IR has interviewed dozens of writers who started out indie and subsequently signed with a traditional publisher. But this is the story of an author who, after slogging through the work required to create his own book, decided that it might be interesting to start a publishing company of his own. While Meredith Wild did something similar when she launched Waterhouse Press, her focus remains mostly romance. This week’s interview subject went in a different direction.
Nic Esposito studied English, knowing that an MFA could boost his chances of getting a publisher. But before pursuing grad school, he wanted to focus on other things. “I wanted to get out in the world, have some experiences and have something to write about,” he said. “And that’s what got me into urban farming and community development.” He would eventually try out a semester in an MFA program, but felt that the end of that path was teaching, which Esposito wasn’t really interested in.
What then? “I took myself out of the publishing world,” Esposito said. As someone with “a little DIY spirit,” Esposito realized that the most natural way to release his first novel “was to just produce my own book.” Esposito likes to use the phrase “self-produce” over “self-publish”, because he compares his scrappy initiative to what his friends in bands were doing to release their music. “They have recording means now that they can use on their computers. They can produce demos, play shows, and get their stuff out into the world…and that’s the same approach that I took in my initial publishing endeavor.”
So Nic launched a Kickstarter campaign for his debut novel, Seeds of Discent and leveraged his contacts in the Philly arts community to drum up support and get the book made. Not discounting his own writing talent, Esposito attributes some of the campaign’s success to being in the right place at the right time: the book is about a group of farmers whose land is repossessed by the city, and around this time, “people were starting to think about food and farming,” Esposito said. “There was a resurgence of farmers’ markets and urban farming… It was becoming much more of a national conversation.”
As a farmer, Esposito was able to provide a unique viewpoint in the national debate on food access, rather than just churn something out to co-opt a hot topic. “I was already very into urban farming, just from the intrinsic value of what it can do to build community and feed people,” he said, “and I wanted to live in a city and grow food at the same time, and I just happened to find the subject matter in that.”
He was surprised at how easy it was to set up a campaign, though the process wasn’t without some element of challenge. Esposito expressed concern that he felt pressured to deliver the book faster than he might have liked. “There’s momentum, and everyone was excited about the Kickstarter campaign… I feel like I was moving a little too fast.” But he was able to learn about all the responsibilities that go into writing, editing, printing and distributing a book—and found that he really enjoyed the process.
Others recognized the work he put into the project as well. “People in the literary community had respect for what I had done–to publish a book, generate press, and subsequently sell a decent amount of copies for a first time author,” Esposito said of the response. “So it’s the DIY community organizer in me that sees a need [for other authors] and says ‘I think I can fulfill that need,’ and that’s what led me to founding the Head & the Hand, ” a nonprofit, independent book publisher and writers’ workshop.
“Fulfilling a need” is a pertinent description for what Esposito does today with his company; he sees a similarity between his career in writing and publishing to his other work, farming. “When you really think about breaking down what human need is and what created civilization for humans, it was agriculture and the expression of our thought and our language,” he said. “I think those things are kindredly connected.”
Since 2014, the press has taken a unique venture for selling their series of chapbooks: a vending machine that makes buying a book just as simple as buying a snack, for just $2 each. While the machines don’t bring in a ton of cash for the business, the quirky distribution method has garnered a lot of attention and praise for the publisher. “We don’t make any money off the vending machines, it’s just not a huge profit margin,” Nick said. “It gets exposure for the company,” and the chapbook series helps the publisher set an identity for itself and gain exposure for writers it represents. The vending machines serve as a great example for how finding an innovative selling method can make all the difference—and, like the Head & the Hand’s CSA-inspired business model, is a cool literal take on Esposito’s love for books and well-produced, nourishing food.
The Head & the Hand aims to nourish writers as well as readers. The company offers a writing workshop and consulting—whether you hope to publish with the Head & the Hand, another company, or want to publish yourself, Esposito and his staff are looking to help. And just like his inspiration to self-produce a novel, Esposito’s description of the workshop evokes a music studio hangout spot, a “place where people can hang with the Head & the Hand, they can meet our editors, they can come to our events, they can be in our space, they can drink beers with us and throw out ideas.” They also frequently host events within the literary community that aim to be more fun than the standard book reading, like the upcoming adult spelling bee.
Esposito and his staff are cultivating the kind of literary community and infrastructure that he found lacking back when he was remiss to travel to New York in order to go the traditional publishing route: “Let’s figure out how we can give people the proper exposure they need to get their book out there.” Likewise, Esposito is shopping his third book around for an agent and large publisher—and the staff at the Head & the Hand is supportive. “If it can get picked up by a larger company and do really well and bring more exposure to the Head & the Hand, that’s awesome.” Likewise, he hopes the Head & the Hand can help boost other writers into following a similar path.