Between Penguin [Pearson, U.K.], Hachette [France] and the two big German companies [Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck], publishing is international,” said Matthew Miller, founder of nine-year-old Toby Press in New Milford, Conn., one of the few small presses that is truly international in scope. Not only has Toby's list been weighted heavily toward European and Middle Eastern writers, but last summer it acquired the Israeli publishing house Koren. To add to its unusual approach, Toby publishes fiction almost exclusively, including such writers as the critically if not commercially acclaimed Donald Harington.
When Miller, a Brooklyn native who speaks French and Italian, founded the press in 1999, more than half of the books were in translation. Since then he's cut back to two or three a season and added more American, Irish and British writers. “I'm a smaller schmuck than I used to be,” quipped Miller, who was the first to publish the pseudonymous exiled Algerian army officer Yasmina Khadra (The Swallows of Kabul) in the U.S.; Khadra has gone on to sign with Nan Talese.
This year, Toby will release 30 books in English and half a dozen in Hebrew. Koren will continue to publish Bibles, for which it is best known, and will distribute Toby's books in Israel.
In addition to its international flavor, Toby is distinguished by an almost complete reliance on fiction. “We're really not good at nonfiction,” said Miller, who considers fiction more “forgiving,” especially when pub dates slip. Still, for a small house with close to $1 million in sales annually, Toby has had an outsized number of award winners. In the past seven years, for example, five of its books have received Barnes & Noble Discover prizes. Many have also won prestigious Jewish book awards, such as Tamar Yellin's The Genizah at the House of Shepher, which took both the Ribalow Prize and the newly inaugurated Rohr Prize, worth $100,000.
Despite its books' many accolades, Toby is one of publishing's best-kept secrets. In a way, it parallels one of its top writers, Arkansas novelist Donald Harington, whom Entertainment Weekly dubbed “America's greatest unknown novelist.” PW gave a starred review to the first Harington novel that Toby published, With (2004): “Harington has invented a unique post-Faulknerian piece of fictional terrain in his Stay More novels, and this powerful effort should further enhance his reputation as one of the great undiscovered novelists of our time.” Unfortunately, With did not, although that's still possible for Harington's 14th, Farther Along (May).
Harington's career never took off in the way, say, that of his mentor, William Styron, or mentee John Irving did. For bookseller Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark., part of the problem is that Harington's not what she calls “a TV sound bite writer. Because of the dialogue, which he's a genius at, I have to set aside time when I can read 50 pages at a time. I like to read his books slow enough so I can hear the dialogue in my head.” In fact, that's much the way that Harington, who lost his hearing from meningitis at the age of 12, writes, with the sounds of his 1940s Ozarks world around him.
Like Toby, Harington prefers to swim against the mainstream currents when it comes to how he publishes his books. Although Random House published his debut novel, The Cherry Pit, in 1965, he has since given up on large houses and on most small presses, because they turned down With. In fact, he found Toby through a who's who in publishing Web site (www.everyonewhosanyone.com). Nor does he have an agent. “I have had such bitter experiences with agents, who collectively strike me as necessary evils, that I swore off them 10 years ago and want nothing more to do with them,” said Harington, who received the Porter Prize in 1987 and the Robert Penn Warren Award for fiction in 2003.
Since publishing Harington, Toby Press has doubled sales of his new books from 5,000 to 10,000 copies and has found an audience for his work in Israel. Miller may not be bringing in quite as many books from overseas, but he continues to actively pursue rights sales and will translate Farther Along into Hebrew and French. For Harington, all of whose backlist Toby has reissued in uniform editions, Miller is planning advertising in the New York Times Book Review and on the back cover of the New York Review of Books. It will be included in Book Sense's white box mailing for May, and newsletter co-op is available.
After an auto accident last year, Harington no longer tours. He plans to retire at the end of this semester from teaching art history at the University of Arkansas. “I expect to go on writing novels for another dozen years or so,” he says. And Toby plans to keep on publishing them—and to push international boundaries in pursuit of sales.