Accessibility, Feminism, and Independent Presses
Independent presses have the ability to change narratives and give power to the voices of folks in marginalized communities. I searched for presses that were run by women or had a commitment to their community accessibility, ideally both. The presses I’ve chosen to focus on are Coffee House Press, Alice James Books, Perugia Press, Feminist Press, and Stranded Oak Press. These presses share efforts to be diverse and publish the work of marginalized groups.
Coffee House Press is an independent press which publishes “literary novels, full-length short story collections, poetry, creative nonfiction, book-length essays and essay collections, and the occasional memoir” (“Coffee House Press”). While the press was founded by a man, Allan Kornblum, their current staff is comprised of 75% women. Their board of directors is led by two women, Carol Mack and Patricia Beithorn. As stated on their website, their mission is, “Coffee House Press creates new spaces for audiences and artists to interact, inspiring readers and enriching communities by expanding the definition of what literature is, what it can do, and who it belongs to” (“Coffee House Press”). While this is a bit vague, their values include “inclusivity” and “discovery.” Their backlist of titles has a wide range of authors, as they say, “the authors of these books include African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and European Americans.” Their website’s description of their history and evolution includes, “we also want our bookshelves and yours to better reflect the wide range of voices that exists in the literature of the Americas. Recently, we’ve established our commitment to publishing literature by Latin American authors—both works in English and in translation” (“Coffee House Press”). Their submission guidelines state that they take work from "emerging and mid-career authors," but there is no language around not accepting any specific kinds of work or subjects ("Coffee House Press").
Their website also features a page called “Books in Action” which includes the following description,
Through our Books in Action publications and programs, we’ve become interdisciplinary collaborators and incubators for new work and audience experiences—not just with CHP authors, but with visual, performing, and social practice artists, and others whose ideas and work engage and inspire. (“Coffee House Press”)
This statement is part of Coffee House Press’s mission to become an arts space and have a place in their community. These projects include a residency project where they give writers and artists access to special libraries, a potluck reading and performance series in Minneapolis, and publishing books that “highlight local organizations and/or individuals working to further literary engagement” among many others. All of these projects are part of Coffee House Press’s work toward accessibility. They pay their interns a stipend, they have formatted eighty of their books for the visually impaired, and they have a feminist imprint, Emily Books (“Coffee House Press”).
Alice James Books is a press based in Farmington, Maine. Their staff is primarily women and their Board of Directors and Advisory Board, which are listed on their website, feature a fairly diverse group of writers who include writers of color and those in the LGBT community. Alice James Books was founded to “to give voice to women poets, whose work was greatly under-recognized.” Their current mission statement echoes this, “Alice James Books is committed to collaborating with literary artists of excellence who might otherwise go unheard by producing, promoting, and distributing their work which often engages the public on important social issues.” This is certainly reflected in the work they publish, which includes many non-white writers as well as work about female sexuality and violence.
Under their mission statement, Perugia Press says that they publish “first and second books of poetry by women. [They] publish one book a year, the winner of the Perugia Press Prize.” They only publish poetry by women and promote their authors via “social media, and at local, regional, and national book fairs, readings, and events.” Because their goal is to give women’s voices a platform, Perugia Press lists statistics on gender inequality in literature including that 73% of Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry are awarded to men. The staff at Perugia Press, led by Rebecca Olander, look for “poetry that is welcoming to new readers as well as interesting to longtime readers (“Perugia Press – The Best New Women Poets.”).
In their mission statement, Feminist Press describe themselves as,
an educational nonprofit organization founded to advance women's rights and amplify feminist perspectives. FP publishes classic and new writing from around the world, creates cutting-edge programs, and elevates silenced and marginalized voices in order to support personal transformation and social justice for all people.
This mission statement boldly shows the evolution of feminist ideals and incorporates intersectional goals. This is reflected in their latest crop of titles which include stories of Native Americans and reservation life, growing up Mexican American, a collection of stories that “shatter monolithic assumptions of black womanhood.” I am, however, personally the most excited for Virgie Tovar’s You Have the Right to Remain Fat which is exciting enough without factoring in the cover that shows a fat woman in a bikini draped across the title. Additionally, Feminist Press hosts events across the country and publishes Women’s Studies Quarterly (“Feminist Press”).
Stranded Oak Press are publishers on Pittsburgh poets, which they define as “Pittsburgh-born, Pittsburgh-raised, or Pittsburgh-based” (“Stranded Oak Press”). Additionally, they have a stance on inclusivity in publishing. I interviewed one of their co-editors and founders, Shannon Sankey, and asked her about Stranded Oak Press’s commitment to being inclusive and accessible. She responded by noting, “two editors on our team identify as disabled, myself included. And Luke McDermott, my partner, studies digital humanities as it pertains to accessibility. Because indie publishing is already a circumnavigation of less accessible routes of publication (i.e. academia), we have the opportunity to expand accessibility” (Sankey). The people behind Stranded Oak Press clearly take the ways they can support their work and audience into the decisions they make.
Even with noble missions, it can be difficult for small, independent presses to sustain themselves financially. As a nonprofit, Coffee House Press links directly to their financial information. From their 2018 990 tax form, they paid a staff of thirteen and had forty volunteers. The press sustained itself primarily on “revenue” which amounted to $589,661for the year and $441,779 in contributions and grants. I don’t know exactly how much was spent on printing books or work to keep the press running, but Coffee House Press ended the year with a balance of $488,109, which doesn’t sound too shabby to me with my limited knowledge. One of the places they spent money was on “maintain[ing] a backlist of over 345 works,” which we can assume adds to the printing costs for the new books that are produced each year (“Coffee House Press”).
Alice James is also a nonprofit. From their 2016 990 form, they received $162,327 in contributions and grants, $32,817 in program service revenue and $37,070 in other revenue. They spent $172,844 on salaries for their employees and $53,743 on other expenses, presumably printing new materials and spending surrounding the press. They ended the year with $349,734 in assets (“Alice James Poetry Cooperative Inc.”). In 2016, they produced seven books. Looking through the titles listed on their website’s shop, their titles vary in their format. Most are print books, some are exclusively digital, and a few are available in both formats (“Alice James Books”).
Perugia Press is a nonprofit as well, taking in $5,155 in contributions and grants and $13,000 in program service revenue in 2016. That same year they made $11,486 in revenue from the two titles they released, one being an anthology (“Perugia Press, Inc.”). These books are available in print on Perugia’s website (“Perugia Press – The Best New Women Poets.”).
As a nonprofit, Feminist Press’s 2016 990 form reveals that they received the bulk of their money from contributions and grants as well as program service revenue, coming in at $343,686 and $734,160 respectively. They spent $222,215 overall, which went to producing their books as well as paying their employees. The press ended 2016 with $299,440 in assets and eight new titles published (“Feminist Press Inc.”).
When I asked Sankey about the Stranded Oak Press budget, she told me that an average print run of seventy-five books costs about $600 to produce. This $600 breaks down into "12% of budget will be spent on social media marketing. 12% will be spent on launch venue and refreshments. 16% will be spent on cover art. 11% will be spent on our e-commerce platform and shipping costs. 45% of budget goes to the printer." Sankey also revealed that Stranded Oak Press eBooks cost $6 and their print books are between $10 and $12. Authors receive "1/5 of the total print run" as payment for their work. With a small run, Sankey noted, "If we sell out, we'll make $800 in sales and $200 in profit." While Stranded Oak Press is small, they have over 600 titles in circulation, which includes a second-printings and reprints (Sankey).
By comparison, Coffee House Press published twenty books in 2018, including buzz-worthy poetry collections like Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here and Kelly Forsythe’s Perennial, both of which I have independently stumbled across on social media. Not Here deals with the speaker’s childhood abuse and struggle to accept their identity as a gay man. The collection has received incredible amounts of praise. In her New York Times review of Not Here, Stephanie Burt praised Nguyen for “his compression, his way with figures, his talent for turning harsh memories into elegant verse. In this world, many people have similar troubles and try to describe them, in prose poems and in verse. But very few could do what Nguyen has done.” This is a book that, in my opinion, is very necessary and tells a story that has previously not been heard.
Coffee House Press books are available in e-book and trade paperback formats with their novels debuting in hardcover and moving into paperback for subsequent printings. The books produced by Coffee House Press have sleek, clean designs. Most look very modern and in line with what is currently on trend: sans serif fonts, a central image, clean lines. Perennial’s cover shows smeared paint which conjures the image of a flower with white text laid over it. Similarly, the cover of Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency also features an abstract image, a black background, and strong white text. The cover of Idiophone by Amy Fusselman is simple in design, only black and white text over a red background, but the white text, the title, appears slightly distorted. Overall, these designs seem to have a united aesthetic and design principals (“Coffee House Press”).
In recent years, the design of the titles produced by Alice James Books has varied from book to book and as trends have changed. Overall, their 2016 releases have a “busier” look. They feature layers of images and patterns. Some have cover art that is more artistic and abstract, such as The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May which displays a person with an egg for a head and a bird looking on with the title wrapping over the egg. A more simply designed book from that same year is Jane Mead’s World of Made and Unmade, the cover is a photo of a sunlit window from the inside of an otherwise dark room.
The serif font on to the side of the window clearly displays the title, author, and genre. This is fitting for a collection that tackles a mother’s death and the ensuing grief that consumes the speaker. In her review of the book, Janice Harrington described it as, “Elegant, restrained, filled with resonant spaces, and bell-clear with feeling.” There is a sense of loss that pervades the entire book as the speaker of the poems within copes with the death of her mother and the death of an animal that overtakes her apartment. When death cannot be avoided, this collection tackles the way it becomes insidious in everyday life, the dark cover a harbinger of what lies inside. This book aligns with the Alice James Books mission to promote the writing of women as it deals with the relationship between a mother and daughter and what happens when that relationship suddenly ends.
Alice James Books’ 2018 releases, collectively, are more focused on a central image, though how they do this varies. Most have a photo or painting across the whole cover with the title gentle placed near the top of the image. Iain Haley Pollock’s Ghost, like a Place breaks from the new norm with a large sans serif font that consumes the whole cover and is laid over a photo of what looks like pieces of paper on a board. This is an outlier among books like Kevin Goodan’s Anaphora and Anna Rose Welch’s We, the Almighty Fires which both show simple, white text placed toward the edges on covers with an image, an old van and a woman wrapped in red flower petals, respectively (“Alice James Books”).
When it comes to Perugia Press, the designs vary, they are consistently attractive and sleek. There are clean lines, compelling paintings, thoughtful and simple graphic design. Most of the books have simple, serif font laid over a compelling image that is very high quality. The artwork speaks for the book, such as Megan Peak's Girldom, the 2018 prize winner. The cover shows a woman’s head from the chest up, the top of the head removed and a galaxy glimmers out of and behind the figure. There are pink strands that resemble the northern lights and the title is written simply and compellingly in white across the starry scene. This cover is certainly playing on what is currently popular, but there is a genuineness to the art that taps into just why it is popular to begin with. The high quality of the images and the blending of them into a cohesive unit certainly conjures a feminine but powerful feeling.
This is a book I am really looking forward to reading. In a review, Katy Dycus said that Girldom, “speaks to the way we can be laid bare, like trees no longer cloaked in snow.” Dycus goes on to discuss the way that Peak unites nature imagery with the pain of being a girl growing up in a culture that tells women they are worth nothing. The speaker of the poems examines herself in the mirror and in relation to her environment. It is easy to see why this collection was compelling enough to win the Perguia Prize for its depiction of the way girls blossom into womanhood while also resisting it.
One of Perugia Press’s design missteps, in my opinion, is the design of Amanda Auchter’s The Wishing Tomb. This particular book has a notably spooky aesthetic. There are several fonts and dark images (in content and color). This cover is very different than the rest of the press’s books, making the busyness of two images and dark colors stand out negatively. That, however, is the only cover that I plainly dislike while also acknowledging that I have my own aesthetic preferences.
When it comes to book and cover design, Feminist Press is less minimalist than many similar presses. Each book has its own look, but each one feels very professionally composed. Of their new releases, most covers feature a woman or women and vibrant colors. Each is designed so that the female subject is the focal point. This can be seen in Virgie Tovar’s You Have the Right to Remain Fat, which I already mentioned. At Kirkus Reviews, Tovar’s collection of essays was described as “a short book filled with flurries of sharp jabs” that take down diet culture and the discrimination that fat people face which affects their health, finances, and happiness far more than their weight. This book is described as a “radical” take on body-image and how being fat can also be a marginalized identity (“You Have the Right To Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar”).
Feminist Press has also recently published Living on the Borderlines by Melissa Michal. This cover features an illustration of women who appears to be the Haudenosaunee people that the book is about. The cover also depicts a purple and pink sunset as well as the title set in a burgundy serif font against the lighter sky. These designs push against the minimalist designs that are popular now, softening lines that would often be made harsh. Feminist Press books are available on their website in print and eBook formats (“Feminist Press”).
Stranded Oak Press offers their titles in print and as eBooks. They have four chapbooks available, each with its own unique design aesthetic. Corey Ginsberg’s The Cold Side of the Pillow has a cover which is simply an illustration of Twinkies on a light blue background while Ava C. Cipri’s Leaving the Burdened Ground features a mystical illustration of a woman with wings on her feet, surrounded by clouds. There are also audio files of poems that are available on the Stranded Oak Press website (“Stranded Oak Press”). Of this, Sankey said, “We contractually require our authors to record several poems of their choice to be made available for free download” (Sankey). Audio downloads are part of Stranded Oak Press’s commitment to their community.
Another chapbook published by Stranded Oak Press is Big Fish by Lori Jakiela. This chapbook, the Pittsburgh City Paper reports, concern the speaker aging and her life in Pittsburgh. She writes about local fish sandwiches and her dissipating fear of spiders in a voice that Fred Shaw says “cuts through” and adds “tenderness” to the stories of living in Pittsburgh that she tells (Shaw). With their focus on Pittsburgh writers, Jakiela is a perfect choice for Stranded Oak Press.
While book design is of utmost importance, good website design and ease of access are also crucial. The clean design of their books is mirrored on the Coffee House Press website. There is a clear menu on the top of each page, they link to their social media at the bottom of the page, and each page of the website has the same layout and color scheme. The website is quite sophisticated. It includes many pages and is definitely designed to make it easy to use. There are contact forms which must simply be typed in, the ability to sort results when searching their titles, and their staff directory includes high-res pictures of each staff member. The website also links to other pages, such as a PDF of the current Coffee House Press catalog and their 990 tax forms. Their shop is embedded within their website instead of directing you to a third-party seller, though their books are available on Amazon and other platforms. They also have a page on their website dedicated to events their authors are holding or attending (“Coffee House Press”).
The Alice James Books website is sleek and fairly easy to navigate. Their homepage features a menu at the top of the page as recent book covers and blurbs carousel below. Beneath the new releases they are promoting, they have photos of their events with blurbs about the press itself overlaid across them. The design is a little clumsy on these particular photos, the blurbs cover some faces, but the design is very consistent with the blurb in the top left corner of the photo. The bottom their homepage features the Alice James Books social media links, mailing address, and contact email. Each page has a consistent and modern design. Their website is very minimalist and straightforward, which allows the cover art and photos they have included to shine. They have a background on Alice James was as well as links to their affiliates at the University of Maine, their available internships, and their submission guidelines. (“Alice James Books”).
The website for Perugia Press is simple, perhaps even basic, but clean and attractive. It is a dark blue with white text that pops and is easy to read. There are high-quality photos of the staff and the available books. There is a menu that is intuitive and easy to navigate, leading visitors directly to the books. As one of the smaller presses I am discussing, Perugia Press's books are almost surprisingly high quality. The weaknesses of their website were quickly overshadowed by the aesthetic of their books ("Perugia Press – The Best New Women Poets.").
The Feminist Press website is similar to that of Perugia Press. They have a similar color scheme, blues, and the same simple layout. Feminist Press has a carousel feature that is a bit much, visually, but the design is certainly not uncommon or would deter me from looking further. The site prominently and almost immediately features the covers of the press’s latest releases. The pages listing the members of their staff and board of directors are lacking photos, which I find to be less than ideal. Collectively, the site is fairly simple and straightforward, though it could have more graphics (“Feminist Press”).
The Stranded Oak Press website is also simple but intuitive. A short menu directs visitors to the shop, an about page, and a contact page. The webpage is one long page, with menu links directing the page up or down. Each book’s cover is pictured along with the price and a link to purchase it. All parts of the pages are easily read and understood because of the clean design (“Stranded Oak Press”).
Have a website that includes clear submission instructions is incredibly important as the literary community moves online. Submissions at Coffee House Press accepts submissions through Submittable each spring. They also specify that it may take "4-6 months or longer" to review a manuscript and respond to the author. There are few limits on their submissions, but they do recommend that a submitter have previous publications to their name ("Coffee House Press").
The submissions guidelines at Alice James Books are very specific and clearly defined on their website. Folks can submit to the Alice James Award or the AJB Translation Series. Submissions to the Alice James Award open again in April and they accept work from writers in the United States who are emerging or established. This winner of this prize receives publication and $2,000. Other entries may be published by the press. They “screen blind” and accept manuscripts of 48-100 pages. The entry fee for the Alice James Award is $30 and manuscripts may be submitted online or via mail. The website also features a description of the screening process and a checklist for entries, making it easy for submitters to follow the guidelines. The translation series has similar requirements and an equally clear breakdown of entry requirements. Translations have no reading fee and submissions can be sent in online or in hardcopy. The submission guidelines also include a code of ethics from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses which Alice James Books follows and thereby promises to,
1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines—defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public.
This agreement can assure potential submitters that their work will be judged fairly and encourage them to send their work in. (“Alice James Books”).
The details for entering to win the Perugia Press Prize are listed directly on the press’s website. The specificities for submission files and cover letters are explicit, very detailed, and easy to find. Entering the contest costs $27. Perugia follows the same code of ethics as Alice James Books, the code dictated by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. The winner of the prize received publication, a $1,000 prize, and ten copies of their book. They can buy additional copies 50% off. The author also assists in the design of their book. The press seeks diverse authors, stating “Poets must be women, which is inclusive of transgender women and female-identified individuals” They go on to state,
Perugia Press seeks to promote diversity and highlight marginalized and underrepresented voices in our publications, and to that end we encourage submissions written by poets of all abilities, ages, and sexual orientations, and from across all cultural, socio-economic, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.
Perugia Press’s “feminist mission” appears to lean toward intersectionality as they are searching for work by new voices from a variety of backgrounds and identities. They do, however, limit submissions to people residing in the United States (“Perugia Press – The Best New Women Poets.”).
With regard to submissions, Feminist Press has simple and short guidelines. They ask that submitters include “a synopsis of [their] work, three sample chapters, a short author bio, and a brief marketing plan, along with any relevant contact information in order to receive a reply to [their] submission.” They also accept submission by mail and email.
Stranded Oak Press’s submission policy is short and simple, “Send your chapbook manuscript of 20 pages or less to StrandedOakPress@Gmail.com... We're looking for luminous, sonic, narrative-conscious, and cohesive manuscripts. Simultaneous/multiple subs welcome (“Stranded Oak Press”). Stranded Oak Press doesn’t charge a reading fee, which is all part of Sankey’s design, “Not requiring a reading fee opens up our market to writers who are typically priced out of submissions.” Writers from all backgrounds are now able to send their work to Stranded Oak Press because of this ethical choice.
After reviewing each of these aspects of these five presses, I have a better understanding of what makes one of quality. First and foremost, a smaller press has the ability to pay greater attention to detail and the editors in charge are able to have control over their artistic vision. I noticed this in the work available at Stranded Oak Press and Perugia Press. They have clear parameters for what makes a title one they will publish. I found that this was also true of Feminist Press, who had a wide range of books available. They seemed to be the most diverse publisher among these five who placed diversity as a priority, though in the case of the smaller presses this may have to do with the material they receive as their name grows. Coffee House Press and Alice James Books are much larger, by comparison, and that comes with the benefit of notoriety and respect but also more people weighing in on decisions and more work to sift through to find the right fits. I have owned books by each of these presses, and I can honestly say that I’ve thought they were all of quality in terms of content and composition. Each had that feeling of being nice to hold. I remembered each book, even three years after reading one of them, and remembered these presses. I found no real difference in my experiences with these books.
With the quality in mind, if I were to start a press of my own, I would want accessibility to be the cornerstone of our mission. Sankey so wonderfully described all the areas that accessibility includes, and her awareness extends to how her press conducts business and operates as a part of the writing community,
Live-streaming our events opens up our community to writers… whether you're unable to crawl through cramped gallery spaces, whether you can't sit in a folding chair, or whether you're just anxious tonight, we want you to join us. We consider our venues with regard to parking, entranceways, temperature, and seating to the best of our ability. We have been in contact with the ASL community for interpreting poetry readings. We are open to bartering, and we do reserve some stock for donations. I would never withhold a book from someone who wanted one but couldn't afford it… Phase 2 will be to redesign an entirely accessible website with descriptive metadata. (Sankey)
It was eye-opening to read what Sankey had to say about the work she and her co-editor have done to make their press as accessible as possible. It would be a struggle for me to think of all of these areas, even given my desire for accessibility and diversity, but reckoning with the ignorance of privilege is part of being a member of the literary community in 2019.
True accessibility is about making a space or a work safe and available for the widest variety of people possible, and it seems like each of these presses is striving toward that in their own way. Coffee House Press could employ more women, but they also have amazing community connections. Stranded Oak Press could grow to make their website more accessible, which Sankey is obviously working on. Feminist Press could do more to foster community, but they have the most diverse group of authors. Perugia Press is focused on writing by women, and they are opening their guidelines to accommodate more types of women, though they still charge reading fees. Alice James Books could improve their website design and make their main staff less white, but they are still sharing work that needs to be heard. I would submit my work to any of these presses because I would trust them with the content and aesthetic outcome of my work. There is an effort from all of these presses to keep evolving and making themselves the best they can be for the writers who need to be heard and the readers who need to know that their voice is not the only one like theirs.
“Alice James Books.” Alice James Books, 2019, www.alice-james-books.squarespace.com/.
“Alice James Poetry Cooperative Inc.” GuideStar, 2019, www.guidestar.org/profile/23-7444428.
Burt, Stephanie. “A Hard Childhood Compressed Into Poetry, With Concision and Heat.” The New York Times, 18 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/books/review/not-here-poems-hieu-minh-nguyen.html.
“Coffee House Press.” Coffee House Press, 2019, www.coffeehousepress.org.
Dycus, Katy. “Megan Peak – Girldom.” The Wild Detectives, 2 Nov. 2018, thewilddetectives.com/katy/articles/books/megan-peak-girldom/.
“Feminist Press Inc.” GuideStar, 2019, www.guidestar.org/profile/23-7108499.
“Feminist Press.” Feminist Press, 2019, www.feministpress.org/.
Harrington, Janice. “On Jane Mead’s World of Made and Unmade.” Janice Harrington, 2017, www.janiceharrington.com/blog/on-jane-meads-world-of-made-and-unmade/.
“Perugia Press – The Best New Women Poets.” Perugia Press, 2019, www.perugiapress.com/wp/.
“Perugia Press, Inc.” GuideStar, 2019, www.guidestar.org/profile/86-1159639.
Sankey, Shannon. E-Mail Interview. 24 February 2019.
Shaw, Fred. “Reviews of New Chapbooks by Lori Jakiela and Judith Robinson.” Pittsburgh City Paper, 28 Feb. 2019, www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/reviews-of-new-chapbooks-by-lori-jakiela-and-judith-robinson/Content?oid=1934022.
“Stranded Oak Press.” Stranded Oak Press, 2019, www.strandedoakpress.com.
“You Have the Right To Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar.” Kirkus Reviews, 15 May 2018, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/virgie-tovar/you-have-the-right-to-remain-fat/.