There are interesting unities between philanthropy and art-making, particularly when art is produced and presented in non-traditional ways. Both require out-of-the-box approach to commerce, an eschewing of financial norms. In Art and Philanthropy, we’ll look at those projects that merge artistic with philanthropic vision – creative, innovative, altruistic.
Sumanth Prabhaker, publisher of the Brookline-based Madras Press, has a demonstrated affection for novellas and long short stories (being himself a writer, and now a publisher, of them). Noting most such fiction is too long for most magazines and journals yet too short for trade publishers, he decided to celebrate and accentuate the form, publishing stories and novellas as stand-alone volumes.
They’re lovely books – slender paperbacks about the width of an open hand, with cover art, such as the above painting by Jenny Downing, selected by the writers. The first series of authors – lauded short story writer and novelist Aimee Bender, Trinie Dalton, Rebecca Lee, and Sumanth himself – comprise a range of sensibilities whose primary link is an elusiveness to quick categorization. How is it Madras can afford to publish such singular, idiosyncratic books?
The key is that Madras focuses on social, rather than financial, profit. All artists – including the published writers and the visual artists providing cover art – donate their work. All net proceeds generated by the sale of the books will go to a charitable nonprofit of the author’s choosing. To keep costs low, Sumanth is distributing books directly to independent bookstores, including Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith in the Boston area, and RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH, and selling them from the press’s website.
Madras is about to publish its first series of books (December 1), but you can get a sneak peak at a reading by Aimee Bender at Brookline Booksmith this Saturday, November 14, 7 PM. We asked Sumanth about his altruistic approach to publishing, and how interested writers can get involved.
ArtSake: In an interview for The Bostonist, you mentioned that the “not very marketable” length of your own novellas (too long for literary magazines, too short for trade publishers) got you thinking about a different model for publishing long stories. Have you found a strong response to your model in the writing community?
Sumanth: A lot of people have said some very nice things about us. At the same time, I’ve been interested to learn how many people see this as an obscure project – certainly not meant in a negative way, I don’t think, but it’s interesting to see how surprised people are at the abundance of these in-between stories. Agents discourage writers from pitching short stories, because they say that editors don’t buy them; editors don’t buy short stories because marketing people tell them they don’t sell; and all the market research shows that less-than-novel-length stories actually don’t sell very well. There are a number of different reasons why these stories don’t sell, but I don’t think any of them have to do with the actual stories. It’s equally frustrating to see writers who look at this trend as reason to avoid certain genres or forms, as it is exciting to see writers who don’t care about any of this stuff.
ArtSake: How did you decide to explore philanthropy as a central aspect to your publishing?
Sumanth: It makes sense to me, concerning my own stories; I didn’t write any of them with financial profit in mind, and I don’t like to think of them as commercial products. So we had to think of other ways to measure our success, outside of the marketplace. And without that burden of having to depend so much on sales for our survival, we were able to entertain some options that may not have otherwise been available to us, like giving the proceeds to charities. It seemed like a nice way to do things. Our authors get to choose the organizations to which the proceeds for each book are distributed, which I hope is a fun decision for them to make.
We still haven’t figured out the right model by which to assess our performance, however; there isn’t really a bottom line yet. Our authors contribute their stories at no profit, but our paper is heavy and costs a little more than average. Our production and editorial work is done on a volunteer basis, but our sticker prices are low. We’re saving money by distributing the books ourselves, but we’re spending more than most publishers on manufacturing by printing in smaller batches. It’s kind of confusing, at least to me, but I’m happy with the books, which is good enough for now.
ArtSake: I was impressed to see your initial list of authors, including Aimee Bender. Can you talk a little bit about how THE THIRD ELEVATOR and the other titles fit with your press?
Sumanth: For all three of the other titles in our first series (besides my own), we’ve just asked politely and hoped something would work out. There are so many reasons why Aimee Bender and Trinie Dalton and Rebecca Lee should have ignored us – we’re tiny, we don’t pay our authors, our books aren’t going to be in very many bookstores or on Amazon.com – but in each case I think they saw our project as an opportunity to publish these stories in a more appropriate format than they may have otherwise been given.
ArtSake: Do you see Massachusetts as a good place to be a writer? What about a publisher?
Sumanth: Probably yes to both, but I’m still new here, so I haven’t got any huge insights into the local culture. Most of the book production stuff could probably happen anywhere, as long as you have a computer and some free time. But what we’re working on now – publicity, reading events, etc. – is much easier here than I’d expected, having grown up in a suburb in the Midwest where Borders was our only bookstore. I remember planning a reading at that Borders when I was in college. They couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume on the overhead speakers down, because there was some kind of password protection, so we all had to yell our stories into the microphone or wait for the quiet parts of the songs.
ArtSake: What do writers interested in submitting work to Madras Press need to know?
Sumanth: We’re looking for singular stories, ones that function better when read on their own than as a part of something bigger. Our first series of titles is very representative of our taste, in terms of content, so that’s always a good place to start. We like images and textures and colors and interesting prose and lots of food. We like murder mysteries, too. 10,000 words is our minimum, just to fill out the paperback spine, and for now 25,000 words is our maximum, to keep manufacturing costs at a manageable level. Previously published stories could work, depending on the status of the previous publication – query before sending anything (firstname.lastname@example.org). And we prefer printed submissions; they can be mailed to:
P.O. Box 307
Brookline, MA 02446
Aimee Bender reads from The Third Elevator at Brookline Booksmith on Saturday, November 14, 7 PM. All net proceeds from sales of The Third Elevator will benefit InsideOUT Writers, an organization that teaches creative writing in juvenile detention centers.
Images: Cover art from Madras Press Series One titles (2009): BOBCAT by Rebecca Lee, from PRONGS courtesy of Jenny Downing; SWEET TOMB by Trinie Dalton, image courtesy of Matt Greene; A MERE PITTANCE by Sumanth Prabhaker, from SUN/SQUASH by Joan Snyder (2002), oil, acrylic, and herbs on wood panel, diptych, 18x36in; THE THIRD ELEVATOR by Aimee Bender, image courtesy of Aimee Bender.