Recently, several prominent writers have left jobs at national newspapers and magazines to go it alone on Substack or other email subscription services. In 2020, Matt Yglesias left Vox and Glenn Greenwald left the Intercept — both for Substack. That same year, Andrew Sullivan brought the Dish out of retirement and to Substack. Bari Weiss and Charlie Warzel left the New York Times and started a Substack in 2021. Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet, started a newsletter in 2021. Others who have written for a variety of publications — Matt Taibbi, Glenn Lourey, Jesse Singal, Erick Erickson, Freddie DeBoer, Roxanne Gay — have all made Substack their home. And the list goes on.
In the New Yorker, Cal Newport writes about the success of Substack, which seems to have confirmed Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” thesis that so-called “creatives” can make a living online if they’re able to get 1,000 devoted followers to pay for their work. To be successful, all you need is talent, a computer, a microphone, and a bit of press to build your audience (which is why the surest path to Substack success is to get a job at the New York Times and quit — the paper, obsessed with itself, will be sure to carry a note about your foolhardiness).
But the making of books — good books, at least — is different. It has always required a team. The rare successes in self-publishing are the exceptions that prove the rule. Few writers have the eye for design, the editor’s sense of obligation to the audience, the grammarian’s attention to detail, the administrator’s love of all things administrative and the salesman’s bravado needed to bring out books of quality. Writers may be able to do one or two of these things well, but never all.
Literary publishing may be in a sorry state, but there are a handful of (very) small independent publishers punching above their weight. Here are four of my favorites.
Biblioasis is a Canadian bookstore in Ontario that started publishing books in 2004 but has only recently come into its own. Five years ago, its fiction and nonfiction began getting shortlisted for Canadian literary awards. Its authors now include the short-story writers Cynthia Flood and Rebecca Rosenblum, poets Jason Guriel and Alexandra Oliver and novelists Randy Boyagoda and Patrick McCabe.
The books are beautifully designed and produced, but what I love most about Biblioasis is that it is willing to take risks. Jason Guriel’s Forgotten Work is a sci-fi thriller written in heroic couplets, and it is amazing. The latest novel from Patrick McCabe, whose The Butcher Boy (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998) were both short-listed for the Booker, is also in verse. Randy Boyagoda’s farcical Original Prin and Dante’s Indiana, which follow a middle-aged former English professor who finds himself working for a millionaire evangelist after a brief stay with terrorists in the Middle East, are both a delight (the final novel of the trilogy is expected soon). Show me a novel published at Macmillan in the past ten years that is anywhere as strange.
Slant Books was started in 2013 by Gregory Wolfe, the founding editor of Image Journal, but he has made it his primary focus since leaving Image in 2018. Slant has just published Paul Mariani’s latest collection of poems, All That Will Be New, which is the work of a poet still clearly at his height, and Rowan Williams’s Shakeshafte and Other Plays. Slant has also published Ron Hansen’s memoir, Hotly in Pursuit of the Real, and fiction by A.G. Mojtabai and Thom Satterlee. It has in short order become one of the best publishers of religious literary fiction.
Wiseblood Books also has a solid list of religious literary fiction, with novels by Glenn Arbery, Lee Oser, and Sally Thomas. Founded in 2013 by Joshua Hren, the press made a splash with simple, beautifully printed essay monographs by writers like Dana Gioia, R.R. Reno, Pierre Manent, James Matthew Wilson and Ryan Wilson (check them out here). While its nonfiction and poetry lists are not as long as Slant’s, they are certainly as interesting, and the recent expansion of its Wiseblood Classics list, which includes a new translation of Marcel Proust’s Death Comes for the Cathedrals and the early works of T.S. Eliot, is a welcome development.
Cluny Media is a Catholic version of the New York Review of Books Classics. Recent titles include several works of Ronald Knox’s nonfiction, the collected poems of Pope John Paul II, and Fulton J. Sheen’s Life of Christ. They have also republished several works by the poet Paul Claudel, the critic Jacques Maritain, and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sigrid Undset. Other authors include George MacDonald, Henry Gilbert, and José María Gironella. If you are looking for the work of a late 19th-century or early 20th-century Catholic writer of consequence, Cluny is the place to go.