Dorothy, a publishing project (successful, experimental)

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Each fall, Dorothy, a Publishing Project, the independent feminist press run by Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker and based in St. Louis, publishes just two books. They are mostly thin, mostly experimental volumes, many of which have been translated, all but one, by the French author Antoine Volodine, written under the female heteronym Manuela Draeger – by women. It’s an impeccably curated list: 24 books so far, with two more in the works in October: Some of them will carry me by Giada Scodelaro and A horse at night by Amina Cain.

This year is a bit of an aberration for the press in that, for the first time, it will publish four books, two of which came out last month: Revenge of the scapegoatby American writer Caren Beilin, and New and Selected Stories, by Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza and translated by Sarah Booker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias and Alex Ross. These two titles, which both received the spotlight TP reviews, took place from 2021, another outlier year for the press – a year in which Dorothy published no books. Dutton and Riker were waiting for a new distribution deal to go into effect; As of February 1 of this year, Dorothy’s titles are distributed and sold by New York Review Books’ distributor, Penguin Random House Publisher Services, and will appear in the NYRB catalog.

“The move to NYRB has been as great as expected,” Riker said. “Dorothy has always had an affinity with their list – we share two authors in common: Barbara Comyns and Leonora Carrington – but it turns out that Danielle and I really like the people there too. The biggest tangible benefit is that our books are getting into more stores and reaching more readers of different types. That’s of course very exciting. But there are also less tangible things. With such a crazy industry at the moment – I’m thinking in particular of paper shortages and printing delays, but I guess you could “insert issue X” – it certainly benefited us to have such a well-run, well-respected publishing house as a partner.

Dutton and Riker are married, both writers and professors at Washington University in St. Louis, and former employees of the Dalkey Archive (the legendary independent publisher, now an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing). They founded Dorothy, which received the Golden Colophon Award for Paradigm Independent Publishing from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in 2020, while living in Urbana, Illinois, in 2010 — the same year, Dutton noted, during the release of the first Vida Count, which maps the gender breakdown of contributors to major literary publications and book reviews. A coincidence, perhaps, but one that Dutton considered telling.

“In the year or two before Dorothy launched, it seemed to me that women didn’t feel their work was welcome in some places and they were just ignored in some places, in especially in areas of experimental literature,” she said. “I have total respect for Dalkey, but there was, in my opinion, a very male roster, and a lot of the submissions we saw coming in, with and without an agent, were overwhelmingly from men. “

The press was launched with Dutton as editor and Riker as publisher, roles they retain today. They are the only full-time staff, assisted primarily by two rotating editorial interns – Wash U MFA students who each work with the press for one academic year. The smallness of the press is deliberate, but not without challenges. Dorothy never has to publish a book she doesn’t really believe in as capital-L Literature and the press have helped shape the careers of a number of influential contemporary authors, including Renee Gladman (who won a Windham Campbell Award last year) and Nell Zink, and showcase the works of authors internationals as influential as Marguerite Duras, the aforementioned Rivera Garza (who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2020), and Nathalie Léger in front of an American translation audience.

Operational costs are low, with advances tending to be lower than average for the company, but authors earn more royalties. The press is not a nonprofit — “partly because I had to do all the nonprofit paperwork, and it’s a lot of paperwork,” Riker said. Despite an initial budget to lose money, “about $1,000 or $2,000 a year – and we could afford to do that because we had day jobs – in the first three years we were already earning the money, which was a surprise,” he added. “We planned for failure, but accidentally stumbled into success.”

Yet smallness is not without its challenges. For the past 11 years, every time someone has ordered a book from Dorothy’s website, Dutton has said, “I get the order, I file it, I send it to Marty, it goes to our sub. -ground and packs it, and we walk with our son for the post office. He remained super small and independent. We’ll see what happens when we add some kind of corporate structure to part of it.

The biggest expense for the press, Riker said, is reprinting — an expense Dorothy didn’t necessarily expect. “It comes with the decision to keep all the books still in print,” he explained. “I think I’m pretty good at planning this stuff, but weirdly enough, what I didn’t plan for was a successful backlist. We thought we’d make two books a year and we could manage our I didn’t factor in the idea that we would have to manage a backlist, and that would take a lot of time, so it actually took more work over the years.

That’s where NYRB comes in. The presses, Dutton and Riker said, are a great fit, not just because of their mutual literary bent, but even down to the design. The NYRB books, with their almost identical multicolored spines and wrappers, have become something of a collector’s item for literature lovers, and Dorothy’s books share some similarities. All Dorothy books have the same trim size, designed to sit next to each other on a book shelf; the press even directly sells each book on its backlist as part of a package on its website.

“They picked some really interesting books, discovered new writers, and showed a passion for mixing things: foreign literature, American literature, new literature and old literature, fiction and non-fiction and genre-fluid fiction, things that border on noir or science fiction,” said Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books. “The range of things they’ve done is remarkable, as is their commitment to certain authors.”

So far, Dutton said, Dorothy’s story has been one of “capitalist failure but utopian success” – a story that has seen its founders “give lots of love and attention two books a year. She hopes the new partnership with NYRB will not just maintain that success, but expand it.

“We’ve never been in a catalog, really, and we’ve never had real sales reps talking about our books,” Dutton said. “It sounds so corny, but I truly believe in each of the books we’ve published. I don’t consider the backlist a ‘comeback’. These are all books that are alive and still worth talking about, “We’re selling them, reading them, and teaching them. I’m really hopeful that more people will find them than they’ve had the chance so far.”

Dorothy, a Publishing Project editor Martin Riker (l.) and publisher Danielle Dutton, co-founders of the press.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 05/23/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Dorothy, a publishing project (successful, experimental)

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