The Story of Dzanc Books

Jeremiah Chamberlin

After the reading, they went across the street to a restaurant. The two joked as they recounted their initial encounter. “Dan had a burger and a Coke, and I had a drink. That’s basically how we are,” Gillis said. “We have the perfect relationship, because I’m the bad cop and he’s the good cop. He’s the face man; I’m the man behind the curtain. I’m the mad scientist with the ideas, and then Dan’s the one who has to say, “Ok, how the hell are we going to pull this off?”

“That is a very good description,” Dan agreed. “I sit back at times and question how other people haven’t been able to work well with Steve, but then I realize there are certain aspects of my personality that blend in very well with his. And that’s why this has gone so well.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty intense,” Gillis continued. “I might seem calm now, but I’m pretty much an A+ personality. And Dan knows how to handle it. I just want people to do what they say they’re going to do. If you want to annoy me the quickest, tell me you’re going to do something and then don’t do it.”

“And if you really want to make him mad,” Wickett added, laughing, “Follow that up by saying, ‘I didn’t say that.’ I can see the sparks flying in Ann Arbor all the way from Westland.”

Listening to Steve and Dan joke as we sat around Gillis’s kitchen table at his home in Ann Arbor—a modest bungalow in an equally modest neighborhood—I realized that the reason Dzanc worked, and the reason that it has been so successful, was exactly because of this: their relationship. In particular, their ability to be serious about their work without taking themselves too seriously.

When I spoke with Laura van den Berg about this several days later, via e-mail, her sentiments were nearly the same. “Dan and Steve strike me as being ideally suited business partners,” she wrote. “They’re both huge lovers of literature. They have great respect for what writers do and have a wonderful grasp of community. And they are utterly tireless workers.”

Even back in February of 2005, during their initial meeting, the two were already beginning to work together. And though a formal business partnership wouldn’t begin until the following year, when they founded Dzanc, they were already collaborating on ways to help writers get more attention, as well as how they could develop more charitable projects like putting writers into schools. “Though things don’t remain abstract with us too long,” Gillis explained. “I leap and Dan looks over the cliff and says, 'Oh, hell…'"

So by the end of 2005 they had decided to set up an umbrella nonprofit for literary journals, in order to help them with fund-raising, grant writing, and distribution. But some journals were hesitant to join because they feared they’d be told who to publish, and others affiliated with institutions were worried that they’d lose their university funding. “A lot of people were skeptical,” Wickett explained. “They wanted to know, ‘What’s in it for you guys?’”

“We still get that all the time, man,” Gillis added. “We do a lot of charitable work and they always ask: ‘What’s in it for you? What’s the catch?’ And I try to say, ‘There’s no catch.’ And they say, ‘Come on…’ Drives me nuts.”

But despite the fact that Gillis and Wickett are idealists, they’re not naïve. With his background in law and his previous experience establishing 826 Michigan as a nonprofit, Gillis had a sense of the challenges they would face. He was unwilling to undertake the project unless they could come up with a clear business plan and an equally sound financial strategy. Though once they did, he believed in the mission enough that he donated a substantial amount of his own capital to guarantee the organization a strong financial start. The long-term plan was to begin grant writing and fund-raising in a few years, after they’d established themselves as a legitimate entity. Then the economy went in the toilet.

Because they are fiscally prudent and creative, though, Dzanc has managed to weather the storm. And despite some financial hardships, they haven’t cut back on their charitable programs. Quite the opposite, in fact. In addition to a host of workshops and scholarships that they sponsor, they also underwrite a writer-in-residence program in schools in Michigan. Additionally, they fund the Dzanc Prize each year. “This is a $5,000 award that goes to a writer who does both a social service and has a work in progress,” Gillis explained.

For example, Kodi Scheer was the winner of this prize in 2008. Her proposal, as she puts it, was “to lead a series of writing workshops for patients, caregivers, and staff at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.” When I asked her how she felt the program impacted her community, she said, “Most of my students felt a sense of agency they didn’t have before putting words on the page. When you’re in a healthcare setting, there’s a strong feeling of powerlessness, of everything happening to you, that you don’t have any choice. This tends to be true for many patients and family members. Writing can help us discover, explore, and reflect upon the choices we do have.”

Not every program has been a complete success the first time, of course. Last year Dzanc instituted “Dzanc Day,” which the founders admit was a learning experience. “It was a great idea—to have a writing workshop in every state, in as many cities as we could find volunteers to conduct them,” Gillis explained. And on March 20, 2010, they did manage to have thirty workshops in twenty-six different cities. Not a failure in anybody’s book. But because many of the workshops didn’t sell out, they fell short of their fundraising goal. Partly this had to do with not having enough time to publicize the event, so this year they’ve begun planning ten months in advance. And their goal is to double attendance.

Still, they learned from the process, just as they’ve learned how to be a better publisher in the last few years. “When we published our first book [Roy Kesey’s collection], we over printed,” Gillis told me. “So we’ve learned what the literary market is like. We learned we don’t need to print several thousand copies. Laura’s book is the exception, of course, because of the great things that have happened to it along the way. But in general, if you sell a thousand you’re doing really well. So we learned that.”


Hoorah for Dzanc

In this era of retrenchment from all things creative, lovely and life sustaining--particularly the commercialization and conglomerization of language-- one success story is a breath of clean air. Thank you.

Interesting and important it is, that the founders of Dzanc Books have skills that are agreeable to the corporate model that contributed to the production and promotion of their venture.

I note, though, that only after a known "establishment"--"Publisher's Weekly"-- gave the company a positive review were theycontacted and able to advance.

My father often said that "contact" was the most important component one could have. He meant, "contact" with someone who has the ability to assist. you. Publisher's Weekly was the "kiss of death" for my first publication. Giving my work to someone who was unqualified to evaluate it provided a devastating review, despite George Garrett, the Dean of southern writing, having given it a superlative review--and inclusion in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Yearbook 2002.

The luck of the draw?