Small wonders

Quirks of Literature Dept.
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  February 3, 2010


The books — a quartet of them, each five-by-five, smaller than a CD case — feel like treasures, handsome little volumes, a different gem of a story in each. The one by Aimee Bender, sharp surrealist, features a miner, a logger, a bluebird, and a swan. Rebecca Lee's Bobcat details a dinner party and a possible Salman Rushdie manuscript. The sweet-toothed witch in Trinie Dalton's weirdie fairy-tale dates Death and a vampire named Chad. And Sumanth Prabhaker's novella-length dialogue discusses bread pudding and a caterpillar bite.

The series was just put out by the fledgling and Brighton-based Madras Press, founded by the 27-year-old Prabhaker as a nonprofit side project to his production day job at publisher Pearson Education. He started the organization with an independent, even rebellious (in publishing terms), philosophy behind it. "It became clear early on," Prabhaker explains over hot cider in Harvard Square, "that we weren't going to make any money." Madras deals in small batches (only 1000 copies of each of the first four titles were printed), and commits to working exclusively with independent bookstores. Moreover, instead of pocketing the proceeds, each author selects an organization where the money of the sales will go. Bender, for example, chose InsideOUT Writers, a nonprofit that conducts writing classes in the Los Angeles juvenile-hall system.

"It just seemed like a nice way to do things," says the soft-spoken Prabhaker — less about making a buck, and more about trimming away a burdensome publishing process. "Since it's this tiny project, it allows the authors to be much more involved. From small stuff like getting into the cover design process to determining where the funding from the sales goes. It seems so much more pleasant than sending a manuscript off and getting a book back two years later."

Publishing individual short stories and novellas, particularly in a way that's as well-designed as the Madras series, honors the form. As Prabhaker argues, some stories demand a different sort of treatment. Madras "treats the pieces the way they need to be treated, not bundled in a magazine or anthology." In talking about Lee's piece in particular, he says, "It's just a perfect story to me. It deserved to have its own front and back cover."

Prabhaker describes the stories as awkward — but "misfit" might be a better term. These are works, for reasons of length or content, that don't slot easily into mainstream publishing. Submissions for batch two are rolling in, and the second set of four should be out in late summer.

Boston is a fitting home for a press like this, says Prabhaker: "I don't think this project would've been a success in other cities. It feels silly to say, but people just seem so excited about it."

And for good reason. The books celebrate stories in a charming format, letting a work stand on its own. As Prabhaker says, "It's stupid that 'The Dead' has to come at the end of Dubliners."

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  Topics: Books , Salman Rushdie, Aimee Bender, Aimee Bender,  More more >
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