Plot in the Black Sparrow Saga Takes Unexpected Turn
The story of Black Sparrow Press, California’s premier literary publisher for nearly 40 years, was extraordinary from the start. And it now appears it will have that rarest of things--a legitimately happy ending.
Earlier this year, 71-year-old John Martin, Black Sparrow’s founder and editor, announced he had sold the rights to the work of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Paul Bowles--the three bestselling authors on his 185-title list-- and would halt operations July 1.
Now, Boston-based publisher David R. Godine has agreed to take over the California house’s vast and distinguished backlist, as well as Martin’s contracts with such contemporary writers as Los Angeles poet and author Wanda Coleman and poets Diane Wakoski and Edward Sanders.
Godine said that Black Sparrow will go forward as a separate imprint of his press under the direction of an editor yet to be hired. “I want to keep it very much a West Coast list,” he said this week in a telephone interview. “The East Coast has enough presses that reflect its concerns and the voices of its writers, but there are too few who do what John did for the West. Therefore, that’s where our focus will remain.”
“It’s all been taken care of beautifully,” Martin said from his offices in Santa Rosa. “Every one of my authors now has a publisher. I just stepped out of the way, and David caught the ball.”
Still, it is a catch resulting from a series of events Godine laughingly says “can only be called Martin-esque.”
Black Sparrow’s latest chapter began earlier this year, when New York-based Ecco, an imprint of News Corp.'s HarperCollins, agreed to pay a “seven-figure” price for 49 books by Bukowski, Fante and Bowles, as well as the rights to five unpublished collections of poetry by Bukowski, who died in 1994. Fante, who died in 1983, wrote fiction and screenplays, including the classic Los Angeles novels “Wait Until Spring, Bandini” and “Ask the Dust.” Bowles, who died in 1999, was an expatriate writer, composer and poet, particularly admired for his short stories. As part of the deal, Martin also agreed to edit the new Bukowski collections, which are to contain most of the author’s 800 unpublished poems.
At the time of the sale, Martin and Daniel Halpern, Ecco’s longtime editorial director, said they were discussing the New York press’ acquisition of other Black Sparrow authors. When those negotiations failed, Martin approached Godine with what Godine called “an act of unspeakable generosity.”
If the Boston publisher would agree to take over Black Sparrow’s entire backlist and its contracts with living authors, Martin offered Godine not only all remaining literary rights, but also 96,000 volumes from his inventory of printed books for the sum of $1.
“Basically, I had 80,000 books by Bukowski, Fante and Bowles in my inventory and 96,000 by everybody else,” Martin explained. “Those 96,000 volumes cost me more than $200,000 to print, and by essentially giving them to David, he was guaranteed the instant cash flow that will allow him to publish and pay royalties to my living authors.”
Godine called the arrangement “a real John Martin kind of deal, which is to say, he knows exactly how he wants things to come out but gets you to make the move. John called me right after he made the deal with HarperCollins--and before it had been announced--and asked, ‘What do you think?’
“I said, it sounds great, but what happens to the rest of your list, and he said, ‘Oh, I just may give it to a distributor.’
“I said, that’s terrible because no distributor can do justice to those books. So he said, ‘I think you’re right. Why don’t you take it for a dollar?’
“So, I said, ‘Let me come out and see you.’ But John said, ‘Oh, don’t bother. It’s too hot out here. I’ll just send you a one-page agreement that I’ve drafted myself, and that will be it.’
“I said, ‘Well, at least let me come out and we can have dinner.’ I did, and when I got there, I found all the boxes of books packed and ready to ship to us--for which he paid.”
Martin and Godine are still negotiating over how the Black Sparrow name will be used in the future, Martin said. “I was a one-man band, and I don’t want the changes they’ll inevitably make to reflect on me. They’ll never spend the money I did on printing, for example.”
Godine agrees there will be changes: “We’re going to do things John always resisted, like printing bar codes and prices on the back covers. John hated all that.”
Once he finds an editor for the new imprint, Godine said, he plans “to bring back any important Black Sparrow book that has gone out of print. Then, we’ll meet the commitments John has made on manuscripts by living Black Sparrow authors. Finally, I’d like to add to the list--initially, in guarded and careful ways, then more aggressively--though in John’s West Coast spirit, which I very much want to keep alive. Jack London, for example, is a California author in whom I’m very interested. Many of his important works are out of print, and I’d like to do something about that.”
Still, Godine said, Martin’s famously intimate and accommodating relationships with his authors will be impossible to maintain. “My impression,” he said, “is that John simply did everything for those people. He published everything they wrote, and if they called and said they needed a new refrigerator, he bought them one. I’m not that well financed or kindly disposed. Reading these authors, as I have been doing, you recognize that John has published books whose voices are totally distinct. Diane Wakoski and Wanda Coleman are good examples of poets whose voices he heard as no one else ever had. The result is a uniquely focused list. Anyway, talk to me in five years, and we’ll see if I’ve screwed it up.”
Coleman is anxious and hopeful about working with Godine. “They don’t know me and I don’t know them,” she said. “I know they are an excellent publisher with a sense of integrity and a love of the printed word--things they share with John Martin. They care about books, which is something a majority of publishers no longer do.”
Martin said he has finished editing two of the five Bukowski collections he owes Ecco and plans to complete the other three by the end of the year. His wife, Barbara, will design the covers for all five volumes, as she has for all Black Sparrow’s books for the past 36 years.
That done, Martin said, “We’re both going to the window to shout, ‘We’re free, we’re finally free.’ ”
It is a proclamation that Martin said he can make with a clear conscience. “It’s just God’s grace that everything worked out for everybody in the best way possible. I didn’t leave any victims on the road behind me. Black Sparrow gave me a life I can look back on without regret.”