Independent Publishers Make their Presence Felt at the 2014 Texas Book Festival


David Duhr

When the estimated mob of 40,000 descends on the Texas statehouse this weekend for the Texas Book Festival, Bryce Milligan of San Antonio’s Wings Press hopes at least a few of them will be there to hear his authors speak. After all, how often does an independent publisher in Texas get a chance to reach 40,000 potential readers?

With five of its authors on this year’s Texas Book Festival (TBF) events schedule, Wings Press will be among the most prominently featured state indie presses. Others include El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press (with three authors featured on panels), Arte Público Press of Houston (seven), Austin’s A Strange Object (two) and newcomer Deep Vellum out of Dallas (one).

Many of these presses are happy to have simply made it through another year. “The biggest challenge [for Texas indie presses],” Milligan says, “is purely business. Getting reviews from the major trade journals has become a money game requiring one to pay for reviews—which I don’t do—or purchase advertising. There is undoubted bias against Texas presses in the review media.”

osborncoverGetting face time with readers at major literary events is key for indie presses and their authors. Writers representing Wings Press at the TBF will include Jay Brandon, an attorney in San Antonio, whose Shadow Knight’s Mate is labeled an international thriller and described by Austin writer Jeff Abbott as a “fun, genre-bending ride”; former Observer editor Joe Holley, whose new offering, The Purse Bearer: A Novel of Love, Lust and Texas Politics, revisits the political incorrectness of 1980s-era campaigning; Rosemary Catacalos, Texas’ 2013 Poet Laureate, whose work was reviewed earlier this year by the Observer; Carolyn Osborn, author of Where We Are Now, a new story collection out this month; and Carmen Tafolla, the first Poet Laureate of the city of San Antonio, whose new book is This River Here: Poems of San Antonio.

These five writers and more will also make appearances at the Wings Press exhibitor booth, allowing for the sort of direct author-reader contact that can be difficult to come by for indie presses, particularly in Texas. “So much of the book industry is located in New York, and much like the city itself, the book industry is so incredibly parochial that is still grapples to comprehend the existence of Brooklyn, let alone the rest of the United States,” says John Byrd, marketing director at Cinco Puntos.

purple cedarCinco Puntos’ TBF authors include Desiree Zamorano, who will speak about her 2014 novel, The Amado Women; Tim Tingle, an Oklahoma Choctaw whose novel House of Purple Cedar, released earlier this year after 15 years in the works, was called “a lyrical, touching tale of love and family, compassion and forgiveness” by Kirkus Reviews; and Isabel Quintero, whose Gabi, A Girl in Pieces recently made Kirkus’ list of “11 Great Debut Novels.”

Houston’s Arte Público Press, among the oldest publishers of Hispanic literature in the U.S., refers to itself as “David to New York publishing industry Goliaths.” Being an underdog brings plenty of challenges, according to Marina Tristán, assistant director at Arte Público, “including the fact that we don’t have the support that comes with being part of a huge multinational conglomerate with ties to the media.” Like Milligan, Tristán struggles to land reviews for Arte Público’s titles. “The decline of print newspapers means there are fewer traditional opportunities for book reviews,” she says. “The hardest thing about being based in Texas is that we’re somewhat removed from the publishing industry, which means it’s more difficult to get face time with key people, [including] reviewers.”

The-ValleyIn addition to four children’s-book authors and illustrators—Diane Gonzales Bertrand, Carolyn Dee Flores, Rene Saldaña Jr. and Thelma Muraida—representing Arte Público at the TBF will be Sergio Troncoso, whose 2003 “philosophical thriller” The Nature of Truth was recently updated and reissued by Arte Público; Houston Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda, author of the recent collection Falling in Love With Fellow Prisoners; and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, whose legendary Klail City Death Trip series began with Estampas del Valle, published in Spanish in 1972, in English in 1983 as The Valley, and reissued earlier this year in a first-ever bilingual edition.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to meet these writers at an Arte Público exhibitor booth; Tristán says the publisher couldn’t afford one. “Our resources—both human and financial—are limited,” Tristán says. “We can’t do everything we would like to do.”

But as long as Arte Público keeps printing successful titles (such as Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street,  originally published by Arte Público in 1984), it should at least be able to keep afloat and continue its mission. “The need for books that reflect Latinos’ contributions to U.S. society is really critical, particularly given the rapidly growing Hispanic population,” Tristán says. “The work that Arte Público does is important for everyone, because Latinos have been a part of the U.S. since before the British landed at Plymouth Rock, but, until recently, those contributions have not been valued or included in U.S. culture, literature, and history.”

Secret LifeA Strange Object, founded in Austin in 2013, will be represented by J.M. Tyree and Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin grad Michael McGriff, whose co-written novel, Our Secret Life in the Movies, is due in early November. Echoing Byrd and Tristán, A Strange Object’s Callie Collins says, “We’ve found that the biggest challenge in Texas has been getting national attention or purchase in an industry that’s very New York-centric. New York and publishing have been synonymous for centuries, we get it. Small, exciting publishing hubs are popping up and growing all over the country, yet the more traditional outlets still concentrate most of their coverage on things happening in one big city.”

But Collins and her co-director, Jill Meyers, have good reason to think they can overcome that challenge.

“Indie publishers are small and nimble enough to take on debut writers, diverse books, and work that is out of the ordinary,” Collins says. “We’re finding that readers seek out independent houses for their highly focused lists and their killer taste. It boils down to something pretty simple: We find great reward in getting fresh voices into as many heads and hands as possible.”

Texas_Cover___Carmen_BoullosaFinally, Deep Vellum, a new publisher in Dallas focused on works in translation, brings to the festival Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, whose novel Texas: The Great Theft has been translated into English by Samantha Schnee and will become Deep Vellum’s first offering when it is released early next month.

So it’s a good year for Texas indie presses at the TBF. But if you ask Milligan, Byrd or Tristán, it’s always a good year to be a Texas indie press, despite the challenges.

“I love unpacking the boxes of books that we bring to book festivals and arranging them on the table for sale” Byrd says. “Sometimes when I’m toiling away in the office I lose track of the reason we do what we do. But when I start pulling the books out of those boxes, I get so excited to see all these wonderful books that we’ve helped bring into the world.”

Being an indie press in Texas may not be “a game plan for making a fortune,” Milligan says, “but it does make for interesting literature, and it does offer a voice to those who have had difficulty being heard.” And so, he says, “We struggle on.”