Let’s Just Do This: Eleven Small-Press Authors and Their Publishing Partners

Kevin Larimer

Founded: 1994
Location: Pasadena, California
Publishes: Poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction: “We do a few memoirs but most of our prose list is made up of novels or short story collections, and we love flash fiction,” says managing editor Kate Gale.
Accepts: Queries and full submissions (preferably as a PDF) through Submittable
Contact: redhen.org; redhenpress.submittable.com/submit

PETE FROMM, the author of If Not for This, published in August by Red Hen Press: If Not for This, my tenth book, was swimming upstream in New York. My old publisher had transitioned to a paperback reprint house, and homeless, hitting the market just after the economic downturn, the book stacked up glowing rejections filled with mutterings about “the powers-that-be” and lines like “They are looking for books that can print at least 45k copies on a first print.” While my books had always sold, suddenly they had not sold enough. The guys in the green visors had taken over.

My “career” was kept afloat by a new French publisher, Oliver Gallmeister, translating a book of mine every other year. While a keen businessman, he still worked only with books he truly believed in, books he was passionate about. In the United States I found nothing similar until I read a chapter of If Not for This at the Writers@Work conference in Utah. As the next reader was introduced, Kate Gale of Red Hen leaned over and whispered, “Who is publishing that novel?” I said, “Nobody yet.” She grabbed my wrist, and said, “Let me. Please.”

I looked at this bright, effusive woman, someone who would no sooner consider prior sales figures than she would ask to see my bank account. She had fallen in love with a story and knew she would do whatever it took to share this thing that had moved her.

Over the following months, as my agent prepared the next blitz of submissions, Kate kept after me until I finally understood that it was exactly her passion and belief in the power of story, of characters who can change your life, that had been missing all those years in the chill skyscrapers of New York. I called my agent and said, “Please take If Not for This off the market. I’ve found a home. A good one. A great one.”

And the night of the book launch, going head-to-head with a Paul McCartney concert in Missoula, Montana, in an independent bookstore crammed to standing-room-only, I knew I was no longer caught in the world of publishing, but in the love of books. It was great to be back.

KATE GALE, the managing editor of Red Hen Press: When Pete decided to work with Red Hen, I’m sure he felt he was making quite a leap. After all, we’re not Picador. Our marketing, publicity, and sales staff, along with their intern assistants, work in two small offices that occupy the top floor of a bank in Pasadena. We publish ten titles a season, and those titles are their focus. They love Pete’s book, and even more important, they love working with Pete. What an indie press brings to the table is a small group of people the author can wow with kindness, and that kindness causes them to work hard, and that creates the numbers. At a big press, big sales numbers might create respect and kindness. At a small indie, it’s the other way around. An author like Pete is going to get a lot of marketing-and-sales attention from a small press because he’s working so hard for the book and because he’s so easy to work with. I’ve personally handed out galleys of his book all over New York. Pete is part of the Red Hen family. We didn’t get into books for fame and fortune; we stumbled into books for love of great stories and storytellers. We like stories of the West where the sky meets the water because that’s where we live. And that’s what we have with Pete Fromm.  

New and Forthcoming From Red Hen Press
Leia Penina Wilson’s debut poetry collection, i built a boat with all the towels in your closet (and will let you drown) (October 2014)
Ellen Meeropol’s novel On Hurricane Island (March 2015)
Chris Tarry’s debut story collection, How to Carry Bigfoot Home (March 2015)

Founded: 2010
Location: New York, New York
Publishes: Fiction (novels, story collections, literature in translation), illustrated books, creative and popular science nonfiction
Accepts: Manuscripts and proposals via Submittable; no e-mail submissions
Contact: blackballoonpublishing.com; Twitter @BlackBalloonPub

KEVIN CLOUTHER, the author of We Were Flying to Chicago, published in May by Black Balloon Publishing: I discovered Black Balloon Publishing through its annual Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize, an award of five thousand dollars and a book deal for a completed but unpublished manuscript. Although I didn’t win, I was offered a book deal as a result of my submission. I liked the press, which appeared totally committed to the quality of the work, from the beginning. When I met my editor, Buzz Poole, to sign the contract, I had to resist embracing him. I’d received my MFA a dozen years previous and had never gone long without wondering what I was doing to myself. The editorial process went smoothly; most of the stories had appeared in journals, and we agreed on the order and title.

For the most part, I worked with publicity director Jennifer Abel Kovitz, who decided I could handle being included on every rejection and acceptance. The spreadsheet she seemed to update hourly lifted a curtain I’d never bothered to acknowledge, and I learned how books get ignored or reviewed. She paired me with Mike Meginnis, the winner of the 2013 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize, for readings in the Midwest. I wrote essays for the Millions and Tin House’s blog. I spoke on the radio and did interviews. I did book giveaways and Skyped into a book club and read throughout the Northeast with famous writers and unfamous writers and alone in bookstores and bars and an assisted living facility. It all felt like one great blessing because I’d always understood nobody needed to read what I wrote, that the moment a reader converted my words into a private experience in his or her mind, I was the lucky one.

JENNIFER ABEL KOVITZ, the publicity director of Black Balloon Publishing: I first read Kevin Clouther’s We Were Flying to Chicago when he submitted it to Black Balloon’s annual Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. My fellow award committee members and I were delighted by the relatable voice of his collection’s title story. We were struck by his visceral rendering of so many memorable characters—praise that would later echo in the Star Tribune’s review of the book, a little over a year after we received Kevin’s submission.

In the end, the seven-person committee would break our own rule (“one winner, one book deal”) to publish We Were Flying to Chicago. We awarded the 2013 Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize to another author, Mike Meginnis, but we also offered Kevin a book deal, and his collection was published in May.

And that is what we do for our authors: We break the rules. After all, great writing itself is inventively defiant and thus deserving of an equally bold publisher. My colleagues and I work from the premise that the best (and thus most necessary) storytelling discards conventional thinking, language, and distinctions to reveal underlying truths in a raw, fresh, and invigorating way. So our model of book publishing should rise to the ambition and example of the voices we seek to publish. As an independent publisher, we are not a mere gatekeeper or curator. Instead, we exist to discover and champion talents like Kevin Clouther. As long as writers continue to produce great (read: rule-breaking) work, independent presses like Black Balloon can succeed by forging equally revolutionary strategies to share these stories with readers. 

As we look toward 2015, we’ll continue to take risks just as we did when we published We Were Flying to Chicago. Under the creative leadership of our new president, Andy Hunter, cofounder of Electric Literature, and our new editor in chief, the incomparable Pat Strachan, we’ll not just break industry rules, we’ll invent new ones.

New From Black Balloon Publishing
Sean Manning’s anthology, Come Here Often? 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar (October 2014)
Mike Meginnis’s debut novel, Fat Man and Little Boy (October 2014)





Living near Columbus, Ohio, I am familiar with Two Dollar Radio.  I wish my manuscript was more Indie/artsy/bohemian so I could submit, but I worry my YA is too "contemporary" for their tastes.  Also, love the idea that we die when our internal crystals are all lost or spent.  How do we know that isn't actually how it happens?  Great article, thanks for sharing.  Janelle www.janellefila.com