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Sarabande Books elevates local profile

Students in Americana Community Center's summer youth program take part in Sarabande Writing Labs.

Louisville poet Brandon Shatter Harrison leads a writing exercise with Sarabande Writing Labs.

Students' writing is collected in an anthology, If I Ruled the World

Participants sign each other's anthologies.

Students pose with Sarabande staff members and Louisville poet Brandon Shatter Harrison.

Kiki Petrosino

Sarah Gorham

Paul Griner

It was January 8, 2008 just about 11 a.m. in the morning – the memory is very clear for Kiki Petrosino. It was the moment she got the call. Sarabande Books wanted to publish her first book.

“I was so thrilled, that’s why I remember the day so clearly,” Petrosino says.

Petrosino dreamed about having a book published. She’d had a few poems published in journals. She’d spoken to some editors. She’d entered contests. And she’d written a collection of poems as part of her master’s thesis.

But it wasn’t until she met Sarah Gorham, one of the founders of Sarabande, that she felt like she’d found a publishing match. “It was such a wonderful, warm, sincere encounter with an editor,” Petrosino says of her first meeting with Gorham.

So, when that call came from Gorham a few months later, Petrosino saw a dream come true. Now a professor at the University of Louisville, Petrosino is preparing to publish her third book with Sarabande in 2017.

Literary Gem
Gorham and her husband, Jeffrey Skinner opened Sarabande books in Louisville in 1994. The first four titles were published in 1996, with the first garnering a coveted New York Times book review.

When they first began, Gorham says the “primary focus was to make ourselves known nationally.”

For 22 years, Sarabande did just that, operating a nationally recognized literary press from its office in the Highland’s area Douglass Loop. Over time they moved from publishing four titles in its first year to now doing 11 or 12 books annually. The company focuses on poetry, essays, short stories and occasionally novels and novel-length essays.

In June, the company made a move aimed at bringing a higher local profile – moving into the growing NuLu neighborhood in the building formerly occupied by the Speed Museum during its renovation period. Now the building, where they use the second floor, will also house a new branch of Parkside Bikes, as well as Thrive Studio.  

“We want to be more visible,” Gorham says, adding that they are now participating in the Flea Off Market located down the street from their new office. And they plan to participate in the Republic Bank First Friday Hop and the NuLu Festival.

“Literature is art,” Gorham says. “We want to be good neighbors. We want to promote the literature of Kentucky that we publish.”

A Writer’s Home
Paul Griner appreciates the interest in Kentucky authors and Kentucky literature. After working with larger publishing houses for his first four books, Griner partnered with Sarabande for his fifth book, Hurry Please, I Want to Know.

While he had positive experiences in publishing before, Griner says it was special working with Sarabande because it is a smaller operation with a little more personal attention. When he’d worked with larger companies before, he often found himself working with different people because of high turnover as young people cycled in and out of the company.

But at Sarabande, Griner says, many of the same people have been there since the beginning. “It’s comforting and comfortable to know that you’ll be working with the same people again,” he says.

That was part of the goal, Gorham says.

“We were founded to be a home for writers in the old-fashioned sense of the word,” she says. Many of their authors, including Petrosino, have published multiple titles with the company.

Knowing she’s part of the Sarabande family gives Petrosino a sense of stability and comfort as she writes, but it also pushes her, she says, because she wants to please the team as well.

“It’s freeing because I have hope that the books I write Sarabande will like and will publish,” she says. “It’s a stability you feel, but you want to keep striving.”

Engaging Community
One way the company engages locally is to hire interns, many of whom are local students. They undergo a rigorous program where they get immersed in the entire business, each working on specific projects but also getting a taste of every element of publishing – from marketing to contracts to financing.

Sarabande also sponsors writing labs that take workshops into community centers, addiction recovery centers and mental health facilities. For example, the Americana Community Center summer youth program took part in Sarabande Writing Labs. Louisville poet Brandon Shatter Harrison led writing exercises, and students’ writings were collected in an anthology, If I Ruled the World.

With just 11 or 12 books published each year, Sarabande is quite selective in what they choose. When they started out, Gorham read all the materials herself. But with about 4,000 proposals coming in each year, Gorham needs some help.

The company sponsors national literary contests that bring in 2,000 to 3,000 works that get screened by readers from across the country. Those essays and poetry collections get narrowed down to 20 to 30 finalists who get reviewed by both Gorham and Skinner, who narrow the pool even further to 10 that will be reviewed by nationally recognized authors.

Over the years, Gorham says the company has incorporated ebooks into their business plan, but the publishing of print books remains the focus. “People are getting screen tired,” Gorham says. “There has always been a place for a beautiful literary object.”

And it’s the attention to creating something beautiful that Griner really appreciates. “They take the time so that a book comes out looking the way you want it to,” he says. “They take real care.”

That’s what attracts authors to Sarabande, Griner says. “They know Sarabande does really high quality stuff.”

Just two weeks before Christmas, Petrosino opened her email to find the cover for her third book sitting there. She was thrilled to see a work of art that captures the mood of her work, well beyond what she expected even though she’d had several conversations about it with the designer.

“Seeing it was just as exciting as it was getting that first call,” she says. “I know someone cares enough to design a cover that matches the mood.”

Both Petrosino and Griner say Sarabande is a literary gem here in Louisville, and they hope the move to NuLu will only increase the profile of the company locally.

“Louisville is a city of makers,” Petrosino says. “Sarabande fits right in with that.”
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