Tag Archives: small presses

Book Review: The Bowl with Gold Seams

This review originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2016.

I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.

I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.

THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.

“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.

In Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s gorgeous, quietly nuanced debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, it is time and experience that combine to mend that which has been broken in the main characters.

The novel’s basis is a brief footnote in World War II history. When they rolled into Berlin, the Americans captured Japan’s ambassador to Germany and his retinue as they attempted to flee. Close advisor to Hitler, Hiroshi Oshima was considered valuable bargaining collateral in negotiating for release of American POWs as the war in the Pacific dragged on. The entire captured embassy staff and their families were taken to the U.S. and interred at the already-historic Bedford Springs Hotel in tiny Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Campbell’s approach to relating this story is intriguing, with a long prologue and epilogue in the story’s present day that bookend the main story of young Hazel Miller, raised as a Quaker by her father in Bedford between the wars. He runs the town’s jail according to Quaker principles, instilling in Hazel the concept that “people can do bad things without being bad people.”

She and Neal Shaw find each other on the first day of school; after graduation, they marry just before he ships out for the Pacific. Almost immediately, he is listed as missing in action. When it’s announced that the ambassador and staff will be held at the hotel, Hazel decides to take a job there. She finds herself intrigued by the Harada family: Japanese Takeo, reserved, severe, and as beautiful as a marble sculpture; his statuesque, high-strung, and musically talented British wife Gwendolyn, and their lonely thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte who is trapped between two worlds.

With spare language and a clear-eyed approach to exploring difficult themes, Bowl packs an emotional punch. Characters are flawed and human, and the author avoids caricatures of virtue or villainy. The anger and suspicion of the locals at having the Japanese among them is palpable, and understandable given the still-active fighting and recent horrors of Bataan. Hazel starts out wondering how she will be able to tell these exotic-looking foreigners apart, but quickly learns to see and treat them as individuals.

In particular, she takes Charlotte under her wing, despite Takeo’s initial disapproval. He’s concerned that his daughter’s mixed heritage makes her stand out too much already, and wants to protect her from being “the nail that sticks out” and therefore “gets pounded back in.” But Hazel is drawn to Charlotte, the product of two warring parents who belong to two warring countries. Hazel comes to grasp the natural affinity between the Quaker and Asian philosophies of finding beauty in simplicity, and in using stillness and shared silence as a tool for divining a path forward.

In the prologue, Hazel and Charlotte are brought together again through Hazel’s position as the head of a Quaker school, just as the school is hit with a crisis that places Hazel at odds with the school’s board in discerning the best path for all concerned. She and Charlotte decide to visit Bedford Springs together and face their shared past, even as Hazel understands that she’ll need to confront the outcome of choices she has made.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is a reminder that first recognizing and then choosing the right path is a life-long effort that takes courage and a willingness to learn from earlier failures, to work actively to heal what is broken. The seams may show, but there is beauty in that, too.

Historical Gold from INDIEFAB!

indiefab-gold-imprintOn June 25 at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando, Foreword Reviews magazine announced the winners of the 2015 INDIEFAB Awards, which recognizes the best work in independent publishing. Up the Hill to Home, which was a finalist in both general and historical fiction, won the Gold in the historical fiction category.

“Foreword’s INDIEFAB judges are the key to our winners selection process, and, in our minds, the most foolproof way to choose award-winning books,” said Victoria Sutherland, publisher of Foreword Reviews. “We work with a librarian and bookseller in each category to provide us with an insider’s perspective on what would do well on consumer and library shelves. Using industry professionals confirms the trade quality of a book.”

Last May, the Foreword Reviews 2015 summer issue highlighted Up the Hill to Home in a feature article as one of eight debut novels to watch.

Direct Submissions: Traditional Publishing, No Agent Required

This blog post also appeared on the Indie Book Week blog on 27 May.

It’s hard to overstate the changes to the publishing landscape over the last decade. The doors to the gates that regulated who got published have effectively been blown off their hinges, and authors are now awash in possible avenues to get their work out into world.  For those trying to navigate their way through all the choices, the field seems to narrow to two primary options. On one end of the spectrum is self-publishing, where the author is in total control of the entire process, which can be both a joy and a nightmare. On the other end is the traditional two-step of finding an agent in order to find a publisher, in which even the first step can be a multi-year process. There is, however, a third, middle-ground, option, called direct submission.

In traditional publishing terms, direct submissions are often referred to as over the transom, when an author submits a manuscript directly to a publisher without an agent. These manuscripts end up on the publisher’s slush pile; if they are read at all, it is typically by the most junior staff with a few moments free. But there is a growing number of publishers—usually small publishers and university presses—that work primarily or even entirely through direct submissions. These presses expect to work with authors throughout the publishing process, and that close relationship is one of the best things about working with a small press that accepts direct submissions. Authors often have significant input into the design and layout of the cover and interior of their books, something that even big-name authors rarely get. Small presses are often willing to take chances on books that are outside of the mainstream. They aren’t expecting their books to be John Grisham or Stephen King blockbusters. It’s worth remembering, though, that Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October was a direct submission to the Naval Institute Press, which had never even published a novel before, and which still accepts direct submissions from authors at any time. It’s more typical for small presses to have open reading periods at set times of the year, in which authors can submit manuscripts by a certain date. Others hold contests in which the winner is published. Some publishers charge a reading fee for direct submissions, but that fee should be nominal; you are not paying them to publish your book. Literary Marketplace offers a list of direct submission small presses free to their registered users.

The downside of working with a small press that takes direct submissions is generally a lack of resources. A small publisher might help to develop a marketing plan, but the author will primarily or even solely be responsible for execution. Authors may need to find and pay for their own editing. Even at the big houses, though, it’s the new normal for authors to do a significant amount of their own marketing. As for editing, an increasingly scarce commodity, it is often the agents who do the lion’s share.

As an author, you can certainly do everything a small press would do for you, from cover design to distribution, and you could do it on your own timetable, but for a novice there’s a steep learning curve with lots of potential landmines. For me, direct submission was the right choice: it allowed me a lot of creative control and a relatively short publication timeline, while also producing a product that gets “credit” for being traditionally published, and giving me the peace of mind of knowing that I wasn’t in it alone.