Seven Stories Press is a few weeks shy of completing its 20th year of publishing books focused on social justice, politics, history, and human rights. And in its 20th year, its founder, Dan Simon, expects the independent publisher to post a double-digit sales gain over 2015.
Seven Stories, which is distributed to the trade by Penguin Random House Publisher Services, published 35 titles in 2016 (the house launched with four titles in 1996) and has about 600 titles on its backlist. “Backlists are even more important in the age of Amazon,” Simon said. “You can find any book now and a backlist book can bounce back in sales at any time.” The house reported $2 million in net revenue in 2015, and so far in 2016, sales are up about 14%. “During the recession we held our own and now we’re growing again,” Simon said. “And we’ve done it with a steady stream of bestsellers, not just a single big book.”
In addition to its adult list, Seven Stories owns Triangle Square, a children’s imprint focused on “social justice, storytelling, and community,” Simon said, plus Siete Cuentos Editorial, a Spanish-language imprint. In June, the publisher opened Seven Stories U.K. in London. The office is staffed with a publicist and is focused on “introducing Seven Stories to the U.K.,” Simon said.
Although its first books appeared in 1996, the roots of the press are in a now-defunct house called Four Walls Eight Windows, which was codirected by Simon and his former partner John Oakes from 1984 until 1995. That year, the two men severed their partnership and split the business. Simon founded Seven Stories Press, a new and separate publishing house named after the seven former Four Walls authors—Octavia E. Butler, Annie Ernaux, Gary Null, Project Censored, Charley Rosen, Vassilis Vassilikos, and Nelson Algren—that were subsequently published by Simon’s new venture.
The late novelist Algren “embodied the spirit of the press,” Simon said. “His books offer a penetrating look at what it means to be an American.” Seven Stories keeps 10 of Algren’s books in print, and his The Man with the Golden Arm has more than 44,000 copies in print. “His spirit and his philosophy of writing preside over our editorial vision as a pure idea of writers and writing that we take seriously and try to uphold,” Simon said. The mission of Seven Stories “is to bring together literature, politics—voices of resistance and [literary] creation—and bring them into the mainstream,” Simon added. “And 25% of our list consists of works in translation.”
To mark the anniversary, in late November Seven Stories sponsored a screening of Nelson Algren Live, a documentary on the author that is coproduced by Simon and cowritten by Simon and Barry Gifford. Seven Stories also held a reading featuring such authors as Paul Auster, Kia Corthron, Francine Prose, and Knicks executive Phil Jackson reading from the works of Seven Stories authors.
Seven Stories is probably best known for publishing the works of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, whose 9-11, a short book released the month after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, has sold more than 320,000 copies. Chomsky’s Media Control (173,707 copies sold) and Profit over People (118,436) are among the other top-selling books on the Seven Stories list. Other big sellers are Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country (185,554) and Howard Zinn’s Young People’s History of the U.S. (190,790).
More recently, the house published such titles as A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara, a 2013 children’s board book on social and community activism for kids that was initially self-published (59,999 copies sold), and Graphic Canon, edited by Russ Kick, an epic three-volume series of comics adaptations of classic literary works from Gilgamesh to Ulysses (31,000).
Forthcoming Seven Stories titles include Passage, a novel by Kahary Lazarre-White that “will make you understand what the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting,” Simon said. Also look for Martha and the Slave Catchers by Harriet Alsonso, a middle grade novel about the abolitionist movement, and the forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Complete Stories, edited by Dan Wakefield and Jerry Klinkowitz.
Although Seven Stories’ revenue is growing and the business is stable, Simon said that being a small independent house isn’t getting any easier. “The average bookstore discount is a lot higher and our profit margins have evaporated,” he said. But he also acknowledged that advances and returns are lower and that a robust foreign-rights marketplace is making up for declines elsewhere. And Simon emphasized that self-publishing and crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter “are bringing new blood and new ideas into publishing.”
In reflection, Simon said, “Every important book we have done started out as something no one wanted. But it turned out that those books were just what people were waiting for.”
Correction: The subject of the book 'A is For Activist' was noted incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.