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Friday, April 15, 2011

The House of Words (no. 19): Corey Mesler, bookseller & small press author

Corey Mesler, the Kilroy of books!

 Today novelist, short story writer, poet, and bookseller Corey Mesler talks about publishing with small presses and selling small press books.

You can find out about his many books (and many publishers) and Burke's Books, the Memphis bookshop he owns with Cheryl Mesler, at his website,, and at Signed copies of his books are always available through the store.

Corey and Cheryl Mesler,
co-owners of Burke's Books in Memphis
Marly:  You have published many books and chapbooks in the small press world. As a writer, can you talk about what's good (and bad--we're curious!) about that realm? As a longtime bookseller, would you talk about the obstacles and pleasures of selling small press books?

The first of his many books,
a few of which are shown here.
Corey:  The positives about small press publishing, in my experience, are passion and creativity. There are a lot of good folks doing good work for no other reward than seeing writers and their work reach readers. And some small press books are lovely creations, the work of real book artists. As more and more of the big houses make cheaper and crappier books, books made of paper and cardboard and spit, the lovingly created small press book, often, shines in comparison, or at least holds its own.

The downside to small press publishing is simple: one doesn’t get as wide a distribution. Every writer wants as many readers as possible. Every writer wants attention from the few remaining book review sources, and perhaps a well-placed ad in these same sources. Small presses, due to limited funds, simply don’t have the ability to promote like the big guys do. Though the truth is, possibly, that the big guys aren’t as supportive as they used to be either.

Which dovetails into your second question: it’s hard for small presses to make sure their wares reach bookstore shelves for these same reasons. Bookstores, especially the brick and mortar ones, have limited space, and that space is gonna go to the heavily hyped books, more often than not. But, thank God, there are great independent bookstores still left in America. There you have a wider range of choices. As the owner of a very small, cash-strapped, independent, locally-owned bookstore, I would love to give more space to small press books. As a proud small press author I try to read more of the work coming from small presses and hence try to sell more. But, I won’t kid you: it’s tough these days. It’s tough, really, to sell anything in our little brick and mortar shoppe. I ask you this question in return: what happened to browsing? That to me seems to be a core question. What happened to the readers who like to go into stores and discover something new simply by poking around?


  1. Sad but true. Browsing has fallen by the wayside. I still go to the library to browse though. Maybe that's why I don't care that e-book publishers are raising their prices to libraries and libraries will be unlikely to buy those anymore. Back to real books, made of all the solid, tactile and olfactory materials Mesler names.

  2. Yes, lack of browsing is something that I have bemoaned. We have two partial bookstores (tiny bookstores that are part of another store), but neither are big enough for browsing.

    It satisfied the old hunter-gatherer instincts...

  3. Yes, small publishers, as committed, hardworking, passionate and creative as they are, simply cannot come anywhere close to duplicating big-publisher promotion and marketing capacity. Locking up content in a single format that is only available for sale worked with big-publisher promotion capacity, but not so much for the small publisher model. Yet another reason to think up new publishing paradigms - the current ones are just not optimal for poets and poetry.

  4. Nic,

    I do get private notes about the series from writer friends who don't want to stick their necks out (lest they be guilllotined!), and I just got one claiming that university presses do as good a job booking etc. as the big boys, despite less back-and-forth communication. Of course, they don't have as many dollars as the big boys.

    So that was interesting. And yes, I think we will see lots of multiple streams of publication and models that we haven't even considered yet. Like yours! Brand new to me.

  5. I browse online a lot. A lot more than I ever would have done in bookstores or libraries even.
    Amazon give sample sections and I often find myself hopping from volume to volume and purchasing on the strength of that!
    Mind you, I'm odd. I don't like window shopping because I feel that if I open a book and spend time leafing through it I should buy it! Guilt.
    Online browsing is fabulous. I can do this from the comfort of my armchair and in the peace of the evenings and I feel under no pressure whatsoever to purchase things having 'virtually' handled many books.
    I think there are many others like me - which is why Amazon and other sites offer this!

  6. Mmm, I suppose you're right, though I think the two kinds are rather different and probably have different results...

    I used to be a constant browser in high school because I had to go to the university library where my mother worked after school. It was a great thing for me. I read lots of poetry and fiction and a lot of Cherokee material. Lots of stray, oddball books.

  7. Browsing is a critical question for me. I buy most of my poetry books used, as a result of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store in State College (home to Penn State University Park and its immense English department). I don't think used bookstores are going away anytime soon -- at least, not as long as stay innovative and serve coffee. I hope to interview the owner of that one for my podcast in another month or two. I'm also fortunate in that the Penn State libraries have open stacks; very few libraries of that size do anymore. I've discovered a lot of great writers that way ovr the years.

  8. I feel exactly the same about open stacks and bookstores.

    We have a great used bookshop, Willis Monie Books, but long ago I discovered that many of the really interesting books are upstairs, where only employees go. Sad. I use the website to see if he has more off-the-beaten-track books. Often they are upstairs.

  9. Yes, I browse both ways, and I agree with Marly that they are different and yield different results.

    It looks like the bricks and mortar bookshop days are numbered in the UK, like many shops on the high street. The competition from on-line book stores insurmountable. It seems a shame to me because not will be just lose our chance to browse, but also move from our desks and just generally meet people. The booksellers that seem to be thriving (well maybe surviving would be more apt) over here are those that include cafes. Eating socially is something that can't be done on-line!

  10. See? Don't take our stacks away!


    I believe it is the same way here--the charming spot for lunch and tea with a book seems quite popular, and new bookshops often open with some kind of nook or little eaterie. Funny because food and libraries were always a forbidden combination, at least in my childhood. Mostly they still are.suctuti


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.