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New indie publishers speak out optimistically in the face of decline

September 30, 2008 |  4:33 pm

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From some quarters, it looks like publishing is in big trouble. But that's not enough to slow down editors with vision and inspiration. At the Emerging Writers Network, Dan Wickett interviews seven new independent publishers: Ellipsis Press, Hotel St. George Press, Keyhole Books, Rose Metal Press, Short Flight/Long Drive Books, Tyrant Books and Underland Press. Their methods, methodologies and goals may be diverse, but they share a determined optimism.

Underland Press will publish four books in this, its first year, and six its second. "I do want to grow, and I do want Underland to be a destination press in the genre world," says founder Victoria Blake. The exact shape of that genre — dark fantasy? horror? the new weird? — is still evolving.

Snuggling in the gaps between genres is also on the minds of the founders of Kathleen M. Rooney and Abigail Beckel of Rose Metal Press:

we knew that we wanted to create publishing opportunities for work that might get overlooked otherwise because of its formal oddity. From a marketing perspective — which is the perspective that a lot of the larger trade publishing houses take most frequently — work that is hybrid, which is to say work that does not fit neatly into a generic box, is perceived as a tough sell, and therefore as a bad risk. It struck us as perverse that talented authors who can do more than one thing at once — it’s prose, but wait, it’s also poetry! — should often have a harder time placing their work than writers who do just one thing well. So we made hybridity our mission.

For Aaron Petrovich and Alex Rose from St. George Press, it's important to merge the physical book with its content — to, in effect, be able to judge a book by its cover. "Our ambition is not necessarily to be a successful publishing house in a mass-corporate sense, nor even according to any model of Indie-publishing success," they write, "but to make beautiful books that reflect the care with which they have been written whenever we’re able, and to do our best to get them into reader’s hands."

But for Tyrant, a press that has grown out of a literary journal, the sentence is the most important. "We pay attention to the controlled burn of a sentence and how it leads to the next," editor Giancarlo Di Trapano writes. "I hate happy and jokey [bleep] like David Sedaris and most McSweeneys writers (not all!). When writers are serious about what they are writing, they pay attention to what they are doing.  These other jag-offs might as well not be in the room when they are composing. It isn’t good and it isn’t funny."

Why found an independent press? And why do it now? Ellipsis Press' Eugene Lim has an answer:

I’d like to think an indie movement is going on. Twelve years ago there was an issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, titled “The Future of Fiction,” and edited by none other than David Foster Wallace. In it, there’s a hilarious and dead-on piece by Dalkey head John O’Brien, which stated among other things that the “end of literary books in commercial publishing is a historical inevitability.” And so it has come to pass. The bigger houses will cease (have ceased!) to publish literary fiction. It is not profitable for them to market and produce a title that will sell to 5000 people (even if Rick Moody strong-arms a National Book Award for them). S’okay though. The old publishing joke goes, How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Answer: Start with a large one. And then you and your crony get to laugh bitterly together. But it’s the wrong question. A small and lively (and one hopes resurging) group of people care about the novel as art. And with the new methods of production and distribution, it’s getting easier for writers to connect with readers.

For more upstarts in the world of novel as art, including how these publishers found the writers they publish and how they hope to get their books into your hands, check out the full discussion at the Emerging Writers Network.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: "The Sicily Papers" by Michelle Orange from Short Flight/Long Drive Books and a handcrafted letterpress edition of Ben Greenman's "Correspondences" from Hotel St. George Press.

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