Interview with Cetywa Powell, Editor/Publisher
How did Underground Voices start?
Underground Voices started as an online literary magazine showcasing writing that was hard-hitting and raw. I didn’t see any magazine that embraced that style of fiction and poetry so I wanted to fill the gap and offer a platform to those kinds of writers: a space where their work could be seen and read. I love books, though, so I slowly moved Underground Voices in the direction of a small press: first publishing annual short story collections and finally publishing novels, which is where it’s at now.
Tell us a bit about Underground Voices. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
There is no online magazine that influenced the look and feel of Underground Voices. I saw something very specific in my head: red/black visuals with writing that makes you feel like you’ve just been gutted. That was the mission and aesthetic I aimed for. As the magazine grew, however, I started to embrace (and was open to) other kinds of writing: softer, funnier, experimental works.
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?
Our current slate includes literary fiction novels, memoirs, and e-book short story/poetry chapbooks. However, we do hope to dip into publishing graphic novels. In fact, our first one comes out in 2018 and we’re excited about that journey. Previously, we stayed away from genre novels, but in 2015 we published a literary sci-fi novel, West, which did well. Based on that experience, we are now open to publishing science fiction and crime novels.
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.
I love the fact that independent publishing companies have a lot more freedom in what they publish. So we can take on riskier and more experimental works. We will be publishing something experimental in January and I like that we can take it on without hesitation. However, what’s frustrating about small presses is that we just don’t have the marketing and PR budgets that the large publishing houses have and that hurts us quite a bit. More specifically, it hurts writers because it’s a direct reflection of what their sales are going to be. I also wish major newspapers and magazines would be open to reviewing works from small presses. They have an innate bias that is unfounded. So, what needs to change? A new marketing template that works and the possibility of reviews from established venues.
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 Underground Voices?
For Underground Voices, coping means reducing the costs of bringing the book to market. We do everything to minimize those costs so that royalties are a profit and are not just about recouping initial investments. We switched printing companies, for example, because our previous one was charging more. For the covers of our books, we have our go-to artists with whom we’ve built relationships. I used to love having our books in bookstores but I’ve found this to be very costly. Over the years, a look at our royalties shows that most people are buying their books online. Very few buy them in bookstores. So for Underground Voices, pushing to stock our books in bookstores is a money loss (we always get a box of unsold books shipped back to us). We do understand how much authors love seeing their books in bookstores, but from a financial perspective, it’s become a dinosaur way of doing business. It’s a difficult thing to admit because, as a consumer, I love bookstores. But as a publisher, online sales are what keeps us afloat.