Lookout Books, the new student-run imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, looks like it could have a literary and commercial success with its first title. An outgrowth of UNC Wilmington's Publishing Laboratory and its creative writing department, Lookout Books is overseen by poet Emily Smith, director of the Publishing Laboratory, and former Tin House editor Ben George, editor of UNC Wilmington's literary magazine, Ecotone. Tasked with developing a program more national in scope after releasing some regional books and a handbook, Show & Tell, through the writing program, Lookout's first title, Binocular Vision, is a collection of short stories by Edith Pearlman. It has already garnered a starred review in PW, a front-page review in the January 16 Sunday New York Times Book Review, and a review in the January 16 L.A. Times.
Writing in the introduction to Binocular Vision, Ann Patchett predicts, "this should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret-handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That's where they belong." It could also be the book that shows that a small teaching press, which relies on a staff of interns and a 50–50 profit-sharing model with the author, can succeed in a big way.
Now in her mid-70s, Pearlman is a winner of three O. Henry Prizes; she has published three other story collections—Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, and How to Fall—and has six new stories coming out this year. "Attention is welcome," said Pearlman. "But I'm not used to it." Although she has published with small presses, this is her best experience. "Ben is the best editor I've ever had. He gets the sense of a story and where it might have gone wrong. And he's willing to talk for half an hour about a semicolon."
Pearlman will do a multicity tour to promote the book throughout New England, starting with a reading at her neighborhood bookstore, Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass. She will also tour to Women and Children First in Chicago and stores in Berkeley, Calif., and Wilmington, N.C. Even before she hits the road, Lookout has begun readying a second printing, which will bring the total number of copies in print to 10,000. An e-book, priced at $9.99, will be available soon.
Ben George, who was hired in 2008 to edit Ecotone and create an imprint with Smith, Lookout's executive director, said that he planned to launch the press with Pearlman from the start. "She's really an exquisite writer, but she's not so widely known. She's a writer's writer, and I saw an opportunity to do a grand book for her. We do have a luxury that some commercial publishers, which have to look to the bottom line, don't. We came up with the tagline, ‘a haven for books that matter.' It's wonderful to be only concerned with that."
Smith joined UNC Wilmington in 2007 and has been laying the groundwork for a national press ever since, including signing with John F. Blair Publisher for distribution. Blair president Carolyn Sakowski has nothing but praise for both Smith and George. "They just do everything right," she said. "We give them advice and they take it."
Publishing with students does have a few drawbacks. Putting together Binocular Vision took more time than at a traditional publishing house—three semesters and 12 students, according to Smith. During the first semester, students worked with George on the selection and ordering of the stories. The next semester Smith and student interns handled typesetting and cover design. The following semester students worked on promotion, although Smith and George had to take over during Christmas break, when the "employees" were gone and news hit that the Times would be giving the book a prominent review.
Because the press operates with a small, transient staff, Smith and George nixed the idea of open submissions and decided to begin Lookout with authors who had previously worked with Ecotone. Lookout will do two or three books a year of fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction. Next up is a work by another Boston author, Steve Almond, whose God Bless America is due out in October.
As for UNC Wilmington's students, some have been inspired to start presses of their own. In 2009, Sumanth Prabhaker began Madras Press to publish small, beautiful editions for stories for which the author is paid in donations to a charity of his or her choice. "He learned all his publishing here," said Smith. "We hope to do this 100 times over."