Published on May 19, 2002
© 2002- The Press Democrat


Black Sparrow PressSay goodbye to Santa Rosa's Black Sparrow Press. John Martin, after more than three decades running one of the nation's finest independent presses, has sold the rights to publish his three best known authors. He will cease operations in July.

``I'm 71, and after 36 years these people came along with a wonderful offer, and I took it,'' said Martin at home in Santa Rosa about the deal struck with a New York publisher. The lucrative agreement, reported to be in the seven figures by the Los Angeles Times, gives Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, Black Sparrow Press' rights to 49 books by three major literary authors -- Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles and John Fante.

Bukowski, one of the best-selling poets of the 20th century -- with sales of more than a million copies every year in 15 languages -- achieved international prominence with his prose and poetry including the novels ``Post Office,'' ``Factotum'' and ``Women,'' and the screenplay for ``Barfly.''

The literary transaction includes worldwide rights of five yet-to-be-published books by Bukowski.

``Bukowski would send me everything he wrote as he wrote it,'' recalled Martin about his star author who died at age 73 in 1994. ``And every time he sent a poem he really liked he would put a little star or check on it and I was to put that aside. If I didn't need it for the next book I was to hold it until after he was gone. He wanted to have a book come out every year for 10 years after he died.''

``We're going to easily meet that because Bukowski's been dead for seven years, and we've done nine books, and HarperCollins will publish his last five books,'' said Martin, who will edit the remaining Bukowski books. ``I've already edited the first one.''

Indeed, Martin launched Black Sparrow Press to publish the German-born poet. The two met in Los Angeles in 1966 -- when Martin managed an office-supply company and Bukowski worked for the post office.

``I read his stuff in underground magazines and he had little chapbooks out. Bukowski had copies, and I bought some from him and we got friendly. I had access to a print shop. So I thought I would take a few little things and print them for fun and I did. Then all of sudden I thought why not try and make a business of this and do a book. And I was just stupid enough to try.

``After we knew each other awhile, Bukowski wanted to quit the post office and he sat down and figured out laboriously what he needed to live and he said, `I can get by on $100 a month. He showed me the list with $35 for rent, $25 for food and so on. So I said if you quit the post office and write full time, I'll give you $100 a month. In the end, it turned out to be $10,000 a month or more from sales.''

With rights to the big three sold to Ecco, Martin now turns his attention to his remaining backlist -- including the works by poet Wanda Coleman and journalist Edward Sanders. ``I've got four publishers interested with the proviso that whoever takes it over will publish current authors. That would be an ideal situation. The backlist would stay intact, those books will continue to sell, the authors will continue to get paid, and the ones that have new books ready will get their books published,'' said Martin.

``It's almost like I wasn't ever there at all,'' he added, laughing.

So, what does Martin plan to do post-publishing? ``Live to be 100. I've worked every Saturday and every Sunday for 36 years. Just two weeks ago, I finished everything I needed to do and someone asked me `what are you going to do today?' and I said `I'm not going to do anything.' It feels so great.''

A ``hopelessly addicted book collector,'' Martin plans to add to his first edition book collections, travel some and visit with friends.

Will he write a tell-all book?

``No, there are too many things that go on in publishing that really should be allowed to remain secret between editor and publisher. Authors pour their souls out, and it's not necessarily for it to be repeated."

John Martin launched Black Sparrow Press more than 30 years ago to publish the works of Charles Bukowski, the German-born poet.

Black Sparrow Press

Sara Peyton is an Occidental free-lance writer.

© 2002- The Press Democrat

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