Sometimes, a pair of phone calls is all it takes to seal the deal. That’s what Peter Carlaftes, codirector of New York City–based Three Rooms Press, and his partner, Kat Georges, discovered last August when, after a brief call with the David Black Agency, the duo spent two and a half hours on the phone with William Least Heat-Moon, the author of the 1982 bestselling travel memoir Blue Highways: A Journey into America.
“His agency gave us a call last August, saying that he had looked around and had found our press and said that we were one of the few presses he would like to consider publishing his debut novel,” Carlaftes recalled. “He liked what we were doing and what we were about, and was also anti-big press at that time for his own reasons. We didn’t know what to think of this. The man sold six million books.”
After discussing Three Rooms and its mission and agenda, Least Heat-Moon “fell in love,” Carlaftes said, and after a little bit of hashing out the advance, Three Rooms ended up signing its first hardcover book and Least Heat-Moon sold his first novel.
Celestial Mechanics: A Tale for a Mid-Winter Night will release on April 11 with a first printing of 5,000 copies—Three Rooms’ largest initial print run yet. Its hero is Silas Fortunato, who applies for an editorial position at the “spirituality” section of a local newspaper and realizes he cannot adequately explain his beliefs within the rubric provided. An “emotional tale of haunted love,” the novel finds Silas locked in a tempestuous marriage before the arrival of his sister-in-law and the appearance of a new, “witching” neighbor, who may or may not be alive. Together, the three women challenge him to explore both dreams and reality and look to “a new belonging to something vastly beyond himself.”
The excitement at the small publisher is palpable. “We’re hoping that we have to reprint soon,” Carlaftes said. “He’s very confident in the book and believes it will catch on. And we have the paperback rights as well.”
Least Heat-Moon is best known for his travel writing, and the bulk of his books have gone to houses such as Houghton Mifflin, John Wiley, and Little, Brown, before he jumped into the university press world for his latest two books—one a translation, the other a behind-the-scenes account of writing Blue Highways. The choice to go with a press like Three Rooms, Carlaftes said, “says something about our indie roots.”
Those roots are in both New York and San Francisco. In the 1990s, Carlaftes and Georges, who are both playwrights, owned a theater together in San Francisco, where the two “were doing original theater, kind of round robin,” throughout the decade.
“At that time, Kat was running poetry readings and that kind of thing, so we decided to publish some of our own chapbooks, and called the press Three Rooms Press,” Carlaftes said. “It’s a line from the 1964 Howard Pinter play The Homecoming,” a work in which Carlaftes once performed each of the six characters. He added: “It’s not because we are a really tiny press and only have three rooms—although people may believe that.”
That said, the press’s early days were bohemian, to say the least. “We didn’t have a stove—we didn’t have a kitchen [in our home] there, so the stage was our stove,” Carlaftes said. “We did our cooking there, and every six months our feng shui changed because we did a new play and we had a new stove.”
The publisher moved to Greenwich Village in 2003, and eventually joined Publishers Group West for distribution. Carlaftes said the press typically publishes between six and 10 titles a year in a range of genres; while Three Rooms may have cut its teeth on poetry and theater, the publisher’s bestselling title to date, Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers, is a YA fiction title, and the first title to really catch the publishing world’s eye was Mike Watt: On and Off Bass, an experimental retrospective by seminal punk rock bass player Mike Watt.
In addition to Carlaftes and Georges, the company’s other full-time employee is editor-in-chief Constance Renfrow. PR work is done by an outside firm, Over the River Public Relations. “We’re grassroots. Hands-on. Hardworking. Hard-thinking,” Carlaftes said, adding that he and Georges will personally travel on a multistop book tour with Least Heat-Moon from April through June. The tour will wind through Least Heat-Moon’s home state, Missouri, with a few stops in the Midwest and Florida, as well as the ALA annual meeting in Chicago in June.
“We’re in this to do good for the reader, the publishing world, for literature as a whole,” Carlaftes said. “That’s where we’re at.”