Small Publishers Make Big Splash Print
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
November 2017

A new niche market focuses on local talent

TArtFeature_1he Miami Book Fair International, the annual eight-day literary bonanza that brings local, national, and international authors and throngs of book lovers together, opens on November 12.

When it began 33 years ago, it was a two-day event; since then it has grown in size and stature, and has become South Florida’s cultural ambassador to the rest of the world.

The popularity of the book fair has surprised even the region’s inhabitants. Who would have guessed that a relatively provincial tourist town had so many book lovers? But in fact, we have called an impressive list of writers our own for many decades. Just to name a few, we have Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, Edwidge Danticat, Les Standiford, Russell Banks, and Carl Hiaasen. And how about our poets, including Campbell McGrath and Richard Blanco, among others?

To keep that grassroots literary strain strong, South Florida has also developed an exciting group of small publishers in recent years, and you’ll see many of them during the book fair, represented at various programs and during the closing weekend’s Street Fair.

As a sampling of what is going on in the local world of small publishers, consider Jai-Alai Books, started by P. Scott Cunningham (who is also the founder of the O, Miami poetry festival) in 2015, with the purpose of creating a regional literary identity by publishing local writers from a variety of genres. Or Brett Sokol and Francesco Casale’s Letter16 Press, which restores and publishes historic photographs from Miami; Letter has released two glossy books that feature the black-and-white images of photojournalists Al Kaplan and Charles Hashim.

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Burrow Press concentrates on literary fiction and creative nonfiction from the area; it published 15 Views of Miami in 2014, with contributions from local writers. The book being released this year is an anthology of essays and short stories by current and former Floridians called We Can’t Help It If We’re From Florida: New Stories from a Sinking Peninsula.

Jessica (MJ) Fievre started Lominy Books in 2013 as an “accidental publisher” and literary teacher, just trying to get her Broward middle-school students to write. “The prospect of getting published sure turned their imagination loose,” she writes in an e-mail to the BT. “Students often brought me around with a stunning turn of phrase or detail that left me spinning. After a few months of obligatory pitfalls, I knew enough about the publishing industry for Lominy Books to release its first book -- a collection of touching, funny, and unforgettable stories and poems by young writers.”

Lominy, she says, specializes on the short form -- novellas, poems, and micro-fiction -- and on the Francophone world of South Florida and the Caribbean. Born in Haiti, Fievre started her writing career in Port-au-Prince, and Lominy initially focused on emerging writers from the Haitian diaspora. But eventually word got out, she says, and now contributors come from numerous French-speaking countries, although most are based here in South Florida.

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Fievre also has a soft spot for a long writerly tradition in Florida, the noir -- “particularly when they [the short noir stories] contain some elements of magical realism.” As editor of Lominy, she has published two French-language anthologies, Histoires étranges and Fais-moi peur.

“These stories stole my sleep -- they had me in a terrified yet excited fix. So unexpected are the plot twists that the reader has no way of foretelling who will rise, fall, or worse,” she says.

Lominy also features poetry. “Laura McDermott’s poems in Visions on Alligator Alley are built around a situation that seems bizarrely humorous at the outset, but ultimately revelatory and moving,” she says of one anthology. “As for Rebecca N. Carmant’s collection, Sunshine on Stormy Seas, almost every poem felt strangely familiar to me, but with an odd and often beautifully compelling twist.”

Fievre is program director for the ReadCaribbean series at this year’s book fair, with some events and readings in Creole and French, with English translations.

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Another writer and teacher, J.J. Colagrande, founded Jitney Books in 2016. As its name suggests, it concentrates on offbeat fiction and nonfiction that revolve around the jitney routes of urban Miami. Jitney also commissions street artists for the cover illustrations (so far, Jitney has launched four catalogues). According to its mission statement, the jitney costs “$1.50 to ride; there are no official stops, and one yells when it’s time to exit. The jitney is uniquely Miami and traverses the eclectic neighborhoods of Miami on its route. The intention of the press is to reflect the unique environment of South Florida, rife with vibrant art and culture.”

A native of New York, Colagrande moved to Miami when he was 17 in 1992, and became immersed in that emerging, vibrant Miami cultural scene (he is now a professor at Miami-Dade College). With Jitney, he sees an avenue for combining leading-edge writing and visual art.

“These dudes are my friends and very talented,” says Colagrande about the artists he chose to design the publication covers, such as Didi Contreras, Luis Berros, and Ahol Sniffs Glue. “There is a lot of synergy in adding Miami artists for the covers. Coming into this as a writer, I didn’t realize the importance of covers. I quickly learned the adage that people absolutely do judge a book by its cover -- and our covers are as good as many bigger houses.”

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As for the content, “We are looking for emerging and mid-career writers,” he says, and although he wants pieces that press against the boundaries, “if you’ve never published a story in a credible magazine or publication, you are probably not at the level we want to publish.” Jitney produces fiction and nonfiction -- no poetry, sorry.

Colagrande would like Jitney to grow into a media outlet, with literary blogs and interactive additions. But he wants to keep the attitude: “Sure, the jitney is a bumpy ride. It’s filled with unsuspecting turns and strange characters who can’t afford another route. And that’s fine. We like to say you’re either on the Jitney or you’re off the Jitney.”

 

The Miami Book Fair International runs November 12-19, with numerous ReadCaribbean events during the eight days. The Street Fair is November 17-19. All at downtown Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, NE 2nd Ave.; www.miamibookfair.com.

 

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