Derrick Brown is a poet and the founder of Write Bloody, an indie poetry publishing house. He’s also the author of several books, a comedian, a former paratrooper, and, well, lots of other things. Brown has a fascinating take on the life of an independent artist as well as a small business owner. Write Bloody was founded in 2004 and to date has sold around 250,000 books.
He's also toured with indie rock bands like Cold War Kids and Afghan Whigs and performs poetry and stand up comedy all across the world. He currently lives in Portland where he plans to perform several stand up comedy shows in the near future and he just finished writing a novel.
SB: It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what you do because you seem to have so much going on all at the same time. Have you always had a bunch of jobs? Anything especially strange?
DB: I think you have to have a lot of irons in the fire if you are an independent artist. You can’t just say "I’m going to quit my job and hope the money comes." Put a lot of irons in the fire so you have income coming in from here and there.
I’ve probably had the strangest jobs. While I was trying to be a poet I needed to find a job that would let me take off and tour. So that was being a singing gondolier in the canals of Long Beach on little ships singing Italian songs to people. You could just sign up for ships whenever you wanted. You would just sing and row people through the canals and under the bridges. It was a pretty sweet job. Being a paratrooper was a pretty trippy job. Being a magician at an amusement park was pretty trippy too.
Being a paratrooper was a pretty trippy job. Being a magician at an amusement park was pretty trippy too.
SB: Have these strange and interesting jobs led to life experiences that have informed your art?
DB: I think they have kept me poor to be honest. I wish I had gotten really good at real estate or something and then really good at poetry too. I did it where I barely made enough money to cover rent and food and poured as much energy as possible into the art form. I’m still not in a place where I am just jamming and not worrying about money. I have chosen a very low budget path in the arts life. I would probably do it different if I was in my 20s.
SB; So what went into the decision to start your own publishing house?
DB: The presses my books were on were either not working or they had folded. I decided to try and print my own books for a German tour coming up. It turned me into a more resourceful person where I was like "I don’t have time to find another publisher, I’ve gotta get this thing made so I can sell it at these shows." I’ve always believed in just throwing yourself in the fire, book a show a couple months out, and then work on your s**t. That looming deadline kind of forces ingenuity. That’s how the press was born back then. I decided to have a model like a rock'n'roll record label. If I signed an artist they had to tour and they bought books for 40% and sold them themselves at tours. There are a lot of easier ways to make money, I don’t think a lot of people know the ins and outs of publishing. I wish I had a mentor at the beginning teaching me about publishing. I would have had some capital to rest out. There’s a lot of ways I would have done it to make my life easier than just rambling into it and seeing what happened.
SB: What are some things you would do differently if you were starting it today?
DB: I should have naively talked to people who were doing it. I knew a guy named Bucky Sinister and I asked him some questions, but I didn’t ask him enough questions. I didn’t go to the warehouse and learn the different things. I didn’t learn about distributors and overseas distributing and I didn’t know there were 50 million things to get good at and then launch. Instead I was just launching books when I made them. I didn’t have marketing lead times and I wish I would have known about budgeting for advertising and how hard it is to measure the success of a marketing campaign. I wish I wouldn’t have used a publicist and just done fun creative things with that money. There’s probably 600 lessons I wish I would have learned.
I should have naively talked to people who were doing it.
SB: Having been on the “business” side of poetry for so long while also writing your own poetry and creating your own art, what advice would you give to young artists trying to follow the same path?
DB: I believe all artists should do the “other” thing. For example, if you’re going to work on putting out a book and doing live shows you should also help proofread other people’s books. Or, if you’re a comedian you should not only write some jokes and perform shows you should put on some shows and see how hard it is to organize everything, make sure the sound is right and that everyone is getting tipped out correctly. What that work gives you is more mercy and graciousness when you work with other people and makes you better at your main role as an artist.