NA: When I think of Sarabande Books, I think: what a beautiful name, what beautiful books, and what a great web site. So first, how did you come up with the name for the press?
SG: My husband and co-founder Jeffrey Skinner and I dreamt up a wish list of names, ran a preliminary check at the library (on one of those old-fashioned databases–this was 1993), and found them all taken by other publishers. So, we rummaged through indices of every sort: bird books, astronomy dictionaries, etc. and settled on two beautiful names: Sarabande Books, and Stanza Books, neither of which were registered in the databases. I still believe “Stanza (meaning “room” in Italian) Books” would make a great name for a poetry publisher, but we were devoted to short fiction too, so it was a little misleading. Plus the word “sarabande” has such an interesting history: a “sex dance” originating in the New World, imported to Spain, where it was banned in 1583 under penalty of death. Later, civilized by the English, German, French. The world suggested the kind of literature we look for: accomplished and elegant on the surface, with a wild underside.
NA: Tell me about the process of creating such lovely books. Do you have a staff book designer or several designers? Do you ask the authors to look for cover art or to help create their own cover art?
SG: For the first 15 years, we used Charles Casey Martin as our designer and production manager. He’s a writer himself with a meticulous and elegant approach to producing books. But he took off for Panama, and later, other Central American countries with the Peace Corps, so my managing editor Kirby Gann moved into design and typeset. The transition was amazingly smooth, thanks to the visual and organizational talents of both. Our “look” is now more contemporary, I think, with clean, bright colors, a good direction. Authors provide us with cover art and we take it from there. We don’t let them design the books, but offer several choices and are open to suggestions. We have the final word, essential in some cases!
NA: Of course, it's not just the covers that are beautiful . . . Can you offer any insights into how you go about selecting the books you publish? What makes a book a Sarabande book?
SG: We distinguish between literature that had to be written, or was written under an inescapable pressure to redeem a life. We love strangeness and innovation, writing that makes us look at objects, people, places and makes us wonder how we could not have seen this all along? We dislike knowing exactly what’s coming next, nor are we impressed by wild, clever pyrotechnics in syntax, grammar, vocabulary or structure, because doing so is hip by some political or other exterior measure. We look for poems or stories or essays that magnetically possesses a combination of music, thought and feeling. The syntax, grammar, etc. grows naturally out of that combination. Our books show the reader a hidden room, which may be dark or light. These are the primary reasons for choosing a manuscript.
After that, we like to balance a list by genre, gender, race, sexuality, seasoned, and new authors. Two of our yearly selections come to us through our literary contests (McCarthy Prize in Fiction, Morton Prize in Poetry), one through our Bruckheimer Kentucky Literature Series, another through our distinguished chapbook series. That leaves 7 openings, which we try to divide equally between genres, although recently we’ve been expanding our literary nonfiction selections. If, however, we receive a majority of superlative work in any genre, we go for it.
NA: Sarabande has an excellent website, complete with links to author events, interviews, book reviews, publications and more. Can you tell me a little bit about how/why this came about? Do you manage the site personally? Is it a lot of work? Does this help the press significantly?
SG: Our website has become our major marketing tool and we’ve expanded it to include audio, video (book trailers), online newsletters and catalog, ebooks, a fantastic blog that updates often, and of course, our Sarabande in Education website which offers a substantial readers guide for each title we publish. Finally, online chats with our authors can be arranged for professors who adopt our titles for classroom use. We were among the first to offer this tool (in 1998), thanks to a large grant from the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund. The whole staff participates, interns included, but Meg Bowden is the primary mama.
NA: What inspired you and your husband, Jeffrey Skinner, to start this press seventeen years ago? Can you provide a little mini-sketch of those early days?
SG: As you know the early nineties were bleak times for literary publishing. A recession hit, and many excellent independents closed up shop, or postponed publishing poetry and short fiction because their sales were not sustaining. Large commercial houses cut back and continue to do so. We had dinner with a benefactor who suggested starting a press, provided we did all the work. We said yes. I spent a year doing researching, interviewing editors, marketing directors, lawyers, everyone involved in literary publishing. We ran our first contest to garner a large number of manuscripts and we received 1800 in poetry, and 850 in fiction, well enough to make a few select choices. We launched four titles in 1996, six in 97, eight in 98, and ten in 99, and that’s where we rest. Our first hire was a marketing director, who traveled to New York and presented our press with its first publications. Since then, we’ve been blessed with excellent coverage, many generous donors, an excellent relationship with the NEA and Kentucky Arts Council, and lots more.
NA: I’d love to hear you say a few words about how Sarabande has evolved into one of the most prestigious independent presses.
SG: My husband and I came to this project with two decades of writing and publishing literary works, our own work. We had wonderful contacts, distinguished writers and publishers and editors willing to endorse the press. That helped enormously, particularly in landing a relationship with our distributor (Consortium Book Sales). Otherwise, we just made sure our books were the best books we could find, so that when we landed an appointment with Louisa Ermelino at PW, or Bob Harris at NYTBR, the work stood up. Organization, follow-through, creativity also help.
NA: If your poets and writers could all do one thing to help promote their books and/or make your job easier, what would that be?
SG: One thing? That’s tough. Strong arm their relatives into buying hundreds of copies! No, best of all would be to give the same thought and energy to promoting the book as they gave to completing the manuscript and sending it off to be published. That means examining their strengths closely and deciding how they most feel comfortable spreading the word, whether it’s organizing book parties, or facebook messages, or writing notes to friends, or renting an RV and driving around the country, giving readings at churches (we had one author do this).
NA: As an accomplished poet and writer, how do you divide your time between writing and working on Sarabande projects?
SG: May I add another strong distraction? My two granddaughters, Lucille (3) and Josephine (1). Frankly, time for writing has dramatically diminished over the years, so I’m happy I published four poetry collections (and one essay collection, a ms just completed) to give me some sense I still have a writerly life. But I do build time for reading and writing into my day, particularly early morning when I am still fresh. I’m up at 6, at the coffee shop by 7, and at Sarabande by 9. I take a short sabbatical every so often, and two weeks at Christmas just for my work. Still, I’m stretched very thin and feeling it.
NA: What are some recent highlights for Sarabande writers? (Feel free to provide links, photos, etc.)
SG: We’ve had a record number of starred reviews in the last couple of years, most recently for Kathleen Ossips’s The Cold War, in Publishers Weekly. Here’s a link to that:
And our collaborative poetry/art collection from Charles Wright and Eric Appleby, Outtakes, was just featured on PBS’ News Hour:
Paul Yoon’s collection won the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 citation.
And many other prizes have been awarded, including the Lenore Marshall Award for Eleanor Lerman, the Ploughshares/Zacharis Award for Julie Story, the 2010 The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Caitlin Horrocks, 2010 Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award in Poetry for Debra Nystrom, etc.
SARAH GORHAM is the author of four collections of poetry: Bad Daughter (2011), The Cure ((2003), The Tension Zone (1996), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (1989). Individual poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Pool, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Open City, Georgia Review, and elsewhere. She also writes essays, which have been published in Iowa Review, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Arts & Letters, and Quarterly West, among other places. Gorham serves as editor-in-chief of Sarabande Books, which she co-founded in 1994. She lives in Prospect, Kentucky with her husband, the poet Jeffrey Skinner.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including ,The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. Follow Nin's blog here.