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Three Reasons Readers Should Love Small Presses

February 20, 2013

Tenth of DecemberSometimes when I peruse the New York Times Best Seller lists I don’t find anything I want to read. Who is James Patterson? Only kidding. What’s up with Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t even want to know. Once in awhile one of my favorites pops up. This week George Saunders made it into the top five for Tenth of December, which is nothing short of a miracle for a collection of short stories. The truth is most of my favorite fiction books never make it to the top ten or even twenty, although once in awhile there’s a book that’s so good with such broad crossover appeal that it brings all kinds of readers together including me.
I have better luck with the NYT non-fiction lists. Today, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief is near the top. A riveting and chilling account of what some would call a cult and not a religion, it will leave you astonished and slightly frightened of its power. The moving Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo carved out a permanent place at the top during the last year.  And, of course, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which debuted at No. 7 last July, and held the top spot for seven weeks, continues to be wildly popular. But usually I find that most of my favorite books by the big publishers–Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Random House, and Simon & Schuster–are written by midlist authors. They’re not bestsellers, but they make enough money to justify their publication.

Maybe you’re not finding anything you want to read on the NYT lists either. Here’s a possible reason: To make the best seller list you have to please a lot of people. Many thousands, at least, which translates to a book with mass appeal, or in some cases, possession of the lowest common denominator.  That can mean predictable plots, cliched prose, or something just plain boring.
Printing Press

Suppose you have quirky tastes. Unique tastes. I do. Some days, I need something dark, or irreverent, or bawdy, or all of the above. Other days I need lyrical non-fiction that feeds my hunger for the beauty of the great outdoors. Often, I want to delve deep into the life of an obscure musician or find out what it’s like to live off the grid in Alaska. For this and much more, there’s no better place to turn than a small press. They have the books that are tailored to fit your specific tastes.

By definition, a small press is a publisher that’s independently owned and has sales way below the big five publishing giants. They put out fewer titles a year, maybe a dozen or less. A lot of them focus on a particular form or genre: poetry, mystery, sci-fi, literary fiction, history, gay and lesbian–you name it–there’s a small press that prints it. But, don’t confuse them with self-publishing presses. That’s entirely different, and a topic for another day.

What the future holds for the big publishing houses is a great unknown and depends largely on the success of blockbuster books. On the other hand, Hawthorne Publisher, Rhonda Hughes, thinks that “the small presses are looking good because the authors who are not selling 25,000 copies are not being bought and supported as they once were, so the small presses are providing homes and better relationships to these writers.” Perhaps that’s where most of my midlist authors will end up eventually.

Here are three small presses who published books that I just finished. There are dozens of others that I like, and I will get to all of them eventually. I’m hoping you will check them out to find a book that’s perfect for you.

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Hawthorne Books, one of my favorite small presses, is an independent literary press based in Portland, Oregon. It publishes predominantly literary fiction and narrative non-fiction. Publisher Rhonda Hughes does a superb job of finding writing which might be overlooked by larger houses, and giving it the attention it deserves. Since 2002, Hawthorne titles have been consistently shortlisted for respected literary awards. And they’ve won more than a few of them.

My first Hawthorne book was The Chronology of Water by Lydia Yuknavitch. It rocked my world. (Read my review here.) It won a 2012 PNBA Award, was a finalist for the 2012 Oregon Book Award, and was a Pen Center finalist. Yuknavitch followed it up with Dora: A Headcase, which earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

next_nadelson_820_1350_80The Hawthorne book I just finished and absolutely love is The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress by Scott Nadelson (March 1, 2013). Nadelson, who is described as a “writer’s writer,” gives a touching self-portrait of a life in shambles. His fiancee leaves him for a drag king a month before the wedding, his cat is dying, and he lives in an attic apartment in Portland that has seen better days. For a couple of years he sleepwalks through his days struggling desperately to get back on track and shed the pervasive loneliness that infects his entire being. This self-deprecating and honest memoir is filled with humor and nuggets of wisdom about how Nadelson moves through grief to find his center again. A big thumbs up!
Nadelson is the author of three other collections: Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories, winner of the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award; The Cantor’s Daughter, which was the recipient of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Fiction Prize for Emerging Jewish Writers and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize; and Aftermath.

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Press 53 is buzzing with books! Publisher Kevin Morgan Watson told me that he has about 11 books coming out in the first six months of this year. He says, “Our little press continues to grow due to readers coming back to find more great reading. That’s the small press advantage: if you do a good job finding great writing, readers will return again and again.”

Founded in October 2005 and located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Press 53 quickly earned a reputation as a quality publishing house. Watson told me he decided to stick with poetry and short story collections in 2010 because “that’s where my heart is, and because readers of poetry and short stories pay close attention to who the publisher is and will come back often to discover new writing.”

zhangI just finished What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang (2012), a collection of stories set in Chinatown in Washington, D.C. that follow the struggles of Zhang Feng-qi who is looking to find a new mother for his sons after the death of his wife. It’s like Hitchcock’s Rear Window in the way that it captures little bits of the lives of Zhang’s neighbors. The prose is beautiful, powerful, and haunting. The Family Fang author, Kevin Wilson, blurbed “In prose that is measured and confident, he carefully works to show us how these characters’ grief and loneliness becomes unified by their collective setting to transform into something utterly beautiful and unforgettable. What a world Garstang has built for us, and how grateful I was to discover it.”

Another outstanding collection I finished recently was Out Across the Nowhere by Amy Willoughby-Burle (2012). Serena author, Ron Rash, blurbed, “ These stories give a reader the vivid language and compelling narratives that are the trademarks of the best short stories.  Out Across the Nowhere is an astonishing debut.” I would have to agree. Hers seems like the writing of a seasoned professional. Maybe a third or fourth book – definitely not a debut. Each story left me wanting more.

This year I’m looking forward to Nahal Suzanne Jamir’s In the Middle of Many Mountains that is described as funny, gripping and entertaining, full of facts, both real and imaginary, driving characters to do outrageous things and search for truths that are impossible to believe.  I also can’t wait to read Curtis Smith’s Beasts & Men which is his third story collection with Press 53, and might be his most adventurous. He’s widely published but refuses to get bogged down writing the same kinds of stories.

Since this may be the breakout year for short story collections, I would head over to Press 53 to find both debut authors, as well as, veterans of the page.

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There’s a new publishing house in Portland called Forest Avenue Press founded in 2012 by Laura Stanfill. Its mission is to publish and promote Oregon writers. Stanfill says she became a publisher “because I’m a novelist, and I was inspired by other novelists who have beautiful, quiet manuscripts that haven’t found homes due to the industry’s current fixation with high-concept novels.”

Although they are a traditional press, they use non-traditional printing methods. Stanfill says, “We use the Espresso Book Machine as our printer and primary distributor. Print-on-demand technology is great for small presses because it allows us to minimize out-of-pocket expenses. Forest Avenue Press titles are available through Espresso Book Machines at more than eighty independent bookstores and college campuses, and online through eight of those.”

Still in its infancy, Stanfill says they are approaching the end of their first call for submissions. She says what sets them apart from many presses, small or large, is promotion. “My background is in journalism and public relations, and I’m eager to work with my authors to secure newspaper coverage, book reviews, and event opportunities.”
brave-on-the-page-final-cover-smaller

Its first title, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, was released last October. It features author interviews with some of my favorite Oregon authors: Kristy Athens,  Lauren Kessler, Matt Love, Scott Sparling, Liz Prato, and Yuvi Zalkow. Flash essays on who, what, when, where, why or how they write were contributed by over two dozen of some of Oregon’s finest authors including Stevan Allred, Brian M. Biggs, Steve Denniston, Kate Gray, Robert Hill, Harold L. Johnson, Bart King, Amber Krieger, Christi Krug, Gigi Little, Mary Milstead, Gina Ochsner, Martha Ragland, Joanna Rose, Nicole Marie Schreiber, and Kristi Wallace Knight.

If you want boots-on-the-ground dirt on the writing life, or if you’re looking for writing tips and inspiration, this collection of essays and interviews is perfect. Each author shares a little bit of their method, as well as their heart, in this rare peek into the soul of a contemporary Oregon writer.

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21 Comments
  1. This is great information for writers looking for a place to submit their work. In my experience, I found small presses to be more friendly and approachable. And bless them for their efforts (I share your quirky taste in books). Btw, I’m now enjoying Tenth of December thanks to your review.

  2. Thanks, Darrelyn!

  3. Wow! Great review! I’ve got to print and save this. Excellent. Thanks, Diane!!

  4. Excellent advice and terrific reviews indeed, love that a press is specialising in short stories.

  5. Reblogged this on Forest Avenue Press and commented:
    Diane Prokop put together this very thoughtful look at small presses and the future of publishing. We’re very honored she included Forest Avenue Press alongside Hawthorne Books and Press 53.

  6. Press 53 rocks!

  7. John McNeese permalink

    You write so well and I learned something new. I’ve never taken a second look at small press books but I will now.

  8. Great post, Diane! Now let’s all do our best to boot “Grey” off the top of the NYTBR fiction list. Pretty please?!

  9. It was encouraging to hear about small presses that are making a difference and staying healthy. I enjoyed the book reviews, as well; I will seek some out. And as for short stories–hooray! I also was thinking that a monthly small press book review blog or newsletter would be lovely, and help spread the word.

  10. JAL permalink

    I am new to your blog Diane, and reading it today made me so glad I signed on. I am at the point where I no longer look at the NY Times best sellers or their recommended books. I used to get their emails but I unsubscribed, most of their recommendations do not appeal to me with rare exceptions. I want books that challenge me, that give me different points of view, with very good to great writing, fiction and non fiction. That is why I was happy to find you. There are oodles of blogs out there about books that I find much more valuable than the mainstream publications. A great one I found lately besides yours is http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/. I also trust The Atlantic, and a couple of other periodicals. Checking to see what writers are attending the Sun Vally Writer’s Conference every year is also helpful to me. Keep your great blogs coming! Thank you~

  11. Liz Prato permalink

    Small presses help keep the faith that there is a publication model where art matters more than commerce. Thank you for giving some ink to these folks!

  12. So glad you covered the small presses and their books. Thanks for doing the hard work, Diane. Now all I have to do is read!

  13. I hardly get all the news I need (about books) from the NY Times . . . And I count on the likes of you to keep me on my toes re: what’s really worth reading 😉 Yes, I was glad to see all the attention given to George Saunders and what it’s doing for the short story. But I also remember recalling (with great heart) seeing Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collections on the best seller list. More to the point — small presses really do keep alive the spirit and substance of publishing at its best. Great post, Diane.

  14. I totally have to get a library card! Thanks for the great ideas for new reads!

  15. Thanks for the kind mention of my book! I’m finding great reads among the small presses.

  16. Great post, Diane! I especially loved the part about how best sellers have to try to please all. As an emerging writer and book reviewer, one of the things I love about small presses is that it’s easy to engage with the people who at the heart of the press (on Twitter or otherwise). That human interaction makes a huge difference and makes me want to read their books all the more.

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