"I just couldn’t get excited about making money from words,” said Bill Henderson, founder and publisher of Pushcart Press, as to why he was fired from his job as an editor at Doubleday in the 1970s. Henderson was being interviewed by phone from his home in Wainscott, N.Y., about the beginnings of the Pushcart Press, the noncommercial small press he launched in his Yonkers apartment in 1972, and the beginnings of the Pushcart Prize, the series of annual collections of the best of small press publishing.
Henderson started the Pushcart Prize in 1976, after he found himself on the verge of unemployment. He had launched Pushcart Press with the publication of The Publish It Yourself Handbook in 1973, one of the first DIY books on self-publishing and an important title in the growth of small press publishing. The book sold 75,000 copies, and the proceeds went into launching the Pushcart Prize.
“I come from a religious family, and words are sacred,” Henderson said, describing his now well-known discomfort with commercial publishing. He said he was on vacation in San Francisco in 1974, an “about-to-be-fired editor” sitting in a café, when he scrawled a note describing his idea for the anthology, which he sent to dozens of acclaimed writers—among them Joyce Carol Oates, Ralph Ellison, Paul Bowles, and Anaïs Nin—who would later become the founding editors of the Pushcart Prize. To his surprise, “they all loved the idea,” despite his lack of literary credentials. “Joyce Carol Oates was enthusiastic and very helpful, but they all took a risk.”
Henderson said the first edition of the Pushcart Prize “got great reviews.” He cited the New York Times’ Harvey Shapiro, former PW editor-in-chief John Baker, and former PW reviews editor Sybil Steinberg for being particularly supportive. After its first release, Henderson said the Pushcart Prize “just kept going. It’s astonished me that it’s made it 40 years. You can’t kill the spirit of writers.”
This year’s Pushcart Prize showcases 68 works (about half of which are poems) from 51 presses. Any small press can nominate up to six works on its list, and each year more than 8,000 pieces of writing are nominated for consideration. And despite Henderson’s notorious dislike of digital and Internet culture, the Pushcart Prize was one of the first to accept writings from online literary magazines. “I don’t care how something is published as along as we can read it,” Henderson said.
Still, he doesn’t have much use for digital self-publishing, smartphones, and computers. “I have reservations about online stuff. You don’t just press a button and get worldwide fame. That’s harmful to writers. You need patience.” Henderson draws a distinction between “vanity publishing, where writers have to pay through the nose to publish,” and self-publishing, which he descried as a “leap of faith.” He said self-publishing has been “pretty good for romance and genre writers,” but that “my focus is on young serious literary writers who should be careful with their talent.”
This year’s Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses 2016, the 40th-anniversary edition of the anthology, received a bit more fanfare than usual. The Writers Studio, in conjunction with the Strand Bookstore, hosted a Greenwich Village reading of the book that featured a star-studded lineup of writers, including novelists Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, and Ben Marcus, memoirist Mary Karr, poets Sharon Olds and Philip Schultz, and novelist and FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi. Smith and McCann have pieces in the new edition, as do Anthony Doerr, Dan Chaon, and Ann Beattie.
Henderson said the Pushcart Prize anthology “sells enough to cover the printing costs,” and, unsurprisingly, there’s no digital edition (“in the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”). Henderson does most of the work, with help from his wife Genie and daughter, Lily (“she’s the online wiz”), who handles any digital efforts. The 650-page trade paperback, which is distributed by Norton, is compiled each year much the same way it was put together in 1976. “No computers. It’s just a pile of letters. You put the poems in one box and the essays in another. It’s simple and all done manually with paper and a pencil,” Henderson said.
Despite his concerns about digital publishing, Henderson described the current literary scene as wonderful. “Young writers have not been ruined by the Twitter culture or the lifestyle culture, where money is everything. Our writers keep the spirit [of literature] alive. They are serious about their work. I could do a 800-page edition of the book. I have great hopes for the future.”