Indie Spotlight: Sarabande Books

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Founded in 1994 in Louisville, Kentucky by Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner, Sarabande Books began with a mission to publish and distribute with “diligence and integrity” books of poetry, short fiction and essays. Their first two titles appeared 20 years ago as winners of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry (this year’s reading period for both prizes opens March 15). Now Sarabande publishes 10 to 12 titles per year and has added two regional prizes—The Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature and The Flo Gault Poetry Prize for Kentucky Undergraduates.

Even the shortest selection of Sarabande’s most recent titles shows the press’s impact on contemporary American literature. Kerry Howley’s collection of essays on the lives of two cage fighters, Thrown, made at least a half-dozen “best of” lists in 2014, Caitlin Horrocks‘ collection of stories This Is Not Your City earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers distinction in 2011, and Amy Gustine’s collected stories You Should Pity Us Instead with a hot-off-the-press February 2016 publication date is already piling up a year’s worth of accolades.

Adding to their award-winning offerings in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, Sarabande has published a varied and valuable collection of anthologies as well as their Quarternote Chapbooks, a remarkable series of titles from contemporary American poets including Stephen Dunn, Louise Glück, C.K. Williams, and James Tate.

Sarabande’s careful expansion over the years extends beyond book publication. The press produces the online resource Sarabande in Education, which provides reading guides and interactive material for educators, runs a writers’ residency program at Bernheim Arboretum and Research forest near Louisville, and operates Sarabande Writing Labs, which delivers arts education to underserved communities in Kentucky.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham shares her insights on Sarabande’s place in independent publishing today, and gives readers and writers a preview of where the press is headed in the immediate future.

KF: Sarabande’s first two titles were Lee Martin’s short fiction collection The Least You Need to Know, and Jane Mead’s poetry collection The Lord and the General Din of the World. Martin has since gone on to publish several books of fiction and nonfiction and been nominated for the Pulitzer; Mead has collected Guggenheim, Lannan, and Whiting accolades. That’s quite a one-two punch for your first two authors, and your track record of plucking talent from the slushpile and prize entrants continues to be strong. What distinguishes a Sarabande author? How exciting is it to see your writers rise in respect and recognition?

SG: My board once asked me to encapsulate (in just a few words) a typical Sarabande title. Difficult task! What I came up with back then sounds something like this: Elegant and accomplished on the surface, with a wild underside. OR: Urgency of subject matter coupled with fresh, startling language. OR: Innovation in language grounded in feeling and existential questioning.

Obviously no phrase adequately describes the large variety of titles we have published. On one hand there are the essays by Elena Passarello of her forthcoming Animals Strike Curious Poses. They including “Sackerson,” about the baited bear immortalized in The Merry Wives of Windsor and written as 150 lines of blank verse, all arranged into prose paragraphs relaying the panicked rhythm of 16th century London.

On the other hand, there’s You Should Pity Me Instead, which on the surface is “conventional,” but beautifully crafted, intense, wise, and filled with an uncanny attention to character. Thrown is nonfiction with an unusual, fictional narrator. We also have the pointillist ekphrastic poetry of Paula Bohince’s Swallows and Waves and the sensuously complex, deeply observed poems of Chord, by Rick Barot, which examine art, but also cultural privilege and colonialism. The writing in all these examples is excellent and the voices unique. You can easily discern the individuals behind the work.

KF: Sarabande recently opened an office in New York. What’s behind this expansion? Are other satellite offices planned? How have Sarabande’s challenges evolved as the press has become so established?

SG: Our satellite office is actually in Brooklyn, at A Public Space—affordable and well situated in that amazing, literature-loving borough. It’s a bit of a financial stretch as is, so we I doubt we’ll be opening any other locations.

The advantages are huge. Ariel Lewiton, Director of Marketing, can visit reviewers year-round, as often as she wishes. For example, she’s known for pounding the pavement till she gets the best IndieNext nominations from booksellers. Our Managing Editor, Kristen Radtke, who is also involved in acquisitions, has in-person meetings with agents. Both women attend multiple literary events—prize ceremonies, book launches, readings, local book fairs, and more. Here they socialize with other literary people in a casual way. A few years ago, we were able to fly into NYC two or three times a year, at best. The field is so crowded, it’s easy for a reviewer to forget a publisher in-between visits. The new office has really raised our profile.

The challenges we’re facing are not new, nor are they exclusive to this literary press. We’re a small staff (three in Louisville, two in Brooklyn, plus interns) and everyone wears a lot of hats. The opportunities for growth are many and we have to be careful not to overreach. I am in awe of the multi-faceted industry of my staff. But I don’t want them to burn out, as valuable as our work is. Just to give you one example: our Publishing Assistant Danika Isdahl just updated, revised, and transferred 9000 contacts so we could use more agile, cloud-based software. She’s been working since October and still has more than 2000 to go.

Fundraising too presents ongoing challenges. Finding new donors when sustainers move on, defining our value in local communities (some folks here still think we’re a bookstore), and underlining the importance and necessity of the literary arts, etc.

KF: While not a regional press, Sarabande shows a strong commitment to its community. What’s the motivation for Sarabande’s connection? What would you say have been some rewards resulting from Sarabande’s community involvement?

SG: Since the beginning, we’ve initiated small educational efforts that engage people locally; that’s just part of being good literary citizens. Sarabande Writing Labs, founded by Programming and Development Director Kristen Miller, is our first comprehensive effort, specifically focused on underserved women (homeless, addicts-in-recovery, bereaved mothers, the mentally disabled, veterans, refugees, etc.). At this point we have many organizations and facilities requesting participation, more than we can handle, so Kristen is creating training materials to assist teachers with their own groups. It’s incredibly rewarding for all involved. And it has the added benefit of putting our staff and mission directly in front of new readers and donors. Local coverage has been plentiful, thank goodness. 

KF: Sarabande is so established now, undiscovered writers might be cowed at sending their manuscripts your way. What do you recommend to prospective Sarabande authors?

SG: I would hope that our reputation would encourage writers to submit more than ever. We have a number of avenues, too. And just because someone is rejected doesn’t mean a writer has no hope of ever signing up with Sarabande. Several authors on our list tried multiple times before getting a contract. This is particularly true in the contest arena, where judges and screeners change annually.

We’ve always taken finalists into consideration for our list, and published more than a few. There was a time when I read nearly all the manuscripts delivered to our door (remember, no Submittable). Now, by necessity and like most small presses, we hire experienced readers for the initial screening. And we’re moving toward making decisions as a team.