That independent publishing is tough business is something Suzanne La Rosa and Randall Williams know quite well. The founders of NewSouth Books, based in Montgomery, Ala., La Rosa and Williams have been in the small press game for 10 years now, and their press, which does roughly 20 titles a year, is quietly thriving. The philosophy? It's changed slightly but now, publisher La Rosa says, it's about making smart editorial choices. “Randall and I, going into this, said, forget trying to hit a home run on any one book—every book we publish has to count. Our feeling is, if every book sells to where we think it will... this company will be viable.”
And NewSouth, with a full-time staff of seven, is certainly viable. The press landed something of a coup in the summer—it was selected by the NEA to publish the first-ever local edition of a Big Read title, their July 2009 Tom Sawyer for Alabama's Big Read. NewSouth has also begun to increase its print runs (up from an average of 3,000—4,000 a few years ago to 6,000—7,000 today), and to see stronger submissions. La Rosa, a former New York City magazine editor who relocated to Alabama with her husband, said she saw the press “turn a corner” about three years ago. “I saw sales go up. I saw [the] name recognition increase. I felt we started seeing better material... and a lot more agented material.”
La Rosa, who stands as something of a counterpoint to editor-in-chief Williams, a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner and former political activist, said that although the press's name speaks to an obvious focal point, NewSouth doesn't exclusively publish books by Southerners or about the South. While its list includes expected titles like Williams's The Alabama Guide: Our People, Resources, and Government, it also has Alef-Bet, a children's book by Michelle Edwards that introduces kids to the Hebrew alphabet.
One of the house's big spring titles is Rheta Grimsley Johnson's second memoir, Enchanted Evening Barbie & the Second Coming. That book bows next month and is going to press for 15,000 copies, after Grimsley Johnson's first title for NewSouth, Poor Man's Provence, a chronicle of the newspaper columnist's hometown of Henderson, La., proved an unexpected hit. Another big book for the spring is Interview with Abraham Lincoln, a fictional interview with the 16th president by the Southern scholar Wade Hall. NewSouth is planning Interview for June or July, and it will be done in a small format—the 80-page title will be a 4"×6" hardcover.
The downturn in the publishing business has been, unexpectedly, a boon for NewSouth. With New York publishers focusing more and more on blockbuster projects and with more small presses struggling, NewSouth is reaping the benefits. While the aforementioned titles may speak to the Southern component of NewSouth, future acquisitions may speak better to the non-Southern aspect. “I've noticed more midlist authors coming to us in the last five years,” La Rosa said. “It's become really apparent that people are finding us, but, to be honest with you, it may be because we're the only game in town.”