Celebrating Texas Independents: Austin

“One of the unique aspects of the Texas literary landscape is the overwhelming support that writers and others in the book community here provide to one another.”

-Colleen Devine Ellis

In conjunction with Texas Independence Day, we’re partnering with some of the state’s greatest Independents to host a series of free and open events across the state throughout the month of March.

These panel discussions will focus on the great opportunities for writers and readers that Texas has to offer, from independent presses, to journals, to bookstores, and beyond, while also answering writers’ burning questions about the publishing process, submitting to presses and journals, catching the eye of an editor, and more.

Our Third Thursday panel discussion in Austin will be held at BookPeople on Thursday, March 16 at 7 pm (details and address here). We’ll be speaking with four distinguished panelists. We recently interviewed three of them about the literary landscape in Texas: Colleen Devine Ellis of University of Texas Press, Abby Fennewald of BookPeople, and Sunny Leal of fields and Feminine Inquiry.

Scribe: Can you share a few thoughts with us about the Texas literary landscape — what makes it unique, and what opportunities can be found here for writers, readers, publishers, and booksellers?

Colleen Devine Ellis

Colleen Devine Ellis: One of the unique aspects of the Texas literary landscape is the overwhelming support that writers and others in the book community here provide to one another. I attend a lot of book signings and events, both as part of my job and because I love books, and there are frequently writers and booksellers in the audience. It’s inspiring to see how successful, established writers can positively affect the careers of their not-yet-established peers, and then watch those writers do the same with students and beginning writers. There is a comparable swell of support and promotion for booksellers, independent bookstores, and small/university press publishers. By investing in the literary communities in Texas, we invest in the support and success of writers, publishers, and booksellers, and the continued enjoyment of readers.

Abby Fennewald

Abby Fennewald: When I first moved to Texas I really wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the literary landscape. In my year here, it has become clear that Texas, and Austin in particular, has a community of writers and readers that’s flourishing in a city that has a strong tradition of creativity of all kinds. As a bookseller, it’s always special to promote local writers and presses. We like to think there’s a certain synergy in all of our goals as we want to keep the literary landscape vibrant, and having a bookstore as a community space that works with local writers to sell their work is an important part of that.

Sunny Leal

Sunny Leal: What I think makes the Texas literary landscape so unique is the diversity Texas has to offer. Not only does Texas host an array of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, especially being so close to the border, but the state is home to so many different types of landscapes, climates, histories, and lifestyles that if you want to write about a certain subject there is an audience for it here. Or if you want to sell a certain type of literature or publish a very specific genre, there is someone in Texas who will share in that enthusiasm with you. Everything is truly bigger in Texas, and the scope of literature in this state is just as large.

Scribe: What do you see as the role of independents in Texas’s literary community (publishers, journals, booksellers) and what do you find most rewarding about the work you do at your respective organizations?

CDE: Independent and university presses are particularly well-suited to encourage, publish and promote new authors, and to take risks that larger publishers won’t (or can’t). One example of how a university press can make a difference is from 2015 when the publisher I work for released The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks by Toni-Tipton Martin. Showcasing one of the world’s largest private collections of African American cookbooks, ranging from rare nineteenth-century texts to modern classics by Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor, it’s an extensively illustrated book that brings to light a formerly hidden story about America’s food culture. Larger publishers declined to publish the book for a number of reasons, including that it wasn’t easily defined by bookstore subject categories, it would be expensive to produce, and it was the first book of its kind so there were no strong comparisons to use for sale and marketing data.

UT Press chose to publish it because we saw it as a trailblazer in food writing and African-American history. It’s since gone on to win a James Beard Award, be featured in national press including several articles in the New York Times, and sell thousands of copies.  It was a joy to see this book be so successful because it is truly original and important, and it might not have ever been published if we didn’t take a risk for a project we believed in so strongly.

AF: As we frequently talk about with our booksellers, the most rewarding thing about being an independent is that we have so much control over what we are talking about and promoting, both in-store face-to-face with customers and online. For booksellers, that means you can really move the dial on a book you love, hand-selling it at every opportunity that arises. A bookseller’s love means a book gets put in the hands of customers long after it’s published. For the store it means we can really commit to what we think is important for people to read. At the moment, that means our storewide push behind Mohsin Hamid’s excellent new novel, Exit West. And to take it a step further we’re giving part of our proceeds back to the community as a donation to Caritas of Austin. Those ties keep us part of our community and help serve the people who shop here.

SL: The role of independents in Texas’s literary community is to create and foster the avenues in which our wide net of writers can thrive and be acknowledged. As I said earlier, there is so much room in our literary landscape and with so much space a lot of the lesser-known voices can get lost. It is not only the responsibility of independent journals, sellers, and publishers to play host for the large amount of up-and-coming writers here in Texas, but it is a privilege to be able to see these people hone their craft and share their work with audiences that will truly appreciate it.

That is also a part of what is so rewarding about working with fields magazine. Every submission period I read amazing work by hundreds of relatively unknown poets and I am in awe of each and every one of their talents and the bravery they possess in putting their work out there for consideration. To have these great writers place their work in my hands and trust that I will make honest and fair judgement on something they worked so hard on is so humbling and inspiring.

Scribe: Tell us a bit about a program or event that you have upcoming that exemplifies the spirit of being independent in Texas (or, if that’s not applicable, tell us about something you have upcoming that you’re especially excited about; a chance to promote something to our readers! Include a link if appropriate).

CDE: We are looking forward to SXSW this year because three of our authors are featured in the official programming: Jarod Neece and Mando Rayo for The Tacos of Texas, and Zak Pellacio for Project 258: Making Dinner at Fish and Game. In April, the San Antonio Book Festival is always a great day for authors, publishers, booksellers, and especially readers. University of Texas Press authors including Bill Wittliff,  Barbara MorganMaya PerezAndrea Valdez, and Frederick Luis Aldama will be on panels throughout the day.

AF: We’ve watched as bookstores nationwide are examining their role in their communities since the election. For most of us, the most important thing is to remain a place of open minded discussion and idea sharing, and in that vein we’re starting a new book club called Uncomfortable Reads. The inaugural meeting is on March 28 at 8 pm, and we hope this can be a great gathering place for Austinites to come talk about issues that are affecting them, with guidance from books we think are important reading. Details here.

SL: On March 31st, fields magazine will be holding our seventh issue release party at First Street Studio. I’m so excited for this event because not only do we get to celebrate the 20+ creatives that are featured in our upcoming issue, but we’re also hosting readings and performances by people who have taken their crafts and truly made it their own, whether that be from influences in their personal life or through their own unique style. These writers and performers along with the continued success of fields really exemplify what it means to be independent in Texas: no matter what obstacles we may face, we’re doing it right, doing it big, and doing it our way. That seems like a pretty Texan mindset to me.

Thanks, Colleen, Abby, and Sunny! Also included in this panel discussion will be Will Evans of Cinestate; read an interview with him here. Visit our website for additional cities and dates where we’ll be Celebrating Texas Independents throughout the month of March.

Are you a Texas independent (publisher, journal, bookstore, etc.) interested in participating in a future event and/or learning about other opportunities for partnership and promotion? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at wlt@writersleague.org.

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