Literary midwife

Jerry Kelly '96 runs a one-man publishing house

The literary map of Gambier includes, most notably, Sunset Cottage, home of Kenyon's English department, and Walton House, whose second floor houses the Kenyon Review. There is also, of course, the College bookstore, with its well-worn armchairs and its abundance of treats, not only for the sweet tooth but also for the inquiring mind.

Inquiring minds will want to know about another site on the literary map, too. A few doors down from the bookstore, in an apartment above the old Village Inn restaurant and the Headquarters barber shop, is the home of Jerry Kelly '96--and the base of operations for his one-man publishing house, Xoxox.

An odd name, to be sure. But if Xoxox is hard to pronounce, it's easy to admire. Using his technical know-how and literary acumen, along with a good measure of affection for writers, Kelly has carved out a niche in the world of small presses. Since 1991, first on Long Island and then in Gambier, all the while working day jobs in the technology and technical-writing fields, he has published poetry and fiction, about a book a year, in press runs ranging from 500 copies to 2,500.

"More than anything else, it's fun," says Kelly, who came to Kenyon in 1994 as a forty-one-year-old junior and stayed on. "It's barely at the point where it's self-supporting. But I love the process. I work with a writer to shape a manuscript and see that through to a finished book. It's an incredible kick. It's really, really rewarding, even without lots of economic payoff. You end up with a book, and a writer who's thrilled with it."

Like most small independent publishers, Kelly works not with celebrities, trend-setters, blockbuster-wizards, or literary luminaries, but with a handful of writers whom he discovers, often through friends, and whose work he believes in. Unburdened by the corporate machinery that dominates mainstream book publishing today--and unblessed by the corporate resources--he follows his enthusiasms.

He does in fact publish one "known" writer, the late Fielding Dawson, who had become disgruntled with a previous publisher and met Kelly through mutual friends. Dawson was a prolific creator mainly of short stories who was associated with the Black Mountain school of writers and artists and who received recognition for his work teaching writing to prisoners. Kelly published a collection of Dawson's stories, The Land of Milk and Honey, in 2001, a year before the writer died. Another, posthumous collection, The Dirty Blue Car, will be published by Xoxox later this year.

More typical, perhaps, is Grace Kull, an octogenarian homemaker from Cooperstown, New York, who came to Kelly through his network of writer friends. In 2000, Kelly published Dear Bert, a collection of letters by Kull to her sister-in-law. In 2003, he brought out Traces: A Soldier Writes Home, a collection of war-time letters by Kull's brother, John E. Rames, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. In both cases, Kelly was drawn by the personality and humor that shone in the letters, as well as by the way the letters' mundane details evoked a particular era while innocently touching universal chords.

Kelly's vocation as a midwife to books grew out of his own interest in writing as well as an adeptness with technology cultivated during the early years of desktop publishing. An avid reader as a boy growing up in suburban Long Island, he enjoyed writing poetry and was coeditor of the literary magazine at West Islip High School. College was a fragmented affair for him, in part because he had to earn his tuition and took various semesters off to work. He spent a year at the State University of New York at Oneonta (where he first encountered Fielding Dawson as a visiting writer), then transferred to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he majored in English but dropped out after his junior year. He had gotten married and was going to take a year off to make money. The marriage ended, however, and his plans to return to college evaporated.

After stints driving trucks for a mass-market art company and teaching at facilities for people with mental and other disabilities, he found himself back on Long Island, writing poems (and getting a few published) while casting about for ways to make a living as a writer. This was during the late 1970s, and the term "word-processing" was beginning to appear in the want ads.

One ad that Kelly noticed was placed by an early cable-television company that needed a "technical writer" with word-processing experience to produce its program guide. Kelly went to the local Radio Shack, convinced a salesman to show him the ropes on a TRS-80 computer, then went to the job interview, where, when asked what he knew about word-processing, was able to say--truthfully but with some poetic license--"I've worked a little with the TRS-80."

And so a career began in which Kelly, working at a number of software and technology companies, learned progressively more about using computers to assemble text and graphics creatively, for both print publications and the nascent genre of online information services. By 1991, he was at Canon, the manufacturer of cameras and office equipment, where he was producing multimedia training kits for the sales force along with publications aimed at consumers.

In that year, an old friend, Ralph Fletcher--his coeditor on the high-school literary magazine, in fact--approached him about producing a book of poems. Fletcher, a writer and educator, was working as a consultant in schools, demonstrating effective ways of teaching children to write. He wanted to publish a book of his poems that he could use in his workshops and that teachers could use in the classroom.

The result was Kelly's first publishing project, a collection of poems by Fletcher called Water Planet. Kelly did all the design and layout work, found a photographer to take the cover photo, and supervised the printing. "I had done some little hand-made books before," he says, "but this was the first time I made what to me seemed like a finished book. A light went on in my head."

Other poetry collections followed, including one, Aestivation, by Mike Newell, a teacher and writer who became a friend. Newell would go on to teach English in an alternative high school in upstate New York and run writing workshops, where one of his guest instructors was Fielding Dawson--whom he proceeded to introduce to Kelly.

Meanwhile, Kelly's career at Canon hit a snag. "My boss asked me to go to Canon's management school in Tokyo," he remembers, "but I got shot down because I didn't have a college degree." He decided it was time to finish school.

Kelly had heard of the Kenyon Review and came out to Gambier to have a look at the College. "I was hooked within ten minutes," he says. He enrolled in 1994, majoring in English with a creative-writing emphasis, and graduated in 1996.

He paid for his education by continuing to work for Canon on a freelance basis. And he got some work with the Review, using his technical skills to help the journal establish in-house systems for subscription services as well as typesetting and layout. He also helped to design the journal's first Web site.

Since graduating, Kelly has earned his living primarily by working, on a contract basis, as a technical writer and project manager for AT&T in Columbus. The work can be compelling. In 2002, for example, the company, a corporate sponsor for the Winter Olympics, sent him to Salt Lake City to write feature stories about athletes and their families for a special Web site. More recently, he has helped design a new Web site for AT&T's "relay calling" service, through which deaf people can make phone calls.

His literary endeavors remain very much a part of his life. In 2001, McFarland and Company published Kelly's own book, Bushville: Life and Time in Amateur Baseball, a set of interwoven essays. By turns analytical, philosophical, and lyrical, Kelly examines both the human and technical dimensions of baseball through the lens of his own varied experience as a sandlot player, semi-pro, utility player for the Kenyon Lords, and coach of a Gambier Babe Ruth League team.

His publishing enterprise, meanwhile, continues to move into new territory. This year, in addition to the new collection by Dawson, he plans to publish a critical study of the writer-naturalist Barry Lopez by Mike Newell, including an extended interview that Newell did with Lopez.

The biggest challenge for concerns like Kelly's--and by some estimates there are more than fifty thousand small independent publishers nationwide-- is marketing and distribution. Xoxox simply does not have the means to advertise widely or the access to bookstores and other outlets that the major publishing firms do. approved Xoxox as an "advantage member," meaning that Amazon lists Kelly's books and provides some useful logistical services. In addition, his books are handled by Small Press Distribution, a nonprofit distributing organization based in Berkeley, California, that maintains a Web site, publishes a catalogue, and sells books to independent book stores.

But it remains difficult, Kelly says, to "find the audience for these books and let them know that the books exist." He tries to sell directly to bookstores and sends review copies to newspapers in his authors' home towns. Still, the biggest factor in whether one of his books does well is the author's willingness to "flog" it--to arrange radio interviews, readings at libraries, and signings at stores; and to badger friends to spread the word.

Maybe someday, Kelly muses, he will publish a book "that sweeps the oceans." Meanwhile, he takes some comfort from the fact that Walt Whitman, a fellow Long Islander, originally gave Leaves of Grass to the world by self-publishing his slender volume of poems. At the time, Whitman was a literary unknown. But he knew someone with a printing press, and he believed in himself.

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