Happy Small Press Month! All March, we'll be checking in with some of the leaders of the Portland small press scene to discuss the joys, challenges, and quirks of small press publishing.
This week we talk with Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press
What excites you about working for a small press?
We have the agency to be literary activists, to put our time and dollars into underrepresented voices and projects that don’t distill neatly into categories. We’ve also built our love of indie bookstores into the structure of our business; I insist our authors support and connect with indies and urge all our readers to buy local as well. Having an independent startup mentality means we get to do business based on our beliefs, and every title that meets or exceeds our goals is proof that this kind of publishing works.
How did you get drawn into the world of small press publishing?
Years ago, after a reading at Annie Bloom’s, my friend Liz Prato
spoke up about building literary community instead of waiting for someone to issue an invitation. We were walking back to her place for a post-event reception she and her bookseller husband were hosting; I have a clear memory of the gravel underfoot at a certain bend in the road, at exact the moment Liz shared this insight with me and the others in our group. I remember thinking, Wait, we don’t need permission from major local authors to contribute to the literary ecosystem? We can just do it?
I might have even asked those questions aloud.
I had no idea that other paths in the book world existed besides writing, reading, and hoping someone might notice. Liz’s words totally rearranged my thinking. I have a handful of origin stories — including writing to poetry editors asking for advice to start my own journal during my junior year of high school — but that conversation with Liz gave me the authority and the permission to consider something as audacious as starting a publishing house with no formal training. And we’re so thrilled to have her on the masthead as Forest Avenue’s editor-at-large. She’s the driving force behind our open submissions process.
Many writers never consider submitting their work to a small publisher. What are they overlooking?
Small press publishing allows for a deeply personal connection between editor and author. I have fed my authors snacks out of my purse. We have argued — sometimes cried! — over commas. We begin work on sales and marketing by asking our authors what they hope for their books and their careers, and create plans and expectations accordingly.
What small presses do you love (in addition to your own)?
I had no idea that other paths in the book world existed besides writing, reading, and hoping someone might notice.
, Blue Cactus
, Brown Paper
, Perfect Day
, Future Tense
, Two Lines
, Prospect Park
, Rare Bird
, Lanternfish Press
, so many! It’s exciting as a reader to pick up small press titles, discover new voices, and think about all the time, money, and personal attention that has gone into each project.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a small press?
With our business model of publishing a handful of titles per year, we can’t possibly say yes to all the worthy titles that come our way. We end up letting go of some really powerful manuscripts — some of which go on to win awards — because they aren’t quite right for us. Often we stay connected with authors we’ve rejected, helping to suggest presses that might be better fits and cheering them on in their careers.
Name a book or author from your catalog that you think everyone should read.
Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams
is a magical realist, #ownvoices debut novel that reimagines a Filipino folktale about a young woman with wings. It came out in the spring of 2017 and suffered, like many fiction titles at the time, from the opening months of Trump’s presidency. The Hour of Daydreams
was a finalist for the New American Voices Award and a Gold winner in the Foreword INDIES multicultural category, both major testaments to Renee’s lush prose, imaginative storytelling, and ability to put a whole village of characters on the page.
Share a memorable experience you've had on the job.
In December, we had to rush production of The Royal Abduls
, the debut novel by Ramiza Koya, because she has terminal cancer. The book comes out in May, but thanks to our sales team at Publishers Group West, our printer, and Portland-area independent bookstores, we were able to get it onto shelves in February.
In an interview earlier this year with KBOO, Ramiza said, “I write because I want a voice. I want people to hear my voice and I want to be part of the national conversation around the issues I’m writing about.” The book is a #ownvoices tale of a secular Muslim, Indian American family in post-9/11 Washington, DC — an essential read, powerful, entertaining, and important. Deadlines, in our business, are often impossible to change, but when Ramiza let us know she might not live to see The Royal Abduls
arrive in the world, everyone came together. Brian Juenemann of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association came up with a bookseller reviews campaign, Publishers Weekly
ran a story, Liz reached out to myriad authors to create a tide of support, and Samm Saxby and Joanna Rose lent their time and talents to getting the final book to press. We’ve cried. A lot. (And not just over commas.)
Ramiza is a beloved member of the local literary community, and we — authors, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers, friends, volunteers, and the Forest Ave staff — are committed to making sure her story reaches readers, because that’s her dream. We hope to reach readers now, so she can be part of the conversation, but also at the official launch in mid-May and for many years to come.
What do you wish more people knew about small press publishing?
Distribution remains a mystery to many debut authors, but it’s incredibly important. It’s essential to understand how a press will get your book out there, especially before any contracts are signed. When I speak at writing festivals and conferences, I encourage authors to gather distribution information about presses before submitting, just so they can be sure the business model fits with their vision for their careers.
Want to learn more about Oregon's small presses? Check out our lists:
24 of Our Favorite Small Presses
Oregon's Women-Run Small Presses