies to reviewers, and we all take this time to try to find typos. So, each person has their own projects, but we all help one another. Megan and I do a lot of the backend business stuff so the editors can focus on their books. So far, it’s a good system. We also work with Tyler Crumrine, who runs Plays Inverse, a publisher of impossible to perform plays. He’s a great designer, and he’s been helping with covers and layout since James left 11:11 this spring to exclusively focus on his art and writing. We also usually have one or two students helping us out with various roles in the press, and we do this as way to educate those who are interested in publishing. It’s a way for us to continue giving back to the growing community, and our goal for each person who works with us is to learn enough that when they leave, they could open their own press if they wanted to.
Spanbauer says he writes because: “I cannot speak and cry at the same time.”
NC: Who is your role model as a publisher?
AJW: Growing up in a healthy indie music scene in Grand Rapids, Michigan instilled DIY and family/community values in my personal ethics, which is something I continue to promote with 11:11 Press. Black Sparrow Press was also an inspiration, because they published authors who were always pushing the envelope, and many of their authors created art in other mediums besides books. And finally, places like SST Records and Dischord Records, at least in the early years, because they were both driven to put out music they believed in, no matter how difficult it was or how many hours they had to work. Maybe it’s my unconventional religious upbringing, but I admire those who give themselves entirely to an idea bigger than themselves. And if you can’t trust your government or organized religion, it might as well be Art.
NC: How would you describe the current state of the publishing industry from the perspective of a small press publisher?
AJW: Indie publishing is the best kept secret in the writing world. To use a metaphor, indie publishers are the “mom and pop” hole-in-the-wall restaurants only the locals know about: hearty, you can tell that the person who made it enjoyed the process of making it, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever had before. Big publishers are like chain restaurants: they’re the same no matter what city you’re in, mass-produced with low-quality ingredients and high-quality marketing budgets. Even though books from big publishers are everywhere, they’re not doing anything new or innovative. It’s the chain restaurant sandwich you choke down at the airport, so you don’t pass out during your layover. What mainstream writers are doing doesn’t even touch what we’re doing, because no one is doing what the indie small presses are doing, just like no one else can make your favorite dish at your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It’s not only 11:11; I’m amazed by what some of our friends are doing, people like Inside the Castle, Plays Inverse, Atlatl, Grindhouse, Equus, Expat, Schism 2, gn0me, Apocalypse Party, Sublunary Editions, Fiction Collective 2, Tyrant Books, Action Books, Future Tense Books, Awst Press, House of Vlad, Two Dollar Radio… I’m probably missing some — the point is, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in indie publishing.
Maybe it’s my unconventional religious upbringing, but I admire those who give themselves entirely to an idea bigger than themselves. And if you can’t trust your government or organized religion, it might as well be Art.
To describe the current situation, culturally speaking, there are several things going on that favor indies of all kinds: press/video/music/journalism.
It’s easier than ever before in human history to create media and put it online for people to enjoy: Bandcamp/Spotify (music) YouTube/Vimeo (video) and now KDP/IngramSpark (print).
The media payment structure has changed, and our culture expects media to be streamable and have freemium options.
People are reading more than ever, it just happens to be on their phones, so most people don’t think of it as reading.
Nearly every country in the world is going through a political transition; the younger generation is finding their footing and trying to overthrow the establishment. The USA (Trump), UK (Brexit), China (Hong Kong), Russia, Brazil, France, Chile, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Argentina, Bolivia, Haiti, Ecuador, Spain, Lebanon, North and South Korea… Not to mention the major global issue of climate change.
Big publishers are like chain restaurants: they’re the same no matter what city you’re in, mass-produced with low-quality ingredients and high-quality marketing budgets.
Based on movements like the Modernists, Beats, and Punks, small counterculture movements thrive during times of political unrest, and we are already seeing some major work being produced by the growing literary underground that is breaking through.
Since we are in a time of transition, it is the perfect time to be a publisher, and it is an important time to be making creative work of all kinds. I hope that everyone reading this is inspired to continue working on their creative and meaningful work. We are at an important time in our history, and creative solutions, very creative solutions, will be the only way we can save ourselves.
NC: What frustrates you and what delights you as a publisher?
AJW: I’m a publisher because I wholeheartedly believe that bringing books into being is the most important contribution I can make to Humanity. There are so many great books out there that should be in print, should be given the time and energy to be published, and placed on bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, we are only one small press, and what frustrates me most is not being able to give life to every book we find compelling. Another frustration is that I don’t think a lot of new writers understand that we are part of an ecosystem; we are a product of this community, and we can only publish a certain number of books per year without risking bankruptcy. For example, our 2019 submissions outnumber our 2019 yearly book sales, and if everyone who submitted a manuscript to us in 2019 bought one 11:11 book, we could have funded four additional book projects in 2021. I’m not complaining or making a plea for people to buy more books, it’s merely a statement about our community. If people want to see us publishing more books, we have to be able to cover the costs. No one at 11:11 is getting paid except our authors. Book sale profits are invested in future books, so, literally, you, the reader, you, the community, decide how many books we can publish each year.
What mainstream writers are doing doesn’t even touch what we’re doing, because no one is doing what the indie small presses are doing, just like no one else can make your favorite dish at your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
NC: If you were to sum it up in a few words, what is being a publisher all about?
AJW: My views on publishing go back several thousand years, before the printing press, back to the Library of Alexandria, where creating texts was about sharing ideas, ideas which transcend time and space. It’s inevitable that our bodies will fail us, and we will leave this earthly plane, but our ideas will live on as long as the pages can hold onto the words printed on them. At 11:11, we hope that every book we publish challenges how the reader sees the world, themselves, and ultimately, how the two connect. Most publishers look at books as products and they ask: “how many units can we move?” Since we are working with authors who are bringing difficult parts of themselves into being, we ask: “how can we help support the author’s vision for their project?”
NC: Which current and forthcoming titles from your catalog should find their way to our bookcases?
AJW: All of them (hahaha). It’s like asking if I have a favorite child. I love them all. Our next book is Little Hollywood by Jinnwoo, which is a collection of scripts and paper dolls. It’s creative, funny, and like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s a perfect winter read, and I hope everyone picks up a copy.
There are so many great books out there that should be in print, should be given the time and energy to be published, and placed on bookstore shelves.
NC: If it’s not a secret, what are your upcoming projects and plans for the future?
AJW: We have a few tricks up our sleeve. We’re working on a project that is very surreal to me because of how important it will be to literature. Not only does this project resonate deeply with me, deeper than any other project I’ve worked on in my creative career, but I truly believe that this book will represent a significant shift in storytelling. Sam Moss (associate editor) and I are taking lead on this project and are so excited to play a role in bringing it to print. We’re not sure when we’ll announce it publicly; it could be six months from now or a year. It’s one of those things where when it’s ready to be made public, it will let us know. We’ve been following our intuition on this one, and the text has been guiding us.
One project I can tell you about — and this is the first time we’re talking about it publicly — is a collaborative novel written by over forty writers from the community, called Collected Voices from the Expanded Field. It’s our creative take on the old CD samplers that would have 40 bands on two CDs and sold at cost as a promotion for the record labels working in a subgenre. We asked a number of authors who have published with many of the publishers in our small press space to contribute. Each author is writing a chapter and we’re putting it together as a novel. We chose to do this because anthologies have always come across as gimmicky to me. This is several voices in one novel, which is a better depiction of the community we are part of. Like I said, the books will be sold at cost and our only desire is for these authors and publishers to get more exposure. Collected Voices from the Expanded Field is expected to be published in June of 2020.
NC: What advice can you give to those dreaming of setting up their own small press?
AJW: Anyone can do it, and if you’re willing to put in a lot of hours of work, you can technically do it without any upfront costs.
The best ones do it without expecting financial compensation or name recognition; they’re doing it because they want to see more diverse books being published.
Don’t get caught up with social media drama.
It’s inevitable that our bodies will fail us, and we will leave this earthly plane, but our ideas will live on as long as the pages can hold onto the words printed on them.
What works for you may not be what works for everyone else; find your niche.
We are available to answer questions, so long as you don’t publish hate speech. Feel free to DM us on any social media platform or email us at 1111 (at) 1111press (dot) com (“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.” — Karl Popper).
11:11 Press is an American independent literary publisher based in Minneapolis, MN. Founded in 2018, 11:11 publishes innovative literature of all forms and varieties. We believe in the freedom of artistic expression, the realization of creative potential, and the transcendental power of stories.
Photo: Courtesy of Elliot Malcolm/Studio Apparatus