Benjamin van Loon

Why I started a small publishing business in an age of economic turmoil


The short answer of why I started Anobium, an independent publishing venture, is because I was anxious. Anxiety is a predecessor to boredom, and I wasn't ready to give up so easily as that. It was the fall of 2010. I had been out of college for a few years, working as an administrator in an office downtown. At night, I would come home and write and work on my short stories. On the weekends, I would send my stories down the river, hoping that a kind publisher might pick them up. It had been like that for a few years. And so I was learning the language of independent publishing, which is sometimes lovely and often tedious.

Meanwhile, I was also trying to find a way, as a non-academically-involved writer, to participate in Chicago's literary scene. It's hard to write from a psychic island and, as a city resident, I knew Chicago was (or should be) fecund, albeit in an underground sort of way. But I couldn't crack in anywhere. Too many basements with locked doors.

There is also a depressing gravity surrounding the black hole of post-collegiate tedium. I saw it claiming many of my peers, and I knew I'd have to heel in somewhere. So one day I thought, why not become an independent publisher myself? I knew I could do better, or at least as well, as the other publishers I'd seen. I had the drive, and what I didn't yet know, it wouldn't be hard to learn.

Much of independent publishing is very quaint, small-towny: covers with script fonts, poetry about childhood, writer bios proclaiming cat ownerships. Plus, for many of these publications, design is usually an afterthought—Papyrus and Times New Roman schlock. And on the other end, you have these monocle'd university publications with two-page mastheads and philanthropic endowments and professorial pretense. I suspected I wasn't the only one bummed out by this set-up.

So in January 2011, I wrote out a list of 15 possible names for my publishing project, asked friends to weigh in, and Anobium was born. I also enlisted the help of "Mary J. Levine," an amazing talent. We bought a .com and built a team right away. At first, since we were learning to swim without a teacher, we only wanted to do a biannual literary journal, and so we originally focused on that. We launched a Kickstarter and raised around $1,000 to fund the publishing of volume one. The response was invigorating. With "Mary J. Levine" and the other editors, we put the whole thing together, and I enlisted the help of my brother, Jacob van Loon, to make it all look nice.

We then published a single author title, Sebastian's Relativity by Jonathan Greenhause. We used Kickstarter again to raise funds for this, and Jacob designed the whole thing. We sold out in three months. This was towards the end of 2011 and we were starting to put together our second literary volume, though as we were doing so, we were all simultaneously realizing, especially "Mary J. Levine," that to limit ourselves to a definition of literature as words only was to limit our scope. As it says on our website, Literaryness qua Literaryness is more than just words on a page. It’s also aesthetic sensibility, cultural awareness, creative sensitivity, and knowing how to wear a funny hat.

So we've changed our mission—slightly: Anobium is now "Literary Publishing, Multimedia Arts, and Cosmonautics." Our website features new content almost daily from a team of excellent writers, some Chicagoans, others abroad. We're doing events with music and reading (and, when possible, free beer). We have a writer's group/collective/experiment, the Rescription Project, which is allowing us to play with the idea of authorship and ownership. We're working on our third literary volume, slated for release this summer, which is going to be totally different, incorporating more interviews with eccentric figures, different artwork, and essays, and we also have new a single author title in the works. And who knows? Maybe we'll do an art book? Maybe we'll release a record?

We're now in the spring of 2012, and the summary is simple: Anobium has been and continues to be a giant experiment. Why not publish a literary journal? And so we published a journal. Why not publish a book? And so we published a book. Why not start a writer's group? So we started a group. Why not throw a party? And so we threw a party (with free beer, mind you). There's no such thing as a failed experiment.

The final ingredient in all of this, of course, is professional. I went to school for Philosophy and English. No practical skill was afforded during those years except for what I picked up on my own. No practical skill was ever really offered by the teachers, either. (If you're already professionally set, it's hard to think of what life is like without any marketable skills.) In my years after graduation, I picked up occasional freelance writing gigs, I worked at a bike shop for a while, and then I was a secretary. The future looked bleak, which is also an aspect of the aforementioned gravity of tedium. It would be easy to give up my lot and resent that my future was never handed to me. So I personally got involved in publishing to A) use the marketable skills I had, B) gain new marketable skills, and C) market those skills.

Anobium continues to grow as resource for many people with many different talents, skills, and aspirations. It has an active social media presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. We have events and gatherings planned, and I continue to meet a lot of great writers, artists, musicians, and other characters that I otherwise wouldn't have known by sitting on my writerly island. I still have a "day job" that is separate from all of this, but moonlighting isn't all bad. It's Chicago. We work in the day and play at night.

Benjamin van Loon is a professional writer by day and an independent publisher by night. Visit him online at www.benvanloon.com or on Twitter.

Written in Spring 2012.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 04/30/2012 - 8:52am
Updated on Tue, 05/01/2012 - 2:53pm