In the first in our series spotlighting small presses--as promised in our Independence Day roundup--we chose Wings Press, a plucky San Antonio independent literary press that 's been around since 1975, and shows an uncanny abillity to pick up major literary awards. For instance, Maria Espinoza's novel Dying Unfinished won the 2010 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award (watch interview with Maria), Pamela Uschuk's Crazy Love won the 2010 American Book Award for poetry (watch Pamela talk about how the book came into being), and Carmen Tafolla's The Holy Tortilla and the Pot of Beans won the 2009 Tomas Rivera Award for Mexican American young adult literature. Wings is in the middle of a major project to convert all of their books into ebook format. At Wings Press's website, you can find videos of many of their authors (such as an interview with Steve & Reefka Schneider, the author and artist of Borderlines / Fronteras, and readings by Jay Brandon, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and others).
We intersperse interview responses from publisher Bryce Milligan with videos of readings and interviews by some of Wings Press's notable authors. First, here's Bryce talking about the history of Wings Press:
Wings Press's durability, and ability to win major literary awards:
It is in the nature of small presses to appear, fill a certain need--often political or cultural in nature--and then vanish. A few gain a certain longevity simply by having more broadly based objectives, such as publishing regional authors, or titles relevant to a particular geographic region, or just good literature, whether mainstream or cutting-edge. Wings Press was the first in Texas to begin consciously to publish "multicultural" literature, which is to say, Wings will publish good literature no matter who wrote it or whether a potential audience for it exists. We've had Chicano and Chicana authors in our list for decades, simply because the writing was exciting and relevant. Eventually the country caught up. Wings is proud to have several authors who can be described as essential to the Latina canon--if there is such a thing--Lorna Dee Cervantes, Carmen Tafolla, Ana Castillo, Maria Espinosa, Cecile Pineda, Mexican novelist Cecilia Urbina, Argentinian political novelist Alicia Kozameh, Chilean poet and scholar Marjorie Agosín, among others.
Wings thrives in San Antonio now, but it has been a long haul. I can truly say that the press has been kept alive by the hard work of our authors, some of whom do dozens of appearances a year. Some rely on bookstores to stock their books for a reading, but some just pack their trunks with books and head out on tours that have included coffee shops and community centers as well as universities along the way.
San Antonio is a wonderful place to write, especially since the internet has brought the world to every writer's doorstep. But the cultural ambiance here, the interwoven linguistic environment, the curious mix of left-leaning politics and a history of activism with the city's substantial retired military population, the antiquity of the place combined with a forward-thinking city government--all of this appeals to the imagination. It also makes San Antonio a positively liberal oasis in Texas. If it's a wonderful place to write, it seemed like a wonderful place to run a press.
Pamela Uschuk reads from her American Book Award-winning poetry collection Crazy Love at the Tucson Festival of Books:
Their digital archive project:
I'm about halfway through turning the Wings backlist into ebooks. So far this year I've gotten over 40 completed, and another 40 are in the works. Now, that does not mean that they are all available on all formats--yet. It seems that the Kindle versions appear first, but the ePub versions (for Nook, Sony Reader, and iPad, etc.) take longer to appear. Nevertheless, they are beginning to show up, so it is just a matter of time before the entire Wings backlist will be available.
Of course, there are difficulties--turning 20-year-old PageMaker files into contemporary PDFs can be time-consuming, for example--but there are also fascinating design issues. Designing ebooks turns out to be a lot like designing a scroll, so I studied some ancient scrolls available online and I examined a number of ebooks. Many cherished elements of the book simply don't make sense for ebooks, or e-scrolls. White space, for example, has absolutely no appeal on a small screen. The use of the page as a dividing device, like you find in novels comprised mainly of vignettes, is not only useless, it feels clumsy. The formal index relates to fixed pages, which can still apply if a physical book has been scanned and not redesigned, but the on-board search engine is a lot faster. Of course, there is a lot more to a well-researched index than just a list of word appearances, but that will soon be a lost art. And fixed page numbers themselves don't really mean a lot anymore in an ebook, and can be confusing when they conflict with the reading device's page counter. So ebook design is an evolving field.
The big push at Wings was to turn the complete works of John Howard Griffin into ebooks. These are finished and have been submitted, but none have shown up anywhere. Now, on Amazon, you can get Kindle versions of Black Like Me, Available Light, and Street of the Seven Angels, all by Griffin, all Wings editions, but currently these are versions scanned originally for the Search Inside the Book promo, not the full Wings Press ebook editions submitted over the past several months. This is quite frustrating, but I'm pretty sure that patience will win the day. Amazon Digital does pay for what they sell, but their versions do not have all the extras that the actual Wings ebooks do--added reviews, extra photos, new biographical info, not to mention that the texts have been re-proofed. In the case of Black Like Me, the Wings ebook is the same as the forthcoming 50th Anniversary Edition (April 2011 pub date), and that text has been completely re-edited from the original manuscripts, has a new Afterword, and additional critical materials.
I am fairly certain that online access to the titles of independent publishers, whether as ebooks or printed editions, is the only thing that will keep independent publishers alive. When a customer goes to a physical book store and asks for a title from an independent press, it is highly unlikely that an independent press's title will be on the shelves. Worse, it is less than a 50/50 proposition whether or not a specific title can even be ordered. The problem here is simple human error. It does not matter how good your distribution system is; all that matters is the competence of the book store clerk.
For example, I was in a large chain store in Dallas last week. One of my authors, Bryan Woolley, was a quite beloved raconteur/columnist for the Dallas Morning News for many years. His new memoir, The Wonderful Room: The Making of a Texas Newspaperman, actually appeared as a series of farewell columns in the Dallas Morning News when he retired a couple of years ago. The clerk at this chain bookstore, only a few blocks from the author's home, told me in no uncertain terms that the book "could not be ordered." I insisted that he look it up in Ingram, where it showed "out of stock." As has happened so many times that I have lost count (and lost a lot of hair in the process) this clerk told me that the book was out of print and that the only way he could get a copy for a persistent customer was to look on Amazon for a used copy. Of course, on Amazon we found that it was not only in stock and available both in cloth and as a Kindle ebook, it was discounted 25% in both cases. Hmmm.
This kind of error among bookstore clerks and even managers is the bane of smaller presses. I've tried to explain that "out of stock" means just that--if you order it from a distributor like Ingram, they will order it from wherever they get their books (either from a distributor like I use-- Independent Publishers Group--or directly from the press). It is not complicated, and it only takes a few days to get the book, even when the first source lists it as "out of stock." Lord, only the Library of Congress is never "out of stock" of a particular title.
But ebooks already are leveling the playing field between the independents and the larger houses when it comes to sales overseas. One of my authors, Ann Fisher-Wirth (author of Carta Marina), has a fan base in Sweden, and over the last year or so we have sold a couple of dozen copies there. They must be dedicated fans, because a $16 paperback poetry collection goes for twice that once it has crossed the Atlantic. But once the ebook appeared, sales for the ebook eclipsed the overseas sales of the hard copy within a few weeks of the release.
Brian Woolley's entire book, The Wonderful Room: The Making of a Texas Newspaper Man, is available for downloading in audio format at Wings Press's website.
What makes for a successful small press author:
A successful small press author is one who knows up front that a book may get great reviews, may win major awards, may be available across the country, but building a readership means making lots of personal contact with readers. Margaret Randall, whom we think is publishing her 90th book this year, just told me that she's got two dozen gigs lined up this spring, from Cuba to California. That's what it takes.
Even well-informed literary people have the mistaken idea that if a book doesn't get reviewed in Publishers Weekly or the New York Times Book Review that this means the book is somehow not as good as those that do get reviewed. Not at all. You can't imagine how many books they get in their offices. And there is a natural tendency for review editors to pay more attention to authors and presses that they know well. On the other hand, there are some journals that do not just suffer from a plethora of choices. It is not all about money, but too often it is. There are some highly respected journals in this country that I can guarantee will review several of my books in a row if only I will buy a fairly large ad. They would never admit to this, and are scandalized when you point it out, but if you don't buy ads every year or so, they will forget that your zip code exists.
So a successful small press author realizes that getting reviews in important places is a gamble, and that a large advertising budget is out of the question. Which leaves personal contact and word of mouth. Blogging helps a lot, as it provides interaction with readers. Connecting with Facebook or whatever your social media choice is also helps. Doing online interviews and virtual tours helps. In short, writing well is and ought to be the really hard part, but promoting comes in a close second.
Watch Wings Press's short documentary on John Howard Griffin's historic book Black Like Me (and watch another documentary on the uncommon life and times of John Howard Griffin):
Advice to a young person thinking of starting a small press today:
Curiously, when I was at the Texas Book Festival this year, several people--both young and older, by the way--asked me just that. Several were interested in the book arts aspect of small press publishing, and they wanted to talk about access to good letter presses and letter press printers, paper makers, etc. If that is what they want to do, that's great. Literature as a whole will sail on through the 21st century as a primarily digitally-accessible art form, but there will always be bibliophiles who want to actually hold a book in their hands, and the more aesthetically pleasing the physical object, the better. Other folks approached me asking about publishing as a business. The answer to that one depends entirely upon their objectives. But in general, I would advise a young person interested in starting a "traditional" small press--one that aims at publishing good literature, often poetry or commercially risky fiction--to learn a lot about online marketing, to set up a website, to develop a contact list among reviewers, all before they put out their first book. It sounds like capitalism, and it is capitalism. Selling one book funds the publication of the next book. There is no way around that except to inherit.
One of their fall titles is Margaret Randall's My Town: A Memoir of Albuquerque in Poems, Prose, and Photographs. Watch Margaret read:
Design as an important element of book production:
What I am proudest of is the diversity of design you find in Wings books. On the one hand, I believe that the design must reflect the content. Holding the physical book in your hand, or viewing the cover on a screen, there must be something about the design that relates viscerally to the character of the book. That being said, I as a designer also know that an author who is not completely pleased by the final product is not going to go out and tell everyone how great his or her new baby is. So I always try to get a good deal of author input into the design process. I read a text, I think about it, I even dream about it, and then I find myself scanning leaves I gathered from beside the San Antonio River, or searching the local galleries for a print that fits a certain theme, or simply re-creating the image in my head in Photoshop. I can tell you this--much to the chagrin of a few authors--that I'll postpone publishing a book if the design has not come together.
One of Wings Press's best recent offerings is Carolyn Osborn's first novel Uncertain Ground, a subtle coming-of-age story set in 1950s Galveston, Texas--the sin city of the region at the time. Watch Carolyn read from her novel:
Most noteworthy successes:
A recent unusual success is going on right now. Carmen Tafolla and Ellen Riojas Clark did a small book last year entitled Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization. It is a charmer that reflects how important tamales are not only to Latino culture, but to the history of the Americas. And there are some very tasty recipes in it too! Well, last year's edition was a small one, done as a fund raiser to support the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. This year we put out a larger edition. By pushing here and shoving there, we got the region's largest grocery store chain interested. So this December, the authors are doing 13 local signings, seven of them at HEB grocery stores. In south Texas, we don't have as many book stores as we should, so HEB has started building "literacy centers" in some stores, especially in communities that don't have a book store. They are also carrying some of our books that have regional themes, like Jay Brandon's Milagro Lane, a mystery set in San Antonio. The sales have been quite good so far.
I can't really say what my biggest success has been. They don't really come all at once. It is really nice when you realize that a book is going into its third or fourth printing and shows no sign of slowing down, but that is a process that may take two years or ten years. It is a success either way.
Wings Press's most successful title to date is Carmen Tafolla's That's Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / No es justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia, which has sales approaching 25,000 copies in hardcover. Watch an interview with Carmen and her co-author, Sharyll Teneyuca (Emma's niece), and the illustrator, Terry Ybáñez:
That's Not Fair from Public Studio on Vimeo.
The effects of the economic downturn and new technologies:
The economic downturn has been both troublesome and enlightening, coming as it has just as ebooks began to enter the market in a serious way. A whole lot of people got e-reading devices over the last couple of years simply because they were the new gadget to have. And hey, a lot of them discovered books. Or at least that is what the sales figures seem to indicate. But part of that has to be that ebooks are so much less expensive than paper ones. And any fourth grader with a 40-pound backpack will tell you that they are easier to cart around. This generation relates to text differently than does every generation before it. There will always be people who want to hold a physical book on their lap, who will appreciate fine bindings and gilt edges, but I guarantee they will be a smaller and smaller proportion of readers.