You might say it was a storybook beginning. Fifteen years ago, poet Sarah Gorham was an artist-in-residence for the state of Kentucky, harboring the dream of one day starting her own independent publishing house. It would be a risky venture, though – even in 1994, long before the advent of the Kindle and the veritable explosion of Internet news and communications. The printed word was suffering competition wrought by the comparatively older technologies of television and video games. Newspaper circulation was already in a steady decline, book sales had stagnated, and two years earlier, a national survey found that little over half of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. For her part, Gorham’s experience with the publishing world was limited to editorial work, and she was without the substantial financial resources required to start a literary press.
And then someone like a fairy godmother – in the form of an anonymous benefactor – appeared. With funding secured, Gorham, along with husband and fellow poet Jeffrey Skinner, began the work of creating a new independent publishing business entirely from scratch. The press would focus on what mainstream publishing houses most often overlooked – a stylistically diverse array of poetry, short fiction and literary nonfiction. Amazingly, the journey was blissfully problem-free. Oh, there were a few snags here and there – the application for nonprofit status was strangely denied upon its first submission, there were worries about hiring the right staff and doubts that the press would be taken seriously by reviewers. But all of these fears would prove to be unfounded.
Just two years later, in 1996, Gorham’s press, Sarabande Books, published its first book, a collection of short stories by Lee Martin, called “The Least You Need to Know.” The book was a national success, even garnering a favorable review in the esteemed New York Times Book Review. Sarabande would go on to publish three more books that year from its cozy office tucked away on Dundee Road in the Highlands.
Over a decade in which Americans continued to buy fewer books, read less fiction and even less poetry, Sarabande Books didn’t just manage to survive, but, in fact, thrived and flourished. Today, the imprint publishes an average of ten titles a year selected from some 4,000 submissions they receive each year. The bulk of these submissions are for two national contests Sarabande holds annually – the Kathryn A. Morton prize in poetry and the Mary McCarthy prize in short fiction – each offering a substantial cash award along with the publication of the winning manuscript.
In addition, Sarabande publishes one work each year that centers upon Kentucky or is authored by a resident or native of the state, as part of the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature. The wife of famed Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Linda is a noted author and Louisville native. The most recent title in the series is “Black Sabbatical,” a collection of poems by Brett Eugene Ralph, a longtime Louisville resident who now resides in Empire, Kentucky, and teaches at Hopkinsville Community College.
The name Sarabande, besides gracefully incorporating its founder’s first name, signifies an attempt to equal, in the quality of writing it publishes, the qualities of the sarabande dance – “stylistic sophistication with a wild underside.” Brett Ralph seems the perfect embodiment of those attributes: a punk rock musician who is also a practicing Tibetan Buddhist; a college professor who plays in his alt-country ensemble, Kentucky Chrome Review, on the weekends; a Southern poet and lover of the colloquial who has also taught at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in the Himalayas of northern India.
Ralph will be reading selections from “Black Sabbatical” at Sarabande’s 15th Anniversary Reading, September 26, at the Green Building on Market Street, before continuing his national tour promoting the new collection of poems. The Sarabande marketing team worked tirelessly to secure readings for Ralph across the country, and the author thinks this is part of the reason for the Sarabande’s success. “That’s how – and why – Sarabande works so well,” says Ralph. “They simply love literature, and that love manifests itself in so many ways – from the handsome designs of the books to the passion for finding them an audience. Hell, I even got woken up one morning by an excited editor-in-chief who read to me over the phone my very first review.”
With that kind of passion for their work, it’s clear that Gorham and her staff at Sarabande Books live their ‘happily ever after’ every day.