The version of Portland, Oregon that Kevin Sampsell came to in 1992 was a lot smaller than the city we know today.
“It was a pretty small town in a lot of ways,” the publisher and author said. “It seemed a little more tight-knit.”
The city was in the early stages of its wave of cultural growth in the ‘90s, as waves of creatives like Sampsell flocked to the city, attracted by its vibrant culture and lower cost of living. For Sampsell, this coming year represents the 30-year anniversary since he brought his indie publishing house, Future Tense Press, to Portland.
Much like the city he’d recently relocated to, Future Tense was smaller in the ‘90s—a lot smaller.
“It was a really scrappy beginning, just like going to Kinko’s [to print] in those days,” Sampsell recalled. Before his move to Portland, he’d been living in Arkansas and, before that, Spokane, Washington. Portland, with its burgeoning community of writers, became fertile ground for Sampsell to grow his publishing projects.
“I just got more serious about it here because there were a lot more writers,” he explained. “I was meeting a lot more writers for the first time, and they saw these little chapbooks that I was printing for myself, and they were like ‘can you help me do that?’”
Sampsell began publishing volumes of local writers’ work and, as he continued releasing books and publications, he came into contact with a larger community of people he wanted to publish.
As time went on, Portland grew—and with it, the city’s pool of writers.
“I feel like it’s hard to keep track of all the writers that are here,” Sampsell said. “Whereas I feel like I used to know every writer that lived in town. There’s a lot of times I’ll meet people and I’ll be like ‘I didn’t know you lived here.’”
Sampsell also notes that it’s not just the literary scene that’s changed in Portland—the technology and culture of the small press has changed as well. Print-on-demand, once a nascent technology with low production-value results, is now an established tool of the trade.
“I always used to make fun of them,” Sampsell said of the early print-on-demand copies. “But they look really good now. The technology’s really good, and you can get really nice books printed really quickly.”
The change in printing technology has been a game changer for small press and indie publishing houses, as they are now able to order smaller initial runs for book releases, requiring less financial capital and exposing them to less risk.
In addition to the changes in how indie books are published, their readership and the culture around them has changed dramatically as well, largely due to the internet and social media. In a hyper-connected world, authors now get instant feedback on their work, whether it’s positive or negative.
“There’s nowhere to hide nowadays,” Sampsell explained. “Pre-internet, people could write this stuff and just walk away—they didn’t have to face that immediate reaction.”
With the advent of the internet, any writer who is published and read beyond their immediate social circle now has to reconcile with feedback that is instantaneous and all-pervasive, whether readers find their work thrilling, boring, offensive or brilliant. Sampsell argues that the anticipation of this reaction is frequently in the back of modern writers’ heads as they work—though he also cautions against dismissing this phenomenon as an entirely bad thing.
“I think people are more cognizant of what people are writing about,” he added. “I think it’s good that there’s more awareness when talking about sensitive subjects, whether it’s race, gender, religion. I think writers are a little bit more careful now.”
Sampsell’s views on writing in the 21st century comes from personal experience—in addition to running his publishing house, he’s also worked on the other end of the printing press as a published author.
In 2010, he released a book of his own called A Common Pornography, an autobiographical memoir that explores the intimate and sometimes disturbing aspects of his childhood and family life. Publishing his book represented a milestone in his development as a writer; although he’d been writing for years prior to the book’s publication, he’d never called himself one.
For Sampsell, it wasn’t until A Common Pornography came out that he began to think of himself seriously as a writer. As far as other writers in his former position are concerned, he had this advice to give:
“If [you] have aspirations or ideas that [you] want other people to read, then you kind of have to just bite the bullet and send it to some editors. If you just wrote like a novel or something, and you’re afraid to show it to people because you’re not sure if it’s good or not, there’s really no way to tell unless you do share it with people.”
This process of getting work out into the world and helping people publish their writing is a key part of why Sampsell continues to do what he does.
“It all goes back to the drive to create things, to make things,” he said.
Reflecting on his work now, after 30 years of publishing in Portland, Sampsell considers himself fortunate to connect with writers in the area as much as he has.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to find really interesting writers,” he said. “I’ve been really fortunate in that way.”
As different as the city is now, Sampsell’s desire to create books and publish local authors has remained steady throughout the years. When asked what his younger self from 30 years ago would think of what he’s done, and what he’s doing now, Sampsell is nonplussed: “I don’t think I’d be that surprised.”