When the National Book Foundation announced its list of its “5 Under 35” honorees late last month, a number of heavily buzzed works from two of the country’s largest houses, Penguin Random House and Macmillan, dominated the list: The Mothers, Homegoing, Prodigals, and Hall of Small Mammals.
By contrast, Transoceanic Lights by 31-year-old S. Li isn’t even available at most bookstores. That’s because its publisher, Harvard Square Editions, doesn’t have a distributor, a sales force, a publicist, or even a central office. Its editor-in-chief lives in California and board members live as far away as Cypress.
Li submitted the book to the NBF on a whim, in part because he was looking to use up extra review copies he had lying around. “I was really taken by surprise when I got picked,” he told PW. “I knew my chances were basically zero, because I don’t think a book from a small press has ever won.”
Author Karen Bender selected his autobiographical novel about a Chinese immigrant family that comes to the U.S. for the award. A neurologist in greater Boston, Li came to the area at the age of five from Guangzhou, China, and wrote the book while he was in medical school.
After being turned down by 50 agents—only one asked to see the manuscript—Li submitted the novel to HSE, which he had seen featured in a newsletter from another small house, Black Lawrence Press. That was in 2013. After he made revisions during his residency, his novel was accepted, and published in March 2015.
HSE’s roots go back 15 years to a group of Harvard University alums, who met online in 2001 through a discussion group about writing and publishing that followed the World Trade Center attacks.
The group wanted a name that would reflect their Harvard connection. “Harvard University Press wanted nothing to do with us,” explained Charles Degelman, who joined HSE in 2005. “We were banned from using the Harvard crimson color.”
The press’ first book, the collection Above Ground: An Anthology of Living Fiction (2009) edited by J. L. Morin, and a subsequent anthology edited by Degelman, Voice From the Planet (2010), set the tone. HSE publishes high quality, socially relevant titles by authors from around the globe. The press gives priority to climate fiction, which often features a plot tied to global warning, and to social justice and diversity, said Degelman.
To date, HSE has published 55 books. But the press continues to be relatively unknown. “Submissions are still a matter of who finds us, how good it is, and can we handle it,” said Degelman. “We don’t have resources to throw book tours or do big publicity campaigns. One of the limits is, is the person able to keep their end of the bargain?”
No one at HSE is paid, and the press doesn’t offer an advance. But it does share royalties. For a book like Li’s, a typical first printing would be in the 100s. Rather than moving to a second printing for Transoceanic Lights, HSE prefers to rely on print-on-demand.
Thanks to his nomination, Li has been fielding phone calls from a barrage of agents, and he recently signed with Kent Wolf at the Friedrich Agency. “I have no idea where my writing career is going next, and I have no words to describe just how thrilling that is,” he said.
Currently Li is working on a collection of stories about love in its various stages of dissolution. He has also started a larger piece of experimental fiction that he said could take a decade or two to complete, while he continues to practice medicine full-time.