Press Focus is a new interview series at Atticus Review where we highlight emerging and independent literary presses in an attempt to identify the voices who work tirelessly in making the literary landscape accessible. We are elated to start this series with Animal Riot Press.

Jon Kay, Katie Rainey and Brian Birnbaum

When we decided to start a series focusing on emerging presses, I knew we had to have Animal Riot Press onboard. Because two of its three founders are my dear friends, I have had the pleasure to witness their rise from a popular Upper East Side reading series into a humble but sophisticated independent press. Their transition has been entirely organic, mindful of the authors and readers they aim to represent and serve, buoyed by the community that each of its three founders have helped cultivate.

For the last five years, Animal Riot Reading Series has not only been one of New York’s most popular and respected literary readings, but has also featured a slew of established and emerging literary talent. It has also accrued a community of writers and readers who are committed to the written word. Animal Riot Press was founded by Katie Rainey, Jon Kay, and Brian Birnbaum on a similar sentiment. We chatted with Editor-in-Chief Katie Rainey about the identity they are working toward, their upcoming projects, and what helps a young press like them navigate publishing’s unstable waters.

There are several independent presses in the city. What encouraged you to start your own? 

There are a myriad of factors that led to us starting this press. We’ve been toying with the idea for a long time – really since we started Animal Riot Reading Series five years ago. The catalyst that transformed the vision to an actuality came from my partners, Brian Birnbaum and Jon Kay. Brian has been working on his novel, Emerald City, for the last six years. He had an agent for the novel, briefly, but when that agent left the business altogether, he welched on his promise to pass him along to a colleague and, after finishing his revisions, Brian struggled to find another one. One day, over a year ago, he threatened the cosmos – and by that I mean his childhood friends via WhatsApp – to self-publish the thing. His friend Jon came to him with a better idea: to start Animal Riot Press. Brian’s first order of business was to make an executive decision to hire me, and that’s what really set all of this in motion. 

Yes, there are many other indie presses in the city. And there’s good reason to be skeptical about our motivation to open another – namely how we’d distinguish ourselves so as to justify that decision. To put it simply – and, hopefully, elegantly – we opened Animal Riot because we’re fortunate enough to possess adequate resources to put behind the writers we publish and a strong community that will support them.  

Katie Rainey

What role do each of you play in the running of Animal Riot Press?

First and foremost, as co-founders, we all share the responsibility in seeing to the press’ – and its books’ – success. In doing so, I’m the Editor-in-Chief. I handle all of the publicity and forward-facing aspects of the press. Jon is our Operating Director and handles the business logistics of the press – the contracts, the structuring, etc. – and financing. Brian is our Executive Editor and oversees submissions and counseling for our writers, which is one of the really exciting things we’re working on; we want our press to be personal, to build solid relationships that make our writers feel cared for and supportive, and Brian is an integral part of that process. 

Starting any project from the ground up can be incredibly challenging. How much did the community you developed and facilitated with the Animal Riot Reading Series prove to be a sounding board for the press?

We wouldn’t be able to do this without the community we’ve built. 100%. From the moment we announced the press and its impending launch, our community stepped in with all of their support and praise, and we knew immediately that we were doing the right thing. From previous readers to fellow reading series curators, folks came out everywhere to congratulate us and offer support where they could. Our press was founded on community and we’ve held community at the center of our values in light of that. 

With your understanding of the literary publishing landscape, what identity do you hope for Animal Riot Press? 

As I mentioned earlier, our press was founded upon community, so the hope is that folks come to understand us as socially conscious and people-oriented, which means advocating on a personal level – i.e. irl, as the cool kids are putting it. We also want our press to be open and transparent, meaning writers can come to us and seek counsel for whatever they may need, even if they aren’t publishing with us. I think this is readily evident in our podcast. In the podcast, we invite different members of our community to guest on each episode and use our platform to highlight the work they’re doing through in-depth, thoughtful conversations. Most importantly, we aim for our guests to represent the heterogeneous population that makes up our community.

Aside from community, we want our press to prioritize quality books. We want our press to be a place where folks can find books that mainstream publishing is too afraid to publish. That’s why we’ve written quality, risk and play into our mission statement. We feel those three elements encompass much of what it takes to make great literature and great art.

How essential is the role of a burgeoning presses in the literary landscape? 

We’ve talked about this a lot on the podcast, especially with other folks in the community who run presses. Mainstream publishing really just isn’t doing justice to literary fiction and nonfiction. They’re making ‘safe’ decisions at the expense of true innovation, and that’s where small presses come in. Everywhere you turn, you can find the passionate risks that small presses are taking, like Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish (Tyrant Books) or McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (Fence). Our favorite example, however, by far, is A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava. Sergio couldn’t find a publisher for his Joycean tome, so he and his wife ended up self-publishing it. However, it did so well that the University of Chicago Press picked it up, and now his latest novel, Lost Empress – his third; he also self published his second (Personae) – is out with Pantheon. This is exactly why small presses are important. They give writers who wouldn’t otherwise have it a platform to share their art. 

Brian Birnbaum hosting the Animal Riot Podcast.

What are your upcoming projects? 

I’m so glad you asked. Our first title will be Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum. We’re starting with Brian’s book so that we can learn from any mistakes we’ll make – though, due to our assiduous work, we’re confident that such errors will be small in nature, and hopefully trivial. After that, we’re publishing Anthropica by David Hollander, the long-awaited followup to his acclaimed debut, L.I.E. Years ago I had the pleasure of reading a draft of this novel, and I can’t believe I will have the honor of publishing it. It is a wild ride and readers are going to love it. 

Up third, we’re publishing a collection of essays, currently in the works, by Annie Krabbenschmidt. We met Annie many months ago by way of a mutual peer and friend and asked her to perform for the Animal Riot Reading Series. After hearing her read, we invited her on the podcast. Things snowballed quickly from there. Annie’s hard at work on the project and I am always anticipating new pages from her. 

We’re also going to publish my novel at some point, but I’ve got a lot of work to do on it. It’s a completed draft, but like any literature with great aspirations, it’s going to take some serious rewriting and editing to get it up to the standards we’ve set. Fortunately, Brian’s hard at work editing the draft, and I’m anxious to get back to it and put it on the chopping block.

At a time when publishing is not necessarily a profitable endeavour, what contingency plan does ARP have in place?

Ah, well great question. We’ve got a few projects in the works that I’m not exactly at liberty to talk about at this point. (And no, we’re not moving controlled substances to keep the press afloat.) We’ll have more to say on that matter in the coming year. 

However, I can talk about some partnerships that we’re working on with other indie presses to maximize our impact and provide authors with a broader, more effective platform. For instance, we’re partnering with Southern Fried Karma Press out of Atlanta on an upcoming collaborative literary tour. We’re doing a week long tour in North Carolina, stopping at six different bookstores throughout the week for a total of seven events. At each event, an author from each press will read, after which we’ll engage participants in a conversation about indie publishing and the literary community. This is the pilot collaboration for our partnership and, if all goes well, we aim to provide this as a service to other presses and authors. Both SFK and Animal Riot are working together on several consultancy ideas that we’ll have more information on in the coming months.

Without the marketing resources of the big five publishing houses, what organic ways do you use to support and publicise your authors?

As I illustrated in my previous answer, we’re partnering with other presses to create collaborative tours and partnerships that will greatly benefit our authors. In addition to that, we’re hard at work running the communities we’ve established and are always working to expand and enrich, starting with the NYC reading series. We’re also in the process of forming satellite reading series as well, like Animal Riot L.A., which will have its first reading on August 5th. And we’re working on additional satellite series in Little Rock, Seattle, Philadelphia, and potentially other cities as well. Animal Riot NYC is also a part of the Reading Series of New York community, which has been a big support to writers in the area. So we’ve got a lot of things in the works to help support writers and their work. 

That being said – and as mentioned earlier – we’re fortunate enough to have Jon on board, whose passion for literature and its attendant community translates into his willingness to provide tangible resources that will make a real difference in getting exposure and recognition for our books and their authors.

Brian Birnbaum in conversation with Devin Kelly who founded the Animal Riot Reading Series along with Katie Rainey

You are currently open to submissions from authors. What genres are you accepting? And how intentionally are you picking the books you want to publish? 

Though we’re far from dogmatic regarding what we’re open to publishing, our focus is, without doubt, on literary fiction and creative nonfiction. We’re working really hard to find more writers who would be great fits for our press and for whom we’re the right fit as well. Brian is very thoughtful with every submission he receives and, even if it isn’t just right for us, he strives to give detailed and constructive feedback to the authors who take the time to think of us and submit. We have our first four books lined up, so we’re in no rush to fill a quota of books. It’s really all about finding the right manuscripts and right authors, and doing it the right way.

What would be a dream book to publish? 

Well, I’m already publishing my dream books – Emerald City and Anthropica. I’ve gotten to know both of these books very well and have loved every moment with them, every iteration representative of their passion and process. It’s a dream to publish them. But if I could go back in time, I would’ve published Sergio’s book in a heartbeat. Other writers I love are Ottessa Moshfegh, David Mitchell, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Anne Carson… the list goes on. I don’t think there’s one ideal book out there, but there are a shit ton of authors I’d love to publish.

For anyone wanting to start a reading series, or a journal, or even a press, what is some of the research you would advise them to put in before starting their own?

I think it’s really about taking stock of who’s in your community. You can’t do this work alone, and that’s one of the two tenets upon which our press is predicated. So who’s going to have your back? Who’s going to come to your readings? Who’s going to read for you? Who’s going to help shout your name from the rooftops? And by that measure, who’re you supporting? Whose readings are you attending? Who are you lifting up in this world? That is, while I’ve talked a lot about what our community has done for us, it’s important for readers to know how open we are to that community, how supportive we try to be. If you aren’t supporting others, you can’t expect them to support you. 

What are some of the things writers should keep in mind before approaching you with their manuscript? 

Other than making sure that you’ve truly done all you can to make sure your manuscript is representative of your absolute best effort, like most presses, we ask that you get to know us a little. There’s a ton about us on our website. We’re not difficult to find! We mostly ask this from our submitters because you’re going to be a better judge than us if we’re the right fit for you. However, even if we aren’t the right fit for your manuscript, that doesn’t mean we’re closed off to working with and helping you find what’s right for you, whether that’s a big-picture editing suggestion or suggesting another press more aligned with your vision. So I’d say get to know us and reach out. Our door is open to all writers who are positive, supportive members of the literary community, and as long as you keep that in mind, along with dedication to your craft, we feel that our mission will help more writers – and readers – collaborate to get great works out there into the world. 

Katie Rainey is a writer, teacher, and editor from Little Rock, Arkansas. She is the winner of the 2017 Bechtel Prize at Teachers & Writers Magazine, the 2017 Lazuli Literary Group Writing Contest and the 2018 Montana Award for Fiction from Whitefish Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, 3AM Magazine, Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, and more. She co-hosts the Animal Riot Reading Series and lives in Harlem with Brian Birnbaum & their dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.