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Kevin Sampsell Interviews Sumanth Prabhaker of Madras Press

There are small presses popping up all the time but there are only a rare few that make such a distinct and focused entry into the game as Madras Press, run by Sumanth Prabhaker. Their first four books have just been released and they are beautiful and compact little gems.Their first four books have just been released and they are beautiful and compact little gems. Besides the high production values, what caught my eyes were that two of the books were from two of my favorite writers, Aimee Bender (the hauntingly sweet fable, The Third Elevator) and Trinie Dalton (the wild and funny novelette Sweet Tomb). Rounding out the Madras invasion is Rebecca Lee's dinner party drama Bobcat and Prabhaker's own long tale, A Mere Pittance. Another interesting fact about the press is that each book's author gets to pick a charity that their book's profits go to.

I interviewed Prabhaker recently about his impressive and ambitious publishing venture.

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What are some of the presses you admire most and who has inspired Madras Press?

The books we've thought the most about, more than One Story and more than any of the chapbook presses we've learned about, is the old Penguin 60s series. Those are the hand-sized paperback reprints of classic short stories that Penguin released as part of their 60th birthday party, probably fifteen years ago. Every time I go into a used bookstore, they're the first thing I look for. And it's a funny series to think about, because they're actually kind of ugly, with that Penguin orange all over them, and the type size is uncomfortably small, and the paper stock isn't so great. This may be overly optimistic, but my feeling is that those qualities are not unlike those you might find in academic journals, and reveal a commitment to the stories that's unusual for books that Borders and Barnes & Noble probably tried to market as gift items. And that's part of what makes them so captivating to me. Among our definition of success is the idea of our books occupying the same shelves as those.

Coincidentally, I've also been thinking a lot about some of Penguin's current series — Great Ideas, Great Loves, and there's an adventure one, too. Every one of those books is an absolute marvel to see and hold and read, and it's a little baffling to realize that they come from a huge, old company. I don't know of very many other books that display such an acute understanding of their own personal design and manufacturing.

Has it been hard to some authors interested, since you're a new press? How many copies of each book are you printing?

There are lots of reasons why an author shouldn't even bother responding to an invitation from usThere are lots of reasons why an author shouldn't even bother responding to an invitation from us: we're tiny and poorly funded; only a handful of bookstores carry our titles; and we print in small batches of 1,000, which isn't enough to make much of an impression anywhere. But I like to think that there are authors who might appreciate the opportunities afforded to us as a result of those qualities, despite however much they may differ from a conventional definition of success. I think it's great to be able to choose where the books are stocked, instead of assuming that every bookstore in the world is an appropriate venue for our entire catalog, and I love not having some person in a marketing office assume that we want to sell on Amazon. Our authors control the flow of the company's money, rather than having to just wonder why a book that costs two dollars to make should cost twenty dollars to buy. These are decisions we would have been precluded from weighing in on, were we to follow a more traditional business model.

Do you feel like some of the authors have a personal connection to their charity, rather than just being picked randomly?

I know none of them made their choice lightly. Writing is obviously a very solitary practice, so it's nice to be able to have a real-life place or image with which to connect one of your storiesWriting is obviously a very solitary practice, so it's nice to be able to have a real-life place or image with which to connect one of your stories, whether or not the two have anything to do with each other. My book, which is about a caterpillar and a lady in India, is now connected with Helping Hands, a center in Boston where teams of capuchin monkeys are trained to become live-in aids to people with spinal cord injuries. It's nice to be able to think of one in terms of the other.

Your own book, A Mere Pittance, is all dialogue. Is there a reason you went in that direction, as opposed to being scripted like a play?

The story is one long telephone conversation between two people on opposite ends of the world, so they're constantly reacting to the setting, having been connected over a great distance as a pair of disembodied voices traveling through wires. And the format seemed like a good way to replicate the kind of isolated feeling you sometimes get, speaking to someone important to you over the telephone. Imagining the story as a play, or even reading the characters' names before or after each piece of dialogue, would have made it a little more personal and full-blooded than might have been appropriate for a story so reliant upon the nature of the telephone, I think.

Who are some authors you'd love to publish if you were able to pick any, living and dead?

This whole project started with my Penguin 60s copy of "The Dead," and thinking about how silly it would feel to have to flip through Dubliners to get to it. The rest of Dubliners is great, too, but certain stories seem to need a front and back cover all their own. So that would be a fun one to reprint, but Melville House has a really pretty version of it already. Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon" has a similar relationship to the rest of Cosmicomics, in my opinion. I think very highly of Ben Marcus's stories, and Kelly Link, and Donald Barthelme. My dream would be to work with Haruki Murakami. More than anyone else, I think, he's getting to the bottom of things.

Are you organizing readings or doing other interesting promotional things to get the word out about Madras Press?

We've had a couple of readings with Aimee Bender and Trinie Dalton in Boston and Brooklyn, and the two of them are also reading at Family Bookstore in Los Angeles toward the end of January. We may have a few more events this spring, which we'll list on our website as the dates approach. I'm also hopeful that we can plan something in conjunction with the Other Means reading series, which hosts literary events around New York to raise money for non-profit organizations.

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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. A Common Pornography: A Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $5.50

  3. A Mere Pittance Sale Trade Paper $3.95
  4. Dubliners Used Mass Market $3.50
  5. The Dead New Miscellaneous $10.00
  6. Cosmicomics
    Used Trade Paper $3.95

Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir

One Response to "Kevin Sampsell Interviews Sumanth Prabhaker of Madras Press"

    Rob December 18th, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Thanks for a wonderful interview Kevin. Isn't Prabhaker such a warm and humble person? I've read the first four titles myself ( ) and I can confirm that they are indeed 'beautiful and compact little gems'.

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