Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock; Image source courtesy of Vecteezy

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

D.C.’s literary scene is independent to the core, with poetry readings in tiny spaces, local bookstores supporting writers, and small publishing houses putting out work in a variety of genres. 

Those small, independent presses are some of the best in the nation. They function like the big five publishing houses of Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, working to sell as many books as they can. But unlike the big five, they rarely require authors to work with literary agents, and they are much more willing to take a chance on new, lesser-known writers or styles of writing that don’t fit into the more established genres.

City Paper spoke with the publishers of six area indie presses about their love of the written word, their deep respect for authors and poets, and why they keep hope alive for their industry.

Paycock Press

Arlington’s Paycock Press began as an umbrella, or overarching, press for the literary publication Gargoyle Magazine which was founded in 1976. Richard Peabody, a writer and publisher who has dedicated his life to printing the words of authors and poets that otherwise might not be read, is one of the original founders. Peabody is a major figure in D.C.’s literary world, reluctantly accompanying Paycock Press into the digital age while holding on to its historical roots.

He remembers the days of doing Gargoyle’s typeset and printing in Glen Echo, where The Writer’s Center, one of the area’s oldest literary institutions, was located.

“This process, you’ve got to care about it,” he says. “You’re not just working nine to five. It used to be people making books in back rooms. It was the coolest thing. We were still using a typesetting machine where we would cut and paste and shape.”

Peabody knows firsthand the sacrifices required to maintain a press through the years.

“You don’t do this to make money,” he says. “It’s an addiction. You want your authors to be happy. In a lot of cases this is an author’s first book, it’s their baby. Their whole life went into this book and we want this to be a happy experience.”

Now Peabody puts out two issues of Gargoyle a year, plus the beloved “Grace and Gravity” series featuring D.C. women writers, and has four books in the current pipeline, all by women. He loves to focus on poetry and short story collections, which can be harder to place for big publishers. Above all, he prints what he wants to print, not following any niche or style.

Washington Writers’ Publishing House

A nonprofit cooperative founded in the early 1970s, Washington Writers’ Publishing House began with a blind contest open to poets in the area. That tradition continues, with more than 120 poetry and short story collections published since then from their yearly contests. Local authors Melanie Hatter, Caroline Bock, and Nathan Leslie are just a few of the talents they’ve printed. Publisher Kathleen Wheaton describes their niche as “D.C. and its suburbs—we strive to represent its diversity of voices.”

“Short story collections are difficult to publish, even if your stories have won prizes or been published in prestigious journals,” she adds. 

WWPH utilizes a strictly volunteer staff and they focus on developing flexible, cooperative author-editor relationships that continue on with authors often acting as editors for the following year’s winners. Wheaton wanted to be a part of a collaborative process with writers, one of the main reasons she loves independent publishing. 

“Kindness isn’t a word one associates with D.C., but I would say it applies to the literary scene here,” says Wheaton. “Literature is a somewhat freakish occupation in Washington, and I’ve found writers and poets to be incredibly generous to and supportive of each other. They show up at readings, and buy and promote each other’s books. Having lived in New York, I can say it was a much more competitive, mutually hostile environment.”

Santa Fe Writers Project

Santa Fe Writers Project publisher Andrew Gifford is from the D.C. area, but in 1998 he traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to “disappear into the mountains” as he faced a painful struggle with trigeminal neuralgia.

“Looking up at that big sky on a chilly November evening, I realized I needed to fight for what I loved most: literature, and the power of a writer’s voice to get in our heads and change our lives,” he says. 

And so Bethesda’s Santa Fe Writers Project was born. One of the area’s largest independent presses, it was founded that same year. SFWP now staffs six people, plus a small group of interns, with plans to release six to eight books in 2020, as well as their top-tier literary journal The SFWP Quarterly.

Gifford worked for an academic publisher for almost 20 years, and learned firsthand about the difference between chasing the bottom line and loving literature and the craft. For him, running a small press means that authors are the publishing house’s lifeblood.

There is no focus on a specific genre at SFWP, and Gifford believes that presses like his are more successful when casting a wide net.

“If I want to keep reading it and I like it through to the end, I’ll make an offer,” he says. “If I can see the book in my to-be-read pile then let’s make that happen.”

Next season, he’ll be publishing a detective novel, a novel about the fashion industry in New York, and a dystopian novel set in a Kafkaesque Chinese prison. He promises middle-grade fiction, memoir, poetry, and plenty more in the coming years.

Alan Squire Publishing

Rose Solari, publisher and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishing in Bethesda, started her small press in 2010 to “reject the culture of no.” She watched large publishing houses pass on project after project that her fellow writers were working on—projects she believed in—and she knew she had to play a role in changing that.

Solari and her husband James J. Patterson are both successful writers, but they always wanted something more.

“It’s never been quite enough for me,” she says. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial, always thinking about helping other writers get into print, to get them out into the world. Jimmy is very similar in that regard.”

Putting out multiple books a year, Solari and her husband pour over details with authors in a way that larger publishing houses don’t. From editing to cover design, it’s a team approach that allows their writers to choose how much or how little they want to be a part of the fine-tuning.

In 2014, ASP also became an imprint of Santa Fe Writers Project, which has allowed for larger print runs. Solari collaborates with many editors and publishers in the local area, and the press runs like a well oiled machine, but for her, feels like a family.

Mason Jar Press

An up-and-coming indie press out of Baltimore launched in 2014, Mason Jar is a labor of love for Ian Anderson, Mike Tager, and their small group of volunteers. Everyone at Mason Jar has a day job, and most have families and their own personal writing to work on. Both Anderson and Tager view publishing as a partnership between their press and their authors, and they work intimately with each writer to make sure the final product reflects their vision. One of Mason Jar’s authors, Tyrese Coleman, was a finalist for the 2018 PEN Open Book Award for her collection “How to Sit.

“We want all of our authors to have the best possible experience in putting out a book,” Anderson says. “That matters more to us than the money. Yes, there are lights to be kept on, but we have no illusions that MJP will make any of us rich. We’re not doing this for money. And maybe this is a bit cynical of the big publishers, but our books aren’t just ‘units’ to us. They are things we care deeply about, and believe in as much as our authors. Because of that, we treat each title with the care and thoughtfulness we would want someone else to put into our writing.”

Anderson views the Baltimore and D.C. literary scenes as separate and distinct, but also deeply cooperative and connected. He jokes that “you get two scenes for the price of a MARC ticket,” and he’s right. Local authors read at events in both cities and everywhere in between. 

Shout Mouse Press

Shout Mouse is a nonprofit, D.C.-based writing and publishing program for underheard voices. They have published 40 books so far, highlighting more than 300 teen authors. Their work focuses entirely on serving youth whose backgrounds are underrepresented in children’s and young adult literature, and they publish in all genres.

“We launched Shout Mouse Press in 2014 to fill a gap we saw in the publishing world,” says publisher Kathy Crutcher. “There was, and continues to be, a dearth of diverse books and voices in children’s publishing—especially those written in own voices, those members of the community being portrayed. To address this lack of diversity and create opportunities for young authors of marginalized backgrounds, we had to start our own press.”

Crutcher and her team are committed to doing much more than sell books. Instead, they work closely with their teen authors, from initial writing workshops to editing and publishing, to tell stories that the authors feel have not been told and must be told.

“Our core values and process set us apart from traditional publishers,” Crutcher explains. “At the outset of a book project, we don’t ask what will sell books. Instead, we center youth voices at every part of the process: What story do our authors wish they had as a child? What story of theirs do they want others, especially those who may be different from them, to hear?”

Shout Mouse books are also used to support curricula in D.C. schools, and schools across the country, inspiring marginalized students to read stories and poems that speak to their experiences, and to write their own stories. 

Want a heads up about artsy goings-on?

To Do This Week is your twice-weekly email roundup of arts and cultural events. It’s the perfect way to know what’s going on, and subscribing is a great way to support us