Small Press Points

Kevin Larimer
From the September/October 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

There is no such thing as bad publicity. That may be what the publicists at Seal Press ( were thinking after they, along with a not insignificant number of journalists, bloggers, and everyday citizens, saw a newspaper photo of U.S. Army Specialist Jennifer Scala walking into court in March—to testify in an ugly, high-profile Abu Ghraib trial—carrying a copy of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio. The feminist text was first published by the California-based press in 1998, but the unexpected exposure breathed new life into the marketing campaign for the expanded and updated second edition, released in 2002. It was a heck of a way to mark the beginning of the press's thirtieth-anniversary year—but then, members of the Seal Press publicity department have had their share of surprises during the last three decades. For example, in 1999 the press was sued by Mattel, the company that produces the Barbie doll. The lawsuit followed Seal's 1998 release of Adios, Barbie, a collection of feminist essays edited by Ophira Edut. The cover of the book featured images of Barbie in all her accessorized glory—iconic images that, as it turned out, are heavily copyrighted. The suit was eventually settled out of court, with the press agreeing to change the title (to Body Outlaws) and redesign the cover. Lest readers get the wrong impression, however, Seal Press, which was sold to Avalon Publishing Group in 2002, is not simply about controversy. Its mission is to "continue publishing books that make a difference in women's everyday lives and tell the truth about the issues that affect women most." Such important work should keep the press busy—and in the news—for decades to come.

Ten years ago, Beth Spencer founded Bear Star Press ( in Cohasset, California, to publish books by poets living in the Mountain and Pacific time zones as well as in Alaska and Hawaii. And for the past decade, that's exactly what she's done, releasing titles by Gary Chang, Albert Garcia, Kandie St. Germain, and Gary Thompson, among other poets. In recent years, the press's annual Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize—an award of one thousand dollars, plus publication—has added Arlitia Jones, Manuel Paul Lopez, Joshua McKinney, and others to the list. But after Bear Star's most recent release, Spencer had to reorder her stationery: The press's previous tagline, "poetry from Western and Pacific states," would no longer suffice. So after "poetry" she inserted, in a discreet red font, "and now a book of short fiction." The book that broke the mold is Redemption Center, a short story collection by Vincent Craig Wright that features a blurb by Pulitzer Prize–winner Robert Olen Butler, who claims the first-time author "has got the Gift." It's a rare seal of approval for a small press's foray into fiction—especially considering Bear Star didn't initially plan on publishing it. "My original intention with Redemption Center was to help the author find a literary press specializing in fiction, only the stories wouldn't let me give them to anyone else. I loved them," Spencer says. "And then it turned out that editing fiction was just as pleasurable as working with poetry, so I decided to just jump in, take a risk. Why not?" Although Bear Star's focus will remain on poetry, Spencer says she would like to publish a short story collection at least every other year.

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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