How Small, Scrappy Local Book Presses Have Turned L.A. Into a Publishing Town
L.A.’s never been known as a bastion of publishing—but that’s changing
Colleen Dunn Bates became a publisher almost in spite of herself. “I started in the book business unintentionally,” she laughs, sitting at a conference table in the Altadena office of Prospect Park Books, the independent imprint she founded in 2006. “It was the only job I could get.”
Dunn, a sixth-generation Southern Californian, graduated from journalism school at USC in the early 1980s. Following a stint at a community newspaper in Toluca Lake, she ended up as an editorial assistant at Los Angeles’s now-defunct Knapp Press, working on the Gault Millau series of travel guides. “I was terrified,” she remembers, “but that was my entry to the book world.”
Prospect Park (the name comes from Dunn’s old Pasadena neighborhood) has published more than 70 titles, with 12 scheduled for 2018. Among its authors are mystery novelist Naomi Hirahara, television writer Phoef Sutton, and Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine. The office walls are lined with bookshelves and over-size cover images. On a Thursday afternoon, two staffers work on upcoming titles at computers, busy in a focused way.
Prospect Park is one of several general interest presses that, together, are changing the perception that Southern California is not a landscape for publishing. Just down the street, Red Hen Press, which was founded in 1994, issues between 20 and 25 works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction every year. In Eagle Rock, the five-year-old Unnamed Press will release its 50th book in July: Its output is primarily literary fiction and works in translation. From a third-floor office in downtown’s Old Bank District, Rare Bird publishes something like 50 titles annually, both new projects and reprints of older work. Add to this smaller imprints—Writ Large Press, which seeks, its website notes, to publish “overlooked Los Angeles writers,” and Lil’ Libros, with its bilingual board books for young children—and one can start to see a shift in the cultural production of Los Angeles, which, despite its history as a creative capital, has never really been a publishing town.
For Unnamed Press cofounder Chris Heiser, such a development has as much to do with the vagaries of place as with the vagaries of publishing. “Los Angeles is diverse,” he says over a beer down the street from Unnamed’s Colorado Boulevard office. “It’s informed by so many things. That’s a challenge and an opportunity, depending on how you look at it.” (This sense of opportunity was the reason, I should say, that I published a novel with Unnamed in 2016.) The emergence of local publishers, Heiser suggests, has roots in bookstore culture—in his case, Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, where he used to work. “These stores are incubators,” he says. “They generate not just sales but conversation, and they support independent publishers.”
At the same time, the notion of local has become more nuanced in an age in which community is often digital and people and institutions have access to one another in ways they haven’t had before. Some of Unnamed’s earliest media coverage, for instance, was a 2014 review of its first release, Deji Olukotun’s novel Nigerians in Space, in the British newspaper The Guardian. Unnamed’s sister press, Phoneme Media, publishes poetry, graphic novels, and fiction from a variety of cultures, including Zapotec, that are representative of a local diaspora—Los Angeles as international city on the most fundamental terms. The idea, Heiser says, is to expand the sense of Southern California vision beyond what we might normally expect. As part of such a process, he says, “we skew toward young writers and young readers, in their 20 and 30s. We support a younger literary community.”
Such a community can be found at events across Southern California, from author evenings at downtown’s Last Bookstore to staged readings, in venues such as Hollywood Forever cemetery, put on by PEN Center USA. In the back room of its Echo Park store-front, the nonprofit 826LA offers workshops for young writers; in Venice, the venerable literary center Beyond Baroque celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The death of the publishing industry has been greatly exaggerated, but imprints have expanded their attention beyond merely making books. When Red Hen moved into its new offices in November, part of the impetus was to have an on-site events space; although the publisher has long collaborated with the Annenberg Beach House, Boston Court theater in Pasadena, and Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, “we get to do more,” observes deputy director Tobi Harper. “With our own space, we can experiment.” This includes book launches as well as master classes and workshops with writers such as Charles Harper Webb and Victoria Chang. Such activities help build an audience while also creating a more direct relationship between the press and its readership. In addition, because Red Hen is a nonprofit, it receives input from donors, who help drive projects for the public and the page. The contact with readers and with funders, Harper says, “keeps us in touch with the needs of the community.”
Southern California, of course, has a long history of literary culture, dating back to Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, if not before. Beginning in the 1920s, after he opened his first store in downtown Los Angeles, bookseller Jake Zeitlin inspired what came to be known as the Zeitlin Circle, a group of writers and intellectuals who helped shape the city’s cultural life. Zeitlin served as mentor and colleague to Carey McWilliams and Aldous Huxley and helped bring the latter to California in 1937. Around the same time, Stanley Rose’s bookstore, next door to Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, became a gathering place for writers such as John Fante, William Saroyan, Nathanael West, and Budd Schulberg; it is said to have been a model for Arthur Geiger’s bookshop in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
What has changed since then is the publishing. Zeitlin put out books with his Primavera Press, but that was a specialty imprint, much like the avant-garde Sun & Moon Press, which published out of an office on Wilshire Boulevard for many years. Other local presses—Angel City, say, or Santa Monica Press, focus on local crafts and history. In part, this has to do with New York’s role as the center of American literary culture; nearly all of the nation’s major presses have been centered there. In the years after World War II, though, independent publishers (San Francisco’s City Lights, which started publishing in the mid-1950s, is an early example) began to spring up regionally. In some cases, those houses have fostered local talent. In others, they cast a wider net. Perhaps because of the primacy here of entertainments such as film and music, publishing has had a slower evolution in Los Angeles, but as the city has changed, diversifying and centralizing, so too has its literary life. “I’m a bookseller,” says Rare Bird founder Tyson Cornell, who once worked as marketing and publicity director at West Hollywood’s Book Soup, “and when I started the company, I wanted a store with a publishing component. But the opportunities are different now.”
What Cornell is saying is that publishing is a single piece of a complex puzzle. To some extent, this is a matter of money—never plentiful for publishers. Rare Bird runs a literary marketing business as well as releasing its own books and collaborating on occasion with other publishers. What’s more, Cornell explains, it has required the implementation of “a three-to-five-year plan in which competitive volume was the name of the game.” Early on he began to see the limitations of a smaller independent, the treadmill of “publishing 3 or 6 or 12 books a year.” The solution was to build a broad list of titles that might infiltrate the market and, in so doing, keep the company afloat. As an example, Cornell cites Rare Bird’s upcoming releases, which include reissues of three books by Richard Pryor, two Sammy Davis Jr. autobiographies, and a previously unknown novel by Frank Capra (yes, that Frank Capra) called Cry Wilderness. “Let’s be honest,” he admits. “There’s a surplus of content. We have to ask: What are we bringing to the table that no one is?”
Other Southern California publishers are asking equivalent questions, as they must in order to survive. Both Heiser and Unnamed cofounder Olivia Taylor Smith have traveled widely, and both are engaged with literary communities around the globe, which has influenced the press’s international reach. Along with Nigerians in Space, another early Unnamed release was Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, a collection of stories set in Dhaka by the Bangladeshi writer K. Anis Ahmed. Since the press operates at “a human scale”—more nimble than a major publisher, able to survive with smaller margins because of smaller overhead—“we can,” Heiser says, “support and nurture writers in a way larger publishers cannot.” On the most basic level, he is referring to resources and the ability to take a risk. The same is true for Prospect Park. “I started doing this,” Bates agrees, “because the big publishers were not interested. To sell 3,000 copies of a book is not profitable for one of the majors, but it can be for an independent press.”
Presses such as Unnamed and Prospect Park have small staffs, as do other independent publishers across the country. Everyone chips in on edits and promotion; everyone has to wear a lot of hats. “I’m a generalist,” Bates acknowledges a bit wistfully, but if Prospect Park’s focus has often been expansive, she is looking ahead to “skewing back to more local titles because this is what we know.” That means cookbooks, surfing, insider city guides; the first Prospect Park title, 2006’s Hometown Pasadena, will be reissued in September substantially updated. This has more than a little to do with Bates’s worries about the health of the industry. “The good news,” she says, “is that people still buy and read books, and print sales are increasing. The bad news is that the margins are so small. Amazon is the 8,000-pound gorilla, calling the shots, making it difficult for booksellers, which makes it difficult for us.”
Still, in a certain sense, it was ever thus. Publishing has always been a labor of love. This is why community is important, especially in Southern California, with its distances and its sprawl. Bates recently initiated a series of Los Angeles publisher mingles—get-togethers, in a bar, with no agenda, an expression of common cause. “I’m in it,” she says simply, “for the people.” Other publishers concur. “This is,” notes Harper, “a huge and complicated city, and we are all so scattered. But it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Not competition, but community.”