Small presses — those independent publishing houses that often put out writing that the largest publishers aren’t always interested in — still issue books that get national and industry attention. But with all the great books out there, it can be easy for readers to lose track. Here are 19 books by small presses that went big — or are on their way.
1. White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (Dzanc Books)
White Dancing Elephants, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut, made a splash when it came out at the end of 2018. Her stories juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color.
When Bhuvaneswar is at her best, her writing in these 17 stories is a cartography of loss, betrayal, and oftentimes a hard-won beauty that takes an unapologetically feminist approach to a world peopled with women characters who span the extremes of deep empathy and terrible behavior.
Critical cred: Kirkus called Bhubaneswar’s stories “stunning” and “evocative” in a starred review; BuzzFeed Books named it one of the best books of fall 2018.
2. Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias (Broken River Books)
If you’re on Writer Twitter, it’s hard to miss Gabino Iglesias, an author of two novels, a master hustler, and a vocal advocate for other writers. Broken River Books, who published his latest, Coyote Songs, barely has a website, but that hasn’t stopped this book — a hybrid horror/crime novel set in the American Southwest — from being noticed, including ranking in Amazon best-seller categories.
Iglesias reviews for major outlets like NPR and is frank about what it takes for small-press authors to get their books into the hands of readers, and his tireless promotion has paid off.
Critical cred: Booklist called this collection “gorgeously written, even when Iglesias is describing horrible things.”
3. Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press)
Fiction writer and memoirist Michelle Tea is well-known for writing about her own life. A prose writer, poet, and literary arts organizer, Tea explores queer culture, feminism, race, class, sex work, and other topics. Against Memoir is her 14th full-length work.
The opening essay, "On Valerie Solanas," sets the tone for the rest of this collection in the way she knits the external context of time and place together with personal experiences. It creates a feeling of motion, and many of the essays move along at a page-turning clip through memories and histories, as Tea tells parts of other people’s stories along with her own. This is a powerhouse book that feels like the (current) crown jewel on Tea’s extensive body of work.
Critical cred: Tea won a PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Against Memoir; BuzzFeed Books named Against Memoir one of the best books of summer 2018.
4. Eightball by Elizabeth Geoghegan (Santa Fe Writers Project)
Elizabeth Geoghegan’s debut short story collection Eightball — yes that kind of eight ball — was endorsed by the late Lucia Berlin, and Geoghegan’s stories draw her readers into an international landscape that, through her voice, always feels relatable.
The stories span mostly Italy and the US, but what knits them together — including trekking through a rice field in Bali and trying to set up a dog-walking scheme or knocking around in bars — is a thread of longing that her characters don’t always know how to parse, even if they are always trying. It’s worth noting the Geoghegan’s stories have an incredible texture, even as the narration retains a calm distance.
Critical cred: Kirkus called out her “cool, articulate demeanor and masterful writing.”
5. Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i by Liz Prato (Overcup Press)
In her newest collection, Liz Prato explores what it means to be a white tourist who has visited Hawai’i over the course of her lifetime, and how her relationship to the island has changed as her own life has changed. In less practiced hands, the topics of Prato's essays might come off as trite or lip service to the shower thoughts of vacationers who are benefiting from colonialism.
Yet, with her guidance and thoughtfulness, Prato pushes against the surface, locating herself within and the people and landscape of Hawai’i without buying into visitor thinking — this is not a musing on mai tais and hula events.
Critical cred: Publisher’s Weekly noted that “Prato’s work stays winningly informal and idiosyncratic throughout and … coalesces into an intriguing and informative journey through the 50th state.”
6. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker (Small Beer Press)
Sarah Pinsker’s wide-ranging debut collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea hits stores just six months before her debut novel will, making it a big year for Pinsker, who has previously won the Nebula Award. In these 13 stories from Small Beer Press, she often underpins the surreal with terrestrial detail, giving her work a kind of grounding.
Critical cred: “This collection from an exciting new voice in speculative fiction is both haunting and hopeful,” says Booklist; BuzzFeed Books named it one of the best books of this spring.
7. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu (Black Lawrence Press)
One from the backlist, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is a collection of 12 fabulist tales inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture. Threaded throughout is a sense of vulnerability that provides thematic continuity.
Nagamatsu got a great deal of attention when his book came out, and while he was named to best book lists in literary magazines, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone was largely passed over by less specialized media. Despite this, Nagamatsu’s collection, which floats between the magical and the real, deserves a look.
Big book credibility: Booklist said Nagamatsu “defies categorization.”
8. How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays by Tyrese Coleman (Mason Jar Press)
Tyrese L. Coleman’s How to Sit smudges the division between fiction and nonfiction. A writer, mother, attorney, and writing instructor, Coleman’s engagement across disciplines shows in this standout from Mason Jar Press. In these stories and essays, the hybrid form is ultimately a compelling memoir as Coleman explores the transition between adolescence and womanhood paired with conversations about identity, race, and grief.
Critical cred: Nominated for a PEN Open Book Award.
9. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Tin House)
Kristen Arnett’s debut Felt in the Jaw came from the indie house Split Lip Press, and her second book, the novel Mostly Dead Things, comes from Tin House. Arnett’s sophomore effort has been named by Esquire, this website, Bustle, and many others as one of 2019’s most anticipated books.
Arnett is in some ways one of Twitter’s wacky aunts, much like Elizabeth McCracken, which makes her success even more delightful. In this tweet, she says: “just did a phone interview with a magazine and they asked what the weird noise was in the background and i said ‘sorry my dog is snoring.’” Her prose writing has much of the same observational humor paired with a sharpness that can come when longer forms are done well.
Critical cred: Publisher’s Weekly called Arnett a “keenly skillful author with imagination and insight to spare.”
10. The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee (Unnamed Press)
The debut novel from currently Bangalore-based Rheea Mukherjee is a study in the power of women’s friendships. Her prose has a lyrical urgency paired with a clean, lucid style.
In The Body Myth, Mukherjee writes about Mira, a teacher who witnesses a woman having a seizure in the park; Mira runs to help the stranger, compelled in part by her beauty. Later forging a friendship with the woman, Mukherjee delivers an intense and unexpected modern love story as Mira reconciles reality with desire.
Critical cred: One of the HuffPost's Most Anticipated Books of 2019.
11. Water & Power by Steven Dunn (Tarpaulin Sky Press)
Navy veteran Steven Dunn’s second novel, Water & Power, dives into military culture and does not shy from confronting ideas of heroism and terrorism; he marries the constant stress of deployment with the absurdity of arcane bureaucracy. Water & Power has something in common with other military narratives but still manages to be disruptive. Traversing both horror and humor, Dunn imbues his prose with the kind of duality that is hard to achieve, but pays off.
Critical cred: Dunn was shortlisted for Granta magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists.
12. Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda (Mad Creek Books)
There’s so much to say about Therese Svoboda, whose 14 books have been mostly issued by small and independent presses. Her most recent, Great American Desert, is from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press, and explores themes of water across generations.
From the opening story of this collection until the end, Svoboda punctuates her prose with the lyrical style that she’s always been known for, but each sentence still feels fresh. In Great American Desert, she brings a poet’s eye to the American West while drawing out her distinct approach to narrative.
Critical cred: A starred review from Kirkus pointed out her “enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations.”
13. Inukshuk by Gregory Spatz (Bellevue Literary Press)
Gregory Spatz is a consistent writer who can be counted on for a new title every couple of years, and his novel Inukshuk from Bellevue Literary Press is a great read.
Spatz’s retelling of the Victorian-era Franklin Arctic expedition, against the backdrop of a father and son learning how to be a family, coincided with the deep water discovery of one of these historic ships just a few months after the book came out. As we find out more about the doomed 19th-century expedition that had no survivors, Spatz will hopefully find new audiences — including for his latest, What Could Be Saved, forthcoming from Tupelo Press.
Critical cred: A starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.
14. Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon (Cinco Puntos)
A sequel to her 2017 debut Murder on the Red River, Marcie Rendon’s Girl Gone Missing draws her protagonist into a web of dreams and deceit. Issued by Cinco Puntos — a press with roots on the US–Mexico border, which has a strong reputation for surfacing Chicano, Latinx, and Native voices — Rendon’s second book in this series follows 19-year-old Cash. An Ojibwe woman who has lived all her life in Fargo, she has just one friend: a cop.
Cash as a heroine is tough and complicated, but Rendon avoids the trope of a girl making good against odds. Cash is who she is. The vivid writing and keen eye keep the pages turning and readers hoping for another book in this series.
Critical cred: “Rendon highlights the plight of Native Americans who were forcibly adopted by whites and Cash’s discomfort in a land that is and is not hers. Readers will look forward to Cash’s next outing.” —Publishers Weekly
15. Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye (Press 53)
Virginia Pye comes to her most recent collection after publishing two novels, and she brings to her pages some of a novelist’s scope, threading the search for elusive, eponymous happiness through each of her stories. Her characters are always striving to be better, and sometimes they succeed.
The people in this world make gestures both grand and small, sometimes violent, sometimes gentle, but always bold. Pye’s experience as a writer shows in this heart-forward collection.
Critical cred: Kirkus calls this collection "a deeply moving meditation on the complexity and potential generosity of love."
16. The King of Lighting Fixtures by Daniel A. Olivas (University of Arizona Press)
Filled with everyone from lawyers to gang members, The King of Lighting Fixtures paints a portrait of Los Angeles that is in Daniel Olivas’s particular style of magical realism — which feels both idiosyncratic and true to life.
The author of nine books and editor of two anthologies, Olivas is a major contributor to Chicano and Angeleno literature who has been consistently well-reviewed and extremely active in the literary community, including as an advocate for Latinx voices.
Critical cred: NBC News called him “a master” and Shelf Awareness deemed him a “literary marvel.”
17. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina (Two Dollar Radio)
Katya Apekina’s debut novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish uses first-person accounts with a dark humor that runs beneath. Published to critical acclaim by the always excellent Two Dollar Radio, this novel is a heartbreaking story of love and obsession.
With a deep look at how mental illness impacts the lives of families, this is also a story told from both the present and the past, which keeps the writing sharp, even when the characters’ perspectives are murky.
Critical cred: 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes finalist, and named to best book lists from Kirkus Reviews and BuzzFeed Books.
18. The Perpetual Motion Machine by Brittany Ackerman (Red Hen Press)
Inspired by a sibling’s science project, The Perpetual Motion Machine is a memoir in essays that explores possibility. Brittany Ackerman’s collection approaches childhood in a way that is far from nostalgic, even though it draws on the artifacts of family life.
As Ackerman unfolds the story of both her and her older brother’s addictions, she hits on the way that sometimes siblings are linked to one another through DNA, and sometimes through something different — often something more.
Critical cred: Kirkus noted that this is a brief but poignant memoir, “told in simple, spare language. Ackerman’s story is powerful.”
19. Mouths Don't Speak by Katia D. Ulysse (Akashic Books)
Heavily blurbed and widely reviewed, Katia D. Ulysse’s fifth book, Mouths Don’t Speak, explores the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, killing a quarter of a million people and leaving many millions more homeless. The protagonist, Jacqueline Florestant, believes her parents are dead. Her husband, a retired US Marine and combat veteran, cares for their 3-year-old daughter. As he fights his own battles with acute PTSD, Jacqueline mourns her family. Ulysse gives readers a riveting story of a woman who is trying to make sense of a homescape that, if not wholly disappeared, is irrevocably altered.
Critical cred: “Ulysse punctuates ... descriptions of the lush Florestant plantation with insightful observations about strained family dynamics. The ties that bind can also constrict us.”—Booklist
Wendy J. Fox is most recently the author of the novel If the Ice Had Held, named by BuzzFeed Books as one of the best books of this spring. Follow her on Twitter @wendyjeanfox.
For more information on If the Ice Had Held, click here.