Pictured Above: Managing Editor Mike Good with Autumn House authors at Unnameable Books (Left to right: Mike Good, Clifford Thompson, Charles Kell, Sherrie Flick, Kathy Anderson)
For this month’s publisher spotlight, we spoke with Mike Good, managing editor of Autumn House Press. Based in Pittsburgh, AHP strives to publish and promote the voices of lesser-known authors who will become prominent voices of our age, viewing literature as “an affirmation of the deep and elemental range of our human experience.” Mike spoke with 3RP’s Mary Rose Manspeaker about what sets AHP apart, utilizing community partnerships to find voices that are otherwise overlooked, and hopes for the future. Read the full interview below.
Mary Rose Manspeaker: What sets you apart as an independent press? What do you look for in submissions across genres? How does Autumn House’s history as a poetry press nurturing works overlooked by commercial presses influence its editorial vision?
Mike Good: The first one is a fair question and, in some ways, a hard one to answer. I can’t say I’ve worked at any other presses, so I don’t know what particular ways we differ internally or how we stand out from the outside-looking-in, but I can tell you some things that excite me about Autumn House Press.
I feel Autumn House publishes high quality books in all literary genres. I think that’s rare for a press of our size, with just two full-time staff members, who include myself and our fantastic editor in chief, Christine Stroud. While we know the sort of books that draw us in and we’re aware of the books we’ve published in the past, when reviewing submissions, I’m not overly obsessing over what an “Autumn House book” has been, and am always looking to expand and challenge what it could be. So that may be unique. My sense is some other editors have a sense of what they like and what they don’t and work to publish in that frame. On my end, I feel I’m always trying to stay aware of what other presses are publishing (or not), and working to build building our role and catalogue within and beyond those currents.
On a similar wavelength, AHP works to treat each author and title individually and on their own merit. We try to understand and help the author shape their goals and then pursue them with the writer to the best of our ability as editors with the writer. This philosophy carries through our editorial, cover design, and promotional planning. We view our relationships with authors as partnerships, and hope to work in-step with our authors, supporting them throughout editing, promotion, and beyond, being available to nominate for prizes, helping to arrange readings where possible, and reading new projects.
In terms of our history, the press was started in 1998 by Michael Simms. He retired in 2016, and Christine became editor in chief. I joined staff in 2018. So, while I have a somewhat limited perspective of the last three years, nurturing works overlooked by commercial presses remains essential to our editing and acquisitions process. When we select a title, I love feeling not only excited about the author and their work, but also feeling sure of the importance of Autumn House’s role to champion their work; being able to help them to reach a wider audience, if we are able, is always our hope and our belief.
MRM: How does Autumn House Press interact with the Pittsburgh community and beyond?
MG: COVID has made community engagement more challenging, or at least reshaped what it means. We moved into our once-new office in 2018, with the hope of connecting more closely with the arts community in the Garfield neighborhood. For a long while, we were able to offer our space to a youth community writing workshop called Write Pittsburgh, and that felt important. Unfortunately, the lack of in-person events has made that impossible for everyone’s safety.
In the past, we’ve really enjoyed helping to organize local venues like White Whale Books and City of Asylum. One year, writers and editors from The Rumpus came to Pittsburgh for Barrelhouse’s Conversations and Connections conference, and it was exciting to bridge groups of local and traveling writers. We’ve gotten to partner more recently with Four Way Books and Bull City Press on a digital reading series, which is also great, as I feel like these collaborations are fruitful for authors, audience, and us too.
Before the pandemic, being present at others events to be a great way to connect locally too. We used to make it our goal as a staff to attend at least one local reading per month, collectively or individually. While we have no distinct Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, or western Pennsylvania book prize, we do often welcome pitches and collections from writers within our community, and we hope to represent our region with one or more titles per year.
One example, is a writer whose work I have loved for a long time, Lori Jakiela. Her wonderful memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe had recently gone out of print when her original publisher folded. She approached us, and we were able to acquire the rights and republish Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth Maybe, and re-released it in 2019.
In my mind, publishing and the arts suffers from a lot of people working for too little or no money out of passion and excitement alone. It can be easy to burn out and to tire. I’m not sure I feel that the responsibility of rectifying that falls on patrons alone. Whether attending events or purchasing books, writing a review or even a simple, “thank you I liked your work” email to an author or their press can be really meaningful and impactful…
MRM: You’ve partnered with organizations in Pittsburgh and nationally to offer book prizes and workshops. What do you look for in a partnership, and how do they interact with the editorial vision of the press?
MG: As far as our partnerships, we’re especially looking at what resources we can provide as a publisher as well as our limitations and abilities to strengthen each other’s mission and aims.
For instance, we’ve been partnering for the last few years with West Chester Poetry Center to publish their Donald Justice Prize, which awards a prize annually to a poet working in received forms. I love the books that have come out of this prize—Chad Abushanab’s debut The Last Visit, Katherine Barret Swett’s debut Voice Message, John Foy’s No One Leaves the World Unhurt, and next, Alexis Sear’s debut Out of Order—and I do feel it’s rarer to see a poetry manuscript sent to our other reading periods that engage directly with form. This partnership allows us to connect with these writers.
We’re especially excited about our new partnership with the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) on a book prize. CAAPP’s mission is “to highlight, promote, and share the work of African American and African diasporic poets and to pollinate cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration.” The book prize, awarded each year to a writer of African descent, ensures that AHP will continue to champion new and emerging Black authors for years to come. The first book from this partnership is just about to hit shelves, Carly Inghram’s The Animal Indoors, and it’s a gorgeous book and moving collection that I hope everyone reads it.
In both of these partnerships, they feel important to our editorial vision of supporting and publishing writers who might otherwise be overlooked. Each partner manages the manuscript acquisition, while we work with the writer on the editing and publishing side to the fullest of our abilities and with whatever resources we can muster. Acquisition is a time-consuming process and without our partners, we’d be unable to publish the number of titles we do each year and our readers would be less rich as a result.
MRM: What would you say is the most important aspect and outcome of supporting independent presses and bookstores? Of bolstering the literary arts?
MG: In my mind, publishing and the arts suffers from a lot of people working for too little or no money out of passion and excitement alone. It can be easy to burn out and to tire. I’m not sure I feel that the responsibility of rectifying that falls on patrons alone. Whether attending events or purchasing books, writing a review or even a simple, “thank you I liked your work” email to an author or their press can be really meaningful and impactful, especially without in person readings where so often, right now, authors are reading into muted audience screens and getting robbed of seeing people interact with their text in real time. While I don’t think poetry, independent presses, or bookstores are in any near decline, encouragement and reminders of why we’re here are always invaluable.
MRM: How have you adapted to the COVID pandemic landscape, and what are your goals for the future? Has the past year and a half changed your outlook?
MG: COVID has challenged both AHP and myself significantly. We’ve seen book sales completely cease for a time, and I’m not sure they’ve ever recovered to pre-pandemic levels. We’ve been unable to fundraise in the ways we traditionally have, and rather than editing for two months, when this all began, we had to navigate closures and the Payroll Protection Program. While I know I’m lucky in that my role as an editor is conducive to working from home in ways that other professions aren’t, editing, like writing, often an isolating undertaking and one that has become increasingly so over the course of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, we felt we were in a position to increase our workload, adding new books each season. While we’re not planning to shrink, I think we’ve found though, we need to peel back and commit to no more than eight books per year until we feel we’re truly ahead of our deadlines again. Realizing this has also been important though, and I feel like when the dust finally does start to settle, AHP will be in its strongest position to support our authors and attract new writers into our fold.
MRM: Tell us about your most recently publications and what’s in the works—feel free to plug your new books!
MG: I could plug our authors forever! We have so very much to be thankful for, grateful of, and to look forward to. One book I’ve had the delight of working on is a novel called Molly. Molly won our full-length fiction contest last year, and it’s the first novel Autumn House has published in quite a while, and I also got to work closely with Natalie Homer on her debut poetry collection, Under the Broom Tree, which we selected from our open reading period in 2019.
Our poetry and nonfiction full-length winners will also be coming out in October, and both collections, n, speculation by Shayla Lawz, and All Who Belong May Enter by Nicholas Ward, are phenomenal and in their own ways, new directions for Autumn House. Next spring is also one of the larger projects the press has undertaken in a long time. We’ll be publishing an anthology called Queer Nature, edited by Michael Walsh, that will bring together nature poems written by queer poets over the last two centuries. We’ll also get to release our Rising Writer winners: our first international author, Diego Gerard Morrison’s novel Myth of Pterygium and John Belk’s debut, The Gardens of Our Childhood, which are both really exciting projects, with Myth being further in a tradition of surrealism that we haven’t published to extensively, and Gardens being a rare sort of poetry collection that looks at professional wrestling. I’ve already mentioned Alexis Sears earlier, but her work in her debut Out of Order is some of the most formally intricate and emotionally wrought I’ve gotten to read in any context.
I know I’m hopeful that at some point in-person readings will come back, and recent pandemic books and authors continue to find new audiences and audiences who might have been missing them will get to hear these brilliant voices reading from their book in-person for the first time—thinking of you Melissa Wiley, Eric Tran, John Foy, Dennis James Sweeney, Michael X. Wang, Lori Wilson, makalani bandele, and T.J. McLemore, especially. We had books that were published the fall before the pandemic too (Charles Kell, Hadley Moore, Jennifer Renee Blevins), that I felt were just starting to gather momentum, and then the pandemic began, and I feel like these books have so much to give their readers, and they will find them eventually. I hope so.
It’s been a huge year for the press in a lot of ways. We’ve received our first NEA Grant, first support from the Amazon Literary Partnership, and authors have continued to win awards, from Beth Alvarado winning the Oregon book prize and Michael X Wang winning the Pen / America Award. Despite the challenges we’ve faced and ongoing uncertainty, I feel really hopeful and excited about where Autumn House and indie literature is going to continue to go.