Unnamed Press, a new publishing house based in Los Angeles, started out with a completely different name.
When Chris Heiser and Olivia Smith launched Ricochet Books in 2013, they didn’t expect to be served a cease and desist letter. But that is what happened: a major university in California with a poetry press of the same name threatened legal action. In looking for a new name, the two thought about the kinds of writers they wanted to publish, and that helped inspire the choice Unnamed Press. “There are all these unnamed people out there who are great talented voices that are getting passed on by bigger houses, because they are scary to publish, or a little too challenging for a sales team,” said Heiser. “That name change was actually freeing and opened up our editorial perspective. It’s really worked out in the long run,” said Smith.
Prior to starting Unnamed Press, Heiser and Smith weren’t strangers to the industry. Early in his career, Heiser was in book publishing in New York and worked at the New Press, John Wiley and Sons, and other trade publishers. When he left New York, he left publishing and the literary life in general, moving to Los Angeles for a new career, but he eventually discovered that he missed working in publishing.
So he quit his new job, started working at a bookstore, and got involved with Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) when it was starting in 2011. That’s where he met Smith, who was publicity director at LARB for about three years.
Heiser took the money he made in his corporate job and used that as seed funding (along with an “unnamed” investor) to get the press off the ground. Smith brought what she’d learned being a publicity director at LARB to Unnamed Press: “I learned what publishers were doing wrong and what wasn’t effective. They would send blanket press releases that weren’t personalized. We live in this world where a lot of books are being published, and there’s so much noise that you really need to be thoughtful about what you put out in order to be heard.”
Being thoughtful about the books they put out is at the heart of what Heiser and Smith do. “The reason why Unnamed Press exists at all is that we came across editors, and translators, who were working on books we thought were fantastic that weren’t getting placed,” said Heiser. Smith agreed. “It wasn’t a response to what was being published, but what wasn’t being published.”
Though Unnamed Press works with a lot of international authors, the duo notes that what’s most important is that the writers are contemporary. “We want writers who are exciting and alive that belong to this generation, or belong to the now, to contemporary life,” said Heiser. It’s a strategy, Smith noted, that has resulted in Unnamed publishing debut authors. Heiser added that to balance the debuts, they make sure also to acquire works by established writers. “As a business, we also need writers with a larger audience.” One of the company’s biggest bestsellers to date has been Deji Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space.
Smith believes that being in Los Angeles also provides certain advantages. “So many writers are living and working here—there’s a real sense of community. The sense of being an underdog out on the West Coast has evaporated. Things have changed here; it’s a much bigger literary scene than people realize.”
“It seems to me, over the last few years, that New York’s own perspective has shifted a bit—we don’t get the snark we would have gotten five years ago,” said Heiser. “We get a warm reception, even though we are brand new. We still get taken fairly seriously, certainly without a geographical bias.”
Unnamed Press, which is distributed by PGW, is looking to make a name for itself in the publishing world, and it’s off to a good start. It has 10 titles coming out in 2015, and its sister nonprofit press, Phoneme Media, which focuses on poetry, is also putting out 10 books this year. Top titles for spring include Escape from Baghdad!, by Saad Hossain, and The Fine Art of F**king Up, by Cate Dicharry.
“We feel like it’s our time to establish literary publishing in Los Angeles that has a real national and international platform. Industry wide, everything has changed, giving small presses like us access to press and media we could have never had before, as well as visibility and platforms that didn’t exist prior to social media. Because the business model has changed so drastically, it allows us to be flexible,” said Heiser. “Publishing isn’t really about geography anymore—it’s not where you are but whether where you are is interesting or not. And Los Angeles is very interesting.”