With this post, Small Press Picks is launching a new feature: regular interviews with editors and other key figures at small and micro presses throughout the country. Here, we speak with Kevin Morgan Watson, the founding editor of North Carolina-based Press 53, which is focusing on publishing short story and poetry collections.
How did Press 53 get started?
I edited a short story anthology for a New York City arts foundation in 2001 and caught the publishing bug. I enjoyed finding stories I loved and then designing a book to share them. When I lost my day job in 2004, I decided to start Press 53. I initially planned to publish only local writers and sell the books locally, but very soon after I opened the press in October 2005, a few award-winning authors I had published in the anthology began sending me manuscripts. The press quickly took on a life of its own. All I could do was hang on.
As lovers of short stories, we’re always glad to learn of good homes for them. Especially given that big publishers may be reluctant to take on story collections—particularly débuts or those by authors who haven’t already published a reasonably successful novel or two. Is your focus on story (and poetry) collections in any way a response to this market reality?
We publish poetry and short story collections because we love poetry and short stories. From the beginning we’ve ignored the market and have set out to build our own market for the kind of writing we love. Before I started Press 53, I wasn’t finding a lot of writing that I truly loved, which is what led me to edit the anthology and finally to start Press 53. My hope is that readers (other lovers) of poetry and short stories who like what we are doing will support us by buying our books, and that they will keep coming back to find more great reading experiences. We are not a non-profit, so we only stay in business if we sell books, and if those readers tell their friends about us and keep coming back to find more great reading. I know there are a lot of people out there who will love our books, we just need to find them. That’s our biggest challenge.
What other things set you apart from the big publishers?
We focus on a very narrow market, which many big publishers can’t afford to do. While we look to sell thousands of books, the big publishers need to sell millions. We don’t have the funds to spend a lot of money for ads in glossy magazines or to buy display space in bookstores. We don’t print thousands of copies of books and then have a distributor place them in bookstores and then 90 days later take most of them back in returns. In my opinion, that model is broken and wasteful. We print books as we need them, which saves valuable space and money. Most bookstores don’t have an active poetry or short story section because they haven’t taken the time to cultivate those markets. Fortunately, for us and lovers of poetry and short stories, several online booksellers carry all of our books. That means we have to find a way to reach those readers who appreciate what we do so they will look for our books, and we (and our authors) do that by being active in the poetry and short story communities, both online and in person at readings, workshops, book festivals, and conferences.
In what ways have e-publishing tools, social media, print-on-demand capabilities (which we believe you use), and other technological advances changed what is possible for small presses to do?
We do use print-on-demand, which gives us a lot of flexibility. Rather than printing a thousand copies of one book to keep the cost low, we can print 50 or 100 to get us started and then go from there. We pay a bit more per book, but what we spend extra we save in a number of other ways, like not having to pay for warehouse space, being able to fix typos for the next printing, and built-in distribution since our books are made available through Ingram and are automatically uploaded to dozens of online booksellers. So POD eliminates a lot of the risk since we don’t have to invest a lot of money up front to put a book on the market. If we have a popular title, we print more books, if we have a title that doesn’t do as well as we had hoped, well, we’re not stuck with 47 cases of books. I think technology in general has allowed small presses to be a bit more aggressive and creative. We publish our short story collections as ebooks, but I’m not a big fan of the technology. To me, the experience of reading a book is more than making the words available. Reading should involve all the senses, and only a print book can do that. As for social media, we have a Facebook and Twitter page for Press 53, and we use them to keep our friends updated on what we’re doing. We also have an active blog, a Pinterest board, and an online literary journal, Prime Number Magazine, that sponsors a free monthly 53-word story contest and its own Prime Number Magazine Awards with a small entry fee in five categories, from poetry to creative nonfiction, with monetary and publishing awards. So we are very active online. But there is no better marketing tool than going out and shaking hands and meeting your readers. Humans need to engage their senses in order to feel alive. The Internet is OK for sending messages and sharing information, but it can’t replace that sensory connection we all need.
Are there any particular things you’re looking for in the stories and poems that you publish, not only as collections (through Press 53) but also in your online quarterly, Prime Number Magazine? In other words, what kinds of stories or poems get your attention?
I can’t speak for the editors of Prime Number Magazine, who all do a wonderful job of offering a truly diverse reading experience, but I do think there are similarities. My fiction editor Christine and I want to be surprised, to be taken someplace new, be it setting, emotional, or spiritual. And I mean spiritual in our connection to the universe. We don’t go into a story or poem looking for something, we want to discover something, the unexpected. Above all, the writing has to flow, has to connect, so if we find ourselves losing focus or leaving the story for whatever reason—typos, bad grammar or punctuation, weak dialogue, obvious plot devices—then we stop reading and move on.
What Press 53 collections are you especially excited about right now?
That’s a dangerous question. We could be here a while. We only publish titles we are excited about, so I’m not sure where to start. I guess the best way to answer that is to say, “Visit our website and you’ll see what we are excited about.” Every single book wowed us, connected with us. Our poetry series editor, Tom Lombardo, has his own imprint with Press 53, Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections, which showcases poetry that he loves. Pamela Uschuk and her husband William Pitt Root have their Silver Concho Poetry Series. Christine and I focus on the short fiction, and I will publish a North Carolina poet two or three times a year. We feel every book we publish will take readers to places that are new and introduce them to people who are interesting and complicated and maybe a lot like themselves when they look closely. As I said earlier, we’ve never published for the market, chasing whatever is popular. We find writing we love and set out to find readers who agree with us. It takes time but it’s rewarding work. And every time we connect with a reader, we celebrate.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Press 53 or about your experiences as a small-press publisher?
I think the previous question is a great way to wrap this up. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
Same with you. Thanks for your time!