Mark Cull and I both came from the woods: tent camping, car sleeping and little to entertain us besides life inside books. We also both became writers, the kind interested in helping others tell their stories even as we wrote our own.
In short, we were born to be indie publishers.
Red Hen Press began with a dream of stories. I was 30 when I met Mark, and I’d spent exactly half my life in a cult. I was still working through that, and I was interested in how you can become a hero in your own story. We started looking for brave and exciting writers whose stories were outside the New York world.
The stories we wanted to find were about sky, clouds, hiking and open spaces; test sites and military bases; guys that work on cars and women with no teeth and curlers in their hair in case they go out later; all of us eating the dark that is America—not the metaphorical death of people shutting up their summer house in Martha’s Vineyard.
This year, we are celebrating 25 years of independent and diverse publishing.
Red Hen started off as a poetry press, and we quickly established a name for ourselves in the poetry community. We were Chris Abani’s first American publisher, producing three books with him. We’ve also published three books with Percival Everett, two with Camille Dungy and two with Douglas Kearney. When we started publishing prose a few short years later, the literary agents came calling; around this time, big novels by women also began to sell not just in the U.S. but at foreign book fairs. We were part of this trend, selling Karen Shoemaker’s The Meaning of Names for Chinese translation at the Beijing Book Fair and Amy Hassinger’s After the Dam for French translation at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Today, we publish twenty-five titles and award $10,000 in prizes each year—including books released through our eight imprints and series, like Letras Latinas for Latinx poets and the Quill Prose Award for queer prose writers. And we still fall in love with books all the time. I read a lot of manuscripts on planes, and I still have that scream of love that makes me call the office as I disembark. You guys have to read this! We have to take it. It’s such a great story.
That’s how I felt when I first read Erica Jong’s newest poetry collection, The World Began with Yes; although she’s best known for Fear of Flying, Jong always says she is a poet first, and we knew we needed to be a part of her return to the form. It’s how I felt when I read Rachel Cline’s book, The Question Authority, which comes out this spring—a fascinating #MeToo novel about the leaves of memory, what remains at the bottom of the pond, what we dredge up and why.
Independent nonprofit publishing isn’t about money. For much of Red Hen’s life, both Mark and I worked other jobs to support our publishing habit and did the publishing work for the love of story. While the press continues to be a love project, it’s also still a nonprofit business. We have been fortunate enough to have gone from a desk at the back of a garage to a seven-thousand-square-foot literary center in Pasadena since 1994, but I still do work for our authors during every weekend, evening and vacation.
But I feel fortunate to do this work. Books were my first escape—now, the bookcases in our offices are filled with hundreds we’ve published. We look forward to the next 25 years. We look forward to watching our programs—like our awards and series for underrepresented authors, our multidisciplinary arts events at our space and our creative writing workshops for underprivileged youth—continue to grow. We look forward to finding and falling in love with more stories.
Ray Bradbury once said: “Create a life that, when you look back, you see behind you creative accomplishments like a long line of blue hills.” Mark’s and my blue hills are the books we’ve been lucky enough to find time to write ourselves. Each of our writers is creating their own line of hills, too, and it is a thrill to look those bookcases and know we’ve made those authors’ dreams come true and brought their voices to the world.
What has made us thrive is the people who gather with us in the clearing and believe in the story; the people who stand with us as we spread out the paper, gather the binding, make the book and, finally, read the story together.
The Little Red Hen had to do it all herself, but we are not alone.