Sitting with a Sarabandista: Sarah Gorham, Editor-in-Chief of Sarabande Books, talks independent publishing [Books]
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.