The Hopes and Fears of Southern Presses

American poets and writers may be spread across the country, but the American publishing industry remains clustered in New York (thanks to the Big Five), Chicago (home of the largest university press in the U.S.) and Minneapolis (courtesy of Graywolf, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions).

When I moved back to North Carolina in 2018, I asked a few local book-lovers for their favorite Southern presses — only to be met with blank stares. And that’s a shame, because some of my favorite independent and university presses call the South home, including the four I spoke with about their hopes and fears in 2020: Hub City Press, University of Texas Press, Sarabande Books, and Blair.

Meg Reid and Kate McMullen, Directors
Hub City Press
Spartanburg, South Carolina

What do you love about being an independent press in the South?

Hub City Press is part of a larger organization, the Hub City Writers Project, which is dedicated to nurturing literary community in the South through the press, our independent bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a national residency program, contests, workshops, and an annual conference, among other programs.

The most exciting thing about our mission (we’re the only publisher who exclusively publishes books by Southerners) is that we are able to champion a diverse range of authors whose books often don’t fit into the commercial publishing landscape. We get a lot of books that were tough sells in New York because they show a different, unexpected view of the region — which we welcome! Novels like Over the Plain Houses and The Magnetic Girl offer feminist reimaginings of historical eras. Nonfiction like Flight Path: A Search for Roots beneath the World’s Busiest Airport and our upcoming anthology, (A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South, edited by Cinelle Barnes) complicate our understanding of the historical and modern South. We publish poetry from working class, queer, white, black, Latinx, and Korean American voices (coming 2021).

What’s challenging about it?

We get A LOT of submissions because we still take unagented queries during brief windows each season. We’re dedicated to keeping an open submission period, since not all writers have the same path to publication. We know that especially for writers from marginalized communities the gatekeeping of publishing can be high. But those queries, on top of what we receive from agents, can make our TBR pile a bit daunting. We have such a small list (6-8 books a year) that each book we select has to be completely aligned with our publishing mission, and fit in with the prize winning novels, stories, and poetry we also publish. We see a lot of good stuff we have to pass on!

Then, we shoulder the burden of making sure readers hear about those stories when we publish them. Publicity for any small press is tough work for a great reward, but we sometimes feel like there’s a unique challenge in getting the word out for presses like us. “Regional” is still a dirty word to a lot of people, but we embrace it’s what makes us special. We feel that we’re at our best when we remain tightly focused on maintaining a diverse list that hews closely to our mission.

What are your hopes for the future of publishing?

A lot of our focus as an indie press is offering authors a boutique experience. Which is our way of saying we really want to hold our author’s hands, especially for debuts, and guide them through the publication process. Our authors see their covers and give input before we release them, we work directly with them on tour planning, and we try to be as transparent as possible. We’ve all heard stories from authors at other presses who felt lost and even sidelined by the process. We hope someday the big guys understand that selling books is only half the job — we’re shepherding someone’s art into the world.

We also hope that people start to see that publishing can exist outside of NYC and urban centers — even in a small post-industrial Southern city like Spartanburg, South Carolina! Unlike other presses, we have no big university budget or giant hometown corporate foundation funding us. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have the backing of 500+ donors both here in town and across the nation. Our hope for the future is more people start reading indie press books instead of allowing the Big Five publishers to tell them what to read and whose voices matter.

What are your anxieties?

It’s been really hard watching book coverage disappear from so many Southern newspapers. It makes the outlets that still do cover books in depth — the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Charleston Post & Courier, the Clarion Ledger, Chapter 16 (which places reviews in papers across Tennessee), and others — so vitally important to what we do. Another reason why we’re glad the Southern Review of Books now exists!

What are the most important events for your press to appear at every year?

Our Southern book festivals are so important to us. We love Decatur Book Fest, Southern Festival of Books, Virginia Festival of the Book and newer festivals like Greensboro Bound. Decatur is driveable for us and it’s an end of summer tradition that we head down there each Labor Day and sweat it out in a little tent. We publish a lot of Atlanta authors — a few of our book deals started on that very weekend, talking to writers in the book fair.

Because we run the press and bookshop combo, the SIBA trade show is also hugely important. We adore our southern bookstore network and love the opportunity to catch up with them and tell them about our upcoming books. (Though it was convenient having SIBA in Spartanburg this year, we’ll be glad to be participants again going forward. Helping host a trade show is a lot of work!) Though we’ve missed a few years here and there, we usually go to AWP. We sell books but also distribute info about our book prizes and residency program.

Cameron M. Ludwick, Publicity & Communications Manager
University of Texas Press
Austin, Texas

What do you love about being a university press in the South?

The community. The South, generally, and Texas, in particular, are so very proud of their heritage and traditions. There’s a unifying identity around being a “Southerner” that effects pride and support of the community. From individual writers, to presses, to booksellers, to libraries, to festivals, the community shows up and champions their own.

What’s challenging about it?

One our biggest struggles is bringing the south and its voices outside the region. Publishing can often feel very insular to New York and the big deals and big branding that decide the “next big thing.” Advocating for regional voices, however, is one of the best and most rewarding parts of our mission.

What are your hopes for the future of publishing?

It finally feels like the larger world of publishing is on a path — albeit a sometimes rocky one — toward inclusivity and modernity. Yes, there have been some major missteps and we’ll almost certainly see more, but largely, it’s heartening to see that readers and publishers are lifting up books and authors who come from worldviews and experiences different than their own. The growth of OwnVoices and translated literature is a beautiful result of that! And I want more.

I have one other big hope for publishing, and it’s that instead of media convergence, we’ll see media concurrence, where the book format and new media formats can coexist. Generally, publishing has weathered the massive technological changes that have brought ebooks, digital library apps, and transmedia storytelling, but I worry sometimes that the “book” will one day be lost to the myriad other types of entertainment now and in the future. The ease at which a book might become a podcast or a film, or a chapter might become an article with a clickbait headline can be a boon to help promote a book, but I do worry what might be lost if the fragments become the product itself. That said, I see real opportunity and the space for tech and publishing to work alongside one another and grow, together.

What are your anxieties?

In publishing, as in politics, money has a voice, and the continued consolidation of publishing companies and the money behind them will widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots. There are remarkable books and authors being published by small, indie, and university presses. It’s funny to think that those small press books are the titles that can launch an author to a big advance against royalties at one of the Big Five. It’s still the dream. I love working for a university press (a subgroup of small presses), but it can be heart-wrenching when you’re unable to provide your authors with an advance anywhere close to the Big Five ballpark, and so, competition suffers.

What are the most important events for your press to appear at every year?

The growing importance of the American Booksellers Association meetings cannot be understated! The national and regional ABA conferences are key to connecting with the best readers and the best evangelists in the country — booksellers. I believe, with all of my heart, that the book industry would not have survived the technology boom or the rise of online bookselling without indie bookstores and their sellers. Any time we can connect with them is important — and also an absolute blast

Here in Texas we’re also incredibly lucky to have two of the largest book festivals in the country: the San Antonio Book Festival in the spring, and the Texas Book Festival in the fall. For the press itself, it’s our opportunity to get out from our offices and into the wider community of Texas and its readers, and it’s the best part about being a publisher in the South.

Joanna Englert, Director of Marketing and Publicity
Sarabande Books
Louisville, Kentucky

What do you love about being an independent press in the South?

To be an independent press in any part of the country is first of all incredible, because being independent means that we have complete artistic control over what we do. And to be an independent press in the south, that’s really special; the region offers its own character as well as exposure to an art world that hasn’t always been spotlighted in the more traditional literary hubs.

For so many areas in the South, community is everything. We’re lucky as a press that we get to be so involved with our local arts scene, whether that’s through programming, partnerships, or otherwise.

What’s challenging about it? 

To maintain those important interpersonal relationships with other literary hubs in the country, we must travel a lot — to attend festivals and conferences, to meet with authors, to make pitches to reviewers, etc.. If you’re like us and enjoy traveling, though, it’s really hard to call this a challenge! Perhaps the true “challenging” part of this is having to narrow down which trips we make throughout the year, since we wish we could be everywhere at once!

What are your hopes for the future of publishing?

In recent years, the publishing landscape has grown lush with independent presses and independent bookstores, and we would love to see this growth continue! Poetry and essays have also become incredibly popular. It’s an exciting time for the publishing world, and we just hope these trends continue!

What are your anxieties?

Independent publishers are producing so many creative works of outstanding and lasting value right now. Of course, many of these independent presses must rely on external funds to be able to do so. Raising funds from donors and from invaluable organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, and for us in particular, the Kentucky Arts Council, is one of the only ways to continue putting quality work out into the world, work that we feel is of great and lasting value. We hope for long, healthy futures for all of our fellow independent publishers!

What are the most important events for your press to appear at every year?

AWP, always. Others that we like to keep in our annual travel rotation are the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, the Brooklyn Book Festival, Flyover Festival in Columbus, Divedapper Festival in Indianapolis, the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference in Lexington, the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, the New Orleans Poetry Festival, and Pitchfork’s Book Fort in Chicago. 

Lynn York, Publisher
Blair
Durham, North Carolina

What do you love about being an independent press in the South?

We love the literary community that we are a part of here in North Carolina and in the South at large. North Carolina is home to great writers and an amazing writing community—including organizations like the North Carolina Writers Network and the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. There are a myriad of festivals and a network of amazing independent bookstores.

Thankfully, in this area, there are so many stories to tell, and we will never run out of talented people bent on telling those stories. We are particularly proud to be able to publish new and underrepresented writers from the South and beyond. As we find and nurture this talent, we can be certain that our local bookstores, libraries, and the readers themselves will be waiting for their books. 

What’s challenging about it?

Publishing is a challenging business from start to finish. Margins are very low, virtually no one is paid well, and the trend toward an increasing percentage of book purchases from online behemoths creates peril for almost everyone in the business. We feel really fortunate to have a solid distributor (Consortium). Being under that umbrella helps us reach a larger portion of the marketplace and gives us the best chance to find the most readers. 

So much of publishing happens in New York, and I suppose many of those folks might think our location presents a challenge. We heartily disagree. Our location in downtown Durham, NC, keeps our overall operating costs down, and it allows our employees to live better on a meager salary. We believe that if we live and work in close proximity to our authors and their culture, we will be better stewards of work that portrays the authentic South. Plus, biscuits . . . 

What are your hopes for the future of publishing?

My greatest hope is that people will continue to read, and to read broadly. I hope that they will use their local booksellers to help them discover all the rich literature being produced by well-known, bestselling authors as well as new authors and authors that are traditionally neglected in the mainstream: women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and authors with disabilities. There are so many stories out there and so much to learn.

What are your anxieties?

I worry that it is increasingly difficult to work as an author and as an independent publisher. The economics are tough. However, there are so many benefits and the joys in the profession. All of us at Blair absolutely love the work we do and embrace its challenges.

What are the most important events for your press to appear at every year?

We always make sure to attend AWP as well as SIBA’s annual tradeshow where we promote our authors and books for the national market as well as for Southern literary communities. In North Carolina, we make sure to attend the big festivals, such as Bookmarks and Greensboro Bound. Nationally, we attend the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute and visit media outlets in New York and elsewhere. We also take the opportunity to meet new bookstore owners, presses, and writers so that we can learn from them and build new relationships with our fellow book people.