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

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Founded: 2013
Location: Austin, Texas
Publishes: “We publish risky, big-hearted fiction—story collections, novels, novellas,” says codirector Jill Meyers. “We’ll be looking to expand our list in the next few years to include essays and creative nonfiction.”
Accepts: “We’re not currently open for submissions, but we would like writers to get in touch if they think their project fits with our mission. We are always scouting new writers.”
Contact: hello@astrangeobject.com; astrangeobject.com/aso

KELLY LUCE, the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, published in October 2013 by A Strange Object: I first encountered Jill Meyers and Callie Collins, A Strange Object’s directors, when they were still at American Short Fiction and published a piece of mine. When they started A Strange Object in late 2012, they e-mailed me and asked if I had a manuscript they could consider. I waited about three seconds before I sent them the book, which they accepted a few months later.

Before this I’d spent a couple of years sending the collection to small-press contests. It earned a closetful of bridesmaid dresses: finalist for the Bakeless Prize, for the Flannery O’Connor Award two years in a row, and four more finalist placements from the Sarabande and Black Lawrence contests. People kept telling me this was a great sign; it meant the book was publishable. I just kept wondering what made my book stand out consistently, yet without ever reaching the top. Now I realize how in love with a book—really—a publisher needs to be to do right by it, and though it’d be disingenuous to say I’m glad I didn’t win those prizes, there’s something special about the book being chosen outside the parameters of a contest. 

I knew from moment one that they would do right by Hana Sasaki. I could tell from their introductory e-mail how much heart, intelligence, savvy, and dedication this press would corral. Many moments reinforced my decision: a collaborative and thorough editing process that really improved the book, prosecco and a midnight book signing at the A\SO offices as we rang in the pub date, their hiring Yuko Shimizu to design the cover, a book launch that sent me into space, and a surprise gift of a framed original print of the cover art.

 A Strange Object’s style combines all the things we miss about old-school publishing—the personal relationships, a unique, singular vision for each book from acquisition to publication—with a deep understanding of modern media. They truly are the next generation: gorgeous website; elegant, uncomplicated design; cool social media feeds; interactive live events; whiskey. And still, when you order from them, you get a handwritten note.

JILL MEYERS, the codirector of A Strange Object: My codirector, Callie Collins, and I selected A Strange Object’s first title at a picnic table at an Austin coffee shop on a warm December day. We chose it for many reasons—it is a playful, nuanced collection that has a lot of heart; we knew author Kelly Luce’s work well and had published a story of hers ourselves (there are demons and grieving lovers and a woman who grows a tail, for god’s sake). We’d read a pile of manuscripts, but none had clicked with us the way Kelly’s did.

Callie and I came from a national literary magazine, so we examined the stories on their individual merits first. We studied Kelly’s stories one by one and cut a few repetitive pieces, slimming the collection down to ten. In our first of several editorial passes, we gave Kelly detailed notes—we asked her to change the endings of several stories, to be a little messier in spots, and nipped and tucked in order to plunge the reader right into the weird action. Together we tightened up dialogue and stripped out flourishes of explanation in order to provide more “give”—that is, readers draw their own deductions and imagine into the story.

We asked for a title change, too. Kelly had titled her book after the first story, which remains a great one. But to us “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster” suggested a children’s picture book with cartoony toast leaping into the air. We settled on the odd, long Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, after one of the shortest stories in the collection. We also reordered the stories to provide more continuity, to gently tie themes together, and also to give the collection its own bobbing rhythm. And always we were in conversation with Kelly about her vision for each story and the collection as a whole. We believe in working closely with our writers, getting to know them, and coming to deeply understand their vision and project. Hana Sasaki was in some ways a dreamy constellation of a first book—a brilliant manuscript, a lot of hard work, great design collaboration, good publicity, and ultimately, a strange object with staying power.

New and Forthcoming from A Strange Object
Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree’s story collection, Our Secret Life in the Movies (November 2014)
Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection, Misadventure (February 2015)

Founded: 1983
Location: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Publishes: Novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies, essay collections, and histories
Accepts: Queries and proposals via postal mail
Contact: P.O. Box 2225, Chapel Hill, NC 27515; algonquin.com

AMY ROWLAND, the author of The Transcriptionist, published in May by Algonquin Books: The Transcriptionist is my first published book (though I have an awful first novel in a binder on my bookshelf—epistolary, mute guy on death row, childhood flashbacks). After abandoning my first effort, I spent years writing The Transcriptionist in fits and starts, without acknowledging for a long time that I was trying again.

Finally, I finished the novel and found an agent, the indefatigable Seth Fishman, who sent the manuscript out. I spoke with three editors, and ultimately the decision was between two publishers, Algonquin and Bloomsbury. The Bloomsbury editor was nice, enthusiastic, and didn’t seem to require a lot of edits—all good things. But as a native of North Carolina, I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for Algonquin. I knew its stellar reputation when I was a UNC undergraduate and would haunt bookstores and search for Algonquin titles, especially the annual New Stories From the South anthology. Also, how can you not love a publisher that started in a woodshed with a sign that asked to keep the gate closed for the dog?

Still, I would have been pleased with either publisher. The deciding factor was my conversation with Chuck Adams. His reading of my novel was insightful, and his understanding of the book’s strengths and shortcomings matched mine, so I knew we would both be working to make the book better, and that we agreed on both the book and the “better.”

I knew I wanted to work with Chuck, but he still had to get approval from the entire Algonquin team. (That’s an advantage of independent presses; if they do choose your book, the whole house is behind you.) At the end of our conversation, Chuck buoyed me by saying that he hoped Algonquin published The Transcriptionist but that I had a bright career ahead and he wanted me to know that, wherever I went. In the end, Bloomsbury and Algonquin matched each other’s offers. I discussed the decision with my agent, who said that Algonquin does a great job with first novels, and that Chuck has a tremendous reputation. We both agreed that Algonquin was the right house for me. I felt that I was coming full circle; Algonquin’s editorial offices are still in Chapel Hill (though they no longer work in a woodshed).

CHUCK ADAMS, the executive editor of Algonquin Books: I was smitten with Amy’s novel from the first few sentences—there was wit, there was the feeling of being let in on insider knowledge about something (in this case, working for a newspaper like the New York Times), there was the “seen-it-all-already” weariness I so love in New Yorkers, and there was that so important but so elusive strong “voice” that editors talk about but are loath to explain. Most of all, though, I felt warmth, a sense that I was going to love this narrator and want to go along on her journey—and I was right. That’s why I loved The Transcriptionist.

But every year there are books I love that I don’t end up publishing. Were I still at one of the big “all-purpose” houses, I could buy pretty much anything I wanted, cost permitting. But at Algonquin, where we publish only ten to twelve original works of fiction a year, love is just the beginning. Next, we have to feel confident that our readers—more loyal than most, I believe—will respond to this writer and this novel. Then we have to have a strong sense that in this author we have found someone who can grow over time, that there will be a next—hopefully “bigger”—book that we will want to publish.

And I have to feel that the author is willing to work with me, to listen to my suggestions, to try coming at scenes, at characters, at plotlines from different angles until we find the ones that work best for the novel. Amy was a dream to work with: receptive, patient during my slow editing process, much more disciplined than I am, and a stickler for detail—all great qualities. She will have a long career, and I hope Algonquin will remain a part of it.

New and Forthcoming From Algonquin Books
Michele Raffin’s memoir, The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered (October 2014)
Brock Clarke’s novel The Happiest People in the World (November 2014)
Tim Johnston’s novel Descent (January 2015)





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