By Lauren Garretson
This is the sixth in a series of blogs written by the editorial staff of the minnesota review interviewing editors and folks in publishing. We hope that these will shed some light on the industry and help you learn more about how, where, and why to submit your work.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Stephanie Andrea Allen, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of BLF Press, earlier this month. Stephanie is a native southerner and out Black lesbian writer, scholar and educator, as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of BLF Press. Created in 2014 in response to the various struggles marginalized women so often face in the publishing industry, BLF Press identifies itself as an independent Black feminist press dedicated to amplifying the work of women of color. Stephanie has also co-founded the Black Lesbian Literary Collective, which seeks to cultivate a supportive writing community for queer women of color.
Lauren Garretson (LG) What led you to start BLF Press?
Stephanie Andrea Allen (SAA): I started BLF Press when I was still in graduate school working on my dissertation. I had been researching Black lesbian writers for a few years, and I came to realize that the challenges that the women faced in regards to publishing still existed (lack of diversity in publishing; the [false] notion that lesbian literature was now “mainstream;” lack of access to agents, editors, and other publishing professionals; and more than anything, the notion that our stories were somehow unworthy or had no literary merit). I decided right then that I could do something about that. I was also inspired by Lisa C. Moore, Founder and Publisher at Redbone Press, as well as Barbara Smith, who co-founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press back in 1980 with her sister Beverly. Kitchen Table’s work changed my life, so I knew that the work of Black lesbian publishers and editors was integral to Black lesbian literary history. Still, I realized that there was great risk involved, so I spent a year researching the publishing industry and small presses and saving as much money as I could. My goal was to give us the best odds at survival, success even, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past five years.
(LG) How did you establish yourself in the publishing community? Was the goal always to start a press?
(SAA) I’m not sure what you mean by “establish myself.” We’re a small, independent press wholly owned and operated by a Black feminist, and a lesbian at that. I’m pretty much on the margins of publishing, but I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. However, if you are asking how we have survived for five years, it’s because I’ve tried to publish books that women like me want to read: books with excellent writing and compelling stories with Black women at the center. We market our books as best we can with our small budget, and we show up and participate in regional and national writing festivals and conferences. Just this year, I presented on our “success” at AWP, which definitely made me feel like I was a part of the larger publishing industry. Several of our titles have also been finalists for awards, including the Lambda Literary award for fiction. But do I feel established? Not quite. As I mentioned above, I started BLF Press on purpose because I saw a need for it. I always thought I’d own a bookstore, so the goal wasn’t always to start a press, but clearly life had something else in store for me.
(LG) BLF identifies as an independent Black feminist press–what does that mean, both in terms of the content you publish and as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief?
(SAA) It means that Black women writers are at the center of what we do, not at the margins. It means that I publish stories that other folks might consider too Black or too queer. As Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief, it means that I’m a gatekeeper and that I’m able to provide opportunities for Black women writers to be published that they might not otherwise have.
(LG) What qualities do you look for in a piece of writing? What makes a book riveting, both as a writer and publisher?
(SAA) More than anything, I look for beautiful writing and compelling storytelling; someone who understands their craft and is good at it. We mostly publish literary fiction, so I look for excellent, even exceptional quality writing. What makes a book riveting for me as a reader is a story that grabs me from start to finish. Literally a book that I don’t want to put down. As a publisher, I need to know that there are readers out there that might be interested in the title. While I didn’t start BLF Press to get rich, publishing is a business, and if I want to stay in this business, I have to sell books. Marketability is important.
(LG) What have been some of the challenges and rewards of being a Black lesbian professional in the industry?
(SAA) Great question. Probably the biggest challenge is the assumption that our stories aren’t universal and that folks don’t want to read Black lesbian literary fiction. Or that there can only be one Black lesbian writer on the A-list at a time. We’ve tokenized a couple of Black lesbian writers and to be honest, most folks don’t know anyone other than Audre Lorde. That’s changing, Nicole Dennis-Benn is a great example, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. This is more a publishing issue than anything else; it’s no secret that most editors and publishers are white folks who just aren’t that interested in our stories. Also, because BLF Press is tiny and located in the South, it’s hard to connect with other professionals in the industry. I feel like our work has been overlooked, and I want more visibility for my writers. They deserve it. One of the rewards has been discovering and working with so many brilliant writers. They make my heart sing.
(LG) Can you tell us a little bit about the Black Lesbian Literary Collective that you co-founded? Is there a relationship between BLF and the collective?
(SAA) Other than the fact that I’m a co-founder and director, there is no relationship to BLF Press. My co-director and I wanted to work on a project that was NOT connected to our respective publishing houses (at the time Lauren was manager at Resolute Publishing), and we really wanted to create a space for Black lesbian and queer women of color to be supported in improving their craft. We’d been working on the podcast for a couple of years already, and wanted to add other programming and formalize the relationship, thus the BLLC was born. Currently, we have the podcast, a review blog, a literary journal, and we just held our second writing retreat this month.
(LG) What is your submission/reading process like?
(SAA) Like many small presses and journals, we use Submittable to collect submissions. Generally, we’ll read through all of the submissions and if something strikes our fancy, we’ll do a second or third read and have a conversation about it. Of course as Editor-in-Chief I have the final say and if I don’t LOVE it, it’s not happening. I only publish one or two books per year, so I am VERY selective. We plan to do a little more than that soon, but right now I’m comfortable with our publishing schedule. I think we’ve been able to last this long because we haven’t grown too fast.
(LG) In what ways has your insider publishing knowledge changed your approach when you consider your own writing for submission?
(SAA) I love this question! More than anything, I’ve learned that not every publication is a good fit for my work, so I’ve learned to do much more research on them before I submit. So many people submit to BLF Press and it’s clear that they haven’t read our submissions guidelines, or even looked closely at the website. For example, I had a white guy who works at a very, very conservative university submit his manuscript. I was baffled, because his work did not align with our values or mission at all. Then I realized that he hadn’t read the guidelines, he just hit the submit button. Sometimes folks are rejected because the story isn’t what we’re looking for at that time, and sometimes they’re rejected because their work isn’t a good fit or the writing is bad. However, I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes folks are rejected because they just don’t read the directions. As writers, we should be better about that kind of thing. I mean, don’t we want folks to read our writing?
Do you have any advice for Black women looking to start their own publishing press or literary journal, or even just trying to “make it” as writers?
For those folks interested in starting their own press: Do your homework and learn as much as you can about the publishing industry. If you want to start a small press, first ask yourself if you’re in it for the long haul and what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. Most small presses are non-profits, (mine is not), so you need to be aware of the challenges that come with either model. For me, it meant saving for a year to get BLF Press started, and working really hard to keep us afloat when we were a fledgling press. As a writer, learn to perfect your craft. Read twice as much as you write, and never, ever, submit a manuscript that hasn’t been vetted by a respected writer friend or colleague. Also, join a writing group and find an accountability partner. These can be different people, and they have very different functions. One makes sure that you’re submitting your best work and the other makes sure that you’re writing regularly. Writing is hard work, but for some of us, it’s as necessary as the air we breathe. Treat it as such and respect the process.