State of the Art #7: Michael Simms of Autumn House Press
Interview with the publisher
In the last segment of our series of interviews with indie publishers, we talked with Christine Stroud, the current editor-in-chief of Autumn House Press. However, the picture of this remarkable publisher would be incomplete without the perspective of its founding editor, Michael Simms.
He is also the founding editor of Coal Hill Review and Vox Populi, the lead editor of over 100 published books, and the author of four collections of poetry as well as a textbook about poetry. Michael Simms lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Eva, a psychologist, and their dog Josie.
We asked him, among other things, about the beginnings of Autumn House Press and the evolution of indie publishing.
The Nonconformist: You’re the founding editor of Autumn House Press. What convinced you to become an independent publisher?
Michael Simms: At the end of the last century, large commercial publishers and university presses, facing financial pressure, were getting out of the business of publishing books of poetry, and the sacred burden of keeping American poetry alive was falling on a few independent presses. I was teaching poetry writing at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of 1998, and the English Department invited my old friend Jack Myers to come to campus for a reading. For three evenings, Jack and I sat in my living room talking about starting a poetry press. Out of those conversations, Autumn House began. And six months later, AHP’s first book, OneOnOne by Jack Myers, was released.
NC: Is there a story behind its name?
MS: Autumn House is the name of a sheep farm in the Laurel Highlands in central Pennsylvania. It’s an idyllic setting, and my wife Eva and I had fond memories of our time there, so she suggested using the name for the new press I was starting.
Poetry is more than everyday speech. It is everyday speech that has something special or amazing about it, something that makes us think, wonder, or marvel. It makes us angry or it makes us serene. It helps us to remember and to forgive.
NC: Did you start it on your own, or was it a collective effort?
MS: I had a lot of help starting the press. To learn about independent publishing, I sought the advice of Ed Ochester, editor of the renowned Pitt Poetry Series; Thea Temple, founder of The Writer’s Garret; Frank Lehner, the founder of Cathedral Press; Samuel Hazo, founder of The International Poetry Forum; and Gerald Costanzo, founder of Carnegie Mellon Press. These consummate literary professionals advised me on a number of topics: setting up a non-profit corporation; selecting a manuscript out of hundreds of submissions; marketing a poetry book; navigating the politics of the national poetry community; and building relationships with authors. They also offered enthusiastic encouragement for the new venture. Ed Ochester’s selected poems Snow White Horses became the second Autumn House title. Later, we published two more collections of Ed’s.
And my wife Eva Simms deserves a lot of credit as well. Literally thousands of times in the early years of AHP, Eva and I lay in bed in the darkness before dawn, talking about the challenges of fundraising and marketing and author relations and staffing. Without Eva’s consistent support and wise counsel, Autumn House would never have existed.
For the first five years, I ran the press out of our home, boxes of books piled to the ceiling of my study, daily trips to the post office and UPS. This was in the days before everyone had cell phones, so if I wasn’t quick enough, our four-year-old daughter Lea would beat me to the family phone and answer: “This is Autumn House Press, Michael speaking, may I help you?” For years, many people thought I had the voice of a little girl.
AHP moved out of our family home (at last!) and set up shop at 87 ½ Westwood which Eva always claimed sounded like the address of a hobbit hole. Eva, with Lea’s help, painted the walls and set up the electronics while our son Nicholas and I moved furniture and boxes of books into Autumn House’s new world headquarters.
I wanted to publish poetry that captures the essence of what it is to be alive at a particular time and place.
Shortly after we moved to Westwood Street, Maxwell King, the Executive Director of the Heinz Foundation, invited Eva and me to his house for dinner. There he introduced us to the arts philanthropist Lea Hillman Simonds, who through the years has become AHP’S most steadfast supporter.
NC: Did you have in mind any particular kind of authors while launching it?
MS: I’ve always loved poetry that has a clear voice, a strong reliance on craft, and a sense that a person is speaking about incidents or ideas that are of utmost importance to him or her. I dislike poems that are merely word games, or which use language that doesn’t sound authentic.
I remember when my son Nicholas was twelve years old, we received a DVD from the poet Jo McDougall, one of Autumn House’s first authors. On the disc was a recording of Emerson County Shaping Dream, a dramatic performance of a dozen of Jo’s poems. After watching the video, Nicholas turned to me and said, “Dad, that wasn’t really poetry, was it?” And I answered, “Well, yes, it was. In fact, it was very fine poetry.” Puzzled, he exclaimed, “But it sounded just like people talking!” Nicholas was right — poetry is just like people talking. He was confused by the fact that the poetry he’d been studying in school was like nineteenth century people talking, not at all like the speech he was accustomed to hearing among his family and friends. And yet, as Nicholas intuitively knew (and Jo, I’m sure, would agree) poetry is also more than everyday speech. It is everyday speech that has something special or amazing about it, something that makes us think, wonder, or marvel. It makes us angry or it makes us serene. It helps us to remember and to forgive.
In starting Autumn House, and later in starting the online magazines Coal Hill Review and Vox Populi, I wanted to publish poetry that captures the essence of what it is to be alive at a particular time and place.
NC: How would you describe the current state of the publishing industry?
MS: In recent decades, the business of publishing literary books has split into two separate industries, the major commercial publishers and the much smaller independent presses, each with its own economics and culture. In a way, it’s surprising that we still have traditional paper publishing in which books and magazines are printed, bound, and distributed in a business model that has existed almost unchanged for two hundred years. Nowadays, publishers of contemporary literature lose money on almost all their titles, and the companies, large and small, depend on a constant infusion of cash to continue to operate.
Nowadays, publishers of contemporary literature lose money on almost all their titles, and the companies, large and small, depend on a constant infusion of cash to continue to operate.
The large commercial publishers are, in most cases, subsidiaries of powerful international corporations that own television stations, film production companies, textbook manufacturers, as well as subsidiaries that have nothing to do with books or literature. The big five publishers are, of course, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. These publishers exist in order to capture intellectual property that the corporations can then feed into entertainment companies where the real money is. Only a small amount of the resources of these captive publishers is devoted to poetry and literary fiction — really just a fig leaf to give the appearance that these publishers, which carry the imprints of the great literary publishers of the past, are still important players in American literature. But for the most part, they are not.
In America today, the best poetry books, as well some of the best prose books, are being produced by independent publishers, such as Copper Canyon, Milkweed, Gray Wolf, Sarabande, Four Way, BOA and, I say immodestly, Autumn House. These presses, most of which are nonprofit corporations, play a very important role in American literature because their funding comes primarily from grants, donations and fees, rather than corporate tie-ins. An editor at an independent publisher is free to choose the best manuscripts without having to worry about what his or her bosses at corporate headquarters are going to say or whether a particular title is going to interest producers in Hollywood. At Autumn House, our books regularly win prizes and garner strong reviews even though we compete against the giant publishers in New York.
I should mention that there are important literary publishers that don’t fit into either of these categories, such as Pitt which is underwritten by the University of Pittsburgh and Norton which is a for-profit corporation wholly owned by its employees.
But let’s face it, the basic problem for all paper publishers, large and small, is that Americans buy far fewer books and magazines than their parents and grandparents did, so depending on sales to fund your operation is a risky proposition. Nowadays, a literary publisher, if it is going to pay employees and be a respectable business, is probably going to need outside funding.
NC: Has this situation changed over the years? Is there any improvement?
MS: Technology has changed everything in the publishing industry. Thirty years ago, publishing a book was expensive and labor-intensive; and distribution of books was complicated and inefficient. Nowadays, anyone can pay Amazon a thousand dollars and have his or her book published and be distributed internationally. So, there’s been a tsunami of self-published books by authors who never would have been published thirty years ago. American literary culture has been swamped by hundreds of thousands of people who have taken a creative writing class or two and now feel they’re ready to publish their first book. In order to counteract this flood of mediocre writing and amateurish book design, the role of the editor in nurturing the most talented writers, selecting the best manuscripts, and working with designers and printers to produce beautiful books has become more important than ever. Readers who love great writing are learning to trust certain brands, such as Copper Canyon or Pitt or Autumn House.
Thanks to the internet, poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction are more popular and more widely available now than ever.
The biggest change in publishing, however, has been the growth of the internet. Online publishing is inexpensive, and posting a text online makes it instantly available to almost everyone in the world. In 2009, Josh Storey and I founded Coal Hill Review, Autumn House’s online imprint, and the first day we went live, CHR had 40,000 hits. When I saw those numbers, I knew that e-zines, as we called them then, were the future of publishing. After I retired from Autumn House in 2016, I started Vox Populi, an online gazette of poetry, politics and nature, the numbers there have been impressive as well. VP has 11,000 email subscribers who get two posts each day, and the operation costs me about $400 a year to maintain.
NC: What kind of future do you see for indie publishers and small presses? What are the opportunities and dangers that lie ahead?
MS: No one loves physical books more than I do. Eva and I own a huge number, far more than our bookshelves can hold, so there are stacks in almost every room of our house. I love the look and feel, and yes, the smell, of a well-designed book. The texture of excellent paper, the history and tradition behind a certain typeface, the unique quality of a letterpress edition… these are things I treasure, and my love of them led me into publishing in the first place. However, the golden age of book design and printing was over a hundred years ago, and the quality of the craft has been declining ever since then. It may well be that beautifully crafted books are becoming an indulgence available only to the wealthy like fine china or solid oak furniture.
In America today, the best poetry books, as well some of the best prose books, are being produced by independent publishers.
Thanks to the internet, poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction are more popular and more widely available now than ever. Online publishing is inexpensive, and distribution is easy. Literally anyone can be an online publisher. This is democracy at its finest. But it also means that excellent poems, stories and essays can be buried under the huge volume of garbage that exists online, so the curatorial function of the editor has become essential. Readers are learning to depend on certain sites to give them consistently high-quality work. Vox Populi, Coal Hill Review, and Autumn House Press are known as publishers who deliver what discerning readers want.
NC: Why did you step down from leading Autumn House? Do you still take an active part in the life of the press?
MS: From the time Autumn House began, I knew that at some point I’d have to hand over leadership to a successor. I’d seen nonprofit successions handled badly many times, so I wanted AHP to move smoothly into the second generation when the time came for me to step down. As the press grew and we hired editors to help me, the board and I looked at each one to evaluate his or her ability to take over the organization.
When we finally settled on Christine Stroud as my successor in 2015, she had been with AHP in various capacities for three years. She had the qualities we were looking for: personal integrity, a passion for poetry, editorial and design talent, and organizational skills. But the main quality she had was what is sometimes called grit, a combination of courage, steadfastness, and discipline. In her quiet determined way, Christine is unstoppable.
Americans buy far fewer books and magazines than their parents and grandparents did, so depending on sales to fund your operation is a risky proposition.
After six months of additional training, she was ready to take over as editor-in-chief, so in 2016, eighteen years after the founding of the press, I stepped down. Although the AHP Board had approved a salary for me every year since 2009, I rarely collected it; instead I put the money in a mutual fund under Autumn House’s name. By the time I left, the balance had grown to $250,000. This cash gave Christine a head start in running the press: she didn’t have to start with nothing the way I did. I also left her with $100,000 in inventory, AHP’s international reputation in the literary field, a supportive board, and a business model that works.
Now, four years after the leadership transition, Autumn House continues to thrive. Christine is making innovations and taking AHP in new directions, and I’m very pleased with where the press is now and where it’s headed. Christine has moved AHP out of the Westwood hobbit hole to Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in order to be closer to universities, performance spaces, and art organizations; she has outsourced book distribution to the University of Chicago Press; and, most significantly, she has recruited the highly capable team of Mike Good as managing editor and Shelby Newsom as Assistant Editor. These changes and hires have further secured Autumn House’s position in the front ranks of American literary publishers.
As for me, I’m writing poems again (yay!). And I founded Vox Populi, a daily online gazette that publishes poetry, art, film, personal essays and political discussions. With 11,000 email subscribers and many of our posts going viral, VP reaches a large audience. Editing VP is a job that suits me perfectly: I work with a large variety of poets, writers, and artists, and there is no fundraising. My relationship with Autumn House is friendly, casual and occasional: every now and then Christine asks me to participate in a poetry reading or a benefit; and Eva and I continue to cheer the authors and editors from the sidelines.
Autumn House is now solidly in its second generation.
NC: What frustrates you, and what delights you as a publisher?
MS: There’s so much I relished in the years I spent as the lead editor of Autumn House. How exciting it was, for example, to sort through a big pile of manuscripts, looking for the one that jumped out and demanded to be published. And what a privilege it was to work with poets and writers to polish their manuscripts. And how remarkable it was to coordinate artists and designers and printers in the production of a beautiful book. Equally important, I came up against my own limitations — my dislike of fundraising and my difficulty in delegating tasks were challenges I had to wrestle with.
Online publishing is inexpensive, and distribution is easy. Literally anyone can be an online publisher. This is democracy at its finest.
As Autumn House grew, we took on employees and our projects became larger and more complicated. Inevitably, my job became more about fundraising and management and less about working with authors and designers. By 2016 Christine was ready to lead the organization, Melissa Becker was ready to become Board President, and I was ready to move on to other things. It was the right decision for me and for the press.
NC: What advice would you give to those dreaming of setting up their own small press?
MS: Publish only manuscripts you love.