Kansas City’s Second Oldest Book Publisher Struggles to Survive
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kansas City’s BkMk Press, one of Kansas City’s few book publishers and second oldest only to Andrews McMeel. Over the course of that long history, BkMk has acted as a platform for Midwestern voices, won many awards, and built a solid reputation for its publication of poetry, fiction and nonfiction — but it’s also been no stranger to obstacles.
“We really feel like we continue to have an important role to play in the cultural life of our community and of our region.”Ben Furnish, managing editor, BkMk Press
Longtime managing editor Ben Furnish has been hard at work during the pandemic, shepherding the press over its most recent roadblock: the loss of financial backing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I’m feeling pretty stubborn,” Furnish said, “because I think the work is so important.”
He said he’s taking his cue from the press’ founder, Dan Jaffe, who passed away in February 2020.
Furnish looks to Jaffe’s “sense of stubbornness and his unwillingness to abandon this project,” he said. “We really feel like we continue to have an important role to play in the cultural life of our community and of our region.”
BkMk (pronounced bookmark), was founded in 1971 as part of the Johnson County Library under library director and press cofounder Roy Fox. At the time, the library had a printshop, which BkMk relied on until the late ’70s when the county could no longer sustain it.
Rather than close, Jaffe moved operations to his home address. Daughter Anna Jaffe said that she’s found books in her father’s archive published between 1977 and 1982 that list the family’s home as the address of the press — and that’s fitting.
Jaffe and her five siblings grew up referring to BkMk as their father’s seventh child. “All six of us human children used to joke about it. We knew from the time we were little how much BkMk meant to him. It was an integral part of his life and ours,” she said.
From 1983 until 2020, BkMk operated under the umbrella of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s college of arts and sciences — though Jaffe’s retirement in 1995 briefly threw doubt on the durability of the enterprise; that was when the university hitched the press to “New Letters Magazine.”
Though Furnish said there really hasn’t been a “golden age” for the business, while at UMKC, the press made up one-third of the university’s unusual literary triumvirate.
“To our knowledge, we are the only literary enterprise in the country to combine a magazine, radio program and book press — a point of distinction and pride for our university and region,” said Christie Hodgen, UMKC professor of English and executive editor of BkMk.
Pandemic budget cuts at the university threw that point of distinction into disarray, when over the summer both BkMk and New Letters on the Air lost funding, though KCUR 89.3 has continued airing archived shows.
“The idea that BkMk was under threat almost immediately after [my father] passed away was just a bitter pill for all of us. It was really difficult news to digest over the summer,” Jaffe said.
A rescue endeavor began immediately, but as of early 2021, the life of the press remains uncertain.
Regardless of what difficulty BkMk has faced, Anna Jaffe said her father’s founding philosophy has stuck: Fine writing should be celebrated and read, and its publication should not be dependent on projected commercial success.
Patricia Cleary Miller, a UMKC alumna and writer published by BkMk, said that she’s continued to offer support to the press because “it’s important for literature to survive. I think that’s where civilization comes from, people wrestling with the great problems and making art out of all the things we can’t figure out.”
Jaffe said that without Miller’s contributions, the press might have already shuttered.
Furnish said that BkMk will physically remain at the university until June of 2021. However, for months it’s operated solely on private funding like Miller’s. A local business has offered office and storage space, and Furnish is negotiating with another university to help with distribution, but no contracts are finalized.
A History of Excellence
Regardless of what difficulty BkMk has faced, Jaffe said her father’s founding philosophy has stuck: Fine writing should be celebrated and read, and its publication should not be dependent on projected commercial success.
That idea has guided publication of nearly 200 books over five decades; about 170 are still in print. Many have won awards like the PEN/Faulkner and Bellwether and gained national attention through reviews in “The New York Times” and recommendations in “The New Yorker.”
“Dan really sought to have an eclectic mix of writers,” said Furnish, whose history with the press dates to 1988. “There are some presses that, really, their raison d’etre is to promote a certain kind of aesthetic. It might be experimental, or it might be focused around maybe a subject matter or ethnic identity.”
But, he said, BkMk’s publications have always been varied, first focusing on publishing chap books (short collections of poetry), and later expanding to full-length manuscripts of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Over the years, its reputation has grown and not only attracted Midwestern writers, but writers from around the nation and abroad.
Bojan Louis, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, published his first collection of poetry with BkMk in 2017. “Currents” won an American Book Award the following year. He said that he considers the press one of the top three small presses in the United States.
“It’s got a very solid reputation. When Ben approached me, and he told me he was from BkMk Press, I was very excited. There are so many voices that without something like BkMk Press would go unheard and unread,” he said.
Furnish said that “one always waits in joyful hope” for prizes and recognition such as Louis’, but something else is more important than accolades: amplifying the voices and ideas of writers who aren’t part of the New York City publishing industry.
He said, “I think poetry, fiction and essays can cultivate our imagination and our thinking in a way that may be essential for our survival as a species.”