Local indie publisher celebrates 12 years

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Kevin Morgan Watson (left) visits with poet Hedy Habra at the AWP Conference in 2014. (photo by Hedy Sabbagh Habra)

With binge-watching Netflix and endless cat videos and social media feed the thought of reading stories, novels or poetry seems perhaps archaic. And as entertainment shifted to these new platforms the book-publishing industry seemed doomed as attention spans waned and people found satisfaction in instant entertainment. In the early 2000s, many major book publishers were either going bankrupt or were bought out by big conglomerates. The idea of starting an independent publishing house seemed risky and almost foolishly romantic. And yet facing this hard market, and having just been laid off from his job the previous year, Kevin Morgan Watson published the first book under his new imprint Press 53 in October 2005.

“In 2004 I lost my day job in the airline industry, a victim of 9/11,” Watson said via email. “I began teaching workshops and editing for other writers, since the stress of looking for work was making it difficult for me to write. I found that I really enjoyed the editing process, so I began studying book design and layout with the idea of starting a small local press that would give me a creative outlet until something else came along.”

With a small investment, Press 53 published its first book. All the money from those first sales went into the following book, and the next after that. Watson saw no profits from the company until almost 2009.

Based in downtown Winston-Salem, Press 53 has published over 180 titles of poetry and short fiction collections by renowned and award-winning authors like John Ehle, Joseph Mills, Taylor Brown, Terri Kirby Erickson and Doris Betts.

In celebration of 12 years of publishing, a night of readings will be held at Bookmarks Bookstore in Winston-Salem on Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. The night will include readings by poets Terri Kirby Erickson, Joseph Mills, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, John Thomas York, Maura Way and Sam Barbee, and short-fiction authors Ray Morrison, Ed Southern, Carol Roan, Steve Mitchell and Shirley Deane. 

To learn more about the anniversary readings and purchase new titles, visit press53.com.

With dozens of authors and new titles each year, Watson never quite imagined his publishing endeavors would come this far.

“In 2005, my plan was to publish a book or two a year, just to keep my foot in the writing business until I found other work and began writing again,” Watson said. “I had no idea this little press would take off like it did. Once we signed John Ehle in 2006 to republish his 1964 novel The Land Breakers as part of our new Carolina Classics series, and we received a hand-written letter from Harper Lee thanking us for reprinting one of her favorite books by one of her favorite authors of historical fiction, and newspapers picked up the story, we became well known.”

From meager beginnings and barely any budget scraped together to work with, 12 years and 180 titles is a far cry from where many independent presses end up. For Watson, it has been an exciting and difficult road, and one that he has no intentions of abandoning any time soon.

“It’s exciting when we publish young upcoming authors like Stephanie Carpenter, and poets like Terri Kirby Erickson and Joseph Mills who both have become internationally known,” Watson said. “But when writers like David [Jauss] and Kelly [Cherry] and legends begin approaching you because they love what you are doing, well, that is a compliment to the press and to the authors we’ve published.”

As author Henry Miller once put it: “A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation.” Literature has remained in our society for centuries, and it survives today in the Triad and across the country with advocates like Watson at the helm.