Q&A: Kevin Morgan Watson
I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m a bit of a fanboy about Press 53, a small publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. As one guy running a small publishing house in his living room, I’m always on the lookout for small presses that get it right, that stick to what they’re good at and toss off the conventions of the large-press approach of covering the world with books it may or may not want. The more I heard about Press 53 — from friends whose books have been published there and by others who, like me, admire it from afar — the more I realized that this an outfit that has a plan for survival in these turbulent publishing waters and the discipline to stick to it.
In other words, Press 53 is a role model.
So I was delighted when Kevin Morgan Watson, the leader of Press 53, agreed to field some questions. Let’s get to it …
First off, tell us a bit about Press 53. What is it? When was it established? Where is it based? What are you trying to do?
Press 53 is an independent publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction based in Winston-Salem, NC, that opened in October 2005. I started the press for a few reasons: I had lost my job in the airline industry and decided to try and do something I enjoyed; I wanted to learn how to design and layout books; and I wanted to find readers who liked the same writing as me and share my books with them. My basic business model is to ignore market trends, and I ask my series editors, Tom Lombardo (poetry) and Robin Miura (novel/memoir), to do the same. We find writing we love and then set out to find readers who agree with us. What I’m trying to build is a community of readers and writers who share similar tastes but aren’t afraid to sample something new from time to time.
What is your background? How did you come to this line of endeavor?
I grew up in Kansas City, MO, and was a bored student who excelled in photography, running, and daydreaming. I sold my saxophone in high school, bought a guitar and began writing songs. I moved to Nashville when I was 30 and spent 5 years actively writing and pitching songs, and the next five years transitioning from songwriting to short story writing. I found I preferred short stories over songs because people can’t mess with the stories without your permission, unlike songs where everything is open to interpretation and style. When the airline company I worked for at night closed their Nashville office, I transferred to Winston-Salem and began seriously writing short stories. I also decided to go to college to earn my BA in English, so I enrolled at the oldest all-women’s college in the nation, Salem College (est. 1772). While there, I noticed that I was finding fewer and fewer short stories that I liked; they all seemed too dark and hopeless and depressing. I got an idea and approached a New York City arts foundation, that had published one of my stories, and asked if they would be interested in publishing an anthology of short stories that held to some sense of hope, with characters trying to do something meaningful in a messed up world. The arts foundation approved the project so I spend all of 2000 reading every short story I could find that was published that year. In 2001, they published the Silver Rose Anthology. Since I worked for an airline, I was able to travel and attend readings I had set up for the authors, which included folks like Robert Olen Butler, Julie Orringer, George Singleton, Patry Francis, Sally Shivnan, and three authors who would be the first I signed to Press 53: Doug Frelke, Tom Sheehan, and Al Sim. That experience gave me the publishing bug and I decided that someday I would like to operate my own small press. When I lost my job at the airline in 2004, I jumped into publishing.
One of the things I’ve been struck by, being friends with some of your authors, is that you seem to have an organic community of writers, rather than the traditional write-acquire-publish model employed by larger publishers. What have been the advantages of this?
Besides a great manuscript, we look for writers who are active in the writing community, who are earning recognition through publication and awards, and who understand that a small press can offer a platform upon which to build a career. This gives us a family of writers who champion one another and support each other. We have a Facebook group that is only open to Press 53 authors and editors where we can all share ideas and concerns. When one of us succeeds, everyone benefits from the added publicity. The challenge for me is keeping up with all the successes and taking advantage of all the energy created by our writers.
Another tack you take: Unlike many publishers, you don’t do returns. What’s the thinking behind this?
I allow returns on books ordered directly from Press 53 because I am able to encourage a bookseller to order a reasonable number of books which reduces the number of returns. Returns kill small presses. Our authors are encouraged to always carry extra copies with for readings at bookstores, just in case they run short. Our books are distributed through Ingram, but they are nonreturnable to avoid returns that could bankrupt us. I made a few of our books returnable early on to accommodate a writer who was convinced his or her book could only be sold if it was returnable. In every instance, the author spent weeks and weeks traveling to bookstores for readings only to end up in the hole after returns. It’s a wasteful model and an expensive one, for the author and especially the press. I chose to no longer participate, and I only work with authors who agree to this. There are better ways today to operate than to shotgun books to bookstores and hope our readers find them. I love booksellers who embrace our authors and their books and will hand sell the book after the reading. Stores that order books for readings and them immediately return what didn’t sell at the event are not the stores for us. We’re looking for partners.
The publishing landscape these days, in many ways, seems almost dystopian. What are the opportunities for a small literary press in an era of blockbusters, e-books and newbies and midlisters alike testing the waters of self-publishing?
I don’t see it as dystopian. It is chaotic, but also full of opportunity. The Internet and new printing and publishing technologies now offer writers the opportunity to take back creative control and offer numerous ways to find their readers. I know exactly who our readers are at Press 53, I just don’t know where they all are. But thanks to the Internet, we are able to find our readers, rather than waiting for them to hopefully discover one of our books on a bookstore shelf. And thanks to ebooks, writers are able to put their work out there at no real cost and find their readers. Of course the result is a glut of material, good and bad, all mixed together. Our model is to create an oasis for readers via our website where they will return to discover new voices and experiences, and to use social media to encourage readers to seek out our authors wherever they buy their books.
Could you hazard a guess at what the future looks like for books and publishing?
The book will be around for a long time. Books will go out of style when blankets go out of style, and for the same reasons. They are comfortable and reliable and don’t need to be plugged in. Still, there is a place for ebooks and it’s a format that should not be ignored. Here is a glimpse at the future. I got an email recently from a bookstore manager in New England who will be hosting one of our authors. He wanted a couple of books to display in preparation for her visit. When I checked out his website, I noticed the store had an Espresso Book Machine. There are currently only 19 EBMs in the U.S., and this machine has over five million titles available on it using print-on-demand technology. The EBM can print, bind and trim a paperback, perfect-bound book on acid-free paper in three to five minutes. And since we exclusively use POD for our books (as do most larger publishers to some extent), this bookstore manager already had access to all of our titles. So he printed out a couple of copies for display and began selling them from his EBM. Now that is exciting! Imagine having a machine that takes up the space of an old IBM copy machine that can deliver, literally hot off the press, over five million titles to your customers. That solves a lot of problems and opens up whole new worlds of opportunities for readers, writers, and booksellers.
What do you look for in a submission? Can you quantify or describe what constitutes that moment of “I have to publish this book”?
I get a bit spiritual here, in that everything is energy, including the words on the page. And those words either connect with me or they don’t; they either flow freely or they stall and fizzle. I’ve read lots of manuscripts by some fine writers who have a very interesting story to tell, but after a few pages I find myself drifting, not connecting with the way the words flow. I know I’ve passed on some excellent pieces, but I have to trust myself to know what I like and what I want to share. And I ask my editors to do the same. What I like are stories and poems that have strong, natural, conversational voices that allow me to witness the story; writing that trusts me to get the subtleties and doesn’t explain everything. I want my senses engaged, and I want to be taken to new places. That’s probably why I’ve published a few more women than men.
What does Press 53 have cooking? We know about Anne Leigh Parrish’s book. What else is coming up?
I’m very excited about Anne’s story collection. We always have lots and lots of great things going on. To name a few, new poetry from Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Katie Chaple, Richard Krawiec, and John Thomas York. New short story collections from Okla Elliott, Darlin’ Neal, Steve Mitchell, Stefanie Freele, Kurt Rheinheimer, and Clifford Garstang. A publishing guide for writers by Kim Wright, Your Path to Publication, based on 30-plus years of her experience as a published author. A spunky memoir titled, My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. Three novels for our Press 53 Classics editions: Lion on the Hearth, by John Ehle; The Scarlet Thread, by Doris Betts; and Molly Flanagan and the Holy Ghost, by Margaret Skinner. We’ve just launched our 5th annual writing contest, the Press 53 Open Awards, with five categories and three winners in each. Oh, Surreal South ’11, edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, that comes out every odd year on Halloween. Limited edition hardcovers (limited to 53) that are numbered and signed by the author, and a new program for our friends, “Press 53 Friends with Benefits,” with special offers and window stickers and pens and other fun stuff. I know I’ve probably forgotten something, but I have to stop. I’m suddenly feeling overwhelmed.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Kevin.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my press and our authors with your readers.