Emily Smith, executive director of Lookout Books, has been in and out of the office more in the past few months than she has been in years, thanks to the success of her imprint’s very first release, a collection of new and previously published work from a 75-year-old master of the short story, best known by other short story writers. When PW first reported on Lookout at its inception in January 2011 (PW, Jan. 17, 2011), Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision looked like a sleeper hit in the making; since then, it’s won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Malamud, and made it to the finals in at least four other contests, including the National Book Award for fiction.
“We got lucky from the very beginning,” Smith said, referring to Binocular Vision’s success. “We sent out galleys and letters—both [editorial director] Ben George and I wrote letters—and lots of our colleagues do reviews or have friends who do.” When Binocular made the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Smith almost didn’t find it: “I nearly overlooked the cover!”
Lookout is an imprint of the Publishing Laboratory, the fully functioning teaching press at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington staffed by students in the creative writing department; its mission is “to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as works by established writers overlooked by commercial houses.” When Smith and George launched Lookout, Pearlman seemed like the perfect fit for its lead author. “She had three previous collections with small presses, she was award-winning, and had a devoted following—people like Ann Patchett and T.C. Boyle look at her as a master—but not a national one,” said Smith. “Maybe because we were crazy, or maybe because we didn’t know any better, we felt that we could make Pearlman’s our first big book. And it turns out to be a marriage made in heaven.”
After an initial run of 5,000, there are currently 26,000 copies of Binocular Vision in print in the U.S. (plus 5,000 e-books sold), and Lookout has sold rights in China, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. “No author could have a better publisher,” Pearlman told PW. “Ben George is a dream editor. Emily Smith knows everything about how to create a beautiful book.”
Students play “a huge part” in all aspects of Lookout’s publishing processes, from “press releases and media kits and scheduling readings” and “Web and social media maintenance” to “typesetting specs, deciding on the interior, cover research,” Smith said. Students are currently at work on the trailer for the imprint’s poetry debut, John Rybicki’s When All the World Is Old, released on April 10. “In terms of a formalized studio apprenticeship in publishing, it really is exciting,” said Smith. “And because we’re housed in a creative writing department, we’re uniquely positioned to market all these areas that are not big sellers, because we know the audience and so do the students.”
Steve Almond, author of Lookout’s second release, God Bless America: Stories, thinks the teaching press model may be “the future of publishing, at least when it comes to literary short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. They’re able to use the resources of the university—in particular, students eager for real publishing experience—while maintaining independence in their vision. Emily was even brilliant enough to get a state grant that allowed me to tour North Carolina reading from the book.”
“They reach across the earth and pour holy water over a writer’s head, one writer at a time,” said Rybicki, noting the imprint’s seasonal pace. Smith said she plans to limit Lookout’s title output. “Four titles in two years is not very many, but we throw all our love and attention into them,” said Smith. “We have a goal of three to five per year, maybe somewhere down the line more like seven to 10, but we don’t see ourselves as ever getting bigger than that. Everything gets our undivided attention.”