Innovators in Lit #9: Lookout Books

Cover art for Edith Pearlman's novel Binocular Vision

Lookout Books, the literary imprint at UNC Wilmington, was founded by Emily Louise Smith, director of The Publishing Laboratory, and Ben George, editor of Ecotone. Lookout gained national attention when their debut title, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, landed a cover review in the New York Times, with Pearlman going on to win the PEN/Malamud for excellence in the short story. Something that makes Lookout unique—and thus a natural fit or this project—is the rare and inspired relationship the press has with the UNCW Publishing Laboratory and Ecotone. In short, they are forming a triangle of awesome from which great and interesting things are bound to emerge. Keep reading to find out how Lookout Books got off the ground, what it means for authors and publishers to share in “our grand experiment,” and what it feels like to get a phone call from the New York Times.Laura van den Berg: How did Lookout Books get its start?

Emily Louise Smith: I remember Robert Siegel asking during my interview for director of the UNCW Publishing Laboratory where I envisioned the program in five, or even ten years. Midway through a year as interim director, I knew already the enterprise was on the cusp of something extraordinary. I had waited for this question. Stanley Colbert, who founded the teaching press in 2001, and his successor Barbara Brannon, had laid essential groundwork: building a unique in-house desktop publishing facility and establishing an apprenticeship program and courses leading to a publishing certificate. They had acquired and published the Lab’s first trade books, and they supported founding editor David Gessner as the department’s literary journal Ecotone grew from an idea to a nationally recognized publication with stories, essays, and poems reprinted in Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South. In its first few years, the magazine had begun to attract and publish the work of both established and talented emerging writers. What if we combined Ecotone’s editorial strengths with the Lab’s design and production capabilities? The then-unnamed literary imprint would enable the magazine to highlight its best authors and foster its relationships with them and would offer the Lab a chance to grow beyond its regional-press roots to become a boutique literary press.

Even before Ben George, Lookout’s co-founder, arrived on campus in 2008 as the new Ecotone editor, we began brainstorming by way of lengthy bicoastal phone calls (Ben had not yet relocated from Portland, where as an assistant editor at Tin House his reputation for thoughtful and meticulous editing preceded him). From the beginning, we envisioned the imprint as an opportunity to discover and foster emerging and historically underrepresented voices, to provide a home for books that matter. If we loved it, we believed—perhaps naively then, but even more emphatically in the wake of Edith Pearlman’s success—we would find a way to sell it. Though we’d paid our dues at small presses, Lookout offered us the rare chance to build our own. We discussed the book as art object and how readers—the two of us, at least—associate the well-made and well-written book. By featuring sturdy bindings and French flaps, we would publish titles as beautiful to hold as they are to read. High-minded musings for a pair of greenhorns? You bet. But as Simon Michael Bessie, who left a top editorial position at what was then Harper & Brothers to help found Atheneum, said, “I suggest that we would not be publishing books—any of us— if we didn’t want to play a role in the development of the ideas and insights which aim to make life more intelligible and more beautiful as well as more enjoyable.”

We made long lists of potential names, then crossed through options and began again. It was the fabulous writer Ben Fountain, a North Carolina native, who reminded us of Cape Lookout just up the coast. It was perfect, a nod to our local landscape. And it defined our publishing philosophy.

Laura: Lookout has “pledged to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as works by established writers overlooked by commercial houses.” Could you talk a bit more about that mission?

ELS: I got ahead of myself and answered this in part already, but I think it comes down to this: for a variety of reasons, some manuscripts just aren’t a good fit for a large, commercial house. Steve Almond articulated this point in a recent interview with Dawn Raffel of the Center for Fiction when he said, “That’s the fundamental design flaw in the publishing industry: it pairs an artist with a corporation. Occasionally, this produces a great piece of art that makes all parties involved dough. More often, a literary book loses money—all but one of mine have—and the writer winds up feeling like a loser because his piece of art didn’t move more units. That’s a pretty crazy way to measure success.”

Ben and I founded Lookout as a home for certain kinds of books—specifically poetry, story, and essay collections; debut novels; and reprints—projects we’re uniquely positioned as a press housed within a writing program and allied with a literary journal to love, hone, guide, and champion. Again, to quote Bessie, a veteran of houses both large and small: “I’m tempted to say that large houses are better equipped to acquire bestselling authors, but maybe small publishers are as well equipped as ever to discover and develop them . . . Small publishers, I suggest, are flourishing because they are focusing on two fundamentals of creative activity in a complex, industrialized society: Specialization and Doing Your Own Thing, the thing you care about and know about.”

 Laura: Lookout Books is housed at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and it seems like a pretty collaborative relationship, given the close relationship with the Publishing Laboratory and the literary magazine Ecotone. What are the advantages (and possible downsides) of a press having university affiliation?

ELS: I’d go so far as to say that Lookout, in its short life, has become integral to the publishing program, if not the department as a whole. Under faculty direction, students read Ecotone submissions and recommend promising writers. They help execute book interior layouts and pitch cover ideas. They manage our social media accounts, fulfill orders, draft grant proposals, and help market, publicize, and promote Lookout titles. So the publication of each book serves the dual purpose of providing a learning experience and also contributing to the culture of humane letters. Last semester, not a week passed in which Binocular Vision didn’t help illustrate some aspect of the publishing process in my classroom—editorial, design, foreign rights, book reviews, or e-books. Over the course of the program, our students come to understand that they have the power to shape the dissemination of literature through the art and craft of publishing. And what better training ground than Lookout? Edith Pearlman made such an impression during her brief campus visit that our students—not to mention Ben and I—miss her still.

Steve Almond will serve as both Distinguished Visiting Writer-in-Residence and keynote for our annual Writers Week in November, opportunities made possible in part by the unique collaboration between the MFA program, Lookout, The Publishing Laboratory, and Ecotone. Through that collaboration, of course, the university provides generous funding in the form of staff support, computers, printers, software, and supplies, among numerous other essentials. I’m incredibly lucky to teach at a university that values applied learning and understands the innovative nature of our enterprise.

As for challenges, my biggest one has been navigating some of the more antiquated state and university approval processes that simply were not designed to accommodate the needs or workflow of a small press. There’s no handbook for how to orchestrate a foreign wire transfer into a state bank account, for example, or someone poised and ready to vet and authorize a twenty-page e-book vendor contract. Bless the patient souls who returned my phone calls, thought of creative solutions, and helped me collect the ten required signatures per page.

An offshoot of that, then, is learning to balance teaching with the daily demands of running a small press, though they fulfill and reward in equal measure.

Laura: Lookout Books solicits manuscripts from writers who have previously published in Ecotone, in addition to considering agented submissions. Could you expand on Lookout’s selection process? Do you anticipate opening to general submissions at some point?

ELS: We established Lookout to harness the energy of Ecotone’s early success and to highlight the award-winning writing published in its pages. Ben has done a terrific job of building a community of contributors. All four writers currently published by or under contract with Lookout have appeared in Ecotone, some multiple times.

Discovering a writer’s work through Ecotone allows us to get to know the writer—and she us—before entering a longer publishing relationship. Those four writers I mentioned have been a dream to work with, by the way. At some point down the line I do envision opening submissions, but as long as we publish only a couple of titles a year, it just wouldn’t be fair to prospective authors. For now, Lookout’s staff consists of just the two of us, in addition to our hardworking and always inspiring student interns. I joked recently that in addition to an e-mail signature I need to install an auto preface: Please forgive the delay in my reply. I’m chronically behind on something, no matter how long or hard we all work. As Dustbooks editors Len Fulton and Ellen Feber wrote, “Publishing . . . takes a certain quantity of luck, some simple but imperative knowledge, but the rest, say something like 90 percent, is a willingness to work virtually every hour, and dream about it the rest of the time.” I like to think it’s a symptom of caring deeply about literature; of laboring over every decision, sentence, and spreadsheet; of insisting on the perfect publisher-author “fit.” Meanwhile, my guilt grows in direct proportion to the pile of unanswered queries and e-mails.

Laura: Lookout offers authors 50/50 profit sharing, rather than using the standard royalty system (I think McSweeny’s might use a similar model, if I’m not mistaken). How did you decide on this structure? What are the benefits?

ELS: We’re reminded constantly that publishing is changing under our feet. We have to find innovative ways to publish, and we have to reinvest in the value of literary publishing. The old model isn’t sustainable. We’re warned against large, unearned advances and warehouses of returned and remaindered books. The thought of some island of misfit books breaks my heart.

At Lookout we ask authors to share in our grand experiment: conservative print runs, tailored marketing plans, personalized and thoughtful promotion. We ask them to partner in selling their books, and as I see it, the only fair compensation for faith in our fledgling imprint is to divide profits evenly. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to offer a huge advance, though I do wish we could do more, but we’re just not designed to publish on a large scale. It’s not what we do. I’d rather publish a few literary books a year exceedingly well than a dozen commercial titles. As for Lookout’s half, it’s reinvested entirely in future books. While we haven’t been around long enough to test it thoroughly, I believe with time and patience, both writer and publisher will benefit under our model. We believe in each book we acquire, and we plan to keep them in print.

Laura: How does Lookout handle distribution?

ELS: One of my first tasks as director was to negotiate a distribution agreement for the four titles we had scheduled for publication in 2008. Those titles focused on the North Carolina coast, terrain fellow NC publisher John F. Blair knew well. Ours was a natural partnership.

Blair distributes several other lines but not so many that Lookout gets lost; and as a small press, too, Blair understands our needs and challenges. Especially during that critical first year, Blair’s president, Carolyn Sakowski, always made time to answer my questions and offered consistently useful and thoughtful advice. When Lookout came along in 2009, Carolyn and Angela Harwood, vice president, again listened intently to our goals for Binocular Vision, our “story behind the story,” and idea for an introduction by Ann Patchett. They couldn’t have been more supportive, placing galleys in the hands of Chris Kerr and other key sales folks in the Northeast, especially. I followed up with personal notes and gratis copies to dozens of independent bookstores I admired and hoped would consider carrying the book.

Laura: What’s been one of your most exciting moments or experiences with Lookout?

ELS: While it’s hard to top the day I received a call from the New York Times, saying they planned to run a review of our debut book, Binocular Vision, on the cover of the Book Review, it’s actually the day we received the PDF early edition that sticks in my memory. The e-mail arrived somewhat unexpectedly, and first I had to locate Ben—this was before the semester started in January, and faculty and students were scattered still—and then began our search for Edith. We called her Boston home, then her cell phone. We tried to reach her via e-mail. Where was she? Meanwhile, David Gessner stopped by, and we shared the review with him. I called Ben again, and he called Edith’s agent, Jill Kneerim, and Jill managed to get in touch with Edith’s husband, who said she’d gone out for the day. I imagined Edith strolling through Brookline, shopping or retrieving the dry cleaning, making notes for a story, perhaps drinking tea. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the ping-pong of calls and e-mails continued, congratulations, hugs. Where was Edith? This is a longwinded way of telling you that it was after seven that evening when Ben and I arrived at the home of colleagues David Gessner and Nina de Gramont for a celebratory bottle of champagne, and Edith returned our call. The four of us hoisted glasses over the open cell phone on the coffee table. As Ben read the thoughtful review Roxana Robinson concludes by declaring Edith’s vision of the world “large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments,” I couldn’t help but recall my own first reading of those stories: wandering with seven-year-old Sophie through the stacks of Harvard library, discovering the missing button in the pocket of a stranger’s coat, celebrating Purim in 1947 at a displaced persons camp in costumes creatively adorned with the inner stuff of sanitary napkins—a quintessential Pearlman detail I’ve thought of often since. Oh, to be back in the magical world of her stories.

Any critical acclaim Edith has received is due entirely to her exquisite writing, those details and sentences honed over decades at the desk, but having played even the tiniest role in helping bring her work to the attention of a wider audience, remains a professional milestone and a personal gift.

Laura: What’s next for Lookout?

ELS: In October, Lookout will publish literary provocateur Steve Almond’s third story collection, God Bless America, a hilarious and poignant investigation of the contemporary American dream, if such a thing still exists. In the title story and one of my favorites in the collection, the main character, desperate to escape the drudgery of his life, lands a star role as a Duck Tour guide. In “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” reprinted in Best American Short Stories, a psychoanalyst with a secret gambling addiction squares off over the poker table against a damaged ex-patient. And “A Dream of Sleep,” the collection’s final story, presents a grief-stricken refugee who tends the graves of a forgotten cemetery, only to have his peace interrupted by an unwelcome visitor. It’s Steve’s most ambitious collection yet—and a must read.

In April 2012, we’ll publish our first poetry collection, John Rybicki’s When All the World Is Old, in which he pays homage to his wife, the late poet Julie Moulds, and the love they shared throughout her sixteen-year battle with cancer. I’ve read the book a dozen times now, and still I don’t know exactly how he carves poems from such pain and loss yet leaves the reader whole, filled with this fierce, holy beauty. He sings poems that are as raw and graceful, authentic and wise as any I’ve read.

Laura: What are some other publishers or literary entities you find inspiring?

ELS: In the early days, Ben and I talked often of our mutual respect for Dan Halpern, founder and editor of the incomparable Antaeus and its parent, Ecco. Also the founders of Algonquin Books, another North Carolina original, Louis Rubin and Shannon Ravenel.

Other more recent influences include Graywolf, McSweeneys, Milkweed, and Hawthorne. As a poet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve long taken notes from the editors and publishers at Copper Canyon, Alice James, Tupelo, the Pitt Poetry Series, and LSU’s Southern Messenger series. Of course, I first learned the ropes from Stanley Colbert, the veteran CEO of HarperCollins Canada who nonetheless emerged from retirement to found the tiny, experimental “Pub Lab” at UNCW to empower students to become publishers, or at least better informed writers, and from Betsy Teter, Executive Director of Hub City Press in South Carolina, who is a community builder if I’ve ever met one. Both visionaries and generous teachers I was fortunate to encounter at precisely the right time.

Stanley Kunitz once said of founding Poets House that when he did not find the community he needed, he felt compelled to make it. It’s precisely what the best small presses do—they build communities of conversation around the books they love. Every spring I reread the essays collected in Bill Henderson’s The Art of Literary Publishing with my intro to publishing class. The pages in my copy are dog-eared and flagged. Yet I’m always astonished by how little has changed since its first publication in 1980, by the familiar challenges and resonant anecdotes from those small press trailblazers. “To be small, independent and literary,” as Bessie wrote, “is a rare and wonderful condition.”

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