Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Level Best Books at the Crossroads

Early in June the three editors of Level Best Books got together to talk about the future of our project. We had read most of the 70 plus stories and were looking at our schedules. This would be our eighth anthology.

Level Best Books grew out of a desire to publish a collection of short crime fiction by The Larcom Press, for which I was a co-founder. When we closed down the press, along with all of our projects in the pipeline, I felt especially sad about the anthology. In 2003 I approached Kate Flora and Skye Alexander, and over lunch in Gloucester, Level Best Books was born. I had started out only with the idea of finishing the anthology started by Larcom, but the idea took hold, and so began our series of anthologies. Together we published three, but then Skye moved to Texas, and thus outside the New England writing community. Ruth McCarty joined me and Kate in a seamless transition.

The Level Best Books anthologies have been a pleasure from beginning to end, but also a lot of work. We set as our launch date the weekend of Crime Bake, so that we could introduce our book, Undertow, and new writers, and sell books to the ideal audience. The pattern was set, and with the second anthology, Riptide, the cover and interior design was too.

Each year we tried out different names, drawing up lists of weather and New England related terms, poring over possible cover photographs, and reading dozens of stories. We enthusiastically commented on the growth of individual writers over the years, the expanding list of contributors (and sometimes of the definition of New England, but, alas, we are traditionalists—just the six states for us), the consistently good reviews. This project had no downside except time.

And that was the issue. We put in our own money and made it back every year plus a little more (very little more); we loved the stories; we loved the covers; we loved the writers. But we still had only 24 hours in any one day, and 7 days in a week. There was no flexibility in producing the book because our deadline, Crime Bake, was the only way to get the books the publicity they needed to make back our costs. I had the job of editing, laying out, proofing, working with the printer, to get the book done on time. We printed 1,200 books every year, and Kate had the job of delivering books to bookstores, libraries, and individuals who purchased the book. She handled most returns and invoicing. She and Ruth set up events and nudged writers to set up more.

In case I failed to make the point—this is work. And all three of us have other responsibilities, and they were starting to close in on the little free time we had. As we sat down in early June, each one of us knew this year could be tough. We thought about taking a year off, or trying to push through just one more year, but in the end, the problem was now—not enough time to do the kind of job we have done for the last seven years.

Seven years is a long time, and seven anthologies are something to be proud of. So, this is where we stop, on a high note, proud of what we’ve done, glad we did it, and mindful that other opportunities will come along, for us and for all the other writers we worked with.

But there’s more. I wrote the above valediction in early June, before we knew there might be a second act for Level Best Books. The cooperative will not come to an end, though our involvement in it will. Four writers, all known to us and much admired, have stepped forward, and will continue the work of publishing the annual anthology of crime fiction by New England writers. So, to Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, welcome and good luck and congratulations. I eagerly look forward to the next anthology, only a few months away.