By Maile Field
As Stillhouse Press wraps up chapter one, it’s opening chapter two.
Bill Miller, director of the creative writing program, says the new Mason-run press is actively seeking manuscripts for its second publication.
“We are open for business,” says Miller, who is also executive director of Fall for the Book, the annual Mason-based literary festival.
Editor Marcos Martinez explains that the craft press started by Mason in cooperation with Fall for the Book, is a place for writers who want to work with a publisher, “not just drop their manuscript in at the door and go.”
Stillhouse Press, founded last year with the help of alumnus Dallas Hudgens, MFA ’92, is a collaborative, student-run publisher of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Hudgens’ own press, Relegation Books, donated startup funds for the Stillhouse venture that formed from a collaboration between the Mason Creative Writing Program and the nonprofit Fall for the Book.
Martinez, a third-year MFA fiction candidate and one of a trio of Mason MFA students who runs the new publishing house, says Stillhouse is independent from Relegation and differs from other publishing houses as well. Writers interact with Stillhouse editorial staff, remaining involved in the process of crafting the book at every step from sentence level work such as verb tense to marketing material production. As with the eponymous moonshiners working with the mash as it is distilled, the objective is a better product.
Stillhouse’s first publication, Helen on 86th Street, a story collection by Wendi Kaufman (MFA ’97) gave students experience they couldn’t have predicted. Paperback pre-sales particularly surprised Meghan McNamara, media director for Stillhouse, and a third-year MFA fiction candidate. Stillhouse staff used social media to round up student volunteers to process the large number of orders. To thank them, Stillhouse ordered a round of drinks at a pre-party for volunteers at the March 1 Loudfire reading at Epicuré Café in Fairfax.
“It certainly did very well, especially in the presale, where I would estimate we did half of our total sales,” McNamara says. “Especially for a debut author … paperback sales were far, far better than digital sales, which I found surprising.”
McNamara says although initially brisk, book sales through the Stillhouse website have now slowed. “Such is the nature of being a small press in an Amazon-dominated world.”
“We are still receiving orders through our distributor, Ingram (they handle all bookstores, Amazon, etc.) at a steady rate,” McNamara reports. “E-book sales are surprisingly not as strong, but perhaps that is because people really wanted to own a hard copy of Wendi’s book.”
The third member of the trio, third-year MFA nonfiction candidate Merrill Sunderland, handles operations, the physical distribution of the books.
With its first publication still riding a wave of publicity, the learning curve for Martinez, is flattening out. “Personally,” he says, “I’m much better prepared.”
Martinez comments that next time he’d like more time between galleys and publication, time to allow reviewers to produce commentary.
In the case of the debut, with the author very ill from the effects of cancer and its treatments, the rush to print narrowed that gap to the detriment of the book’s best promotion schedule. Despite the rush, Martinez regrets the book did not return from the printer in time for author Wendi Kaufman to hold a copy in her hands before she succumbed to her illness. But she knew her words would go forth in the world, Martinez says, and her legacy is preserved. “It’s really bittersweet,” he says.
Moving on, the team of faculty and students is actively reviewing new manuscripts. “We’ve received some fiction … also a nonfiction first person non-political memoir,” says Miller.
“We’ve set up a reading process,” he says, involving undergraduate students led by Martinez.
“We are currently reading manuscripts in all three genres (non-fiction, fiction, poetry) as we search for our next titles,” Martinez says. “Our goal is to publish one prose book by the end of 2015, and one poetry title followed by another prose book in 2016, and then publish three-plus books per year from 2017 onward.” In other words, he says, two more books in the next 12 months.
Martinez says Stillhouse is particularly interested in literary fiction with a voice and narrative nonfiction. Novels, Martinez specifies, or collections of stories that have a greater cohesion than just a collection of unrelated essays, from good established and emerging writers. He is also looking for work that has solid social and cultural context.
“How do you engage the stranger in five to ten minutes,” Martinez asks, “and have them keep reading?”
Although a specific nonfiction manuscript is currently being considered, none of the Stillhouse staff is ready to say anything about it, implying only that it is a work-in-progress.
“We are open to receiving other manuscripts,” Miller emphasizes. “We hope Mason alums won’t feel it is too close to home to let us consider their work.”
Writers interested in submitting their work for possible publication with Stillhouse Press should follow guidelines at http://www.stillhousepress.org/submissions/
Jay Patel, MFA ’11, contributed to this article.