by Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung: Turtle Point Press celebrates 30 years of independent publishing this year. The website describes founder Jonathan Rabinowitz’s commitment to publishing “forgotten literary fiction, as well as unique and eminently readable contemporary literary writers.” Tell us more about what distinguishes Turtle Point’s publishing mission and tastes.
Ruth Greenstein: Turtle Point Press has always been committed to combining superior literature with elegant and original book design. Our primary focus is to introduce readers to outstanding new work by contemporary writers from around the globe. When you consider the caliber of our authors and the nature of our publishing program, I think you’ll see that we’re a small press that reads large. In terms of literary tastes, Turtle Point Press has leaned toward a sophisticated and iconoclastic mix of authors, be they eccentric aesthetes like Britain’s Lord Berners; avant-garde stylists like Julien Gracq (who refused the Prix Goncourt); or bold and inspiring contemporary voices like Roger Rosenblatt, Diane Glancy, Michael Carroll, Katharine Coles, and Grace Schulman.
SC: Since you took over the reins as publisher in 2016, how has the press’s focus been maintained, and how has it changed?
RG: Our mission to publish exceptional literary work, beautifully designed and produced and meant to stand the test of time, has not changed. We are still dedicated to bringing bold and original literature to light. But we are also moving into new territory: we are launching a series celebrating women’s stories, called Joan Books, named after our perennially well-loved title Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words. We have also recently begun a series of tarot-style quotation decks, called Divining Poets™: A Quotable Deck from Turtle Point Press, which are boxed sets of 78 cards featuring inspiring lines by visionary poets. So far, we’ve published a Rumi deck and an Emily Dickinson deck. Our longtime house author, poet David Trinidad, is the series editor. We are also planning a revival of some of our popular and beloved backlist titles—books by James Schuyler, Julien Gracq, Hannah Green, and more—which are as representative of Turtle Point Press’s mission now as ever.
SC: Publishing independently for three decades is no small feat, especially over these particular decades. You’ve seen mammoth changes in the way books are acquired, edited, produced, marketed, and consumed. What have been some of the greatest challenges for Turtle Point? What are some examples of triumphs despite forces of technology and corporate economics?
RG: Fine independent publishing at the highest standards does not come quick or cheap. The enterprise must strike some as anachronistic in these digitally dominant times. It is not easy to find young people who have the patience and predilection for such meticulous work. There was a time when many publishers worried that ebooks would rival print books for sales. Yet we have seen that, on the contrary, readers continue to want physical books—and, in particular, well produced and designed books. Each book that we publish is a triumph over adversity. When a new book comes in and we see that the enormous labors of one of our writers, coupled with our own work and that of our printer, publicist, and distributor, have resulted in a worthy object, a carrier of knowledge, one that we can have and hold and share, we feel triumphant and more than gratified.
SC: Turtle Point’s catalog reads to me like a stack of books in a friend’s home library—a smart friend whom I don’t see often enough, who has deep literary interests and an eye for gems that are intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally satisfying. Another way of putting it is that these are quiet, alluring books I wish I’d known about before! Tell us about how you think about / work toward reaching “the right readership” for your titles.
RG: Well, thank you! I think you would also find some books that are fairly outspoken and challenging.
To start, I rely on a group of serious and trusted readers, first among them being Turtle Point’s founder, Jonathan Rabinowitz, whose tastes have oriented the press more than anyone’s. When I get a submission, I can usually tell pretty quickly if it’s something that may be of interest—and even more so, if it’s of high interest. The right works tend to pop out of the mix, based on the press’s focus, personal taste, the author’s background, subject areas, and so on. And if the work grabs my attention and the attention of our trusted readers, we can be confident that it will grab other readers’ attention, too. It’s a human-to-human interaction that takes place via the page. From there, word of mouth in its many forms takes over, from social media to traditional reviews to podcasts, blogs, ads, festivals and conferences, author readings. Most of our books have niche markets, and we gear our publicity and marketing efforts toward those markets.
SC: There is a wonderful affinity for hybridity and “crossing over” among TP titles—text & photography together in Herman Portocarero’s Havana without Makeup, prose collections by writers who primarily write poetry (Grace Schulman, Devin Johnston, Katharine Coles), female heroines depicted by male authors (Michael Mazza, Max Ewing, Bruce Kellner), a painter writing a novella (Susan Barnes); on and on. Tell us about this sensibility/ aesthetic interest.
RG: Good eye, Sonya! I’m so glad you noticed that. In fact, this “iconoclasm” (as our mutual friend Jeffrey Waxman puts it) is at the heart of who I am, who founder Jonathan Rabinowitz is, what we love and have often sought to acquire. I’m not sure what exactly I can tell you about this. I am drawn to interdisciplinary work: to performance art (which I wrote a thesis about as an undergraduate), to genres that defy easy definition, to intermingling, and to rule breaking.
SC: Turtle Point titles are beautifully designed. How do you approach design—specifically how do you balance the creative and the pragmatic?
RG: Readability is as essential to me as excellent design. And authors often have very specific ideas about how they want their books to look—both inside and out. The only way I can achieve results that satisfy our design goals, make our authors happy, and allow the book designer the creative freedom to produce outstanding work is through a collaborative partnership. We are fortunate to have Alban Fischer as our house designer. Alban, a poet, publisher, and editor himself, works with a handful of fine independent presses, and he is now handling our lists. At the start of a project, we have an easy, lively dialogue about how to develop covers and interiors, Alban looks at the manuscript and any ideas that the author and that we may have, and then works his magic. It’s a lot of fun, really.
SC: I was struck by the press announcement of your transition from editor to publisher in 2016—the word “acquired.” With a small press, it’s not so much a “promotion” as it is a decision, a commitment, and a vision. The idea of a woman “acquiring” a publishing house is exciting—not something we hear about every day. The announcement also declared, “Future projects will introduce more women writers and west-coast writers…” Tell us about what your becoming publisher entailed, how you decided to do it, and what it’s meant for Turtle Point to have a woman at the helm.
And are you still hands-on editing as much as you have in the past?
RG: Moving from an editorially focused role, both in-house and as a consultant who helped writers develop work and place it, to running a complex small business with an inventory and staff, has been a massive learning curve! When Jonathan “popped the question” back in December 2015 with the words, “Why don’t you ‘take’ the press?” I thought, “Sure! Sounds like a dream come true!” But I had no idea of what I was getting into. (So watch out for impulse buys, ladies!) I have given up quite a lot of freedom—most notably, the freedom to leave New York for any length of time—in order to run the press. And I have no regrets. The shift to publishing more women and now, to launching a women’s series, is the primary change since the press changed hands from Jonathan’s to mind.
I do love editing, it’s surely one of my main strengths in the business, and I wish I had more time to do the deep editorial work that I used to. But as a publisher, I’m busy with a thousand details of keeping the press running smoothly, so I can’t do as much of this as I used to.
SC: You and I were first introduced to each other by another champion of independent presses—the aforementioned indie-books guru Jeff Waxman—who also knew we were both interested in older writers and perplexed/frustrated by the literary world’s emphasis on “Under 30s” and “Under 40s.” What have you observed about this in your work and your own reading life?
RG: There’s an unparalleled thrill to discovering and working with younger writers who are gifted, perhaps wildly gifted, and are clearly on a path to success. Working with a young writer on a debut can be a kind of honeymoon. But when the work is exceptional and the author has “all the right stuff,” age is not the most important factor. What counts is passion, energy, originality. I find that older writers tend to have more to say—more wisdom, more that’s worth hearing and remembering. They are sure-footed, at their peak. They can also be a pain in the ass! It’s certainly a trade-off.
SC: What wisdom or advice do you have for book lovers and entrepreneurs working in niches and on a small scale?
RG: There’s a backlash against the behemoths. Take advantage of it. Find your audience and cultivate your audience. Start local and grow. Small is beautiful.
Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones and Long for This World. She is a staff writer for The Millions and founding editor of Bloom.
Photos of Ruth Greenstein and Jonathan Rabinowitz by Beowulf Sheehan.