Atticus Books is a small literary press based in Kensington , MD., a close-inWashington,D.C., suburb.
We specialize in genre-busting literary fiction—i.e., titles that fall between the cracks of genre fiction and compelling narratives that feature memorable main characters. We publish books and regularly post original short stories, poems, literary essays and creative non-fiction on our website.
Tell us a little bit about your press and how you came to be?
Atticus Books is the classic example of a press whose mission organically developed until the founder woke up one day and realized that his small business had taken on a life of its own. I started Atticus as a blog because I had a desire to publish my own musings, stories, and prose-poems online without the trouble of shopping queries to literary journals or magazines. I also intended on Atticus Books becoming a hybrid bookstore/book publishing operation which then triggered a fruitless search for the perfect retail location. Once I realized that I didn’t have the funds to take a chance on commercial real estate space and build all the infrastructure that a brick & mortar bookstore requires, I decided to focus on publishing.
My experience managing association publishing programs gave me the confidence and resources to know that I could produce a high level of quality, so I began the due diligence of exploring trade publishing and the small press scene, in particular. I was simply amazed at the wealth of opportunities available to writers. I also was thrilled to realize that there was room for a funky little independent press that could fill the crevice that falls somewhere between commercial and literary fiction.
My initial goal was to publish only novels that had strong main characters and lent themselves to film adaptation. I now pretty much have abandoned that mission and only accept writing that either appeals to me on a gut-to-intellectual level or advances the craft to the point where I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself unless I found a way to publish the work. It’s an absolutely insane way to run a business, so every day I wake up seeking new ways to create revenue streams, so I can support this unsustainable business model.
Our mission now is to be the ultimate Tipping Point company, a New Gen publishing house comprised of connectors, mavens (information specialists), and persuaders who are here to help us create a dynamic, knowledge-based society of writers, artists, and multimedia professionals. Our wildly ambitious goal is to reinvent the role of literature by becoming a leading voice in the literary community.
Oops, I told you a lot.
Are you open to publishing a wide variety of writing styles, or is there a specific style/voice you are looking for?
I’m picky with voice, not so picky with style. I’m really open to all forms of storytelling narrative, linear and non-linear, traditional and inventive. In the end, it’s really about character development and dialogue (assuming there is some, which I prefer) and whether the voice rings true.
How do you discover new writers? Do you take recommendations from authors or contacts you are already friendly with, or do they tend to be blind submissions?
They tend to be blind submissions, though I certainly am not averse to finding authors through friends and acquaintances. Three Atticus authors (John Minichillo, Matt Mullins, and Jürgen Fauth) all came from the same literary circle at successive times. In fact, the writer Katrina Gray, the editor-in-chief of our weekly journal (Atticus Review), is married to John Minichillo, so apparently I’m partial to immensely talented writers who like to break bread, party, and breed together too.
What is the most common mistake that authors make when querying that, in turn, causes you to lose interest in their work? (i.e., perhaps the way they wrote the query letter, a manuscript that is less than polished, etc.)
I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to first impressions, so yes, if you misspell words (or my name, heaven forbid) in the cover letter, send in a sample of your writing with typos, or generally make one of us feel like we wouldn’t enjoy working with you because you have an ego the size of Moby Dick or the communication skills of a toad, then we probably are unlikely to give your work a fair shake.
My first line of defense—Assistant Editor Libby Kuzma—is even tougher to impress than me, so I suggest you get familiar with our catalogue before you send a query our way. I won’t deny that it grabs my attention when a submitting writer has read one of our titles and maybe even has something insightful to share about the work. I’m always flattered and then promptly dismayed by the number of writers who say we’re their first choice of press, but it’s clear to me that they’ve never even made the effort to pick up one of our books. You think that in this consumer age, they’d be a little more picky, you know?
Proofreading your stuff— not just spell checking it—before sending it to any editor anywhere should be a no-brainer. You are a professional writer, right?
A lot of writers submit to multiple presses at a time and are naturally anxious to hear your thoughts on their work. What is the protocol for an author to follow-up with a press about the status of their query? Is it appropriate to follow-up, or is this something that is off-putting?
I may be in the minority here because we’re still a relatively new press, but I don’t mind a polite follow-up after a couple of months, just to check in and reintroduce yourself, perhaps in an altogether different way than you did the first time. Although Atticus does have an awful deep backlog of ms submissions, I actually appreciate a courteous follow-up that reminds me of the author’s initial query, i.e., when it was submitted, and most importantly, why I should be thinking about your book before I go to bed. I keep qualifying my tolerance for follow-ups with adjectives like “polite” and “courteous” because I have rejected work out of hand (and, alas, without a proper evaluation) when an author has followed up in a manner that I considered rude and unprofessional.
I’m also a sucker for authors who offer shorts or excerpts for Atticus Review (AR) consideration because our goal is to acquire better and better previously unpublished work. As long as we’re having a conversation about the idea of a long-term commitment (novel or story collection), how about we consider a flash date or poetic evening together? AR is fast becoming a feeder program for the publishing house, so if your work gets accepted there, the reality is you’re more likely to be on our radar for the pursuit of a novel.
What do you take into consideration when you’re thinking of publishing an author’s book/novel/whatever? Is it the writing alone, or is it more than that?
It’s the whole package. I used to be naïve enough to think that I could sign an author for the quality of the writing alone, but unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury anymore. If a writer does not have a website, social media presence, marketing plan, and genuine desire to interact with readers (not just by awkwardly hand-selling his/her book but by actually engaging in online or in-person discussion), then Atticus probably is not a good fit. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the small literary presses should only support writers whose intuition for publicity is spot-on. Once an indie publisher has made the fatal mistake in believing that he somehow could overcome the author’s personal shortcomings, the sales reports often make it hard to forget.
Since so many authors are going the self-publishing route, why would an author go with you?
In our hole of an office in Kensington, we have a sign: “There are no rules here—we‘re trying to accomplish something.” – Thomas A. Edison
To use a more modern-day example, whenever I think about the long-term prospects of Atticus Books, I’m inspired by the Jim Collins book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
You either believe in what we’re trying to achieve as a hybrid publishing house/think tank/industry leader or you think we’re completely bat shit. If it’s the latter, I strongly suggest you go it alone unless of course you dig bat shit in which case that makes us kindred spirits.
Remember: A tandem leap of faith doesn’t always require both parties to hold hands, but when you’re “free falling out into nothing” (as that garage band lyricist Tom Petty writes), it sure does help to have an airborne partner who can point and tell you where the latch is for the parachute.
What can you do for them that they might not be able to do for themselves?
When push comes to shove, I am equipped to steady the plane midflight, escort you off, and pull the latch on your parachute to assure a safe landing so you can be home in time for dinner and dessert with loved ones. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not essential to your survival, but being surrounded by those who have had proper training (along with a strong, assuring touch of TLC) does come in handy when you’re publishing the Great American Novel for the first time.
How do you feel about self-publishing and where it is headed?
There’s room enough for everybody as long as book bloggers and media don’t start confusing self-published authors with small, independent presses. You’re either a supremely confident writer who has a strong platform and doesn’t need a publishing house to support your objectives or you’re a confident writer who has a strong platform and appreciates the collective strength and subtle differences that a publishing house can bring. Your career does not depend on a publishing partner, but your integrity and self-worth may benefit from engaging with a professional outfit that understands both your strengths and weaknesses.
And lastly, if you could publish any author in history (dead or still alive) who would you publish and why?
I would publish the undiscovered second novel of Harper Lee. She would be the first female to publish a full-length manuscript with Atticus Books and the protagonist would be Scout, now an attorney like her father. She would be married to Boo Radley’s illegitimate son with whom she would have two boys named Dill and Jem. It would be our first bestseller and the only publication in which we could say we acquired the rights because of its enormous sales potential. Fortunately we could live with that decision because it too would change the world.