The Leading Ladies of Literature

Left to right, back to front: Danika Isdahl, Kristen Miller, Sarah Gorham and Joanna Englert. Far left: Sasha Isdahl.

Meet the team behind Sarabande Books

By Mariah Kline
Photos by
Andrea Hutchinson

In a second-story office in Louisville’s NuLu neighborhood, four devotees of the written word spend their days at Sarabande Books. The local independent publishing house is run by the dynamic team made up of Editor in Chief Sarah Gorham, Managing Editor Kristen Miller, Production Manager Danika Isdahl and Director of Marketing and Publicity Joanna Englert. Together, this impressive group of women is influencing the national literary scene while running the local nonprofit with grace and savvy.

Sarabande was founded in 1994 by Gorham and her husband Jeffrey Skinner, a poet, playwright and professor at the University of Louisville. Their mission from the beginning has been to advocate for the underdogs of the publishing world –  books of short fiction, essays and poetry – that go mostly overlooked by large publishing houses. Sarabande has a catalogue of more than 200 books and the house currently publishes 10 new books each year.

Sarabande’s Mission: “Sarabande Books is a nonprofit literary press founded in Louisville, Kentucky. Established in 1994 to champion poetry, fiction and essay, we are committed to creating lasting editions that honor exceptional writing.” | from sarabandebooks.org

“Because we were authors founding a press, we consider ourselves an author-oriented press,” says Gorham. “The authors get a lot more attention than they would at a commercial house.”

“We publish 10 books a year because that’s what our capacity is,” says Isdahl. “You don’t want to ever compromise the quality and time you give each book.”

In addition to genre, the team also focuses on the personal identity of writers and consistently publishes works from women, minority and LGBTQ writers. In an incredibly competitive industry, Sarabande is a beacon of hope for burgeoning authors, many of whom end up going on to work with commercial publishers.

Kristen Miller, Danika Isdahl, Sarah Gorham and Joanna Englert

“A lot of the writers we discover do their first and second books with us, and then the big houses will start to perk their ears up,” says Gorham. “It’s a great honor to be a launchpad for them.”

Well-known writers also benefit from the independent publisher’s efforts. Through their chapbook series, established and high-profile authors have the opportunity to put out shorter works that their commercial publishing houses may not want to take a chance on. One such project is the bilingual “Puro Amor” by Sandra Cisneros, who is known for her award-winning novel “The House on Mango Street.” Other prominent titles the house has put out include “Animals Strike Curious Poses” by Elena Passarello, “Hustle” by David Tomas Martinez, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” by Randa Jarrar and “Witch Wife” by Kiki Petrosino.

While the industry itself can be cutthroat, the network of small publishing houses Sarabande works with is notably symbiotic. As the brand’s publicist, Englert organizes hundreds of events for authors in different cities and is able to coordinate with fellow independent publishers to promote them. Sarabande’s authors are able to hold readings, go on lengthy tours and participate in literary festivals throughout the country.

The writers they represent live and work in all parts of the country, but Sarabande’s heart is firmly aligned with Louisville, where they have been headquartered since the beginning. In recent years, they have launched artistic and educational programming and hosted special events for the community. Sarabande Writing Labs reaches under-resourced areas including detention centers, homeless shelters and community centers. In these spaces, individuals of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to create new works and share their voices.

As they celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, the nonprofit is also engaging with other arts organizations in the community. In April, they took part in KMAC Couture through textile artist Andrea Hansen, who used the Sarabande-published “Make/Shift” by Joe Sacksteder to create a one-of-a-kind gown made of book pages. They participated in this year’s Awards in the Arts at Churchill Downs through the experience of poetry busking, in which a writer crafts personalized poems on the spot after only spending a few moments with someone.

“There’s an immediacy to poetry that I think lends well to engaging an audience,” says Miller.

“Social media is helping poetry to spread more,” Englert concurs. “You have so many great, active poets sharing snapshots of poems every day and tons of people interacting with that. The excitement and accessibility spreads it faster.”

Though poetry has experienced a certain resurgence lately – potentially due to the current political and social climate – Sarabande has long prioritized promoting the craft.

“Sarah’s editorial acumen has been at the forefront of a lot of trends, even preceding them,” says Miller. “She’s been our editor in chief from the very beginning, so her tastes have helped shape our entire catalogue. You can see these (works) start to gain widespread popularity, but these are things that Sarah’s been cultivating for decades.”

Gorham was also ahead of her time in establishing a creative and open-minded company culture at Sarabande. Isdahl frequently brings her dog Sasha to the office while Miller brings her young son.

“This is a press of all women, and I think that’s a really important part of our community with each other,” says Miller. “Sarah’s created this place where having a baby doesn’t have to ruin your career. That was important to me having my first child last year and knowing that I would still have a place here. We can keep doing the work that we’re doing while we have our lives.”

“We’re a real team,” says Gorham. “Each person works as hard as they can, and each person has incredible contributions to make. I couldn’t do it without them.”

Each staff member is also a writer, and all are encouraged by their fearless leader to spend sufficient time on their personal works. Gorham gives them a great deal of vacation time – and makes sure they use it – to go on “by-your-own-design writer retreats.”

“As a team, it’s nice to have such a support system for your own writing aspirations,” says Englert. “It’s great that we can all keep each other in check.”

“Imposter syndrome does not live here,” adds Isdahl.

As they share their literary passions, the fierce four of Sarabande Books hope others will embrace their craft and embrace reading as a social adventure.

“Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary experience,” says Isdahl. “We can engage with each other the same way we engage with Netflix shows. Reading is a form of media that is beautiful and rich and we should be sharing that with each other.” V

To learn more about Sarabande Books, visit sarabandebooks.org or call 502.458.4028.