Boss of “The Biggest Little…”
Rod Clark is co-founder and publisher of Rosebud, one of the longest-running independent literary anthologies published in the United States. By way of disclosure, one of his current cohorts in that conspiracy, John Smelcer, is a regular contributor to Ragazine. It seemed appropriate to find out more about how Rosebud began, and how they’ve managed to keep the ball rolling for so many years.
With Mike Foldes
Q: You recently wrote that you began publishing in 1966. What was it you were publishing then, and how did you come to the literary life?
A) Graduating in 1966, I was one of about six young men out of a class of 600 at Madison Wisconsin’s West High school who grew their hair long and smoked pot that summer. “The summer of love” didn’t really hit the city until the following year, and our peers were still mostly cleancut. Many parents and friends thought we had gone over to Karl Marx and the devil. My old homeroom teacher would cross the street to avoid me.
That June my friend Tom Christensen (author of the current book “River of Ink”) and I published the first issue of “ALBATROSS”, a small lit mag that only went for two issues. Later as the Sixties progressed, I was active in in the small press scene on the UW Campus (mostly poetry) , and was considered a loose cannon on the Union Literary committee. Since my father was opposed to my college ambitions, I had to pay for school myself, washing dishes and running a film society.
In college I studied poetry writing under Gwendolen Brooks and the English poet George Barker. In ’71, I snuck into graduate school on a Schubert playwriting fellowship, and started writing and producing plays at Broom Street Theater. When the fellowship ran out, I worked for a year in a pizzeria and then went out to San Francisco to go through the writers Workshop at San Francisco State University, where I studied under people like Wright Morris, Bill Dickey and Nanos Valoritus. All that lead to a precarious life as a freelance writer and editor.
Q) Rod, how did you happen to get involved with Rosebud, and when?
A: In 1993, shortly after my wife and I had moved to an old farmhouse on a few acres near the tiny village of Rockdale, Wisconsin, John Lehman, an old friend of mine who had run an ad agency in Madison, called me over to his Bed & Breakfast in Rockdale and made a proposal: “ I want to create a literary magazine that will be read in every bathroom in America!” he declared. I had been working in the commercial magazine business for a number of years and thought he was crazy. Did he have half a million dollars? No — more like $40,000.00. It was clearly impossible. It was as if someone had asked me to help build an anti-gravity machine — but I was intrigued. If it were possible, how would you try to do it? I became the charter editor and magazine consultant.
Q) What was the motivation, and what were you trying to achieve that you did not see in the “market” at the time?
A) I knew right away that the magazine would have no national advertising budget. That meant the magazine would have to be heavily leveraged to sell itself. It would have to hook the eye and jump off the newsstand, it would have to be “grazeable” and have an inviting and accessible inner architecture. It would have to be readable — and divest itself of all the things that made many lit mags boring and incoherent. It would have to be lively and eclectic, responding to many tastes. It would have to have a unique personality all of its own. It would have to be consistently more than the sum of its parts.
Q) Would you consider yourself more of a writer or an editor?
A) Today, both, but it took me a long time to understand that. At the age of eight I was writing a story episode on one side of a piece of paper, and an illustration on the other — as if I realized it was important to bring words and images together. So I think there was a “magaziner” in me early on — although I always thought of myself as a writer/theater person.
Q) I don’t imagine Rosebud provides a living – what else do you do to feed the machine?
A) I was a freelancer for many years, and was the editor of a small string of lifestyle mags for banks and credit unions for about four years. When the finances of the magazine folded in around 2000, I took over as a publisher as well as editor, investing my small 401k. I knew from that period forward, the magazine would have to support itself. I continued to freelance, heat the old house with wood I cut myself, and grow a few vegetables. The house and 20 acres are now paid off. I am on social security. My wife still works as an accountant — but will retire early next year.
Q) What do you look for in the work you select for Rosebud?
A) I like a very eclectic mix. I think of it as a sort of literary quilt making. I like to balance flavors, colors, textures. I’d like the juxtapositions to be as instructive as the pieces themselves. America is a land of many voices, and reflects an even greater diversity of global voices. I don’t want to fence in what is “acceptable” content too tightly. Lots of editors claim to champion “excellence,” but when pressed, few of them can define what that means.
Q) How has Rosebud evolved over the years?
A) In the early years, we were a much more traditional magazine, geared toward an older demographic. John Lehman taught writing seminars in many Midwest cities, and wanted a publication that his students could submit to. After I took over, we began to appeal to wider age demographics, and to readers of many different backgrounds.
Q) When did you start writing? Do you recall why?
A) By the time I was four, I was telling elaborate stories to my siblings, and my mother would often recruit me to calm my sister and two brothers by making up a story for them. I have been writing poetry, plays, stories, journalism, radio and video scripts all my life. I have been involved with some kind of magazine ever since high school.
Q) Who have been the greatest influences on your writing? Living and dead?
A) Early 19th century American writers: Whitman, Emerson, Poe, Dickinson, Thoreau, Melville. Also Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I was also powerfully influenced by some of my teachers, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Barker, Wright Morris, William Dickey, Dan Langton.
Q) Do you have other artistic/expressive interests, such as painting, or photography, or music?
A) I love theater and photography. I have written or co-written at least 12 plays, some of which have received prizes in Wisconsin. I was a Schubert playwriting fellow at the University of Wisconsin in the early Seventies.
Q) How did you meet John Smelcer, and how have you guys managed to keep Rosebud alive so long?
A) John began writing poetry for us about 17 years ago. Seeing a major talent, I quickly made him poetry editor. Since then he has worn a variety of hats. He is currently Associate Publisher, Poetry Editor, and functions also as a contributing editor.
The magazine’s survival has been based on solid concepting, a unique publication personality, a lot of persistence, a lot of passion, a lot of parsimony. None of us could afford to sustain this magazine. Since I came on as publisher, the magazine has had to sustain itself. I never spend a dollar that I don’t think is necessary. The heart of it though is the people. When everyone doing it is either a volunteer or grossly underpaid independent contractor — you have to have people who have a passion for what they are doing. We are extraordinarily gifted in our workers, partners and friends.
Q) How do you handle your distribution? I understand from John that it is quite broad over many independent bookstores, and even can be found at Barnes & Noble.
A) We started out with Eastern News in ’93. John Lehman flew to New York, walked into the offices at Eastern, threw down a copy and said, “You folks need to distribute us!” They agreed, and they did carry us for a number of years. Then Eastern got bought by Hearst Publications, which was bad news for us — because of course, Randolph Hearst hated the movie Citizen Kane, in part, rumor has it, because “Rosebud” was not the name of his childhood sled — it was allegedly his nickname for his favorite part of his mistress’s anatomy, which is supposedly why he sued Orson Wells to prevent the release of the picture!
Whatever the reason, Hearst publications dropped us like a hot potato when they took over Eastern. Within a week though, we go a number of calls from other distributors eager to pick us up. Several of them said, “We hear Hearst dumped you for no stated reason. Ha!Ha! We wonder why!” One of those companies, SourceInterlink, took over our distribution network with no transfer charges. We were with SI for several years until they went bankrupt in Delaware in 2014. Since then we have kind of been wandering in the wilderness. The number of big newsstand distributors has shrunken enormously in the last few years as paper periodicals increasingly become an endangered species. The ones that are left want to charge an arm and a leg in an industry that has always been run by thieves and rascals.
The data supplied by any newsstand distributor these days is impossible to understand and very difficult to process. When a customer buys an issue in a store, the retail chains take a cut, the distributors and shippers take a cut, and it ends up that the publishers gets about 25 cents for every dollar that comes over the store counter. A small journal has to get about 45% sell-through to make a profit. In contrast, Time magazine, with millions of copies on the shelves just needs a sell-through of about 8% to make a profit. One big distributor, INGRAM, has picked up all our Barnes& Noble outlets nationwide (we are in many, but not all outlets), and we are treading water trying to find new means of circulation. We still have some independent stores (where we generally sold 55% ( and we are trying to market directly to more independent stores, but many of them are struggling, and will only take consignment — which is hard to manage for multiple stores.
Overall, we have not made money in the stores for years — but a newsstand presence is valuable because it is the only national advertising we have offline. What’s keep us going until we have a better newsstand footing is our subscriber base, and donors who support us as a nonprofit 501(c)(3). Donations, of course, are tax deductible. Library subscriptions are a big help, and we are in an impressive collection of big city public libraries (Boston, San Francisco, New York) and University libraries (Brown University, UNC, University of Wisconsin) . And our reputation is stellar among the thousands of mags out there. We recently signed a contract with Universal pictures so they could use copies of Rosebud to dress up publishing house sets for the two sequels to Twenty Shades of Grey that are now in production. The Universal agent explained they would use the issues to give the publishing house sets “authenticity.” I don’t know what that says about our quality or size — but I think it shows that the country takes us seriously.
Q) Rod, that’s a great story. Thanks for sharing with us, and best of luck going forward.
(This e-interview was conducted in March and April 2016.)
About the interviewer:
Mike Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.