This is the second in a series interviewing independent publishers about how they operate. Two Sylvias Press is a poetry publisher run by Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy, which launched in 2011 with the publication of the ebook Fire On Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry and has published a total of 33 titles. Agodon and Spaulding-Convy, both published poets themselves, were co-editors of Crab Creek Review Literary Journal when they got the idea to start the press, and utilized the skills they learned there to launch Two Sylvias Press.
The press offers two annual contests, one for chapbooks, for which the winner receives $500 and publication of the chapbook and the Wilder Series Poetry Book Prize, for women over 50, for which the winner receives $1,000 and publication of a full-length book of poetry. This interview with the founders was conducted via email and has been condensed.
How did you fund the press at first, and how much was required to start it?
The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice was one of the first titles published … [+]
Two Sylvias Press
We initially funded the press with our own money, which was a challenge since we both had families with school-age children. We launched a single project at a time, paying out of pocket for printing, distribution, and marketing. Our initial cost in creating the ebook anthology was approximately $1,000. We were finally able to open a business account for the press after we participated in the AWP Conference in 2014. We purchased a booth and brought along our three products: The Daily Poet prompt book, a print version of the Fire On Her Tongue anthology, and our Poet Tarot deck. To our surprise, we completely sold out, and we had our first small chunk of money in the bank.
How many books do you publish per year, and how has that grown since you started?
When we first began Two Sylvias Press, our budget and time only allowed us to publish one book a year. Now, we annually publish our two contest winners. We usually publish several other books in addition to our contest winners—manuscripts submitted to us that we have fallen in love with. Some years we have nearly driven ourselves crazy by taking on too many books (publishing between five and seven books in a single year). More recently, we have tried to limit ourselves to releasing only three or four books in a given year. One important point about our workload—we have no other staff, but the two of us.
What has enabled you to expand and grow?
One of the main reasons Two Sylvias Press has been able to expand our outreach has been via social media accounts, especially Facebook and Twitter. Our two annual poetry book contests have also been instrumental in our growth as we have been fortunate in terms of the notable poets who have agreed to act as judges for our contests.
We have experienced a recent upsurge in submissions to our contests that showcase a variety of talent and writing styles. Some of the strongest manuscripts in our chapbook contest have been written by young adults and college age adults. On the other side of the spectrum, we are delighted at the popularity and quality of the work submitted to our Wilder Series Poetry Prize, which is a contest for women over fifty years of age, a demographic that is often underrepresented in publishing.
As a press, we are also enthusiastic about finding “out the box” products and opportunities to offer our readers and writers. We realize that creative people love books and tools that assist them in their own artistic endeavors, so we have made a commitment to offer such resources as The Poet Tarot, The Daily Poet prompt book, The Inspired Poet, blank journals, and our Online Advent Calendar of Poetry Prompts, among others.
How many submissions do you receive per month? How does your editorial process work? What factors go into determining whether a book is a Two Sylvias Press book?
The majority of our submissions arrive to us via our two poetry book contests that we sponsor annually. At this time, we do not accept unsolicited work, but occasionally we come across a manuscript (not connected to our contests) that we find inspirational and unique. We usually ask ourselves, “Do we really love this?” and if the answer is a definite yes, then we will publish it. Our contests usually bring in roughly four to five hundred manuscripts (sometimes more), and we set about reading each one.
When deciding if a collection is going to be seriously considered for publication, we look at several aspects: Is the writing fresh, unique, skilled, and surprising? Are we immediately engaged as we read the first poem and do we stay riveted throughout the manuscript? Do the poems give us moments of insight, wonder, emotion, humor, etc.? Does the collection seem entirely unique and fresh—are we reading words and phrases that are completely new to us? Do the topics blow us out of the water and excite us? Is this poet saying something that audiences need to hear? As a press, we are also open to various writing styles—formal as well as experimental, and everything in between. If a book meets the above criteria, then it is definitely a “Two Sylvias Press book.”
Is there a typical reader of Two Sylvias Press books, or an audience you’re specifically aiming for?
Our readership is diverse, which also reflects the diversity of our authors. The books that we have published speak to many varieties of experience: Asian, Hispanic, African, LGBTQIA, Arab, Indian, Roma, Filipino. Our authors also range in age from early twenties to a poet who continued to write into her nineties. One distinction that we have as a press is the number of women authors we have published. We do have books by several men, but we predominantly feature books by women. And although we have released many poetry collections, we have published creative nonfiction, essays, a children’s book, and a variety of books on the craft of writing.
We believe that our audience is as diverse as the literary works we offer. From the feedback we receive, we can say that the people who enjoy our publications are engaged with the world and its cultures, are concerned with social justice, and are interested in creative expression. Many of our readers are writers themselves and are eager to explore the various books and products we offer to boost personal creativity.
Which books have been most successful for you sales-wise, and why do you think that is?
The three books that currently stand out to us as successful in terms of sales and popularity are: The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice, The Poet Tarot and Guidebook: A Deck of Creative Exploration, and the poetry collection Killing Marias.
The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano offers poets (and anyone wanting to write creatively) a full year of poetry prompts to help inspire ideas for new poems. We feel the success of The Daily Poet is simple—writers want to write. Individuals are hungry for ways to incorporate more creativity into their busy lives, and books that provide straightforward inspiration, like The Daily Poet, are currently popular. Writers also enjoy this book because they can use it to write individually or it can be used in writing groups and in classrooms.
The Poet Tarot and Guidebook Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy has been our surprise bestseller. We originally funded this project on Kickstarter. Part of the popularity of this creativity tool is that it combines the synchronistic elements of a traditional Tarot deck with famous poets and their poetry. For instance, the Tarot card originally based on the moon becomes in our deck a card associated with Sylvia Plath and the deep feminine “darkness” of her life and poetry. To us, the popularity of this deck is its crossover appeal to Tarot enthusiasts and to writers, both of whom draw inspiration by exploring the lives and works of various poets.
Killing Marías: A Poem for Multiple Voices by Claudia Castro Luna, which addresses the numerous … [+]
Two Sylvias Press
Killing Marias, a poetry collection by Claudia Castro Luna, has sold many copies due to its powerful theme and message. This book is currently being used in a number of college classes. Claudia Castro Luna is a poet in the Seattle area and is a past Poet Laureate of Washington State. Killing Marias addresses the numerous women who have disappeared (and are presumed murdered) in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Each poem is an elegy, a specific prayer to these various women who are missing. Part of the power of this collection is that Claudia Castro Luna gives all royalties she receives for Killing Marias to organizations defending women’s rights on the US-Mexico border, a cause that is even more pertinent in our current political climate.
How involved are each of you in the process of publishing each book?
When we begin the publication process of a given book, we both edit the manuscript. Once this initial editing process is complete, Kelli works on the creation of the cover, which involves the procurement of the cover art, the placement of any text that appears, such as blurbs, as well as all graphic design aspects. Annette works on the interior of the book—placing the text in the template, arranging front and back matter, and giving it a final proofing. Once we have each completed our part, the book is ready for print and distribution.
Are you only open to agented submissions? Do you have any advice for authors who want to submit to you?
We receive very few agented submissions as the majority of our submissions come from writers who submit directly to us when we run our two annual contests.
Here is advice we would give to writers: Submit early (when there’s a call for submission) and submit often. Read submission guidelines carefully, and research and learn about the presses you submit to before you send them your manuscript. Trust in the process of the press and its editors—don’t email them to make sure your manuscript was received, and don’t ask them when they will be finished reading all of the manuscripts. If you receive a personal rejection, this is a good sign, and if they ask you to submit again, do so. Be persistent and do what is within your control—revise your work and make it better, submit it often, and keep writing.
What do you see as setting Two Sylvias Press apart from other publishers?
Because we are our own indie press, we are never held up by red tape. What guides us is what we are excited or passionate about and our own imaginations. We had no sense of limitations when we began the press—we just started it. We still maintain this “beginner’s mind” and we continue to fuel our love of poetry, creating, and art. We try to make enough money to pay the rent and pay our authors’ royalties, but our goal has never been to “get rich,” but rather, we would love the world to be rich in poetry and poets.