Indie Spotlight: Unbridled Books

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imgresUnbridled Books was founded in 2003 by co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, who together have more than 50 years experience in publishing plus a terrific track record for finding and promoting literary fiction that sells in the commercial market. Self-described as an independent publisher focused on producing books that are “moving, beautiful, and surprising,” Unbridled’s list is an international patchwork of well-told tales set everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Afghanistan, as well as America coast-to-coast. For the Ploughshares blog, Ramey and Michalson share the secrets of their indie success as well as what makes a writer Unbridled.

KF: While your press publishes stories from across the country and around the globe, what seems to bind Unbridled books together is a life-affirming humanity. Even in the inherent tragedy of Solveig Eggerz’s World War II-era novel Seal Woman or in the dark criminal underworld of Ed Falco’s Toughs, for example, there exists a spirit of hope and survival that can be difficult to find in these cynical times. What attracts you, as editors, to these types of novels? 

GM: I don’t mind dark, but I’m not much interested in “despair and die.” I’ll leave that to other publishers. If a reader is going to invest the time and energy into a book I publish I’d prefer there was some pay-off that affirms something about the world. Writing, after all, is in the end a hopeful enterprise. 

FR: We’ve published a good many novels that go to dark places in the heart, but I think you’re right. We’re probably less interested in novels that are all razors and needles. It seems we’re drawn more to the story that is finally in some way affirming and that knows full well why and how it got there. This isn’t a question of our being—or the authors’ being—idealistic.

KF: What common pitfalls do you see in manuscripts that come close at Unbridled, but don’t make the cut? What catches your eye in a query?

FR: What catches me in a query is the opening paragraph of the manuscript. There are, I think, any number of reasons that a novel—even a strong novel—isn’t quite what we’re looking for. I hope we’re clear about those reasons when we respond to submissions, and I hope we’re encouraging whenever a manuscript comes close.

GM: I agree with Fred, the opening is crucial. But, really, a manuscript has to have everything these days. It can’t live on a single strength.

KF: Your reputation–at Unbridled, but also previously at MacMurray & Beck and at BlueHen Books–has been one of publishing manuscripts that are both literary and commercial. What qualities give literary manuscripts an edge in a commercial market? What might make a title too literary for a wider audience?

FR: I often call our books “commercial literature.” By that I mean they’re all formed by a unique insight and perspective and still offer up enough ways for us to describe them that we believe we can put both the stories and the characters into the book-life context of a sizable readership. While the ideal Unbridled book is unfamiliar and surprising it’s also driven along the kind of quest that engaged readers want to think about. 

GM: I’m becoming a little more comfortable calling what we do “literary,” though I actually like to talk about it as “quality fiction.” I want a sense of wonder and surprise, but also a good story with plenty at stake for both the characters and the reader. The books we do are more character and voice driven than plot driven, but they still need to be about something and build that dramatic tension that drives them forward.

KF: Before forming Unbridled, you had long careers in commercial publishing. Is there anything you miss about being with a big publishing house? What do you not miss at all?

GM: The big houses have more resources, especially for designated books. But among the downsides is that you have such a short window before you have to move on, so a novel has to get a quick start. The kind of books we do tend to need more time and personal attention to reach their readership than a commercial house can give them. We can be more flexible and our egos stay behind every book we bring out. 

FR: Sometimes it does seem that all the attention goes to books from legacy imprints, which can make our work as independent editors and publishers long and sometimes convoluted. But I don’t think either of us at all misses trying to describe and champion a unique novel, a novel that’s not just for the current season, inside a corporate publishing environment with a railroad schedule.

KF: Unbridled makes a strong commitment to promoting and cultivating its authors. What role do you think authors need to play in the promotion of their titles? And is it a little bittersweet to see authors you’ve invested so much in move on to commercial publishers–for example, Emily St. John Mandel to Knopf or Timothy Schaffert to Riverhead/Penguin–or does that just go with the territory?

GM: While the places where it happens are changing, books still sell the same way they always have: through the author and by word of mouth. The rise of social media and the shrinking of print review space means the authors’ role in promoting their work is probably more crucial now than ever. 

     It’s the reality with small presses that sooner or later the commercial houses will outbid us for our successful authors. I’m genuinely happy for them when that happens, though of course at the same time we’d like to keep them if we could.

FR: It wasn’t all that long ago that publishers, and everyone else in the effort, recognized it can take a while for an author to find a readership. We all know the structural changes that have limited most of the opportunities for that to happen. But the reward we have repeatedly enjoyed in our careers is reaching that breakthrough moment alongside our authors. Bittersweet is a good word. We really are pleased—and proud—when authors we’ve long championed find success like Emily and Timothy. But, of course, we cheer even louder when notice comes to an author whose books carry our colophon…. There are many more authors on our list who we know celebration is going to find.

KF: Any developments on the horizon for Unbridled? What titles can we look forward to curling up with in the near future? 

FR: With new novels from Elise Blackwell, Virginia Pye, and Frederick Reuss coming soon, there should be plenty on the Unbridled list to reward people who know what our imprint stands for. Those authors are outright masterful. Greg and I have also long been proud of our record in introducing new authors, publishing fresh voices, first novels. Shann Ray’s American Copper and other new voices have us full of hope. Other debuts are in the works, too. And we’re going to expand our non-fiction offerings in 2016. You know, at some point a few years ago our motto became “More to come.”

GM: I love our upcoming lists, but then I always do. Right now, I’m having a blast working with Shann Ray and Virginia Pye on their novels for this fall.  

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