Indie Spotlight: McPherson & Company

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McPherson & Company began with a simple mission just over 40 years ago. Bruce McPherson was enamored of his friend Jaimy Gordon’s manuscript Shamp of the City-Solo, so when Gordon was unable to find a publisher, he decided to put it out himself. While he didn’t intend to continue in the publishing world, the novel’s success convinced him otherwise.

McPherson has since put out two more of Gordon’s novels, including 2010’s National Book Award Winner Lord of Misrule, as well as more than a hundred fifty award-winning and best-selling titles that expand far beyond the realm of contemporary fiction.

McPherson & Co. now publishes translations, such as Divine Punishment by Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, which Carlos Fuentes lauded as “the quintessential Central American novel,” and a fantastic line of “Recovered Classics,” republishing authors whose work has been long out of print, including modernist writer Mary Butts and poet and essayist Edward Dahlberg. Plus, there are books on art and culture, belles lettres, and even some esoteric film DVDs of early art “happenings” by Claes Oldenberg.

Almost as impressive as McPherson & Co.’s wide range of offerings is the company’s support of independent bookstores. McPherson carefully manages its distribution, sending titles to independent bookstores weeks before they’re available elsewhere, with the rationale that independent bookstores inevitably support “independent writers from independent publishers,” and deserve McPherson’s support in return.

For Ploughshares readers and authors, McPherson shares how he’s remained independent these four decades, what he looks for in a McPherson title, and where McPherson is headed in the 21st century.

KF: McPherson has had an amazing run since its inception as Treacle Press in 1974. It’s almost a given at this point that every year a McPherson title will win national recognition, whether it’s an Independent Publisher IPPY award, a Pen Center or National Book Award, or inclusion on any number of “best of” lists. What editorial decisions regarding manuscripts do you think contribute to this level of excellence?

BM: It may sound pretentious to say that I simply publish books that seem to me important and worth sharing. But as an independent publisher, without directors and shareholders, I’m free to take risks that others perhaps can’t. I go for the best I can find (or who find me), and throw everything I’ve got behind the books I choose to do. It’s not really all that hard these days to find material of the highest quality. The Big Six still publish excellent books, of course, but seem to have relinquished entire provinces of literature to smaller publishers. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet and become friends with writers not only from around the country, but from around the world. Add to this that it’s not uncommon for my authors to point their friends in my direction. Sadly, the front list is very small, three or four books a year. I can’t begin to take on all the books I’d like to publish, and it’s painful having to disappoint authors whose work I revere. At the Book Expo America the other day, a Canadian publisher said he thought we’re living in a golden age of literary publishing. I believe him; the difficulty comes with convincing the reading public.

KF: It’s clear McPherson cultivates relationships with authors that seem quite collaborative—for example your decades-long work with Jaimy Gordon. What do you think is unique about the editorial process and author relationships at McPherson?

BM: Historically, literary presses have played key roles in establishing authors whose work challenged the mainstream and ultimately changed the direction of writing (and thought, and vision, and culture). For the U.S., think New Directions (Pound, Williams, H.D.), City Lights (Ginsburg), and Black Sparrow (Bukowski). I forget when I realized that a major difference between European and American publishers, at least when regarding the mainstream old schools, is that the former tend to publish authors and the latter tend to publish books. For a long time, then, I’ve tried to emulate the European model. When I can, I play the long game: publish more than one book and try to carefully build an author’s reputation. One result: many of my authors have been among my best friends, and I consider all of them at the very least to be honorary members of my extended family, even if some might cringe at the thought. Ah well, that’s family. Publishing is personal. I credit them all for my being the publisher and person that I am.

KF: Editors occasionally grumble about how the proliferation of writing programs in the U.S. has sucked the life out of literary fiction. Do you see this as a problem? What, in a manuscript, makes you sit up and take notice?

BM: I’m certain that writing programs have a salutatory effect on the quality of their graduates’ ability to comprehend complexity. There are thousands upon thousands of really smart people who have engaged with imaginative literature at a very deep level at American MFA programs, and what could possibly be deleterious about that? Tens of thousands of college students play intercollegiate basketball, but every year only a hundred or so ever become professional basketball players, and of those only a handful eventually become “names.” Writing well is much more difficult than basketball. Writing exceptionally well is a gift, a curse, a freakish genetic accident, an unimaginable capacity for grace and clarity and vision and imagination and je ne sais quoi. Let’s face it, only an infinitesimally small number of each year’s writing MFA’s will publish books “successfully” and become “professionals.” But that’s not necessarily their purpose. A liberal education seeks to enrich the quality of life, not merely provide vocational schooling. All the better, then, for those communities whose MFA’s enter work environments that call upon their interpretive and creative skills. Meanwhile, exceptional writers don’t seem to be affected by writing programs. They amaze, often as not, by coming out of “nowhere.” When the work of such a writer crosses my desk, what makes me “sit up and take notice” is a feeling of utter incredulity.

KF: One of your newest titles, Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-Four Women Writers Remember Their Fathers, is a remarkable anthology of personal essays by an amazing range of women writers—Maxine Hong Kingston, Susan Perabo, Bliss Broyard, Alice Munro, Nancy McCabe and so many more. How did this book come to your attention? Will there be more anthologies like this?

BM: All credit to Margaret McMullan, the editor. It was her project, an unexpected result of the grief she felt over the loss of her father several years ago. Eventually, after several disappointments with other publishers, she found me—you’d have to ask her exactly how and why—and my initial response was “NO, anthologies are too difficult to market and promote.” On more careful reflection (and a bit of due diligence), I warmed to the challenge, and when we exchanged messages and eventually spoke, I recognized a kindred spirit, someone with whom I could work collaboratively with ease and pleasure. I especially enjoyed creating an innovative launch for the book nationally a few Saturdays ago at seven bookstores and one writing center simultaneously, presenting fifteen of the book’s contributors at their local indy bookstores and connecting them via Skype (a noble if tech-tattered success). I’m told no one’s done such a thing before, though it seems an ideal approach for essay collections and such. Every Father’s Daughter has been (and continues to be) an engaging and worthwhile project; whether there will be sequels or spin-offs are ideas we’re still exploring.

KF: From the beginning, McPherson & Co. has clearly existed and continued thanks to your own blood, sweat, and tears. While you gratefully acknowledge contributions by designers and artists for your cover art and website, you don’t list an editorial staff. At the risk of sounding a bit grim, will McPherson only continue as long as you are at its helm?

BM: An interesting question, and one that occasionally hovers around my back brain. I have a wife and two children; perhaps one of them might take up the reins in ten or twenty or thirty years, when I retire or expire, whichever comes first. But I consider that prospect a bit far-fetched; they have their own dreams. In the meantime, I don’t mind imagining this as having been a more or less solo venture (discounting all the contributions from friends and authors and designers, which cannot in the least be actually discounted) that will not disappear, so long as some part, no matter how small, of the work prepared and presented and produced under the rubric McPherson & Company lives on.