Jul 5, 2016
We’ve Got Nothing to Lose: Emily Books Is Disrupting Publishing as Usual
Scroll through the Emily Books website and—framed in hot pink—you’ll see a collection of titles by women that feels more like a secret handshake than a business plan.
There are books about witches and sex work, pregnancy and abortion, best friends and substance abuse. There’s a small homage to #FerranteFever; Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the cultishly adored Neapolitan Trilogy, is one of only a handful of writers who appears more than once in the list. The books on these virtual shelves—and the mission statement that guides their selection—embrace formal experimentation and deliberately feminist or outsider perspectives.
Until recently, Emily Books selections were only available as eBooks. You could sign up for the subscription service and receive a new title each month, selected and curated by co-founders— and best friends—Emily Gould and Ruth Curry. If you disliked the idea of a monthly literary surprise, you could also buy books one at a time at their online storefront.
But now the two tastemakers are poised to launch a new imprint with Minneapolis-based publisher Coffee House Press, and so print books are right around the corner. And while Gould and Curry’s ability to acquire and distribute original titles has suddenly changed for the better, the impetus behind Emily Books’s new venture aligns directly with their original vision.
According to Gould, she and Curry initially launched the business to counter their shared fatigue with staid offerings from commercial publishing, the “increasingly blurry, weak Xeroxes of a hit that was a hit three years ago.”
“We love reading, and our friendship is about passing books back and forth to each other,” Gould said over the phone. We chatted over the course of a few days, once as Curry continued to work on the business in the background, and another rainy afternoon when Gould’s young son, Raffi, was home sick with the sniffles.
“There is a kind of book that we would occasionally find and really love, but it wouldn’t catch on in the way that we thought that it should,” she explained. “It wouldn’t get the kind of attention we thought it deserved.”
Modeled on the Native Agents series at Semiotext(e), Emily Books offers a small, rich library of titles written “by women and gay men and gender outsiders—or people who had transgressive, interesting, weird personalities,” Gould described. The feral, wild child writing that fuels, for example, poet Eileen Myles’s novel Inferno or Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist—each early Emily Books picks—is a signature element of the publisher’s favored style.
Five years ago, when Gould and Curry started discussing the possibility of making Emily Books a reality, the friends were each at loose ends. Curry was debating whether or not to continue in the New School’s MFA program (she eventually dropped out) and Gould had published a book that, as she put it with a rueful laugh, “hadn’t really set the world on fire.”
“When I first started doing this, I expected it to be a success overnight. And I can’t believe how naive I was.”
That book was Gould’s 2010 collection of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, which heralded her as “the new female voice of her generation.” (You might remember a version of this sentiment tumbling from the mouth of Lena Dunham’s anti-hero, aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, on an early episode of HBO’s Girls.)
Creating Emily Books was a leap of faith that requires a little imagination to fully appreciate. In 2010, nothing remotely like Emily Books’s carefully curated subscription service existed. Danielle Dutton’s female-centric indie press, Dorothy: A Publishing Project, had just published its first three books; they were all print titles. Scribd, a monthly eBook membership service that offers access to thousands of commercial publishing titles, would launch three years later, in 2013. A similar start-up with superior technology, the now-defunct Oyster Books, was only around for two years, from 2013 to 2015, before Google acquired it.
As publishing veterans, Gould and Curry felt the eBook business was where the industry was headed, hand-wringing about the death of traditional publishing or no.
“There were all these predictions about how everything was going to become digital and print books were going to be like vinyl,” said Curry, recalling her mindset five years earlier. She spoke to me via phone during her lunch break, from the offices of Oxford University Press, where she works as a contracts manager.
“What about the communities that we love that grew up around bookstores?” she and Gould wondered. “How can we replicate the experience of shopping in your favorite indie bookstore with eBooks?”
In 2011, Emily Books caught the wave of electronic publication and molded it to fit the needs of their ideal reader. They brought out-of-print titles, or books by passed-over female authors, back to life. At first, Gould said, they had just wanted to solve a problem fomented by commercial publishing’s need to turn a profit.
“There was something about the books we liked that was actively keeping them from being embraced by, not just the mainstream book buyer, but by commercial publishing,” said Gould. “And we were like, ‘We’re going to solve it!’ We’re going to figure out how to market those books directly to whoever might be likely to read them.”
With this build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, the partners forged ahead, even though the initial going was tough.
“When I first started doing this, I expected it to be a success overnight,” said Gould. “And I can’t believe how naive I was. It just takes people so many moments of exposure to something like we’re doing to get on board with it.”
Curating Emily Books took a toll on their friendship—and stretched their professional lives thin.
“It’s hard to run a business with your best friend,” Gould said. “It’s running a business that you work hard on, pretty much every day, and don’t make any money from.”
The two friends consciously set aside time to work both on their relationship and their business, all the while doing their best to keep things separate. In 2015, both Gould and Curry looked to a Kickstarter campaign as a litmus test for Emily Books’s eventual success or failure.
In addition to re-vamping the Emily Books website and providing better customer service, the publishers needed to know if they could solidify their audience. Up until that point, the business had struggled to support a community of readers big on individual book sales but less apt to spring for a monthly subscription.
“We’re not, like, ascetic saints or anything,” said Gould. “We do care a ton about this business and what we’ve built with it, but if there isn’t the potential to reach a wide audience, then we needed to know that. And the Kickstarter was a great vote of confidence because the support that we got for it completely surprised and overwhelmed us.”
The community Gould and Curry originally envisioned had finally started to coalesce. And it’s this ability—to build and cultivate an audience—that Kickstarter’s publishing outreach lead, Maris Kreizman, admires about Emily Books.
“They have great taste, and they are elevating books that otherwise might be passed over, helping people rediscover wonderful classics of feminist literature,” said Kreizman. “But also they have this built-in community. They have people who love what they do already.”
Even so, there was a lot riding on the Kickstarter, with its fundraising goal of $40,000, to secure the future of Emily Books.
“They wanted to be realistic,” Kreizman explained. “If they didn’t meet that goal, then it would be a good sign that maybe they shouldn’t devote any more time to expanding Emily Books. And so a lot of it was just seeing how many people would back the project, to figure out if there was an audience. And what a fucking delight to realize, yes. Yes, there are a lot of people who are interested in this and want to take part.”
Kreizman’s resounding “yes” refers to the success of the campaign, which collected more than $41,000 from 730 backers. Emily Books would live.
And now, a year later, Gould and Curry are headed in the opposite direction from which they started, from MOBI files to perfect-bound books. This summer the duo will launch their imprint with Coffee House, which has shepherded indie breakouts like Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.
According to Curry, she initially hesitated over their decision to publish print titles. “Print doesn’t work! Print is dead!” she said, gently poking fun of herself and of the alarm bells publishers have been clanging since the eBook came to market.
“The only thing that’s working about our model right now is that it’s electronic,” said Curry, re-tracing her thoughts. “That means we don’t have to deal with warehousing and insurance and real estate and shipping. Why would we ever want to invite these headaches into our lives? I honestly couldn’t see a way to do it.”
Partnering with Coffee House offered an elegant solution to Curry’s feared roadblocks. Since Curry interned at the publishing house as an undergraduate, she had an existing relationship with the publisher. At the same time, Coffee House was interested in expanding its editorial staff to continue to diversify their list. The match, according to Coffee House Press’s managing director Caroline Casey, seemed like a natural one.
“As a publisher, we prefer a messy and ambitious book to a cautious and extremely competent one,” said Casey, who loved the selections Emily Books had made. “They had absolutely told us in the books that they’ve picked for the subscription that that’s the way that they think, too.”
“Even though we do have different aesthetics, to a certain extent, [we have] really similar goals in terms of how ambitious books should be and what our place is in terms of championing them,” she added.
First out of the gate for the new venture is the utterly ambitious and unique Problems, a debut novel from Jade Sharma that offers a disturbing, but also humorous, glimpse into heroin addiction and the end of a crumbling marriage.
The book’s narrator, Maya, is sharp and self-destructive. She possesses a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for bad decisions; she is the kind of narrator that internalized misogyny tells you to loathe.
“She doesn’t need anybody to come save her,” Casey confirmed. “At a certain point, she’ll get sick of being a mess, and she’ll save herself if she feels like it. And I love that. I love that it’s an anti-damsel in distress narrative.”
For that reason alone, this book might seem like too much of a risk for major publishers. But Sharma pushes her narrative further still, writing frankly and unapologetically about sex, masturbation, and drug use. Thanks to Sharma’s quick, episodic style, Maya’s fall from grace blisters off the page. It’s electric writing.
When Curry read the manuscript, she felt certain this could be the book she and Gould were looking for to launch the new imprint.
“One of the rubber stamp rejections that I got used to sending out when I was working either as an agent or as an editor was like, ‘Oh, I just don’t have the vision for this,’” said Curry, referring to her time as an agent’s assistant at Sterling Lord Literistic and as an editorial assistant at Hyperion, where she and Gould first met.
“I read [Problems] and thought, ‘I do have the vision and the enthusiasm to make this stand out in a crowded marketplace.’ I got the book. I knew what she was going for, and I felt really confident I could help her get there.”
Putting commercial success behind an unconventional female voice fuels the imprint’s second title—Chloe Caldwell’s collection of essays, I’ll Tell You in Person—too. Due out later this year, Caldwell’s book ricochets between light and dark episodes from her 20s in New York City. Whether she’s acting up as the listless employee of a jewelry store on Bleecker or mourning the death of her new friend (writer Maggie Estep), Caldwell writes with astonishing clarity, self-awareness, and humor.
Both Problems and I’ll Tell You in Person exhibit trademark Emily Books writing—and it’s refreshing to see these two unabashedly feminist books prepare to take the publishing world by storm. Sharma’s book, for instance, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was named one of their summer picks. It’s early days yet for Caldwell’s collection, but everyone, from Gould to Curry to Casey, is hopeful.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re at this really exciting moment, where there’s this new cultural openness to radical honesty [and] mostly female subjectivity,” said Gould.
Certainly, voices who don’t fit the straight, white norm have a much more difficult time breaking through to commercial publishers. A look at the Lee & Low diversity survey released earlier this spring explains why—publishing is overwhelmingly straight and white and female, although men still hold 40 percent of positions at the executive level.
Even so, it’s possible to see recent evidence that the old guard is changing. Lisa Lucas, former publisher of Guernica, was hired as executive director of the National Book Foundation just this past February. Poet Saeed Jones, who was promoted to BuzzFeed’s Executive Editor of Culture late last year, runs the site’s new literary vertical, BuzzFeed Reader. But it’s not nearly enough.
The Emily Books and Coffee House Press partnership is extraordinary in its newness, and it offers a viable model to other publishers, big and small, to make similar editorial changes, and to grow their lists in a sustainable way while injecting startling new voices into the conversation.
“I think that one of the benefits of being at a smaller press is that you have a lot of freedom to do things differently, to envision your mission and the way that you serve whoever your constituents might be,” said Casey.
In a way, Emily Books became an emblem of that freedom. “We could create a space and offer resources for them to explore and experiment with being a publisher,” she added.
So it’s as easy—and as difficult—as handing the reins over to someone else. As making women and people of color, queer writers and editors, whose stories have long been relegated to the sidelines, actual decision-makers.
Still, writers and editors from marginalized communities—the very voices we need to hear from most—are those who might not have the time, financial resources, or industry connections to wait it out on the long, slow road from start-up to imprint.
“When we started this, we weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, this will definitely work,’” said Gould. “We were thinking, ‘Well, we have nothing to lose.’”
“We started the business with nothing, and we still run the business on a total shoestring. We’ve never paid ourselves. And we can do whatever we want. So when you start from that vantage point, there are a lot of tradeoffs—but the upside is total freedom.”
Visit here for an interview with Jade Sharma, author of Problems.
Visit here for an interview with Chloe Caldwell, author of the forthcoming I’ll Tell You in Person.
Photos by Nicolas Maloof
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