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Sad Girl House
Sad Girl House

Ten US presses that don’t play by the rules

Ten offbeat alt lit publishers from the US you need to know

It would be boring to start with “American indie publishing is having a moment” – it so obviously is. Far from heralding the end of literature, the Internet has created more opportunities for publishers to be, well, creative, and indie presses are free to take more risks in the writers they acquire, publicity, and production than their mainstream counterparts. A lot are still based in New York, sure, but that’s another thing: the range of voices coming out of presses both in America’s very possibly waning capital of culture and those completely unconcerned with the Big Apple showcases the breadth and depth of contemporary American literature in a way that would have scarcely been possible before instant cross-country communication became a way of life. Read on for our picks of the best indie presses in the States that do things a little differently. 


Their handmade books and online content (not handmade, but still produced with love and yeah!!!! enthusiasm, I’m sure) have always been, but it’s the future that’s particularly bright for these guys out of Tucson, Arizona: for one thing, they’ve begun releasing music, including an album on pink cassettes for alt lit writer Sam Pink’s “electro-dream-pop” band Young Family. And August will see the publication of their first art book, That’s Not Relevant: 72 full-color pages of art inspired by emoji, rap, and tattoos by Tucson-based indie rapper Isaiah Toothtaker.


Describing itself as “alternative,” “progressive,” and “new”, OR Books celebrates all that “indie” implies and pushes the boundaries of the symbiotic relationship between print and the Internet. Although they only publish one or two books a month, it’s with a fast turnaround in order to respond rigorously to the pace of today’s culture and current events, and their direct-to-customer business model is a radical, exciting response to Amazonian hegemony. All this strategy isn’t some elaborate philosophical attempt to obscure shoddy content, either; their formidable list of writers and books includes Julian Assange, the poet Eileen Myles’ mind-blowing Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), BOWIE by Simon Critchley, and Kevin Thomas’ funny, insightful collection of comic reviews of non-comic books.


Since launching in 2005, Seattle’s beloved and revered Wave Books has been printing poetry, translations, and writing by poets that sneaks up on you. This April saw them drop a slew of just-brilliant stuff: The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker is a (rightfully lauded) tight coil of rhetorical play and incisive philosophy, and other releases include Michael Earl Craig’s just-surreal-enough Talkativeness, Cedar Sigo’s energetic Language Arts, and Rodney Koeneke’s Etruria—which builds. 


They’re cool! They’re cool, they’re cool, they’re really cool. Not only did the Oregon press publish Roxane Gay’s first book, a short story collection about Haiti and the Haitian diaspora called Ayiti, but they also have a great series of short .pdf releases in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction available to download for free.


America can get self-satisfiedly self-contained if you let it; it’s big, doesn’t share borders with many other countries, and sometimes seems to operate on the assumption that it could get along just fine on its own. Other Press is the opposite; outward-looking and all about perspective, their debuts and translations of novels, short story and essay collections, and poetry shed light on alternative understandings of culture, history, politics, art, and psychology. 


Lots of critical figures on the alt and indie lit scenes are orbiting not Brooklyn but Atlanta, (new) home to the home of surprising, original writers like Melissa Broder and Spencer Madsen. Always a few steps ahead of mainstream publishing, the press has an active presence in all corners of the online literary community and is a particular champion of fiction and poetry that engages with what’s happening there. 


Publishers of one of Dazed’s fave indie books of 2014 — the richly unpackable but also totally self-explanatory The Grey Bird: thirteen emoji poems in translation by Carina Finn and Stephanie Berger—Coconut Books is a small poetry press (and great magazine) that proves you don’t have to sacrifice depth or “literary merit” to make sense to modern readers or promote a distinctly 21st-century aesthetic. 


Voicing a post-ironic emotionalism that manages simultaneous disaffection and #feels out of San Francisco is Jenn Olson, a formerly pseudonymic Thought Catalog writer who aims to integrate “the more queer, transgressive, and west coast stuff” into the alt and contemporary lit scene. Her small press just started accepting manuscript submissions and, despite a self-deprecatingly pessimistic social media presence focused on drugs and sadness à la Mira Gonzalez, seems excited and serious about bringing both full-length books and chapbooks into the world.


What started as a small poetry magazine in Minnesota in the 1970s has transformed into a big small press that doesn’t seem to compromise on anything. It’s become one of the most important names in both mainstream and indie contemporary literature by publishing writers like Ben Lerner, whose first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was a singular work of ficto-memoir with an incisive and introspective semi-misanthrope for a main character. 


Founded by the poet and social media presence Spencer Madsen—see above—the Brooklyn-based Sorry House debuted with Mira Gonzalez’s (semi-recently Miranda July-approved) i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, which ended up being an event and a half in the world of indie publishing. Although the book launched in 2013, the press only became what it calls a “legitimate business” this year, and since then it’s been generating more buzz that can only mean bigger (though likely still minimalist) things for its future.