With their first publication, How to Burn Down the House: The Infamous Waiter and Bartender's Scam Bible, Promethean Books co-founders Nigel Pickhardt and John F. Collins say they got a crash course in editing, production, distribution and marketing. "We've read a hell of a lot of books on self-publishing and running small presses," Pickhardt says. "And then we just combined that with a lot of probably false idealism we had about publishing."
Promethean Books grew out of Collins' sponsorship of the New Orleans Literary Renaissance Project in the mid-1990s. "I went down and got a P.O. box and decided I would beat the bushes to find out who all the writers were," says Collins, a native of Syracuse, N.Y. He established an annual writing contest and put up $250 of his own money as the first-place prize. While reviewing submissions, Collins had the opportunity to read most of the young writers in the city. "Initially it was impossible to get them to let me read their work," he says. "And then it got to be impossible to make them stop reading me their work."
The New Orleans Literary Renaissance Project culminated in the 1996 "Insomniacathon: Voices Without Restraint," a 48-hour non-stop reading that brought together New Orleans writers with Beat Generation luminaries like Robert Creeley, William S. Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and the now-defunct Tribe Magazine co-sponsored the event. Collins grew concerned, however, that the community of local writers he helped nurture had become "a mutual admiration society instead of a real thing." After the Insomniacathon, he left New Orleans and concentrated on his own writing while traveling through Montana, Alaska and Central America.
Collins eventually returned to New Orleans and teamed up with Pickhardt, a graphic artist originally from Austin, Texas. Their goal: to start a local publishing house that would be both idealistic and keep a close eye on the bottom line. They chose the name as a homage to Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals. Prometheus, they figured, aimed high regardless of the cost. Looking for an initial publication that would establish Promethean's name, Pickhardt and Collins stumbled upon the authors of the Scam Bible. "It was sink or swim for us," Collins says. "There was a good chance the Scam Bible could hit, because of the market of restaurants and waiters. But there was a good chance it wouldn't, and we could be done. We rolled the dice."
Promethean's marketing strategy runs the gamut from the high-tech to the rudimentary. In addition to online sales through Amazon.com and the book's own Web site (www.scambible.com), Promethean rents a booth at the French Market, where most days of the week Collins, Pickhardt or one of the Scam Bible authors hawks the book to locals and curious tourists.
Promethean Books plans an ambitious publishing schedule for the next six months. The Stoner's Cookbook, a "cookbook for the cooked" by the authors of the Scam Bible, will offer recipes to alleviate the munchies. Collins' own play, The Interrogation of Che Guevara, and Poia: A Native-American Folk Opera, written in collaboration with Micheal Rihner, are also scheduled for the first half of the year. Local musician and Cuban drum master Hector Gallardo is recording a series of instructional videos, and Billy Dee, a local hip-hop artist and the producer of Sidestreet Hustler Music, is working on a semi-autobiographical account of his life in the Fifth Ward.
"They're kind of weird projects, but I think they just might be weird enough to hit," Pickhardt says. But it all starts with the Scam Bible. Pickhardt and Collins hope that their first book will be one of many from a publishing house that promotes undiscovered New Orleans talent. "We're not taking a traditional approach to culling talent from New Orleans," Pickhardt says. "I see Promethean Books as really exploding into something major."
- Donn Young
- Promethean Books co-founder John F. Collins hawks copies of the Scam Bible from a French Market booth. "It was sink or swim for us," he says.