English Professor’s Press Publishes Notable Book

Posted: June 26, 2000 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Hope J Smith

Wells College professor Bruce Bennett’s Navigating the Distance: New and Selected Poems recently was called one of the top 10 poetry books of 1999 by Booklist, the American Library Association’s publication. The book was published by Orchises Press, founded by Roger Lathbury, an associate professor in the English Department.

Bennett says that he’s very pleased to have received the recognition for his work and also for Orchises, “which has been publishing outstanding poetry for years and deserves such recognition.” In the current era of publishing powerhouses, it is notable when small-press books receive recognition. The editorial task of publishing books is itself a full-time job for a small staff, but Lathbury does it all on his own, sometimes spending up to 30 hours per week on it in addition to his teaching responsibilities.

Orchises publishes mostly poetry, the genre for which Lathbury started his publishing company. But he doesn’t limit himself. “When talent comes across your way, you’re supposed to publish it,” Lathbury remembers telling himself in the case of one book. He’s published memoirs and a few nonfiction books, but he never publishes new fiction–“it’s the quickest way to go broke”–because production costs are high and your chances of “hitting it” are much lower. To feed his desire to publish poetry, he publishes reprints of stories and novels whose copyright has run out, such as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Fromme and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “My niche is poetry,” he says of the press, and he does what he can to sustain his place.

Lathbury began Orchises Press in 1983 with only $3,000, publishing works of professors from George Mason–among them Robert Nadeau and Peter Klappert, both in the English Department. He has since branched out and receives between 400 and 500 unsolicited manuscripts a year. Orchises makes money now, though in part it is because Lathbury has few overhead costs: he doesn’t pay himself anything and stores copies of the books in his own house so he doesn’t have to pay storage costs. Even so, he notes that it doesn’t take much money to begin your own publishing company.

In September, Lathbury will speak as part of a panel on small-press publishing at George Mason’s literary festival, Fall for the Book. He says the benefit of small presses is their willingness to take more risks. “Big presses can’t afford to take the kinds of risks that we can because they’re always looking at the bottom line.” When you’re in it for the love of books, he says, you’re more willing to publish something because you believe it has merit.

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