By KAT GEORGES
Co-Director, Three Rooms Press
It’s a strange time in the world of publishing. The giant publishers continue to merge. Independent bookstores continue the struggle to keep their doors open. New technology has made it easy for authors to publish their own books.
Yet, somehow, independent publishers are thriving. According to Jeff Herman, author of Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Agents, independent publishers make up half of the $29 billion annual revenue of the publishing world.
Many small presses are well-known and quite successful, even with out-of-the-ordinary literary titles. Grove Press’ recent release of Helen McDonald’s fabulous memoir H Is For Hawk began with a print run of 5,000 and has sold a staggering 62,000 copies since its March release—a year before the paperback is due out.
Other small presses are “micro” in their size—under twenty releases per year—yet “macro” in their enthusiasm and commitment to publishing the highest quality work. These micro presses are fueled by passion and commitment to a vision. Three Rooms Press featured five of these New York-based, fiercely independent publishers on July 3 at its third annual “That’s Independents!” celebration of small presses at Cornelia Street Cafe, and discussed the state of the industry with them.
It’s All About the VisionIf one thing unites the small presses, it is their dedication to their unique vision.
For example, Great Weather for Media, which publishes solo poetry collections as well as a cross-genre annual anthology, is committed to “the unpredictable, the fearless, the bright , the dark, and the innovative,” according to co-founder Jane Ormerod. This vision is clearly visible in their most recent release, Debridement, a poetry collection by Corrina Bain, whose poems, as described by NEA fellow and poet Sam Sax “have no qualm reaching down your throat and pulling out your living heart just to say look at it, look. Look.”
By contrast, the vision can be very broad in scope. Dustin Nelson, founder of InDigest, a magazine and book publisher focusing on “good story-telling in all forms and artists whose curiosity drives them to push beyond the conventions of their media,” incorporates digital work into their publishing scope. "We've published lots of stories and poems, but we've also published videos, GIFs, scripts, podcasts, audio stories, pamphlets, centos built from the Wikileaks Centos, broadsides, games, reviews, rants, diatribes, broadcasts about the apocalypse, memoir, we've told lies about Shakespeare and passed them off as truth, published round table discussions, and have always been open to doing anything that's been created that you can make an argument for calling literary." With so much potential variety, the publisher's role has greatly expanded.
A Curatorial RoleIn an age where anyone can publish their own book, and the Big Five could publish everything else, small presses have had to find a way to continue make themselves necessary. While they lack the resources to match the six- to eight-figure advances of the major publishers (let alone four- to five-figure advances!), they have the advantage of being willing to take chances on unknown authors and new formats. Small presses have developed into a role of “curator”—presenting consistently high quality work from a variety of authors to an audience carefully cultivated over a number of years.
Nelson from InDigest notes that “Publishers offer curation and a voice you can trust at a time when there’s so much available that sifting through it would be a full time job.” He adds, “Publishers are still a reader’s most valuable ally.”
Ron Kolm, founder of The Unbearables—a publisher of “avant-garde writing that attacks the status quo by using the weapon of noir humor”—agrees with Nelson, noting that when independent publishers consistently produce high-quality, good-looking books, “a sort of trust develops between the press and potential buyers or readers . . . And in a world as out of focus as the one we live in, that is not a bad thing at all.”
Okay, But How Do I Get Published By Them?With all this vision and curation, independent publishers might seem to be a perfect fit for all authors who consider themselves to be on the “cutting edge.” But every vision has its boundaries. So how does the aspiring writer hop onto the small press train?
Start by reading the guidelines, Ormerod notes. “A 50,000 word story will not fit into an anthology. That 30 page epic poem is a ‘no’ as well. We understand the odd typo, but please review your work before sending it to us.”
Research helps, adds Nelson. “Start a conversation . . . Start talking to people and read other presses. It’s often easiest to define something by figuring out what it’s not . . . . Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Watch TV. Have a beer. Make popcorn. Read again. Talk to a publisher. They don’t really know more than you . . . We all just like books, right?”
And Kolm recommends networking. “We are very open; we add ‘members’ all the time,” he says. “All one really has to do is come to one of our readings and hang out. We like to drink in downtown bars, such as the Parkside Lounge and the Sidewalk Café, and occasionally, we even shoot pool! Chalk up your cue stick!”
Three Rooms Press has been hosting annual celebrations of Independent Presses since 2010. According to co-director Peter Carlaftes, it’s a great way for authors to hear readers from a number of presses, and informally meet with them to discover more about what they’re looking for. For Three Rooms, the genre is less important than the style. “We’re publish cut-the-edge creations,” says Carlaftes. “Everything we do has a certain distinctive twist that makes it stand apart from other books in the field.” Forthcoming works include Meagan Brothers’ Weird Girl and What’s His Name, an LGBTQ young adult novel, and Aram Saroyan’s Still Night in L.A. a detective novel by the famed concrete poet.
“We publish because we want to add fresh ideas to an increasingly homogenized world,” Carlaftes muses. “It’s our way of saving the planet.”