Little Things: Sam Cooney talks independent publishing and metaphorical spatulas

Words by Katia Pase

Published on November 4, 2013

Musings of a small press junkie

Foreword: When I was young and living in Brisbane I used to go to these BYO parties under an abandoned sex shop in a suburb that crested the city. One time, I went to a launch there of something called The Lifted Brow, and I sat on an esky in the corner for most of the night, because back then my social skills weren’t very good.

Well I sat on that esky and I started reading, while other people were probably groping babes/being groped by babes in that sauna-hot basement.

And (of course) I’ve been reading ever since. I’ve seen the Brow go from publishing CDs to online mixtapes. I’ve seen it shake its paperback phase in favour of the tabloid-size newsprint it now favours. It still makes me feel dreadfully uncool, but maybe that’s because I admire it so greatly.

Here I am putting my now-developed social skills to good use in this chat* I had with Sam Cooney, editor of  The Lifted Brow

*This interview took place over email.

Brow _Sam 

Katia Pase: Okay. Let’s start with the easy stuff. What do think the role of the “literary journal” is? Do you think of the Brow as a “literary journal”?

Sam Cooney: Right, “easy stuff”. Are you being sardonic? I can’t tell. Because this is the hardest question of all, perhaps. Every “literary journal” is different! So very different. And accordingly the roles of each are different. These roles should be different! As otherwise you’d have a lot of distinct and unique things trying to do the same thing. Imagine every object in your second-from-the-top kitchen drawer trying to be a spatula. Very silly.

Sure, the Brow is a “literary journal”. It’s a journal, by definition, and literary, by definition. And the Brow exists within a tradition – of literary publications — and we’re not inventing, or even reinventing. What we are trying to do is be continually and clamorously relevant to as many readers and potential readers (and art-lovers [with our comics and artwork] and event-goers [with our events] and music-listeners [with our mixtapes]) as possible, whilst also staying true to publishing content that we think is the most important and aggrandising for those who create it. We crave relevance. We’ve always said: we want to need our audience. We love needing our audience! If we were publishing for any other reason than to try and have as many human faces as possible peering down into our pages, as many eyes reading the so-excellent content we bust a hump to deliver, as many brains reflecting on the exceptional writers and artists we do our absolute best to give ballyhoo, then we’d be suspect, and rightly so. We want to publish the strangest and challengingest writing and artwork, in the belief that this stuff is what makes people thrum.

A literary journal performs many functions, some of them concurrently, some rotationally. Some of these functions it should carry out always, and some only sometimes. Such functions include : giving space for contributors to experiment with ideas, form and style; introducing ideas to readers; encouraging critical thinking in both contributors and readers; providing a platform (though never ever in a charitable way) for voices and perspectives that might tend to be ignored; and occupying totally the attention of readers. It shouldn’t ever do any of these things if it results in any of the content being diminished somehow.

KP: What motivates you to produce the Brow? Who do you think benefits from its publication, and from the publication of other small literary magazines in this country?

SC: Making each issue of the Brow and organising Brow events and doing Brow things is very fun. I enjoy bringing all my favourite writers together in one publication because I have the best taste of anyone. I also enjoy how difficult and trying it can be, because one day I probably won’t have the energy to do the same kind of stuff and I will look back to these days and think “halcyon”. I think I do a good job and I revel in feeling good about doing a good job.

Everyone who reads the Brow or is published in it benefits from its publication, because they are more informed, engaged and happy for having entered into the partnership. Same for other literary magazines, if they’re excellent!

KP: What are some of the literary publications (digital or print) that you read and admire?

SC: My favourites of which I read all/most issues: The New Yorker, The  Believer, Wired, Meanjin, The Sleepers Almanacs, The Monthly, Blood and Thunder, London Review of Books, Dailies, n+1.

KP:  You recently crowdfunded over $12,000 dollars to produce a print issue of the Brow on site during the Melbourne Writers Festival. What was your intention behind this experiment?

SC: The main reason for the MWF issue was to reach new readers. Tends of thousands of people attend that festival, and more engage with it remotely. We at the Brow bust our humps ceaselessly to publish the best possible content, and this is very important, because it’s not fun to promote something shitty, and really, if you do so, then you too are shitty. But it would be kind of doltish to publish tremendous content if we weren’t also trying to have it read by as many people as possible.

Brow _MWF

I’m going to interrupt the interview here because a) I can’t believe Sam managed to use the phrase “bust a hump” twice in the one interview and I’d like to pause and acknowledge this acheivement, and b) I’d like to flag that the MWF issue is truly very impressive, and c) Sam was good enough to  publish a breakdown of just where this money went.

KP: How do you usually fund the Brow?

SC: Since our first issue, published in January 2007, the Brow has been wholly funded by sales, money raised through staging events, some occasional advertising, and the bank and credit card accounts of editors. The Brow currently receives no external funding (and never has), though we’re looking into changing this through a mixture of government support, professional partnerships and philanthropy.

In the past our financial independence has been a key element of our overall independence, but now we’re beginning to understand that clinging unquestiongly to this financial independence is harming the Brow’s potential to grow and improve. We want to be able to pay contributors better, we want to be able to pay something to all the people who make and help run the magazine, we want to be able to launch new projects and experiment with form, and we want to be able to explore all the options to get more eyes on our prize. We’re also sure that receiving external funding and support won’t interfere with our ability to be unorthodox and dissidenty; we wouldn’t let it.

KP:  In her article recently published in The Monthly, Robyn Annear questions “the solidity and permanence of paper”, and the “privilege” of having writing “fixed to the page”. The Lifted Brow is produced like a newspaper, and by this very design is an impermanent object – the ink smudges, the paper tears. Do you see the printed Brow as an ephemeral object? Is The Best of The Brow an effort to counter-act this?

SC: We print on newsprint in tabloid size because it’s inexpensive to print and also to post. It means that we can pay contributors more, it means we can keep our cover price down (still only $9), and it means we won’t have to pack the whole thing in because we’re losing too much money every issue.

That being said, we receive great reader feedback about our newsprint tabloid editions. Sure, we forfeit the artefactness that is inherent in a beautiful literary object, but we gain evanescence, in that when a person picks up a Brow they read it – they don’t shelve it for later. Issues of the Brow sit on tables and benches and are passed around and shared. Issues of the Brow are folded and tucked into back pockets and slid into bags. Issues of the Brow crackle and flutter and they provoke interaction.

I hadn’t considered The Best of The Brow as perhaps counterbalancing this, but sure, maybe it does! It’s definitely a handsome object. I’m also aware that one day in the future we’ll have our entire back catalogue available digitally, as well as every issue also available as print-on-demand. For now, the benefits to printing more inexpensive and ephemeral issues outweigh the drawbacks.

(Also, a big ugh to that Robyn Annear article. Criticism: sure, yay. Negligence: nope, boo.)

KP: The Brow’s online arm has recently gone bananas (can arms go bananas?). Your website is now chockas with content, and you launched an app which hosts digital issues. How do these digital ventures sit with the printed editions? How important is this digital aspect of the project?

SC: Our digital issues, dispatched via our exquisite app (built by 29th Street Publishing), are important so we
can reach new readers. Many of these people are outside of Australia, or in places where it’s not easy to buy a Brow in a shop or have a Brow delivered. Once again, the more readers, the better. Our digital issue will also allow us to commission work that can make the most of the digital format, work that would only work in a digital space.

We see the print Brow, digital Brow and our website as pretty much three discrete platforms. The point isn’t just to publish the same content across all three, because that is uninspired and a waste of potential. Instead we want to make the most of all three.

Brow _digital Interface

KP: How do you think the evolving digital landscape will change the way we produce and read small journals?

SC: Not very much, really!?!?! Small literary publications have always existed as spaces in which new/innovative/maverick/experimental work has flourished, and this will continue to happen with digital distribution.

KP: What is your grand vision for The Lifted Brow?

SC: !pu llews pu wolB ,pu gnirpS !pu toohs ,pu ffup ,pu worg worB detfiL ehT no emoC .reggib ,reggib teg worB detfiL ehT ,worB detfiL ehT

Thank you Sam, the future looks bright!