CHARLOTTE—Over the past few weeks, we've been asking our facutly to stretch their imaginations by telling us what kind of press they'd launch if money were no object. Answers have ranged from the fantastic to the flippant.
But Amy Rogers, who will serve as a critiquer for the Critque Service, one of the most popular programs at Fall Conference, has "been there, done that." Her response to our prompt is somehow sadly familiar. But if you ever wondered what happened to Novello Press, which Amy helped found, she offers the skinny, below.
The NCWN 2018 Fall Conference runs November 2-4, at the Hilton Charlotte University Place. Registration is now open.
Amy Rogers is a writer and reporter for NPR station WFAE in Charlotte, where she is contributing editor for the online food magazine WFAEats: All Things Food and Culture. Her work has been featured on Foodnetwork.com, in Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing, and many other publications. She has authored and edited multiple books, including Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas. She was a founder and publisher of Novello Press, the groundbreaking literary publishing project that put into print more than 300 writers, many for the first time, along with luminaries such as Pat Conroy, Ron Rash, and Dori Sanders. As an editor, writing coach, and workshop presenter, Rogers has worked with hundreds of people to hone their skills and find satisfaction in their writing.
This year, NCWN has been celebrating publishers based in North Carolina, so we asked Amy to answer the following prompt:
"Congratulations! You've inherited a large fortune, on the condition that you use it to start your own publishing house. What kind of books are you going to publish?"
Here's what Amy said:
"It was like winning the lottery—in terms of publishing, that is. A few years back, a small group of writers in Charlotte had been grousing about the lack of opportunities. To our astonishment, a funder stepped up and basically wrote a blank check that gave us the resources to start publishing books of literary merit.
"The only admonition: 'Try not to lose too much money.' (We didn’t; more on that in a moment.)
"The funder was the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library, who allocated discretionary funds—thank you, overdue fines and fees!—to a new publication project. Named in tribute to the annual Novello Literary Festival, in 2000 Novello Press was born.
"Yes: It was a publishing company funded by a public library—and it was the first one ever.
"It was exhilarating and terrifying, like skydiving. We wanted to believe the parachute of excellence would open to prevent us from crashing and bursting into flames of failure. But that’s the thing about publishing: often, there’s no correlation between a book’s quality and its financial success.
"Then, in a stroke of stunning luck, we learned that publishers from New York to NC had turned down a first novel from a blue-collar poet and short-fiction writer who taught at a community college way off in the mountains. 'Too Southern,' they said. 'He’s unknown.'
"That writer was Ron Rash. So tiny Novello Press published One Foot In Eden, the first novel by the writer who would go on to garner countless awards and accolades, sell film rights to his books, and be published in the literary mecca of New York that originally rejected him.
"That success made the industry take note of the quirky, upstart Charlotte-based press. We got mentions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other outlets that small presses only dream of. Retailers happily stocked our books. Even Costco gave us space in their towering stacks.
"And the checks came in, some for a few dollars but plenty for amounts in the thousands.
"Releasing three or four books per year, the project grew. Best of all, we could routinely say yes to deserving writers who most often heard only no when they sought publication. One high-powered New York agent commended us for possessing 'a distinguished filter.'
"As the other co-founders moved on, I became the full-time editorial director. In anthologies, Novello Press put hundreds of writers into print, many first-timers alongside such Carolina literary luminaries as Pat Conroy, Josephine Humphreys, Dori Sanders, and North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductee Lee Smith. We published fiction and nonfiction and poetry and children’s books and essays and recipes and memoirs and history and journalism and criticism and, well, pretty much everything our resources allowed.
"Releasing new titles each year is a lot like building an addition to your house. You need to construct and decorate the new rooms, but you also need to manage the rooms already built. Having a robust 'backlist' along with new titles meant we’d need to start thinking about hiring more staff to handle the workload. Growth is challenging.
"It was a critical crossroads, but the timing turned out to be tragic. When the economic downturn hit, our funder’s own funding was slashed by millions of dollars. The library system had to lay off more than 100 staffers, eliminate programs, and reduce hours. Even essential services suffered devastating cuts. And Novello Press was mothballed.
"Lottery winners sometimes squander their fortunes on bad investments or foolish whims. Each of us likes to think we’d handle it better if we fell into a fat pile of cash, but we can’t know for sure. But this much is certain: In ten years’ time, Novello Press published 29 books. Those books sold close to 50,000 copies total. The authors of those books received honoraria for short works and royalties for longer ones. Maybe best of all, authors achieved the recognition that eludes most people who attempt the hard, solitary, and too-often thankless work of writing.
"That’s why I still believe in publishing. Despite this sluggish economy or that digital explosion or other gloom-and-doom scenarios, we still have among us a diehard band of rogues who keep writing, buying, publishing, and reading books. I'm betting we always will. And in some supremely important ways, that’s the best possible future—a far better one than any amount of money can buy."
The Critique Service provides writers with in-depth literary critique of fiction, nonfiction, play/screenplay, or poetry, by a seasoned writer or editor. Those who register will participate in a one-on-one, thirty-minute review session. Critiques are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fall Conference attracts hundreds of writers from around the country and provides a weekend full of activities that include lunch and dinner banquets with readings, keynotes, tracks in several genres, open mic sessions, and the opportunity for one-on-one manuscript critiques with editors or agents. Master Classes will be led by Judy Goldman (Creative Nonfiction), Maureen Ryan Griffin (Poetry), Randall Kenan (Fiction), who, as a 2018 inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, also will give the Keynote Address.
The nonprofit North Carolina Writers’ Network is the state’s oldest and largest literary arts services organization devoted to all writers, in all genres, at all stages of development. For additional information, visit www.ncwriters.org.