They began, like many a small press, with a single title—in this case a collection of 19 stories by a little-known American living in China, Roy Kesey. The print run was small (2,500) and the house had no distributor and did its own fulfillment. The two founders, Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett, had proudly if awkwardly named the house by combining the first initials of the five children they have between them. But Dzanc Books, based near Detroit, Mich., is no ordinary small press, taking cautious steps forward. Now, just a month after All Over was published, Dzanc is already becoming something of a literary powerhouse, prompting one veteran bookseller to declare the house the “future” of publishing.
What prompts such praise? Lots. They established the $5,000 Dzanc Prize, to be awarded annually to the writer with both the best work-in-progress and a community service literary project; they tripled their staff of five by acquiring two other small presses, which will become Dzanc imprints: OV in Chicago, known for story collections, and Black Lawrence in New York City, specializing in fiction and poetry; they upped their publishing plans from six titles for '08 to 25, including collections by Yannick Murphy (In a Bear's Eye) and Peter Markus (Bob, or Man on Boat) and the first of what will be an annual series, The Best of the Web, an anthology of writing culled from online literary journals.
Dzanc, which became a 501-c-3 nonprofit almost a year ago, does things its way. Not only will the house fill several niches by publishing literary fiction, story collections, poetry and, eventually, contemporary African literature, but it is sponsoring a writers-in-residence program that's already expanded to schools beyond Michigan.
“We're definitely committed to our publishing and equally committed to our charitable endeavors,” Gillis emphasizes. “We want to bring reading to the public and give back to the public as well by involving writers in the community. That's imperative to our mission.”
Gillis and Wickett first met, as so many people do these days, online. Wickett, a former car-parts supplier, who started writing book reviews and e-mailing them to friends and family seven years ago, is thefounder of the Emerging Writers Network blog, which currently boasts 2,100 subscribers.
“There are a lot of good writers out there who haven't seen the light of day,” Gillis says. “We saw how skewed publishing is; practically none of the bigger houses are looking at collections anymore.
“If the writing is good, we'll publish you,” he declared. “We're not worried about how we'll make money.”
Gillis and Wickett currently are seeking both private and foundation support to further expand their ambitious program. Gillis, once a lawyer, now an author, who “got freakin' lucky” playing the stock market, has been funding Dzanc.
“Books aren't going to sell if the publisher doesn't get behind them,” Gillis insists, describing how Dzanc sent Kesey, who lives in Beijing, on a 12-city author tour that included stops at independent bookstores in New York City, Chicago, Iowa City, New Orleans and Ann Arbor, where Ray McDaniel, Shaman Drum's publicist, proclaimed to an audience of 75 persons: “Dzanc is the future of publishing.”
“Instead of buying a fancy car or taking a trip to Jamaica,” Gillis declares, “I'd rather spend my money helping deserving writers.”