March 21, 2023
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A home for their own

Independent publishers provide outlets for fellow authors

Imagine watching Robert Frost read his poems out loud — dressed in his pajamas. Oh, and you’re in your pajamas, too.

While that scenario could only happen in a reader’s fantasy, you can tune in twice a month to Sundress Publications’ Poets in Pajamas series. Through the power of Twitter’s Periscope app, viewers around the world have the opportunity to sit in, virtually, on a live reading from Sundress’ various authors, from the comfort of their homes. Neat, huh? For Erin Elizabeth Smith ’04, it’s just another way to stand out as a publisher in a world where so many media are vying for people’s attention.

“So much of how we’re able to build a following and keep ourselves in other people’s minds without spending a lot of money is through social media,” says Smith, founder of Sundress Publications, a woman-friendly publishing collective. “We have 3,500 Twitter followers and almost 4,000 Facebook fans.”

Podcasts. Audiobooks. Pajama-clad livestreams. A lot has changed in publishing since the days of Hemingway and Austen. It’s a challenging industry, one filled with uncertainty, where profits are slim (if there’s any profit at all) and everything could fall apart without proper planning.

Smith is among the Binghamton alumni who have made a name for themselves in the wild world of publishing. She founded Sundress as an umbrella site for online publications in 2001 before moving to print publication in 2011. What started as one book in the first year grew to two, then three — Sundress now publishes about seven books a year. It takes a lot of time, effort and love to make it work, says Smith, but the reward is seeing an author’s work come to life. For example, Sundress just published a book by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick that deals with abortion, one that might not have found a home at a traditional press.

“This is [Hardwick’s] first full-length collection, and getting to help bring it into the world and see the excitement, and see other people’s excitement in reading the work, and knowing it exists because of the work that our staff has done, means everything,” Smith says.

That staff of 65 is what Smith calls a “multi-headed beast.”

“If something happened to me and I couldn’t run Sundress, I have a whole network of people who could step in and do the work that I do. I think a lot of times, when you start a press there’s some element of ego attached to that, as in ‘Nobody else could do what I do.’ That’s not the way to go about it because, ultimately, it’s not about you, it’s about bringing art that you believe in into the world.”

A place for other voices

Philip Brady, PhD ’90, and Robert Mooney, MA ’83, PhD ’97, co-founders of Etruscan Press, also get by with the help of a large team. Theirs includes a managing editor, graduate assistants, interns and a stable of freelancers who help to turn a book around — from acquisition to print — in 18–24 months.

That process didn’t always go so smoothly for Brady and Mooney, who first met at Binghamton while Mooney was running the University’s creative writing program and Brady was a PhD student. They started Etruscan Press hoping to do something small, but then 9/11 happened. With no press, no books and no idea how they’d actually operate, they published September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, an anthology that featured prose and poetry from 127 American writers addressing the terrorist attacks.

“It was kind of like getting an MBA in how these things are actually made real. We were flying by the seat of our pants in our early years, but we galloped pretty strongly right out of the gate and it’s been a great ride,” Mooney says.

Since 2001, these “brothers from other mothers,” as Brady describes their relationship, have released 75 books, three of which have been finalists for National Book Awards. While they enjoy their success, their goal isn’t to stand out in the publishing world, but to stand in.

“We want to be part of what is really a very vibrant world of independent publishing,” Brady says.

They’re what Maria Mazziotti Gillan, professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program and the Binghamton Center for Writers, would call role models.

“What I always do with my students is encourage them to be what I call ‘good literary citizens,’ that is to not only think of themselves but think, ‘Well, what can I do to help other writers and what can I do to increase people’s interest and love of literature?’” Gillan says.

She’s thrilled whenever she receives a note from an alumnus telling her that he or she has started a magazine or a press.

“I feel that that’s a success for our program and for Binghamton because they’re going out into the world and representing us, and they’re also going out into the Binghamton community and representing us,” Gillan says.

A tradition of finding new talent

Jeremy Schraffenberger, PhD ’08, is representing Binghamton as co-editor of the oldest literary magazine in the United States: The North American Review. Contributors to this prestigious publication have included luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Schraffenberger’s role is particularly challenging — upholding the magazine’s rich and storied history while embracing new voices.

“Balancing prestigious names and famous people we’ve published along with the imperative to publish new and unpublished writers, that’s still part of our mission: to go find the new, best stuff that no one’s heard of. It’s my favorite thing in the world to publish something by someone who’s never published a thing at all.”

One work that he’s proud of publishing is Martin Espada’s “Vivas to Those Who Have Failed,” a Black Lives Matter protest poem.

“It’s a very powerful poem of witness to the injustice of racial violence in the United States,” Schraffenberger says.

Another challenge he faces is balancing the quiet job of editing with the public job of promotion.

“I tend to be the sort of outward-facing editor,” Schraffenberger says. “All of the promotion and stuff you have to do to tell people what you’re doing — that’s a very public thing. And then the other side is being alone, reading poems and thinking about them deeply. Trying to balance the public face with the need for time, reflection and contemplation — that’s the hardest thing.”

That public face is key to surviving in the publishing world, says Joe Weil, poet, lecturer in the English department and founder of Cat in the Sun Books. For Weil, it’s all about having “sharp elbows.”

“It’s great to have a good mind and it’s great to have a good heart, but those who succeed have sharp elbows. Meaning you’ve got to keep at it. You’ve got to want the magazine or book publishing business you’ve started to last,” Weil says.

While Schraffenberger thinks it’s important to change with the times, he’s not going to sacrifice the magazine’s identity to succeed.

“We’re going to be here longer than Vine was here. We lasted longer than Friendster ... The legacy of a magazine like this is more important to me than saying, ‘Let’s innovate, let’s do something completely different, let’s create a new platform.’ Mostly because, in the end, if we believe that the art we’re presenting is good, it will find its audience.”

Quicker is not better

While things like ebooks and print-on-demand services have leveled the playing field somewhat for modern publishers and writers, the basic work is no easier, Gillan says.

“You have to spend a long time toiling in the fields of literature. But what you get back is the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve created something, that you’ve made a change in the world,” she says. “But a lot of people think if they don’t win the Pulitzer Prize the first week they’re writing, they should stop doing it. I try to teach my students, ‘never give up.’ You can only lose if you let yourself lose.”

Smith certainly hasn’t given up. She’s been in the business long enough to know that success in this trade doesn’t happen overnight and that, when it does, it’s because of a team effort.“You have a lot of responsibility to the work and to the author that’s outside of fame and glory for yourself. [Spoiler alert] There is no fame and glory for yourself,” she says.

There is reward, but you need to start slow and then you can build big, Smith adds. “I think that at a lot of presses, people within them tend to burn themselves out really quickly. Then the quality of the books suffer, the author suffers and the work suffers. That’s first and foremost why we should be here as publishers.”

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur