Talking with Benjamin DeVos of Apocalypse Party in Wissahickon Valley Park
As part of these travels, one of the things I sought to do was talk to small publishers in the cities that I’ve visited. I’ve interviewed a lot of writers over the years, sometimes IRL, but usually over email/Zoom/phone. So, for Nomadic, I really wanted to structure these conversations in a unique, fun, way: the publisher selects a favorite place in the city (a restaurant, a bar, a store, a park, a landmark, etc.) and we conduct the interview there. And we’d chat about their press/writing/books, but also about their city and travel.
To kick off this series in Philadelphia, I interviewed Benjamin DeVos, founder of Apocalypse Party. I’ve been a fan of his press for awhile, from the books they publish to what they’re about. In my opinion, you’d be a fool to run a small press for fame or money, the primary reason to do it is to publish the books you want to see in the world and to champion writers you believe in. And with Apocalypse Party, Ben personifies those values. He really cares about the books and writers he publishes, and that passion shines through in our conversation.
One of his favorite places in the city is Wissahickon Valley Park. We conducted this interview while hiking this 2,000-acre parkland in Northwest Philadelphia.
Kristen Felicetti: So why is Wissahickon Valley Park one of your favorite places in Philly?
Benjamin DeVos: I actually grew up in this neighborhood and then moved back here during college. And I basically lived in walking proximity from this area for life and didn’t know it. My parents for some reason never thought to bring us down here on walks or anything. It would have been such a relief because it felt so claustrophobic growing up in the city, to some degree. Over the past few years, I started running more and this is where I would have meditative runs after work. It just became a special place for me. I would spend a few hours every day down here, exploring different trails and seeing what was around.
Since you’ve lived in Philly your whole life, how do you feel the city has changed from childhood to now? Or, since that’s a broad question, how has it changed for you?
My grandma actually lives up this hill and she’s lived in this neighborhood for the past twenty years too. And what she likes to talk about a lot is how much they’re building on top of everything. Like every time I see her, she pretty much talks about the same things and one of them is always just, “oh, with this apartment complex that they’re building over on this street, you can barely park, etc. etc.” But it’s definitely true, pretty typical gentrification. They’re just packing as much property into this area as they can. And it sort of started probably in the early 2000s. This became an area that was attractive to college kids who wanted to live somewhere cheaply, but also be close to the city and have an easy commute. It’s definitely changed in that a lot of the people that were my neighbors growing up had lived in that area for generations. And now, a lot of those people, their kids have left and they passed on and someone from out of the area moves into that space. Which is pretty typical of a city. It’s just interesting to see in your own neighborhood that you first grew up in.
For me? Not too much to be honest. Growing up in Philly, it always felt like there was that Philly grit. People talk about how Philly doesn’t take any shit, a very harsh atmosphere. You see that a lot in the sports teams.
Yeah, like, “Philly’s going to fuck up the city if they lose, Philly’s going to fuck up the city if they win?”
Uh-huh, though I feel like that does get misinterpreted. It’s more just like a Philly passion [laughs]. That has run through my entire time of living here. The people here are still as passionate as ever. That’s the cool part about living in the city. Passionate community.
I listened to your episode on The JDO Show and you said Apocalypse Party is putting out ten books this year. That’s a lot for a small publisher and it’s just you, right? And you do everything—from the editorial, to the copy editing, to working with the writer on what the cover’s going to look like, the whole release plan...
I typically have done a lot of the interior design too, which I had to just teach myself. The covers always go to a professional. I have no business doing those. I’ve thought about it, learning Photoshop, but I’m like, you know what? It’s worth it just to pay someone who’s really good at what they do. So Matthew Revert has done a lot of the covers. I found out about him through Lazy Fascist Press back in the day. He’s been great to work with. Mike Corrao is the other guy I’ve been working with. He’s a great writer in his own right and we’re putting out a book by him. That’s the one thing I have to have someone else do.
The actual process of publishing a book these days through distribution—that’s the thing where I like to say that anyone can do that. I feel like a lot of publishers act like the actual publication process is super arduous, but if you know what website (IngramSpark for example) to put in the information, you upload the files, and you’re good to go, basically. Anyone can be a publisher. I’ve taught myself everything I know, so I would encourage anyone who has some taste and sees a direction that they’d like to see publishing going to just do it.
That’s important—what you’re saying. I’m pretty into the idea that if there’s something you want to see happening, do it yourself.
And you don’t have to put out ten books a year. You could be one person and be learning like I was. I started by putting out one book a year. And by the third year, it was three books. And this year, it’s ten. So just go at your own pace and learn everything. And I would definitely urge you to get a cover designer and put aside some funds just to do that. But that’s basically the only thing. You can do everything else yourself.
What kind of editorial relationship do you have with your writers once you’ve agreed to publish their book? Or does it vary from writer to writer? What kind of editorial feedback happens, that kind of thing.
It definitely varies from book to book. There’s books I’ve had to do a lot of shifting of the plot and actually moving around characters and scenes and stuff like that. And then there’s books where it’s just a general proofread. But every author who I’ve worked with has been very open to changes. So I always enjoy the editing. I never feel inhibited or anything like that. My goal is to make the writing as strong as it can be.
Do you solicit a lot of the writers you work with and hope that they have something? And I’m sure some books come from submissions too?
Definitely. I would say it’s probably half and half at this point with submissions and soliciting books. I will just reach out to people to see what they have. But also, another example, Meghan Lamb’s book that I’m putting out—she just put out a Facebook status that was like, “Seeking publishers, if anyone has any recommendations, please hit me up” and I contacted her. There’s a thing I learned from JDO (the guy whose podcast I was on). He also ran a press and he said that he liked to give writers what he called the “bummer talk,” which was, before the publication process actually starts, he wants to be very honest about what he can do for the book vs. a bigger publisher. So I like to say, I’m one person, I can do all the editing, I can do all the interior design, but one thing I still haven't been able to do is all the distribution myself or mailing out all the books myself. So I include things like that in the initial email and I just sort of say where the press is at, and what I like about their book and what I can do for them as an author.
Transparency is always good.
For sure, I think the most important thing in the publishing relationship is being as transparent as possible. Usually that works out really well and just my excitement about the book is what shines through.
That’s the most important part. Whether it’s an indie press or a Big 5 publisher, you want to feel that your editor genuinely cares about your book.
The press has been around for a few years. What kind of things have you learned along the way? Or was there an experience you learned from that made you work differently now?
Well, definitely the interior design layout has gotten better and better. The first few books I was working in Microsoft Word, because I didn’t know anything else. I made it look acceptable, but not as good as it could have been. So, just really buckling down and learning InDesign and learning how to lay things out. That was really important.
As far as the publishing business, I think I’ve just realized how important word of mouth is. You can tell when people are really excited about a book. From the publishing side, I see less of a boost in sales from things like reviews vs. someone just sharing a post on social media that people trust. And I’ve seen a few authors who get caught up in thinking that if they get the right reviews that’s how they’re going to make sales and that’s just not been my experience. It’s when other writers that people admire, or think their taste aligns with theirs, just share a post. That’s going to be what drives sales. And then more people in that circle will get the book and it just ripples out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that too. How can I best champion a friend’s book that comes out? It’s probably not by writing a review of it, and then submitting that review to whatever outlet. No one’s going to click that link. Much more traction has come from having a weird, funny tweet about a book. Or quoting a spicy part.
Totally. Because it feels more genuine. I think the problem with reviews these days is everyone is very positive about most things. The writing community is small, everyone’s friends and knows each other and nobody wants to talk bad about a book. So of course it’s going to be a positive review. But if you see someone make a funny tweet or quote a part that they actually like, that seems like oh, that spoke to a person and you can see it in real time.
Book reviews can also be a drag because there’s such a format to it: “this part was good, this part was good, this is the one little part I didn’t think was that great, but hey, it was a great book.”
The standard book review is: let me praise the book and then in the last paragraph I have to include a little something that isn’t perfect. And I was writing those reviews for a bit. I felt compelled to praise each book because I know what it’s like to be a small press writer at the same time. That’s another facet of it. Everyone’s just doing this in their spare time when they’re not working their day job and it’s what they’re passionate about. You don’t want to just shit all over that.
What kind of books do you think Apocalypse Party is interested in publishing? For those looking to submit to your press.
That’s a good question. I feel like all the books are pretty different, but there is definitely something about all the books that makes me want to publish them. And what is that thing? I think it’s the willingness for people to take chances in their writing and do something different. Growing up I was never a huge reader. I wasn’t a huge reader until I started finding writers who I might say are more on the fringe, probably in the mid 2000s/late 2000s. A lot of writers who have sort of gained traction since then. Like Scott McClanahan is an example that pops to mind. When I first read him it was a short story collection off Lazy Fascist Press and now he’s a household name to literary folks.
I feel the same way about his books. I think I first read the one that has the Penguin parody cover [The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1]. And just for contrast, I was a huge reader growing up, but I also felt wow, this writing is really, really exciting. And realized the stuff I thought before was the “rules of writing” was boring and not the case. You can do something else. It sort of lights a fire in you.
So, a funny example of how that sort of stuff veers from the mainstream. My dad grew up in West Virginia. For Christmas one year he asked for Hillbilly Elegy, that one book that everyone ripped on. And he definitely was disappointed and was like, “this doesn’t feel true.” And then I gave him Scott McClanahan’s book for Christmas, a couple years later, and he was like, “this.. this feels like West Virginia.” And my dad’s not a reader for small presses. People can just see when something’s real. Sam Pink’s another example who does stuff where the average reader would see the style as unorthodox, but that’s what writing should be to me. So just looking for that element in other people’s work, that submit or that I’ve solicited. Just something that gets me excited because it feels super honest and it feels different than what you see in a lot of mainstream literature. And just feels, “oh wow, I didn’t know you could write that way.”
I also feel you’ve published books that have a long lifespan, that people continue talking about well after the excitement of the initial release. Like, B.R. Yeager’s Negative Space, that has really grown and gains more and more of an audience.
That book astonishes me every day. I’ve sent him charts and messages and been like, look at where we started and where we are this year, over a year later. We’re doing way bigger numbers than even then. And that’s where I think a lot of the word of mouth comes in, because when that book came out, it wasn’t getting big reviews anywhere, people just wanted to talk about it because they loved that book and they wanted their friends to read it. You see the long tail effect. It’s still getting buzz and people are still discovering and loving it. That’s really cool.
Are you reading any books right now?
I’m editing a really long book right now. That’s taking up most of my attention.
What are the challenges with that? Because I feel that would be a different experience than editing some of the shorter books that have been released on Apocalypse Party.
This one, for lack of a better word, is very experimental. So it’s less content editing and just making sure that every sentence is structured in a way that’s still intelligible to the reader. I actually spoke with this author on the phone, who said it’s not purposely inaccessible for the reader, so if you see things that seem totally out of whack to you, feel free to bring it to my attention.
Editing more experimental writing seems intimidating to me, but I feel many experimental writers probably want editors as much as someone working in a more realist mode.
But there’s where having a conversation with that author beforehand was crucial. Not just being like, I love this book and I’d love to publish it, but thinking about the potential challenges too. This is one of the first books where I’m working with an interior designer, because I’m like, you could do really cool things with this book’s layout that I couldn’t necessarily do. So just discussing that stuff up front and then, taking it as it comes. That’s probably the biggest difference with a longer book. There’s just more to uncover, more to explore within the text.
I love that. Finally, since there’s a travel theme to this publication, my last question is, where do you want to travel to?
I definitely would like to go to Colorado because of the sports I’ve been doing lately—running trails and I started rock climbing about a month and a half ago. But I’d like to go anywhere. I’ve been up and down the East Coast, but I’d love to travel to the West Coast.
Philadelphia recommendations from Benjamin DeVos:
First Unitarian Church - Daughters, Pig Destroyer, Xiu Xiu, Mission of Burma, all of these bands have played in the basement of this historic church, which was founded in the 1700s and built in the 1800s. A wonderfully cramped and intimate space that provides the perfect atmosphere for a noisy show, would highly recommend.
Wissahickon Valley Park - I started out taking long walks in the woods of the Wissahickon and eventually spent all of my evenings running through the trails that comprise over 2000 acres of Pennsylvania. For a majestic view of nature within the city limits, look no further.
PhilaMOCA - When I was probably 21, I went to see one of my favorite bands, Parquet Courts, at PhilaMOCA, and stood nose to nose with Andrew Savage as he belted out song after song as if he was playing to a stadium of thousands. But we were in a room of about fifty people, and it was glorious. Another intimate space for music that I would recommend. Iceage is playing there in 2022, and I can't wait.
Kelly Drive - Within walking distance from the art museum and with an excellent view of the Schuylkill River, it's a great spot for hanging out on a summer day. I remember sitting by the river with the author Graham Irvin and discussing writing over beers we had hidden in paper cups. It was a nice summer moment.
Philadelphia Rock Gym - I recently started doing indoor rock climbing and joined PRG with some friends. I visited a swank rock gym in Fishtown with all of the amenities, but PRG had more of the atmosphere I was looking for - a bit gritty, with a nice balance of newcomers and people testing their limits on tough routes. Climbing the walls will make you feel like a kid again, and it's a lot of fun.