Jeffrey Condran and Robert Peluso were in the habit of frequently meeting to talk about books, writing and other literary matters. They knew writers who, for various reasons, weren’t published but had “interesting manuscripts,” according to Peluso. They considered starting a literary journal or periodical, but those ventures would have required more time than they had available.
Instead, Condran and Peluso decided to launch Braddock Avenue Books, a small, independent publishing house.
“There’s a whole group of people eager to express themselves, find themselves, find their peers,” says Peluso, who teaches at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and is a freelance writer. “Genres have exploded, cross-genre works are everywhere.
“Creative Nonfiction (the literary magazine founded by Lee Gutkind in 1993) was an early mover in that direction, a harbinger of where we are now, which is putting forms and styles together in a certain way and having an audience; maybe not a huge one, but an audience. I think that’s the point, to find your audience.”
Pittsburgh has long been a haven for independent publishers not associated with mainstream publishing houses. The University of Pittsburgh Press was founded in 1936 and Carnegie Mellon University’s emerged in 1972. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has been publishing history books about Western Pennsylvania since its inception in 1964. Autumn House Press has produced poetry and literary fiction since 1998.
Over the past decade, with advances in technology making publishing easier, more literary enthusiasts are taking a do-it-yourself approach.
“I think, in the past 10 years, one of the things that has changed and made it easier for small presses to get by is technology,” says Hattie Fletcher, managing editor for Creative Nonfiction, which started its In Fact Books imprint three years ago after years of publishing books via independent presses. “On the one hand, it’s because it’s easier to lay out books. There are all sorts of tools, computer tools that aren’t that hard to do. Twenty years ago, you needed a typesetter or something. So, that’s made the point of entry easier.”
A bounty of talent
Kristofer Collins, a writer who works at Caliban Books in Oakland, launched Low Ghost Press four years ago. Like Condran and Peluso, he sought to fill a void.
“I thought there were an incredible amount of talented and interesting poets in Pittsburgh who were being underserved,” Collins says, noting at the time another small press that published poets, Six Gallery Press, was inundated with submissions. “I thought I could do a book.”
Low Ghost’s budget is small, as is its typical press run of 100 copies. Recently, Low Ghost released Chuck Kinder’s “All That Yellow,” with Six Gallery simultaneously releasing another of his poetry collections, “Imagination Hotel.”
“It was a world I was unaware of,” says Kinder, who recently retired from the University of Pittsburgh and whose previous books were released by major publishing houses. “It was something my students would talk about. They would get more and more excited about publishing in small presses. I would hear them (say) that was where the most interesting work was being published. They didn’t want to be published in fancy places; it was more about small places. It seemed like the place to be.”
Frequently, writers are able to establish an intimate working relationship with the editors at small presses. Sal Pane released his first novel, “Last Call in the City of Bridges,” with Braddock Avenue Books after considering major publishing houses. He found the editors more receptive and attuned to his manuscript.
“With the New York publishers, they expect a lot of the major editing to be done at the agency level, but with Braddock, you know you’re going to get careful feedback from Condran and Peluso,” says Pane, an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis who earned his master’s of fine arts at the University of Pittsburgh. “They’re not trying to make their books appeal to the widest possible audience; they’re trying to make them better books.”
“It’s responding to a larger trend in publishing,” says Condran, who teaches writing at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, “mostly to do with not just dissatisfaction with the restrained opportunities of New York publishing, but also really just the positive aspects of what’s possible with an independent press.”
Small publishers can afford to be selective in what books they choose. Because Low Ghost prints such a limited run, Collins is discriminating about the works he decides to publish. At one book per year, he and co-editor Scott Silsbe can’t afford to spend time on a manuscript that doesn’t meet their standards.
“We like to build the book with the poet,” Collins says. “It takes some time. We like working hands on. We go to the people we want, we don’t have people just sending stuff in.”
Getting the word out
When books are finally published, there’s no large publicity machine waiting to send press releases to newspapers and bloggers across the country. Publicity is usually targeted at hometown newspapers, bloggers and others familiar with the writers. But it’s incumbent on writers to jumpstart their sales through self promotion.
“The work is the primary thing,” says Nathan Kukulski, the editor at Six Gallery Press. “But, sometimes, writers are terrified of other humans and don’t want to interact with them at all. I respect that, but it’s nice when they do want to do book tours and things that help sell books.”
Margaret Bashaar, a writer who edits Hyacinth Girl Press, a micropress that concentrates on feminist poetry and releases up to six chapbooks annually, understands that some writers prefer to let their work stand for itself.
“I do primarily look at the manuscript and at work I can get behind,” Bashaar says. “I’ll encourage the poets do the legwork themselves, and I try to work with them in ways so we can promote the book. … Ideally, I want a person who’s committed to the process, but, more importantly, I want a person I can get behind. Because if I can’t get behind the work, that’s going to be a much bigger issue than a poet who is lazy.”
Fortunately, social media makes it easier for reticent writers, and their publishers, to promote new work. Facebook, Twitter and even old-fashioned websites can be used from the privacy of any home with an Internet connection.
“The big publishers are sort of bad at this, and I think it’s where small publishers have an edge,” Fletcher says. “It’s not hard to set up a website. It’s hard to do topflight marketing, but it’s not hard to do basic marketing. Social media really lets you hit your people, and I think that’s tremendously helpful and really helps people find their audience.”
Even if a writer works hard on promotion, it’s often difficult to get reviewed. Pane thinks many major newspapers refuse to review books released by small presses unless there’s a local connection.
“I was very fortunate to be reviewed all over Pittsburgh, where the book is set, in Indianapolis, where I was living at the time, and a few other cities,” Pane says. “But if there wasn’t a clear connection between me, the book and the city, those papers didn’t line up to review it. But that’s common even of major-press books. I think the key is that for me, most of the exciting fiction I really admire is coming out of the small presses. Of course, I’d want my work to thrive there, too.”
For the love of the work
One book a year might not seem like a heavy workload, but Collins and Silsbe would be hard-pressed to do more at Low Ghost. Adding just one more book per year would dramatically add to the workload.
“That increase alone, the scope of the work, it would have to be a full-time job,” Collins says.
“It’s something you do in addition to whatever else you do to help you get by in the world,” says Bashaar, who works as a writer.
So, why do it? Why take the time to read (or solicit) manuscripts, deal with writers and designers, press runs and all the assorted headaches and heartaches associated with publishing?
Perhaps, the better question is, “Why not?”
“It is really about caring about the books you’re printing, the voice in it, the vision,” Peluso says. “The engagement with the world (of a book) is something you are committed to. It’s very personal, it’s a very intimate thing. So, when a book gets a bad review, it’s like “Oh no, what just happened?’”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.