Dorothy, a (Successful, Experimental) Publishing Project

Each fall, Dorothy, a Publishing Project, the feminist independent press run by Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker and headquartered in St. Louis, publishes two books only. They are mostly slim volumes, predominantly experimental, many translated, all—save one, by the French author Antoine Volodine, written under the feminine heteronym Manuela Draeger—by women. It’s an impeccably curated list: 24 books so far, with two more on their way in October: Some of Them Will Carry Me by Giada Scodellaro and A Horse at Night by Amina Cain.

This year is a bit of an aberration for the press in that, for the first time, it will publish four books, including two released last month: Revenge of the Scapegoatby American writer Caren Beilin, and New and Selected Stories, by Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza and translated by Sarah Booker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias, and Alex Ross. Those two titles, which both received starred P.W. reviews, were held from 2021, another aberrant year for the press—one when Dorothy published no books. Dutton and Riker were waiting for a new distribution deal to kick in; as of February 1 of this year, Dorothy’s titles are distributed and sold by New York Review Books’ distributor, Penguin Random House Publisher Services, and will appear in the NYRB catalog.

“The move to NYRB has been as great as expected,” Riker said. “Dorothy always had affinities with their list of her—we share two authors in common: Barbara Comyns and Leonora Carrington—but it turns out Danielle and I also just like the people there a lot. The biggest tangible benefit is that our books are getting into more stores and reaching more readers of different types. That is of course very exciting. But there are also less tangible things. With the industry so madcap at the moment—I am thinking in particular of paper shortages and printing delays, but I suppose you could ‘insert problem X’—it has definitely benefited us to have, as a partner, such a well-run, highly respected publishing house.”

Dutton and Riker are married, both of them writers and professors at Washington University in St. Louis, and former employees at the Dalkey Archive (the storied independent publisher, which is now an imprint of Deep Vellum Publishing). They founded Dorothy, which received the Golden Colophon Award for Paradigm Independent Publishing from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in 2020, while living in Urbana, Ill., in 2010—the same year, Dutton noted, as the release of the first Vida Count, which tallies the gender breakdown of contributors to major literary publications and book reviews. A coincidence, perhaps, but one Dutton saw as telling.

“In the year or two prior to launching Dorothy, it seemed to me that women did not feel their work was welcomed at certain places, and that they were just ignored in certain venues, especially in experimental literature fields,” she said. “I have total respect for Dalkey, but it did have, in my sense of it, a very male-heavy list, and a lot of the submissions we saw coming in, both agentd and unagented, were overwhelmingly from men.”

The press launched with Dutton as editor and Riker as publisher, roles they maintain today. They are the only full-time employees, assisted primarily by two rotating editorial interns—MFA students at Wash U who each work with the press for one academic year. The press’s smallness is deliberate, albeit not without its challenges. Dorothy never has to publish any book ella it ella does n’t really believe in as capital-L Literature, and the press has helped shape the careers of a number of influential contemporary authors—including Renee Gladman (who won a Windham Campbell Prize last year) and Nell Zink—and bring the works of such influential international authors as Marguerite Duras, the aforementioned Rivera Garza (who was named a MacArthur fellow in 2020), and Nathalie Léger to an American audience in translation.

Operational costs are low, with advances tending to run smaller than average for the business, but with authors receiving more royalties. The press is not a nonprofit—“partly because I had to do all the nonprofit paperwork, and it’s a lot of paperwork,” Riker said. Despite initially budgeting to lose money, “about $1,000 or $2,000 a year—and we could afford to do that, because we had day jobs—within the first three years, we were already making money, which was a surprise,” he added. “We planned for failure, but we accidentally fell into success.”

Still, smallness is not without its challenges. For the past 11 years, whenever someone ordered a book through Dorothy’s website, Dutton said, “I get the order, I file it, I send it to Marty, he goes into our basement and packs it, and we walk with our son to the post office. It’s stayed super small and indie. We’ll see what happens when we add a sort of corporate structure to one part of it.”

The biggest expense for the press, Riker said, is reprints—an expense Dorothy wasn’t necessarily expecting. “It comes with the decision to keep all the books always in print,” I explained. “I think of myself as pretty good at planning this stuff, but weirdly enough, the thing I didn’t plan for was a successful backlist. We thought we’d do two books a year and we could manage our time. I didn’t factor into that the idea that we would have to manage a backlist, and that would be a lot of time. So it’s actually gotten to be more work over the years.”

That’s where the NYRB comes in. The presses, Dutton and Riker said, are a great fit, not just because of their mutual literary bent, but even down to the design. NYRB’s books, with their near-identical multicolored spines and packaging, have become something of a collector’s item for the literary minded, and Dorothy’s books share some similarities. All Dorothy books are the same trim size, designed to sit next to one another on a book shelf; the press even directly sells every book in its backlist in a package deal on its website.

“They’ve chosen really interesting books, discovered new writers, and shown a passion for mixing things up: foreign literature, American literature, new literature and old literature, fiction and nonfiction and genre-fluid fiction, things that verge on noir or science fiction,” said Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books. “The range of stuff they’ve done is remarkable, as is their commitment to certain authors.”

So far, Dutton said, Dorothy’s story has been one of “capitalistic failure but utopian success”—one that allowed its founders to “give tons of love and attention to two books a year.” She hopes the new partnership with the NYRB will not just maintain that success but extend it.

“We’ve never been in a catalog, really, and we’ve never had actual sales reps talking about our books,” Dutton said. “It sounds so corny, but I really believe in every single one of the books we’ve published. I don’t think of the backlist as ‘back.’ These are all books that are alive and still deserve to be talked about and sold and read and taught. I really feel hopeful that more people will find them than have had the chance so far.”

Dorothy, a Publishing Project publisher Martin Riker (l.) and editor Danielle Dutton, the press’s cofounders.

A version of this article appeared in the 05/23/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Dorothy, a (Successful, Experimental) Publishing Project

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