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This story is part of our State of the Arts collection: six stories that each check in on a specific segment of D.C.’s art scene, one year after the first lockdown.
The pandemic forced writers and publishers (and everyone else, for that matter) to reconsider their daily actions. Canceled in-person events meant no book tours. Readers couldn’t meander through bookstores, or pick featured books off curated tables. Friends couldn’t linger at The Royal or The Coffee Bar chatting about books and couldn’t swing by a Tuesday night reading at Politics and Prose. Personalized A Poem From The Cat Poster
An abundance of well-known writers live in the D.C. Area, and the city has an active small press scene, with many publishing houses collaborating and adding to the literary community. Beginning last March, these publishing houses, in concert with independent bookstores and literary organizations across the city, developed a thriving virtual literary scene. But since small presses lack the budgets and social networks of larger publishers, they rely on the local literary community and word of mouth to sell books. And all of the D.C. Area presses faced a similar struggle: How could they get books into readers’ hands without in-person events?
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Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a small press that utilizes a cooperative, volunteer-based model to publish area authors, had to consider the reality of pandemic-year sales when it proceeded with publishing the new anthology This Is What America Looks Like. In a typical year, WWPH chooses two winning manuscripts from local writers to publish, and those writers later volunteer with the press to help publish others’ books. In early 2020, before the pandemic reached D.C., it temporarily shifted to an anthology format in order to highlight a wide variety of authors and poets. The coincidental nature of the timing whispers of fate. The call for submissions came in February, just a few weeks before the first lockdown. A few weeks later, the world seemed to explode and shut down simultaneously, and books weren’t on most of our minds. But writers process through the written word, and so editors decided to move forward.
“This Is What America Looks Like was a repeated chant at the 2017 Women’s March—an acknowledgement of the diversity, size and peaceful passion of the crowd on that cold January day. Every work of art, no matter the subject, is a portrait of its time. This theme, this title, declaims that truth self-consciously,” says Kathleen Wheaton, president of WWPH. “That writing keeps happening, even, and maybe especially, in times of crisis.”