Piscataqua Press is a unique publishing project operating out of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. RiverRun Bookstore, managed by Tom Holbrook, is a hub of the literary community north of Boston, hosting at least a hundred readings and events each year; Piscataqua Press, also managed by Holbrook, utilizes the latest print-on-demand technology to publish a variety of titles.
Along with a small selection of titles that were published via the traditional editorial process, such as Denis Lipman’s Striking Terror, a YA thriller set in the Middle East, and The Unquiet Daughter, a fascinating memoir by Danielle Flood, “a New York journalist, born of the true wartime love triangle that inspired the one in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American,” Piscataqua also publishes a handful of classics, plus “pay to publish” titles that run the gamut from children’s books to poetry to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. In addition, Piscataqua operates a book prize that changes genre yearly—in 2016 the press accepted entries for novels—with a reading fee of $50.
For Ploughshares, Tom Holbrook shares his motivation for beginning the press, how selections are made, and what he thinks are the editorial responsibilities of working with “pay to publish” titles.
Kate Flaherty: Running an independent bookstore alone is tricky enough financially. What made you decide to begin a press as well? And how do you think print-on-demand technology has changed the financial picture for publishers as well as bookstores?
Tom Holbrook: I think most indie bookstores that are surviving are doing something in addition to selling books. Either they have cafes, or sell a lot of card and gift products, etc. For me, the publishing fit my skill set better (I’m NOT a good gift/card buyer!!). We had a good friend of the store who was familiar with this kind of publishing, turned us onto it, and it has worked out well. It’s particularly nice in the off-season here to have something constructive to work on when you’re not shoveling snow. New technologies make it possible to get into this business with a very low capital investment.
KF: Although there are plenty of success stories regarding self-published authors, there remains a stubborn stigma about the literary quality of “pay to publish” books. What are your thoughts on Piscataqua’s role in this type of publishing?
TH: This stigma exists mostly with literary fiction, and I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. We are snobs, and we want it to say Knopf on the spine or to be reviewed in the NYT Book Review. But there are a lot of independent authors doing very well in genre fiction and other niche markets. Folks who read heavily in this area have always felt marginalized, and they don’t mind taking a chance on a book that has good Amazon or Goodreads reviews, even if it’s from an unknown publisher. Plus, a lot of what we do is truly what has been called “vanity” publishing—a family memoir or regional cookbook that is never going to be marketable, but is important to the person creating it. We make them a great-looking book without ripping them off. They are grateful, and we make money that we can use to support the bookstore and to publish other things we are excited about.
KF: You have no masthead for the press. What’s the editorial process for selecting manuscripts at Piscataqua? Who screens prize entries? How do you make your final decisions?
TH: Right now it’s all me. As we grow, that will likely change. I have some in-house help with design, and occasionally will hire an outside editor, but all the final decisions are mine. I say “We” a lot because it makes us seem bigger than we are, and it makes me feel not so alone. . .
KF: Along with publishing classics like James Joyce’s Dubliners and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Piscataqua also publishes the local classic Among the Isles of Shoals by Celia Thaxter. Do you see the press publishing more local titles like this? What else should readers expect from Piscataqua in the near future?
TH: We started that originally to keep our hand in the publishing between paid contracts, and recently we’ve been way too busy to get back to it. That said, I’d like to do Sarah Orne Jewett and a few other local greats. I’m also interested in doing more local history and photography if the opportunity is right. This entire endeavor has been unscripted, unplanned, and surprising. Add to that the fact that the technology keeps evolving, and who knows what we will be up to next. That’s part of the fun.