Interview with Betsy Teter, Executive Director
How did Hub City Writers Project start?
In May 1995 three writers met each other when the first coffee shop opened in downtown Spartanburg SC. We had the idea for one book, a collection of personal essays about the experience of living in Spartanburg, and we grabbed a napkin and wrote down the names of writers we wanted to invite to be a part of the project. We named ourselves “Hub City” after a lost, century-old nickname that referred to the train lines that crossed here, and we borrowed the term “Writers Project” from the Federal Writers Project, when President Roosevelt put 6,000 writers to work capturing the culture of America in the Great Depression. We never planned for more than one book, but momentum and book sales kept propelling us. Twenty years later, we have published 73 titles and 600 writers, we run an independent bookstore not far from that coffee shop and operate a national residency program and annual writers conference. This month, one of our novels, Minnow by James McTeer, was named to Kirkus Review’s Best of Fiction 2015 list. These days, we have seven people on the payroll, which is really pretty amazing, considering we are located in a small city in South Carolina.
Tell us a bit about HCWP. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Hub City publishes new and extraordinary voices from the South. We particularly love to publish debut authors, and then see them go on to be signed by literary agents or get New York book contracts because of the platform we have given them. We generally limit ourselves to five to six titles a year—we do almost all of our marketing and publicity in house, and that’s how many we can successfully market in a year. Our mission statement says that we “nurture writers and cultivate readers,” and so making sure that our writers are well-served is central to the way we operate. Additionally, Hub City began as a place-based publishing house, and we still publish books that reflect the region that we live in. And finally, we’re known for making beautiful books and we plan to continue that.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
In 2016 we’re publishing five books by debut authors, which is what we love to do. In the spring we pick up two Georgia authors with a comic memoir, Suburban Gospel, from essayist Mark Beaver about growing up Bible Belt Baptist in 1980s Atlanta sprawl; and a spellbinding Appalachian novel set in the 1930s, Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks, where the main character may or may not be a witch. From there, we’ll publish the poetry collection that C.D. Wright chose as the winner of our New Southern Voices Poetry Prize, Wedding Pulls, by J. K. Daniels of Falls Church, VA, as well as one of the runners-up, a collection exploring racism in the South by Ashley Jones of Birmingham, AL, who won a 2015 Rona Jaffe Award and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Finally, we have Liesel and Susan Hamilton with an illustrated guidebook to the state parks and preserves of South Carolina.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I’m excited about the unique model we have created, where we run our own independent bookstore and three times a year we get a new writer-in-residence who brings ideas and experiences to us. Both of these help us expand our network and build our reputation nationally. We’ve established great relationships with other independent bookstores and also with national authors on tour because we have this retail side. Our former writers in residence are now imbedded all over the country in other literary organizations, writing programs, and presses. That generates great synergies for us and helps with our visibility among young and emerging writers.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at HCWP?
We don’t charge reading fees, we publish our books offset (not digital), and we follow the conventional model of paying an advance and royalties. We’re in a comfortable cash position because of past successes, plus we’re a non-profit and we hustle to raise money to do the things we want to do. Our home community has been super supportive. We have more than 400 people in Spartanburg making annual donations to help us underwrite our books and our programs, which I think is pretty remarkable. We also look for ways to do some books that bring institutional underwriting with them; if we can get at least one of those a year, that helps things.
How has running the bookshop over the last five years changed how you operate as a press?
Well, it’s certainly a daily dose of reality about the book business. Just because books are on shelves doesn’t mean they are going to sell. It has taught us that we have to be relentless marketers. It has taught us to always look for new markets beyond the stores. We’ve had some great success with college common reading programs—five of our books in the past four years have been chosen by colleges. Clemson University bought 3,500 copies of a novel we published, The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. All of us who work in the press take regular shifts in the bookstore. It’s pure joy to work directly with the readers/customers.