Featherproof

by Alissa Fehlbaum

Featherproof Books is a small indie fiction press running out of Chicago, IL; it was cofounded by Zach Dodson and Johnathan Messinger in 2005. The press has a dual-focus on fiction and design and has grown rapidly over the six years of its existence—the press offers over 50 downloadable mini-books in its Light Reading series, has published twelve novels, and even developed an iPhone app, TripleQuick Fiction, which allows users to read and download stories 333 words long (or three iPhone screens in length) and also allows the user to create and submit their own short stories from their phone.

Obviously, Messinger and Dodson are no strangers to the literary world. Before starting Featherproof, Messinger was the editor of THISisGRAND, a web mag dedicated to Chicago’s mass transit station, and he still serves as the books editor for an entertainment magazine, “Time Out Chicago.” It was while working at “Time Out Chicago” that Messigner first started working with Dodson, who at was a designer for the zine at the time. Both Dodson and Messinger have published their own work via Featherproof: Messinger’s short story collection, Hiding Out, was the fourth book the press published; Dodson wrote and designed Featherproof’s sixth book, boring boring boring boring boring boring, under the nom de plume Zach Plague.

Featherproof stands under the umbrella of Publishing Group West for distribution, in the good company of McSweeney’s, Counterpoint, and Tin House, among many others.

While researching this press I couldn’t help but notice a focus on presentation. Take, for example, Featherproof’s eighth release, Scorch Atlas, by Blake Butler (see image right). The cover looks worn, there’s a library tag with the book title on the spine, and the pages of the book are meant to look crinkled, smeared, and sometimes even bloody, depending on the needs of the text. In this case, the attention to detail and illustrated accompaniments embolden the reader’s experience, but Featherproof isn’t always successful in this endeavor.

The press’s eleventh release, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Sommerville, is a collection short stories (plus a novella) presented in paperback. In this case, the paperback’s sleeves unfold into a diagram and illustrations of the solar system, and the included instructions urges the reader to cut out the planets and use some string to make the book into a hanging mobile (see image left). I’ve thought about making the book into the mobile only because I didn’t find the stories very captivating, but I’ve read several glowing reviews for this book and none of them mentioned making use of the book’s little craft project. I have to wonder if anyone at Featherproof really believed the consumer would choose to dismantle part of their book for the sake of an awkward looking mobile. While these gimmicks are certainly attention-grabbing, the presentation of the text often overvalues the text itself.

I think a perfect example of Featherproof’s tendency to depend upon presentation is Dodson’s release, boring boring boring boring boring (see image right). Available for free viewing online at zachplague.com, boring is an amalgam of impressive fonts and graphics, none of which morph the collection of short stories into masterful works of fiction. As I flipped through the online pages and looked at the italicized phrases and bold words, the handwritten fonts and the magazine-like clippings, the words I kept coming back to were not “boring boring boring” but “overkill overkill overkill.”

That being said, in a world where print is routinely declared dead, Featherproof has managed to incorporate the written page and cyber space in new and innovative ways. Featherproof promotes their print publications in their Light Reading series by distributing excerpts or narrative tie-ins, as well as works by new, unheard authors (though Featherproof is currently closed for submissions, they usually accept short stories of 300, 1,500, or 3,000 words for their mini-books). Each mini-book is available as a .pdf and comes with instructions for printing and folding the story out on plain, 8.5 x 11 printer paper, with the press asking only for donations via Paypal for the experience. The press has also produced “storigamis” (see image left), very short stories that literally fold and unfold; these too are available for free on the Featherpoof website. All twelve of the press’s book releases are available in paper and digital versions; Dodson’s boring is an interesting read just because it’s fun to zoom in and out on the images or turn the digital pages.

My favorite Featherproof publication was their tenth release, Daddy’s, by Lindsay Hunter. Like many Featherproof releases, Daddys is a collection of short stories that prominently features images alongside the text; but I felt like this book asked the reader to focus more on the actual story itself than the presentation, an accomplishment when the text is laid out horizontally rather than the traditional left-to-right page format. The cover of the book is made to look like a tackle box (see image right) and the pictures inside the book are of objects placed within tackle box sections. The overall result is an oddly intimate read, I felt like I was deeply embedded in the personal space of the narrator, rifling through her collections of memories, and hoping all the while that I wouldn’t get caught. If Featherproof Books continues printing works like Hunter’s, I have no doubt this indie press will find itself becoming much more mainstream.

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