Interview With Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books

I didn’t have as much time to prepare for the Celebration of Indie & Small Presses as I had hoped, but I did manage to snag another interview.  This time, we’re going to hear from Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books, which has a large focus on literary fiction.

Some of their books have been reviewed here on the blog, including (click links for my reviews) Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye, Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel, The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa, and many others.

1. Unbridled Books is a renewal of your partnership with Greg Michalson, and you both seem dedicated to the promotion of good literary fiction in a time dominated by reality TV and pop culture. Has this environment made it more difficult to get readers’ attention or how have you navigated the obstacles it has presented?

The obstacles to what we do are wider than the reality TV and pop culture aspects. They include the loss of mainstream review coverage for independent presses, the shrinking shelf space for all but celebrity books, and, of course, the economy as a whole. But we publish with conviction, Greg and I. The conviction that carries us is that—in a world in which the Big Houses are forced by fiscal pressures to focus on the Big Book—a great many readers will find reward in novels and nonfiction that engage them. We believe in books that lie outside of formulas and high concepts. The novels that most excite us are tales that we connect with emotionally and intellectually. That connection, and the conviction that other readers feel the same, can carry an editor through lean times. We’ve reached a point here where we truly need serious review attention and lively word of mouth, but I can feel the growing hunger of the culture for the kinds of unfamiliar stories that our authors weave. It is a difficult time for us as for all small presses, but with some good fortune, we’ll weather it.

2. What inspired you to enter independent publishing and what characteristics do you look for in your authors and staff that make the model worth while?

In the 1990s—after a long run of teaching and freelance editing, among other things—I was directing a tiny press called MacMurray & Beck, which had a fairly eclectic non-fiction list. Soon after my arrival there, the opportunity arose to publish fiction and I leapt at it. I asked Greg, whom I’d long known, to join the effort. The successes we had early on encouraged us to devote as much of our efforts to good fiction as we could. The authors we have chosen to publish over these many years are authors we are proud to publish. The books in our list are truly varied, but each one takes us somewhere we’ve never been. Many of them are downright beautiful. All, I think, are in one way or another eye-opening. And each one tells a story we haven’t heard before. We try to indicate all this to readers by giving our books the best designs—and long marketing efforts—which we believe are the trace of our enthusiasm for the authors and the books.

Here at Unbridled, we are de-centralized; that is, our employees are all over the country, and beyond. And we have an extraordinary staff of dedicated people who take these books personally. Greg and I often say that our egos are behind every book we publish. It’s clear to me that our team feels the same way.

I should say, too, that Greg and I, along with Caitlin Hamilton Summie, had a stint at Putnam which ended when Phyllis Grann left. What we learned there is that the richness of the books we are dedicated to is better served in an independent context. Working in an independent house, we can afford the patience, not only to support a book for a year and more, but to support an author—like Rick Collignon, Timothy Schaffert, Emily St. John Mandel, Frederick Reuss, Masha Hamilton—over many books in their careers. Our goal is to work with the best authors while they are finding their readers, while their readers are finding them. In this world, that’s easier to do independently.

3. At just about 8 years old, Unbridled Books has published a number of well-loved author debut novels, like Peter Geye’s Safe From the Sea, and others. What goes into the selection process and about how many of the manuscripts you receive are selected for publication? How is this process different from when you both were at Putnam? How is it the same?

As I imagine you suspect, we publish a tiny fraction of what we receive. Greg and I go through hundreds and hundreds of submissions each year. We publish only 10 or so. The process is discussion. Each of us can bring a manuscript into the discussion, and our analyzing what makes the manuscript work, whether it needs to be revised and how, whether it is a match for our profile and our future—that discussion—often goes on for hours, sometimes in more than one session over several days. We publish only what we truly believe in, what we believe is fresh and strong, with a full voice and a rich sense of place. Greg and I began our discussion of what makes a novel successful in the late-1970s; our editorial discussions are an extension of that. And they were exactly the same when we were at BlueHen/Putnam.

4. Relationships with booksellers must be key for an Indie/small press’ survival among large NYC publishing houses and big box stores. Is this relationship reciprocal and how so?

We have always said that independent booksellers are our natural allies. It is difficult for us to generate a situation where the potential readers of Unbridled books will enter a store looking for our frontlist. And so we need to have dedicated booksellers who are genuinely curating their stores to champion our books. We send many ARCs to those booksellers—and we try to know them personally so that we can sense what in our list each of them might be drawn to. We don’t want to bombard them indiscriminately.

We remain convinced that folks who read our books will recommend them: readers to readers, booksellers to their customers. When booksellers are drawn to one of our books, that’s where the seeds of our success settle. This was the case, for instance, with The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson, In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld, and Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel. The booksellers championed each of these. As I said, we hope to publish our authors’ full careers. If the booksellers can support our authors with enthusiastic hand-selling, we will bring more books by those authors. It’s an old-fashioned concept that damping forces like BookScan threaten to make obsolete, but we believe that with bookseller support and the good attention of reviewers, an author’s audience can grow.

5. Many of the Unbridled Books I’ve read seem to have poetic elements to the prose. Is this intentional? Have you thought about expanding beyond fiction into publishing poetry?

I appreciate the compliment. We’re trying to expand our non-fiction list these days; I don’t think we have room to step into poetry, though both Greg and I are poetry readers. I think that what you’re responding to is the imagistic nature of the writing. We do love work that enables us to see as well as to feel. I’m drawn to precise language, too. And it seems to me that the characters in a novel are richest when the authors can see them move through a tactile world. I think that our authors are some of the most gifted writers at work today.

6. What advice would you give to amateur writers shopping around their first novel, particularly about approaching a small/indie press? Would this advice differ from the advice you would give them if they were looking into larger publishers?

Well, what one writes, in this rapidly changing publishing world, will likely dictate where the book will land. The Big House needs the Big Book; this is a matter of economics. (And it’s why one needs an agent to enter the lists of the conglomerate publishers.) But the country is full of independent presses, each of which has an editorial profile and, likely, a loyal market—folks who are looking for their next catalog. We publish micro-histories, memoirs, and what I call commercial literature. By this I mean well-turned works with a wide appeal. My advice to authors who choose to address traditional publishing (as opposed to self-publishing) is to match their work with a house that handles such work. Sending Unbridled a fantasy novel won’t be productive.

7. Unbridled Books and other small presses seemed focused on creating a community of readers and writers through their relationships and connections. Name some of the benefits of these symbiotic relationships and some of the drawbacks, especially when it comes to editing manuscripts or selecting book covers and marketing strategies.

As mainstream review inches and bookshelf space (particularly at the chains) have grown harder to secure for small presses, many of us have found great value in social media relations. This is not to say that we’re only talking to folks online; we call when we can (worried about overburdening our friends), and we attend as many trade shows and other gatherings as we can. All of this is, as you say, to create a community of readers—websites will be salons…. I believe Richard Eoin Nash’s Cursor will actually engage readers in the process by asking them to enter the discussion while a manuscript is being written. We don’t go that far, but our relationships with readers and booksellers are absolutely essential to our future as a publisher. As we develop marketing strategies for an individual title, we ask for early reactions from readers groups. We try to understand what books are the best match for the members of readers organizations. Each book we publish has a constituency, and knowing where those readers are is a tremendous marketing asset. And, as those ARCs go out, we quickly learn which covers are successful and which are not. Is there a drawback to any of that? I don’t think so. The reading world changes weekly; the stronger our relationships with a book-loving community, the better we can respond to those changes.

Thanks, Fred, for answering my questions about Unbridled Books and for participating in the celebration!