This year saw more than its share of bestselling, headline-making books, from memoirs by Prince Harry, Britney Spears and Jada Pinkett Smith to blockbuster novels by Zadie Smith, R.F. Kuang and Rebecca Yarros.
But there’s more to contemporary literature than the bestseller lists. Independent presses – which, as you know, we love – had a great 2023, putting out exciting books across all genres, some of which flew under the radar, but deserve audiences of their own.
If you’re looking for your next great read — or a book for someone on your holiday shopping list — consider picking up one of these titles from 25 of the most vital indie presses in the country. And if you buy from your local independent bookstore, so much the better.
“Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most,” edited by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips (Copper Canyon Press):
Publisher Copper Canyon has been a boldface name in the poetry world for more than 50 years. Think of this like a mixtape (or a playlist, for you younger readers) that will delight the verse-loving person in your life. This anthology collects 57 poems, selected by their authors, including Victoria Chang, Ada Limón, and Danez Smith.
“Love in Winter Wonderland” by Abiola Bello (Soho Press)
Soho is one of the nation’s most versatile indie presses, known for publishing both literary and crime fiction (and Mick Herron’s Slough House books). They also have a strong young adult roster, and those looking for a holiday gift for a teen reader might be interested in Bello’s novel about two young book lovers who fall for each other while working at a Black-owned bookstore.
“The Long Form” by Kate Briggs (Dorothy, a publishing project)
Briggs’ stunning novel about a young mother who becomes entranced by Henry Fielding’s “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” has been a hit with critics and deserves a wider audience (and good news, it’s gone into another printing!). It’s one of two books published this year by St. Louis-based Dorothy, a feminist press named after its editor’s librarian great-aunt.
“Octavia E. Butler: The Last Interview and Other Conversations” (Melville House)
Brooklyn-based press Melville House became one of the most-discussed indie presses shortly after its launch in 2001, and it hasn’t slowed down one bit. They publish a bunch of fascinating standalone books, but also maintain several giftable series, including “The Last Interview,” which collects conversations from cultural figures (think Joan Didion, Kurt Cobain and Prince). Last year, they published a fascinating installment featuring legendary SoCal author (and bookstore inspiration) Butler and this year added an edition featuring feminist author bell hooks to the series.
“Whale” by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Archipelago Books)
Nonprofit press Archipelago’s mission is to bring classic and contemporary books from around the world to English-language readers — and they do it with style; they’ve won praise for their gorgeous, spare book designs. One of their standout 2023 books is South Korean author Cheon’s deeply funny satirical novel about three women obsessed (to varying degrees) with animals.
“Bournville” by Jonathan Coe (Europa Editions)
Is someone on your holiday gift list an Anglophile? (No shame if it’s you.) British author Coe is one of the best-kept secrets in America, and his latest novel to be published stateside — about four generations of a U.K. family — is as funny and perceptive as he’s ever been. Publisher Europa Editions, known for introducing the works of Elena Ferrante to America, has an amazing backlist of great books from all over the world (not just Europe, despite the name).
“The Lost Journals of Sacajewea” by Debra Magpie Earling (Milkweed Editions)
This Minneapolis press has been what it calls “a site of metamorphosis in the literary ecosystem” since 1980; its backlist includes the phenomenally successful “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This year, it published this beautiful novel about explorer and guide Sacajewea, written by Bitterroot Salish author Earling. Fans of historical fiction and American history will find much to love in this one.
“Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine,” edited by Holly Gleason (Chicago Review Press)
Chicago Review Press celebrated its 50th anniversary this year; the publisher has gained a reputation for putting out a wide range of nonfiction titles. One of its specialties is music, and if you’re looking for a gift for any folk/Americana fans you know, you might want to check out this collection of interviews with the late singer-songwriter John Prine, curated by his longtime friend Gleason.
“Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel” by Shahnaz Habib (Catapult)
California indie press Catapult is one of the most reliable publishers in the U.S., big or small, and each year, they put out quality works of fiction and nonfiction. The frequent fliers in your life are likely to be enlightened and entertained by United Nations consultant Habib’s witty look at travel and tourism.
“Good Women: Stories” by Halle Hill (Hub City Press)
Hub City was born in 1995 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and continues to publish exciting voices from the American South. The sharp, often funny debut short story collection from North Carolina author Hill focuses on the lives of Black women living in the Appalachian South.
“Pay as You Go” by Eskor David Johnson (McSweeney’s)
Book lovers likely need no introduction to McSweeney’s, the San Francisco-based indie press that Dave Eggers established in 1998. This year saw the publication of Johnson’s hilarious debut novel, about a barber trying to find the perfect apartment. Readers who prefer their books both funny and profound are likely to be delighted by this one.
“Liquid Snakes” by Stephen Kearse (Soft Skull Press)
Journalist Kearse’s genre-bending novel follows a biochemist and two epidemiologists investigating a mysterious, deadly substance in Atlanta. It’s published by Soft Skull, the California press that’s gained a well-earned reputation for putting out adventurous and innovative books.
“Women Who Change the World: Stories from the Fight for Social Justice,” edited by Lynn Lewis (City Lights Publishers)
If you’re looking for a gift to inspire a changemaker who you know and love, consider this anthology of life stories from activists including Priscilla Gonzalez, Roz Pelles, and Betty Yu. It’s from one of the nation’s most famous indie presses: San Francisco’s City Lights, founded in 1955 by legendary poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure” by Robert Lopez (Two Dollar Radio)
The family-run Columbus, Ohio, press Two Dollar Radio has been publishing books “too loud to ignore” since 2015; they’re known for their indie/punk sensibility and striking book designs. Among this year’s crop of books was Lopez’s fascinating memoir about reckoning with the legacy of his Puerto Rico-born grandfather, and trying to rediscover the heritage that his family lost through two generations in the U.S.
“When Trying to Return Home: Stories” by Jennifer Maritza McCauley (Counterpoint Press)
McCauley’s beautiful debut short story collection, which focuses on Black American and Afro-Latino characters across the U.S., was longlisted for the prestigious Aspen Words Literary Prize. It’s another excellent offering from Berkeley-based Counterpoint, which publishes an eclectic list of books across several genres.
“House Woman” by Adorah Nworah (Unnamed Press)
L.A. publisher Unnamed Press is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary introducing readers to a diverse roster of fiction and nonfiction authors. One of its best offerings this year is author and lawyer Nworah’s novel about a woman who moves from Nigeria to southeast Texas, only to find herself embroiled in her in-laws’ messy lives. Thriller fans will want to take note of this one.
“Nefando” by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Sarah Booker (Coffee House Press)
If you’ve got a “Silent Hill” or “Resident Evil” fan in your life, they might dig this novel about six artists in Barcelona who all have a connection to a cult-favorite horror video game that calls its players’ ethics into question. It’s fitting that the novel comes from Coffee House, the Minnesota indie press that’s been pushing the envelope with surprising books for more than five decades.
“Midwest Pie: Pies That Shaped a Region,” edited by Meredith Pangrace (Belt Publishing)
Belt was founded more than a decade ago to bring readers books about “flown-over places.” Just in time for the holiday season, “Midwest Pie” combines history with recipes for pastries including Michigan pasties, Indiana Hoosier pie, and “desperation pies” (think mock apple and shoofly) from decades past.
“The Girl Before Her” by Line Papin, translated by Adriana Hunter and Ly Lan Dill (Kaya Press)
Founded nearly 30 years ago in New York, Kaya now calls Los Angeles (specifically, USC) home, and still puts out quality, innovative literature from Asian and Pacific Islander diasporic writers. This year saw the publication of French Vietnamese writer Papin’s first book to appear in English: a work of autobiographical fiction about a girl who is uprooted from her life in Hanoi at age 10, and who battles anorexia after moving to France.
“Happy Stories, Mostly” by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao (The Feminist Press)
The New York-based press, established in 1970, aims “to create a world where everyone recognizes themselves in a book.” This year, one of their releases is this wonderfully absurdist short story collection from queer Indonesian writer Pasaribu; it was longlisted for the prestigious International Booker Prize.
“Blocks World” by Emma Catherine Perry (Great Place Books)
A stunning debut poetry collection, Perry’s book tackles technology, family, and nature. It’s the first-ever book to be published by Great Place Books, an upstart press edited by acclaimed authors Emily Adrian (“The Second Season”) and Alex Higley (“Cardinal”) — the press’ second book, Julia Hannafin’s California-set novel “Cascade,” comes out next April.
“Shy” by Max Porter (Graywolf Press)
Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press is coming up on 50 years of publishing original books across all genres, from a wide variety of authors. One of its standout novels this year is the latest from English author Porter, about a troubled young man who escapes from the group home where he’s been living. This one will appeal to readers who prefer the darker side of literature.
“Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go: Stories” by Cleo Qian (Tin House)
This collection, from Qian, who grew up in Southern California, focuses on Asian and Asian American women reckoning with technology in a changing world. It’s another great book from Portland, Oregon, press Tin House, which is great at a lot of things, but especially short fiction collections.
“Night Letter” by Sterling Watson (Akashic Books)
Founded by Girls Against Boys bassist Johnny Temple, Akashic embraces books and authors who don’t fit into the mainstream. They also know noir better than just about any press in the business, and this novel — a thriller about a man in search of a woman he once loved — proves that.
“The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Stories” by Tennessee Williams (New Directions Publishing)
Indie presses often put out great works by contemporary authors, but they can be a great source of literature from writers from the past as well. This collection of seven previously unpublished stories from legendary playwright Williams — perfect for theater or classic literature fans — is the product of New Directions, which has been putting out great literature since 1936.