When Random House agreed to publish Achy Obejas’ Days of Awe — a novel that in part addresses the loss of Jewish identity during the Spanish Inquisition and the Cuban diaspora — the publishing house paid a handsome six-figure advance that the author says enabled her to “buy a house, buy a car, pay off my debts.”
That was 2001, and less than a decade later she would accept a $1,000 advance for her next novel. Such are the joys of being published by a small press. In this case, the Brooklyn-based Akashic Books helped Obejas publish the book she wanted to write, a work titled Ruins, about the unraveling life of a true believer of the Cuban Revolution.
Although the initial financial rewards for signing onto a small press might be paltry, Obejas acknowledges, the artistic freedom and individual attention — as well as future royalties — may well be worth it. In her case, she initially agreed to write three books for Random House but had creative differences over the second book. The editors wanted a happy ending; the author did not. Her original editor — Leona Nevler, hailed for her discovery of the Peyton Place manuscript and work with the great American novelist John Updike — was long since gone. Obejas felt adrift and that no one knew her name, much less the premise of her work.
“Leona Nevler treated me like a person,” Obejas says. “But the minute she was let go, I don’t think anybody even knew how to pronounce my name.” She felt acutely insignificant. “You felt like you were a small piece of cat fuzz on the carpet in somebody’s vestibule,” she says.
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Obejas, who currently serves as the distinguished visiting writer at Mills College in California, sought refuge in Akashic Books. Publisher Johnny Temple gave her the artistic freedom to write the book as she saw fit and did not change the ending. Temple joins the Miami Book Fair International this year in a panel discussion on the state of independent presses. The book fair, now in its 32nd year, features numerous books and authors affiliated with independent and small presses. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recognizes the importance of those outlets to the development of culture within a city. Toward that end, the foundation donated $60,000, which in part will help bring some small-press publishers and their authors to the book fair, says Victoria Rogers, the Knight Foundation vice president of the Arts.
“The Miami Book Fair has become a really important component of our arts ecosystem,” Rogers told the Miami Herald. “We’re aligned with the book fair’s mission. It’s to make the city a hub for literary art. So often, small independent presses forward that mission by elevating what’s authentic to a city, sometimes overlooked voices. So, in some ways it’s almost like the same premise of a Knight’s fund challenge to uncover what’s really innovative and authentic, and often that can be done through independent presses. They’re really important to the industry at large. We believe so much in the power of people to tell their own story. That often comes through independent presses.”
This year, the book fair highlights the work of several small-press authors and publishers on panel discussions. Of note are several discussions on Saturday, including “Contemporary Publishing: Literary Magazines and Small Presses” and “United We Stand: What’s Happening in Independent Publishing.” Also of note is a panel discussion on Sunday, “Europa Editions Turns 10,” which features Chantel Acevedo, who is also a member of the University of Miami creative writing faculty. (See box for further details on other events, times and locations.)
Small presses and the big publishing houses are the bookends of the publishing world. Historically, the top publishing companies, known as the “Big Five” — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster — command as much as 70 percent of the trade book publishing market. Small presses, on the other hand, although more numerous, have considerably less market share. Some industry experts estimate the small presses comprise no more than 10 percent of the market, with self-publishing making up the difference.
Defining a small press can prove problematic. Even those who run small presses appear stumped when asked to define their industry. The parameters of the small-press world are nebulous at best. Often small presses prefer to be known simply as independent publishers. Some small presses produce as little as two books a year, with first printings limited to a few hundred copies. Others publish as much as a hundred books, with first printings exceeding 10,000 copies. Some small presses are affiliated with universities. Others are start-ups in a publisher’s home. Some require submissions by literary agents. Others accept cold calls.
“I don’t think that there really is a definition,” says Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. “It’s not a real category, small presses,” he says, adding that he would prefer people think of his enterprise as a “medium press” that publishes 35 books a year, some with first runs as large as 30,000 copies.
Akashic — derived from the Sanskrit word for sky — references the belief in a higher plane of existence where all thoughts, events and emotions can be tapped into. With a focus on literary fiction, Akashic Books seeks to do that by introducing readers to thought-provoking books and treating the authors as equal partners. That kind of sensitivity has made the publishing world take notice. In 2005, the American Association of Publishers presented Akashic’s publisher with the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing.
Johnny Temple — that’s his real name, by the way — not only is a rock star in the publishing world but also in real life. Long before he published his first book in 1997, Temple played bass guitar in the rock band “Girls Against Boys.” He played at Lollapalooza and toured with Rage Against the Machine and Garbage. He still picks up the guitar and occasionally goes on tour, doing so as recently as this month.
Temple maintains his experience in the music world prepared him well for book publishing. “We get along with our authors,” he says. We are author-centric. One of the missions was to serve the needs of the authors. I wanted this to be a publishing company where authors were proud.” He also prefers that they not be starving artists. While most publishers offer their authors pennies on the dollar each time someone buys their book, Temple prefers to give the writers a nominal advance of $1,000 and then to split the profits 50/50.
His list of writers exudes cool, from the incomparable founding father of African American theater, Melvin Van Peebles, and reggae royalty Ziggy Marley to literary lions Dennis Lehane and Joyce Carol Oates, who edited noir short-story anthologies. Akashic’s debut novel by Arthur Nersesian, The F**k-Up, sold more than 100,000 copies and helped propel the company forward. The F-word seems to have been sales magic for Akashic, as another author, Adam Mansbach had a runaway hit with his child-weary lament, Go the F**k to Sleep.
Unlike Obejas who deliberately sought out Akashic after working with one of the “Big Five,” some authors, such as Nersesian, went in the other direction. Simon & Schuster picked up his book, after it went into three printings with Akashic.
“We started with a winner,” Temple says of Nersesian’s cult classic. “In that particular case [the big publisher] went to the author, which was fine.” He adds, “I’m all for authors doing what is best for themselves, as long as they are nice to me.”
The Big Five occasionally look upon the small presses as the Minor Leagues with raw talent they can pluck, says industry analyst Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of the New York-based Idea Logical Company.
“I think that self-publishing — and small presses to a certain extent — are watched by the big guys looking for the next bigger thing,” Shatzkin says. “It’s a farm system.”
The nonprofit university presses are in a league of their own. Some, such as the University Press of Florida, typically publish books with a 2,000 to 2,500 run. A perennial book fair favorite, the University Press of Florida serves as the official publisher for Florida’s state university system. It is known for scholarly books such as Gary Monroe’s popular work, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, or Gretchen Ward Warren’s best-seller, Classical Ballet Technique. Other authors in the University Press of Florida stable are slated to appear at this year’s book fair. Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon is scheduled to discuss her book on walking tours of St. Augustine, and Doris Weatherford plans to talk about the various women who have shaped the history of Florida. (See the box for more details.)
With a roster of nearly 5,000 titles in print, an average publication of nearly 100 books per year and $3.5 million in annual revenues, University Press of Florida is on the upper edge of small presses. In fact, in the world of university presses, it ranks among the third-largest group, on a par with the likes of MIT and Duke, says Meredith M. Babb, University Press of Florida director and current president of the American Association of University Presses. Of course, a university press such as the one at Oxford, England, is in another stratosphere entirely, with more than a billion dollars in annual sales, she adds.
“We are only small in that we give our authors a sense of working with family,” says Romi Gutierrez, director of sales and marketing at the press. “With the larger presses, you might get a sense of being part of a mill.”
Although University Press of Florida has yet to crack The New York Times Best Sellers list, Babb maintains serious scholarly works do sell. Case in point is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which became an instant hit for Harvard University Press. To date, the book reportedly has sold 1.5 million copies in its original French and in English, German, Chinese and Spanish translations. Commenting on its weighty subject matter, Babb adds, “I bet you can’t find 10 people who read the book, but I know 20,000 who bought it.”
Siobhan Morrissey can be reached at email@example.com.
▪ Founded in 2012
▪ A print-on-demand Broward-based press
▪ Publisher Michèle-Jessica “M.J.” Fièvre
▪ Website: www.lominybooks.com
By day, M.J. Fièvre works as a Creole interpreter in Miami’s Circuit Court. At night, she teaches writing classes at Miami Dade College. In between jobs, Fièvre finds time to write. So far she has published her memoir, several novels and scripts. She also edits and publishes the works of other authors through Lominy Books, a small press that she runs out of her home.
“It started as a labor of love,” Fièvre says of the small press that she and her former husband, Hector Lominy, founded. “Although technology is taking over our lives, so many people still enjoy holding a book. And so many books are more beautiful in print, particularly when art is mixed with poetry or with fiction, that I became interested in putting out books of short stories and poems that I really like.”
Technology also provides more avenues than ever for writers to be published. But just because something is in print, doesn’t mean it’s worth taking the time to read. With Lominy Books, Fièvre hopes to provide readers with a certain level of quality control, a tacit assurance that they are in for a good read.
“With technology there is more opportunity to be exposed, to get the word out there, to get published,” she says. “We have so many blogs out there, so many venues on the Web allowing for writers to be known. But then there is still this question in the back of the reader’s mind as to whether they are reading quality literature. Because Lominy Books liked it, you can trust us and read us. We only put out good stuff. Not just because it’s in book form, but because we’ve embraced it, it’s quality work.”
A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fièvre studied medicine for two years before changing course. Coming from a family of educators, Fièvre says, she decided to study education at Barry University. Then she went on to obtain a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing at Florida International University.
Before the launch of Lominy Books, Fièvre had already founded a literary magazine titled Sliver of Stone Magazine and one of her stories appeared in the Haiti Noir anthology published by Akashic Books in 2011. Aside from coconut shrimp, piña coladas and her dog, Wiskee, Fièvre professes her love of “a good story.” Lominy Books provides her with ample opportunity to read the latest short fiction. She publishes in both French and English. Her goal is to publish twice yearly, and so far has six books under the Lominy imprint. For the moment she has no plans for expansion.
“I am in touch with other small-press owners, and their ultimate goal seems to be becoming bigger,” she says. “Unless other people join the venture, I think it is going to remain small for a while.”
▪ Founded in 2014, and funded by the Knight Foundation
▪ Nonprofit founded by Executive Editor P. Scott Cunningham
▪ Website: http://www.jai-alaibooks.com/
Poets typically are the starving artists of the literary world. Their options for publication are limited.
Oscar Fuentes, who bills himself as “the Biscayne poet,” opted to self-publish Vagabond after spending a week’s residency at the Vagabond Motel, where he infused his writing — 30 poems, three short stories and one short play — with ruminations on romantic love that incorporate everyday scenes such as a couple arguing poolside, the clink of silverware as motel guests tucked into their meals, or how the mosaic mermaid at the bottom of the pool seems to swim with each ripple created by splashing guests. Fuentes is slated to create his poems on demand at 6 p.m. on Wednesday and read from his new books at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday at the book fair.
Other poets must supplement their income with day jobs. Then there’s local legend Campbell McGrath. He teaches English and creative writing at Florida International University and hit the jackpot with both Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundation fellowships, the latter known as the “Genius Awards.” McGrath is also that rare poet to have his books published by one of the “Big Five” publishing houses, in this case Ecco Press, which is an imprint of HarperCollins.
Jai-Alai Books provides an excellent third option for local poets. Run by nationally recognized poet P. Scott Cunningham, Jai-Alai Books is a small press that began operation last year with a $20,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation. The small press operates under the aegis of O, Miami, the nonprofit organization that hosts annual poetry events in South Florida throughout April.
Although poetry is not the exclusive purview of this small press, Cunningham acknowledges a special fondness for his métier. To date, Jai-Alai Books has published four books, three of which are poetry volumes with such provocative titles as Last Night I Dreamt I was a DJ, Suicide by Jaguar and My First Bikini. The fourth, Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami’s Edible Plants, is a mouth-watering exploration of Florida flora, depicted in lush photographs.
“We’re coming out with our fifth book at the book fair,” Cunningham says. For now the press plans to publish three books a year, with aspirations for more and a possible foray into different media. “The point for us is to make books, to make physical objects,” he says. “We love them. But based on trends, it looks like the publishing landscape is going to be equally divided between digital and print.”
So, he’s not adverse to eventually going digital to some degree and muses about how the writing might actually change, based on the medium. “When you have generations and generations of people who read and write 99 percent of the time on the digital landscape, I’m guessing that that technology will change how we write and how we read, in the same way that Guttenberg’s press changed how we wrote and how we read.”
BOOKS & BOOKS PRESS
▪ Founded around 2010
▪ Founder Mitchell Kaplan also serves as president of Books & Books and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International
Mitchell Kaplan might have the warm, drowsy demeanor of someone just awoken from a nap. But his outwardly appearing Type-B personality belies the frenetic work behind building his book empire at Books & Books. What began as a small book shop in Coral Gables in 1982, has grown into a much larger bookstore at a new location in Coral Gables, as well as other bookstores in Miami Beach and Bal Harbour. Additional affiliate stores also opened in Grand Cayman, Westhampton Beach and the Miami International Airport. The next logical progression was the creation of a book-publishing business.
“We’re sort of a hybrid press,” Kaplan says. “We work with authors who self-publish, but we’re pretty selective in what we do. Mostly it’s in the arts field, but then we have published our own books.”
On the one hand, Books & Books Press provides publishing services, such as helping with design and distribution, and the author provides the cash to publish under the Books & Books imprint while maintaining ownership of the book. With other books, such as Blue Christmas: The Holidays for the Rest of Us, edited by John Dufresne or Les Staniford’s Last Train to Paradise Centenial Edition: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean, alternate funding was found for the project.
“So, we’re kind of the in-between press,” Kaplan muses.
To date, Books & Books has published an average of two books a year, Kaplan says. His website lists nine available titles that were published between Feb. 1, 2013, and October 2014.
One of the authors printing under the Books & Books imprint is local architect Kenneth Treister, who, according to Kaplan, has produced a “gorgeous” book about his vision about the importance of fusing art and architecture to create sacred places. An award-winning architect, artist, and author, Treister’s latest book is The Fusion of Art & Architecture: The Judaic Work of Kenneth Treister.
Kaplan’s latest project was Enrique Fernandez’s homage to Cuban food, titled Cortadito: My wanderings through Cuba’s mutilated yet resilient cuisine, which was published last month. Fernandez is slated to discuss his book at book fair during a panel discussion on Sunday.
Kaplan says he has known Fernandez for years, and the project evolved from a simple conversation about the author’s relationship with Cuban food.
“We were actually sitting in the café in the book shop,” Kaplan says. “He was going on and on and on about his feelings about Cuban food. I said if you write the book, I’ll be happy to publish it. And so he did, and so I published it. It will be at the book fair. It’s about 120 pages, and it’s really engaging.”
Would that publishing one’s book was so easy for everyone.
“We don’t really take over the transom solicitations,” Kaplan says. “It’s really people who know other people who know us recommend people to us, that kind of thing. It’s been a word-of-mouth thing.”
▪ Founded in 2014
▪ A pop-up artist’s bookstore
▪ Conceived by artist Amanda Season Keeley
▪ Website: www.exilebooks.com
Using book carts and lounge furniture, Amanda Season Keeley creates a bookstore on the move. The curated installation features a diverse selection of artist’s books and publications, emphasizing both local artists and presses.
EXILE Books also created a new publishing imprint called EXILE Editions, which according to its website “seeks to publish exclusive special editions and artist’s books from local, national and international artists we collaborate with.”
Earlier this year, EXILE Books published LISTEN TO THIS BUILDING, an exquisite book that commemorated a Miami Center for Architecture & Design exhibit by the same name. EXILE Books collaborated with MCAD and the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind to enable the visually impaired the opportunity to experience architecture in a new way. The spiral-bound book incorporated Braille into its design and provided a CD, so that anyone could experience the architecture on a hypersensitive level, using sight, sound and touch. The book has a run of 100 copies, and its publication was funded by the Miami Downtown Development Authority.
“It’s an absolutely stunning book about the architecture of our city,” says Victoria Rogers, the Knight Foundation vice president for the Arts, adding that her organization helps fund EXILE Books. The book features 10 of Miami’s historical and architecturally significant buildings, including the Old U.S. Post Office & Courthouse, the Seybold Building, the Freedom Tower and Gesu Church.
“You can trace your fingers around the actual image of the buildings and read about them,” Rogers says. “It does provide a visual for people who are visually impaired. It’s another example of how truly innovative people are here in Miami, how we tell stories in different ways to reach a broad array of people.”
Independent and small publishers featured at the Miami Book Fair International
▪ Cultivating the New American Canon: Saturday 10:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m., Room 7106: Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), which now makes its home at the University of Miami, was formed with the mission of facilitating the emergence of writers of color by supporting individual writer growth, creating a platform for community engagement and providing a workshop and mentor focus to expand writing opportunities. Join VONA and University of Miami faculty Chantel Acevedo, Tananarive Due, M. Evelina Galang, Mat Johnson, Ana Menendez, and VONA’s co-founder and Program Director Elmaz Abinader, as they read from their work and discuss VONA’s contributions.
▪ City Lights Publishers at 60: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., Room 7106: From co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first book to the new poetry collection of the 2015-16 U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, City Lights has earned its reputation for publishing cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, literary translations and books on social and political issues. Now 60 years old, City Lights is considered one of America’s major alternative presses. Join this celebration with City Light’s publisher/executive director Elaine Katzenberger, head bookstore buyer Paul Yamazaki, president of New Directions, Barbara Epler, and moderator, Los Angeles Times’ book critic David Ulin.
▪ Contemporary Publishing: Literary Magazines and Small Presses: Saturday, 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m., Room 8303: Get the view from the front lines of literary publishing as John Gosslee of Fjords Review and C&R Press, P. Scott Cunningham of Jai-Alai Books, Ralph Hamilton of Rhino and Miguel Pichardo of Gulf Stream discuss what editors look for in submitted work, the shifting literary landscape, what it takes to run a magazine or press and answer questions about writing and the literary market.
▪ United We Stand: What’s Happening in Independent Publishing: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., Room 8503: Today, there is more awareness in the vital role that independently owned businesses play in the economic and cultural life of the country. The same goes for publishing. What makes publishing with an indie press a different, perhaps even better experience for authors? Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press; president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic Inc. Books, Morgan Entrekin; Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review; Mitchell Kaplan, founder and owner of Books & Books; Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association; Johnny Temple, founder and publisher of Akashic Books; and moderator Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions, will discuss the current “indie renaissance” as they address the present and the future of independent publishing.
▪ Florida Histories: Sunday 12 p.m.-1 p.m., Room 8301: In “Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters,” Amanda Harris recounts the exploits of David Fairchild and his band of adventurers and botanists as they traversed Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. In “George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables,” South Florida historian Arva Moore Parks recounts George Merrick’s quest to distinguish himself from the legions of developers who sought only profit. “Walking St. Augustine: An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City” fuses illustrated history and intimate handbook; the author, Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon, is also a resident and offers insider tips for adventures.
▪ Florida Histories, Part 2: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., Room 8301: In her latest nonfiction book, “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century,” Leslie Kemp Poole reveals the impact women have had on preserving Florida’s natural resources. In her nonfiction book, “The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet,” Lyn Millner weaves the many bizarre strands of cult leader Cyrus Teed’s life and those of his followers into a tale. In “They Dared to Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped History,” Doris Weatherford highlights the myriad contributions women have made.
▪ Europa Editions Turns 10: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m., Room 7106: Over the past 10 years, Europa Editions has built a catalog featuring fiction and nonfiction by authors from over 28 countries. Europa Editions’ list includes four New York Times bestselling authors, three Booker Prize-shortlisted novels, seven New York Times Editors’ Picks, four New York Times Notable Books of the Year, two Goncourt Prize winners, one German Book Prize winner and four winners of Italy’s Strega Prize for Fiction. Join Europa’s editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, and Europa-published authors, Chantel Acevedo and Jennifer Tseng, for a reading.