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.
September 21, 2011 | Categories: Authors, Novels, Publishing, Readings, Writing | Tags: Anne Leigh Parrish, Clifford Garstang, Darlin' Neal, Doris Betts, Espresso Book Machine, John Ehle, John Thomas York, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Katie Chaple, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, Kevin Morgan Watson, Kim Wright, Kurt Rheinheimer, Margaret Skinner, Okla Elliott, Press 53, Richard Krawiec, Silver Rose Anthology, Stefanie Freele, Steve Mitchell | 1 Comment »
The next couple of days are going to be a real treat around here. Today, Anne Leigh Parrish, the author of the new short-story collection All The Roads That Lead From Home, is here to talk about her new book, literary fiction, breaking through into publication and where her stories come from.
Tomorrow, Anne’s publisher, Press 53 editor Kevin Morgan Watson, will chat about where fiction and publishing are going, and how his highly regarded press is getting from here to there.
First up: Anne Leigh Parrish. Anne writes the kind of fiction I really like to read: about everyday people and their struggle to get along with themselves and with each other, to find some direction in a world that often seems ready to swallow them whole. And Anne’s own story is one of persevering, of remaining committed to craft.
Here’s what C. Michael Curtis, the longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic, has to say about Parrish’s work: “Anne Leigh Parrish has written a collection of stories that deserve a place on the shelf next to Raymond Carver, Tom Boyle, Richard Bausch, and other investigators of lives gone wrong. Parrish writes with painful clarity about marriages turned sour, children at war with their parents, women drifting from one damaging relationship to another, and about unexpected acts of generosity—an impoverished woman giving her battered piano to a priest who had befriended her, a schoolgirl who bribes a boy to pretend an interest in an overweight classmate, then finds that her kindness has disastrous consequences. These are potent and artful stories, from a writer who warrants attentive reading.”
Your stories seem to be full of people who are not only not happy but also seem uncertain how they got into the circumstances that make them unhappy, and little idea of how to confront their pain and arrive at constructive resolutions. What draws you to such fundamentally broken people?
Well, at the risk of sounding glib, it makes dull reading to write about happy, healthy people. And I’ve known my share of misfits and oddballs.
How did you find your writing voice? You have the craft and discipline and literary sensibility of the kind of short-story writers who hold MFAs, yet you haven’t been in an MFA program.
I take that as a fine compliment! Writing takes practice, and I’ve practiced a lot. That said, I think the voice I have now isn’t far from the one I began with. It’s something inherent in me, I guess, that all the years of hard work didn’t really change. What has changed is the degree to which I feel comfortable managing all the things that make a piece of fiction work, and finding the confidence to go out on a limb now and then. When I think of an MFA program, I think its highest value is to get feedback from people “in the business.” I got that without enrolling in a single MFA class, from the editors I submitted my work to, and most notably from Mike Curtis at The Atlantic, who read my work for nearly eight years.
The agents and editors who approached you after you won some noteworthy fiction contests all said they didn’t want to consider a story collection, but a novel. How did they explain that? And how have you chosen to deal with that?
Simply put, they didn’t feel they could successfully market a story collection to the larger commercial publishers. I have to think that they know their business, so I take them at their word. I put off writing a novel for a very long time. I began one about two years ago, and let it sit, then worked on it, then let it sit. Now it’s nearing completion, and I’m excited about that. I actually feel that I could write another, which is far cry from the attitude I held for years and years.
The stories in your collection are all set in Dunston, which I take it is a fictional stand-in for Ithaca, New York. But you’ve painted a town that isn’t necessarily what most people would expect of the hometown of an Ivy League school. What is the real Ithaca, and what do your stories say about the divide between the perception of any given community and its everyday reality?
I was a part of that Ivy League world, by extension. My parents were professors at Cornell. Yet most of the kids I went to school with were from less exalted circumstances. They were often poor, or lived out in the country, or in the “flats,” which was essentially the downtown area, not where the professors tended to be, in a neighborhood called Cayuga Heights. To me the real Ithaca is part of northern Appalachia. After my father moved out of the house, my mother invited a series of girls to live with us on a temporary basis. They were from very bad family situations, and I guess we were providing informal foster care. One of these girls and her sister lived in a trailer with no indoor plumbing. They hauled their water from a nearby creek. My classmates were often farm kids. I remember one boy coming to school with his rubber boots on. When asked why he dressed like that, he explained that he was up at five-thirty in the morning to muck out the cow barn. I’m not sure there’s a real divide between how the locals see Ithaca and how it really is. Everyone who lives there knows what the surrounding country is like. By the same token, they also know that Ithaca is either “town” or “gown,” (as in graduation gown), meaning either you’re a part of the university or you’re not.
Short fiction seems to have been increasingly marginalized in the literary community, with most collections not selling well and many periodicals no longer publishing short stories (or no longer paying for them). Should we be alarmed by this? What is the best argument you have for the need to read and support short fiction and help it find wider audiences?
Well, the story is the classic American literary form, and I don’t think it’s exactly languishing. While it’s true that there a fewer print venues for short fiction today than there used to be, there’s been a surge in online publishing – literary journals of very high quality, such as PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, and Eclectica Magazine. If you read their list of contributors, you see that they’re publishing some of the best and most successful short story writers around. As for an argument to read stories, I’d say that they’re often more powerful than novels, simply because they have to present a world in a much smaller space. I think readers can take a great deal away from a short story.
One of the recurring motifs in your stories is the inability of your characters to verbally communicate their unhappiness. They’ll edge up to it, or circumvent it, or use silence as a communication tool, or act out. In your experience and observation, why is it so hard for us to just talk to one another?
For a number of reasons. Trust is a big one. But we also often lack a proper vocabulary for what we feel, or are too timid to really confront what’s painful. People act out their misery more often than they describe it in words, I think.
Despite the strained conversations and thick silences between characters in your stories, you impressively avoid sinking your characters into slogging interior dialogues. How do you communicate the unhappiness in prose that the characters themselves cannot communicate in dialogue?
By showing the reader what they’re focusing on, or what’s in the background. Maybe the sky is grey and dreary. Maybe a character is thinking about how ugly a sidewalk is. He might be wearing a dirty shirt because he’s too upset to notice or to do better. A college student who’s extremely stressed out comes to hate the sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, and attempts taking a shower in the dark, until a floor mate asks what she’s doing. Things like that.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
I’m finishing the novel I referred to earlier, Pen’s Road. It draws from one of the stories in my current collection,”Pinny and The Fat Girl.” Then I’ll return to my second collection of stories, a linked group called Our Love Could Light The World. This, too, draws from a piece in the collection by the same name. I hope to find a publisher for both next year.
Thanks so much to Anne for taking the time. Remember to come back tomorrow to hear from her publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53.
Anne Leigh Parrish’s website: http://www.anneleighparrish.com/
Anne Leigh Parrish at Press 53: http://www.press53.com/BioParrish.html
September 20, 2011 | Categories: Authors, Publishing, Readers, Short stories, Writing, Writing process | Tags: All the Roads That Lead From Home, Anne Leigh Parrish, C. Michael Curtis, Kevin Morgan Watson, literary magazines, Press 53, short stories | Comments Off