Dzanc Books, an independent nonprofit publisher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been described by one of its authors as publishing “books that don’t mean to be movies.” As well as pursuing this mission with an eclectic mix of publications – including those of Roy Kesey, Laura van den Berg, Teresa Svoboda and others – the press runs a residency program to bring authors into public schools, awards annual awards to “innovative, risk-taking and brilliant work”, and organizes an annual workshop and conference in Lisbon, Portugal.
Michelle Dotter, publisher and editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books, answered our questions about press management.
What are the advantages of working in an independent press?
For me, the most powerful thing about working in an independent press is having the freedom to publish books based on literary merit, not just looking at the results. The books published by Dzanc are risk-taking, rule-breaking, exceptionally creative works that deserve to be in the world, even when they challenge their audience or are written for a niche. I like having the freedom to defend books like that.
From a more individual perspective, working in an independent press gives you endless opportunities to challenge yourself and control every aspect of that process. It’s hard work, sure, but helping a book you love find its readers is worth it.
What are the challenges of working in an independent press?
As a corollary to the above, working with an independent press can feel like working three or four jobs instead of one. There are always more jobs to do than there are people to do them. It’s a fantastic way to expand your skills, but it can get tricky.
“It’s hard to draw a straight line through all of our titles, but generally speaking these are books that take language seriously.”
Is there a particular quality, style or other characteristic that connects the projects you undertake?
As a press, we are quite flexible. We have published epistolary books and books in the maximalist style, books that explore the many worlds theory of quantum physics, and books that are framed like classic novels or collections but have been polished to achieve a shine razor sharp, every word intentional. We’re writing a novel next year that’s technically a short sentence, which we’ll be publishing in an accordion-style book that can be unfolded to over twenty feet long. (The phrase by Matt Baker, if you’re curious.)
It’s hard to draw a straight line through all of our titles, but generally speaking these are books that take language seriously, for which language is not just the means by which a story is conveyed, but a vital part of what is transmitted and understood. . Or as one of our authors once said, these are books that don’t want to be movies.
Are there any titles in particular that have changed the game for your business?
It’s hard to pick just a few, but it’s been a great pleasure working on some of Robert Coover’s titles, including many of his list, and keeping these books available for new readers. We have done similar work on Joseph McElroy’s books, most of which are out of print except for the Dzanc editions.
Lindsey Drager is also one of my favorites. She’s an incredibly smart, thoughtful, and compassionate writer, and I can’t recommend her books highly enough. We’ve done three novels so far, and I hope there will be many more to come.
We have also published a number of William Gay titles posthumously, books that were found in his archives after his death and lovingly pieced together by Michael White and other friends of William from his handwritten drafts. (He was known for not crossing his t’s or dotting his i’s, and sometimes omitting the e’s altogether.) It’s a humbling task to try to honor a writer’s legacy while taking messy or, in some cases, fragmented drafts and weaving them into a whole, but I’m thrilled that we’re sharing these works that otherwise would have been lost forever. attic storiescoming in July, is the last work to be extracted from these archives.
What projects are you particularly passionate about at the moment?
This is a completely unfair question, because it asks me to choose only a few books when I prefer to read you the whole catalog to come. But here’s a preview of what’s to come this summer and early fall.
Next up is Nina Shope Asylum (May 17). This novel follows a patient, Augustine, at the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière asylum in Paris – a young woman who is one of the favorites of Dr Charcot, one of the first initiators of the treatment of hysteria in the 19th century. It’s a beautifully written novel about control and manipulation, and Augustine is a spellbinding narrator.
Later this summer we will be doing Will McGrath’s second collection of essays, Farewell Transmission: Notes from Hidden Spaces. We have Caravaggio in a homeless shelter in Arizona and Elvis in rural Canada; diamond miners and professional wrestlers, night watchmen and virtuous ex-convicts. Will is a terrific writer who tackles even his darkest subjects with empathy and humor, and his work always brings a smile to my face.
Our last summer outing is a first collection of poetry, La Syrena: visions of a Syrian mermaid from space. Author Banah el Ghadbanah (pronouns she/they/zhe) won the Dzanc Diverse Voices award for this collection two years ago, and The Syrena is simply stunning, heartbreaking and mesmerizing on every page. We were also incredibly lucky to incorporate the illustrations by non-binary Yemeni artist Amal Amer, which completely blew my mind.
Finally, in September, we have habilitated by first author Alyssa Quinn. Lucy, a young woman with an uncertain past, attempts to construct an origin story for herself and her species as she wanders through an anthropology museum that turns into a nightclub every night. It’s a strange, lyrical and amazing little book about language, desire and the stories we tell about ourselves.
How do newbie authors contact you?
At this time, our annual competitions are open. We are running two competitions this year, one for novels and one for short story collections, both of which will be open for submissions until September 30. Interested authors can find all the details on our website.