Holiday Reading, and Hurray for Indies

My husband says I have become harder to buy books for in the past decade; part of that is because I read so much and attend so many bookstore events, and I attend more events, and buy more books, than I used to. I’ve also honed my taste from reading submissions, and have a clearer, more confident voice when it comes to speaking up about what I like.

To find the perfect gifts for me, my husband has taken to shopping at local bookstores, where (as it happens) the staff often knows me and can recommend accordingly. And even if they don’t, he’s able to  explain my taste well enough that these amazing people can help him find just the right thing–something I haven’t yet read but (in most cases) is on my radar.

At Annie Bloom’s Books, he consulted with Michael–a friend!–to pick This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison, one I’ve been eyeing because of its buzz–it’s a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award finalist for 2015–and its gorgeous cover. I’m so happy to own this one. Moreover, when Michael recommends a book with a shelf talker, I usually find it’s my taste, too.

Helen Macdonald’s much raved about H Is for Hawk came home from Broadway Books. I’ve admired this cover, and even picked the book up maybe a half-dozen times, but since I don’t usually read nonfiction, I never committed. I’m really excited to dive in and experience it for myself.

My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series, came home from Powell’s Books, after consultation with Naomi, a staffer in the blue room (fiction). Due to traveling logistics, I opened the package before Christmas, started reading on the airplane, and kept reading during my trip, whereupon I ran out of pages and took the family on a field trip to find indie bookstores in Florida, which were great, but one carried mostly home and garden selections, and the others had the first, third, and fourth books of the Neapolitan series–not the one I desperately needed. Our third stop, a Barnes & Noble, had The Story of a New Name, part two, in stock, and yes, it’s clear, I have succumbed to #ferrantefever.

This fascinating article about Elena Ferrante, her books’ popularity, and the mystery behind her identity appeared in the New York Daily News today.

Dream House by Catherine Armsden, published by Berkeley’s Yellow Pear Press, also came home from Powell’s, this one on my request. I really enjoy discovering new presses, and this relatively new one is distributed by PGW, a sister company to Legato, which distributes Forest Avenue Press titles.

It makes me ridiculously happy that booksellers do what they do, every day, and can pass their passion for books on to customers. As a publisher, I’m even more certain than ever that bookseller support still makes all the difference in terms of how a title does. And as a reader, I’m thrilled to have new worlds to explore as 2016 arrives, ones that were chosen with care for me.

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Poets & Writers

I have always, always wanted to pick up a copy of Poets & Writers with my name in it.

Of course I’ve had several dreams like this that seem to be coming true in ways I never expected lately.

One was the esteemed author-publisher lunch. I figured I’d fly to New York, take great care in my outfit, and trumpets would sound over appetizers.

This vision came true for me last month, except I was the publisher, fresh off a flight, with my author Renee Macalino Rutledge taking me to La Note in Berkeley for creme fraiche pancakes. I drank too much coffee, caught up in the epic feeling of the lunch. We talked publicity, we talked editing, and comp titles, and visited with each other about what the next year will bring.

Afterwards, giddy with spending time with my author, I realized: this is my dream come true, just in reverse. Renee’s debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, is an evocative reimagining of a Filipino folktale about a young woman with wings. It’s a portrait of a marriage told through the eyes of the woman herself, her new husband, her in-laws, her siblings, and the housekeeper. It’s forthcoming in March 2017, but we’re already getting buzz and blurbs.

And now, in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers, Forest Avenue Press–my press! with quotes by me!–is being profiled in the Small Press Points column. I have a subscription but am considering going to an indie bookstore to pick a copy up, off the shelf, just because, in my long-ago dream of being in this magazine, that’s always how it happened.

If you want a sneak peek, the online version is out now!

I should add that Renee found Forest Avenue Press by searching the Poets & Writers database of small presses, so that’s excellent proof that writers and publishers can find each other through online resources if they’re really clear about what they’re hoping to find.

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The One-Title Year

This has been a wild year, and also a quiet one.

I finished my eight-years-in-progress novel, The Serinette, after reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and seeing how her short chapters worked so successfully. With a big-voiced, many POV novel, and my own sort of nineteenth century language, I decided my big chapters were slowing my novel down. I reworked it, and found a lot of connective tissue that could be cut back. I worked with freelance editor Suzy Vitello on this final draft. Suzy is a fabulous YA novelist and keeps her eye on plot and pacing, which helped me fortify my final short-chapter structure and feel confident in the results.

What’s next? Another novel, of course. I know the who, the when, the where, and the why, and the voice opened inside me the first day I sat down to write. I have a long way to go, but I’m feeling exhilarated to be in a new world, not the France of my imaginings as in The Serinette. 

Landfall cover smallMy business, Forest Avenue Press, had all its eggs in one basket this year: Landfall by Ellen Urbani, endorsed by Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, and Garth Stein, among others. Ellen went on a twenty-city national book tour, which I facilitated from the ground here in Oregon, and promoted with the help of our publicist.

Do book tours sell books? That’s the question a lot of people ask, but as Ellen and I talked about over and over again when she reiterated her intention, and I went ahead with the booking, a tour is more than just the event itself, the sales at that moment. Ellen leveraged her personal crowds, including sorority connections and Peace Corps folks, to fill many rooms along the way, and lots of books sold–and they keep selling, perhaps in part because those bookstore employees and those attendees spread the word to others, and so on. Ellen went above and beyond on so many levels, sending batches of postcards tied with Landfall ribbon and dragonfly charms to booksellers, bringing host gifts of books by some of her favorite authors to community members who housed her and rallied their friend to attend, and so on.

Landfall was named a 2015 Great Group Reads by the Women’s National Book Association. We created a “50 in 15 Challenge” for this book too–sign up here by Dec. 31 at 11:59 p.m. to read Landfall in your book club, and you’ll get fun extras!

Next year Forest Ave will publish three titles–The Remnants by Robert Hill (March), Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon (August), and City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Stories (October). It was great fun to spend the year on one title, and adjusting to having distribution through the amazing Legato Publishers Group (a division of Perseus), but I’m excited to see what 2016 will bring.

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On the Tenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

My husband and I went on a several-month, across America road trip back in 2006, including stopping in New Orleans in June, ten months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.

My former editor connected us with her sister and brother-in-law; he had been a lifelong resident, including living in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965 and surviving on the roof when Hurricane Betsy came through. His son had the same experience during Hurricane Katrina, living in that same house and surviving on the roof, and still, they were rebuilding. But at that time, less than a year after the storm savaged the city, many of their neighbors weren’t.

I believe that couple gave us the tour so I’d write something–a magazine piece, a New York Times worthy piece–about what I saw, but all the loss shut down my words. Eventually I penned a blog post, but always felt like there was more to say, and that I was incapable of saying it. My life was not disrupted by the damage, it wasn’t my storm, all I could do was witness, and as witness, I took these photos. All are from June 2006, with my Nikon D70; many are from the window of the car as we drove through neighborhoods plagued by quiet, by absent voices, by cars that didn’t work. The tour started in the Lower Ninth Ward, and landed in Metarie, where boats were still marooned on land, wherever Katrina had deposited them. The damage was much less severe there, but still there was plenty.

The last few photos are of once-bustling entertainment businesses along the Gulf Coast, as we drove on.

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When I found Ellen Urbani’s Landfall, a manuscript about two daughters and their single mothers, four flawed but resilient characters, I knew this book told a story that I wanted to know more about, a story that I had seen echoes of in June 2006. A story that I decided I was unable to tell in words; one that I chose to record with my camera instead.

Ellen’s at Powell’s today, at 4 p.m. at the flagship store, with Cheryl Strayed introducing her, after her first tour leg of the South, including New Orleans, where an architect gladly gave her a tour of the restoration efforts, which have progressed much farther at this ten-year anniversary than they had at ten months.

Publishing this book has given voice to the survivors, with Ellen using fiction to piece together a compelling narrative, a story about a storm, but mostly about these two eighteen-year-old girls with the same name–Rose–and how their lives were interrupted by Katrina.

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Summer Reading: My Bingo List

I’m playing book bingo through my local indie bookseller, Annie Bloom’s Books, this summer, and have completed all 25 slots for the chance to win a $50 gift card. It’s been a great challenge to read outside my zone–literary fiction.

Here’s what I’ve read this summer, by category, and in the book bingo sheet’s order:


Stephanie Kallos’ Language Arts: Richly crafted, beautifully written, this is the third novel from one of my all-time favorite authors. I purchased this at Annie Bloom’s during Stephanie’s reading there in June–and I ended up winning an amazing gift basket!


The Merchant of Noises by Anna Rozen: I scanned my bookshelves, sure I had a translation I’ve always been meaning to read, and came up empty handed. This is not my usual category. But then I read this charming, whimsical book to my kids and realized it had been originally published in French and then translated into English. Ta da!


Polly Dugan’s The Sweetheart Deal: So many books I read are set in the Northwest, because they’re by friends. I actually read an ARC of this debut novel from the author of the story collection So Much a Part of You, both published by Little, Brown. This one has a great hook–two college friends who make a pact that one must marry the other’s wife if he dies. It’s very much a relationship-driven story, with lots of point-of-view characters that give their own takes on the situation.

Spheres of Disturbance by Amy Schutzer: I apparently read 26 books so far this summer… but had to add this one because it was a powerful multi-voiced tale of a dying woman and the people who had some sort of connection with her. A finalist for last year’s Oregon Book Awards.


The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland: A quiet, lovely novel reminiscent of Glaciers by Alexis Smith, and set in the recording room at The New York Times. As a former journalist, I had my eye on this book when it came out and was glad to pick it up from Paulina Springs Bookstore in Sisters, Oregon, earlier this summer.


The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton: One my toddler picked. A tiny warrior princess, her wish for a warrior horse, and lots of sweaters. I’m so obsessed with this–and happy to read and read and reread every day–that I’m going to buy a copy.


Richard McGuire’s Here: Unlike anything I’ve ever read. A pictorial history of one corner of a room in a house (and before there was a house there), spanning centuries, families, simple conversations, and major events.


Manspressions by Joe Biel and Elly Blue: A hilarious illustrated guide to Man-isms, i.e. words they defined or altered to include the word “man.”


Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: This was a summer-changer for me, and kicked off a new round of revisions after I devoured it while camping back in June. She does so much world building so economically that it helped me see the flaws in my novel and got me to make a radical structure change, and call it done.


Drama by Raina Telegemeier: One of my daughter’s favorite authors. I love this sweet story about a middle-school girl and the boys whose lives intersect with hers while she’s working on sets for the school play. Great book, well worth borrowing off her bookshelves–and the conversation that ensued about why it might have been banned, and why banning books is an issue.


Baby’s on Fire by Liz Prato: I love this author and this elegantly crafted short story collection from Press 53.


Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear: I met Nicole at Annie Bloom’s last February and was glad to dive into her memoir about learning she’d lose her eyesight when she was nineteen. Funny, powerful, and made me think about my own abilities and limitations in a clearer way.


Big Fish, Daniel Wallace: I loved this fable-like, whimsical, heartbreaking father-son novel the first time, and the second time, and the third time… and pulled it out again for the “reread” category, only to realize it’d fit the movie category–and almost no other books on my shelves would fit there.


This was the free square, but I’ve recommended tons of books, all summer, as usual.


Hippos Go Beserk by Sandra Boynton: Really any of her books would do, but this one was at hand, and it’s a family favorite.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Many of my selections fit this category, but I picked The Miniaturist because it’s long and epic-feeling, set in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It was recommended by a friend because of the gender role themes and the bit of magic that reminded her of my novel-in-progress, and like Station Eleven, it played into how I thought about my own manuscript. Mine’s a lot sunnier, but the way the themes develop here definitely made me want to chisel and hone a bit more.


Lucky Us by Amy Bloom: I love Amy Bloom, and while this wasn’t exactly “always,” because it came out in 2014 in hardcover, and I bought it and had it signed while Amy was at Powell’s, and had been waiting for a quiet block of time where I could savor and enjoy. Glad I did find that time to fall into the pages of this lovely sister story, set in the 1940s.


MacDeath by Cindy Brown: I adore this sassy theater-inspired mystery by my friend Cindy. I was laughing out loud within the first few pages–and I’m not usually a mystery reader. So excited another in the series is in the works.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling: I insisted that my daughter let me read this to her–not for book bingo as much as for the experience of experiencing it together. She’s officially hooked and the second book is waiting at her bedside for us to dig in together.


Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman: I bought this when Matthew was up for an Oregon Book Award in 2014, but held off reading because it’s about (in part) his brother’s suicide, and that’s something my extended family has experienced. I wasn’t sure I wanted to dig into that material. But this collection is sheer genius, totally readable and breathtaking, and yes heartbreaking too. I read it like a novel, page after page, instead of savoring, and will for sure go back to savor these poems one by one. Together, it was like a symphony, so much bright sound and thought clashing together in a very American way, in a way that I could relate to as a novel-reader.


Ms. Baross Goes to Paris by Jan Baross: Another book by a friend. Jan charmingly explores a trip to Paris with her food-researching friend, through illustrations and text.


Mr. Putter and Tabby See the Stars by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard: My younger daughter loves Mr. Putter and his cat, and we’ve read and reread this book more times this summer than any other book in our house.


The Hour of Daydreams by Renee Macalino Rutledge: In addition to reading this summer, I’ve been working on manuscripts, and it seemed very exciting and fitting to add our 2017 title to my book list. It’s not a book, but will be in galley form this fall. It’s based on a Filipino folktale about a young woman with wings, and it explores how well we can ever really know the people we love. One of the best love stories I’ve ever read, and one of the best stories about in-laws, too.


The Deception Artist by Fayette Fox: I learned about this sweet first novel because Roaring Forties Press is also distributed by Legato Publishers Group–and who are we kidding, I loved the superhero-costumed girl on the cover. A wonderful exploration of family, from the perspective of a highly precocious, imaginative girl.


Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin: This debut novel has received all kinds of media attention, and it wasn’t just recommended by one friend, it was introduced to me by a bunch of friends who also know Shanna. I bought a copy earlier this summer from a friend who held a house party in the author’s honor, and enjoyed following the whip-smart, funny protagonist through her Hollywood life. It’s a really genuine, accessible look at a place, and a lifestyle, I know nothing about.


420 by Lou Beach: My husband bought this searing series of tiny 420-words-or-less stories for me, hardcover, a few years ago, and I had never cracked it open. The pieces were originally written as posts on Facebook. I thought about reading a kids’ book for this one-day challenge–rarely having hours to read a full novel–but decided I wanted to pick an adult book. This one was a great choice. The mini-stories are like poems, almost. Now I’ll have the freedom to go back and piece the pieces back together, in smaller chunks, so I can re-enjoy them.

That’s it! My list. Next up: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, published by Tin House. Loving it so far.

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It’s Nearly Midnight…

Our beloved Landfall launches tomorrow, Aug. 11, which isn’t that many minutes from now. Instead of going to sleep, I’m thinking about community, and how far the press has come since I started the Seven Questions Series right here.

Here are a few photos from Sunday’s Forest Ave party, held at one of our author’s houses. These people believed in me, they sent me their manuscripts, or they signed up as contractors to help shoulder the workload alongside me. Everyone marvels at me being a one-woman show, but look at all these writers, editors, and our graphic designer, and their partners and spouses. We’ve launched this business. And we’re launching Landfall.

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Landfall, by Ellen Urbani, has been blurbed by Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, and Garth Stein. It’s been endorsed by the president of client services of The Perseus Books Group and hand-sold to booksellers across the country by our distributor, Legato Publishers Group. It’ll be in Books-a-Million stores across the country, and numerous Barnes & Nobles across the country will feature it on New Releases tables starting Aug. 18.

This book. It’s about Hurricane Katrina. Set during the storm, and after, from the points of view of two eighteen-year-olds and their mothers. This author. Ellen Urbani. She’s got an amazing bio and background, including being a grief and trauma counselor, training that absolutely factors into her compassionate portrayals in her novel, her second book after the memoir When I Was Elena. She’s going on a twenty-city book tour, starting next Monday. Landfall has been chosen as a common reads selection for Junior League of Portland, and by book clubs across the country as part of our 50 in ’15 Challenge. Ellen is represented by Books in Common, as one of the company’s top fifty featured speakers.

Ellen’s decision to give a book to an area hard-hit by Katrina for every twentieth person who attends one of her events was profiled in the Huffington Post on Friday; her article on Hurricane Katrina reading appeared as a feature story on Literary Hub today.  This is just the beginning of the next step of Landfall‘s journey; I acquired the book one year ago, last August, and have been working on it every day since, as have the rest of us, doing our parts to share this important novel. As Kirkus put it, “Urbani boldly sets her story among some of the most disturbing events of that time, sensitively evoking the desperation of the survivors of the hurricane and its mishandled aftershocks. To her great credit, she never shies away from the realities of poverty, race, and racism, nor does she fail to give people, both white and black, individual characters, unique histories, and often warm hearts.”

Twenty minutes and counting to midnight. Congratulations to Ellen and the whole Forest Ave team, and thank you to all our readers and our loved ones for cheering for us every step of the way. I want to prove that the traditional publishing model still works, that a book that deserves attention can rise to the top, that genuine hard work can build an audience and word of mouth. That a novel about a horrific hurricane that made landfall ten years ago this month can open minds and break hearts and make people turn off their digital devices and talk to each other, and feel, and remember this moment in American history.

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Counting Down to Landfall

Landfall cover smallEllen Urbani’s Landfall is being released to booksellers right this very moment! After a year of daily work on the editing, design, distribution, and marketing of this stunning mother-daughter novel set during Hurricane Katrina, we’re finally counting down to the Aug. 11 availability date.

Its release is timed for the tenth anniversary of the storm’s landfall. Publishers Weekly featured Landfall in its Katrina section last week, amid a group of nonfiction titles, which was very exciting.

We have phenomenal blurbs, an enthusiastic sales team courtesy of our new distributor (Legato Publishers Group, a division of The Perseus Books Group), and pre-sales galore. Landfall will be in a ton of wonderful indie bookstores all across the country; the novel takes place in the South (Tuscaloosa and New Orleans mostly) but it’s not regional. And in addition to those booksellers agreeing to stock our book, this will be our first Forest Ave title to appear widely in Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million stores.

Ellen Urbani will be appearing at twenty-plus cities around the country (see her impressive events calendar here), with a focus on the South and the Mid-Atlantic, so if she’s coming your way, please go hear her, and tell her we know each other from this blog. Likely, she will hug you and shower you with gratitude and warmth. Most of you have been here since the beginning–my Seven Questions interview series–which morphed into the idea of publishing a collection of interviews, and three years later, we have this national, spectacular launch. I’m holding on to my hat as we approach this date when “forthcoming” will be replaced by “available now,” still pushing hard to get the word out, and enjoying everything that comes our way. Like this recent Kirkus review:

“Tracing the experiences of two smart, tough young women, Rose and Rosy, she lays down threads that knot their histories together. Each young woman is fatherless, each living with a difficult mother who clings to a romantic past while trying to prepare her daughter for the challenges of a female adulthood. Thrown into the maelstrom of Katrina and its aftermath, each sees her life change completely overnight, forcing her to face herself and the past that shaped her. Urbani boldly sets her story among some of the most disturbing events of that time, sensitively evoking the desperation of the survivors of the hurricane and its mishandled aftershocks. To her great credit, she never shies away from the realities of poverty, race, and racism, nor does she fail to give people, both white and black, individual characters, unique histories, and often warm hearts.”

And here are some of Ellen’s jaw-dropping blurbs:

“With her new novel Landfall, Ellen Urbani enters the world of American fiction with a bang and a flourish. She brings back the terrible Hurricane Katrina that tore some of the heart out of the matchless city of New Orleans, but did not lay a finger on its soul. It is the story of people caught in that storm and the lives both ruined and glorified in its passage. Her descriptions of the flooding of the Ninth Ward are Faulknerian in their powers. It’s a hell of a book and worthy of the storm and times it describes.”

– Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides

“A gorgeous and raw rendering of a young woman’s struggle for redemption, for forgiveness, for salvation, in the aftermath of the devastating catastrophe of Katrina. Landfall is not about a storm; it is about the resiliency of the human spirit, and our ongoing need to make sense of the world around us, no matter the cost. Urbani has crafted a powerful novel that will resonate in your soul long after you have turned the final page. Outstanding!”

– Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain

“Ellen Urbani has written an amazing and original piece of literature. If you love Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits you will love this book!”

– Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

“From the first sentence, I was drawn into  the intricately wrought emotional lives of Urbani’s nuanced characters and didn’t put the book down until I’d found my way to the end. This novel is as delightful and compelling as it is necessary, broadening the cultural conversation around community, love, loss and inequity. It’s about making human connections, particularly during times of grief. Landfall, like the best literature, delivers an expansive, rich sense of humanity.”

– Monica Drake, author of The Stud Book

“A deeply soulful novel set during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina and the long, moody ebb of its aftermath, Landfall recalls Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the strength of the women in its pages, and their resilience despite immeasurable loss. Urbani knows it’s only love that truly overcomes catastrophe, that even as we search for the answer to that most elusive question–Why?–everything in our lives can always change in an instant, sometimes even for the better.”

– Tony D’Souza, author of Mule

Landfall is a poignant, provocative, and utterly compelling story of two fatherless girls forced into adulthood too soon. Ellen Urbani has accomplished the nearly impossible: creating a fictional world so real you’ll revel in its beauty and flinch from its pain. I could not put this book down. And the ending is worth every page that precedes it.”

– Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters

“Reading Ellen Urbani’s writing is like reading a painting, or a song. It’s that colorful and alive. Urbani sweeps you up into her world and carries you through this gripping story about two young women affected by similar tragedies.”

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

“Ellen Urbani’s story of Katrina and its aftermath is an important part of America’s modern mythology, a chronicle of one of our greatest national trials. But Urbani’s characters reach beyond mythology: two rich and complex young women, two troubled and heartbreaking older women, whose separate journeys and literal collision are unique yet timeless. Landfall is a mirror in the floodwaters, showing us our own distorted faces in the murk and mayhem of our recent past.”

– Samuel Snoek-Brown, author of Hagridden

If you’re part of a book club, consider taking part in our 50 in ’15 Challenge! We’re looking for 50 clubs–at least one in each state!–to pick Landfall as a selection by the end of 2015. No need to read the book this year; just put it on the club list, and in return, you’ll be eligible for a series of perks, including author participation in your event, personalized autographs for all book club members, and an unpublished, never-revealed prologue. Feel free to grab this handy image I designed and share it on social media!

50 in 15 social media

I’ve been quiet here, because I’ve been busy with the press, but you all are my roots. The online community that centered me, grounded me, fed me, gave me the heart and the courage to push forward with this crazy idea of starting a small press–and now look. Something big is about to hit, something national, something bigger than anything my press has done before, and bigger than anything I could have done on my own. I’m so grateful to all of you, all of our readers, our reviewers, our staff and contractors (especially publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek and graphic designer Gigi Little), and Ellen as well as all of our previous and future authors. You’re all at the heart of this.

Publishing can be disheartening, but dreams can come true. I want to prove that with this launch. I want Landfall to be what some are already calling a Cinderella story: a little-known author and an independent press coming together to create something extraordinary. 

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