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A Publisher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Emily Louise Smith

The North Carolina Writers’ Network has been conducting interviews with people working in different spaces within the literary world to understand how the pandemic has affected our community. Today, we speeak with Emily Louise Smith, publisher of sister imprints Lookout Books and Ecotone magazine, both housed within the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington.

Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Emily (ELS) recently over email.

GT: Describe your role at Lookout Books.

ELS: I co-founded Lookout in 2009 and currently serve as its publisher, meaning that I’m ultimately responsible the imprint’s daily operations—from planning sales and distribution strategies to negotiating contracts, from executing marketing and publicity campaigns to writing and managing grants, from art directing and designing books to collaborating closely with Lookout’s editor, KaToya Ellis Fleming, on acquisitions and editorial notes toward bringing out complex, engaging titles that both fit and expand Lookout’s mission. Lookout is also a teaching press; in addition to introductory and special-topics courses in publishing, I teach the graduate practicum that supports our work.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to the position you have today? Did you have a focus in publishing?

ELS: After graduating from Davidson College with a BA in English and concentration in gender studies, I worked in advertising and development for several years before returning to grad school to study poetry. As part of my acceptance into UNCW’s MFA program, I was offered a teaching assistantship in the very Publishing Laboratory I now direct, where I worked for twenty hours a week as an editor, designer, copywriter, marketer, book binder, and grant writer; I wore pretty much every hat needed to keep our fledgling in-house imprint humming. I also supported founder Stanley Colbert and then director Barbara Brannon in teaching their publishing courses, helping them with research, lesson planning, grading, and hosting students for open hours in the Pub Lab. The entrepreneurial spirit of the lab in those days—housed in an actual former science lab, complete with a fume hood!—was one of such innovation and creativity. It offered me not only a three-year crash course in publishing but a design playground. Among other projects, I helped publish our department text book, Show & Tell: Writers on Writing, as well as curated and designed the inaugural issues of Ecotone under the leadership of founding editor David Gessner and student editors Kimi Faxon Hemingway and Heather Wilson. Upon graduation, I accepted a fellowship at the Hub City Writers Project in South Carolina, where again I had the opportunity to edit and design, learn and experiment, this time under the incredible mentorship of Hub City Press founder Betsy Teter. So my publishing education was—as it is for so many of us who work in small presses and magazines—a glorious, extended apprenticeship.

GT: Why did you co-found Lookout Books?

ELS: Lookout’s original and enduring mission is twofold: 1) to support the work of debut authors and others whose voices have been misrepresented, erased, or overlooked in publishing, and, with creativity and care, to bring their stories to broad readership. And 2) to offer students in UNCW’s writing programs engaging, hands-on opportunities to learn the art and craft of publishing by working on our critically acclaimed titles.

GT: How has the pandemic disrupted your daily work routine, if at all?

ELS: In almost every way. In March of 2020, my immediate challenge was to reimagine my hands-on publishing practicum within a new virtual environment. Needless to say: the learning curve was steep to transition what was previously a weekly three-hour collaborative meeting and work session into meaningful stand-alone projects that students could do independently at home—but with ongoing virtual support from me and other staff members. I refined my approach again and again over two additional semesters of virtual learning.

Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, the book industry had to devise new strategies for getting books into the hands of readers. COVID caused delays across the supply chain—from book manufacturing to warehousing to shipping. Reviewers and other members of the media weren’t going into offices to intercept physical galleys. Booksellers closed their doors and became shipping centers while also hosting virtual events. sales soared. National and regional bookseller trade shows, sales meetings, and conferences all moved online, which meant relearning, in many ways, how to promote and talk about books. I had to rethink pitching in virtual spaces, for example, and find new methods for connecting authors with readers and booksellers via online readings and discussions.

GT: Have you seen an increased or decreased number of submissions since the pandemic began?

ELS: For Lookout at least, queries are fairly consistent with what we received before the pandemic. We continue to acquire a single book a year, though, and it has to be a perfect fit for both us and for the author, so we always seem to have a little reading backlog. Also, the pandemic delayed our search for a new lead editor, which in turn led to a temporary pause in our annual publication schedule. Our last book, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body, came out just before the pandemic, in fall 2019. So we’re very excited to have KaToya Ellis Fleming on board and our next book scheduled for release in April 2022.

GT: What has been one major problem you have faced while working during the pandemic, and how did you fix it?

ELS: More than a year before the pandemic, I agreed to direct the creative writing department’s 2020 Writers’ Week under the assumption that it would be a celebration of Lookout’s tenth anniversary. We’d bring back Lookout authors and alumni, and host robust publishing classes and panels; by summer 2020, it was pretty clear that the entire roster of events, nearly twenty separate craft talks, readings, and panels, would need to be held virtually. So with support from the accompanying seminar class, we reinvented Writers’ Week. We researched best practices in hosting online events, participated in Zoom workshops, read articles and books, using Priya Parker’s wonderful The Art of Gathering as our guide, redefined our purpose, and ultimately reimagined the week as “Writing to Transform,” an online festival that better met our community’s needs during the pandemic. We added morning writing sessions, updated our website with titles and descriptions, created a daily newsletter, held run-throughs to orient visiting speakers, thought anew about audience accessibility and safety, crafted participant guidelines, and worked closely with captioners. A symposium that traditionally welcomes about three hundred students and members of the Wilmington community swelled to include more than six hundred guests from around the world.

Meanwhile, Lookout ramped up our social media campaigns and developed a newsletter. We celebrated our tenth anniversary by debuting Lookout Labs, a series of virtual conversations between authors and publishing professionals, designed to demystify the process and prepare participants for their first publication, as well as to support the next generation in learning the art and craft of publishing. It wasn’t what we’d planned, but we harnessed audience familiarity with Zoom and had such a great time talking with two of Lookout’s debut authors, Clare Beams and Cameron Dezen Hammon, about their path to publication, the challenges and magic of bringing their books into the world, as well as to catching up with alumni who now lead Orion magazine, Hub City Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. We’ve since produced the first two episodes of the series, which are free to watch on our website.

GT: Will anything about how Lookout Books has gone about publishing in the last year change as we reemerge into “normalcy?”

ELS: In her proposal for Lookout’s next book, Bigger Than Bravery, Black Writers on the Year That Changed the World, editor Valerie Boyd wrote that the collection gives contributors space to “explore the small moments of comfort and joy, of challenge and compromise, that we’ve found, together and alone, during this Great Pause—which, as a result of the national reckoning on race, also has become the Great Call.” Our abiding commitment at Lookout, and in publishing this title as our first after a two-year hiatus and KaToya’s first as editor, is to heed that call as a both a book publisher and as a teaching press, to support authors and books that reflect the diversity of our country and, as KaToya put it, “to be a lighthouse for writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and writers from myriad other groups who have been erased, unheard, or otherwise denied access to publishing.” By making those books centerpieces in our publishing classrooms, we better prepare and empower the next generation of publishers, editors, designers, publicists, and community leaders.

Publishing Bigger Than Bravery well also means reevaluating our post-pandemic approach to reviewers, media, bookstagrammers, and booksellers. Many outlets requested e-galleys throughout the pandemic, and while I can appreciate the convenience and cost savings, not to mention the environmental reprieve, I’ve always loved working with authors, colleagues, and students to tailor our media list and develop physical galley kits that tell the story of a book, contextualize, and bring out the conversation around it. So I’m eager to collaborate with Valerie, KaToya, and our students, when they return this fall, to imagine a digital equivalent of Lookout’s galley kit, or a hybrid approach that allows us to continue doing our best matchmaking and connecting titles with their readers.

GT: What advice would you give to others who are interested in working in publishing?

ELS: While recording our Lookout Labs in April, my brilliant friend and former Pub Lab co-conspirator, Sumanth Prabkaher, who now edits Orion magazine, said something that has stayed with me. “The best thing that I did and continue to do for myself,” he said when asked his advice for aspiring publishers, “is to just surround myself with intelligent people at every possible opportunity. There’s nothing better than being the dumbest person in the room.”

Maybe more than ever, within our increasingly professionalized writing program, my students seem afraid to show up as anything short of proficient, certain, fully formed. But I think we do our best thinking and learning when we’re open, listening, and receiving. My students flourish when I afford them space to make mistakes, and when they grant themselves permission to learn from those mistakes. I remember hanging on Betsy Teter’s every word the year I worked for her at Hub City, not only when she was actively mentoring me, but when she was on the phone, negotiating with a vendor or potential community partner, when someone dropped by to see her new office space, and she set about casually, almost innocuously, illuminating for that person the organization and its mission, until the next thing I knew, he was making a donation to Hub City or buying an armload of books.

Sumanth’s advice also came as a good reminder to me, now in my eighteenth year of publishing, to continue surrounding myself with teachers—colleagues, editors, authors, students—from whom I am always learning.

GT: This fall, we’re asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What advice would you give your younger self?

ELS: This is personal—and it’s something I struggle with still—but if I could go back and say one thing to my younger self, that version of me so anxious to gain a toehold in the male-dominated fields of academia and publishing, it would be that I was already enough. Long before I knew as much as I do now, before I’d published a catalog of award-winning books or had a list of articles and panels to list on my CV. I would say to her, You are smart and capable already. You deserve to be here. Don’t you dare shrink yourself to make others comfortable. I’ll never get back those long hours that turned into years hustling to prove my value to the department and university, years that I sought self-worth in others. If I could rest a hand on her shoulder now, I’d tell her to take a day off, to go for a run, to write her own book, even if it never sees the light of day. I’d whisper to her exactly what I say to my students: Trust your instincts and your courage. Bet on yourself first.