How Small Presses Are Welcoming More Women Into Publishing

Dorothy, YesYes Books, and Graywolf Press have made it their mission to publish more women — and reform an industry that more often celebrates the achievements of men.
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Dorothy author Nell Zink and Jonathan Franzen sign books at McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Dorothy author Nell Zink and Jonathan Franzen sign books at McNally Jackson Books in New York City

More women read than men, but, looking at the numbers, you might guess book critics don’t know it or don’t care: Far more male authors are featured and reviewed in major literary magazines. Over the last seven years, VIDA, an independent non-profit devoted to establishing gender parity in literary magazines, has counted bylines and books reviewed in publications like The Atlantic and the New Republic. And though modest gains have been made from 2010 to 2015, the number of featured women writers is systemically smaller than that of men, the group has found. That’s despite a recent survey finding that women read more books penned by women, and rate their quality higher as well.

Members of the literary world from various backgrounds have pointed out that book publishing elevates the work of men over women for years. Though, behind the scenes, white women still dominate the industry, female authors have long argued men’s submissions receive greater attention in the industry as well as more critical acclaim. In response, in 2014 American literary journal the Critical Flame dedicated the entire year to writing penned by women and writers of color (“nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control,” editor Daniel E. Pritchard wrote in his announcement). In 2015, author Claire Vaye Watkins, writing that the industry is an “architecture of pandering” to straight white men’s literary tastes, called for more dramatic change: “Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”

If not quite leveling the industry, several small presses in the United States are currently modeling how to make it more equitable — by highlighting women’s work. Dorothy, a publishing project that prints works of fiction predominantly by women, YesYes Books, which publishes female and male writers in a ratio of two to one, and Graywolf Press, which internally monitors the number of men and women it publishes to achieve its goal of gender parity, are all focused on both publishing and marketing the work of women. That matters in the world of small publishing, where most poetry, experimental fiction, and non-fiction comes from — according to VIDA, 93 small presses are published by women; out of the 448 small presses listed by Poets & Writers,that’s approximately 20 percent. From these varied presses, a model for how to repair an industry that seems built to support men over the many is beginning to take shape.

Dorothy was founded by Danielle Dutton, a young writer and book designer, after she moved to a small town in downstate Illinois — Champaign — to work for another small press, Dalkey Archive Press. Pregnant and having finished up a doctorate degree at the the University of Denver, Dutton says she felt isolated in her new environs. “I was very existentially lonely, that was a big part of it,” she says.

Dutton’s work at Dalkeyinformed her approach to her new publishing endeavor. There, she gained experience in designing and physical producing books. And: “I couldn’t help but notice that most of the books they publish are by men,” she says. “There was just this desire I had to be involved with innovative fiction by women or at least make a space for it in a conversation I saw happening all around me all the time.” (Dutton left the press before starting Dorothy to pursue a job in academia.)

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The impetus to launch the press came when Dutton heard that the writer Renee Gladman had a trilogy of books nearly finished and was looking for a publisher. She sent an impulsive email to Gladman, who she didn’t know. “Let me publish you, I’ll start a press,” she says the email said; it was met with a miraculous response—“OK.”

Gladman got involved in the beginnings of the press, including helping to choose the name, which is named afterDutton’s great-aunt Dorothy. Dutton planned to publish two books every fall: A pair, Dutton thought, would allow for each book to complement another — and would also encourage readers of one female author to be confronted with another they may have never heard of.

The press’ initial two books were published in the fall of 2010, the year the first VIDA count was published. Since, Dorothy has doubled down on publishing new authors and bringing greater attention to older authors whose books, according to Dutton, may have been critically undervalued upon their initial publications. The first book in Gladman’s trilogy of strange, experimental fiction was published alongside a reprinting of Barbara Comyns’ 1954 book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, a gross and accessible parlor novel; short story collections from authors like Amina Memory Cain and Suzanne Scanlon and novels from Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Joanna Ruocco have also been featured.

For a small upstart press, Dorothy has been getting some serious press attention. Dorothy had “press connections and PR acumen [that] were mind-bendingly good for such a small operation,” says Nell Zink, the author of Dorothy-published book The Wallcreeper. It’s “astoundingly successful, given its resources,” she adds.

The press found early attention in BOMB Magazine and the Paris Review. But there’s no doubt that The Wallcreeper catapulted the publishing project to higher visibility and financial stability, Dutton says — when Zink’s book was released, it was covered in outlets like the New York Times book review, and The New Yorker. That same year, Dorothy was itself spotlighted in Flavorwire and the New York Times.

Though Dorothy has never been hardline against publishing men, to date, the press has never published a book by a man. In the beginning, Dorothy received submissions mostly from men; the longer the press goes without publishing a book written by a man, the more Dutton wonders what kind of book that would look like. Now the press receives very few submissions from men, which is exceptional — anecdotal evidence from members of the publishing world indicate men submit book proposals more than women.

Above all, Dorothy remains dedicated to publishing quality writing that evades easy categorization and feels new, however old it is. Last year, the press published a collection of fiction from the inventive critic and writer Joanna Walsh, tonally well-paired with a new translation of the Austrian writer Marianne Fritz’s 1978 novel, The Weight of Things. This October, Jen George’s comedic debut The Babysitter at Rest was published with the meditative Suite for Barbara Loden by Natalie Léger. Dorothy recently announced that, in April, in a one-off spring publication, the press will publish the collected stories of Leonora Carrington, a member of the surrealist movement in the 1930s, in concert with the New York Review of Books, which will also publish works by Carrington and co-host launch events for the books with the press.

As Dutton says her therapist has said to her, “time expands to meet our needs.”

Dorothy isn’t the only female-centric small press that emerged out of one woman’s interest in changing the industry. YesYes Press was founded by KMA Sullivan, a poet who had written only four poems before the age of 42, and raised five children before getting an MFA in creative non-fiction. As she prepared to leave her program, she says, she struggled to find a way to channel her passion for poetry into something constructive. (She decided that the academic track included too much “bullshit” that she was “too old to deal with”). With that, YesYes, a press built to bring more poems into the world, was brought into being.

Sullivan didn’t start out with the express goal of publishing more women than men. But after YesYes published its first handful of books, Sullivan says she realized she had a problem. “I wasn’t thinking of publishing with eyes fully open,” she told me over the phone, “and the first three books I published were by straight, cis, hetero, white men.” As a solution, she began to solicit a ratio of two women writers for every one man.

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Even then, Sullivan found that many of the women writers that excited her would turn down her requests for work, saying that their work wasn’t finished yet (anecdotally, fiction editor Marcelle Heath has said she’s noticed that men are more likely to submit unfinished work). Undeterred, Sullivan decided to create the Pamet River Prize, awarded to a woman-identifying or genderqueer writer publishing their first or second book, a possible corrective to the fact that the world’s major literary prizes are more often awarded to men. “We realized that opening the door for women and genderqueer writers was not enough. We’ve got to move forward in a way that brings the work to us so that the poets themselves were comfortable,” Sullivan says. This prize has resulted in the publication of books like Emily O’Neill’s Pelican, the first book to win.

Many of YesYes’ titles have had to go through multiple printings. They had their own kind of Nell Zink Moment with the publication of Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, a critically acclaimed collection of poetry that has just gone into its third printing. Though she points out that YesYes isn’t profitable, Sullivan says that’s because she channels most of the money made into paying the writers she’s publishing and helping to support travel expenses for writers on reading tours, something most small presses can’t or won’t do.

“We’ve figured out how to sell our books and how to get audiences for our poets. I think we’ve figured out how to get money to the poets,” Sullivan says, adding that she’s “always looking for more ways.” Her goal now is to be able to pay the editors, who are currently working as volunteers, and getting the YesYes catalog to a European market.

Somewhere in the stratosphere above Dorothy and YesYes in terms of resources and visibility is Graywolf Press, an independent non-profit press that is responsible for acclaimed fiction like The Gods of Winter by Dana Gioia and The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah. Though it doesn’t publicly claim an actively feminist message like Dorothy, Graywolf has been responsible for publishing some of the best writing on what it means to be a woman in the world from authors like Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, and Maggie Nelson. This fall saw the publication of Belle Boggs’ The Art of Waiting, a book on patience and conception.

According to Katie Dublinski, the press’ associate publisher, Graywolf keeps a record how many men and women they publish in order to strive for gender parity in their publishing for internal purposes. They see publishing great writing by women as part of their larger responsibility to the public. “We talk a lot about representing as broad of a group of writers as we can,” she said. “There’s always been an attention to publishing people of all kinds.”

Graywolf Press’ beginnings weren’t any less humble than Dorothy’s or YesYes’. Scott Walker started the press in 1974 in a shed on the property of Copper Canyon Press (at that time much older, and more well-established, than Walker’s project) and made the books he published by hand. The elevating moment for the press came with the critical success of the poet Tess Gallagher’s book Instructions to the Double. The press grew and relocated from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest; in 1994, Fiona McCrae took over as its publisher.

The audience that Graywolf has carved out for itself too—large by small press standards, modest by those of large publishing houses — offers to smaller publishers a vision of what can be accomplished with time, stability, and adequate funding. Over time, Graywolf has become the home for a number of award-winning authors and a well-respected non-fiction prize that has launched careers (take Jamison and Biss).

Dublinski notes that the simple mission of the press is also the key to its success, and perhaps the success of any small press looking to forge a sustainable path in the world of publishing. “Generally speaking, the mission of the press has always been to publish high-quality, literary work that might not otherwise reach a large body, and publish it well, publish it professionally, and take it to as wide a body as we can find for it.”

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