Fishtown’s Im-press-ive Publisher
We’ve been told that print is dead. Newspapers are in a panic, periodicals flounder, and ebooks are touted as “the future” of reading. However, in a nondescript space on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, The Head and the Hand Press is challenging that notion with an innovative model for what a publishing house can be.
Nic Esposito founded the Press in 2012 after self-publishing his own book, Seeds of Discent, out of a desire to create an option for authors outside the publishing hubs of New York and San Francisco. Unlike many large companies in these cities, The Head and the Hand considers itself “a craft publisher interested in writing that has the power to change and entertain.” Editorial Director Linda Gallant describes the Press as “’Craft’ in the sense that we want our writers to be fully immersed in the process of publishing a book, from the early stages of editing the manuscript to decisions about the look and feel of the cover. We want our writers to recognize the book as fully his or her own at the end of our collaboration.”
With a focus on the “craft” of publishing and the community that exists around it, The Head and the Hand is made up of two main parts: the Press itself, which focuses on its publications, and the Workshop, which offers a space for local writers to work and attend classes or readings. To get some insight into the how and why behind this model, I posed a few questions to Esposito and Gallant:
CM: Tell me a bit about your most recent book, Afghan Post.
H&H: Afghan Post is something you don’t see much these days: an epistolary war memoir. Adrian [Bonenberger] has always been a fan of paper mail (actual envelopes and stamps and such) and this habit carried over from his days as an undergraduate English major at Yale to his two tours of service in Afghanistan. We thought it was interesting to see how his voice changed depending on the recipient of the letter (e.g., he would be much more candid about the level of danger he faced in letters to fellow soldiers who were also his friends while outright lying to his father and mother about the odds of his forward operating base (or FOB) being attacked by the Taliban. You can hear him beginning to crack under the strain of increasing responsibilities as he promoted to captain and is exposed to more and more violence. We as readers finish the book with the understanding that Adrian is about to suffer the long-term effects of PTSD.
CM: The Asteroid Belt Almanac is your second almanac, after the first installment in the series, The Rust Belt Almanac. What’s the inspiration behind the almanac series? Who/what is represented in them?
H&H: Nic wanted to publish beautifully crafted books, but he also wanted to continue to work with writers and great writing in between what can sometimes be an extremely lengthy publication process. He’s always been fascinated by the form of the almanac and with their most famous popularizer, Benjamin Franklin. We wanted to create a modern-day version of the form by paying homage to Franklin’s style of almanac – he understood that the books had the potential to both inform and entertain. Franklin and his wife, Deborah, couldn’t print Poor Richard’s Almanacs fast enough because his featured comedic verse, satirical essays, and, of course, a maxim-obsessed pseudonymous editor. We wanted to reinvigorate what used to be an incredibly popular form of creative expression here in Philly.
CM: Your CSP (or Community Supported Publishing) program draws inspiration from CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, where individuals pledge to support local farms, sharing the risks and rewards. How did you decide to translate this model to the world of publishing?
H&H: Nic also has a background in farming and sees a strong correlation between that world and the world of publishing – both industries provide something people not only need, but that helps them to thrive. He’s worked with CSAs for a long time and thinks the model is not only translatable to books but that other publishing companies should consider this as another way to connect directly with readers. A harvest of fruits and vegetables becomes a literary “harvest” of novels, chapbooks, and maybe a few fun extras delivered to a supporter’s doorsteps twice a year.
CM: The Workshop is a unique addition to the usual publishing house model. Why add this arm of the press?
H&H: The Workshop is a place that is dedicated to creatives in need of a “third space” — not a home office/de-cluttered corner of the desk at your day job, not a cafe or other purely public space, but a place that is meant to be utilized specifically for creative output and to make connections with other artists and writers. We host classes and reading events here as well. One immense benefit of keeping the writers’ workshop attached to our offices is getting to know our writers and their writing so well that we continue to publish them in multiple forms. This is the 2nd time we’ve published Sarah Grey and Wint Huskey in our Almanacs series, for example, and we hope to see their amazing words pop up in our submissions queue when we start accepting work for the third installment, The Corn Belt Almanac.
CM: The Workshop recently received nonprofit designation. What does that mean for future programming and community involvement?
H&H: Because we are now a nonprofit, we are able to accept donations for workshop needs that run the gamut from basic upkeep to hosting reading events. We also hope to continue to host classes for our members and to make their involvement in our community as worthwhile as possible. We have a lot of smart, creative friends who have stepped up to teach on subjects ranging from scrivener to the art of calligraphy.
CM: Anything coming up at The Head and the Hand that you’d like to spread the word about?
H&H: We always have a lot going on, but we are particularly excited about our “Bigger Than a Breadbox” chapbook series. These are sold via our website and in the shop, but we also sell copies out of a specially designed countertop vending machine that currently resides at honeygrow on S. 16th St. in Center City. Nic’s cousin runs a vending machine company and they started chatting during a family wedding about how their respective businesses could somehow overlap. Nic said he’d seen books sold in machines before, and bam. The next thing you know we’re crafting our call for submissions and designing covers for the accepted pieces. We wanted to wait to reveal the “bigger than a breadbox” container in which the stories would be on display, hence the name of the series. People really seem to like the idea and we continue to accept stories for publication on a rolling basis. We hope to print and publish a new slate of eight stories this spring. Be on the lookout!
Caroline Mills is a recent graduate of Connecticut College, bibliophile, cartography nerd, and multi-instrumentalist. You can find her on Twitter @carolinemills.