As a brand new small press, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to listen to some local small press gurus talk about their publishing experiences Friday night at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Southeast Portland.
“The state of the small press in Portland is strong,” said moderator Justin Hocking of the IPRC. He cited the fact that all four guests—Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, Cameron Pierce of Lazy Fascist Press, Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books, and Michael Heald of Perfect Day Publishing—are publishing work that pushes the envelope, and he encouraged writers and readers to continue supporting small presses and buying their work. Then each of the publishers talked about their companies, their philosophies, and answered questions.
Kevin Sampsell started as a “very lo-fi” publisher twenty years ago, cutting and pasting text and copying the results at Kinko’s in Spokane. “There’s a lot of opportunity for different presses now, because when I started, the reason I did a lot of chapbooks and not paperbacks is it was too expensive,” he said.
Kevin moved to Portland in 1992 and has earned an exemplary reputation as an author, publisher, and the small press book buyer for Powell’s, where he sees some publishers who do well and others who don’t. Every one of the panelists cited Kevin and the difference his support has made in their publishing careers.
“If every town had a Kevin Sampsell,” Cameron said during a discussion on distribution, “it’d be Christmas every day.”
Initially, Kevin said, he didn’t like print on demand books, because the quality was low, but now that the standards have improved, that technology allows presses to “scrape together a couple hundred bucks” and produce a small run of copies. As a result, he said, there are more small presses, which give writers more visibility. Technology has helped authors and publishers in other ways, too.
“A lot of writers are developing audiences through the Internet,” Kevin said. “We are seeing that more and more.”
When Justin asked him about mistakes new small presses make, Kevin cited those with unrealistic expectations, such as spending too much money up front to print 5,000 books. “They need to start off a little slower and grow their audience a little bit,” he said.
Kevin’s novel, This Is Between Us, is forthcoming from Tin House Books; A Common Pornography, his memoir, was published by HarperPerennial in 2010. Kevin mentioned his own publishing history as an example that authors can move back and forth between small presses and big ones.
Rhonda Hughes is celebrating the thirteenth year of Hawthorne Books, a literary fiction press based in Portland. Small presses, she said, are all about nurturing their relationships with their authors.
“From my vantage point, small publishing has never been better,” Rhonda said, adding that independent presses are evolving into the role that the big publishers used to have. Small presses foster relationships with their authors and do the kind of editing and publicity that the now-giant conglomerates used to do.
Next year, Hawthorne Books is publishing three well-established authors, Karen Karbo, Ariel Gore, and Tom Spanbauer. One of the interesting effects of the shifts in the industry, Rhonda said, is having more midlist authors move to small presses like Hawthorne, which makes less room for debut authors than there used to be.
When asked about big publishers “poaching” her authors, Rhonda cited Gin Phillips, whose The Well and the Mine won the 2008 Barnes & Noble Discover Award. Penguin bought the rights to it soon after that accolade. Monica Drake followed her well-received Clown Girl, published by Hawthorne in 2007, with The Stud Book, released this spring by Hogarth, part of the Crown Publishing Group. “They’re poaching, but I’m happy about it,” Rhonda said, adding that she’s glad for her authors’ success, and their success also shines a light on the backlist titles.
Michael Heald founded Perfect Day Publishing while taking the publishing certificate program at the IPRC and has released four books in two years. Love Is Not Constantly reached the top of the Powell’s bestseller list.
“My press exceeded every expectation I’ve had,” he said.
But—to add some reality and a touch of pessimism to the lineup—Michael said he has almost sold out of Lisa Wells’ Yeah. No. Totally. but doesn’t have the money to reprint it. And he’s about to embark on an East Coast tour for his new book, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, where he expects to spend more money than what he’ll be able to earn.
Michael, so far, has resisted getting an intern, and he spoke about the press being entirely his own creation. “I don’t accept submissions, because I hate saying no,” he added.
He said his distribution style is close to a zinester’s. Michael has developed personal relationships with a number of independent bookstores that have been very supportive. His books are available in twenty stores in America, not counting all the Portland bookstores, as well as a few in Canada. The stores sell all four of his titles and often highlight them as staff picks.
Cameron Pierce of Lazy Fascist Press, an imprint of Eraserhead Press, warned small presses about expanding too fast or spending too much money on non-essentials, citing the recent struggles of Night Shade Press.
“You can fail in so many ways as a publisher, and you can succeed in so many ways as a publisher,” he said. Cameron said he makes a living through publishing because of keeping costs low, and he also encouraged presses to put readers first, since authors don’t always know what’s best for their books. “I look for authors who are open to that,” he said.
Cameron asked audience members to raise their hands, and the majority identified themselves as writers. “No one can do more for your book than you can,” he told them, adding that marketing money and book reviews don’t matter as much as getting out and selling yourself.
He also weighed in about book distributors during the Q and A session. “They’re not magical leprechauns,” he said. “If they were, the book industry would be doing better.”
Thanks to all the panelists, and the IPRC, for offering such an enlightening discussion in your beautiful space.