Bill Scheurer is a man on a mission. Make that missions. The Lindenhurst attorney and entrepreneur wants to stop war, convince the orthodox of all religions to embrace one another--and resurrect the short story. To those ends, in the last year or so he's run for Congress, written a theological tome, and launched a publishing company, Hourglass Books, which will put out nothing but short-story anthologies. The first of them, Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters, is out this week and will have a reading Saturday at the Printers Row Book Fair. The collection of 19 mostly previously published tales, edited by Gina Frangello, is the opening salvo in Scheurer's campaign to return short fiction to the status it had before the days of TV
sitcoms and blogs. "There was a time in this country decades ago when it was a very popular art form in terms of general readership," he says. "Today most of these gems are buried in journals that very few people read; they're seen by almost no one outside of the literary community." He wants Hourglass to be a force in "reversing that trend, bringing the short story back to a general audience."
It might be easier to get America out of Iraq, but Scheurer thinks he knows how to do it. His plan is to build each anthology around a "compelling" theme and then market it accordingly. The theme for Falling Backwards, which took about a year to produce, is (obviously) fathers and daughters. The theme for Hourglass's next offering, to be edited by poet Molly McQuade and published next winter, is transitions. A third book, Scheurer says, will be built around stories of "offbeat pilgrims." Unlike more readily available single-author collections, each of these books will feature both established and emerging writers with a variety of styles and voices. The concept isn't exactly unique--Frangello says it's what a lot of small presses are doing these days, but she doesn't know of any others exclusively devoted to it.
Like many in the brave new world of barrier-free publishing, Scheurer started by putting out his own work. An English major at the University of Buffalo when its faculty included the likes of Robert Creeley, Leslie Fiedler, and Donald Barthelme, he later became a lawyer. After seven years in law he started a technology business--optimistically named Welcome America--that developed and ran systems for real-time financial transactions. In the late 90s Welcome America created a spin-off, PocketCard, which produced parental-control Visa cards for kids. Scheurer says PocketCard "rode the dot-com wave up and down," crashing and burning a couple years ago along with its major investor, Divine Interventures. After that Scheurer turned to writing, turning out Us and Them: Bridging the Chasm of Faith, which he self-published under the imprint of Interfaith Journey, and The Sayings: A Modern Tale, a novella based on a screenplay he'd written but hadn't sold. The novella was the first book published by Hourglass, and by the time it came out in late 2002, Scheurer had decided to narrow the company's focus to short stories. The Sayings isn't listed in the Hourglass catalog, but he says it was a good way to test the new systems the company was going to use.
Scheurer ran as a "peace candidate" in the March congressional primary in Phil Crane's conservative Eighth District and pulled 23 percent of the Democratic vote--enough to encourage him to do it again. He's also attempting to establish a federal agency of peace (see www.PeaceReferendum.org), to be financed with a budget of 1 percent of what the nation spends on defense. Hourglass Books is just one morsel on his plate, and he calls it a simple cottage business, run with the help of his wife, artist Randi Layne Scheurer.
Start-up costs were admirably low. Each of the anthologies has a guest editor who brings along a team of volunteer assistants; editors and authors are paid if and when there are royalties. The editor and her team do the heavy lifting of reading and selecting, and pitch in on promotion as well. "We don't do billing, inventory, or shipping," Scheurer points out. "All the infrastructure exists out there, and we tap into it." The books are published on demand through Lightning Source, an Ingram subsidiary, which produces them within a day or two of receiving an order. A distribution agreement for independent bookstores is in the works with Small Press Distribution, which along with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and NACSCORP will place titles in independent and college bookstores, and the books are available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Scheurer says they would be leery of possible "monumental return problems" with the big chains.
Response from what Scheurer calls the "supply side" (the literary community) has been overwhelming, he says--starting with the plentiful submissions they got after advertising in literary journals for stories and editors. Frangello (a Reader contributor) also edits the literary journal Other Voices; Scheurer says she's been "golden on this project." (OV is launching its own short-story book-publishing venture next year with a single-author collection to be selected through a competition and distributed in partnership with the University of Illinois Press.) There's been no problem booking readings, including events at high-profile venues like UCLA's Hammer Museum, and the book got a blurb in Vanity Fair and a short review in Publisher's Weekly. But landing the five major daily newspaper book-section reviews they were counting on to drive visibility is proving tougher than Scheurer expected. "We've learned the newspapers don't often review anthologies," he says. "That's something we want to reverse."