An Interview with Ryan Murphy, Associate Director of Four Way Books
Conducted by Hillary Susz
HS: What is the story behind the creation of Four Way Books?
RM: Four Way books was founded by four friends from graduate school, Martha Rhodes, Jane Brox, Dzivinia Orlowsky and Helen Fremont in 1991 (1). The press became officially established in 1993 and the first books published in 1995 (2). All of the founding editors remain close friends.
HS: What argument or statement do your books pose about what literature can (or should) accomplish?
RM: We don’t have a specific aesthetic associated with our press. We want to create more publishing opportunities for writers of high literary merit.
HS: What do you consider “high literary merit”?
RM: That varies across the three of us (3). My interest is primarily in narrative poetry that is both lyric and spare, that uses language in an innovative way. We are not out to make a specific or single-minded aesthetic argument about literature. Our catalog is very aesthetically diverse. Our acquisition editors have various tastes, and within our group we don’t always agree on everything. Our purpose is to create a venue for, and to support, work of high literary merit, which is subjective. We don’t select the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner every year, and that’s not our goal. Across the spectrum of the season we want to publish books that even a general poetry reader can love. The director is a poet. Our staff is made up of poets. We write it, read it and want to bring it to people who want it in their lives.
HS: Can you explain the editorial process beginning from submission all the way to publication?
RM: Sure. First, there are some different venues in which publication takes place. We continue to publish authors we’ve published before, which is one of the challenges we face when it comes to expanding our catalogue. We want to support new writers, but we also foster relationships with our entire list of authors.
We publish 16 books a year, and there are four ways to submit. We hold open submissions in June. January through March Martha Collins judges the Levis Prize in Poetry, which is a first or second book contest. We spend November and December selecting a manuscript from an emerging writer in New York City. We love publishing new writers because it allows us to set a stage for their career. And, we continually accept submissions for The Four Way Review, our online literary journal.
Once we find and accept a book, we offer a contract. From this point, it takes roughly two – three years until the book publishes.
Then comes the editorial process, which differs based on each author’s temperament and personality. Under each author’s book contract we accept the book as-is, so they’re under no obligation to accept our suggested feedback. With that being said, we do offer suggestions and work closely with our authors. Our feedback ranges from changing the order of poems, removing poems, changing lines or asking certain sections to be rewritten (4).
From there we work to find the right people to write blurbs for the book. Typically the author has people in mind for these. Our in-house design team designs the cover, typesetting, and layout of each book. This, especially the design of the cover, is usually a pretty rewarding experience for both us and the author.
We also have an in-house publicity team that writes up all the press releases, author questionnaires, and arranges readings and book tours. Our publicist reaches out to these venues usually a year in advance, and review copies of the book go out about four months prior to publication. Finally, after all of that, we throw a party in New York City. Not all of our writers are in New York, but we like to get them out here for their official book launch.
For the next year we work to support the book by arranging readings and making sure authors are submitting their work to appropriate contests.
This entire process is an on-going experiment.
HS: How many copies does an average book sell in its lifetime?
RM: We publish 16 books a year in print runs of 1000. Our books are distributed through University Press of New England. I’d say all books reach sell through the initial print-run during their lifetime, and some books sell way more than that. This year Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize for Digest, which has sold around 10,000 copies so far. Likewise, Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era has received recognition from the New York Times and NPR, which contributes to its sales. Although some of our authors receive national attention, we believe in all of the authors we publish. We would never drop an author because their book didn’t sell. If we believe in their work, we continue to find ways to publish them. We are non-profit for a reason– our work is considered culturally significant, but not economically stable.
HS: Can you explain the internal structure or practical operation of the press in terms of funding and staff duties?
RM: Martha Rhodes is the executive director, and she’s really the heart of the press. There are two associate directors, Sally Ball and myself, and our publicist, Clarissa Long. Apart from our full-time, salaried staff we also have hourly-paid satellite staff that help with financial management, web support and proofreading. All day-to-day work happens in our New York City office.
RM: Our budget changes from year-to-year, and it depends on all kinds of factors—decisions from the board, grants, book sales. We’re a non-profit organization, which means we’re constantly scrutinized by our board of directors about how we’re able to grow. We accept induvial donations online and continually write grant proposals. We wear two hats in terms of funding– trying sell books and trying to raise money. None of us are in this for money. We all do it because it’s something we love.
HS: Thank you, Ryan for taking the time to speak with me about your press.
RM: Not a problem. Talk to you later.
- These four editors met during their time in Sarah Lawrence’s M.F.A. creative writing program.
- Martha Rhodes “saw the need for more publishers” after her time working at Viking Press. The first books published by Four Way Books, which are excellent and underrated, are Sue Standing’s Gravida, Lynn Domina’s Corporal Works, and Stephen Knauth’s Twenty Shadows
- Sally Ball, Ryan Murphy, Martha Rhodes
- Their meticulous editorial feedback is thought of as one of our most distinguishing characteristics of their press. Readers might be surprised that aggressive editing of poetry books often doesn’t take place at other presses.