When ailing poet David Budbill sought a publisher for what he knew could be his last works, he called up Dede Cummings, founder of Green Writers Press in Brattleboro. "He said, 'I have three books. I want you to publish all of them,'" recalls Cummings in a phone interview. "I said yes on the phone without even reading anything."
Working with Budbill to prepare his manuscripts for publication "was really an honor," Cummings says. "He was a very focused, organized man. He had everything all laid out."
On September 25, 2016, Budbill passed away. On December 12, GWP published his Broken Wing, a prose allegory about a mountain dweller who saves a wounded blackbird from the elements. Two more books will follow.
Why have respected authors with long publication records — such as Budbill and poet Leland Kinsey, who also died in September — entrusted their work to this 3-year-old publication house that Cummings freely admits has a tiny headquarters and "no staff"?
Perhaps they were enticed by positive press such as a 2015 Publishers Weekly article called "Green Writers Press Sprouts in Vermont." Or by evidence that the "green" in the company's name isn't merely ornamental. GWP's stated mission is "to incorporate and facilitate the gift of words to help foster a sustainable environment." Cummings has her books printed on Forest Stewardship Council-approved paper and gives a percentage of profits to climate-focused nonprofit 350.org. Even more importantly, perhaps, the longtime book designer and fledgling publisher curates her list — which includes fiction, nonfiction, poetry and even kids' picture books — with an eye to coherence. On the surface, Budbill's blackbird allegory might not seem to have much in common with fellow recent GWP release Chicago Heat and Other Stories, by California author Clarence Major. But, like Budbill, Major — a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1999 — approached Cummings because he liked the company's mission, she relates.
Such works are unified, Cummings suggests, by their themes of empathy, sustainability and social justice expressed in a strong literary voice. "In terms of the election outcome," she says, "I feel like we all need to work together even more, to make our voices heard."
And GWP is certainly working. Since its founding in 2013, the press has published works by 45 authors, garnering prizes and partnerships with local organizations such as Sundog Poetry Center along the way. With a slew of Vermont authors on its list and novelist Howard Frank Mosher on its advisory board, GWP has become a linchpin of the local literary scene. It puts out an annual print journal called the Hopper and hosts weekly Book Lounge events at Brattleboro music venue the Lounge. This March, the company will colead a trip to Cuba for "environmental writing and adventure."
With all this activity, GWP is "growing almost too fast," says Cummings, for a business that she gaily describes as a labor of love. "I hate to keep saying that I don't have any money," she says. "But it's true! I really haven't made a dime." (GWP is registered as an L3C, or "low-profit.")
Cummings still works a day job — designing books and, occasionally, agenting them — and runs GWP from a tiny shared office space. She describes herself as "founder, director, designer, managing editor, paginator." The editors on her roster are freelancers, ranging from Rosanne Alexandre-Leach, who directs GWP's children's program and draws royalty income; to Mosher, who is editing a posthumous collection of Kinsey's poems gratis.
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Zachary P. Stephens
In a departure from the standard trade-publishing model, authors whose work Cummings selects for publication may be asked to pay for the services of those or other editors. "I don't like the term 'hybrid press,'" she says — referring to an increasingly common business model in which authors pay a publisher up front for its services. "They're not paying us to publish. We're an acquisitions press" — that is, a selective one. (GWP gets a couple of hundred submissions per year, Cummings says, including the occasional manuscript from a literary agent.)
"We ask the author to get the manuscript ready for us," she explains. "We do an assessment." Then she suggests an editor, with whom the author can "negotiate a very reasonable estimate."
For instance, Cummings loved a memoir submission from Irene Skyriver, a Native American author and activist from the Pacific Northwest, whom she describes as "such a badass." The manuscript needed revision, though, so Skyriver "found an editor in her area who volunteered to work on her book," Cummings says.
In a phone interview, Elder says Cummings approached him after reading his essays about learning to play the Irish flute in retirement, which he'd posted online. "It's been very informal," he says of the process. Elder transformed his essays into a book with Alexandre-Leach's help. "I was delighted for the chance to develop it in this way with editors who were really encouraging and also wanted to prod me to do more," he says.
He didn't pay for those editorial services, Elder attests, "nor did I get an advance." Cummings, he notes, "designed the book, and it's beautiful."
Indeed, says Cummings, once the manuscript is in shape, "What I bring to the table is a complete book-design package." She also brings the services of distributor Midpoint Trade Books. That means authors get a smaller share of net profits — Midpoint takes 25 percent; authors split the remainder 50-50 with GWP — but there is a greater likelihood that their books will be sold in stores.
GWP does both print-on-demand and offset printing, with some of the latter done at Springfield Printing Corp. As for promotion, "We share the work of marketing and publicity," says Cummings, who likes to have monthly phone meetings with authors. She assures them they don't have to "pound the pavement" if they don't want to, but "I don't want anyone to think they're going to have a publicity team," she clarifies. "We're not a big operation."
One thing she's learned, Cummings says, is that the year between acquisition and publication is the "most important time to get the word out about the book." Another is that libraries account for almost 50 percent of GWP's sales. That observation has led Cummings to do a little pavement pounding of her own: Last year, she attended the American Library Association Annual Conference.
"If I had a wish list," she says, "it would be that I had a full-time staff to deal with marketing and outreach."
Cummings started her career in New York, typesetting and designing for publishers such as Little, Brown, then moved up to Brattleboro to work at Irving Perkins Associates, a now-closed book-design company. She remembers the days when Bratt was also the home of the Book Press, a then-prominent printer for New York houses.
Today, perhaps, the town is quieter, but GWP is making some noise. "Dede is so enthusiastic," says Elder, who has known Cummings "on and off" for years. "She's so excited about the books ... It's been fun working with her."
The publisher, who recently turned 60 and has authored seven published nonfiction books, just crossed off an item on her personal wish list. In April, her first poetry collection will be released by Homebound Publications of Connecticut.
"Poetry is something I've done since I was 13," Cummings says. "I feel like, Finally, you know?" Her lesson to aspiring writers: "Never give up."
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.