Arts & Culture

Start the Presses!

If the printed word is dying, small, independent presses might just be its savior.

Twenty-some years ago, you could find a young Amanda McCormick shut inside a room somewhere, piecing together books by hand, pasting images together, stapling, taping, creating.

Fast-forward to 2019, and not much has changed. As a professor of book arts at the University of Baltimore, McCormick has made publishing books—and teaching others how to publish books—her life’s work. She’s also the founder of Ink Press Productions, which publishes limited-edition, handmade books and hosts events.

“This is what I was meant to do—this is everything,” McCormick says, sitting at a table in the Book Arts Studio at UB. Shelves of intricate handmade books line the walls alongside an old letterpress printer. “Books started as a vessel for the Age of Enlightenment, to give voice to people who don’t always get a voice,” she says. “And I think that books continue to do that. I think that’s the tradition of publishing, and that’s how it exists for us, too. It can be a really empowering art form.”

Ink Press’ mission is to blur the lines between writing, visual, and performance art. They reimagine the typical book launch, for instance, by creating multi-sensory events that incorporate themes and tones of the book being released—like a carnival-themed party at the Windup Space for She Named Him Michael, the true story of a chicken that got its head cut off, lived for another 18 months, and was sold to a freak show—instead of just having an author stand in front of a room reading book excerpts.

Ink Press is one of several small presses in the city, and more crop up every year, coinciding with a national trend. In Baltimore, these independent publishers, each with its own mission and niche, run the gamut from tiny, one-person operations to the oldest small press in Maryland, which has published books for nearly 50 years.

While small presses have been on the rise—and large presses like JHU Press hold steady—the industry has largely been monopolized by “the big five”—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. With more and more writers and fewer and fewer traditional publishing houses, many writers, new and established alike, are turning to smaller presses, which offer more cachet than self-publishing. Plus, most authors still want a physical copy of their book, rather than a digital version—and readers do, too.

Despite predictions that the e-book was going to kill the paperback, studies indicate the contrary. While periodicals have been on the decline, print books are making a comeback, with sales rising steadily in recent years. It turns out, people still relish holding a good book in their hands. There’s the romantic notion of lounging on a beach, novel in tow. There’s also the practicality of it—you can’t dog-ear, highlight, or scribble notes in an e-book, or store it on a shelf to start your own collection, or gift it to someone else. Plus, that book smell. The reasons are as many and varied as the presses that are publishing them.

“We thought students were reading on Kindles . . . but they actually adore books.”

You might wonder why someone like Dorothy Van Soest chose to work with Loyola University’s student-run Apprentice House Press. The Seattle-based author had published several academic books through traditional publishers but reached out to Apprentice House after she’d written her first novel. The small press is the first in the country to be run by college students, though other schools have since created similar programs.

“It was such a good match,” Van Soest says. “I was way more comfortable thinking about working with students than with a big publishing company, where you’re lucky to get a phone call, and you lose say over things such as the cover design. With Apprentice House, I could still be involved.”

She has since published three novels with the press, working with a different batch of students each time, as well as director Kevin Atticks, the linchpin who keeps the program running smoothly.

“We have so many students interested in writing and books, which is fascinating to us as faculty, because we thought books were going away,” Atticks says. “We thought students were reading on Kindles and iPads, but it turns out, they actually adore books.”

About a third of their authors are local. On the one-year anniversary of the Capital Gazette shooting, June 28, they released Love Punch & Other Collected Columns by Rob Hiaasen.

The program was originally just one course that educated students about the book publishing process, but advances in printing technology made it feasible to put together an entire book in one semester. They began in 2002 and now publish 15-18 books each year, all of which are typically released in the fall, as a new batch of manuscripts comes in for another group of students.

The curriculum is structured into three divisions: acquisitions, design, and marketing. While the students don’t engage in formal marketing, they do work with the authors to develop marketing plans.

“They really did their research and had great marketing ideas,” Van Soest recalls. “One student created a mockup interview that I could submit to a radio station. That really got me thinking in a whole new way.”

Two longstanding staples in the Baltimore literary scene are BrickHouse Books and Black Classic Press.

Founded in 1970, BrickHouse is Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press.

“[BrickHouse founder] Michael Egan and I both thought a press dedicated to getting a person’s first book out was a good idea—because we were both 29 years old at the time and struggling to get our first books out,” says Clarinda Harriss, who has been the editor of BrickHouse since 1973. “In those days, self-publishing was a big no-no, career-wise.”

Some might say she was destined for the role: her father, R.P. Harriss, was an editor of The Evening Sun and good friends with H.L. Mencken. She works from home in her father’s former office, while a team of volunteer editors, a proofreader, and a designer work offsite to publish books each year across all genres, limiting press runs to under 1,200.

Black Classic Press, an African-American book publishing company, began shortly after BrickHouse, in 1978, making it one of the oldest black indie presses in the country. Founding director W. Paul Coates began the company as a means to publish—and also re-publish and bring back into circulation—books by and about African Americans and the black diaspora. It has also grown over the decades to become a printing service for other publishers and various companies and nonprofits, with five digital presses operating onsite at its offices in Halethorpe.

“We’re not looking for a typical murder mystery . . . we want to push the bounds of what is literary.”

A smaller operation, CityLit Press has garnered attention, too. It began in 2010 as an offshoot of CityLit Project, whose mission is to elevate the literary arts scene in the Baltimore region through readings, an annual festival, and, of course, books. Founder Gregg Wilhelm had worked with independent publishers since 1992 and saw a small publishing operation as another way to support writers. CityLit typically publishes books by area authors, including occasional Baltimore contributor Rafael Alvarez, or on subject matter that ties into the region.

Wilhelm essentially runs the press on his own—soliciting manuscripts, working with writers, and even designing the layout and covers.

Some Baltimore presses serve a very precise niche. Press Press, for example, is an interdisciplinary publishing initiative known for its commitment to bringing forth the stories and experiences of underrepresented voices and narratives. Collective members operate a storefront studio and library in Baltimore, which serves as a gathering place to share ideas, a space for immigrant- and refugee-only workshops for youth, an open studio that’s accessible to the public, and a venue for events that coincide with publishing projects. Press Press came onto the scene in 2014 and recently expanded to operate in Los Angeles as well, when founder Kimi Hanauer relocated there. Its massive 2018 release, Sentiments: Expressions of Cultural Passage, was praised widely and garnered national attention.

Gwen Van Velsor aims to serve underrepresented voices as well but focuses on women who are local to the Baltimore area. While she was living in Colorado, she started a writing group at Yellow Arrow Coffee, which she says mostly turned into a group therapy session where those sitting around a table would commiserate about how hard it is to get published. After moving to Baltimore in 2015, Van Velsor created Yellow Arrow Publishing when she wanted to publish her own book.

“At the end of the day, the publishing process was really tough. I wished I’d had more of a support system,” says Van Velsor. “I just wanted to put this book out into the world and move on with my life!”

What started as a way to rectify her own publishing woes soon became a way to support other writers, particularly women, whom Van Velsor says are underrepresented in the literary world. The press also puts out a biannual literary journal, showcasing creative nonfiction and poetry by women. All the printing and binding is done by hand at Van Velsor’s home in Highlandtown. Van Velsor gets a particular kick out of seeing where her authors will go.

“Being on the other side of publishing now, I love that part of it: seeing an author invited to give a reading, seeing that spark,” she says.

Baltimore’s Mason Jar Press has a noteworthy niche, too, but it’s difficult to put into words just what they publish.

“We think of it as the approachable avant-garde,” says editor-in-chief Ian Anderson.

Take, for example, Notes From My Phone*—a memoir that Michelle Junot accidentally wrote on her phone, complete with dreams she jotted down, notes about her day, prayers, and grocery lists.

“We’re not looking for your typical murder mystery,” Anderson says. “I like those stories—I write those stories—but we want to push the bounds of what is literary.”

Like Ink Press Productions, some small presses put a strong focus on the aesthetics and the handcrafted quality of their products. They believe in following the credo of “form follows function.”

“E-books are great . . . but there’s no relationship with the book there. There’s no personality.”

Akinoga, Mychael Zulauf’s one-person operation, is such a press. After graduating from UB’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program, Zulauf wanted to stay connected with the community they’d met there. Zulauf started the press, as well as a podcast, as a means to keep working with writers.

Akinoga typically releases one book a year, each designed very intentionally—hand-bound, eye-catching—and printed in small runs, usually of 60. “E-books are great if you wanna have access to a ton of books, but there’s no relationship with the book there. There’s no personality,” Zulauf says. “I tend to fold and tear all my covers, as opposed to cutting them, and they just seem much more intimate and inviting. They want to be picked up. If you’re gonna take the time to do a physical book, I think you really need to lean into the physicality of it and ask, is it gonna have a deckle edge? Is it gonna be glossy or matte? All of those questions.” (You won’t find an ISBN or a blurb on the back of any of their books either.)

Container takes it a step further. Founded and run by Jenni B. Baker and Douglas Luman, this unorthodox press transforms the written word into art objects. Although they just relocated from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, the press is credited as having a huge impact on the local indie press scene with its out-of-the-box projects. Recent releases have included Saw Palmettos, a set of short poems from transgender poet Charles Theonia, which was presented as a series of 21 tincture bottles housed in a wooden stand and documenting Theonia’s experience beginning hormone replacement therapy and putting saw palmetto oil on their scalp to ward off hair loss. Another poetry collection was presented as a series of origami gemstones. Looks Books is a subscription series where subscribers receive a View-Master and five “books” presented on View-Master reels. The most recent project is Colette LaBouff’s Holdings, an accordion book comprised of individual library cards whose prose and photography form a narrative set inside a library.

Perhaps Joseph Young takes the idea of “form follows function” the furthest of all. In 2017, MicroFiction RowHouse was born when he transformed his entire Hampden home into a life-sized storybook. He’d dabbled in making photo transfers of his stories in galleries but wanted to create something on a larger scale. He checked in with his own landlord, Donna Sellinger, who happened to be part of the Wham City arts collective and gave him the okay to transform his rowhome. Microfiction is strewn throughout—photocopy-transferred in large, block letters on its walls, beds, even on the front porch—telling the story of the fictional family who lives there.

He doesn’t operate a small press, per se, but recently published his book Always Never Speaking under the RowHouse imprint. In May, he held his book launch at the house, one of several literary events he has held there, but rather than read passages to a crowd, he organized what he titled “300 Seconds: Live Magazine,” allowing writers to take the microphone for no longer than 300 seconds to share stories.

Is this the future of literature?

If one thing is certain, it’s that books will survive—in forms both old and new—and it’s small presses that will make them accessible to writers and readers alike.