“Being a Writer isn’t About Having a Book”: An Interview with Kevin Watson of Press 53

KMW 2014Kevin Watson founded Press 53 in October of 2005. Since that time, Press 53 has published 160 titles, received almost 50 awards, and has earned an international reputation for publishing quality short fiction and poetry collections. With its home office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Press 53 has also teamed up with Tom Lombardo of Atlanta, Georgia, who edits Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections, and husband/wife team Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root of Tucson, Arizona, who edit the Silver Concho Poetry Series. Press 53 also publishes Prime Number magazine, a digital online quarterly co-founded in 2010 by Watson and award-winning author Clifford Garstang. Press 53 publishes widely published authors from all across the United States (58 percent to date are women), most found today by way of recommendations, scouting journals and magazines, and their annual writing competitions, the Press 53 Award for Poetry and the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.

Curtis Smith: Let’s get a disclaimer out there to start. I’m a big fan of Press 53—and Press 53 has helped me greatly in my career by publishing three of my story collections. I know I’ve said it before, but thanks for that.

Kevin Watson: My pleasure, Curtis. I’m a big fan of you and your writing. Your stories resonate with me, which is my only criteria when selecting a collection for publication.

CS: Starting a press is quite an undertaking. Can you take us on the journey that led you to being in this business?

KW: I began plans for Press 53 after losing my job in the airline industry in 2004. The plan was to publish one of two books a year, by local authors, until I found something else I could do to make a living. Within six months I was so busy, doing so well, attracting award-winning authors from other states, and having so much fun, I couldn’t bring myself to look for other work. So I had to find a way to make publishing work. It took about five years to get to a point where I could actually pay myself something and another year of two to hire some part-time help. Thankfully, my wife had a good job and wouldn’t allow me to give up on Press 53. Before that, while working for the airline, I was writing short fiction and poetry, and had published a few pieces, even winning a couple of awards. It was in 2001, when I edited for a New York arts foundation The Silver Rose Anthology, a collection of short fiction featuring twelve authors, the publishing bug bit me.

CS: At first Press 53 published novels and nonfiction along with story and poetry collections, but then you shifted to just story and poetry collections. What prompted this change in focus?

KW: Our first novel was a reprint of John Ehle’s (pronounced Ee-lee) The Land Breakers, first published by Harper & Row in 1964. After bringing on Sheryl Monks as a partner in January of 2006, we discussed publishing bigger books. My original idea was to publish short fiction and poetry, since that was what I loved and they were the two types of writing most overlooked and undervalued by bookstores and other publishers. Sheryl suggested that we publish novels and I was open to the idea. I suggested republishing out-of-print classics, if we could find one, and The Land Breakers kind of dropped in our laps. That book was acquired last year by the New York Review of Books Classics, which I see as a success story, and we still publish novels and other books that are out of print by North Carolina writers. It’s our way of paying homage to our home state and its rich literary history.

When Sheryl left Press 53 in November of 2008 to return to writing and teaching (she is now Writer-in-Residence at Salem College and co-founder of the literary journal Change Seven), I had to reinvent the press and how we operated. I became a one-man operation again. What I found was that novels are a huge undertaking and the readership and marketing strategies are different than short fiction and poetry, which tend to share readers and are marketed similarly, meaning the authors have to get out and read, go to festivals, and attend conferences, since bookstore still believe, for the most part, that there is no market for these types of books. Finally, in November of 2011, I decided to drop the big books. I was finding that readers of short fiction and poetry were coming back to find other books and authors, while buyers of the novel and memoir weren’t. So rather than try and be everything for every reader, I decided to narrow our focus and build Press 53 into a tower rather than a plantation, so to speak.

CS: You must read through hundreds of submissions for each title you put out. Can you tell us about your selection process? What advice would you give to those who are considering sending a manuscript your way?

KW: Good question. You’re right. I’ll read hundreds of submissions to find that one or two I want to publish. The stories or poems have to connect with me. I’m not looking for commercial appeal, or marketing opportunities; I’m looking for a connection with me personally. When I started the press, I decided to publish writing I love and find readers who agree with me. I ask the same of my editors, which is why they have their own imprints. The trick is getting readers to come back, so marketing is vital.

What I love are stories (poems are stories too) that are slice of life, that let me walk along with the narrator and witness the story. The dialogue has to be natural and interesting, and the story has to take me someplace new or show me a new way to look at a familiar scene or topic. And the author has to demonstrate a level of quality and professionalism in knowing the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, so my reading is not interrupted. I could clean up any manuscript, but with so little time and so many other manuscripts from which to choose, I’ll set a poorly edited manuscript aside and move on.

If anyone wants to know what kind of writing I love, read any of the books we’ve published. And that goes for our other editors too. Before you submit to the Press 53 Award for Poetry, read a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection, since Tom is the judge. See if your work is a good fit for his series. I judge the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, so you should read one of our short fiction collections before you enter. Also, you’ll want to check out the quality of the book: is it edited well, is the layout professional, is the overall design pleasing? If not, you might want to spend your time and resources finding a better home for your work.

CS: There are so many challenges facing both small presses and the whole print publishing world in general—there’s distribution, working with both chains and indie sellers, dealing with Amazon. What’s the biggest challenge you face at Press 53?

KW: Our biggest challenge is how to reach our readers since most of them are being ignored by the box stores. Most box stores, even most indies today, seem to be only interested in the big books that are popular, books they can display and sell without much effort. Short fiction and poetry requires more work. If the store doesn’t have a poet on staff, chances are the poetry section is made up of the usual suspects and they sell very little. With a poet on staff, who reads contemporary poetry and is active with the local poetry community, they could sell more books, and not just poetry. Poets read a wide range of genres. Trust me, no one buys more books than poets. If more stores would make the effort to cultivate a small press section, or poetry and short fiction sections, in their stores, and have someone who knows the regional writing communities, they could increase sales that would be significant enough to support a small store within their store. So these readers go to Amazon to shop around for new reading, and guess who complains about their lack of loyalty? The box stores that are ignoring the readers’ interests. Before the big chain stores came along, most indie bookstores were in touch with the interests of their local readers, which includes writers, and your better indie bookstores still do this. Our challenge is finding these progressive stores or convincing stores to try cultivating these markets.

CS: In the small press world (and increasingly in the larger world of the majors), the promotion side of things falls pretty much upon the author. I know I’ve always felt a keen sense of responsibility to help my publishers make back their money—but getting news about a new title and new author out into the world isn’t easy. What do you expect from the authors you sign? What advice would you offer to writers putting out their first book?

KW: If you publish today, large or small press, you have to get out and introduce yourself , give readings, shake hands, make friends, and sell books. Most small presses don’t have the resources for a marketing department, and many large presses reserve that department for their top authors. So if self-promotion doesn’t sound like fun, then you need to hold out for a big publisher, and then keep your fingers crossed. Just sending books out to booksellers via a book distributor will not sell your book. Unless the store displays and promotes your book, it will be the equivalent of wallpaper until the invoice is due, at which time the books will be packed up and shipped back to the distributor and then back to the publisher.

What I expect from my authors is to get out, set up readings, use your connections to get word out, and don’t be shy about introducing yourself. The authors who win one of our competitions has a built-in reason to call on a bookseller, library, art gallery, or school to ask for a reading, or to contact a literary festival or conference and ask to be considered for a spot on the program. When you win an award from a well-established and respected publisher, doors will open, but you have to knock on the door and give a proper introduction. Press 53 publishes around eight books each spring and fall, so we are very busy reading, editing, designing, and promoting (as best we can) through social media, emails, and our website, but we don’t have the resources for a full-time marketing person. At a small press, everyone wears several hats. And even if we did have a marketing person, we would still rely on the author to be active in promoting themselves and the book. Here is an example: Rebecca Foust, winner of the first Press 53 Award for Poetry, sent email queries to dozens of poetry reviewers, journals, and newspapers, letting them know she had just won a major award for her poetry collection, Paradise Drive, and could her publisher send a copy for consideration. She received several dozen positive responses. In turn, we mailed out dozens of review copies, and to date Paradise Drive has received a large number of reviews and Rebecca has had a couple of dozen interviews and feature articles in publications like The San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She stepped into the role of marketing person and used the contest to introduce herself and her book. It was a lot of work, but it has paid off for her, her book, and for Press 53.

CS: Your fiction contest is about to start. Tell us about that.

KW: The 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction kicked off on September 1 and will close December 31 at midnight Eastern time. We’re looking for an unpublished manuscript of short fiction by a writer at any stage of his or her career. The winner receives publication, a $1,000 advance, and a quarter-page color ad in Poets & Writers magazine. The 2015 contest brought us four new collections that we couldn’t pass up. Besides our winner, The Universal Physics of Escape by Elizabeth Gonzalez of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we also offered publishing contracts to three runners-up.  You can find all the information on our website, including the names of all our finalists and semi-finalists.

CS: What do you think the future holds—for Press 53 in particular and for the small, lit press scene in general?

KW: The reader-pie, so to speak, hasn’t gotten any bigger, in fact, thanks to the current self-publishing craze, the reader-pie is smaller. It use to be that writers read a lot of books, not just to be entertained, but to find inspiration and to learn how to become better writers. Today, I show up at literary conferences and it seems like everyone has a book to sell, so the focus is on selling books and not on discovering new authors, new presses, and new insights into their own writing. These writers are mostly looking for marketing advice rather than writing advice. I don’t see this trend bursting, but I do see it slowly deflating. Being a writer isn’t about having a book, it’s about becoming the best writer you can be so one day you can have a book that others will respect, read, and talk about.

Our focus has to be on finding great writing, appreciative readers, and in building relationships with smart booksellers. Just as there are no shortcuts for writers, there are no shortcuts for publishers. Building a strong, respectable publishing house is done one book and one reader at a time.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

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