This is the first in a new monthly series in which I will profile independent publishers about their origins, how they operate, partnerships with bookstores, their most popular books and what they look for from editorial submissions. The first profile is with Jamia Wilson, Executive Director and Publisher of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, who began that role in 2017. The Feminist Press is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1970, whose mission is to publish “books that ignite movements and social transformation. Celebrating our legacy, we lift up insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world to build a more just future.” According to tax filings, their 2017 revenue was $763,688. This interview was conducted via email and has been condensed.
Jamia Wilson is the Executive Director and Publisher of The Feminist Press at the City University of … [+]
What are the main elements of your job as Executive Director and Publisher?
As the Executive Director and Publisher, I oversee all of our editorial, programmatic, and administrative operations at the Feminist Press. I work closely with our entire staff and board team to enliven our mission through our books and programs. Our staff makes decisions about the titles we commission through a feminist editorial process where our team processes each title together. We review each one of the hundreds of submissions we receive each year. I report to our board of directors. Titles commissioned are all determined by our staff.
How many books does Feminist Press publish per year?
Over the Feminist Press’s fifty-year history, we have published over four hundred titles. Today, FP publishes between 15 and 18 books a year. We aim to have a variety of genres represented in each of our seasons, ranging from activist nonfiction, lead novels, fiction in translation, children’s picture books, academic journals, and more. Leading up to our fiftieth anniversary, we also focused on reissuing some of our most backlist iconic texts, including Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy, which imagines a world where oppressed women linguists create a language of their own, and Zora Neale Hurston’s I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, an anthology of Hurston’s work as the most prolific black woman writer of her time. For those reissues, we commissioned new introductions and afterwords that contextualize these texts for modern readers, emphasizing their ongoing importance while highlighting how feminist thought has evolved since their first publication.
How does being part of CUNY impact the running of the press, if at all?
We value our longtime relationship with CUNY. We enjoy collaborating with other CUNY departments, engaging with CUNY authors and scholars, and working with faculty members on WSQ, our scholarly journal. We often cosponsor events with CUNY partners and we love having CUNY students and faculty visit for tours of the Press.
Are there particular bookstores that have been specifically supportive in promoting your titles? If so, what have they done and how have you built those relationships?
McNally Jackson, the Strand, Skylight Books, Greenlight Bookstore, Dog Eared Books, Elliott Bay, City Lights, Green Apple, Powell’s, Riffraff, Moon Palace, Brookline Booksmith—the list goes on and on! All of these stores are staffed by wonderfully well-read, passionate, and thoughtful booksellers that go above and beyond to be key literary citizens in their communities. From buyers to floor staff, their familiarity with Feminist Press books past and present never fails to surprise and humble us. We do a lot of bookstore outreach and cultivation; we attend the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute and are looking into participating in regional shows. We send galleys to booksellers where we think they’d be a good fit with a particular person or store, and we also look to send our authors on tour to have launch events at independent bookstores.
How many submissions do you receive per month? How does your editorial process work?
We receive anywhere from thirty to fifty to seventy-five submissions monthly, depending on the month. We receive most of our submissions via email, which a member of our editorial team checks daily and assigns to our submissions committee. The submissions committee discusses each submission, its strengths and areas for improvement, as well as its “fit” for FP’s list and whether or not we have the capacity to take on such a project.
What factors go into determining whether a book is a Feminist Press book? Are there books you’ve published where immediately you thought, This is a Feminist Press book?
The Feminist Press staff is constantly discussing what makes a perfect FP book. Currently, in a time where feminism is more accessible than ever, we see FP’s role as championing the most insurgent, marginalized voices—those writers that still struggle to see their work in print due to systemic forces of oppression. FP has a long-standing reputation as a publisher committed to launching feminist voices in theoretical and creative nonfiction spaces; we also champion cutting-edge fiction writers and classic feminist works that have either fallen out of print or were never translated into English.
In general, our books are never prescriptive but generative—sparking much-need nuanced feminist dialogue in an era of call-out and cancel culture. We hope to create a world where everyone can see themselves in a book, and that our publications can be a source of open exchange of thoughts and ideas. Several recent publications that epitomize FP’s current editorial vision—and that staff immediately knew were FP books—are Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera, Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture, The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers (translated by Kit Maude), Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea, and Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker.
In terms of the “feminist” aspect of your work, does every book you publish need to tie directly into feminism or feminist topics?
With our commitment to amplifying marginalized voices, serving a broad community of readers, and mobilizing the power of storytelling for social change, we play a crucial role in shaping the future of feminist discourse at a moment when conversations about gender, race, ability, immigration status, economic justice, and power are more widespread than ever before. Books build bridges and inspire empathy. We publish books and create a platform for transformative feminist authors with bold visions for the world.
The books we publish are selected based on their ability to expose readers to new ideas and broaden their perspectives while holding space for multiple feminism(s) and theories of change. Sometimes their feminism is subtle—for example, our English-language, extended edition of the viral underground story Beijing Comrades. This Chinese novel was first published serially on the internet, about a love affair between two men around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. The protagonist is a misogynist and his actions aren’t feminist; however, publishing an uncensored edition of the work meant that this important work in the history of contemporary queer Asian culture is available for future readers and research.
Are you only open to agented submissions or can authors submit directly?
The Feminist Press is open to submissions, from anyone, on a rolling basis. That means that any author, with or without an agent, can submit directly to us year-round. We have submissions guidelines listed on our website that request authors submit projects that are completed. All submissions are reviewed by our submissions committee, and to help us with that process, we ask that authors submit a project synopsis, at least three chapters of the book, a marketing overview, and their bio.
Do you have any advice for authors who want to submit to you about how to improve their chances of acceptance?
Our biggest piece of advice for authors is to look at our recent publications, as well as our mission and vision statements, and see if their work matches the tone and direction of our list. Since we are a small indie press, and only publish about fifteen books a year, we have to make difficult decisions about what we have the capacity or ability to publish, and one of our most prominent decision-making factors is whether it is a good “fit.” Crafting an FP-specific pitch is also helpful, as it shows us the author has gone above and beyond in researching our titles and our vision.
What is your average print run, and what determines how big a print run will be?
FP’s average initial print runs range from 4,000 to 5,000 copies. We determine a book’s print run based on its position within a season—whether it’s a lead, if there is an active author able to promote the work, etc.—as well as preorders that come in through our distributor in the leadup to publication.
Which three books have been most successful for you sales-wise, and why do you think that is?
Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healters by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English … [+]
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Since 2010, some of our top bestsellers have included Witches, Midwives, and Nurses; Still Alive; and the Riot Grrrl Collection. These are classic titles that look back into history—the gendered history of healthcare and medical practitioners, the history of the Jewish Holocaust, and the more recent history of the 90s Riot Grrrl movement—and provide a historical perspective with which to consider current issues today. The issues central to all three books are still at the center of some of our most pressing political and cultural conversations and debates today.
How involved are each of you in the process of publishing each book? Are you more involved with some than others, and if so, can you talk a little about what that more involvement looked like?
The FP staff is incredibly collaborative. Every staffer wears various “hats” because of FP’s status as a small nonprofit publisher. We provide a high level of author care, and every person on staff knows every author by name and gets to work on each project in some capacity along the book’s life, from Microsoft Word document to finished book to all the great engagement our titles receive online and in the larger world.
What do you see as setting Feminist Press apart from other publishers?
More than a publishing house, Feminist Press provides a fulcrum of feminist action, uniting a multigenerational coalition of writers, scholars, activists, artists, and educators. As a nonprofit, our mission is supported by a host of partners engaged in similar efforts to support creative production from marginalized communities.
What’s next for Feminist Press?
The Feminist Press has always served as the literary vanguard of the feminist movement. The year 2020 is giving us time to honor our origins while looking toward the future of feminist innovation. As a nonprofit, our mission is supported by a host of organizations engaged in similar efforts to support creative production from marginalized communities. We’re using this milestone as a moment both to celebrate our legacy and to build momentum for the needs of our community. At the time of our founding, many asked why a feminist press was needed—but in a moment where issues of gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality increasingly dominate public discourse, FP’s fifty years of success and expansion signal not only cause for celebration, but the ongoing need for diversity in publishing. We’re celebrating our fiftieth anniversary with a dynamic list of new books and reissues.