Hub City Press champions contemporary Southern writers

Nonprofit builds a literary scene in a former mill town and redefines Southern literature.

Publishing books that “don’t fit into the commercial publishing landscape” might not sound like a successful venture. But for Hub City Press, the 27-year-old regional publisher based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, this strategy has produced award-winning books by a diversity of emerging Southern authors, garnered national attention and created a thriving literary community in this former textile town.

The publishing company is part of the multi-pronged, nonprofit organization the Hub City Writers Project that publishes, educates, supports and promotes Southern writers and books about the South. And in the process, it may just be redefining Southern literature.

The organization was born at a Spartanburg coffeeshop in 1995 when Betsy Teter, then a columnist and business editor for the Spartanburg Herald, met with poet and Wofford College professor John Lane and fellow journalist Gary Henderson.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Inspired by the Federal Writer’s Project of the late 1930s, the trio had a mind to publish a collection of essays about the town. They called it the Hub City Writer’s Project, a nod to the town’s nickname from its formative years as a railroad center. The first book was “Hub City Anthology: Spartanburg Writers & Artists,” published in 1996 with an initial press run of 1,000 and a second run soon after.

“Local history was the initial direction,” says Teter, the founding managing director who stepped down in 2017 and remains active as a board member emeritus and advisor.

From the start the group saw themselves “as an arts organization, not a business,” says Teter, hence the non-profit status. Among its contributors is the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2001, the organization presented the first annual Writing in Place conference, bringing in authors of note for workshops and readings, and in 2009 it published its first book of fiction. That book, “Through the Pale Door” by Brian Ray of Columbia, South Carolina, also marked Hub City’s first literary prize, the annual South Carolina First Novel Prize.

Then came funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, the launch of the C. Michael Curtis Prize for short stories and the Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund Series, which recognizes literary fiction and nonfiction, as well as many other local and regional initiatives.

By the time the Hub City Bookshop opened in the Spartanburg Historic District in 2010, this town of 38,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains had become a prominent pin in the South’s literary map.

And it all happened under the tutelage of Teter, who was awarded the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2017 for her efforts.

Credit: Hub City Press

Credit: Hub City Press

Books of consequence

Unlike the big publishers in New York, Hub City Press holds an open-submission period every year when it accepts submissions from writers who don’t have literary agents. According to the website, it’s looking for books that “reinterpret, reimagine, or interrogate the modern or historical South.”

But beyond that, says Teter, “We are looking for books of consequence. We are looking for a book that is meaningful — a regional story that tells a universal one. We are pretty good at picking the right books,” she says, noting the organization’s three Southern Book Awards.

The current catalog tells its own story: In addition to books on regional history and other nonfiction like the just-released “Green Book of South Carolina: A Guide to African American Cultural Sites,” there is a healthy offering of novels, short stories and poetry.

Recent and upcoming releases include “Thresh & Hold,” a poetry collection by Marlanda Dekine, winner of the 2021 New Southern Voices Poetry Prize, and a paperback edition of “You Want More: Selected Stories of George Singleton,” a Spartanburg writer known for his wit and insight into small-town South.

Over the years, multiple Atlanta writers have been published by Hub City Press, including Jessica Handler (“The Magnetic Girl”), Julia Franks (“Over the Plain Houses”), Hannah Palmer (“Flight Path”), Mark Beaver (“Suburban Gospel”) and Anjali Enjeti (“The Parted Earth”).

Enjeti submitted her manuscript to Hub City Press during an open submission period for novels. “I ended up getting a contract late that fall,” she recalls.

She wonders what might have happened had she gotten an agent and aimed for a bigger press, but adds, “I’ve had an extraordinary experience (with Hub City Press). I feel like it got as much press as novels from the ‘big five’ (publishers).”

Hub City Press has a reputation for being supportive of its writers.

“We try to be super collaborative and open,” says Meg Reid, director of Hub City Press. “There are a lot of drawbacks with indie publishers, such as smaller teams, smaller print runs, less money for marketing. We try to make up for that with a more intimate editing and design experience, which is more collaborative and often more transparent than larger houses can offer ... We are also writers and artists — we never want (writers) to feel alone.”

That support is also apparent in the broad scope of Hub City Writers Project’s programming.

For 22 years the organization has held its annual Writing in Place Conference at Wofford College in the summer. Elizabeth Kauffman, a repeat attendee from Summerville, South Carolina, says the “camaraderie and generosity among the writers and the experiences of published authors” fosters a “generative environment.”

It also presents virtual and in-person writing workshops. In the past there have been writer-in-residency programs, but Hub City is now partnering with Chapman Cultural Center to present the Southern Studies Fellowship, which brings together an early-career writer and an early-career visual artist in Spartanburg for a nine-month period to collaborate on a project about the culture of the American South.

Credit: Kate McMullen

Credit: Kate McMullen

A broader reach

When Teter resigned in 2017, she set a high bar for the directorship of Hub City Press. But if anything, Reid appears to have raised it.

A Canadian who grew up in Maine, Reid, 35, is a graduate of UNC-Wilmington’s MFA program in publishing. She started with Hub City Press as assistant editor in 2013. As a transplanted Southerner, her perspective has helped promote the Hub City Press brand to a national audience.

“When I got here we were publishing five or six books a year and they were known and loved in the area,” she says. Nine years later, “We are building a list of writing that challenges what people think of when they think of ‘Southern’ literature,” she says.

One of the ways she’s accomplished that is by broadening Hub City’s scope. Reflecting a sense of place has always been an essential ingredient to Hub City Writers Project’s initiatives. At first that place was Spartanburg, then South Carolina. Now it is the greater South, which Reid defines as spanning from Washington, D.C., to Texas. And in the process, Hub City Press is redefining contemporary Southern literature.

“I understand what Southern writers are up against — what New York thinks a ‘Southern’ book is, the biases outsiders have.” The South is a “hugely diverse region,” she says, including what she calls “diversity of economic circumstances,” and she wants Hub City Press to reflect that.

As an example, she points to the 2020 novel “The Prettiest Star” by Carter Sickels, which won the Southern Book Prize. Set in the mid-1980s, it’s about a young gay man who escapes the prejudice of his small hometown in Appalachia to live the life of his dreams in New York City. But when he loses his partner to AIDS and contracts it himself, he’s forced to return home.

“The idea of someone with AIDS going back to a tiny, rural community — (New York publishers) would have wanted that to be an urban story,” says Reid. “We tend to have an inverted perspective.”

The national press has taken notice. In recent years Hub City books have garnered reviews or mentions in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

“Meg and I made a great team,” says Teter, “but she has truly provided the drive and vision to push us out into a larger, national audience.”

Nonetheless, Hub City Press is a small operation. That means Reid and Managing Editor Kate McMullen do almost everything: editing, publicizing, scheduling author events and even book design. They recently added a third staffer for sales and marketing. “We do as much as we can on a scrappy, small budget,” Reid says.

Not every idea has been successful. They discovered that publishing plays, children’s books and young adult submissions didn’t work as well as adult fiction. But the lessons they’ve learned have helped them to curate writers that resonate.

“People look to us for novels about the South,” she says.

Credit: Meg Reid

Credit: Meg Reid

‘Come in and visit’

The organization’s public face is the Hub City Bookshop located in a beautifully renovated space on the ground floor of the former Masonic Temple in the Spartanburg Historic District.

When it opened in 2010, it was the country’s first full-service bookstore run by a non-profit, says Teter. Having the Little River Coffee Bar serving pastries and caffeine drinks next door adds to the homey appeal, as does the “Hub Kitty,” Zora Nelle, a charming black-and-white shorthair that resides there.

The bustling, cozy space is the site of weekly events including author readings and book club meetings. Southern Living has named it one of the South’s best bookstores several times.

Opening the bookstore has “made all the difference in the world,” says Teter. “People from the town could come in and visit.”

Indeed, the store broke sales records in 2021, and it’s on track to do it again this year.

The “come in from the sidewalk” appeal reflects the publisher’s core principle by holding up a mirror to the South, albeit one that bears all the dings and textures and luminescence of a beautiful thrift store find.

“I don’t think they have a preconceived stereotype in their head about what a Southern writer looks like,” says Enjeti. “Hub City just opens its eyes and looks around and they see what they see — that’s who they publish.”