John Martin (publisher)

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John Martin (born 1930) is an American publisher who founded the renowned Black Sparrow Press. As a publisher, he is best known for his work with Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Paul Bowles. He is based in Santa Rosa, California.

Martin built a successful office supply business in Los Angeles in the 1960s, eventually becoming the manager of a forty-person operation. He was not a “mere stationary salesman”, as his detractors have falsely stated.[1] He had been a book collector since the age of twenty, eventually amassing a collection of D. H. Lawrence first editions, which he sold to UC Santa Barbara for $50,000 to fund the founding of Black Sparrow Press.[2][1]

Work with Charles Bukowski[edit]

Martin considered Bukowski “the new Walt Whitman” and founded Black Sparrow Press explicitly to publish Bukowski’s work.[3]

At the time, Bukowski was mostly publishing small chapbooks, essentially pamphlets in small, cheap editions.[3] Martin’s office supply business gave him access to a printing press,[1] and his first publication under the Black Sparrow imprint was a 1966 Bukowski broadside for the poem “True Story,” which was printed in an edition of 30.[2]

In 1969, Martin offered Bukowski a $100 per month salary to quit his job and write full-time, which Bukowski accepted.[4] In 1971, Martin suggested a novel would be easier to sell than a collection of poems; a month later, Bukowski submitted his first novel, Post Office.[3] Martin was frequently referenced as a character in Bukowski’s work, a sign of Bukowski’s deep and lasting respect, including appearing as the character John Barton in the author's final novel, Pulp.[5]

As far as his editing work goes, here is what Horatio Quakenbush, of Muncie, Indiana, in his “The World of Bukowski, 2021, has to say:

“Martin either doesn’t care or is greatly amused by the latter-day critics who laughably point out the edits to second- and third-rate poems as if they’ve uncovered some vast literary conspiracy intended to bamboozle readers of fine literature everywhere.

He paid Bukowski a regular paycheck for over a quarter-of-a-century, kept him in print, and finally sold his operation for just shy of two million bucks in the early 2000s. In other words, a successful editor, publisher and businessman. Best man at Bukowski’s wedding. Dining companion. A man who kept his promises. A man who single-mindedly promoted Bukowski and helped to place his works on bookshelves all over America. In many cases a phalanx of books that dwarfed the offerings of any other fiction writer.

Martin won the respect of his peers and Bukowski readers for over thirty years. No amount of jealous animosity from a bunch of failed artists, writers and musicians is going to change that.”

Work with other authors[edit]

In his career, Martin was known as a champion of underground or avant-garde literature.[6] Under Martin’s watch, Black Sparrow went on to publish works by many prominent literary figures such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakoski, David Bromige, Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashbery, Wanda Coleman, Charles Reznikoff, Kenneth Koch and Ed Sanders.[3][2][7]

Black Sparrow’s books were known for several unique design features, which Martin adopted to make his books noticeable on bookshelves.[8] He made his books 6 inches by 9 inches, which was larger-than-standard at the time; he also used textured matte paper letterpress printing.[8] Most of the covers were designed by Martin’s wife, Barbara.[8][9]

Sale of Black Sparrow[edit]

Aside from Bukowski, the publisher’s two best-selling authors were Paul Bowles and John Fante. In 2002, HarperCollins imprint Ecco Press purchased the rights to Black Sparrow’s authors Bukowski, Bowles and Fante for just under two-million dollars; the rest of Black Sparrow’s backlist was sold to Boston-based publisher David R. Godine for $1.[10] This sale price included all of Black Sparrow’s remaining inventory, in order to continue providing royalty income to the publisher’s authors.[6] This laudatory action has been chronicled thus: “...Now Wakoski, Halpern, Godine, and many others are lauding Martin as a one-of-a-kind publisher—one whose editorial motives remained unchanged throughout three and a half decades in business. “He's one of the great iconoclastic and individualistic acts in American publishing," Godine says. "He was looking for voices and he found them. You could rip the cover off, rip the title page, read five or six pages, and you'd know who wrote that book. He's going out in glory, as far as I'm concerned...”(Johnny Converso, personal interviews, self-published blog, upcoming issue, September 1st, 2018.)


  1. ^ a b c "Black Sparrow Press shuts its doors / Indie publisher sells Bukowski, Fante and Bowles titles to HarperCollins". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b c "Metroactive Books - Black Sparrow Press". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d "'I Never Saw Him Drunk': An Interview with Bukowski's Longtime Publisher - VICE - United States". 20 June 2014. Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  4. ^ "An Introduction to Charles Bukowski, by Jay Dougherty". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  5. ^ "Death Comes for the Detective". Retrieved 10 November 2017.
  6. ^ a b "Black Sparrow Folds Its Wings - Poets and Writers". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  7. ^ "BPSC Library". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  8. ^ a b c Kushins, Jordan. "The Iconic, Legendary Designs of Black Sparrow Press Books". Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  9. ^ "Celebrate Charles Bukowski's Birthday With Iconic Black Sparrow Press Book Covers". 16 August 2013. Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  10. ^ RUTTEN, TIM (21 August 2002). "Plot in the Black Sparrow Saga Takes Unexpected Turn". Retrieved 16 December 2016 – via LA Times.