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Press 53 celebrates 10 years of publishing independence

by Steve Mitchell

Press 53, an independent press in Winston Salem founded by Kevin Watson, has published 160 titles, mostly short story and poetry collections, in its ten-year history. Just being around for ten years is a big accomplishment for an independent press. The idea to begin, however, was born out of desperation.

“When 9/11 occurred, I’d been working for an airline for many years and I’d returned to college; I was supporting my family while juggling both,” Watson said. “In the couple of years after, the airline halved its workforce and filed twice for bankruptcy. Everyone left had three or four times the workload they’d had before, even while they kept cutting our salaries. It was miserable work, a terrible environment, and I didn’t like myself much because I was so stressed.”

When he talks about it, Watson’s voice carries a mix of sadness and incredulity that he managed to stay on for so long. Then, he smiles.

“When they finally fired me, my wife Kathy said, ‘Thank God!’ “I was in a very dark, depressed place. Here I was, almost 50. I started thinking, what brought me joy? It was an act of survival,” Watson said. “I wanted a little beauty. I thought I’ve got to have something to hang on to that I care about. I want to leave something behind that matters.”

He’d graduated from Salem College by that time and had made contact with a number of writers. He’d even had a few freelance editing jobs and put together an anthology. He found that he loved reading manuscripts and assembling collections. He loved the writing and he loved the people. Coincidentally, a new technology, Print on Demand, was just becoming viable. It meant small publishers could order books as needed instead of having to pony up for the one or two thousand copies of a print run.

Press 53 became busy quickly, attracting manuscripts from around the country, as well as from established authors such as Pinckney Benedict and David Jauss. Each book is collaborative between author, publisher, and the international artists enlisted for the cover. It’s also become an important reprint press, publishing collected works by former poets laureate and endeavoring to keep the fascinating work of North Carolina author John Ehle in print.

Two years ago, the press opened submissions for the Press 53 Awards for Short Fiction and for Poetry. Each award offers a $1,000 prize and publication. “This is how we find most of our manuscripts these days,” Watson said. “Both years I’ve offered publication contracts not only to the winner but to a number of the runners-up.” This year the Short Fiction Award went to Elizabeth Gonzalez for her collection, “The Universal Physics of Escape,” while the Poetry Award went to Rebecca Foust for her collection, “Paradise Drive.”

“We are excited about sharing these stories with readers,” Watson said. “Ms. Gonzalez is a master of dialogue, an artist at creating vivid settings, and an encyclopedia of knowledge about the world surrounding her characters. These stories uncover truths that make the reading experience memorable and each story remarkable.”

As the fiction award winner, Gonzalez will receive a $1,000 advance and an expense-paid trip to Press 53 headquarters in Winston-Salem for a book launch-party Oct. 10 as part of Press 53’s 10th anniversary celebration at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.

Watson’s advice to writers: “Patience.”

You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression, so don’t rush your work out there. Forget about the book. Work on the story, the poem. Read the work of others, write, and submit to journals and magazines. Become a part of the writing community.”

“Before I was a publisher, I was a writer and I’m glad for many of the rejections I received,” Watson said. “Those editors were right. I’d be so embarrassed now if some of that work was out there. It wasn’t ready.”

“Writing is a craft. It has to be practiced. It takes every writer time to find themselves, their perspective, their voice. You have to be patient. And keep at it.”

(Editor’s Note: Steve Mitchell is a writer and is also co-owner of Scuppernong Books.) !

WANNA go?

Want to go? The Press 53 10th Anniversary Celebration will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10 at Scuppernong Books, located at 304 S. Elm St. in Downtown Greensboro. Visit scuppernongbooks.com for more information.

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