Co-Founder & Executive Editor of Unnamed Press Olivia Taylor Smith
Olivia Taylor Smith is the co-founder and executive editor of the Unnamed Press. She is also a certified silver pin sommelier with the North American Sommelier Association and translator of the graphic novel Panthers in the Hole, about the Angola 3.
How did you get your start in trade publishing—was it at the Los Angeles Review of Books or before your time there?
LARB was really my first time working in the publishing industry, and while I grew up knowing many authors it wasn't something I envisioned for myself as a possible career until I began working there. I met many wonderful people, including my business partner here at Unnamed, Chris Heiser.
What was it like co-founding the independent publishing company Unnamed Press?
Sometimes it feels like no time has passed at all, and I'm immensely proud of how we built a brand from the ground up and all of the incredible authors we have published. And sometimes it feels like a never-ending process—every month we learned there was something new that we absolutely needed to be doing to get results!
“We felt that there were many stories that just weren't being published but that absolutely deserved to be.”
According to your company’s mission statement, "The Unnamed Press publishes literature from around the world. Whether it's fiction, memoir or something in between, we are always interested in unlikely protagonists, undiscovered territories and courageous voices.: What is it that drew you, and your co-founder to this type of mission?
We felt that there were many stories that just weren't being published but that absolutely deserved to be. Literature should be exciting. I wanted to develop a network of writers who are taking risks with their art, and also introduce the public to writers who are speaking to their experience with diverse and contemporary points of view. I feel like in the United States, we lose so many readers who are given the same list of classics that simply are not enjoyable for them. And that's what they think all literary fiction is. My motto for 2019 is why not read something fun?
You are a certified silver pin sommelier with the North American Sommelier Association…do you ever make book and wine pairings?
Ha! I should. I actually find that for me, books and wine are best enjoyed separately—although I think the best book jacket copy is written after a glass of Chablis.
As the English-to-French translator of the graphic novel Panthers in the Hole, about the Angola 3, are you must be fluent in French, yes? What do you feel being able to read in another language adds to your experience as an editor?
The "Angola" in the Angola 3 is referencing Angola Prison in Louisiana, where Albert Woodfox, Robert King, and Herman Wallace were held in solitary confinement for decades and decades (a total of forty-three years in solitary for Woodfox). They were targeted by the prison's warden for being members of the Black Panther Party and had been organizing to improve conditions in the prison when they were falsely accused of murdering a guard. This was a huge human rights abuse that was being underreported in the United States, but gained traction in France where the graphic novel Panthers in the Hole was originally published. As a translator, it was my responsibility to not simply translate but make the story American for the first time. Being able to play a small role in telling people about the Angola 3, and more recently getting to spend time with Woodfox and King, has been the most important experience of my life.
Reading French has definitely helped me as an editor because of the lyricism of the language, I read all of the manuscripts I'm working on aloud to test whether they are ready.
(Chris Heiser, co-founder and publisher of The Unnamed Press, on the imprint's mission and vision)
“...there is a level of attention and care that small presses can provide...”
What do you feel the small press publishing experience can offer authors that publishing with a big five publisher cannot?
I do think there is a level of attention and care that small presses can provide, and also the mentality of "well we really need to hustle to get this book noticed." I think the big five are realizing that they need to adopt this attitude also, with shrinking space for book coverage and a crowded market none of them can sit back and see what sticks anymore.
So much of book publishing is based in New York City and with Unnamed Press being in Los Angeles, do you feel that there’s another vibe there that authors might like?
I love being in Los Angeles, I'm from here. But that said I am emailing people in New York all day! We have a really supportive and active literary community here that I would recommend any local author be a part of.
You are the editor of Fariha Róisín's novel Like A Bird, about a biracial girl who—after falling victim to a violent sexual attack by a family friend—is severed from her family and forced to survive alone and reclaim her life. What has been your experience in working with Fariha on this deeply personal book?
Fariha has such a distinct authorial voice, you are drawn instantly into this protagonist's world and a vision of New York City that is authentic and raw. There's a lot that I can do as an editor, but one thing I can't change is voice—and Fariha has it.
“I also always recommend that authors have a literary agent, and that they trust in them and consider them as a business partner.”
Do you have any advice for authors hoping to make their literary debut?
Go to as many events as you can, meet authors and booksellers (especially booksellers and ask them what they are excited about). I also always recommend that authors have a literary agent, and that they trust in them and consider them as a business partner.
Do you have any advice for those looking to become book editors, or advice for new book editors looking to hone their craft?
You really just have to do it—I would say read as much as you can, especially genres you aren't normally drawn to. And to think like an editor. Often I'll have a new assistant who says, “Oh, well I really didn't like that” and I'll say, “But can you remove it? How does it affect the rest?” Being an editor isn't just about making judgment calls, it's thinking about the manuscript like a puzzle.