Koyama Press, the Toronto-based small publisher, will cease operations in 2021, according to founder Annie Koyama. Citing personal and professional reasons, Koyama did not characterize the coming closure as a lost financial fight, but as a return to an impetus. For more than a decade, the publisher also sponsored prominent and unknown artists anonymously, enabling specific projects she has mostly kept private. Now, she will expand and push this form of direct financial support without the responsibility of a press occupying most of her time.
“I will not tell the artists how to do anything,” Koyama said. “There are no strings attached. Once I decide to work with an artist, as I have always done with the press, I put enough trust in them and their project not to interfere. They don’t need my creative help, they need money.”
How this next venture will work is still being formulated. Though the projects she supports will not be owned by Koyama, recipients of these “micro-grants” will be expected to fulfill their end of the bargain, whether if be self-publishing the project, offering a performance, or whatever Koyama and the participating party agree to.
Additionally, the publisher expects to continue to pursue broader methods of support by hosting financial and business literary workshops and supplementing residencies. Her support will not be limited to cartoonists, either. Koyama recently supported a feature film and is already contributing support to projects with several fine artists.
“I am choosing the artists because I like their work,” Koyama said. “I feel that they deserve a higher profile. I know that they can’t do it on their own. What I am most interested in is taking people who are known for one discipline and for example, helping them to try another discipline. For example, people who are good at drawing already but really want to work on a little stop motion animation. Or they want to go off and learn to play the trumpet, try sculpture, learn printmaking or start community art related initiatives.”
At this point, there is not a planned public application process, but the publisher is open to the thought. For now, she’s maintaining her past procedure by approaching people herself.
A standing, publicized example of this support is Ley Lines; the quarterly series headed by the cartoonist Kevin Czap and Grindstone Comics publisher L. Nichols. Koyama met with the pair in 2015 at the Small Press Expo, asked them for a brief proposal and has since covered the printing as well as additional funds to pay the series’ artists.
It’s well documented how Koyama started her company. In the mid-'90s, she left a lucrative job with the Partners Film Company, a commercial production company in Toronto, to potentially spend two year’s worth of savings on plane tickets. Instead she was unable to work for several years due to chronic illness.
In 2005, after suffering chronic migraine, she was diagnosed with two brain aneurysms and given two months to live. Surgery was not a certain option but Koyama felt it better to possibly die on the operating table during a risky procedure than lay in wait. Prior to this, she invested in the stock market, holding equities such as pharmaceuticals and aviation, resulting in impressive savings. The surgery did not cure the migraines but at least controlled the larger aneurysm. The nest egg of money saved became Koyama Press.
“But that money ran out about four years ago. I didn’t play the stock market again because I’m not risking what I have now. Even if it was the right time to get back into the market, I just don’t really have the interest. That was a means to an end for me,” Koyama said. “I don’t have unlimited resources. I want to make that really clear. This is all coming from my own funds.
“If you didn’t know me and you came in at half time and didn’t know my backstory, you’d be well within your rights to think that I was some rich person,” she added. “That’s not how I was brought up. But because I was brought up with less, I’m used to sharing.”
She emphasized that Koyama Press is in good standing. The company has been in the black for many years, according to her, so lack of profitability is not a reason for closing the doors. She, along with her team of Ed Kanerva, Helen Koyama, and Daniel Nishio, took a start-up press of comics, art books, and zines and have kept its vision intact while expanding its reach through coordinated media exposure and relationships with retailers. Publishing notable books by Michael DeForge, Julia Wertz, Rokudenashiko, and Jesse Jacobs, all of which received prominent press attention and sold well, really did the trick.
Financial support from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Ontario Media Development Corporation has helped. While the kinds of books she chose didn’t always qualify for grant help, she published them regardless.
“I have never used any crowdfunding to fund our press and am proud of that," Koyama said. "That is not to dis anyone who chooses to do it that way. I get it. The model has changed but that will never be me.”
Ultimately, besides her interest in patronage, the choice to walk away ties to frustrations with a seemingly never-ending work schedule and the wish to invest more time in relationships. Koyama mentioned dissatisfaction with being a “shitty girlfriend” to a partner who’s often taken a backseat to her business.
Koyama shared the news with her roster of artists. She told them that the general feeling of this event is bittersweet. Plans are being made for the final season of publications. “We have some really exciting books coming for 2019 and look forward to fully supporting those artists and books, as well as our rich backlist, until early 2021. It will be business as usual.” She added, though, that some of the artists particularly connected to the press would not be included in the last seasons due to having other commitments.
“So, you know, I’m sad about that, to be honest,” she said. “However, what makes me not weepy sad is that I know that I’ll get to work on other projects with some of these people. So I do get to carry on. Our relationship just changes, but you know, as long as I’m around I’m going to be helping a lot of the people that I help now. It’s not as if I’m going to stop in three years. That’s not the kind of person I am.”
-Tucker Stone, Alec Berry & Annie Koyama