The Writer as Publisher: Sarah Gorham/Sarabande Books

Thanks to advancements in digital publishing technology, a growing number of writers who are disenchanted with the products of mainstream publishing houses have become independent publishers, offering opportunities to writers like themselves to produce works that would typically be overlooked by the larger companies. But despite the accessibility of publishing, it is still a business and requires a somewhat different skill set than does writing. In this series of brief interviews, Delphi Quarterly talks to some successful writers who have also made careers in the publishing end, to determine the difficulties and rewards involved in working both ends of the writing spectrum.

Our first subject is Sarah Gorham, President of Sarabande Books, Inc.

gorham, sarah-5Sarah Gorham is the author of four collections of poetry: Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011), The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003), The Tension Zone (Four Way Books, 1996, second edition 1998), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (Galileo Press, 1989). Individual poems have been published in Best American Poetry 2006, American Poetry Review, Pool, Gettysburg Review, Antaeus, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Open City, Georgia Review, and Southern Review, among other places. Her essays have appeared in Iowa Review, Agni, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Arts & Letters, Real Simple, and Poets & Writers. She has received grants and fellowships from the Kentucky, Connecticut, and Delaware State Arts Councils, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In March 1994, Gorham founded Sarabande Books, Inc., a small press devoted to the publication of poetry, short fiction, and literary nonfiction. Gorham serves as President and Editor-in-Chief. She is the wife of poet Jeffrey Skinner, the mother of Laura and Bonnie Skinner, and the grandmother of Lucille Elizabeth and Josephine Kathryn Renda.

Sarabande Books is a literary arts organization that publishes poetry, short fiction, and literary essay, genres that increasingly have trouble finding a place in the for-profit publishing world. They provide a home for works of exceptional literary quality, disperse these works with diligence and integrity, and serve as an educational resource to teachers, students, and readers of creative writing.

Sarabande sponsors The Morton Prize in Poetry and The McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, both judged by distinguished writers. They also offer regional publishing opportunities through The Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, as well as the Flo Gault Student Poetry Prize. Sarabande publishes between ten and twelve collections by both new and established writers each year.

This interview was conducted by Delphi Quarterly Co-Editor Joe Ponepinto via email.

JP: What made you decide to get into publishing in the first place?

SG: I wasn’t comfortable teaching, and found free-lance writing unrewarding, so publishing seemed like a viable option. But it remained a pipe dream till an anonymous donor suggested now (1993) would be a good time to offer some good news to writers of the unsung genres. Anything connected with contemporary literature was ideal and this was an opportunity to building something from scratch, to give back to those teachers, writers, readers, etc. who had so helped me and my husband in our literary careers.

JP: What were some of the hurdles you encountered, particularly those you didn’t expect? How did you overcome them?

SG: We were turned down on our first application for 501-C-# status, but reapplied successfully, this time using a lawyer in D.C. who knew the IRS and literary publishing. Other issues remain: how to involve and attract board members; how to handle the bane of the publishing industry-book returns; how to keep smart, capable staff members happy and challenged; how to raise money and keep donors committed over the long term. Plenty to keep me up at night.

JP: Did you have previous editing/publishing experience?

SG: Prior to founding Sarabande, I had ample editing experience but had never worked as a publisher. I spent all of 1993 researching the independent publishing business.

JP: What’s your business model: is everything done in house or do you contract work such as copyediting, proofreading, cover design, etc?

SG: Sarabande has four full-time staff members and two interns, who rotate through three times a year. All pre-press activity is conducted in our offices, including editing, typesetting, and design. Marketing, fundraising, and educational projects are also performed by staff members, in office. Distribution is handled by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. Printing goes to Friesens in South Dakota and Bookmobile in Minneapolis.

JP: How has publishing interfaced with your writing? Do you write more? Less? How do you balance the demands of each discipline?

SG: I write less, though I’ve found that rising early and going at it for a couple of hours before the day starts certainly helps. My general productivity seems unaffected so far, thanks to this discipline (I was always a slow writer anyway). What I’m missing is reading and meditative time. Also, as I age, getting up in the morning chill and dark is not so pleasant. What publishing has taught me about writing is how important it is to be aware of what other people are writing. Nothing like receiving 4,000 manuscripts a year to see that angels, or chaos theory, or numbered sections in essays are all fads and probably best avoided.

JP: Have you been strongly influenced by the writers you decide to publish? For example, do you find you’ve opened your own writing to new styles and techniques you’ve encountered through publishing others?

SG: Certainly. I added essay collections to our initial mission because I found the form great fun and the field full of innovation and excitement.

JP: How has your artistic vision been affected by your publishing experience? Are you more attuned to the commercial aspects of writing?

SG: Well, yes, we now look at sales potential in acquiring manuscripts. But it never becomes the top concern. I think we’ve expanded our idea of excellence by looking more closely at form, structure, and how a writer reinvents the art.

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