Staying afloat in the publishing industry is not an easy task. Publishers must compete against a deluge of new titles, and they are pitted against incumbents with established brands and massive resources. In the midst of such rigorous competition, several independent publishers are able to achieve international success. Media Context speaks to an editorial representative at Red Hen Press, a company that has made impressive strides in their industry.
About Red Hen Press
Red Hen Press is the largest nonprofit literary publisher in California. Founded in 1994, Red Hen is committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting literacy in our local schools. We publish 25 books a year, ranging from poetry to literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoirs. In 2019, the year of our 25th Anniversary, we will be publishing our 500th book.
Red Hen Press focuses on poetry, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoirs. We started as a poetry press but are working toward an even balance of prose and poetry. It seeks a community of readers and writers who are actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature. Anyone who loves to read and appreciates a beautifully written, well-crafted story or collection of poems about the human experience will enjoy reading our books. We also have a range of imprints and series specializing in certain types of literature, such as Alaskan-based authors/stories (Boreal), queer prose (Quill), or poetry by Latinx authors (Letras Latinas).
How does Red Hen Press’s editorial team decide which manuscripts to publish?
We are looking for strong novels by people who are really interested in making change in the world, in seeing the world differently. While our titles and authors are diverse in style and subjects, the stories tend to have a certain kind of wildness in common.
As a team, we look for work that wakes up the reader in some way. We want work that is literary, diverse and electrifying. We want work that blows off the roof.
Good writing is the first priority, but I'd say there are differences by genre. For non fiction, I think of Bad Stories, and Eat Less Water as great examples of books where the author is writing about culture shifts in a way that we knew would engage readers now, in other words they are tapping on the pulse. Also both writers were game to do anything to promote those books.
For poetry, we look for good poetry by engaged poets. This year we've had success with Erica Jong, Kim Dower, Allison Joseph and Francesca Bell writing about timely issues but good poetry comes first.
The fastest growing part of Red Hen's list is novels, and we get very excited about great novels. We look for writing that tells a great story but underneath there's another great story. Literary novels come in layers; I know that sounds like a cake. But we like writers who dig deep.
We also like a good read. In 2021, we’re releasing a new book by Martha Cooley, author of The Archivist. It is a marriage of the intellect and the imagination, enough to blow the socks off any reader. In 2020, we had a bounty of prose: Rebecca McClanahan, Aimee Liu, Kristen Millares Young, Jennifer Risher, Donna Hemans, and Ellen Meeropol, four novels and two non fiction books all by women, all writers who are asking questions of the universe we live in today, of family, money, race, children and love. You enter these books and don't want them to end. That's what we look for, a book we don't want to close.
What kind of authors would Red Hen Press like to work with?
We like working with a range of authors from debut, like Jaye Viner and Kristen Millares Young, to seasoned, like Martha Cooley and Erica Jong. In fact, our events and work are more fun because of it! While programming, we often get to pair emerging authors with their literary heroes, and always do our best to bring authors together for mutually beneficial partnerships.
While the majority of our authors are US-based, we are proud to work with many authors from around the world and welcome more to come!
How does Red Hen Press market its products to its target audience?
We work with the author to identify who they believe their key audience to be and then complement this with our own understanding of the greater publishing industry and current trends. We work with indie bookstores to produce and promote book events, help authors with long read pitches, send hundreds of galleys out to reviewers and retailers, present titles at industry conferences and foreign rights fairs, and work closely with our national and international sales teams at Ingram. We also send our books out for awards, run robust social media campaigns, and have ongoing backlist campaigns to extend the long-tail of publicity for each of our titles.
Overcoming the Challenges of the Publishing Process
What are the main challenges that Red Hen Press’s editorial team experiences?
We experience the constant challenge of working in an industry where there is no end to the work load. Once you take a book on, you can be working on it indefinitely, and getting a book to "take off" always feels like a worthy but difficult challenge.
The Steve Almond book, Bad Stories sold out its first day in print due to a lot of hard work on the part of Red Hen and a huge amount of work on the part of the author himself, but nothing is guaranteed. Publishing is not the kind of job where you work your way to the bottom of the pile.
We continue to take on exciting projects that are in development and some of these projects involve taking on more editorial work. We have a small editorial team, but we are nimble and hardworking, and we rise to the challenge.
How does it overcome these challenges?
We feel that every manuscript submitted to Submittable deserves the attention of a member of our paid editorial staff. At present, I read through every manuscript. The manuscripts I feel are worth considering are then sent to our editorial team and discussed throughout the rest of our departments, including media and marketing. This allows us to bring many different perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions to the table so we can make informed and smart decisions for our books and our future going forward.
What challenges did Red Hen Press face during the COVID-19 outbreak, and how did it overcome them?
Frontlist titles develop buzz and excitement with the help of indie bookstores, so while having that main market closed for in-person sales has been a challenge, we have been able to persevere with the hardwork and quick-thinking of our own staff team as well as our incredible distribution and sales team at Ingram Publisher Services.
Especially in April and May of 2020, bookstores were struggling to be allowed open in any capacity, let alone to learn to produce virtual events, so we immediately launched our own virtual event series and pivoted our partnerships series with The Broad Stage and Annenberg Community Beach House to the virtual “stage.”
Using a lesser-known streaming platform, “Streamyard,” we are able to produce high quality videos with branding, no need for programs or registrations, and simultaneous streaming on Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, and our own website.
We also produced events that streamed directly to bookstores’ own Facebook pages, turned our yearly benefit fundraiser into a virtual event (which became our most successful benefit to date), and held several “Open Zoom Room” events and VIP Meet-the-author zoom parties.
What prominent opportunities can Red Hen Press observe in the publishing industry?
Book sales are on the rise. Poetry sales are on the rise. As we continue to have more social media available, more invasive screens, we return to the desire for the artifact of the book and we return to need for stories.
How can Red Hen Press utilize these opportunities to remain competitive?
We visit as many independent bookstores as possible. Building relationships with indie bookstores is the key to our success.
We are taking on more and more novels and nonfiction books about important cultural subjects. As we expand the scope of our publication to include topics for our broader audience, we have found our business growing.
Does Red Hen Press intend to collaborate with international partners in the future?
Red Hen Press has a great relationship with international partners and we now distribute our titles in English globally! We also have a U.K.-specific imprint, Pighog Books, which publishes authors in the United Kingdom and through which we hope to bring in more LGBT authors.
We also attend four foreign rights book fairs a year in London, Beijing, Frankfurt, and Guadalajara. We have sub rights agents based in Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, and China, and recently sold a title (Amy Hassinger’s After the Dam) to a French Publisher, as well as another title (Karen Shoemaker’s The Meaning of Names) to a Chinese publisher, which will be translated into simplified Chinese Characters.
Red Hen hopes to continue to build relationships across the globe and collaborate to bring Red Hen readings to many more countries.
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