A trip to The Bookstore can sometimes be a daunting endeavor in that ever-elusive quest for the right read. Bibliophages thirsty for their next word-fix often crumble in the face of the thousand titles vying for their attention on the shelf. Which to choose? Which venture to risk? Which recommendation will speak the most truth? Thumbing through pages, sneaking a glance at the narrative hook – how does it smell? There are any number of factors that lead the reader in their next literary decision. In the case of Sarabande Books , Louisville’s most well-established independent publishing house, savvy bookworms can rest assured that Sarabande’s special blend of quality, quirkiness and keen instincts will ensure readers of a sweet satisfaction.
Founded in 1994 by acclaimed poet, Sarah Gorham, and her husband, fellow poet Jeffery Skinner, Sarabande Books provides a safe, established home for writers of poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction. In an age when readership is dwindling and the “casual reader” is giving more attention to sound bites and status updates, Sarabande’s unique relationship with these often unsung genres has created a fellowship of both quality work and outreach. I sit down with Sarah Gorham at the Sarabande offices and discuss the press’ work, role and attitude in both the digital age and the surrounding community.
So, which came first, poetry, publishing or both together?
Poetry came first, definitely. I was a poet for roughly twenty years before the idea of Sarabande came around, which helped when it came time to organize the business because I had twenty years of contacts with very distinguished poets and fiction writers and publishers – I had three books published at that point. My husband, Jeffery Skinner had [contacts] as well. So we knew a lot of people. It helped, also, to be middle-aged – by that point I was 40 – starting the business, not going into it too green.
What drew you to independent publishing?
Well, I really had no designs for commercial publishing ever. That would mean starting in New York as a lowly intern or editorial assistant, and, living in New York under those circumstances, I definitely didn’t want to do that. Besides, we were fairly well-situated in Kentucky: both my kids were here in school and we had a house and so on. So, there was no plan of starting a commercial business – except that, of course, you can start a commercial business from scratch here too, but the issue is deciding whether you want to be non-profit or for profit. As a non-profit, you are eligible to apply for grants from the state, the city, the federal government and you can accept donations, which give a tax deduction for the donor. So, it seemed no question to me the way to go, because we weren’t privately going to be able to support a business like this. So, that’s why went independent – and thank you for calling it that. The 70s and 80s term was more “small press publishing” and it was a somewhat derogatory term.
You’ve got nationally-acclaimed poets that you’ve been publishing, so I would hardly call it “small”. Maybe it’s not quite the big conglomeration of Random House or Penguin or something like that, but I don’t think its “small” in the same term that most people are thinking of.
Right, we do have a good, strong profile nationally and good funding nationally, so, in that sense, we aren’t small at all. We are only a staff of four full-time people, and we only publish between ten and twelve titles a year, but that was a deliberate choice to keep things of the high quality that we originally planned for each title. Our staff to title ratio is basically 2 to 5 titles to 1 staff member, and that’s really nice.
So is that basically what makes Sarabande different from the big publishing houses – that you are non-profit?
That’s one of them. There are three words that describe us. “Independent”, meaning we’re not covered by an umbrella organization, whether it’s a university or a larger conglomerate like Random House. So we are, in every sense of that word, independent. We don’t have to answer to their marketing department; we can make acquisition’s decisions on our own. And, we don’t have anybody telling us we have to spend X amount of dollars on this title and none on that, et cetera. The other word is “non-profit”, which means we are tax-exempt, but it also means that we have an educational wing to our activities. We do conduct workshops, readings and lectures and panel discussions. We always have a large presence at AWP, which is the major writer’s conference – and other ones. So, education is part of what we do; we have this huge educational website, as well. And then, finally, “literary”. Usually, you’ll find it’s rare that even an imprint of a commercial publisher will have an exclusive literary identity. It is so for us. We don’t do histories, we don’t do cookbooks or self-help books – although we are doing a self-help memoir! So that distinguishes us from the others.
So, you mainly focus on poetry and short fiction. I know you’re a poet, so that might be part of it, but was there any other reason why you decided to just stick with those genres?
Yes, in the beginning we stuck with poetry and short fiction because, in the early 90s, publishing outcomes and outlooks for those genres were really bleak, and there was a recession at that point. Many publishers were just suspending their poetry and short fiction lists or cancelling them completely or closing up shop. So, it was becoming harder and harder to publish these poor cousins of the publishing world, and they don’t sell as well as some other genres. But, since then, we’ve added creative non-fiction, specifically lyric essays, which is sort of a meld between poetry and essay, poetry and prose. It’s a relatively new genre and there has been a rise in interest. But, again, it’s very difficult to sell a collection of essays and we wanted to create really a niche for those writers.
Explain the “Sarabande” dance. I looked on your website and it talked about how the word “Sarabande” is actually a dance. What led you to choose that name?
Well, it was really not as remarkable as it sounds. That was the first thing we thought of when starting the business: what are we going to call it? We came up with a wishlist of maybe 20 to 30 names; all of them had been taken. There were, at that point, 150,000 publishers – I’m sure there are many more now – and lots of the good names had already been used. So, we came up with another list and we got a little more plebian about our search. We went to libraries and looked up indexes of all sorts and went through bird dictionaries and art dictionaries and musical dictionaries – and that’s where we came across “sarabande”. Again, a list of 20, couldn’t find anything that hadn’t been taken except for two: one was “Stanza Books” and the other was “Sarabande Press”. Neither one of those had been taken at that point. “Stanza Books” I still think is a wonderful name for poetry press; “stanza” comes from Italian: it means “room”. So, again, a “room”, a home for writers…but maybe in another life. But, in the end, Sarabande seemed more appropriate. We have since discovered that there is a “sarabande” wallpaper, there is a “sarabande” condo – The Sarabande – in Florida, there’s a Sarabande Press which does type-setting and design and there’s a Sarabande which does African American literature. But I never hear of the other ones.
I like the wallpaper; that sounds fun.
Yeah, it’s pretty ugly. I actually saw it; I would never use it – maybe a bathroom.
On average, how many hopeful submissions do you receive?
It’s varied tremendously. The first year we got a lot; for our literary contest I think we got close to 3,500 in one 6 week period.
That’s a lot of reading.
Yes, yes, it was. I think we get roughly 3,500 now through the many vehicles we have for submission. We have the literary contest, which is just for fiction and poetry. We have a Kentucky season, just for Kentucky literature. We have our September submissions, which is just an open submission period. We also do a lot of solicitation and distinguished writers will send manuscripts our way. That’s basically how it works.
What percentage of the submissions you receive is local?
The local ones, which come through the Kentucky submission, are a very low percentage; I wish they were higher. Many of the Kentucky writers also submit to our other contests, so it’s hard to tell what the percentage is overall. I’d say it’s a pretty low percentage. We do publish at least one Kentucky title per year, sometimes two. Since we only do ten to twelve titles per year, the rest are distributed among the three genres; we do one chapter book, too.
What kind of things do you all look for when you receive a submission? What stands out to you?
The first thing we look for is a sense of excitement and palpable, sort of intuitive, realization that this is something we have not seen before, that it is highly original. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, but that there is a sense of innovation in the language; it can also be innovation in the structure, individual paragraphs, stanzas, the way the book is held together. In addition to that, it must have intelligence and heart; it’s a combination of a head thing and a body thing, a mixture of those two things. We see a lot of flashy poetry that loves word play, smart poetry that has no heart, that just seems to be trying to show off intellectually. It’s like air. Sometimes we’ll see a manuscript that’s not completely well-organized or has a lot of potential, and we’ll work with the writer in those cases. Everybody who submits, though, has to put their best piece forward; otherwise, we will not even consider it.
Describe the journey of a book for me. What takes it from manuscript to printed copy?
We have a production schedule. It starts with the manuscript submission, and then I send a contract. After that, they get a royalty advance. The book goes to edit; generally Jeffery – my husband – and I do the poetry edits. I also do most of the prose edits, the initial ones; those are the large-scale edits. If the book still needs it, we’ll go on to a line editor. In the case of prose or poetry, we don’t need to do that. Then it goes to a copy editor, who does the fine tuning – grammar, punctuation, all the fun stuff; we farm that out. In the mean time, Kirby [Kirby Gann, Managing Editor] is over in his office beginning to look at design for the book. The author comes up with some kind of image that will fit with the title and the content but is still attractive and will attract the reader’s eye. Most of time, the authors come up with really good stuff. Then, Kirby will take that image and work it into a design; he’ll also do the interior design. The next step is going to type set; all the corrections have been made, the author submits the manuscript in a final form and we covert it to type. Then it gets turned into bound galleys for our reviewers and just plain, old paper galleys for us. These are proofread very carefully, and, after all those corrections have been entered, the book goes to print. It’s there for about 8 weeks, comes back to us and then we send the bulk of the copies to our distributor. The rest of them come to us and we send them out for review and to the author. So, that’s the life history of a book; it takes about 8 to 12 months for the production part of it. We schedule our books about 18 months to 2 years in advance.
Wow, that’s a labor of love.
Yes, it is. But it’s well-organized and goes pretty smoothly.
Who is your distributor? Where do books go for printing?
Our printer is a small, offset printer that does small press runs, and what I mean by that is 1,000 [copies] and on up from there. They’re located in South Dakota. We have a rep here in Louisville, but that’s where a book is printed. I don’t why that is, but that’s the story. Those books are shipped to our distributor; [our distributor] has a warehouse in Tennessee but their office is Minneapolis, so all of their administration is done there and then the shipping and packaging is done in a little town in Tennessee.
So a book goes on a pretty physical journey around the country.
Yes, it does. And our distributor sends books all over the country.
Does the recent decline in book sales make you nervous?
Oh sure, everybody’s nervous. The technology is changing so fast, nobody wants to get cut short on any innovation but it’s difficult to sort out what will sell and what won’t sell. We now publish e-books simultaneous with our paper. Occasionally we’ll publish cloth but not very often because they don’t sell very well. That’s just the change in technology, but the bigger issue is that people aren’t reading as much as they used to. So, we’re trying to appeal to the very short attention span online, we produce book trailers that are 3 minutes long that might lure someone into buying the book or the e-book – we might have to go to 30 seconds. But, you know, we have a relatively small niche in the country, people who read poetry and short fiction and creative non-fiction, and I don’t think those numbers are going to change drastically over the years. The people who should really be worried are the commercial houses who’ve relied on huge numbers and that’s the way they’ve supported things.
So you’re expecting to hang on to your continuous readers, people who are always going to read.
Right, and hopefully get some new ones, too! We do a lot of outreach.
You’ve already answered my next question: how do you feel about e-books? I have a personal vendetta against the Kindle and the Nook because I like the physical act of reading.
We all feel the same way. There’s nobody in this office that reads e-books – well, my husband does; he has an ipad now! But he mostly uses that for things that can be downloaded for free; for the reading reading he still buys paper editions. [E-books] are what they call an “additive genre”; it will sell books in addition to the books you already sell. So, for example, we had a period of a couple of weeks when Caitlin Horrocks’ book of short stories, This is Not Your City, was being re-printed because it sold so many. We sold about 200 e-books during that period because it wasn’t available on paper, and that was a good thing. And e-books don’t come back to the bookstores; a sale is a sale.
So, for you, how do you find time to write when you’re doing twelve months of editing and re-editing? How do you find time to do your own poetry?
Well, it’s not easy, and it’s getting worse. For years and years I managed to get up early in the morning and spend about an hour, half-hour, 45 minutes at the coffee shop writing before I went work. I still do that, but Sarabande work has come creeping into that time when I read manuscripts. I used to be able to produce both poetry and essays; this year I’ve only started one essay, and I haven’t even finished it. But, I’d have to say, it’s not just the work creep, it’s the grandchild creep! They’re two and four, with another one on the way, and they get first priority. But, you know, I have four books of poetry, and I think that’s a good record. I’ve finished a book of essays and there may be some more work I need to do on that, but I’m in no rush. So, we’ll see!
Do you have any favorite books or authors? I know that’s a horrible question sometimes to ask.
Well, I can tell you some things that I’ve read recently. I’m reading Ben Lerner’s new novel, [Leaving the] Atocha Station is the title; it’s his first novel, he’s a poet. I also just read Bluets by Maggie Nelson which I absolutely adored – perfect example of a lyric essay, a cross between poetry and prose. I’ve read some strange stuff that I really loved; there’s a wonderful, little novel called The Fly Truffler by Gustaf Sobin, and I also loved a little novel called Hero by Frederick Dillen. I really liked the Great House, Nicole Krauss is the author, she’s terrific; that was a great book. I love the Eastern European poets, Zbigniew Herbert. Susan Wheeler is one of my favorite poets. So, that’s a short list.
But you do find time to read!
Ah, no. Even less time to read! I read before I go to sleep, probably about ten pages a night and then on vacations. That’s why I only read short books!
Why were your personal collections issued from a different publisher?
As a publisher I would think you would not want to publish your own work because it looks like vanity publishing. Nobody’s betting it except yourself, and I think it instantly brings the integrity of your press down. That’s the long and the short.
Where do you see Sarabande Books going? We have so much changing as far as technology and paper is dwindling. Where do you see it going in the next five or ten years?
Well, I think that we’re very lucky that we have a distributor who keeps ahead of the current technology – and I mean ahead; they’re even trying to anticipate what Amazon’s going to do next. Twice a year they fill us in so we can decide whether we want to pursue this particular new technology or not. That, on one hand, and then the other hand, we’ll stick with what we do best, which is the best work and figure out how to support it financially. It’s very difficult to predict what a book will sell; if I had the answer to that, I would be a rich woman. But that isn’t the main priority for us; it’s the quality of work. Hopefully, the quality is so good and the book is so unusual and terrific it will sell anyway. That’s the basic direction.
LIGHTNING ROUND: Word Association
Wagon Radio Flyer
Cliff Becker…he’s a person
Note White pages
Balcony International house hunter
Envelope Blue letter
Sneaker High top
Press Letter press
Stick Carrot stick
Fish Blue gill
Talon Red-tailed hawk
Tires There’s a pile of four them outside my house – rotting, rotting tires
Vacuum Cleaner heavy
With titles gracing the shelves of both local favorites, such as Carmichael’s , to the big box chains, Sarabande Books is dedicated to serving the bibliophile a consistent and enticing read. While mainstream publishing houses grasp at ever flashier and snappier means to maintain a shrinking attention-span, Sarabande’s enthusiasm for literary value and community outreach bucks the growing trend of quantity over quality. It’s not a question of numbers, dollars and cents, but of commitment to the art form itself. Although the projected readership trends can be daunting as the digital age hangs its lugubrious head, a love for the craft and respect for the writers will ensure that Sarah Gorham and her crew of Sarabandistas will keep – and hopefully expand – their following of faithful poetry seekers.
Photo: Courtesy of Every Writer's Resource website www.everywritersresource.com