To walk into the vintage Craftsman-style building that houses Red Hen Press in Pasadena, Calif., is to be reminded that founders Kate Gale and Mark Cull still believe in the cozy literary refinement and enduring reverence for poetry that they have been advocating since 1994, when the press released its first book. Gale, managing editor, and Cull, publisher, run the nonprofit Red Hen with the help of eight volunteer interns and one full-time employee. Although established as a publisher of poetry, today about half of the 20 titles Red Hen releases annually are literary novels and memoirs.
With nearly 250 titles in print, Gale's editorial criteria call for writers who are masters of their craft, although she steers away from manuscripts that require a Ph.D. to understand or that won't reach beyond a small academic market. "My preference is for writing that's disturbing in a way, rather than entertaining. It's important to wake people up from their sleepwalking." Red Hen's current bestselling titles are Air Kissing on Mars: Poems by Kim Dower; The Last Jewish Virgin by Janice Eidus; and Working Backwards from the Last Moments of My Life: Stories by Rob Roberge. Its all-time bestseller is David Mason's Ludlow, a novel in verse.
Gale organizes Red Hen's reading series in Los Angeles and New York, four a year in each city. "I go to New York for galley drops twice a year," she said. "People in New York don't comprehend the vibrancy of West Coast publishing, but the reverse is true as well. My visits there help to close the gap between the coasts."
Gale and her husband, Cull, who serves on the advisory board of WriteGirl and left a career in the aerospace industry to devote his life to literature, agreed that when they started Red Hen it would be equally important to create literacy programs connected with the press. Besides their active reading series, Red Hen has a community outreach project that sends published poets and authors to elementary schools in Southern California to teach creative writing. In conjunction with this, Red Hen publishes participating students' work in the Writing in the Schools Anthology. In addition, its biannual Los Angeles Review has become one of the most widely read literary anthologies on the West Coast.
The University of Chicago Press has distributed Red Hen since 2007. "Business is good," Gale said. "We've seen a steady increase in sales since joining Chicago, and we're pleased with the job they're doing." Gale believes there are three models in American letters: Dickinson, Poe, and Walt Whitman. "Most writers want to be the first two, but they're not workable models today," she said. "But Whitman was actively involved in the world he lived in. Writers look for publishers who make them successful, but that time is over. Today they have to work to make that happen. The game has changed, and authors have to be active in their own publicity and marketing."
Red Hen has started digitizing its newer titles, but is holding off on slower-selling backlist for now. "Poetry doesn't translate well electronically," Gale said. "I'm a book person, but I understand why people want to use reading devices for throwaway books like Tom Clancy or romance novels. People like to have choices, so it's good to make more options available for reading." What Gale has fully embraced is social networking, and she encourages her authors to maintain Web sites, blogs, and Facebook pages in addition to doing a minimum of 20 book events a year.