Becoming A Gatekeeper
I’m a quiet, private person, and I hate saying no.
Since starting a regional small press, though, I’ve had to be brave, and loud, and decisive. I’ve promoted authors, given speeches, and decided which manuscripts to accept—and which to reject. After years of pushing against the publishing industry gates as a novelist, waiting to be admitted, desperate to be admitted, I built a new entrance and now tend it with care.
Nobody gave me this power, and maybe I have no right to take it, and that terrifies me. Some days it feels like dress up, putting on a superhero costume and calling myself a publisher. A gatekeeper. But I believe in promoting and publishing local authors, so I’m donning my satin cape and jumping into the giant gap between the major New York houses and the self-publishers—vowing to make something magical happen, not just for my authors but for readers seeking that sweet mix of literary language and plot.
Forest Avenue Press is a regional press with national reach. We’re based in Portland, and we publish Oregon writers with a particular focus on quiet novels, those classic, character-driven books where language works in service to story.
My background is in journalism, public relations, and manuscript editing. Mostly, though, I’ve been on the novelist side of the publishing business, writing fiction seriously for fifteen years. For some of that time, I had an agent, a gatekeeper to the gatekeepers. When she told me she loved my work, my mentor Stevan Allred told me, “You don’t have a foot in the door, you have a leg in the door.”
That first novel didn’t sell. Too quiet.
During the seven years I spent writing and revising the next one, the economy tanked. My agent passed on the book when I finally submitted it to her, and then I didn’t have an agent any more. I became one of those stories that other people tell, one of those stories where the gates almost opened, where New York almost said yes, but didn’t. And I thought about Stevan, and how he said I had a leg in the door, and how at the time, it felt as if the door had opened to admit me, but he was right all along. It was only one leg.
Why should writers in Oregon tie their sense of themselves as writers to gatekeepers in New York? Why not embrace the do-it-yourself ethic while retaining the curatorship that’s so important to traditional publishing? Forest Avenue Press is an outgrowth of my belief in community and my desire to support local writers, artists, and independent bookstores. We are a traditional, royalty-offering publishing house, but we also set up readings, connect Oregon authors to each other, celebrate publishing successes, and curate anthologies. Although we’re a regional press, the stories our writers tell are universal ones, so we push hard to publicize our titles nationally.
One of my newfound superpowers is being able to reinvest our profits in the community. We print our local stock using the Espresso Book Machine at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. The print-on-demand machine can produce a professionally bound product in about the same amount of time it takes to make a cup of coffee. The book slides down a chute, literally hot off the press, like a thought-filled gumball. Printing at Powell’s avoids the economic and environmental costs of shipping heavy boxes and allows us to support a legendary independent bookstore.
While we’re now incorporating a more traditional distribution plan by getting our titles into the Ingram and Baker & Taylor catalogs, we love printing at Powell’s. It’s convenient. It’s fast. And although it’s a bit more expensive than some options, we get to work with a local staff of real people and support a Portland institution. If you buy a Forest Avenue Press book at Powell’s, or online at Powells.com, it was printed right there in the store.
There are more than eighty Espresso Book Machines around the world, most of them installed in independent bookstores, libraries, and universities. That means a reader in New York City, or Boston, or Seattle, can walk into a local bookstore, spend money right there in the community, and walk out with one of our titles.
Small-town papers taught me page design. Being a managing editor instilled a love of deadlines and coaching writers. Features reporting, and a few stints in public relations, confirmed that despite my natural shyness, I enjoy promoting others’ achievements. But I didn’t put those things together—design, editing, marketing—until the arrival of the Espresso Book Machine at Powell’s, which seemed like a personal challenge. How could I take advantage of this opportunity? What could I publish? Who would read it?
What if nobody reads it?
I decided against releasing my novel—the one the agent passed on—because I didn’t feel like the superhero cape would lift enough self-doubt from my shoulders to allow myself to be my own gatekeeper. Instead, I decided to update some of my blog’s author interviews and to ask local writers I knew, and writers they knew, to submit flash essays on the craft.
Last October, just in time for Portland’s annual Wordstock literary festival, and only a few weeks after our final content deadline, Forest Avenue Press released Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life. The anthology features forty-two contributors, from bestselling authors Lauren Kessler and Bart King to Brian M. Biggs, whose essay “It’s All Right to Write and Not Publish” expresses one of the main themes of the collection. This anthology is brave and honest and totally homegrown. It’s about discipline, growing characters, falling in love with pencils, giving yourself permission to create feral first drafts, and it’s about what it means to spend hours wrestling the blank page regardless of how the gatekeepers rule. I’d love to see other authors compile this kind of project in their communities, spotlighting local writers and giving them the chance to explain what they do, how they do it, and why.
When I went to buy an ISBN number from Bowker, the U.S. supplier, I was surprised to discover that one number costs $125. I could buy ten numbers, though, for $250. I’m a Jersey girl, and although I outgrew my mall habit long ago, I can’t resist a good deal. Ten numbers? Done. But that meant deciding to publish more books after Brave on the Page, to turn this nascent experiment into a full-fledged business. A small press. My press.
I picked a name, Forest Avenue for my childhood Jersey street, and Gigi Little made me a logo, and even then I didn’t feel like a publisher. Just someone with ten ISBN numbers, a circle of trees with a swoosh of a road (perfect for spines and stationery), and a deadline.
Brave on the Page spent four straight months on the daily Powell’s Small Press Bestseller List, and nine months after publication still ends up there regularly. Gigi designed the cover and soon became our official graphic designer. But I didn’t have a title yet, and I needed one to sign letters and identify myself in press releases.
I started with founder—distant, cold, the kind of thing inscribed on nameplates. So I changed to editor, because that’s my love, that’s my thing, and the editorial tasks of Brave consumed me for weeks. Moving essays around. Deciding on our particular house style, based heavily on Chicago with a sprinkling of AP. Honing the introductions to each interview for print.
Sometime in the past nine months, I found the courage to call myself a publisher. A slow drift of identity, moving from identifying by a skill I have—editing—to announcing to the world that I am a gatekeeper. Someone who reads and judges. This woman, standing at the podium at Powell’s in January, wearing a red vintage velvet dress and speaking as if I knew what to do with a microphone, addressing an overflow crowd of 150, this is me and not-me. Wearing makeup newly purchased, relaxed in front of the camera, getting headshots for our new website, as the photographer tells me to bring it, bring it, bring it, this is me and not-me.
Brave on the Page is a call to arms, a regional publishing manifesto, and Forest Avenue Press’ 199-page announcement of existence. But my first official act as a gatekeeper, as a self-identified publisher, was to accept a manuscript by Stevan Allred, the mentor who told me I had a leg in the door, who rejoiced in my success but also had a clearer head about what it meant than I did.
A Simplified Map of the Real World, slated for release this September, features fifteen linked stories about neighbors, loggers, thrill-seekers, and former classmates, in the tradition of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge but with more divorce. The collection features pencil illustrations by Laurie Paus, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company, Stevan’s hand-drawn map of his fictional world, and “story trees” that explain how the characters connect from story to story.
It’s so fitting that we’re launching our fiction catalog with Stevan’s book. He and Joanna Rose, co-teachers at the Pinewood Table critique group, gave me a creative home more than ten years ago when I first moved to Portland, not knowing anyone, not expecting to stay beyond a year, back when I hesitated to identify myself as a writer. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe writing every day didn’t count. I spent too many years afraid of that title, waiting until someone else told me I was a writer, until someone wanted to publish me.
I attended the intensive Pinewood Table sessions in several phases of my life—as a single woman, then as a married one, and then pregnant. The other writers turned into my Portland community as we discussed each other’s work, shared news of our lives, and listened to Stevan and Joanna tend and weed what we planted on the page. The Pinewood Table taught me that there are other writers out there, people who wrestle with character, with story, while they’re doing normal things like brushing teeth, washing dishes, turning left.
When I first launched Forest Avenue Press, Stevan queried me about A Simplified Map of the Real World. I asked for the full manuscript. Years ago I heard him read a few of those stories on stage, the audience reacting with gasps and laughs, all of us leaning forward, waiting for what came next. It was so satisfying to hold those fifteen stories in one place, right there on my screen, right there in my mind and heart, and it was even more satisfying to dig into the editing process with a longtime mentor, someone who savors every syllable, someone who has a strong reason for each word he puts on the page, someone who argues back when I suggest a comma by typing back to me, “Prefer no comma.”
I went from student to publisher, fledgling novelist to gatekeeper.
Would I have accepted this manuscript if I didn’t know Stevan? Absolutely. Being a regional press, it’s inevitable that I’ll know some of the authors whose work comes through the door, and that’s one reason why I work with outside readers on manuscript selection. While being a former student of Stevan’s is what prompted him to submit this collection to a brand-new, as-yet-untested press, it had nothing to do with us issuing an emphatic yes.
We cast a statewide net earlier this year, in search of quiet novels, and as a result, I had to reject many worthy manuscripts, including some by people I know. Forest Avenue Press is very small and we can only publish two or three titles a year, which then allows us to give those projects our full attention. Sending rejections is when my superhero cape feels too lightweight, too insubstantial. Potentially flammable. I send each rejection letter with care, remembering how it feels to walk around with that bloom of hope. Maybe this editor will love my book. Maybe this agent will want me as a client. I sent each rejection letter with a piece of me in it. Because I know what it feels like to lose that bloom.
After carefully reviewing all the submissions, our committee chose quiet novels by Dan Berne and Kate Gray to publish in 2014. These manuscripts are urgent in what they share, unflinching in the emotional territory they mine, but they’re also full of beauty, grace, and that clear bell of story, tolling from one chapter to another, insisting readers keep turning the pages. We’re also preparing to release an Oregon short story anthology next spring, which will be edited by Liz Prato.
By our two-year anniversary, we’ll have five books in circulation. That’s pretty amazing for a business that started with one person wondering about a machine at a local bookstore. And as I’m using up these first ten ISBN numbers, one by one, I have my eye on the next level—a hundred for $575. Now that’s a deal.
We recently submitted advance reader copies of A Simplified Map of the Real World to reviewers, book bloggers, and authors who have offered blurbs. We printed those ARCs in small batches at Powell’s and then sent them to New York—big dreams packaged in plain brown envelopes. Because I am a gatekeeper, and for the first time in my creative life, I don’t have to wait for someone else to open the door. I’ve opened it myself, for Stevan, and for Dan and Kate, and for all the Oregon writers we’ll publish in the future.
I can’t think of a better superpower than to take a manuscript I love, turn it into a book, and say, “Here. You have to read this. It will change your life.”