Pasadena’s Red Hen Press Goes Beyond Scratching the Surface for Authors

Books are in trouble, but this publisher's not chicken.

5 mins read
books on a shelf
A selection of Red Hen Press titles. Photo: Red Hen Press

Who will help me curate and publish essential poetry and prose from undiscovered writers?”

“Not I!” said Penguin Random House.

“Not I!” said Hachette Book Group.

“Not I!” said HarperCollins.

“Not I!” said Doubleday/Knopf.

“Me either!” said Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Nah,” said Simon & Shuster.

“Are you nuts?” said Macmillan.

“Fugghettaboutit!” said Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Well, alrighty then,” said the Red Hen, smoothing her ruffled feathers, “Thank you very much, then I’ll just do it myself.”

This favorite fable about an industrious bird and her struggle to get a loaf of bread made with zero support from goofy barnyard neighbors supplied Red Hen Press with its name when the independent book publisher was established in Pasadena in 1994.

Today, the good news is “We’ve since evolved, and now everyone we work with, from our authors to our readers, is happy to help make the bread and eat it, too!” says Monica Fernandez, Media Director for the nonprofit press.

Poultry motifs abound in Red Hen’s large industrial space on Lincoln Avenue, but the folksy decor is misleading: Red Hen Press means business.

In Fall 2023, the press will feature a lucky-13 assortment of writings from a rich array of authors, ranging from a new short story collection, You Were Watching From the Sand, from Haitian-South Floridian author Juliana Lamy, to the new fantasy novel Cursebreakers by Madeleine Nakamura, to Rx, a book of new poems by Josh Sapan, former President, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of AMC Networks– he championed Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Portlandia and Better Call Saul, among many other television ventures.

(above) Red Hen authors with books appearing in Fall, 2023. Photos: Red Hen Press

Fernandez says, “We’re all about promoting literacy and sharing unheard stories. The Big Five (publishers) publish books that they hope millions of people will like. We want to publish 100,000 books that readers will LOVE.”

Although much of the Red Hen team is volunteer, this doesn’t feel like a shoestring operation. The enormous building, recognizable by the black silhouette of a large hen on the exterior, includes space for a couple of rooms of neatly shelved inventory. The rest is managed by an offsite distributor.

Each year, Red Hen Press publishes 25 new titles, an act of faith if there ever was one. In spite of a hopeful spike during the pandemic, the book market is dangerously soft.

In defiance of common wisdom, Red Hen takes risks.

In defiance of common wisdom, Red Hen takes risks. This year, the press has published its first children’s picture book, Tree Spirits by Louise Wannier. This softbound book for young readers fires up the imagination by helping them “see” the hidden faces and patterns in photographed trees.

But kids’ books aren’t the half of it when it comes to breaking barriers. Red Hen has street cred as a publisher of LGBTQQIP2SAA+, emphasis on the “+” as the acronym expands. Fernandez says, “We’re looking to publish stories where people can see themselves. We explore what deserves to be told, and we begin by asking, will this story make a connection?”

However, the publisher is not limited by cultural or gender parameters. Perhaps what’s most revolutionary about this upstart imprint is that authors may directly approach Red Hen in hopes of getting their manuscript published, without the traditional requirement of doing so through a gatekeeper in the form of a literary agent, since conventional publishers refuse unsolicited queries and manuscripts.

The task of securing an agent, as any unpublished author will confirm, is as formidable as any that writers encounter. Dismantling that barrier to entry fosters inclusion, connection, and a sense of identity.

A car parked in front of a building
Red Hen Press’ HQ on Lincoln Avenue. Photo: Red Hen Press

So, although Red Hen Press will celebrate three decades in Pasadena in 2024, many haven’t been to even one of their events. You’re not alone, and you are missing something.

Fernandez refers to the Hen House Literary Center, Red Hen’s inviting performance space hung with original art by local artists, as the best-kept secret in Pasadena. A new sound system is now on its way for better acoustics, courtesy of generous donors.

Your kids may know more about Red Hen Press than you do, since WITS (Writing in the Schools) is a free creative writing workshop offered by Red Hen Press since 2003. So far, the WITS program has enriched the education of more than 4,500 low-income students in grades two through 12 across Los Angeles with five weeks of in-class writing workshops led by local authors, supported by free copies of Red Hen textbooks.

With an Advisory Board that lists Amy Tan and Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa as members, Red Hen may indeed be a promising resource for educators as well as for readers and writers. The press has published more than 500 titles to date with a slew of accolades to match, including Guggenheim Fellowships, numerous state poet laureateships, and finalist honors for NAACP Image Awards and the PEN America Literary Award, among many others.

As a palate-cleanser, check out Red Hen’s The Los Angeles Review, where fiction, nonfiction, poetry and translation submissions and recommendations for book reviews from both published and emerging writers throw light into the many corners of Angeleno life.

In addition, Red Hen Press awards five annual literary prizes each year in poetry, fiction, women’s prose, Quill (Queer) prose and the Ann Petry Award for Black prose writers. Entry fees are modest, from $25 to zero dollars, welcoming—even daring—storytellers, praise-singers, cantadoras, rhymers, griots and scribblers of all sorts to let their voices be heard.

Books are in trouble

Political factions call for the sanctimonious removal of tomes as familiar as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The King James Bible from school curricula. Struggling bookstores openly admit that gifts—mugs, scarves, earrings, tote bags—have become their retail bread and butter. Libraries are bursting at the seams with discarded volumes donated by downsizers and empty nesters.

And yet.

There’s something itchy in our human nature that only a book can scratch. Books promise adventure, and invite ritual in revisiting. Something compels us to return to a favorite book, a favorite phrase, which we repeat and commit to memory, simply for its cadence and feeling. Books take us to intimate spaces we can never know except through the author’s voice.

There’s something itchy in our human nature that only a book can scratch.

Consider the melancholy of John Cheever, who wrote in his foreword to his collected short stories that they are “…about a time when New York City was still filled with river light, and nearly everyone wore a hat.” Expect an involuntary gasp when you re-read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, where the young protagonist discovers the motherless fawn that will change his life hiding in the scrub and whispers to it, “It’s me.” Even these perhaps dated, highly conventional, utterly white authors take us by surprise.

For although we cannot be the gin-soaked Chekhov of the suburbs, or the barefoot Floridian sharecropper’s child of a century ago, books create mirrors in which we see ourselves. And as independent publishers like Red Hen Press present an increasingly diverse array of mirrors, this recognition becomes more nuanced, more focused, and more relevant.

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Victoria,
    Thank you so much for this lively and accurate profile of our beloved Rend Hen Press. Pasadena does have a treasure in this hen house, and you tell the story in a vivid and arresting way.

    WIth gratitude,
    Kim Stafford
    Red Hen author

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