Small press, big voices – Arkansas Online

A shipment of Sarah-Catherine Gutierrez’s new book “But First Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life” was on the way to Et Alia Press one afternoon early in July and publisher Erin Wood was preparing for the onslaught.

“We’ve got 650 pounds of books coming today,” she says. “My daughter is going to be helping put return address labels on all the packages and my husband is printing the address labels in his office.”

This is how things are run at Et Alia, the ambitious, Little Rock-based “small press for big voices” that has published memoirs, children’s books, anthologies, poetry, books on fashion, nature and Wood’s award-winning 2019 collection of interviews and photography “Women Make Arkansas: Conversations With 50 Creatives,” which also spawned the annual Women Make Arkansas Market.

“In the past five or six years, I’ve really wanted to make this a full-time thing,” Wood, 42, says during a telephone interview. “It also became really clear to me that if you were going to publish three to five books a year, why not make them in Arkansas? This is my native state, and we’ve got lots of stories to tell.”

Georgia author Megan Volpert edited “Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear,” which was published by Et Alia in March.

“I see Erin at the forefront of this new South we are all trying to build together, something that is a little more progressive, a little more diverse,” Volpert says. “If you look at the types of writers she’s publishing, it’s a very diverse bunch and it’s mostly women. She gets a lot credit for being a small, one-woman operation, but not a lot of people look at the very quiet and useful way that her selections have been political.”

Wood grew up in Hot Springs, the daughter of Isabel Anthony and Stueart Pennington. She would help her father at his Oaklawn Sportswear store when she wasn’t riding horses, playing in the woods and making tiny books of her drawings and writing.

A competitive equestrian, she spent her high school years at boarding schools, first at St. Timothy’s outside Baltimore and then the Groton School, near Boston. She was also writing.

“I was always a really avid reader and I loved to write,” she says. “In ninth grade, I had a very encouraging English professor and started to write fiction.”

A fiction writing class with a linguistics professor at Duke was also a key influence.

“He really made me think that I had something going,” she says.

She graduated from Duke University with a degree in English and a minor in psychology and earned a law degree in 2005 from Georgia State College of Law in Atlanta, where she practiced construction and a little bit of trademark law for about two years.

The law, however, was not her calling.

“Even when I started law school, I feared the actual practice wasn’t going to be for me,” she says. “In the back of my mind, I was always thinking, is this what I’m supposed to do with my life?”

Her father had a heart attack and died at 58, which caused Wood to pause and take stock.

“I was maybe 29, and I thought if I had until I’m 58, is this what I’m supposed to do? The answer was no. So I decided to move back to Arkansas. It just made sense to be back closer to home and closer to family.”

She enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and earned her master’s of fine arts in professional and technical writing.

“It gave me a lot of functional applications for my writing,” she says. “I wrote grants, I started writing for foundations and learning fundraising writing.”

It also led to her involvement with Et Alia.

The press was founded in 2010 by George Jensen, professor of rhetoric and writing at UALR, and Missouri State English professor James Baumlin.

“Dr. Jensen played a very formative role in my graduate school experience,” Wood says. “He connected me with several freelance projects that I learned a lot from.”

Jensen and Baumlin approached Wood about coming on board.

“We thought Erin would be good addition,” Jensen says. “She could help with some of the law questions and she is also an excellent editor. She came right in and contributed … she had a lot of ideas about which direction we should go in terms of acquisitions and helped right off in editing.”

Their first two books were “Before I Sleep” by Frank Thurmond and “Blood and Milk: A Novel and Stories” by E.D. Blackmon.

Jensen and Baumlin, who were still teaching full time, left after a few years and Wood became sole owner in 2018.

“I think she has grown the company and has done some very interesting books,” Jensen says.

Et Alia has published some fiction and poetry, but Wood has guided the press toward nonfiction. She is also an enthusiastic publisher of children’s books, especially those that deal with difficult themes.

It’s a desire inspired by her own experience.

Her daughter, 8-year-old Isabel, was born premature at 23 weeks and has chronic lung disease.

“I was pregnant with twins and we lost her brother,” Wood says. “As a family, we’ve gone through a huge loss. As Isabel started to get to an age where we felt like it was time to discuss the loss of her brother with her, I was searching for books about twins. It was hard to find something that would fit our circumstances. I really want to be part of publishing books that help children feel seen and understood and help parents have difficult conversations with their children.”

In 2018, Et Alia published Daniel Rose Anderson’s “The Moon Prince and the Sea,” about two children with terminal illnesses. The book won a bronze medal in the health issues category from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.

“Adam Gets Back in the Game,” written by Craig Adams, Program Coordinator for the Center for Good Mourning and Staff Bereavement Support at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and illustrated by Paige Mason, deals with children coping with grief.

“It’s important for me to have books for children that aren’t afraid to go to difficult places,” Wood says.

When scouting new books for the press, Wood says she is looking for work that interests her first.

“Since I can only do so many books, it has to be something I’m personally excited about. A book is like a construction project. It always takes three to five times longer than you think it is going to, so it needs to be something I want to learn about.”

An author’s passion for his or her work is also crucial.

“It needs to be something that I think the author’s energy and enthusiasm are so great that readers are going to feel that, and they will want to learn about it as well and the author creates a hunger and an interest around their subject that makes everybody want to get involved.”

One example of this excitement generated by an author is “100 Insects of Arkansas and the Mid South: Portraits and Stories,” by Norman and Cheryl Lavers, which gives readers a look into the lives of insects through the Lavers’ photography and writing.

“I saw their extreme, over-the-top enthusiasm about insects, which I had never really given a whole lot of thought to,” Wood says. “That they could take something that is in a way obvious and everyday and awaken people to seeing it in a new way, that is one of the things that I look for, that fire coming from the author.”

Women’s voices are a also a crucial aspect to the press.

“Even when I practiced law, I was the only woman in my firm,” she says. “I realized that for a lot of my life, I have learned from men. I’m ready to learn from women and to gather the wisdom of women as I go into the next stage of my life.”

This was also the impetus that inspired “Women Make Arkansas,” which won a silver medal for Best Nonfiction South by the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was chosen as a 2019 Arkansas Gem by the Arkansas Center for the Book.

“That was my quest to do that in a formal way,” she says. “It was my excuse to really spend time listening to women.”

Et Alia, whose books are all printed in the United States, has cast a wide net among subjects. The press has more than 20 books in print, including “Can Everybody Swim? A Survival Story from Katrina’s Superdome,” Bruce S. Snow’s harrowing memoir of the six days he spent in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; “The Hospice Doctor’s Widow: A Journal,” Jennifer O’Brien’s book of the digital art journal she kept after her husband, Bob, was diagnosed with advanced, metastatic cancer; “The Mud and the Lotus: A Guide and Workbook for Students of Yoga,” by Courtney Butler Robinson and “Scars: An Anthology,” which was edited by Wood and explores experiences related to scars and the body.

Many of Et Alia’s authors are first-timers, including Gutierrez, founder of Aptus Financial, whose “But First Save 10: The One Simple Money Move that Will Change Your Life” was released July 22.

She had intended to self-publish, but knew Wood through a book club and Wood had offered to read what she had written.

“I thought that it was a huge opportunity,” Gutierrez says. “Her company is really exceptional, and I couldn’t let this go.”

Gutierrez admits that she thought there might be a round or two of edits on the book and then it would go to press.

She was wrong.

Women Make Arkansas: Conversations with 50 Creatives by Erin Wood, published by Et Alia Press in Little Rock

Women Make Arkansas: Conversations with 50 Creatives by Erin Wood, published by Et Alia Press in Little Rock

“We did a couple rounds of edits and we had more questions than answers,” she says. “We both came to the conclusion that the entire book had to be re-written.”

Even after rewrites, there were still eight more rounds of editing before the book was done.

“Erin read every single edit, alongside her editing team,” Gutierrez says. “There were sentences in there where we went to the mat, debating. Of course, she was always right.”

At the end of the process Gutierrez says the book, which sold more than 500 preorder copies, is even better than she’d hoped.

“I am so proud of this book. This is the book that I didn’t even know was possible. She cares and loves this book as much as I do.”

On her editing work, Wood says: “A lot of people are sharing and writing these stories that are their lives. You have to understand the person you’re working with …. Everybody feels differently, and I understand this. My experience as a writer and having been edited myself so much helps me navigate the nuances of the editorial relationship with writers.”

Among the forthcoming titles from Et Alia are “The Masked Project,” Little Rock photographer Ashley Murphy’s book of 100 portraits of people wearing masks during the covid-19 surge in the spring and “From Cotton to Silk: The Magic of Black Hair,” a children’s book by poet, actor, activist and textile artist Crystal Mercer.

Mercer and Wood first met when Wood profiled her in “Women Make Arkansas.”

“Erin is so easy to work with. She’s about her business, which I like,” Mercer says. “We have an understanding about how hard the work is, and how motivated and dedicated you have to be to get things done. Every hour of the day is a work hour.”

Each page of “From Cotton to Silk,” which is scheduled for release in the fall, will be hand-stitched by Mercer.

“It’s rooted so much in my own family,” Mercer says of the book. “Exploring and expressing and representing the beauty that is Blackness and our grooming and our rituals. It’s been special for me to share that part with Erin … I’m sending her something that no one has ever seen, or I’m telling her a story about a piece that has so much meaning to me. It’s been nice to have those private moments with her as we put this book together.”

Sarah Putnam was also featured in “Women Make Arkansas” and carries Et Alia titles in Bookish, her Fort Smith bookstore.

“I love reading her writing. She is so smart,” Putnam says of Wood. “I know that she does what she does for a living because she is passionate. She could probably be making a lot of money as a lawyer, but she has this small press that gives a voice to people who don’t always have a voice. That says a lot about who she is as a person. And she makes it easy for us to put those stories in the hands of our customers.”

Among the more popular Et Alia titles at Bookish are “Black and Kiddo: A True Story of Dust, Determination and Cowboy Dreams” by Brenda Clem Black and “100 Insects of Arkansas and the Mid South: Portraits and Stories,” Putnam says.

“I’m really excited about ‘Untold Arkansas: An Anthology,'” she adds, about the Wood-edited collection of photography, art and writing about everyday Arkansans.

As with most small businesses, running a do-it-yourself small press can be hectic. From managing the website to marketing, working with authors and fulfilling book orders, it’s an all-consuming job. Along with help from husband Brett and Isabel, Wood uses interns and depends on designer Amy Ashford of Baton Rouge to help craft the look of the books and the press.

“Everything you see looks so good on the website because Amy’s covers are so good,” she says. “None of this would be possible without her taking my crazy descriptions of what I think would make a good cover and her converting that into beautiful graphics.”

Wood, an ardent photographer who credits her mom for her creative streak, also likes to tweak the design of the copyright pages of Et Alia books.

“Why be boring when you can do something fun,” she asks in an email.

Publishing can be a challenging business at any time, but the pandemic has fostered new levels of creativity.

Instead of having the launch party for “But First Save 10” in a bookstore, it was held July 28 as a drive-through event — B.Y.O.B. Bring Your own Bumper — at a Cammack Village home with customers driving up and getting their copy.

“What Erin is doing is so different,” Gutierrez says. “Part of the reason she is so interesting is that she’s not just publishing these isolated books. She really is trying to amplify these voices … she’s trying to get these voices and make them a lot louder.”

Like local bookstores, art galleries, family-owned garages and other small businesses, small presses depend on the support of the community.

Wood recalls Et Alia once being compared to a microbrewery.

There is something to the analogy, she says.

“You’re not buying a Coors Light, you’re not buying just a basic trade book. You’re buying something made with love and care by people you can email or get on the phone. I feel really good about that.”