Much has been made lately of the challenges facing the publishing industry, and there’s no denying that, in some ways (Amazon), we live in an era where books and writers are undervalued. But we also live in a time of increasing diversity and creativity, where passionate individuals are committing themselves, and their resources, to the making of good books. Tin House, Two Dollar Radio, Coffee House Press, Rare Bird Books, and my publisher, Engine Books, are among the small presses flourishing in today’s marketplace, producing gorgeously designed books and bringing emerging and established authors to readers.
Based in Indianapolis, Engine Books is run by publisher/editor Victoria Barrett. Her husband, Andrew Scott, acts as senior editor and heads Engine Books’ new YA imprint, Lacewing Books. In September 2012, Engine Books published my debut novel Spark. From start to finish, the experience exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was so positive that I knew I wanted to publish my second novel, Orion’s Daughters, with Engine Books, too.
What made my experience so good? I found the right fit, an important consideration no matter the size of the press. Early on I recognized that Victoria’s intention for my books was the same as mine. Working with a small press, with a small list, also means an increased level of intimacy; Engine Books only puts out four books a year and so every one receives careful attention, every writer the necessary nurturing. This intimacy is what sets small presses apart, and it comes through in the work they produce. In my experience, this intimacy has been defined by:
1. Writer-centered, Story-centered Approach
One of the things that first attracted me to Engine Books is its “writer-centered, story-centered” approach to publishing. While every writer and publisher wants to sell books, the emphasis of small press publishing tends to be less on profitability and more on the writing itself. I’ve never once felt that my books were merely products; instead, Victoria worked with me to make each one the best version of itself. During the editing process, her eye was turned toward what the books were trying to do, not on what would make the books the most commercially successful. Because of this focus on the writing, not the bottom-line, small presses are more willing to take chances on books, and authors, that fall outside the mainstream.
2. Hands-on Involvement
As a new author, I didn’t know what to expect when I signed the contract for Spark. Even though I had some previous experience with the industry, I had no idea how many steps were involved in brining a book to the public. The process can be overwhelming, and a little scary: here is your manuscript, your baby (a cliché, but true), which you’ve labored over for years. You’ve hoped and dreamed it would be published, but now that that time has come, you’re struck by the fear of what these strangers will do to it. Will they care for the book as much as you do? Will they treat it right? Will they let it languish and be forgotten? What if you hate your cover?
Very soon, I was put at ease. Because Engine Books is a small operation, with a small staff, I knew exactly who was doing what. I was kept updated through frequent emails and included in every step of the process. Victoria designs all the Engine Books covers, and I fell in love with mine immediately. Because she had edited the books, she understood the stories inside and out. The covers reflect that familiarity and perfectly capture what I wanted to convey to the reader.
The best, and most unexpected, part of my small press publishing experience has been the friendships I’ve formed. After working closely with Victoria for many months, we first met in person at the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago. AWP is a small press mecca; walk around the book fair and be amazed by what’s out there. I spent hours at the Engine Books table and got to know Victoria and Andrew well. One evening, I attended a reading by Engine Books authors Patricia Henley and Myfanwy Collins, and afterward the entire Engine Books list, minus one or two, went out to dinner with Victoria, Andrew, and Grace Tweedy, the intern at the time. Sitting at that table with so many writers I admire and the team behind our books, I felt part of something larger than myself. It remains a highlight of my writing career so far.
Since then Victoria and Andrew have stayed at my apartment when visiting New York and I’ve stayed at their house in Indianapolis. I’ve met their adorable dog and cats, and they’ve shared bottles of wine with my husband and me.
When I became an Engine Books author, I was immediately welcomed into the fold by my Engine Books “siblings.” Through social media, the Engine Books authors promote each other’s work and advertise each other’s events. I’ve participated in co-readings and have more in the line-up for Orion’s Daughters. I’ve noticed similar support among the authors of other small presses; there seems to be a grassroots feeling of we’re-all-in-this-together. Being part of a community like this not only feels good, it helps keep books alive.
As the publishing industry continues to shift, I think we’ll see small presses grow. Distributors like Consortium ensure that small press books get into bookstores, and aggressive marketing campaigns, driven by the presses and their authors, are getting small press books reviewed and talked about. Change in the industry is a given, but there will always be book lovers and talented people shepherding good fiction into the world. I’m excited by the possibilities ahead, not only as a writer but also as a reader.
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk received an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and has published in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Superstition Review, among others. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine and teaches at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Manhattan with her husband. Learn more about Courtney at her author site,www.courtneymauk.com.