LitStack recently sat down with writer, editor—and now indie publisher—Peg Alford Pursell, a literary community builder with a grand passion for literature. Since 2010, she has curated and produced the monthly reading series Why There Are Words, one of the SF Bay Area’s leading live venues for authors, and recently launched WTAW Press, a new independent literary publisher based in Northern California. This up-and-coming publisher has been widely published herself, with stories that have appeared or are forthcoming in VOLT, Soundings Review, RHINO, Permafrost, Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Quotable, Joyland, Staccato Fiction, Your Impossible Voice, Emprise Review, Annalemma, The Fabulist, Sugar Mule, Blotterature, Her Royal Majesty, and others. Her book SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW is forthcoming from ELJ Editions, March 2017.
We spoke with Peg about the new press, its focus and goals, and how the independent press model supports writers, and readers, while providing a vital role in the industry.
LS: First off, we have to ask, what made you decide to start an independent press?
I’ve curated an award-winning and popular Bay Area reading series, Why There Are Words, for six years, and during that time I’ve had the opportunity to learn about an even wider range of books than I normally do (and I read a lot!). In the process, I found that the books that truly engaged me were those published by independent presses. As I became acquainted with an assortment of independent publishers, I began thinking about the difficulties those small presses face and how those issues translate into difficulties for the authors—and also the immense joys and triumphs, particularly in terms of a freedom that mainstream publishers don’t have, which is to publish amazing work that takes risks, books that truly affect readers and books that sometimes win Pulitzers! For some great examples, see Tinkers, by Paul Harding, from Bellevue Literary Press and Digest, by Gregory Pardlo, from Four Way Books.
Additionally, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of reading many manuscripts from wondrous writers, including those I’ve come to know through the alumni network of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers—authors of deeply affecting manuscripts that mainstream publishing has all too often spurned. I became increasingly distressed over that hard and sad outcome: that readers are denied moving and often life-changing books as a result of commercial demands. I simply felt I needed to do something. So I set out to learn what I could about independent publishing, and to determine if I wanted to commit to this serious endeavor.
“I want to publish books that are unforgettable. Books that challenge, that evoke and provoke, that immerse readers.”
LS: What kinds of books do you envision publishing?
This is such a good question because it allows me to sound a little like an ingénue and say that I want to publish what I can’t even begin to imagine! In fact, I want to publish books that are unforgettable. Books that challenge, that evoke and provoke, that immerse readers. Books that confront issues, and by that I don’t mean books that must shock or that are in-one’s-face, necessarily. I value nuance and subtlety and beauty. Essentially, I want to publish books that endure.
At WTAW Press, we will publish two full-length books of prose our first year. By prose, of course, I mean almost everything that is not poetry: fiction and nonfiction—novels, memoirs, short story collections, essays, biography, etc.
I’m choosing to publish two books the first year in order to do everything possible to support the books and their authors, to get the books in the hands of readers and garner the attention they deserve. In the future, the Press will expand to include poetry and to publish a larger number of titles.
LS: So how does an independent press work?
An independent press shares certain aims with mainstream presses, but advantageously, is not subject to many of the commercial restraints. Mainstream publishers, owned by a handful of large corporations, practice a model based on imitation (similarity to what’s been successful before), celebrity (name recognition to drive sales), volume (the number of books sold). Commercial publishers often can’t commit the required patience to nurture a book for reasons of money and the bottom line. I’ve had a great deal of experience with writers who’ve published with a mainstream publisher, a great book, a work of literature, only to have the book die a quiet little death, obscured by the hype of a competing book, and often a competing book that turned out to be not so big after all.
What small presses can do best is to discover the literary outliers. Unlike conglomerates, or agents for that matter, indie presses see a book not in terms of how many copies it will sell, but it terms of how good it is, its literary value. With WTAW Press, as it’s been with the literary reading series Why There Are Words, quality is the only criterion.
LS: So what can we expect from WTAW Press?
Similar to most indie presses, WTAW Press will specialize in literature: experimental fiction, short stories, essays, etc., and cover a spectrum of possibilities, concerns, and emphases. WTAW Press will endeavor to publish the best books we can find. We will have editorial relationships with our writers, and give extensive support of authors from development through to publicity. For WTAW Press, it will mean our commitment to the purpose of publishing—to make available those voices that need to be heard.
As an independent, nonprofit publisher, our titles will exist in the same marketplace as the huge numbers of mainstream commercial publishers. Our books will have to compete for attention, reviews, bookstore placements, distribution, sales, awards, events, and so on. It’s a risk in most every way, but we want to take those risks. We want to push forms, genre, language. We want to keep writers writing. We want them to know that their work needs to be out in the world, and we’ll do what we can to make that happen, to have their work taken seriously.
“Our books will have to compete for attention, reviews, bookstore placements, distribution, sales, awards, events, and so on. It’s a risk in most every way, but we want to take those risks.”
LS: What would you say are your biggest challenges?
A big challenge is having the funds. It’s almost always the money, isn’t it? In order to be able to do everything that one wants to bring the books to the attention of readers—reviewers, media, prize committees, and so forth—it’s necessary to share the work, to spread the love around. But now that we’re in our startup phase, the money isn’t there to hire that help (when, perhaps arguably, it’s most important). So there’s a good chance a crowdsourcing campaign may be coming your way some time in the foreseeable future! Though what seems the biggest challenge is the responsibility to ensure that contemporary literature does more than endure, that it thrives.
LS: What is it like to be a working writer, and now a working editor/publisher?
I’ve worked as a freelance editor for a number of years, and as mentioned, I produce the reading series, as well as teach. Yet, I don’t think of myself as wildly different from many of us who cobble together livelihoods, and/or who find ourselves drawn to the various facets of the creative process—of drafting work and sharing it with the world. The premium is always time. How do we have the time to do everything we want to do so that art—ours and others—finds its audience? There’s no easy answer to that question.
For me, there is a relationship between the stewardship and my own work. It’s a privilege to pay close attention to work that speaks to me, for other writers to entrust their work to me, and that close attention has only benefited my own creative work. As I edit, some part of my mind seems to run on a sort of subterranean track, one that later results in an interrogation of something I’m writing, particular manuscript points or aspects, and how can that be anything but good?