Interview: Kevin Watson of Press 53

Press 53, founded in 2005 and based in Winston-Salem, NC., has quickly established itself as a leading independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. The core editorial staff is small — founder and short fiction editor Kevin Morgan Watson, poetry editor Tom Lombardo, and novel/memoir editor Robin Miura (more information on each here) — but the press’s output has been impressive: original works in each of those forms, occasional reprints of classic regional novels, a number of successful anthologies, including the popular Surreal South series, and the establishment of the Press 53 Open Awards, devoted to encouraging and discovering new talent.

Having followed Press 53 for some time, I finally met Watson earlier this year at the annual AWP conference and was as impressed by him personally as I’ve been by his work. We chatted again recently by email — about independent publishing in general, about Press 53 in particular, and touching on a new literary magazine the Press is debuting next month — and I’m happy to share our conversation here.

Art Taylor: Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the big New York publishing houses going through some major upheaval and causing some serious ripples throughout the publishing world. How has all that impacted you as an independent publisher?

Kevin Morgan Watson

Kevin Watson: I really don’t pay attention to what the big publishers are doing, but the force behind the upheaval in the publishing industry as a whole is the Internet and Print-on-demand (POD) technology, both of which have proven to be powerful levelers. Small presses that are embracing these technologies, like Press 53, are blooming and growing, while some of the larger presses are having to rethink their model. The Internet allows publishers and writers to find their readers, and small presses and individual writers don’t need to sell millions of books to be successful. Print-on-demand technology has made it more affordable for small publishers to enter the industry, too. Rather than spending a few thousand dollars using traditional print methods to bring a book into print and then deal with inventories and distribution, POD costs only a few hundred dollars per title with reduced inventory and distribution built in. Every large publisher is now using POD to an extent, so the entire industry is shifting gears. But the bottom line is that readers have more options when it comes to finding what they want to read, and rather than choosing from a few titles from a few big publishers, there are now a few thousand publishers producing every kind of writing you can imagine. No matter your interests, thanks to the Internet and POD, you can probably find a book about it. So people are still buying books, but the money is being spread around in a wider area.

Press 53 has a distinguished range of titles — poetry, short fiction, novels, memoir — and you’ve established a successful run of anthologies too, with the Press 53 Open Awards series and the Surreal South series and then the upcoming collection What Doesn’t Kill You…. How would you define what you’re looking for as a publisher? How do you know when a book is right for Press 53?

If I tried to publish books based on what I thought was marketable, this would turn into a job, and I don’t want a job. I published according to what appeals to me, with the idea that there are thousands of readers who surely love what I love. I love short stories, so I publish around six short story collections each year. And while I don’t publish genre fiction collections or novels, like sci-fi or horror, I do read and enjoy stories like these on occasion, so the idea of the Surreal South series appealed to me. It sounded like fun, especially when we decided to publish the series every odd year on Halloween. The editors, Laura and Pinckney Benedict, find stories they love and Press 53 puts them out there. You can’t build a brand by publishing to an ever-changing market. Read a few of Press 53’s short story collections and you’ll know the kind of writing I love. Read Surreal South and you’ll know what Laura and Pinckney love. Read a Tom Lombardo poetry selection and you’ll know the kind of poetry Tom loves. And I’ve asked our new novel and memoir editor, Robin Miura, to do the same: find what you love and bring it to Press 53. I’ve asked all my editors to not consider what I want to publish or what they think will sell, but to find writing they love and we’ll put it out there. And when it’s a collaborative effort, as with the upcoming anthology What Doesn’t Kill You…, which I co-edited with Murray Dunlap, we both have to love the stories. So Press 53 publishes writing I love and writing my editors love, without trying to guess what the market wants or what is popular. That said, that doesn’t mean I only publish a certain type of story. The deciding factor is always the writing, the voice, regardless of the topic or style.

How did What Doesn’t Kill You… come about?

Murray contacted me about
 writing something for an anthology and I told him I didn’t have an anthology 
in the works, but if he an idea for one I’d consider it. So Murray wrote
 back and said since he’d been thinking a lot lately about struggle and the 
car accident that put him in a wheelchair, what about a collection of 
stories about struggle? I thought it was a great idea, so Murray and I made 
it happen. Turns out Murray is a published author and a former marathon
 runner, who is now learning to walk, talk and see again after suffering 
severe brain trauma when someone ran a red light and crashed into him. He 
claims this anthology saved his life, which may not be an exaggeration. I 
know it changed my outlook on life. I’m just glad I was in the position to 
offer him some work, to help him focus on something down the road.

In addition to original work, you’ve also reprinted some classics by North Carolina authors, specifically Guy Owen and John Ehle. With those books and the Surreal South series in mind: To what degree have you viewed Press 53 as a regional publisher, whether Southern or North Carolinian, and to what degree do you want to resist that regionality?

I got an email recently from someone who said, “I know you publish mostly men, but I hope you’ll consider my stories….” This caught me off guard because I’d never kept track of how many men vs. women I’d published. After a quick count the numbers were about equal with the women edging out the men. So I did a regional count (NC, SC, VA, WV, GA, TN) and found that about half our titles are from writers from this region. And this was all done without design. There are so many great writers, past and present, from North Carolina that I could easily publish only North Carolina writers, but I didn’t want to limit Press 53’s readership by publishing only regional works. For our Press 53 Classics reprints we have stayed close to home, but for new titles, the only limits are whether or not my editors or I love the writing.

You’ve recently been running a special program to benefit active-duty military personnel: For every book purchased from your catalog, the same book will be sent to a soldier. What prompted this initiative?

I have great respect for our military. I think it was three years ago we did our first Buy a Book for a Soldier campaign, which was a big success. But the model was “buy a book and we’ll send it to a soldier.” This year, I decided to try something different with “buy a book for yourself and we’ll send one to a soldier in your name.” The response has been our best yet. When I have enough books to fill a large flat-rate Priority box, I go to and find a soldier who is requesting books and I ship them out. During the first week of the current campaign, that began Memorial Day (May 31) and continues through Flag Day (June 14), I shipped four boxes of books to soldiers in the Middle East.

This summer marks the debut of Press 53’s new literary magazine, Prime Number. How does this fit into Press 53’s mission? And following up on your comments earlier about the Internet and print-on-demand technology, why an online magazine instead of a print publication?

Prime Number magazine will be a quarterly online publication with an editors’ choice print annual. Clifford Garstang, author of the Press 53 award-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country, will serve as fiction and nonfiction editor, and Valerie Nieman, author of the Press 53 poetry collection Wake Wake Wake and the forthcoming novel Blood Clay, will serve as poetry editor. This project fits Press 53’s mission by broadening our ability to provide a platform for great writing. Were it not for the Internet we would have to go to print and sell subscriptions. Producing an electronic magazine allows us to put the idea out there with little monetary expense and test the market. While Prime Number won’t be used as a showcase for current Press 53 authors—though we may feature one of our authors occasionally—it will introduce more readers to the press and the press to more writers. It will also be a great way to discover new voices; just as our contest, the Press 53 Open Awards, allows us to find and showcase more of the writing we love, so will Prime Number.

Finally, looking further out on the horizon: What books are in the works for next year’s Press 53 catalog — the ones you’re personally most looking forward to bringing out?

I look forward to every title we publish, which is the great thing about our model. Were I publishing for the market, I could easily pick one or two projects that really stand out. But I love every book we publish. I mentioned earlier What Doesn’t Kill You…, which I co-edited with Murray Dunlap. In September, we will also publish Red Lily, a poetry collection from Isabel Zuber, one of my favorite poets. This October we’ll publish a new collection of short stories, Best Road Yet, by Ryan Stone, who won the short story category in this year’s Press 53 Open Awards. Discovering his writing through our contest was exciting. Also in October, we have a new memoir, An Unreasonable Woman by Shirley Deane, whom I heard interviewed on our local NPR station a few years ago, telling the story of traveling alone to more than 60 countries as a young woman and jazz accordionist in the ’50s and ’60s. I ended up with her memoir because other publishers thought it was a novel. It’s a wild, crazy, inspiring story about a young woman’s search for meaning back when young women were expected to stay home, marry, and raise babies. Her travels, and the trouble she got into and the things she discovered, blew me away. We also have our third annual Press 53 Open Awards Anthology coming out in October featuring the top three winners in five of the six categories, plus the winning novella. I’m sure to find a writer or two worth considering for a book deal. We have a new novel, Blood Clay by Valerie Nieman, about small town North Carolina values and how the truth can sometimes seems like a threat. Rich stuff. And finally, this fall we have the first selection from our new novel/memoir editor Robin Miura, My Sisters Made of Light, by Jacqueline St. Joan, the story of women struggling for identity in Pakistan.

Of those six books, two are anthologies featuring a wide range of writers from different parts of the county, and of the other four, three are from women, and two of the four are regional. So the balance continues, with a slight edge to the women.

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0 thoughts on “Interview: Kevin Watson of Press 53

  1. Pingback: NC News: Prime Number Debuts « Art & Literature

  2. Laura Ellen Scott

    Listen to how level and rational these independent publishing voices are. Now contrast that to the sky-is-falling biggies.
    GREAT interview, and looking forward to Prime Number!

  3. danny johnson

    Kevin–great interview, as usual I believe you have the pulse of the market…continue to look forward to Press 53 publications and am anxious to read Robin’s first contribution “My Sisters Made of Light”….as you know, she is one of my favorite people…keep up the great work, and it is a pleasure to watch an enterprise in a very tough market continue to grow and expand…best wishes

  4. Jodi Barnes

    Great interview! Kevin’s good judgment and staying his own course rather than imitating big presses (or choosing strategy based on their decisions) is good news for so many of us writers. North Carolina is fortunate to have him and several other like-minded publishers!