An Interview with Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press

Portland’s Forest Avenue Press has a unique community mission aimed at empowering authors and publishing page-turning literary fiction. Publisher Laura Stanfill serves on the PubWest Board of Directors and on the advisory board of Atelier26.

EB: How did Forest Avenue Press get started? And what have you learned in the last few years?

LS: I founded the press in 2012 to publish and promote Oregon writers, then opened to national submissions in 2014.

In the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about the industry and have dedicated myself to teaching and mentoring other publishers and writers through volunteer work, speaking gigs, and PubWest, where I serve on the board.

One of my biggest passion topics is distribution. How a press gets its books into the marketplace matters because of visibility and sales. Some distribution models are more effective and far-reaching than others. If authors go into a publishing contract truly understanding how their books will be sent into the world, they’ll be more effective advocates for their art.

I spent two years selling books out of the back of my car—and toting boxes to bookstores for consignment—before signing with Legato Publishers Group, an affiliate of distributor-heavyweight PGW, now owned by Ingram. We have sales conferences and reps that sell our books in across the U.S., which makes our marketing and publicity efforts even more crucial, because the risk is higher. But the potential reward is higher, too.

EB: Is Portland especially hospitable to independent publishers and writers?

LS: I don’t think I would have decided to start a press in another city. Portland’s literary community inspired me to build one more home for novelists, and its publishers made me believe that I could actually do it through their examples, advice, and encouragement. We celebrate each other, honor others’ accomplishments, connect and turn out in huge numbers for book events.

We also have incredibly dedicated booksellers who write excellent shelf talkers and hand-sell local titles to browsers. When I showed up as a new publisher, I found friends and allies in the indie bookstore world because I had been buying books and attending events for a decade. My mission with Forest Avenue was to urge in-person conversations about literature, so I created an events-based marketing plan that I still use today. My whole business model is centered on independent bookstores. I support bookstores; bookstores support our authors. It sounds obvious, but it’s important. Essential.

I should add that I just found out I’m a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Top 45 honoree; Rosanne Parry, a local author and Annie Bloom’s bookseller, nominated me for the award, which recognizes up-and-coming publishers. She took the time away from her own writing, bookselling, and family life to ask the panel to consider me. I’m so grateful. Moments like this continue to motivate me to do my part to uplift and amplify others in the literary community.

EB: Tell us a little about your background?

LS: My background is in community journalism; before transitioning to publishing, I was managing editor of a weekly on the Oregon coast, covering education and business beats and managing a five-person newsroom. I’ve won numerous journalism awards, including the Consumer Issues Reporting Award from the Oregon Department of Justice. I also worked in public relations and manuscript editing.

EB: Forest Avenue Press is also the home of the Main Street Writers Movement. What that?

LS: It’s a movement geared to encouraging writers to build community at the local level by supporting each other, their indie bookstores, and local presses and magazines. If we can create these invested hubs of community goodness, then the whole national literary ecosystem will become stronger. And touring writers will be able to activate Main Street communities in the places they travel.

It’s easy to join. Take the pledge—http://www.forestavenuepress.com/take-the-pledge—and then look around and see what you can do to genuinely support the authors in your community. We use #mainstreetwriters as our hashtag to help members find each other.

Being genuine is an important piece of this movement; if a friend’s book isn’t to your taste, don’t write a chirpy false review. You can still support your friend in genuine ways: show up at an event, share a link to an interview, or take a few photos to share on social media. I run a not-quite-monthly newsletter with links and information about community building, and signing the pledge will add you to that list.

EB: Many of your book seem to have a Portland connection, like City of Weird and A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred. What do you look for in a book?

LS: When we signed with Legato and went national with submissions, I knew I wanted to continue promoting Northwest writers, so our catalog is a blend of regional writers and national ones; we have books set in Portland, Seattle, and Alaska, but also the Philippines, New Orleans, and Delaware.

I have a committee help me choose titles when we’re open for submissions; we love literary language, page-turning plots, and diversity, and we’re also partial to magical realism. There’s often a joyous, ebullient quality to our titles, whether due to the playfulness of the language or the wild ride of the story itself. Our tagline is “Literary fiction on a joyride.”

EB: What do you look for in an author?

LS: I look for someone who has been actively building community, because it’s really hard to sell books by authors who are only invested in promoting their own work. Debut authors are a favorite, because so many of them have spent years honing their craft, and it’s a huge honor to launch an author’s first title.

I love working with authors who have a strong sense of their own craft and want to work together with our team to get the book to reach its full potential. That kind of collaborative spirit is essential.

EB: Let me ask about independent publishing more generally. How do you see the role of independent publishers like Forest Avenue in American book culture? What does the future hold?

LS: There are many amazing presses doing great work, putting out worthy titles that deserve a place on the shelf. I visited the giant Ingram warehouse in Tennessee last fall, and instead of panicking at the number of books, I left feeling ever-so-satisfied and a bit giddy. Publishers are making books, and readers are choosing them, and that allows us to make more books.

As far as the future of the industry, margins are tight in this business, and that’s a concern. So many people tell me, “I don’t have time to read,” because of busy lives and/or choosing other forms of entertainment. There’s a gap between the number of people out there hoping to find a publisher and the number of readers actually buying books. Writers have to be readers too for this system to succeed, for existing presses to flourish and for new ones to get a strong start. That’s really why I’m so invested in community building.

EB: What advice have you got for potential authors?

LS: Read widely. Show up on the local literary scene by attending events and buying books from indies. Checking titles out from the library—or requesting a title that isn’t in the system yet—are wonderful ways to support the publishers you hope may publish you. Build a brand and a social media presence, but not at the expense of the work. The work—the words—must come first. And when you have a book deal, and are making that leap from potential to actual product, find other writers with similar projects or pub dates, and befriend them. You’ll celebrate together and commiserate together, as needed. My authors Renee Macalino Rutledge and Michael Shou-Yung Shum are both in the ’17 Scribes, an international debut author collective that’s been doing impressive work promoting 2017 debut novels.

EB: Where can readers get your books?

LS: At independent bookstores across the country. If a backlist title isn’t in stock any more, you can ask a bookseller to order it. You can find them online as well, but we’re strongly commmitted to having our readers support their local indies.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LS: Thank you for the opportunity.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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