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Not New York: Building Book Culture in Dallas, TX

by Will Evans

Dallas Bookstores Past and Present

Dallas Bookstores Past and Present

Recently, I started a publishing house—Deep Vellum Publishing—in Dallas, Texas. When I tell folks that I’ve moved to Dallas to start a publishing company that specializes in world literature in translation, and the first thing I hear is, “Why Dallas?”, I can’t help but get defensive. My response tends to come out a little annoyed: “Why not Dallas?”

Before moving to Dallas, I eagerly researched the city to discover where I would go to buy books, whose local literary events I could attend, and found that there were no bookstores, no publishers—not even a university press (SMU Press closed in 2011). After doing some research about the city, its existing infrastructure and arts scene, and inspired by Chad Post of Open Letter Books blog posts about the need for more publishers of literature in translation, I came up with the idea of starting Deep Vellum because there was nobody else in Dallas doing what I wanted to do, and if I don’t do it, when’s it going to happen?

The city is home to a litany of great authors—and we certainly have readers. The massively successful Half-Price Books chain is based out of Dallas, and their flagship store on Northwest Highway is among the best used bookstores I have ever visited. Once upon a time, downtown Dallas had America’s largest bookstore, Cokesbury. It closed in the ’80s, and in typical Dallas fashion, the building was demolished in the ’90s. The city of Dallas has a few other small used bookstores, like Lucky Dog Books, but there are no independent bookstores. (Not yet. A new store, The Wild Detectives is set to open this fall). None in Fort Worth, either, nor in Plano, a suburb of Dallas that has the highest per capita income in the country. The lone independent bookstore in the entire DFW area is The Book Carriage & Coffee Shop in a small, old railroad town called Roanoke, 32 miles northwest of Dallas.

I knew I would be alone in publishing here, but I also knew that there would be lots of people in the area who love books; it was just a matter of finding them and working with them to create a network of like-minded good people to promote book culture in the community. After all, Dallas is the ninth largest city in America and the hub of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Over six million people live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex—an amazingly international and diverse population with a booming job market, and a massive network of local nonprofit organizations and foundations with a tradition of supporting arts; yet, book culture in this part of the world is nearly nonexistent.

All this being said, Dallas is a great place for world literature. The University of Texas at Dallas has an outstanding translation program, home to some of the best and brightest literary translators in the country. A group of publishers across the state specialize in great world literature, especially from Latin America, including four university publishers (University of Texas Press in Austin; Texas Tech University Press in Lubbock; Arte Publico at the University of Houston; and Trinity University Press in San Antonio) and two other independent publishers (Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso and Host Publications in Austin). These publishers are an integral part of continuing to enrich Texas’s unique multicultural history, working to promote cross-cultural dialogue as the state grows more diverse every day, and I am proud that my company, Deep Vellum, can provide the Dallas base for another Texas publisher to bring the world’s greatest literature into English.

Deep Vellum - Logo (Lo Res)The name Deep Vellum is inspired by the coolest neighborhood in town, Deep Ellum—a cultural and entertainment district packed with bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and art galleries that contains a large swathe of Dallas’s cultural history within its low-slung brick buildings. It is my goal to build a more vibrant book culture in Dallas by promoting literature and books as the missing piece in Dallas’s arts community. I set up Deep Vellum as a nonprofit because in this day and age, I cannot honestly look a potential investor in the face and tell them I could make them a profitable return on their investment by the sale of books. But I do believe in the idea that books and literature are something more than commodities to be sold at the cheapest price, whether on Amazon or at Wal-Mart, and as a nonprofit I can approach potential funders and promise them a cultural return on their investment that provides a real value to the community.

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When I envision how to build a more vibrant book culture in Dallas, I ask myself what “book culture” really means. It’s something I’ll always try to consider and reconsider, but when I think of “book culture” now, I think about books everywhere, and not just the ones I’ll be publishing. I see literary quotes and poems as public art plastered on walls (like in Leiden, The Netherlands); pop-up bookshops and microlibraries bringing books to all the city’s neighborhoods; a literary festival in downtown public spaces (like the Brooklyn Book Fair); workshops to teach translation as creative writing as well as marketable business skill (like the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco).

Of course the books I publish are an important piece of this puzzle, but I cannot bring myself to publish these books into the void. It would be easy to set up shop in Dallas and use the connective powers of the internet to basically operate like a New York publisher: selling my books to New York bookstores, hosting author events in New York, flying in for New York literary events. But that is not what I am about. I want to be a Dallas publisher putting out books that people in Dallas will be able to find and read in their local libraries and bookstores, with authors from all over the world coming to Dallas and finding groups of readers they never thought existed just as much as I want readers in New York and San Francisco to enjoy the same benefits.

On the other side of the equation, I can’t bear the thought that people think they have to move to New York to work in publishing, especially when the future of this country, and the publishing industry, is going to be found outside of New York. It is where readers live, and it is where opportunities for growth exist, and the sooner the internet can level the playing field and get people interested in creating localized opportunities for books in their own city, THE BETTER. Where some would look at a city like Dallas and see a void, I see infinite possibilities. Dallas is the most prominent example of a city that is willing to completely reinvent itself regularly in a state that teaches its residents to dream as big as the Texas sky. And so it will take a little entrepreneurial spirit, tireless hustle, and a lot of patience, but I believe books will take root in Dallas again, and I know I am not alone now.

It’s the 21st century, the internet has smashed so many of the traditional barriers to doing crazy things like starting your own publishing house, so it’s time people take up the pioneering spirit and become the change the publishing industry across the country needs to see. It’s time to spread the idea that culture belongs to everyone across the country. If America is all about manifest destiny, being part of building book culture in Dallas is mine.

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Will Evans

Will Evans

Will Evans founded Deep Vellum Publishing in spring 2013. He graduated from Emory University in 2005 with degrees in Russian and History, then worked in the music business in Los Angeles and Austin before receiving a Master’s degree in Russian Culture from Duke University in 2012. His love of world literature and experience in Russian translation led him to start Deep Vellum to provide a much-needed outlet for the world’s great untranslated literature in English. A native of Wilmington, NC, he lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and cat.

6 Comments

  1. Lou says:

    Your aspirations to publish quality books in Dallas is great news. I will eagerly await news of your upcoming titles.

  2. Kris Kramer says:

    Hey Will, glad to see you here in Dallas, helping to build up the publishing scene. I’m a local indie author and founder of the4threalm.com, an indie author publishing imprint made up of a few other local authors. We write fiction mostly, but I’d still love to pick your brain sometime on the publishing world, seeing as how I’m mostly making this all up as I go!

  3. There is a publisher in Dallas, BenBella Books. We’ve been around for about a dozen years and publish thirty to forty titles each year. We’re located in northwest Dallas, not far from NorthPark mall. We work with agents around the country and we publish authors from around the country. We’re a trade publisher publishing almost entirely non-fiction (though we have a handful of fiction titles). We’ve had about a dozen New York Times bestsellers.

  4. Jim Korth says:

    Sir, I am starting out as a freelance writer and am wondering if sending articles to various magazines listed in Writers Market and similar guides is a good idea for starters. Do you have any insight on that? Thanks

  5. Lindsay says:

    Let me know if you need any assistants! I know a lot of writers in the Dallas area and am one myself.

  6. Jim Domke says:

    Videos can help build fans and motivate readers. 40 years experience telling the story in words and pictures. Spending time editing your story down to create a web video. Happy the help writers get the word out.

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