March 19, 2007

Little Presses to Love

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 For "impact," garish primary colors that will look outdated in five years.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?


Suzanne said...

Steel Toe Books are similiar in the quality of design and paper of Red Morning Press.

Beautiful chapbooks--
Effing Press and Foothills Press

Don said...

Thank you for letting us know about these presses. I like the cover with the coffin and moon. Marsh Hawk press has put out a few nice looking books, including Steve Fellner's debut.

Greg said...

Thanks much from me as well! I intend to make use of this info soon...

tree said...

Hi, I am one of the owners of Ghost Road Press. You're right, we should include sample poetry on the web site. It's simply been a matter of getting everything done, and like magic, the days slip by too quickly. But I've already started today on a good foot, finding your post. Thanks for stopping by our table. --Sonya Unrein

jeffrey ethan lee said...

Hi & thanks for the comments on GRP and identity papers, which is a GRP title. Sonya set up this site for me

and I added the samples, free audio, links to more samples, an online interview at PennSound, and student responses from the Nov. 2006 book tour.

I think the reason that we don't do this all the time is that it would take all of our time to create sites like this.

And so far it hasn't sold a lot of books, but it did get a lot of visitors who downloaded the PDFs so much that we decided to pull them off the site because apparently they liked what they were reading so much that they downloaded pages. But then they didn't think they needed to buy the book. I wanted to create the site in the hopes that it would help word get out about the book. Maybe it is working, but the impact seems to be slow at best.

jeffrey ethan lee said...


i think you might also like the produiction values of Many Mountains Moving Press. They did my book in 2004, and then I joined the press and the 2006 and 2007 titles are very beautiful, I have to say. The production values are high because, as a designer who was an author first, i know that poets & writers really care about the look & feel of a book, especially a book they want to hang on to for many years. You can see what we created at

click the MMM Press link.

And Yusef Komunyakaa is the new poetry book contest judge. Deadline May 1, 2007!

Many Thx,


Sandra said...

What a lively discussion! I love hearing people's personal favorites, and having the GRP folks stop by is a real bonus. Jeff, I've heard good things about MMM from other folks, and I'll be sure to check them out.

32poems said...

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed looking at the book covers for ideas.

jeffrey ethan lee said...

hi sandra,

thx for replying, & i hope you like what you see at

your friend carly invited me to read in august at the poetry burlesque, so i hope we get to meet then.

your AWP posts were very entertaining.



Ivy said...

Hi, Sandra! I linked to you via either Maureen or Shanna because you're a NaPoWriMo participant -- so surprised to see my book cover here! Thanks for mentioning Red Morning Press. :-)

Take care!