Indie Spotlight: Islandport Press

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Islandport Press of Yarmouth, Maine was founded by Dean Lunt in 1999 with the goal of publishing books that “capture and explore the grit, heart, beauty, and infectious spirit of the region by telling tales, real and imagined, rooted in the sense and sensibilities of New England.”

In the past fifteen years, Islandport has produced an impressive range of titles, from memoir to mystery, humor to travel, cooking, children’s books, and young adult novels. In addition to breadth, Islandport books have depth. Their authors include John Ford, Sr., whose books Suddenly the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good and This Cider Still Tastes Funny are collections of funny, heart-warming, and sometimes heart-breaking tales of his experiences as a Maine game warden and sheriff; Kate Christensen, whose How to Cook a Moose, winner of the Maine Literary Award for Memoir, is a mouth-watering and thought-provoking story of the culinary challenges and discoveries she faced when moving to Maine from Brooklyn; and photojournalist David Hill, who gathered stories and photos of the beautiful old beaten-up cars and trucks scattered through the northern woods of New England for his Full Service: Notes from the Rearview Mirror.

After sixteen years, Islandport has more than a hundred titles in print, all of which are carefully designed and handsomely produced. For Ploughshares, publisher Dean Lunt shares the inspiration behind Islandport Press, the qualities specific to an Islandport author, and what readers and writers can look for in the near future.

Kate Flaherty: There are other presses in New England publishing regional literature, memoir, humor and the like, so I have to ask what your motivation was for starting Islandport? What was the marketplace missing that you wanted Islandport to provide?

Dean Lunt: At the time, I didn’t necessarily think anything was missing, but I did feel there was room for more quality regional books. I felt given my heritage as a Maine island native and a journalist, as well as someone with a keen interest in the heritage and history of Maine, that I could help bring an authentic literary voice to marketplace and find people with real and compelling stories that weren’t being told. Even though we were a small press, we also focused on excellent design from the beginning to help establish a quality look and feel to our books.

KF: Islandport considers unagented submissions and queries, which is becoming more rare, even in the world of independent presses. What do you think is the value in remaining open to these types of submissions? Can you give an example of an unagented manuscript you’ve accepted?

DL: The majority of the books we publish are unagented. I think it is critical in a real literary and cultural sense that unagented writers have access to a traditional publishing avenue—writers who perhaps don’t want to self-publish and are not interested in working with a large publishing house. We have published excellent books from authors who don’t know how to find an agent, can’t find an agent, don’t want to find an agent, or who don’t have the confidence in their writing to initiate that process. It is important for a regional publisher to allocate the time and energy to discover those manuscripts and work in-depth with authors on editing, if necessary. Certainly, our mix is changing a bit as we grow, but many of our top authors were and remain unagented. These titles range from humor books like A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar to memoirs like The Cows are Out! and Shoutin’ into the Fog to nonfiction like Suddenly, the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good. In some cases, our releases may be the only book the author will publish, while others are by authors who are just finding their voice and we know they may soon sign with an agent and go on to find even more success. I think all of us at Islandport take pride in both giving voice to one-time authors as well as identifying talented authors (and illustrators) and helping launch their careers.

KF: You are a publisher and editor, but a writer as well, with two fascinating books of nonfiction: Here for Generations, a history of the Bangor Savings Bank and the city that founded it, which inevitably becomes a socioeconomic history of the region as well, and Hauling By Hand: the Life and Times of a Maine Island, a history of Frenchboro, Long Island, one of Maine’s last year-round island communities, which also happens to be where you grew up. Your own books are clear evidence of your commitment to preserving the history of this region, but Islandport publishes far beyond history and memoir. Children’s picture books, hard-boiled mysteries, humor, books of photography. How do you explain the scope of the press? How do you and  your staff manage such a diverse list?

DL: Well, first of all, we now have an incredibly talented team top to bottom that I would match-up against anyone in the industry. A publishing house simply can’t succeed long-term without talent, in part because so much of the process is just gut instinct and feel. Managing all of our books is done solely through dedication, hard work, efficiency, and identifying the critical parts of the process—there really are no short cuts. As for the scope, the baseline, as I always say, is storytelling. We want to tell great stories that have some basis in Maine and New England. We try to remember what we do well and what we don’t do well, from both an editing and marketing sense. For example, we don’t publish science fiction or poetry or international thrillers. Other people can do those better than we can. I think we do have a diverse list, but I think it is a cohesive list, and not one that is odd or eclectic. And finally, as we have grown we have added editors who bring different skills and interests to the press. For example, our children’s and middle reader list has been greatly developed and expanded, within our parameters, under the excellent guidance of editor Melissa Kim, while we have worked the edges of our adult list with help from editor Genevieve Morgan.

KF: The range of your titles also begs the question of what’s next for Islandport. What titles are you most excited about publishing next?

DL: We have another great line-up of books for 2017. But first, this November we are launching Islandport magazine, a quarterly, color, glossy magazine to help promote our books and serve as a new publishing channel. As for books, this fall we have G.A. Morgan’s middle grade novel, The Kinfolk, which is the conclusion to The Five Stones Trilogy. In Spring 2017, our titles include: ABC Gulls, a children’s picture book from Beth Rand; A Monarch Butterfly Story, a board book by Melissa Kim and Jada Fitch; True Bearing, a memoir by Maxwell Kennedy; and Settling Twice, a memoir by Deborah Joy Corey. In Fall 2017, we will release the fourth book in our Cooper and Packrat middle grade mystery series, and the young adult novel The Door to January by Gillian French, who will also see her debut young adult novel published this spring by HarperCollins.