When Dan Pope started Roudabout Books in West Hartford, Ct., in 2011, he wanted to model it after Lookout Books, a student-run imprint at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a strong literary list. Although Pope has since moved away from his original concept of staffing the press with students from Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program, where he teaches, he has hired student Sara Lewis as managing editor and continues to seek out quality literature. But without the backing of a university, he has had to look elsewhere for funding, including crowdsourcing and subscriptions—and in the case of Vernon Downs (April, 2014) by Jaime Clarke, co-owner of Newtonville Books in Newton, Mass., and cofounder of Post Road literary magazine, from one of his authors.
“As a bookstore owner,” says Clarke, “I see a lot of press materials for small publishers promoting a promising book or author. But then the press folds because it runs out of money. I know from Post Road how hard it is to be a publisher and how financially exhausting.” So Clarke, whose debut novel, We’re So Famous, was published by Bloomsbury in 2001, and who has edited several anthologies, including Boston Noir 2 (which Dennis Lehane and with his wife, Mary Cotton, co-owner of Newtonville Books, also edited), came up with the idea of promoting pre-orders for his novel and donating his royalties to Roundabout. In part he was inspired by subscription publishing models he's seen, where patrons would pay in advance for a copy of an author’s work.
To sweeten the deal for those who order in advance, Roundabout is giving away Clarke’s essay “B.E.E. & Me,” about his relationship with Bret Easton Ellis, among other “goodies.” The two men’s lives and work have become so intertwined that there’s a mention of Clarke writing a fictional biography of Ellis in the opening chapter of Ellis’s Lunar Park, and the title character of Clarke’s new novel is based on Ellis. Vernon Downs is about a man whose fandom turns into out-and-out possession. Novelist Tom Perrotta calls it “a gripping, hypnotically written and unnerving look at the dark side of literary adulation."
As part of the pre-order the push, Clarke is offering Newtonville customers who buy copies of Vernon Downs this month either through the bookstore or via Roundabout’s Web site a free two-month membership to Newtonville books. Plus they will get their books in December. Clarke is trying to discourage readers from shopping at Amazon. He launched a special Please Don’t Buy My Book on Amazon Web site, and is asking readers to support their local indie. If a reader orders Vernon Downs on the Roundabout site and enters the name of their local bookstore in the special instructions field, Roundabout will share 50% of the monies (minus shipping). That offer runs through October 15, and those who order by then will also get copies by year’s end instead of waiting for the April pub date.
While finances delayed the release of Roundabout’s initial offering, from fall 2012 to last spring, it has had little impact on sales of the press’s first book, Kevin Dowd’s The Fourth of July. This debut novel set in 1974 off the coast of Maine about a man, his estranged wife, rum, and romance, appeared on Small Press Distribution’s top ten fiction list for March/April and has nearly sold out its 1,500-copy first printing. Pope is planning to go back to press for another 1,000 copies. The book was originally funded through Kickstarter, with 92 people pledging $3,860.
Pope would like to publish 12 books a year, or a book a month. But for now, he plans to take it slow. He did a Pubslush campaign for the second book on the list, Digging Up the Bones by Dale Marlow. It’s a family saga, which traces three generations from the 1960s to today. Despite, or maybe because of, the financial juggling, Pope says, “running a press is like writing a novel, a million small details.” He should know. He published his first novel, In the Cherry Tree (Picador) in 2003. His new novel, Housebreaking, about suburban dysfunction, is coming out from Simon & Schuster in May 2014. Even though he’s only publishing part-time, Pope has managed to create what Brent Cunningham, operations director at SPD, calls “an exciting little press. They obviously have editorial flair, and they’re obviously good right out the gate.”