I'd like to announce the winner of the fourth annual Powell's On Oregon blog "Book of the Year" [see last year's winner
]. I'm the sole judge, I live in Oregon, and the book I pick has to be about Oregon in some way, either as a topic or through the setting. It could be a new release, a forgotten classic, or totally obscure. It could come from a national publisher or printed by a local copy shop. Whatever the book's origins, I simply happened across it in my routine fixation of all things literary Oregon, and it blew my mind. After reading the book, I felt an intense desire to share it with others.
There are no nominees — just a winner. I may know the winning writer or I may not. He may have handed me the book in a bar, drunk. She may have flung it at me in a post-coital rage. Who cares? This process is probably a lot more honest than those that determine most regional and national literary awards.
This award carries no monetary prize. There is no certificate. Maybe I'll scrape up a little trophy corroding in a thrift store and shine it up to look nice. Maybe I'll take the winner out and get them drunk on cheap Pacific Northwest lagers formerly brewed in the Pacific Northwest by union men.
And the winner is: Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, edited by Laura Stanfill, a wonderful and illuminating collection of writing and interviews from Oregon authors. It's easily the most quintessential Oregon book I've encountered in a very long time. Anyone with aspirations to become a writer or publisher should read it. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the book and have published 12 books about Oregon through my company, Nestucca Spit Press.)
Brave on the Page is a brave literary endeavor indeed. Stanfill, a former reporter and managing editor of newspapers turned as-of-yet unpublished novelist, started her own press, Forest Avenue, to produce and distribute Brave on the Page via the new Espresso Book Machine process.
Stanfill steered her literary career in a very different direction after she was unable to break into the conventional publishing world with her novels. Many authors give up after multiple rejections. Others find one of the many routes to self-publishing. And there are a few mavericks who decide to do more than write books, which is the easy part of the publishing process. Distribution and promotion are what really require the hard, indefatigable work, and I say this as someone who has given almost 500 presentations over the last decade in support of my books.
Stanfill realized that drastic changes in the industry provided a unique opportunity for her to become part of the burgeoning independent literary scene, particularly the one connected to Portland. It meant thinking like a publisher while still not giving up writing. It meant refusing to feel embittered because the big break hadn't happened. It meant that by helping other writers, you help yourself as a writer.
Recently, I posed a few questions to Stanfill about Brave on the Page and her decision to start a press and embrace a radical new publishing concept. What follows is that Q&A.
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Matt Love: What made you start your own press and bring out a book like Brave on the Page? Was there an epiphany?
Laura Stanfill: Two years ago, I launched the Seven Questions interview series on my blog, and as more big-name authors started participating, I wondered about collecting some of that rich, original material in book form. The first epiphany came this spring, when the Espresso Book Machine arrived at Powell's. I was inspired by the community-based twist on print-on-demand publishing. My blog series features writers from everywhere, but I chose to focus on the Oregon writers for Brave on the Page, particularly because I wanted local readers and writers to be able to get the book printed, made to order, at Powell's.
A subsequent epiphany about the book's content occurred while chatting with a few critique-group friends one evening. An idea just popped out of my mouth — asking people to submit 250-300–word essays on who, what, when, where, why, or how in relation to writing. We ended up with 27 of these tiny, beautiful pieces that touch on many aspects of the creative life. I think of that collection-within-a-collection as the heart of the book, while the 15 author interviews are its bones and muscles.
Love: What was the initial reception of the writers you contacted to interview and include?
Stanfill: They were excited to be asked, and almost everyone said yes before I had fully wrapped my arms around the project. I avoided a formal call for essay submissions because I'm tapped into several writing communities, and those writers then suggested other writers. The pages filled up fast!
Love: What kind of books will Forest Avenue Press bring out in the future?
Stanfill: I plan to publish several books each year, with a focus on quiet novels by Oregon writers. A lot of very talented authors have found little traction in the traditional market due to the current focus on high-concept novels. In quiet novels, relationships reign, and often the world changes the individual instead of the individual changing the world. Coming-of-age stories fit into my definition of a quiet novel, and so does the work of some of my favorite writers — Julia Glass, Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, and Richard Russo. Forest Avenue Press will be open for submissions from Oregon residents from January 1 to March 1, 2013.
I'm also planning to publish more anthologies about the craft of writing. Brave on the Page is the first volume of the Seven Questions series, and the next is due out in the fall of 2013. I'm conducting new author interviews and looking for flash essays on place, as it relates to writing. I want pieces that take the prompt and whisk it in surprising directions. While there will be plenty of opportunities for Oregon writers to be involved in Volume II, it'll showcase some of my national interviews as well.
Love: This book has a new point-of-purchase model. Can you explain how the Espresso Book Machine works and what are some of the challenges you face as a publisher with this model? How many machines are there in Oregon?
Stanfill: The Espresso Book Machine is my printer and primary distributor. Each book takes about four minutes to print, once the glue is warmed up, and it's a wonderful process to watch. The cover and inside pages get printed and bound, and then the finished product slides down the chute literally hot off the press.
So far there's only one Espresso Book Machine in Oregon, upstairs in the purple room at Powell's City of Books, and that's where I print all of my inventory. There are 80 machines around the world, with the number expected to grow to 150 by the end of 2012. That means anyone who lives near an Espresso Book Machine kiosk can order Brave on the Page and have it printed right there, locally, avoiding the financial and environmental costs of shipping.
I love that Espresso Book Machines are located in independent bookstores, universities, and libraries — exactly the kinds of places I try to support as a consumer and now as a publisher. If you don't live near a store that has one, you can order books online through one of eight bookstores, including Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, McNally Jackson in New York, and the Tattered Cover in Denver.
As far as challenges, using the Espresso Book Machine as a distributor means that customers need to be actively engaged in purchasing the book. They need to look up the machine location, then leave their house to go to that spot, and once they get there, they need to remember the title or the author's name to order the book. And sometimes there's a wait to get a book printed, or the machine needs work so it's not printing at the moment. It's easier to click a button and buy a book online — and many readers are more comfortable with that kind of experience. I'm really trying to encourage my readers who live near an Espresso Book Machine to go there and support their community bookstore or library.
Love: What are you working on these days?
Stanfill: Brave on the Page has been my primary focus for months. I had no idea it took so much time and energy to get a publishing company off the ground.
Other than working on setting up more readings and thinking about what I'll publish next, I'm plugging along on the second draft of my 19th-century novel, Lost Notes. It's about a lace-loving Frenchman with a weak constitution who travels to New York to save his father's music-box business and, due to a series of misfortunes, ends up owing his life — and a good sum of money — to a brothel madam.
Love: Would you recommend the Espresso Book Machine model for other writers who want their books published?
Stanfill: Absolutely. The distribution network is growing steadily, and print on demand minimizes the financial risk to a new publisher or a self-publishing author. From what I've seen so far, distribution is the biggest factor in book sales, and the idea of people walking into a bookstore in London or Manchester, Vermont, and getting a copy of my book, printed made-to-order, really seems like the future of publishing.
As far as the publishing process itself, authors who have Espresso Book Machines in their communities can actually go there and talk, face to face, to a helpful staff member — or three, as there are at Powell's. Forrest, Polly, and Alex answered so many questions for me and helped me out in so many ways that I thanked them in the Brave on the Page acknowledgements. It's wonderful to have real live people helping you usher a manuscript into print, as opposed to submitting your questions to a nameless, faceless online help desk.
Love: How do you think Oregon writers differ from, say, writers in other states?
Stanfill: There are vibrant writing communities in every state, but what's astonishing about Oregon writers is how we form groups, and those groups then interact, overlap, inspire, and support each other. I studied with Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, co-teachers of the Pinewood Table critique group, from 2002 to 2004, and then again in 2006-2007. Spending time with other writers, week after week, really digging into the craft, has helped me make some very special, lifelong friends. And this kind of community-oriented teaching is happening in a lot of places around Oregon — not just in MFA classrooms. People who have come and gone from the Pinewood Table, for instance, form a sort of alumni group, which then interacts with and supports other groups of writers around the state. Just the other day I mentioned Brave on the Page to a stranger at my local farmers' market, only to find out she's affiliated with The Attic, one of the many great writing programs here.
It also seems like Oregon's creative culture is incredibly accepting of people who spend time working on their writing, whether or not they have elaborate credentials. I'm a writer because I take the craft seriously. And that's what Brave on the Page is all about — celebrating the writing life in Oregon and getting deep into the question of why we're driven to create. In the introduction to Kim Cooper Findling's interview, I call her memoir an honest love letter to the state. Brave on the Page is my love letter to Oregon writers and the literary culture here.
[Editor's Note: On Monday, January 7, Powell's City of Books will welcome Laura Stanfill as she presents Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life. Joining her for the event will be contributors Kristy Athens, Jon Bell, Kate Gray, Robert Hill, Gigi Little, Gina Ochsner, Joanna Rose, Scott Sparling, and Yuvi Zalkow.]