I’ve wanted to be a publisher since I was ten years old. It was then that I produced my first, very limited editions, folding sheets of construction paper into folios I stitched or glued together. Whether I filled them with my own drawings and poems, or passages of my father’s favorite books, I loved the act of making something, of putting it all together.
Like a lot of young writers, I joined the staffs of my high school and college literary magazines. Back then, my eyes were set on a career in academia, but the publishing world kept tugging me away. A post-grad-school job at a national magazine boosted my writing and editing skills fast — there’s nothing like a regular deadline to increase your focus and discipline – and when that magazine started a series of anthologies, published by Harper Collins, I quickly took on a co-editor position for that, as well. In the meantime, agents and writers began to get word that I was available for freelance editing jobs. I was a hired gun on many a book project, from scholarly studies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Shakespeare, to New Age re-evaluations of Jungian and Freudian theory, to a reminiscence by a young photographer who had fallen into a telephone friendship with the aging, reclusive Marlene Dietrich. I discovered that I had a gift, if you will, for seeing how a book fit together as a whole, for finding the through-line that would snag the reader’s attention, for seeing the arc of beginning, middle, and end. And how gratifying it was, to see an author move from draft to draft to polished finish, as the book took shape!
Less happily, I also worked on many a promising manuscript that never found its way between covers, or got into print only to be lost in the scramble of a big publishing house’s need for a big seller. A young-adult author I’d worked with told me her agent was looking “for the next J. K. Rowling.” Another agent, responding to a proposal for my own historical novel-in-progress, said he was hoping for something as potentially successful as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. (Gee, no pressure there!) My boyfriend (now husband), a retired singer-songwriter who had moved into magazine publishing, too, dismissed this as laziness, the kind he had seen in the music business.
“The big guys — the big publishers, agents, music companies — don’t want to do their own R & D,” he said. “And they’re not interesting developing artists over the course of a career. They’re interested in how much money they can make off these artists, and how fast.”
His words had the ugly ring of truth.
Meanwhile, I had some very positive experiences with independent presses. My fist two books of poems, Difficult Weather and Orpheus in the Park, were published, respectively, by Derrick Hsu’s Gut Punch Press and Grace Cavalieri’s The Bunny & the Crocodile. At Gut Punch, I joined a list including such terrific poets as Richard Peabody, Sunil Freeman, and Reuben Jackson, feeling like the first girl-child in a family of wonderful older brothers. With Grace, I joined an eclectic list that included Michael Glaser, former Maryland Poet Laureate, and also got a peak at how this amazing woman runs her press. In fact, the DC area has no shortage of cool, inspiring indie presses — Richard Peabody’s Paycock, Word Works, and CityLit, to name a few – and magazines as diverse and wonderful as Gargoyle (also Peabody’s; does this man ever sleep?), Ron Baker’s multi-genre WordWrights, and Deborah Ager’s 32 Poems. The husband and I began to talk. We had started and run SportsFan Magazine (SFM) together, and though we had reluctantly shut it down in the fall of 2006, we thought we could apply our energy and our lessons learned to another publishing venture.
Then we had a galvanizing moment. In March of ’09, I was invited to serve as Blackwell Books Poet-in-Residence for the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. This opportunity was so rich in so many ways, it would be impossible to enumerate them all. But one of the highlights was hearing the publisher John Calder, Samuel Beckett’s great champion, speak about his own life and work. Now in his late eighties, Calder’s enthusiasm for his writers remains undimmed – he called Beckett “the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare.” And when asked his thoughts on the current literary scene, he said that the advances in printing technology and access have made for “the most exciting time in publishing since the post-war era” of which he was a part. He added that his only regret was that he might not live long enough to participate in whatever would happen next. Jimmy and I looked at each other — it seemed we’d heard just what we needed to hear.
On the plane home, we devised a plan to start our own press, involving collaborations with other indie publishers we admired, both at home and in the U.K. We’d help each other promote and distribute our titles; we’d share experiences, resources, and ideas. We’d keep the name of the umbrella organization under which we’d founded SFM, Alan Squire Publishing, or ASP. (I’ve always loved snakes.) And as publisher, I decided that the first book I wanted to see into print was a collection of Jimmy’s essays, many of which had been published previously in magazines and anthologies. It’s a diverse group of pieces, ranging from autobiography to philosophy to gender studies to sports commentary, but I saw the whole that these parts could make up, and knew it would be a wonderful book, indeed. And now it’s here.
Alan Squire Publishing makes its debut this month with Bermuda Shorts, a collection of essays by James J. Patterson, who writes like the love child of Henry Miller and Mary Karr. His prose is both lyrical and down to earth, and there are delicious surprises on every page. Our next title is the wonderful debut novel of the well-known journalist, essayist, and poet Joanna Biggar, That Paris Year, which follows five young women through a year in France in the early 1960s. Both are published in conjunction with two other indie presses we love, Santa Fe Writers’ Project and Left Coast Writers. Our first official launch party and reading will be on July 12, at Book Passage in San Francisco, followed by more left coast events. In the autumn, there will be several events in the DC area, featuring these two titles as well as a third. And we’re already looking at manuscripts from some U.K. writers we’ve met on our travels there, and investigating collaborations with indie publishers in England, including Chris Andrews Publishing, another husband-and-wife team who make some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen.
But right now, it just feels good to hold Bermuda Shorts in my hand. I’ve always wanted to be a publisher – and now I am.