When Lisa Miller moved to St. Louis from Jefferson City twenty years ago, she was impressed by the number of writers in town. Not the ones who moved away and got famous (though there are plenty of those), but the ones who've stuck around, formed writing groups, showed up at readings, published small magazines and tried to create a true literary community.
"I have a dream one day that we'll make our authors the celebrities they deserve to be," Miller says. "I don't know how many people get caught up in wanting to be a big fish in a big pond -- but in the end, you're all just fish. Or maybe an amoeba. Why not be somebody in your own community?"
"Celebrity" here is a relative term, more like Jonathan Franzen than George Clooney.
In any case, to help realize her dream, Miller decided to found Walrus Publishing, Inc., a hyper-local press that will only publish books by St. Louis authors and only sell them in the St. Louis area. She doesn't expect it to be a money-making proposition. It's a labor of love.
Walrus's first book, Flood Stage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets, came out in 2010. It contains work by more than 50 local poets, some well-known (Richard Newman, Donald Finkel), others who were publishing their work for the first time.
Since then, Miller's been busy preparing a regular editorial calendar and getting a blog up and running. (It publishes reviews and reports on readings in the area by authors both local and visiting.) Starting September 9 with the release of (Not Quite) Out to Pasture, a memoir by Vital Voice columnist Curtis Comer, Walrus will publish two books a year. Miller has decided not to limit herself by genre, though she does give bonus points to authors who actually set their books in St. Louis.
The next book, Bad Victims by Larry Anderson, out next spring, is a thriller for adults. It will be followed in the fall by Continuous Life, a horror novel by Kevin Adams, and in spring 2014 Between Moon and Shine, a children's fantasy by Lori Clark. Also on the schedule are a young adult novel and a memoir of the St. Louis music scene in the early nineties.
But with the state of the publishing business, will Walrus last long enough for all those books to come out?
Miller thinks so. The press is funded by an equity investment she made in 2008. "I wanted to give something back to the community," she explains. "You can't go wrong in investing in the community. At the very least, it buys you goodwill."
The press is a for-profit entity, overseen by Miller and a board of directors, run out of Miller's home in Tower Grove South. Miller has a business partner and recently made a second investment. She's also been working with the business extension group at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she's an adjunct instructor in English, to organize the press's finances.
"It looks strong for the next ten years," she says. "It's nice to be secure. There are so many publishers that don't survive the first three years. But I don't think we can have a publishing company without the strength of the community in general."
For now, all of Walrus's books will be published as book-books; Miller's not comfortable yet with the idea of e-books, though she admits that could change. First she wants to see if this experiment in hyper-local publishing can actually work.
"There are other presses in St. Louis," she says, "but we're the only one for St. Louis's literati. St. Louis's literary scene is special. We want to find a way to celebrate it. I don't think anybody's going to get rich, but it's a cool thing to be part of."