The Virtues of Small Press: Live at Antioch Writers’ Workshop 2011

by Ed Davis on July 18, 2011

Dropping In

Last Wednesday, July 13, I had the good fortune of dropping in on Kevin Watson’s Editor’s Session at the 2011 Antioch Writers’ Workshop here in lovely Yellow Springs, Ohio. While it’s evolved through the years, AWW has always maintained its high-quality and insistence on great faculty-student relations. And while the study of craft is the centerpiece, there are always presentations by agents and editors. On this day, it was the editing I was interested in.

Editor in Sneakers

Having recently submitted a short story collection to Press 53, I was eager to hear its chief editor speak. After all, anyone with a first book whose title is You Can’t Meet Jesus Wearing Sneakers gets my attention. Kevin Watson was both heartening and realistic in his comments about the advantages of publishing with a small press in general and Press 53 in particular, the state of publishing and the increasing prevalence of technology in the process.

Press 53, founded in 2006, publishes poetry, literary short stories, novellas and novels, creative nonfiction and anthologies. At www.press53.com, I learned that the press has published over fifty books, such as Valerie Nieman’s Blood Clay, which I reviewed in my previous blog. That’s an impressive output for a mere five years! But why would one want to publish with a small press over a larger, commercial press such as, say St. Martins, Harper or Warner?

Family Affair

For one thing, Kevin said, the authors and editors at Press 53 are a family. Small can be better when it comes to writing, editing, publishing and promoting books. Personal connections are crucial; for example, Watson said he only accepts manuscripts that he personally likes. Big names don’t matter, though occasionally a big name, like Pinckney Benedict or John Ehle, does sign with the press just because of that personal touch.

Even with a major New York publisher, authors will have the full responsibility of promoting their books anyway; therefore, why not sign with a small press where you can have more control over the process, more fun hanging out with editors and writers that you know and respect? And less pressure. Writers who fail to earn back an advance from a big publisher are usually doomed when it comes to getting their next book deal. But smaller presses don’t need those kinds of numbers, only enough to keep the press alive and help an author gain and keep an audience.

Getting Out There

The first thing Watson does after receiving a submission is to Google the writer’s name to determine if the person is “out there,” meaning actively writing and promoting. So just as, if not more, important than fine writing is the literary activity writers are engaged in. This is similar to the New York publishers’ increasing insistence on the all-important “platform,” i.e., the writer’s “other” credentials besides good writing: expertise in a field, academic or other credentials, status as a celebrity, etc.

However, the difference is that mostly what Kevin is asking of his authors is hard work, interest in and dedication to one’s art. Having published two novels with small presses, I’m well aware that one is called upon to put together book tours, write news releases and perform a host of other activities. Hence, it’s crucial, he emphasized, to meet people and make contacts, “just like you’re doing here this week at Antioch.”

Also, he said, rather than sequestering oneself to write nothing but a novel for two or three years, one should publish articles, stories and poems in the meantime. Writers earn a reputation through awards and publications of all types.

The New Word of Mouth

To the surprise of no one in the auditorium at Antioch University Midwest, Watson said that the Internet is “the new word of mouth,” easily trumping the power of reviews. Therefore, his press and writers must take full advantage of social media to reach a global audience. He counseled us to use them appropriately, not posting a video of a reading in which the performer looks less than professional. One only has to look at the impressive Press 53 website to see that Watson and his authors practice what they preach.

Sobering Reality

By the end of the hour, I found myself liking Kevin Watson, his vision and his impressive results. But I am under no false illusion that what he and his authors do to find their audience is easy. Kevin has his feet planted firmly on the ground; he’s asking a lot of himself, his two fellow editors and those he publishes. And it’s a lot more than writing. He’s asking his authors to be marketers and publicists as well. Yes, we can be writers without doing all that. But these days we can’t be published writers without wearing a lot of other hats. Kevin makes me think, though, that this hard work could be more fun in his small press family than in a corporate publishing situation where I may feel lost.

Postscript

Why “Press 53,” someone asked Kevin during Q & A. He grinned and said, “It’s my lucky number.” Lucky, indeed, given the number of quality books he’s published as well as global relationships he maintains from his home in North Carolina.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

CPatLarge July 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Excellent summary. Kevin's remarks were so encouraging, as is Kevin himself; it would be lovely to work with a dedicated small press such as his. Good luck on your submission!

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Valerie Nieman July 18, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Nice to see this! Kevin has been a friend, guide, inspiration, coach, as well as editor. I've been more "out there" for Blood Clay than any previous publication, but it's been a lot of fun!

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Rusty July 19, 2011 at 12:20 am

Kevin and Press 53 deserve all the good things that come their way.

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Nancy Pinard July 19, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I can see how PRESS 53 would make being "out there" much more palatable. There's lots of support coming from the publisher, not just demand.

Oh, and this is a terrific summary of the presentation, Ed. I can't think of anything you missed.

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