Interview with Erin Elizabeth Smith, President
How did Sundress Publications start?
I founded Sundress Publications in 2000 to originally serve as a home for several online journals. Back then, internet hosting was either costly or filled with obnoxious banner ads et al., so we wanted to build a community of journals in order to showcase and promote writing by women and LGBTQ-identified people in particular.
We briefly dabbled in print publication in the early 2000s, but we simply didn’t have the start-up money or the know-how yet to really create much beyond saddle-stitched books. While we were incredibly proud of these, we also realized we didn’t yet know how to sell books either. When we started in earnest to publish print books in 2011, we made a pact to go slowly into the process. We published one book the first year, two the next, three the next, slowly adding on to our catalog so that we knew exactly how long each book would take to put out, how much we would be able to invest back into the organization, what types of promotion worked best, etc. We now publish six full-length poetry titles a year, plus an anthology, several e-chaps, as well as books from our three imprints: Agape Editions, Flaming Giblet Press, and Doubleback Books.
Tell us a bit about Sundress. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Our aesthetic really varies wildly. I love it when people try to nail down the type of work we like because I feel that we’re fairly eclectic in our writers. We’ve published Kristina Marie Darling’s erasures, Margaret Bashaar’s haunting retelling of Frankenstein, and Amorak Huey’s darkly hilarious Ha Ha Ha Thump. We like to use the analogy that we like books that are concept albums rather than a bunch of singles. We like collections that read well forward to back, that tell a story, that have something important to say.
As for our mission, we work hard to publish books from underserved voices—women, writers of color, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. We believe it’s important that these voices are part of the national literary conversation that we’re hoping to continue to build with our publications.
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?
During the second half of 2016, we have full-length poetry collections from Les Kay, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, and Neil Aitken. Kay’s book deals with how we can inherit the working class struggles of our parents and previous generations, how the want of our childhoods cannot always be filled. Bermejo’s collection spends much time reflecting on the narrator’s summer spent working with immigrants coming over the Mexican border to give them water, shelter, and help as well as the experience of growing up Chicana in LA. Finally Aitken’s book ruminates on Charles Babbage, a nineteenth century mathematician, who developed some of the first computers.
We are also now accepting manuscripts for our 2017-2018 catalog as well as nominations for our yearly Best of the Net Anthology.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I think what’s exciting is that there are so many writers who are no longer afraid of the small presses and recognize what we have to offer. Here at Sundress we do extensive revisions with our authors, working to make sure that their vision is what is coming through in the final product—from the design to the poems themselves.
It also allows for new voices—particularly those from underserved populations—to be heard in the great din of publishing. We are seeing so many more writers of color and women being published from independent presses that the big ones are going to have to start paying attention soon as well. I feel like the real stories, the important stories, are being told here.
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 Sundress Publications?
We firmly believe in keeping costs for our authors and our submitters as low as possible. For our open reading periods or our contests, you can order a book instead of paying the reading fee (which is roughly the same amount), so that you can support the press that you’re hoping publishes your manuscript (which only seems legit).
We also make sure that our authors receive all author copies at cost. This has been an issue that we have been deeply upset with—publishers making money off of their author purchasing copies. This seems totally fundamentally predatory from the publishers, who I understand need a return on their investment. However, making that money from the writers whose work you are selling seems deeply at odd with best practices.
I think another problem is that too many presses grow too big too quickly, taking on more projects than they sincerely have time for. I entirely understand this inclination too—there are so many amazing books out there that don’t have homes yet, and it’s like going to the pet store; you want to take them all home! But if there’s one thing that we’ve learned, it’s that it’s not a terrible thing to grow slow, to be patient, and to work hard on getting each step right before moving to the next.
People always note all the things that we do at Sundress—our publishing, our e-chap series, our residency, the Best of the Net, our journals, our podcasts, etc.—but with each thing we add, we add more amazing people to our staff, who we simply couldn’t run without. We have around 60 staff members between Sundress and SAFTA (our residency program/arts collective in Knoxville, TN), all of whom are volunteers. We are a labor of love that works to promote the work of those we deeply admire and to stand as an example of strong literary citizenship.