Saturday, September 2, 2017


The book business is more complicated than my beginner’s enthusiasm permitted me to imagine in 2014. Enthusiasm, that bane of the 18th century (“What can we reason, but from what we know?”) does indeed invite flights of reckless optimism. If there are boulders in the road and a learning curve that would dizzy a gymkhana contestant, well, “Love will find a way,” my inner Eubie Blake retorted to my entrenched Alexander Pope.

However arduous or silly the process of learning by doing continues to be for me, one big thing has been indisputable from the start: Everyone in publishing wants a best seller. Certainly the author does: Fame and fortune should reward the years of dedication and craft sparked by fire in the belly. The printer is eager to keep the presses rolling. The distributor’s bottom line is to move as much merchandise as possible to bookstores and retailers who are eager to sell, sell, sell!

And the publisher obviously wants to turn out best sellers, right? If an Upper Hand Press title sells millions, the income will secure an immediate future in which I can expand my press and its reputation. Even one best seller will boost sales of all the books on our list; it will attract the attention of authors who may not have previously considered publishing here.

A best seller for one of my authors could reassure all my authors that I’m working overtime to support their efforts. Best sellers reflect not only the literary skills, but the nigh-full-time commitment to promotion by the authors themselves. But it requires successful, well-focused and well-funded marketing on the publisher’s part. Reaching influential reviewers and publicity-generators; making best use of industry-only sources; keeping up with the industry through conferences, newsletters, new products; selling to libraries and book clubs—these are the unpaid tip of the marketing iceberg, the part I can presently afford, even if I am deficient in time to execute.

Upper Hand Press is self-funded by this publisher-staff-of-one. Marketing budget comes after production budget, which leaves little to spend. (For the authors, marketing costs to supplement what the Press provides are as great as they feel they can invest.)

For established large publishing house with well-funded, dedicated advertising budgets, the possibility for creating a best seller is substantial, sometimes from even modest literary material. Add full-page ads in prominent media, signs and promotional items, pop-up ads on Internet sites, access to appearances on major media, and long-standing relationships with taste-makers, and one is on the way.

So it is that best-selling books are unlikely to have the imprints of small, independent presses. The promotion budget comes after the costs of book production are met. For me, promotion is the pursuit of reviews from low-cost and free opportunities, entering relevant competitions, and creating connections for individual titles and for the Press. What’s left to budget for paid advertising is not much once the designers, typesetters, printers, and distributors are paid. Persuasive prose is our most useful marketing tool.

The question remains, though, whether making best sellers is the ultimate goal? About this I write for myself alone in answering that it is not. I would be overjoyed were an Upper Hand title to become a best-seller, but I don’t believe that by selling millions I’d feel that the mission of my press or that my personal mission was necessarily accomplished.

As an editor I look for material that invites the reader to engage deeply with the writer—I am a matchmaker between writers I believe in and the readers they long for and deserve. I choose the authors to publish, the ones I believe will endure by virtue of their literary skill and significant themes.  While I understand readers’ love of stories about romance, adventure, speculative pasts or futures, my love is in invitations to stretch the mind and explore our humanity, whatever form those come in. I just look for books that don’t end with the last page.

Read the reviews: Excellent, unique, convincing books are published all the time by publishers large and small. They win awards from learned bodies with acute judges, and they receive the highest praise from the most thoughtful reviewers. What their sales are, though, one can only guess. The reviews help, no doubt, but reviews alone don’t make best sellers. Big budgets are the bedrock. It’s likely that you’ll get sales commensurate to what you pay. But the world is ennobled, enlightened, and advanced by all the authors that small, independent presses bring to us in small editions, whatever their business models.

Developing readership is an uphill task for a small, independent press in a world of readers and writers that loves best sellers. Upper Hand books are currently finding readers our authors are writing for, but there are many more we want to reach. I know we will find them with constant and steady--and someday expensive--promotion. But the dream of the best seller is a dream of winning the lottery; a dream of winning something for no more effort than a wish, and we all know that things don’t work that way without laboring masses and pots of money behind the curtain we'd like to pretend isn't there.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Diversity is a Knotted, Uncomfortable Thing

Educators, parents, librarians, and young readers are asking us publishers for more diversity titles for the "young adult" and "YA/crossover" markets. The United States is no longer (if it ever was) a nation of Dicks and Janes, blue-eyed kids in single-family houses with picket-fenced yards. Contemporary readers want books to reflect America's polyglot demographics and dreams. Young readers (and their adults especially) expect books to reflect diverse life in a complex society, with characters linked to their own neighborhoods and to global issues alike.

I'm unaware if there are any unfavorable reviews of diversity titles now on the market. The eagerness for this content tends to make diversity itself the topic, illustrated by the story. But as with any revolution, we won't know its effects until a few years hence: Which books will have become classics? Which will have been forgotten? Will books focused on current expressions of diversity feel as helpful to readers in ten years? Will the stories hold up as natural and true? These are the questions that arise with the energetic impulses of any new movement, literary or social. To Kill a Mockingbird is now "diversity literature." It hardly needs to be. It was a great literary novel and humane document before, and it will survive as both however it is used in a moment.

By next September, Upper Hand Press will have two "young adult/crossover" titles, both of which could be entries into the diversity market. If anyone chooses them for that reason, I'd be honored and I think the authors, Rhonda G. Williams and Nicholas H. Bradley, would be too. 

In both, the protagonists are children: in The Naming of Girl (2016), it's a nine-year-old girl; in Rickie Trujillo (2017), a high school boy. The moving narratives transcend the limits of any reader's prejudices about appeal of stories about kids. In both books, the language is natural, sophisticated, and undiluted; the protagonists' challenges are with the natures of their fully-described, lived-in worlds. 

Each book seems quite to fit into the diversity environment. Each has a vivid "minority" protagonist fighting adverse circumstances; each needs allies where there seems to be none; each has to use limited knowledge of the world and a brutalized sense of justice to fight for self-definition and survival.

But neither Girl Brown nor Rickie Trujillo really has a good chance despite all their efforts. The odds are against them in their impoverished, bleak worlds that don't nurture children. Children have weak advocates and are left to fight with all they have against opponents they can't beat.

The Naming of Girl is a gothic novel, Rhonda Williams reminds us: It's the nature of that genre that all the characters are damaged people who have to live with their flaws and the effects of those flaws upon one another. But within that context, Girl Brown lives in a real world. The setting is a South Arkansas backwater in which we see rural poverty as it is almost never represented in contemporary literature. 

Ignorance, poverty, and the greed that attends them are as much characters as the people. And the people in Girl's world are her guardians who are a Viet Nam amputee and mean drunk, and his drug-addict girlfriend. They also house a mentally disabled adult man, nine-year-old Girl's best friend. Girl is bullied by three vicious little boys egged on by her guardian. Her guardian puts a black teenager in the hospital after beating him up; the black boy's mother is the only civilized person in Girl's life. You want diversity? That's just the beginning.

The Naming of Girl is not about diversity, though. Diversity is the nature of Girl's world. Poverty, racism, retardation, drug addiction, and mean ignorance make "diversity" a very complex concept. All are intertwined, all reinforce and magnify one another. Girl is not fighting a single person or prejudice; the world is indeed against her and her strength is manifested in her fight on all fronts with only nine-year-old will to live.

Rickie Trujillo, a YA/crossover novel, is grittily realistic——based on a real character, in fact. But, as in The Naming of Girl, diversity is neither a single issue nor the point. The characters are all teenage boys living in the East San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, many the children of undocumented Mexicans. As in The Naming of Girl, though, poverty, racism, juvenile crime, the failure of adult care and mentoring, and the impotence of dreams are as active enemies as rival crews of taggers and neighborhood gangs. But diversity? This is a novel for our moment of concern with Hispanic youth, urban poverty, and juvenile crime. Again, all of these issues aggregate and won't be teased into easy morals or examples.

Neither Rhonda Williams nor Nicholas Bradley rewards the reader with a simple conclusion for their protagonist. For each child, life is crushing. Do these books meet the diversity goal of reflecting diverse realities? Of course they do; alas they do. Are they uplifting? Yes. 

I chose these books to publish because each is complex and loving with its hard truths. Each is on the side of the angels, and each teaches the reader about the difficulty of remaining there, especially with a child's insufficient resources. Both of these novels should make us humble as adults; both remind young adults about the legitimacy of anger and the importance of strategy.

Race, lovelessness, vicious role models, poverty, ignorance, abandonment, experiencing or witnessing abuse: It is a diverse world, rarely packaged neatly. 

The Naming of Girl and Rickie Trujillo are two brilliant novels for adults and teens alike to learn from and grow with.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Julianne Buchsbaum has died

                           Goodbye fine rain falling,
Goodbye idea of the good. Outside,

                          daylight is blue against spruce trees
and a dead girl lives again in your memory

--Julianne Buchsbaum, "Phantoms of Utopia," A Little Night Comes, 2005

Julie Buchsbaum agreed in 2014 to be a member of the editorial board of my brand new press. She was, in her always modest way, proud to be asked, and we hoped that it would give her a center and focus to help her weary mind. She agreed because of our fast friendship, though she had her doubts. Lyme disease, from which she'd already been suffering acutely and painfully for several years had undermined her ability to concentrate or write, to think, to muster the energy to walk her tiny companion, the beloved dog Gilbert, whom she carefully tucked into his seatbelt whenever they drove out to buy groceries. She was living in a little house in Lawrence, Kansas, where she had been a librarian at the University, receiving medical care from doctors untutored in the treatment of Lyme, and living on disability.

When I met Julie in 2002, we were both underemployed artists and thinkers at Kenyon College in Ohio. The poet (a Paul Engle Fellow from the Michener Foundation at the Iowa Writer's Workshop) had become a computer-competent librarian to feed herself, and we'd laugh (what else to do?) about her days spent "crawling under the desks of rude English professors to fix their computer problems." I was then a visual artist who had lectured at to the British Society of the History of Medicine, at that point having my fingers slapped by my former-elementary-school-teacher supervisor at the library circulation desk when I made mistakes. 

Julie and I were displaced persons, mutual admirers, and instant soul-mates. We often met at the little bar next to the laundromat to drink (beer for the Milwaukee native, liquor for me) and spend long evenings laughing over the absurdity of our lives there. We'd imagine our liberations. She pursued hers. She bought a Honda Rebel motorcycle and rode her intellectual and spiritual restlessness to the University of Missouri, where she became a G. Ellsworth Huggins Fellow and earned her PhD in English. 

Julianne Buchsbaum published three volumes of poetry in her 47 years. Slowly, Slowly, Horses was her first, from Ausable Press in 2001. I read it when we met and it was part of our love. Her powers of observation were so acute as to be almost a burden, and her bravery in seeing whatever there was acquainted her reader with the junk and bruises of the world in ways that raised them to the spiritual. 

During the years we were separated she published A Little Night Comes, Del Sol Press, 2005. Her last poetry was The Apothecary's Daughter, Penguin, 2011. The Apothecary's Heir was a National Poetry Series winner, chosen by Lucie Brock-Broido. I was delighted to review this mesmerizing book in my blog, Starr Review, in 2012.

Brock-Brodio's citation said, "The Apothecary's Heir, is riddled with 'venom and wonder,' heavy with the freight of mystery and magical thinking. This is a world where a branch 'is deranging the air,' where flies 'burgeon' in a 'broth of gold light.'...The poems are elixirs."

In April, 2017, Upper Hand Press will publish its first poetry, Ann Cefola's remarkable dual-narrative work, Free Ferry, a book fine poetry connected both to ancient myth and to the science of the atom bomb. I am very proud that Cefola's book is the inaugural volume of my press's Booktree Poetry Series, named in Julianne Buchsbaum's honor. Free Ferry is particularly suitable: Julie, having studied classics, philosophy, and the history of science—all in depth—would have delighted in breadth of interest and in the fine language.

I depended on her living to receive a copy and to rejoice with her and Ann together. I am heartbroken. 

If you read Buchbaum's poetry, think of what I strive for at Upper Hand Press; for what is fine and penetrating in thought, perception, language, and insight.

Ann Starr

Friday, February 3, 2017

2016 to 2017: Janus? or Castor and Pollux?

February 4, 2017


2016 was a mighty year for a little press, but even as I write this post to tell your about our publishing plans for 2017, I have to admit that in publishing, imprints are a very simplistic way to tell time. Books gestate in many dimensions. Publication is merely the delivery date and marks the end of the hard and complex labor.
Louise Farmer Smith

In calendar 2016, Upper Hand Press published Zach Snyder's Clyde Doesn't Go Outside, the second edition of Louise Farmer Smith's One Hundred Years of Marriage and her short story collection, Cadillac, Oklahoma. We published first novels from Rhonda G. Williams (The Naming of Girl) and Herta Feely (Saving Phoebe Murrow). That's five fine books from a one-woman, scrappy micro-press. I will allow myself a little swagger here. Not only did we manage to work through all the details of design, typesetting, printing, and promoting on each, but these wonderful writers agreed to work with me! 
Rhonda G. Williams

So 2016 is far from over, and 2017 began months ago. Janus looking backwards and forwards at once? Or the Dioscuri answering our prayers for favorable winds? 
Herta Feely

2017 began back when poets Ann Cefola and Jonathan Bracker submitted manuscripts to me (Free Ferry and Concerning Poetry), and when Nicholas Bradley persisted with ever-more polished and poignant revisions of Rickie Trujillo, which we will bring out this fall. She Can Find Her Way: Women Travelers at Their Best, a twenty-six-essay anthology of writing by solo women travelers, has been in the works for many months: from an initial call for submissions almost a year ago through cover design and typesetting the first of five volumes, which are in the works at the moment. These four 2017 books began in 2016 or 2015—though the authors will surely laugh or groan, knowing how their works were germs in their imaginations for years before I ever heard of them!
Jonathan Bracker

Ann Cefola

In larger companies, books are published in seasons, to be on the market in time for holiday sales, etc. While appreciating the importance of seasonal timing, Upper Hand Press hopes its readers will join us in appreciating a seasonless approach to good books too. 

"I do think that rereading is the test of literature: A book or poem or story that can be fully appreciated on one reading is entertainment," says a friend of mine. We celebrate every new book we publish and hope you anticipate each of our new titles in 2017.But you'll find that we never stop reminding you about the books we've published before. Every book we publish should stand the test of time, call your back and be well worth discovering again and again.
Zach Snyder

So here's to a great new year at Upper Hand Press for all readers; and here, too, is to the continuum, where new and old look forward and back at once, and blow favorable breezes to keep us moving ahead!

--Ann Starr, Publisher and Editor

PS: Until Valentine's Day, 2017, our entire stock
is 50% off!