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The pandemic forced writers and publishers (and everyone else, for that matter) to reconsider their daily actions. Canceled in-person events meant no book tours. Readers couldn’t meander through bookstores, or pick featured books off curated tables. Friends couldn’t linger at The Royal or The Coffee Bar chatting about books and couldn’t swing by a Tuesday night reading at Politics and Prose.
An abundance of well-known writers live in the D.C. area, and the city has an active small press scene, with many publishing houses collaborating and adding to the literary community. Beginning last March, these publishing houses, in concert with independent bookstores and literary organizations across the city, developed a thriving virtual literary scene. But since small presses lack the budgets and social networks of larger publishers, they rely on the local literary community and word of mouth to sell books. And all of the D.C. area presses faced a similar struggle: How could they get books into readers’ hands without in-person events?
Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a small press that utilizes a cooperative, volunteer-based model to publish area authors, had to consider the reality of pandemic-year sales when it proceeded with publishing the new anthology This Is What America Looks Like. In a typical year, WWPH chooses two winning manuscripts from local writers to publish, and those writers later volunteer with the press to help publish others’ books. In early 2020, before the pandemic reached D.C., it temporarily shifted to an anthology format in order to highlight a wide variety of authors and poets. The coincidental nature of the timing whispers of fate. The call for submissions came in February, just a few weeks before the first lockdown. A few weeks later, the world seemed to explode and shut down simultaneously, and books weren’t on most of our minds. But writers process through the written word, and so editors decided to move forward.
“This Is What America Looks Like was a repeated chant at the 2017 Women’s March—an acknowledgement of the diversity, size and peaceful passion of the crowd on that cold January day. Every work of art, no matter the subject, is a portrait of its time. This theme, this title, declaims that truth self-consciously,” says Kathleen Wheaton, president of WWPH. “That writing keeps happening, even, and maybe especially, in times of crisis.”
But getting the word out has been tricky, and as is the case for many publishers right now, sales have been lower than usual. WWPH prints on-demand, which allows some flexibility when compared to ordering large numbers of books to sell at a time. It still has to sell at least 500 books to break even, however, and that’s incredibly difficult right now.
“For a small literary press, in-person readings and events are vital—it’s like a Tupperware party. You invite everyone you know, show them a good time, and hopefully they’ll buy something before they leave,” says Wheaton. “So COVID is really devastating for us—you can’t make the audience laugh or teary in the same way over Zoom. You can’t write personalized dedications in the books.”
Word of mouth is even more of a lifeline for small presses and authors now. One listener might hear a poet read at a Zoom event, such as The Inner Loop or The Literary Cypher, and then purchase their book through a link to the press itself or a local bookstore. From there, it’s all about the reader sharing their enthusiasm via social media. Without in-person book launches, tours, or even casual dinners with friends, readers aren’t able to connect over what we love in the same way. After much discussion, the team at WWPH made the decision to push ahead, hoping they wouldn’t regret it.
More than 500 writers submitted stories and poems, to the delight of volunteer editors Caroline Bock and Jona Colson, both of whom have published books with WWPH. They opened the submission window to the entire D.C. region, including writers who had lived, worked, or grew up here, and looked for a mix of new and established voices to create a spectrum of pieces from raw and edgy to reflective, sorrowful, and more.
“We were overwhelmed with submissions,” Wheaton says. “Writers were writing through this, channeling their grief, their worry, their rage. And the work was amazing. We finally settled on including 100 writers and poets, and the pieces are not only individually stunning but they reflect and build beautifully on each other.”
From start to finish, the entire process was done virtually—a new approach for the editors. The team met for regular Zoom meetings and sent hundreds of emails and texts as they navigated the difficulties of pandemic publishing.
“We worked through unexpected production delays due to the pandemic. Most notably, details that were ‘easy’ before the pandemic, such as registering copyright with the Library of Congress, were delayed weeks,” Bock says. “We went right down to the wire with our February publication date. Maybe all books are made this way, but I think we felt the weight of 100 writers on us.”
This Is What America Looks Like is wildly diverse, with short stories exploring D.C.’s streets and landscapes and poetry speaking to relationships and experiences that redefine what identity means. In “Myrna,” the opening short story, author Mary Kay Zuravleff (a former City Paper contributor) dives into the immigrant experience and takes readers back to 1934 as a precocious girl faces her father’s declining health due to black lung. From there the anthology twists and turns—reminding us what America can, should, and shouldn’t be.
In “Trail Walk” by Robert J. Williams, two students discuss friendship and racism along the Metropolitan Branch Trail. When a woman jogs by, LaShawn tells his white friend, “Wasn’t but one of three things was going to happen for me, two of them bad. One of them really bad. Me, I got to stay paranoid like. Let’s see what happens to you with the next one.”
In “American Progress,” poet Venus Thrash compares photographs of Emmett Till and Tamir Rice: “Staring at the photos side by side / they could be brothers.”
In “Invisible Woman,” poet Mary Ann Larkin writes about growing older as a woman. “I am vanishing from men’s dreams, from their poems,” she tells us. “No one’s hot breath whispers: wait.” And in “Emergency Vehicles Coming Through,” Robert Herschbach cuts through the noise of this past year with: “Our roads are sized for catastrophe, /the cul-de-sacs like asphalt skating rinks, /built for firetrucks to turn in, / the layout in general a banner campaign /with a message for us all: look, look /someday you too.”
This Is What America Looks Like offers what Wheaton describes as “a refracted and kaleidoscopic picture of contemporary D.C.” Even in its hardest places, readers connect with the stories and poems it contains. This is our home, and we see its ugly truths side-by-side with its beautiful moments.
Tara Campbell, a D.C. writer whose prose poem “Lamentations for the Dead in a Barbaric Land” appears in the anthology, also launched her own book this past summer, Political AF: A Rage Collection. Her book’s press, Unlikely Books, faced the same challenges that WWPH faces now.
“I posted invitations on social media for authors with books launching in March and April [of 2020] to come do their belated launch events with me, thinking surely everything would be back to normal by the end of the summer. Now we’re all on Zoom, and author copies are gathering dust on the shelf,” Campbell says.
One bonus of continued virtual events: The literary community itself has become more inclusive. With more bookstores hosting book launches, panels, and readings, more people can hear their favorite authors read from new books. Those who cannot attend in-person events are hoping that some events stay virtual and that all events continue to have the option of attending via Zoom or another online platform.
Advocates hope that continuing to offer virtual or hybrid events could increase book sales for everyone, despite sales being low this past year. But it might take some creative thinking on the part of booksellers offering incentives or personalized virtual author experiences, to make this happen. The real benefit is an expanding, inclusive community, which they hope, over time, supports everyone’s writing. Small presses exist at the heart of the literary community, offering publishing options for writers in all genres—focusing as much on art as on sales.
“Community is essential,” Wheaton says. “Most small presses function on tiny budgets, with staff that are in it for the love of literature rather than the money.”
More than 120 people attended the virtual release of This Is What America Looks Like, which WWPH co-hosted with The Writer’s Center on Feb. 5. That’s an enormous turnout in a Zoom weary world and proof that readers still care deeply about connecting with the writers they love.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Robert Herschbach’s name.