Have you read Sweet Adversity yet? The New Yorker called it “a dazzling highwire act” and “probably the most clear-eyed and moving—and certainly one of the most honest—books ever written about alcoholics.” The New York Times, in a rave review, described it as “one of the most desperately funny books we’ve been given in a long time.” And of its author, Donald Newlove, Newsweek exclaimed, “That he’s one of the best American writers is now unmistakable.”
Yet despite all the buzz, you probably haven’t read Sweet Adversity: Newlove’s novel featuring jazz-playing, alcoholic conjoined twins was originally published in two separate volumes, Leo & Theodore in 1972 and The Drunks in 1974, by Saturday Review Press before being combined into Sweet Adversity in 1978, for paperback publication by Avon. The novel has been out of print for decades and was never exactly considered canonical—at least not until Tough Poets Press came along in 2015.
Technically, one could call Tough Poets, the Arlington, Mass.–based micropublisher that reissued Sweet Adversity this past January, a self-publisher. The house is run entirely in the spare time of Rick Schober, who is employed full-time in the tech sector. All Tough Poets books are printed on demand via Lightning Source. And funding for each book is secured via individual Kickstarter campaigns—nearly all of which, Schober noted, have been successful. He handles every aspect of the process, from rights acquisition to layout. Schober even designed the covers of 12 of the 15 books he’s published to date.
Yet Tough Poets is no run-of-the-mill self-publisher. Its inaugural title, The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews with Gregory Corso, published in May 2015, marks the first time the renowned beat poet’s interviews were published in one volume. (The first of two attempts to crowdfund this book was Schober’s only unsuccessful Kickstarter; he said he hadn’t laid out the book yet, but once he had, reaching the goal, which he always keeps “only around what the production costs,” was no problem.) Since then, Schober has published roughly four books per year, relying on “a loyal following” that shares his passion for rediscovered literary fiction and nonfiction of an offbeat and experimental variety.
That loyal following translates into funding via a crowdfunding model. Those who fund the books each get a copy if they donate an amount totaling the book’s cover price or more, and books are sold via Amazon and B&N.com primarily but are also carried by some independent bookstores, “especially in the Boston area,” Schober said. The press is no moneymaker, but, he quipped, “it’s a small-gains hobby.”
Hobby or no, Tough Poets is publishing books that more established publishers haven’t touched in decades, and he’s clearly found an audience. Since that first title, Schober has published another by Corso, the play Sarpedon, plus books by Marvin Cohen (who has been published previously by New Directions Press), Erje Ayden, Patricia Eakins, Russell Edson, Alan Kapelner, and Gil Orlovitz. The publisher has also published undiscovered books by some of its authors, as well as a new novel by journalist and erstwhile Democratic New York state Senate candidate Ross Barkan, and plans to publish more new material going forward.
Often, Schober has worked with estates to secure rights. In other cases, he’s had discussions with writers in their older years who were thrilled to find that someone once again cared about their work.“It’s a great honor for me to be able to help resurrect the careers of these writers, some now in their 80s and 90s, who probably never expected their works to see the light of day again—and to be able to present these works to a new generation of readers,” Schober said. He added that Cohen, after being approached about republishing his work, even began to write poems again, which he regularly sends to Schober via email.
Schober’s next release will be another title by Orlovitz, a republication of his 1967 experimental novel Milkbottle H. “Currently,” Schober said, “there are only two copies of the original edition available for sale online, starting at a whopping $460.”
That book, unlike Sweet Adversity, the Times didn’t love—its review argued that “there have been few books in recent years that have demanded so much of the reader and yielded so little in return.” But for the first time in a long time, thanks to Tough Poets, readers will be able to decide that for themselves.