As someone shopping around a manuscript, I grow picky about production values. There's a lot of admirable in spirit, no-budget presses out producing books that, to be honest, look cheap. Dull paper stock, blurry text as if it were mimeographed. I know that there is an aesthetic of ephemerality at work, but I don't want that for my book. That said, you can't buy taste: there's a lot of well-funded university presses with absolutely clunky design. Covers on which the title is squeezed into a little bit of a painting's "free" space. Times New Roman font. For "impact," garish primary colors that will look outdated in five years.
Ew. Argh. But below are exemplars and links to four small, independent presses whose wares I got to examine at AWP--feel, flip the pages, heft in the hand. I was truly impressed not only on an editorial level, but with the book as object. If you're on the fence about these presses because you've never seen their books, take this as my stamp of approval.
Black Ocean Press - The design of these books gets better and better with each volume. The Man Suit, by Zachary Schomburg, is an absolutely great little book with a macabre yet playful graphic style that reminds me of Edward Gorey. One poem features small black and white icons of telephones. Schomburg's book was the only one that I bought at AWP on the sheer strength of an author's reading...Black Ocean poets will go on to do big things. They've also got Small Press Distribution, a major plus nowadays. Doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts, for now.
Switchback Books - At right is Switchback's first book, Talk Shows by Monica de la Torre. I was won over by the energy the editors projected in Atlanta, and the phenomenal offsite reading they organized (which included a talented, larger community of Chicago poets, such as Kristy Odelius, that I hope might soon turn up in their catalogue). You can't form a binding opinion based on one book, but they made smart choices with a nice, lightweight paper and low gloss on the cover stock (too much and the embedded text pattern would have been lost). Extra points for having the guts to make orange & green signature colors.
Red Morning Press - RMP is only just beginning to make itself known. They don't have widespread bookstore placement or distribution, and even within DC the editors are slightly outside the "literary" loop. But they are making up quickly for lost time, picking good poets and taking a conspicuously professional approach (all three founding editors have succeeded in other areas of business). Their "Our Mission" and "About Us" sections are refreshingly direct, and their refusal to charge reading fees is admirable. Bonus: they consider unsolicited manuscripts by email.
Ghost Road Press - Good God, their covers are *gorgeous*. I don't know much about these guys--they're based in Colorado, so I'm hoping I learn more when AWP is in Denver a few years from now. They did some interesting cross-media promotionals with Jeffrey Ethan Lee's Identity Papers. They are considering manuscripts through July (send a 10 pg sample). One quibble: why not have sample poems on the website? But I do like their print catalogue, downloadable in PDF format.
A special prize goes to Ahsahta, even though it has a university affiliation (Boise State). Those volumes luxuriously constructed, vellum fly pages and all...okay. What are your favorites?