Small Presses: Little Gems with Big Impact

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Small presses are having a moment, and for good reason. Some of our favorite new releases this year have come from publishers you may not have heard of, but which are publishing books you absolutely need in your life if you love great literature.

In an article earlier this year, The Atlantic highlighted small publishers including Graywolf Press, which consistently impresses with its fiction and nonfiction (such as Paul Lisicky’s friendship memoir The Narrow Door, a favorite of both critics and booksellers, and a past Parnassus staff pick): “In the past few years, Graywolf has released some of the most groundbreaking American nonfiction. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which won the 2015 National Books Critics Circle award, complicated notions of sexuality and desire with tender, cutting prose. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric conveyed a sense of exhaustion of American racial harassment and violence that resonated with many readers. The Argonauts and Citizen are each less than 160 pages long. They’re built from fragments and vignettes that don’t so much combine genres—personal essay, critical theory, poetry, and photography—as they put them into a blender and shred them.”

margaret-the-first-cover-image-web-res-682x1024Many at the recent Southern Festival of Books in Nashville were delighted to discover Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton, who appeared on the Women’s National Book Association’s “Coffee with the Authors” panel alongside big names from the major publishing houses. Dutton’s book — which contains prose as beautiful as its exquisite cover — tells the story of Margaret Cavendish, the unconventional 17th century duchess. Margaret’s struggle to establish her creative identity will feel so utterly relatable and contemporary to anyone who writes or works in the arts, you’ll find yourself cheering, “Hell yeah, Mad Madge!” as you read.

Now, see if you can follow this: When not writing fabulous novels, Danielle Dutton runs Dorothy, a small press dedicated to publishing “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women” — such as Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. It was Dorothy who put Nell Zink on the map with  The Wallcreeper, her 2014 debut novel. (Zink moved on to Ecco, a division of HarperCollins, to publish her next two books, the National Book Award long-listed Mislaid and IndieNext pick, Nicotine.) However, Dutton published Margaret the First with Catapult, another small press on the rise, which recently merged with Counterpoint, the publisher of Grace by Natashia Déon, another Parnassus staff pick.

theartofwaitingCatapult recently hired Erin Kottke as its publicity director. Kottke, formerly a freelance publicist, worked at Graywolf before going out on her own and was the first to tell us about  Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, both of which are fantastic. She’s also really excited about The Hidden Keys by André Alexis, from Coach House Books — a press she describes as “the Graywolf or Coffee House of Canada.”

(On that note, related reading: On Small Presses and the Fight for Publicity, Lit Hub)

Part of the joy in discovering a fresh voice from a small publisher is feeling like you’ve found something others don’t know about. Foreword Reviews, a magazine dedicated to books by super-small indie presses, puts it like this: “It’s the difference between seeing your favorite band in a club versus seeing everyone’s favorite band in a sold-out arena. Being on the inside is cool, isn’t it?” (Check out their Editor’s Picks column for ultra-indie favorites.)

weshowwhatwehavelearnedcoverWe certainly felt cool when we read an early copy of the magnificent We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams. It’s the fall release from Lookout Books, a tiny press based in North Carolina we came to trust after they gave the world Edith Pearlman’s award-winning book of short-stories, Binocular Vision, and the first novel from Matthew Neill Null, Honey From the Lion. (His volume of short stories, Allegheny Frontcame out this year from Sarabande Books.) Beams’ new book of deliciously creepy stories feels like what you’d get if you mixed the sharp, elegant writing of Megan Mayhew Bergman with the surreal sense of Margaret Atwood (and maybe threw in a dash of Stephen King?). It’ll be a Parnassus staff pick the minute it comes out later this month.

Bonus for those with tight book budgets: Small press books are often produced as paperbacks, making them particularly affordable. (For writers: Indie publishers are often willing to invest in a new voice if they love your work and feel they can get behind it. Check out Poets & Writers magazine’s directory of small presses.)

What are your favorite books from small presses? Chime in on Facebook or Twitter and let us know. Now, for the ultimate indie experience . . . get your indie press books from an indie bookstore! Here’s your shopping list:

The Argonauts Cover Image

The Argonauts

 Citizen: An American Lyric Cover Image

Citizen: An American Lyric

 Margaret the First Cover Image

Margaret the First

 Grace Cover Image

Grace

 The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship Cover Image

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

Sleeping on Jupiter Cover Image

Sleeping on Jupiter

 The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood Cover Image

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

The Hidden Keys Cover Image  

The Hidden Keys

Allegheny Front Cover ImageAllegheny Front

By Matthew Neill Null, Lydia Millet (Introduction by)

Honey from the Lion Cover Image

Honey from the Lion

Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories Cover Image

Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories

We Show What We Have Learned: And Other Stories Cover Image

We Show What We Have Learned: And Other Stories

The Babysitter at Rest Cover Image

The Babysitter at Rest

Suite for Barbara Loden Cover ImageSuite for Barbara Loden