Interview with Kevin Watson, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
How did Press 53 start?
Press 53 began in October 2005 as a way for me to do something creative during a period where I was unable to write. I lost my job in the airline industry a couple of years after 9/11, and between 9/11 and losing my job, the pressure of surviving two bankruptcies with the airline, taking two big pay cuts and trying to figure how to pay the bills and feed the family, my ability to write, or even want to write, disappeared. So I picked up work editing and teaching workshops, and came up with a crazy idea to start a small press so I could learn a new skill and do something creative until other work came along. A few months in I was so busy, and obligated to so many people, I was stuck with having to find a way to make it work. I am now so engrossed in publishing and editing, I no longer write for publication, and, honestly, I don’t miss it. I love what I do every day.
Tell us a bit about Press 53. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
My mission from the beginning was to find writing I loved and share it with others in the hope that I would find millions of readers who agree with me. As I brought on editors I told them to ignore what they think the market wants, and to help me build our own market of readers who love what we are publishing. That way we are the market. Press 53 is registered as a for-profit business, so our existence depends heavily on publishing books that readers will buy.
Our aesthetic, I believe, has always been simple: find unique storytelling, conversational poetry, edgy work that takes risks but isn’t trying to trick anyone or talk in circles or over heads; keep the writing real, imaginative, and mind-opening. We do all of our book layout and most of the cover designs in-house. My approach to book layout is to not clutter the page so the words can work their magic; the cover images and title font need to catch the reader’s eye, and along with the title arouse curiosity so the reader will want to hold the book and see what’s inside.
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?
We’ll publish twenty-three titles this year, thanks to Chris Forrest coming on board this spring, and to a remarkable summer intern, Claire V. Foxx. But here are a few titles. Our Southwest-based husband/wife editing team for our Silver Concho Poetry Series, Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root, brought us Broken Horizons by Richard Jackson and Clouds Pile Up in the North: New & Selected Poems by Maj Ragain. Maj died this past April, shortly after his collection came out. We never met, but we had several wonderful phone conversations. He was a blessing. Through our Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections, edited by Tom Lombardo, who lives in Atlanta, we recently published White Portals by Jennifer Holley Lux and The Arrows That Choose Us, winner of the 2018 Press 53 Award for Poetry, which is judged by Tom. We just finished up layout and design for Sky the Oar by Stacy R. Nigliazzo, whose view of life as an emergency room nurse stuns me. This new collection, our second from Stacy, is minimalist in approach and will silence anyone who believes it takes a lot of words to impact someone.
Here in Winston-Salem, my team and I publish poetry and short fiction. Last fall we published Nice People: New & Selected Stories II by master short fiction writer David Jauss. This collection is a follow-up to Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories. We are working on The Dictionary of Unspellable Noises: New & Selected Poems by Clint McCown, who is well known for his fiction, but his poetry turns my head sideways and makes laughter fly from my gut. Our winner of the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction was Jen Julian. Her debut collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, took me to some strange and familiar places. I’m looking forward to sharing this one with our readers. A runner-up from that contest the previous year was Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye, and that is coming in October. Also in October is The Leopard Lady Speaks by Valerie Nieman, a novel in poems, which is something new for us. This will be her fourth book with us.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
With the invention of print on demand, small presses are now able to publish more titles without investing in large print runs and warehouse space. The downside is that publishing books is more affordable, so there are more small presses and tons of authors who are self-publishing. It’s hard today for a small press to stand out. I don’t know what needs to change; I think the current situation is the new normal and small presses will have to be more and more inventive, patient, and persistent to survive.
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 Press 53?
Charging reading fees for general submissions is one option for financing your operation. I think charging for general submissions could be a burden on some writers, and could negatively impact the quality of the submissions.
We don’t have an open submission period at Press 53. For our books, we mostly operate the way professional scouts do for a sports franchise: we actively seek out writers we want to publish by reading journals, by getting recommendations from writers and editors we admire, and by keeping a close watch on our magazine and our writing competitions. Each year we publish the winners of the Press 53 Award for Poetry and the Award for Short Fiction. We usually pick up another manuscript or two, as well.
Our online journal, Prime Number Magazine, is free to readers and is open for submissions year round, with no reading fee. The magazine also operates a yearly competition for poetry and short fiction that charges a reading fee, plus we have a monthly flash fiction contest with a low reading fee and a nice prize. These contests generate some revenue that allows us to not only find and publish some fine writers, but also allows us to award around $6,000 each year to writers. Given the time involved, these competitions are maybe a break-even venture, but they keep Press 53 in front of readers and writers, which is essential to keeping our doors open.
Our mission from the start was to find writing that each of us enjoys and appreciates, and then find readers who agree with us. And we hope that those readers and writers who agree with us will support us by buying our books and entering our competitions.