April 30, 2014

Floating on a Balloon of Books: An Inside Look at Black Balloon Publishing

by Britt Gettys

"The recipes function as a sort of found poetry,
if you will, a jumping-off point for a
consideration of how sound relates to flavor." - Esquire
Tucked away in the corner of an office building in Lower Manhattan sits Black Balloon Publishing, a small indie press dedicated to publishing the strange and unique.  Despite their small stature -- Black Balloon has only ten full-time employees and a handful of freelancers to it’s name -- it’s clear early on that this company is one of both heart and ambition.

Barbara Clevland Bourland, Black Balloon’s Digital Director, welcomed Pratt Students into one of the warmly lit conference rooms,  where doughnuts and stacks of books decorated the table.  She then proceeded to tell students about Black Balloon’s mission and way of business.  “We were founded back in 2010 by Elizabeth Koch, who you may know as the co-founder of Literary Death Match, and Leigh Newman, the deputy editor of Oprah Magazine.  We only published one book that year,The Recipe Project: A Delectable Extravaganza of Food and Music, which is basically a bunch of recipes by celebrity chefs, which we then turned into songs.  So a CD is included with the book.”  From there they expanded to publish two more books in 2012, and then even more in 2013.  With books featured in Publisher’s Weekly, and The New York Times, this independent publisher is only just beginning to grow.   

“Our first location was in a basement, which really wasn’t ideal for a press for a variety of reasons.  Now we have this little space, which is a part of We Work.”  We Work itself is a unique venture, and a perfect fit for a small company such as Black Balloon.  We Work is a collaborative community platform, which works to connect small businesses with each other by housing them in a communal office space.  But We Work offers so much more than a simple office space -- if spaces which include fully stocked kitchens, exotic conference rooms, and theaters can be considered simple, they are dedicated to providing start-ups with the resources and amenities necessary for success such as: health care, worker’s compensation, web hosting, marketing, travel, entertainment, and more.  Bourland states that, when Black Balloon was looking for a more permanent space, their only concern was cost: “can we afford to do what we need to do here?”  When faced with We Work, the answer was yes.     

"Robert Perisic is a light bright with intelligence and twinkling with irony, f
lashing us the news that postwar Croatia not only endures but matters."
- Jonathan Franzen
Aside telling us about what Black Balloon looks for in a manuscript and the premise of their upcoming novel, which centers on the personification of a few well known bombs, Bourland also encouraged students to seek out internships as a way of getting their foot in the door.  “We are always hiring interns, and what I personally try to do, as do other members of our team, is get them actual jobs in the industry when they graduate.  We’ve promoted one of our interns to a full time position here, and other’s I’ve set up with jobs in a variety of other publications.  Part of being a small press is that we have a more personal connection with our employees, and as a result have more of an ability to care for those employees. We have the time to focus on our interns and freelancers, more so than larger publishers, because our operation is relatively small." This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between independent presses and larger publishers, such as The Big Five -- the five major trade book publishers, all of which have headquarters in New York: Hachette Books, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster.
Upon showing students Black Balloon’s actual office space, which consists of a corner, office with wall to floor glass ceilings, and enough desk space to maybe accommodate five employees at a time -- most of their square footage goes towards housing books -- Bourland also encouraged students to pitch story ideas to their blog: The Airship.  “One of the best ways for a writer to jumpstart their career is by freelancing.  All that means is pitching article ideas to magazines and various media outlets, and if they like your idea they’ll tell you to write it for them and boom, you’ve been paid and got a byline.”  
"This illustrated novel about growing up poor near the swamps of South Florida has a lurid vibrancy. Its prose is lit from below, like a vaguely scummy in-ground swimming pool, and the author’s photographs — of ranch houses, randy adolescents, alligators, drug paraphernalia, fishing tackle, convenience stores — are what you might get if you combined William Eggleston’s talents with Terry Richardson’s." — Dwight Garner, The New York Times

As the tour drew to a close, Bourland was quick to give everyone her card, as well as the card of The Airship’s managing editor, and said “If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to email me!”  We all thanked her for showing us around, and as we were herded into the elevator, she waved us off with a cheerful wink.     

by Britt Gettys
April 30, 2014

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