Photos by Asia Morris.
Game changers Wendy Thomas Russell and Jennifer Volland have graced Long Beach, and potentially the world, with a small, albeit profound operation. The two entrepreneurs acquired a business license for their new small publishing house Brown Paper Press in 2014 and are less than a day away from launching their second and third books by two critically acclaimed writers with local ties.
Russell is a former Long Beach Press Telegram reporter and an award-winning journalist, while Volland is co-author of Edward A. Killingsworth: An Architect’s Life and Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis. The two met through their daughters at a birthday party and immediately hit it off as two writers living in Long Beach. They met some time afterward at La Palapa, and a few whiskeys later, the dreamers decided to start a mission-driven press with limitless potential, unrestricted by genre but grounded in relevance to current events.
“We were influenced by the—and I would say disillusioned—by the mainstream publishing machine, but we also saw a great opportunity to create something new,” said Russell.
Their mission is not to put out a big hit, sell thousands of copies in a week then call it a day. Their goal is to enjoy and be conscious of the process, develop a sustained public interest in the material and increase the typical “shelf-life” of the book. Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious was the local publishing house’s guinea pig, so to speak. Authored by Russell herself, the book has sold thousands of copies, which by small press standards, is an absolute success.
“With small presses in general, the opportunity is there to continue to promote the book,” Russell explained. “And so it’s not like this big push and then that just declines. It’s harder to [ask] now, ‘How many books have sold?’ because, well, it’s still selling. We’re not done yet and we’re not even at the year mark.”
But the numbers aren’t what matter to the two insightful entrepreneurs. Brown Paper Press is looking forward to mining not only Long Beach’s local literary talent, as the only small publishing house of full-length books, according to Russell, but are open to any work they find truly compelling in this day and age.
“We’d both been published before so we understood the whole cycle of writing, design and promoting books, so like Wendy said, we saw gaps in the process and then opportunities that we thought we could make better or even more enjoyable,” said Volland. “It’s not a hierarchical relationship between the publisher and the authors. We have a collaborative type environment that we want to foster and I think we can do that.”
Brown Paper Press’ next two books to be launched at Fingerprints on Saturday are Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty’s I’m Dyin’ Here: A Life in the Paper and acclaimed essayist and Cal State Long Beach creative writing professor Alan Rifkin’s Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir. Grobaty’s Long Beach legacy as a columnist precedes this significant work, while Rifkin has been a writer and editor for several magazines and literary journals, including Details, Premier, L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times and Black Clock and wrote Signal Hill: Stories in 2003, published by City Lights.
Russell describes Grobaty’s book as his most autobiographical to date. He writes the story of his four decades as a columnist at the Press- Telegram, back when the profession was a coveted job, “offering readers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a dying breed: the local newspaper columnist,” as stated in the description.
“It tells the story of him, of his experience in this newspaper and the collapse of the newspaper around him,” said Russell. “It’s an interesting story and it’s a story that is happening everywhere in this country.”
Grobaty, whose first three books were published by The History Press in South Carolina, said he previously didn’t interact much with the editors of the publishing house. However, working with Brown Paper Press was a completely different experience. It became clear that Russell and Volland were not about to let their dear friend skip by solely submitting a compilation of already written columns.
“It was a fairly grueling experience for me, rummaging around in my past and writing about things that were sometimes disturbing,” Grobaty told the Post. “Jen and Wendy pushed me beyond anything I would have attempted without them.”
Rifkin’s Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir is a collection of 12 essays set against the backdrop of the shimmering Southern California dream and written over the course of the essayist’s 30-year career. When placed in a certain order, they create a string of stories, an “unintended memoir,” from Rifkin’s time living with monks in a Santa Barbara monastery to facing his mother’s last months in his hometown in San Fernando Valley.
“Finding them was really an answered prayer,” said Rifkin. “I’ve had kind of a love/hate relationship with literary Long Beach and was always hoping that things would… that some pipeline for writing talents in Long Beach would take form.”
While these soon-to-be-launched books are both nonfiction, Russell and Volland are not close-minded to other genres, as long as the words retain relevance to contemporary life. Whether through fiction, nonfiction, poetry or by way of the graphic novel, Brown Paper Press “strives to deliver socially relevant works that advise, guide, inspire and amuse,” not just through content, but also tasteful design.
“They want to really combine, for lack of a better term, the hype machine of a big publisher and the commercial savvy of a big publisher with the kind of editorial sensitivity that big publishers maybe had once-upon-a-time,” said Rifkin. “And so I think the kind of voices that need to be heard today are going to be heard through a publishing house like this.”
Russell and Volland have worked out the details to the nth degree, from working closely with Rifkin and Grobaty in an effort to meet Brown Paper Press’ vision, to working with local and international designers for each book’s cover as well as the house’s overall branding. It’s minimal, symbolic, eye-catching and draws the potential reader in to let the content speak for itself.
When asked how they see the business evolving in five years, both vocalized the laid back approach that well, whatever happens, happens. If that means putting out two books a year until they feel the need to grow, then so be it. As long as Volland and Russell are making meaningful connections with their writers and aspiring to bring relevance to their readers through building a community of poignant thinkers, there’s only knowledge to gain and stories to share.
“For us it’s not a matter of having a set number of books that we’re going to put out, it’s finding the right books, the best books and the ones that tell the stories that are really going to be impactful, that are important to us,” said Russell.
“[Brown Paper Press is] emerging at a time when so many writers have given up on big publishing or even indie publishing, so they’re publishing themselves and that’s not working out well,” said Rifkin. “I’m hoping that this could be a model for others to follow.”
And although Brown Paper Press was proudly founded in Long Beach and seeks to reap the wealth of talent apparent in the city’s residents and students, the publishing house also seeks to represent good writers and designers everywhere, whether they reside in this seaside city or a far off place. Although a small operation, Brown Paper Press represents a big idea, an improved method for sharing literary works that “the rest of the country would never know about otherwise,” in Rifkin’s words. For Volland and Russell, only the sky (and contemporary culture, of course) is the limit.
“We want to be successful, but there are a lot of ways of measuring success that have nothing to do with the bottom line,” said Russell. “We want to find and develop and publish great books, we want to provide a positive experience for authors and we want to add value to our community.”
To learn more about Brown Paper Press, visit the website here and for regular updates, follow the Facebook page here. For details regarding the double book launch and meet n’ greet with the authors, click here.
Asia Morris is a Long Beach native covering arts and culture for the Long Beach Post. You can reach her on Twitter and Instagram @theasiamorris and via email at [email protected]
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