Ann Arbor District Library's Fifth Avenue Press turns local authors' dreams into printed realities

The Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) has long offered a staggering range of materials and resources, but the library recently added yet another community role to its ever-growing list: publishing books.


"It's like we're book doulas," says AADL deputy director Eli Neiburger, referring to the library's newly launched Fifth Avenue Press. "We help with the birth, and then we hand the baby to you and say, 'Good luck!'"


Inspired in part by AADL's well-attended monthly creative writing classes and workshops, Fifth Avenue Press – named for the street the downtown library is located on – just held an official launch party for its first nine titles by local writers. The nonuplets, to continue Neiburger's analogy, are a diverse bunch, ranging from poetry to memoirs to a comic book.


"This is a community and a town that's very interested in writing," says AADL director Josie Parker. "We knew from consistent attendance at our programs that there are a lot of writers here, so we thought we could offer them the chance to publish a book locally, and have it available here at the library, but also let them retain the rights to their work. … We'd get (the books) to the point where they're digitally publishable, and then what they choose to do with it is up to them."


After launching an emerging writers workshop series in 2014, AADL's leadership last year began looking into how to make a book publishing model work.


"There was clearly a demand among local writers," Neiburger says. "For some people, it's just something they do for fun, or as a hobby, but others clearly wanted to take their work to the next step."


So Fifth Avenue Press put out a call for online submissions in January 2017. Out of about 30 submissions, nine were selected for publication. Author Carolyn Nowak's comic book Chad Agamemnon was chosen as the program's pilot publication, in part so the library could distribute it in May on Free Comic Book Day.


While a number of the press' first titles have strong thematic ties to the Ann Arbor area, the program is decidedly open to a broad range of topics and writing styles. (Submitting writers must reside in Washtenaw County.) And once a manuscript gets the green light, the writer is paired with an in-house AADL editor.


"We have specialists in each kind of genre on staff, so it was actually easy to find expertise within the organization," says Neiburger.


Proofreading, formatting, layout, format conversion, design, and cover art are also provided, in exchange for permanent digital distribution to AADL cardholders. The final product is formatted for e-book publishing, as well as on-demand print publishing, should the author wish to pursue that on his or her own. AADL purchases printed hard copies to add to the library's collection from those authors who do pursue print publication.


New publications are celebrated via a launch/book release event, and Fifth Avenue Press provides resources for authors to market and promote their books once they're published. The author retains the copyright for the work, and all decisions beyond the book's launch lie in the author's purview.


"We're interested in it as a local service," Parker says. "We're not out to replace the publishing industry."


Following the inaugural batch of releases, Fifth Avenue Press won't publish books in clumps, but will rather consider submissions on a rolling basis.


"We're not approaching individuals at this point," says Neiburger. "They're pitching ideas to us."


One Fifth Avenue Press author, Huron High English and video production teacher R.J. Fox, previously had a memoir entitled Love and Vodka published by Ann Arbor-based Fish Out of Water Books. But he'd been struggling to place his personal essay collection, Tales from the Dork Side.


"The word 'essay' makes people nauseated," says Fox. "It just makes everyone think about what they had to write in school. And in terms of what sells, full memoirs are more appealing in the marketplace. It's a smaller niche of readers that will read a collection."


Fox's essays touch on his childhood obsession with sea monkeys, his futile attempts to play sports, and his experience with being bullied – "not in a 'woe is me' way, but instead, 'look how I became stronger,'" he says.


Local writer (and Fifth Avenue Press editor) Alex Kourvo helped shape Fox's manuscript, cutting away some essays while also suggesting new ones to make the collection more cohesive.


"I'm proud to be part of what [Fifth Avenue Press is] doing," says Fox. "It's great for the library, and it's great for the community. … I think a lot of people who've already written something, or who want to write a book – once they know this exists, it might inspire them."


Meg Gower's picture book Michigan Moon drew from the author's childhood, too, but then took some fanciful turns of imagination.


"It started off as a song my mother used to sing to me as a lullaby," says Gower, who lives in Chelsea. "It was one verse, but a few years ago, I expanded it into a longer poem."


She'd workshopped the poem with her Chelsea-based writing group, and not only did she get great feedback, but a fellow member shared Fifth Avenue Press' call for submissions.


"I sent it in, not expecting anything in return," says Gower. Instead, "they said, 'We love it. Can you give us more?'"


Though retired now, Gower used to be a naturalist at Waterloo Recreation Area, so the book that evolved into Michigan Moon features nature photography paired with lyrical verse.


"I took some pre-orders to get a feel for how many copies I might sell if I had some books printed," says Gower. "I didn't know. I thought I might sell 10 copies to friends and family. But I got 80 pre-orders, so I'm really happy with that."


Rich Retyi, author of Fifth Avenue Press title The Book of Ann Arbor: An Extremely Serious History Book, was contacted by Arcadia Press a year ago about writing an Ann Arbor history book. Arcadia likely took note of Retyi for his work hosting the AADL-presented Ann Arbor Stories podcast.


"It was very flattering. I'd never written a book, and like anyone who writes, that's the ultimate goal, right?" Retyi says. "To write a book, and not just talk endlessly about one day writing a book. … But with Arcadia, the numbers of it didn't add up, in terms of the time and money I'd be putting in to do the book."


As Retyi mulled over Arcadia's proposal, Neiburger and others suggested he try publishing a book via Fifth Avenue Press. Retyi, who has since been hired as AADL's marketing and communications manager, decided to build a book specifically around the local history he's explored on his podcast. He says he appreciated all the editing and feedback he received during the Fifth Avenue Press process, and the fact that someone was keeping him on task.


But most importantly, Retyi says his book would likely never have been born without Fifth Avenue Press.


"The only reason this book happened is because of the library," he says. "I've been kicking around book ideas since I was 18 years old. This just would not have happened. And for first-time authors, it's just so exciting to think about how good it's going to feel to have your book out there, and to be able to share it with friends and family."


Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.


All photos by Doug Coombe.