Michael J. Seidlinger is nervous. Like so many things in his life – including the time he bleached his hair blond – he was prodded into penning his YA debut on a dare. Now Falter Kingdom is poised to become Unnamed Press’s first foray into the teen genre, in yet another leap of faith for an indie publisher that has rapidly grown an eclectic catalogue.
From his Brooklyn home base, Seidlinger juggles three other literary jobs – as marketing director of Dzanc Books, book reviews editor for Electric Literature, and publisher-in-chief of his own press, Civil Coping Mechanisms. Somewhere along the way he’s found time to pen nine books during just five or six years of serious writing.
On the opposite coast, the Los Angeles-based publishing house is constantly on the hunt for promising manuscripts that may otherwise end up forgotten and unread in the slush pile. Or as executive editor Olivia Taylor Smith put it: “In a way we’re these bottom feeders that are picking up the scraps that other publishers don’t want to publish.” Sometimes the topic is taboo, “strange and uncomfortable” like The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang, which explored mental illness and incest. “It’s beautifully written but also extremely creepy at the same time,” Smith said of the title her company published this spring.
The moniker “Unnamed Press” blossomed from a difficulty in settling on a name that defined what she and publisher C.P. Heiser envisioned. The pair met while they were working at the Los Angeles Review of Books and Heiser asked Smith for her help on his new publishing venture, she says. “We just could not come up with a name we liked,” Smith recalled. “They start to sound like strange band names. Or everything is like a tree…” One day she and Heiser decided “we’ve been unnamed, now we’re Unnamed. That’s our identity. We get a lot of jokes: oh, the no-name press.”
But it became a fitting title as they embarked on an experiment to seek out unknown wordsmiths and shape would-be writers into published authors. Smith’s passion projects are often manuscripts by new authors that are in need of editorial polish. Intense editorial crafting is something that’s fallen by the wayside at some larger publishing houses, Smith says. “It’s something that some places no longer do. Finding voices that are undiscovered is the foundation of our acquisition. We’re finding amazing work,” Smith says.
Since 2014, the startup has grown from three books in its first year to 18 on schedule for 2016, with titles running the gamut from sci-fi to nonfiction. “From very early on we decided that we really weren’t going to have any rules. You can’t be in independent publishing and put any rules on yourself.” Her rebellious approach is balanced by a sense of self-awareness in their limitations. “I think poetry might be the only thing that’s off limits for us,” Smith says, simply because the market is already flooded.
With the company’s YA launch on the horizon, Smith is hoping to snare teens and adults alike with Seidlinger’s coming-of-age tale of demonic possession. In the author’s earliest musings on the idea, the notes that he wrote to himself envision the story with cinematic word associations: “Perks of Being a Wallflower meets Fight Club meets The Following.” Falter Kingdom follows Hunter Warden, a senior in high school who catches a demon and decides to keep it despite its malicious intentions. Ultimately the spirit is an unlikely guide, helping him to overcome the dislocation and disaffection he feels with moving on after graduation.
The idea was intended for the adult body-horror genre until Seidlinger, who has a love/hate relationship with the social media accounts he carefully cultivates, took to Facebook to jokingly poll friends and colleagues if he should turn the concept into a book for teens. “They started daring me to do it,” he says. So he did.
In fact, a friendly goading often drives Seidlinger’s career, whether he’s writing a book or embarking on a performance-art-style experiment. Among his litany of projects, Seidlinger live-tweeted living in an airport for 48 hours and once asked Twitter followers to take over his decision-making (which is how, incidentally, he learned he does not look good with blond hair). “I’ve been dared to do a lot of stupid things,” Seidlinger says. “I’ve said yes to a lot,” although none of them illegal. “I’ve been dared to write a poetry collection. Will I do it? We’ll see.”
Seidlinger’s individual approach to his work seems to be in keeping with Unnamed Press’s vision. He powers through manuscripts by editing as he writes, rather than churning out multiple drafts. “I write a paragraph, and go after it like a poet. Line by line and looking for that rhythm and cadence.” And with each new project or story he strives to challenge himself anew, curating a fresh vision and voice. Hunter’s distinctive tone was especially important for Falter Kingdom. “A lot of really successful YA is the voice; the essence of the character’s voice is paramount,” Seidlinger says. “I think YA can really be more intimate – thoughtful and introspective with emotional depth – than a lot of literature we see for adults,” Smith adds.
Smith and Seidlinger both hope Falter Kingdom will strike a chord and spawn a trilogy. “It’s great when you see a press that’s new, willing to take risks, willing to back up their own style,” Seidlinger says. But Smith is also cognizant that she must eke out a place in the publishing landscape. That’s part of the reason that Unnamed continues to diversify its catalogue, most recently by acquiring YA and nonfiction. “We don’t want to be a small press that just sort of disappears. I have a huge responsibility as an editor. I don’t want to publish something that isn’t fit for consumption. I can’t have [readers] be disappointed by a single one of our books.”