Thoughts on Small Press #5—Don’t Cut Corners

the old knowledgeMy involvements with small presses have so far been only as a customer, and I’ve yet to have a really bad experience in dealing with any of them—just the occasional delay in shipment, usually for production reasons. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or I just have good taste in small presses. 🙂

The most annoying issue I’ve had with some small presses (not SRP) is poor proofreading and typography. I’ve seen books where the text was obviously scanned and OCR’d but never proofread at all, with errors on nearly every page, sometimes making it difficult to be sure what the author actually wrote. I’ve seen books with such narrow margins that the text extended nearly into the gutter (which is particularly bad with paperbacks, since it requires putting stress on the spine to spread the pages far enough apart to read everything). SRP’s books, in contrast, are a pleasure to read: comfortable to hold, well designed, and proofread so well that in my entire shelf of SRP titles I think I have found only two or three typos.

The time-consuming labor of proofreading seems like it would be a huge burden for a one- or two-person small press. One question I have for you is, how would you characterize the time and attention you put into making your books as error-free as possible? Or does your typesetter friend Ken take on most of that work? – Craig Dickson


I apologise it’s taken me so long to get to your question, Craig, which is definitely a good one! Angie McKeown asked a related question:

Could you talk a little about this high-end finish as it relates to your planning and logistics (are there things that are different than if you were producing cheaper books for example), and how it has impacted on your up-front costs and if you pitch your brand differently because of it.

I’m going to take my usual meandering approach in my response. As with so many of these questions, the answer is intertwined with myriad other thoughts. But hopefully I’ll keep such crowding to a minimum and try to answer your questions as best I can.

I can’t remember now which book it was, but it was one of our earlier ones. It might have even been Rosalie Parker’s The Old Knowledge (2010), which was our first hardback. Anyway, I’d sent a review copy to a well-respected editor. They wrote me a nice response, generally complementing the book’s production values. But there was one element that they singled out for praise: running headers. For those who don’t know, the running headers appear at the tops of the pages and usually display the book title, story title, author’s name, or a combination of these things. Grab a book nearby and have a quick look to see if it has running headers. (See if you can find one without them—which do you prefer?)

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If you ask me, I think running headers in a book much improve the publication. Are they strictly necessary? Nope. Not in the slightest. You can read a book without running headers with no trouble at all. But do they make the book smart? Absolutely.

Let’s look at another example Craig brought up in his question: page margins. Have you ever seen a book that squashes as many lines onto the page as possible? You can delete the running header and gain a couple of lines. You could also expand the type area to the edges of the page and fit even more text in. Decrease the typeface and you can cram in still more text per page. Why do this? Well, for one, a book with fewer pages is cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to buy, right? But is the reading experience at all comfortable? Does it show the text the respect it deserves? Probably not. For me, margins frame the print area so that the text doesn’t overwhelm the eye. So while margins don’t have to be as wide as six-lane highways, just don’t skimp. It can look amateurish. (Sorry, but I think it’s true!)

Designing a book is a skill—one that not everyone who publishes books takes the time to cultivate or, sometimes, even consider. My own approach to publishing is this: don’t cut corners. So much work goes into these creating Swan River Press books. As a publisher, it’s part of my job to communicate to the author that I respect their words; and to readers that their time and experience are equally valuable. One doesn’t do that with the publishing equivalent of austerity measures. My goal is always to make the best book I can. Another way to put this, and to steer this answer more toward Angie’s question: in for a penny, in for a pound.

These days just about anyone can put text into a pdf and upload the file to a print-on-demand service provider. The effort required can be minimal. For some people that’s fine—so long as the words get out and into the world, the medium is of no concern. I’ve chosen to define Swan River a little differently. I want readers to feel that they’re getting something of quality, something that’s gone through a considered process in which deliberate design decisions have been made. I do this by investing money into production values. This includes things like sewn-binding, lithographic printing, and those lovely head- and tail-bands. My hope is when someone picks up a Swan River book, they will get a sense pretty quickly that it’s not a mass market production.

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There are other expenses too. As Craig mentioned, there’s also proofreading. And as Craig also hints, lack of proofreading is a common enough pitfall in the small press. Swan River is not a one-person operation. While I usually give all the texts a first-pass edit and proof, Jim Rockhill is our formal proofreader. Sometimes I’m embarrassed at what I miss when he returns a text to me, but that just makes me all the more grateful for his services and expertise. I’ve learned that a second set of eyes is crucial. A trained second set of eyes is indispensable—and will cost you. Oof, I know! But again, don’t cut corners. (Certainly the odd typo will sneak through—I spotted one the other day in The Green Book 13 that I hadn’t caught!! Let us never speak of it again.)

Similarly, Ken Mackenzie does all our typesetting—keeping those running headers in order and the margins pleasingly spacious; while Meggan Kehrli does all our design work, including choosing those head- and tail-bands. Ken is far better at typesetting than I ever will be. Meggan’s design sensibilities and training would run circles around my feeble attempts any day of the week. Of course it would be cheaper to do it myself, but, ladies and gentlemen, you do not want me designing book covers. A smart publisher will find good people to work with and pay them. It’s worth it in the long run. Trust me. Don’t cut corners.

75026090_10156236635282303_459789864083128320_oThis obviously has an impact on up-front costs, as Angie rightly points out. It’s definitely not easy, and one of my future posts will more directly address financing—a subject I’ve been dancing around since the start of this column. Finding readers and building a customer base is also extremely difficult. Suffice to say, I prefer long-term investment in quality as opposed to cheaper and faster. In fact, there are some titles in our catalogue that are losing money. Not because they don’t sell, but because I’ve decided to dump so much money into their production. Our recent sesquicentenary edition of Green Tea (2019) is an example of this. It’s illustrated, comes with a specially commissioned audio adaptation of the story, plus a bunch of postcards. I’ve no regrets about this at all—the book came out exactly as I wanted it to. Design is one of the things that sets Swan River Press apart from the others, and readers who do find their way to us appreciate that. Plus it’s also something of which I can be proud.

So I hope I’ve answered your questions, Craig and Angie. Thank you again for taking the time to ask, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to clarify. Naturally all of the above waffle is simply how I do things. It’s what has worked for me for the past decade or so. If you’re a publisher or self-publisher with a different approach or alternate goals, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

IMG_0003Finally, if you’re interested in Swan River Press’s design methods, have a look at this previous post in which I lay out how we put together Insect Literature (2015)—possibly one of my favourite books to work on.

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #5—Don’t Cut Corners

Our Numbered Editions

Numbered 1One of the things newcomers to Swan River Press might overlook are our numbered editions—and how they might go about getting one of them.

The first one-hundred copies of each new book is issued with an embossed stamp, hand-numbered by yours truly. Often the numbered edition comes with a similarly numbered postcard (or postcards; also usually signed by the author if that’s something I can manage, and also only while supplies last).

I believe the first book we did this for was Helen Grant’s The Sea Change & Other Stories (2013). By that point, I was casting around for ideas to make Swan River books just that much nicer for our readers, for them to be just a little more intimate and special.

20200405_143115I hasten to add that these numbered copies contain the same text as the “standard edition”—the sole difference is that I’ve gone at it with the embossing stamp and a bit of ink. Regardless of which edition you get, you’ll end up with the exact same text.

So the question is now, how do you get one of these numbered copies?

That’s easy! First thing you’ll want to do is join our mailing list. You’ll get notifications when we announce a new book. I simply allot the numbered copies on a first-come-first-serve basis, while supplies last. And I don’t charge any extra for them either—the pre-order price for numbered copies is the exact same price I would normally charge for an unnumbered copy. If I’ve run out of numbered copies by the time you order, I’ll simply send you an unnumbered copy.

20200405_143055However, if I have any remaining numbered copies after pre-order, when the book is actually in print, then I tend to increase the price for the remaining numbered copies by a fiver. Or something like that!

Do you want to collect a specific number? That’s no problem too. After you’ve ordered, just send me an email with the number you want. If it’s available, I’ll happily send that one to you, otherwise you’ll just get the next available in sequence. Keep in mind, many numbers, such as #1-15, are indefinitely claimed. But sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask and I’ll always do my best to get you the number you want.

As always, Swan River Press books in any edition are limited. In all cases, if there’s a book you want, I advise ordering it sooner rather than later, as second-hand prices on some of our books have become quite prohibitive for some.

I’ve a few numbered copies of various titles still knocking about the office at the moment—nothing extremely rare or much-sought after (just in case you’re hoping to dodge second-hand prices for books like Insect Literature or Earth-Bound). But if you’re interested in anything, do drop me a line.

 

Our Numbered Editions

Greetings from Plagueland

ET-6P55WoAE1ehuUpdate 7 April 2020:

Hi folks, I hope you’re all keeping well  and in good health. Another brief update here.

I made a trip to the post office today to get a few things out, buy more stamps, and, most importantly, to do some grocery shopping. I hadn’t left the house in over a week, so the cupboards were quite bare!

In any case, if you’ve ordered anything from me lately, it’s in the post. Delivery times are usually around a week, but do expect delays.

There are three packages I was not able to send: I’ve been in touch with ye already, you know who you are. I’ll keep the books safe here until we get the all clear.

I’ve had a look at An Post’s list of countries with suspended postal service. Among them are some countries we frequently send books to: Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia. Of course you can still place orders. We’ll just keep them safely here until they can be posted.  More information here.

I was also informed today at the post office that, for the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to send any packages over 2kg. In practical terms, that’s up to three books. Any other guidance on post going to European/North American destinations can be found here, suffice to say the 2kg limit is currently the main one.

That’s it for now. If you’ve any questions at all concerning books or delivery, please contact me. And if you’d like, you can always subscribe to the mailing list. Or just fire away and order a book! As always, thank you to everyone for your support and patience through this. Stay safe! – Brian


Update 5 April 2020:

I hope everyone is still faring well and in good health. This is an update simply by way of checking in rather than having any news. But all going well here. Thank you for all the orders–I’ve been getting them in the post as I can. If you’d like to order something, but are unsure about one thing or another, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

I’m still hoping Lucifer and the Child will remain on schedule, but we’ll see. I’ve also been keeping busy by working on The Green Book 14, which was meant to be out in Autumn 2019. You never want to rush a good thing though, right? I’m also simultaneously working on The Green Book 15, which is the Spring 2020 issue. The plan at the moment is to have those ready to ship along with Lucifer and the Child.

If you’re not already on our mailing list, do consider joining. Fastest and easiest way to keep abreast anything new. Until next time, keep in touch!


Update 29 March 2020

A bit of good news! So it turns out I will be able to continue with some shipping during lock down. An Post have confirmed that they will still be making daily collections from pillar boxes–and as I have a pile of stamps here, I will still be able to post single book orders (because that’s all that will fit through the pillar box slot). If you want to order two books, they will ship as separate packages. There are numerous pillar boxes close by, and an isolated fella needs to stretch his legs at some point.

Although I am happy to take orders from anywhere in the world, I will still not be able to post to any country on the suspended postal services list issued by An Post. I will also not be able to post anything to the United States as all packets to that country need special customs forms that must be completed at the post office before posting. Keep in mind that delivery will ultimately always be contingent on your local service.

However, as I said, I am happy to continue taking orders from anywhere in the world–very gratefully so–and anything that cannot be shipped immediately will be kept safely here in the office.

If any one has any questions or concerns, please drop me a line. Until then, thank you again for your understanding and support. Keep well! -Brian


Update 27 March 2020

The Taoiseach has just announced a lock down for all of Ireland to last until 12 April 2020. This means I will be unable to go to the post office until then. I’m happy to take orders still, and will pack them and keep them safe, but will have to see when I can next get out to post them.

We will have to see where we are at with our forthcoming book, Lucifer and the Child, in two weeks.

Thank you for your understanding. Your continued support is appreciated. Look after yourselves! – Brian


Update 26 March 2020

Hi everyone.

I hope you are all keeping well, being sensible, and looking after both yourselves and your community.

All is well here at Swan River Press, or at well as can be expected. I am currently working from home (during the day now as well as weekends and evenings).

Everything here is continuing apace: we’re working on new publications and shipments are still being dispatched to those in need of reading material. Your support is appreciated now more than ever!

So just a few comments: the first is to say that I’ve taken the precaution of reducing my visits to the post office to twice per week, Tuesday and Fridays. I’ll reassess this if anything changes, but until then I’m happy to serve.

The Irish post office has advised that there are some countries with suspended postal services. For the time being, the United States and United Kingdom would seem unaffected. Do, of course, expect some delays, and be sure to thank your mail carrier should you see them!

Swan River Press 2020Our next book, Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, has just gone to print. There are no expected delays, and my printer ensures me that both they and their partners  have taken necessary precautions in order to continue work.

At the moment we’re expecting delivery of Lucifer and the Child to be towards the end of April; I’ll get them into the post for you as soon as I can after that. Of course, should anything change, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line.

Until then, do look after yourselves and let me know if there’s anything else you need.

Kind regards,

Brian

Greetings from Plagueland

Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child

Swan River Press 2020This is the story of Jenny Flower, London slum child, who one day, on an outing to the country, meets a Dark Stranger with horns on his head. It is the first day of August — Lammas — a witches’ sabbath. Jenny was born on Hallowe’en, and possibly descended from witches herself . . .

Once banned in Ireland by the Censorship of Publications Board, Lucifer and the Child is now available worldwide in this splendid new edition from Swan River Press featuring an introduction by Rosanne Rabinowitz and cover by Lorena Carrington.


Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) was a best-selling author who had written more than one hundred books but is virtually unknown today. Her output included fiction, journalism, short stories, travelogues, autobiography, and political analysis. All of her books have been out of print for decades — until now.

Born into a working-class family in South London, Mannin was a lifelong socialist, feminist, and anti-fascist. In the 1930s she organised alongside the Russian-born American anarchist Emma Goldman in support of the Spanish anarchosyndicalist forces and their struggle against Franco. Later, she agitated for the Indian independence movement along with her husband Reg Reginald. She was an advocate for African liberation movements and one of the few, even on the post-war left, who stood up for the rights of Palestinians. Iraqi critic and educator Ahmed Al-Rawi has described her as a post-colonial writer, which was unusual among British authors of the time.

In her lifetime Mannin was also known for her famous lovers, including Bertrand Russell and W. B. Yeats. In fact, it was the Yeats connection that had me trawling internet archives and second-hand bookshops while researching my tale “The Shiftings” — a ghost story exploring her relationship with the poet — for Swan River Press’s anthology The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats (2019). But I first discovered Ethel Mannin years ago, when I was a teenaged history obsessive with a special interest in labour and radical history. The figure of Mannin’s comrade “Red” Emma Goldman, described by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as the “most dangerous woman in America”, held a powerful fascination for me. In the course of my reading I came across a vivid description of Goldman giving a speech, which was an extract from Mannin’s historical novel Red Rose (1941). This brought me to my local library looking for Mannin’s work.

Ethel Mannin
Ethel Mannin (1930) by Paul Tanqueray

While I couldn’t find Red Rose or anything about Mannin’s political activities, I did discover old editions of Venetian Blinds (1933) and Lucifer and the Child, which was first published in 1945. Venetian Blinds is a realist novel about the price paid for upward mobility, starting with the excitement of market day on Battersea’s Lavender Hill and ending with loneliness in the suburbs. It reminded me of early George Orwell novels such as A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which were also about crossing class lines — albeit in the opposite direction.

After the relatively straightforward social narrative of Venetian Blinds, the ambiguous supernaturalism of Lucifer and the Child was a surprise. It is a story of witchcraft — or is it? I already had an interest in supernatural fiction but did not expect to find it in this context. Set mainly in the crowded streets of 1930s East London, the story begins when young Jenny Flower strays from a school outing in the countryside where she encounters a Dark Stranger. He could be Lucifer, or he could simply be a very imaginative and charismatic sailor.

In a passage reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894) Mannin portrays the wonder and absolute awe of a city child encountering the forest for the first time: “Sometimes there were breaks in the bird-song and then everything was very still, as though every leaf of all the millions was holding its breath and waiting, and you also waited and listened and heard your own heart beating.”

While observing a dragon-fly Jenny discovers that she is not alone. A Dark Stranger has also been watching; he steadies her as she reels in surprise at its take-off. All adults had been the enemy to her but this one is “the bringer of new things”. For the first time, she sees a life beyond her council estate, her school, and a family that does not know what to make of her. A new world opens up, one where she potentially wields power. Jenny is ushered into the “Goetic life”, a process that evokes another noted work by Machen: “The White People” (1904) in which a curious girl is initiated by her nurse into dark ceremonies and the “most secret secrets” of the countryside.

1945-09-02 Observer Ad1945-09-02 Observer Ad1945-09-02 Observer AdSimilarly, the Dark Stranger introduces Jenny to fairy rings in the grass and tells her how the Little People made them by dancing in the moonlight. He shows her a big yellow toad under a boulder. He reveals deadly nightshade, witches’ bane, hemlock, poisonous mushrooms. He spins her tales of tree-witches and wood-spirits, nymphs and dryads, fauns and satyrs. She also comes to learn that she might be descended from two sisters burned at the stake many centuries ago.

Jenny is a solitary child who joins in the noisy games of the other children but does not have any true friends among them. She would rather spend time with Old Mother Beadle in Ropewalk Alley. Regarded as a witch by the local children, Mrs. Beadle supplements her pension by telling fortunes and selling concoctions of herbs to induce abortions. And in this capacity, she also guides Jenny into a world of magic.

Meanwhile, Jenny’s family views Mrs. Beadle as a bad influence. So too does Marian Drew, a teacher who takes an interest in her pupil and aims to “save” her from a descent into the irrational and ultimately evil “Goetic life”. Though Marian is a vicar’s daughter she’s not entirely straitlaced. She holds progressive notions of educational freedom and creativity, perhaps reflective of Mannin’s interest in the Summerhill school of A. S. Neil, who advocated a libertarian education system in contrast to the more rigid teaching of the time.

Marian and the Dark Stranger form a relationship characterised by sharp physical attraction and equally intense debate. He asks Marian: “Do you really know where reality ends and fantasy begins? Are you quite sure that the images of your mind have no reality?” Indeed, themes regarding the transcendent and the commonplace run throughout the novel, and at one point he says to Marian: “Another drink and you may begin to understand that the supernatural is merely the natural plus.”

Lucifer and the Child is the only full-length work of speculative fiction from Mannin, who usually described herself as an atheist and rationalist. However, she was also a journalist, a seeker of curiosities and always keen to investigate. In one of her many volumes of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939), Mannin recollects a visit to a swami that Yeats admired. “For my part I was willing to try at least once my vibrations on a higher plane.” She gives a scathing account of her meeting with a well-fed, well-dressed individual expounding on the virtues of poverty. She had little time for mysticism or the pomp that often surrounded it.

Jarrolds 1946
First Edition, Jarrolds (1946)

Yet a powerful charge of the numinous and strange runs through Lucifer and the Child, despite its realism — or possibly because of it. Like Machen, Mannin also takes inspiration from London itself as well as the natural world. “Its interminable greyness and its high dockyard walls can make it as oppressive as a prison, but it has its moments — the occasional crumbling grace of a Georgian doorway, the sudden impression of a ship crossing the road as it moves into a basin, the unexpectedness of a lamp bracket jutting from a wall, of a capstan marooned in an alleyway, of funnels thrusting up at the ends of streets, and always the smell of the river with its faint, fugitive hint of the sea.”

Within this evocative cityscape we find a toad that is “strange and unknowable, like the moon” and step into Mrs. Beadle’s house: “Ordinariness stopped outside. The dilapidated door opened on to a new world. The world to which she belonged.” And in one of his arguments with Marian, the Dark Stranger suggests how the “spirit of the past” haunts people and places; a kind of spiritualism without the supernatural that would now strike a chord with modern psychogeographers.

The novel even touches on cosmic horror: “Enchantment was for her the deep forest through which she moved with deadly nightshade in her hand and an adder at her foot; it was her head upon the shoulder of the Dark Stranger, and starless night and the hunting cry of the owl; it was earth-light on the moon and no shade from the sun, and no living thing in the desolate volcanic wastes, and loneliness unutterable, the loneliness of space and dead worlds and infinity.”

Arrow Books 1964a
Arrow paperback (1964)

Meanwhile, a dry humour underlies much of the narrative. For example, Marian’s thoughts about two do-gooding colleagues: “She reached the point at which she felt that if either of them referred once more to ‘the paw’, when speaking of the working classes, she would scream . . . ” I also chuckled when reading about the pious antics of local “cadets” joined by Jenny’s brother Les, who dedicates himself to marching and playing trumpet with them. “At the hall the cadets learned ‘First Aid’ and ‘Signalling’; they also did ‘physical jerks’, and took turns on the parallel bars and the ropes. Before they left, Mr. Wilson, their group-captain, a pale young man who was the Sunday-school superintendent, gave them a little talk on manliness and uprightness, clean thoughts and tongues, and the avoidance of something vaguely referred to as ‘bad habits’, and then they marched home again.” Such light-hearted observations grow darker as in the story’s background fascism continues to rise and conflict engulfs the world in the “sinister year 1936, with the dress-rehearsal for the coming world-war taking place in Spain”.

Mannin had been active in groups such as Workers Relief for the Victims of German Fascism and the Spanish Medical Aid Society. Looking back from the mid-1940s — she finished writing Lucifer and the Child in 1944 — 1936 indeed must have seemed an ominous turning point. And though the novel is rooted in the everyday lives of its characters, Mannin shows us that world events are never far away. She makes this connection explicit when Marian tells the cadet captain that she disapproves of “encouraging militarism” and boys “playing at soldiers” instead of creatively expressing themselves as individuals. Marian warns: “It’s only a few steps further on in this direction before they’re wearing jackboots — actually and spiritually!”

Priviledged Spectator 1938b
Privileged Spectator frontispiece (1938) by Paul Tanqueray

Mannin was a contradictory woman shaped by contradictory times, a prolific writer who produced an odd and imaginative book so unlike her others. Lucifer and the Child remains a rich portrayal of inter-war London and an engaging story of a girl who sought to escape it through myth and magic. And at the end of the book, the reader is left with another question: is the Dark Stranger really so “dark” after all? Or is he instead the “bringer of light”, a source of new things and knowledge in a world beset by evil far greater than any mischief wrought by a mythological fellow with horns? In effect, Lucifer and the Child is a story about the desire for a different life than the one we’re allotted and the extraordinary measures some may take to move beyond it.

“There is never any name for the impact of strangeness on the commonplace, that je ne sais quoi that ripples the surface of everydayness and sets up unaccountable disturbances in the imagination and the blood,” Mannin writes. With this sensibility Lucifer and the Child will at last be recognised as a classic of strange fiction and a work to be enjoyed by contemporary lovers of the genre.

Rosanne Rabinowitz
March 2020

Buy a copy of Lucifer and the Child.


Rosanne Rabinowitz lives in South London, an area that Arthur Machen once described as “shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words”. In this most unshapen place she engages in a variety of occupations including care work and freelance editing. Her novella Helen’s Story was shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award and her first collection of short fiction, Resonance & Revolt, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2018. She spends a lot of time drinking coffee — sometimes whisky — and listening to loud music while looking out of her tenth-floor window. rosannerabinowitz.wordpress.com

Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

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Uncertainties is an anthology series — featuring authors from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines — each exploring the concept of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on putting together the fourth in Swan River Press’s series of contemporary supernatural and strange tale anthologies, Uncertainties. It’s the first time I’ve edited a fiction anthology and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in writing. It’s been great seeing the thing take shape — as it started to come together, it began to take on a life of its own. Brian J. Showers at Swan River was incredibly helpful throughout the process, sharing his wealth of experience. He pretty much gave me free rein, his only brief being that I bring in some writers who hadn’t featured in the series before, and who might be new to the press. It has long been my feeling that innovative writing can enhance the uncanniness of a supernatural tale, so I solicited contributions from writers who I thought would be playful and experimental with their tales. And as cohesion was really important to me from the outset, I also asked writers whose work I thought would share points of similarity. As the pieces came in, I saw this had worked better than I’d dared hope and that there were lots of potent synchronicities between the stories. But there was also a lot of variety, so I starting thinking about how certain juxtapositions might work and also how to ensure an overall flow. The tales are all experimental in some way, but run the gamut from melancholia, to outright horror, to comedy. I wanted to balance and shift between tones in a hopefully satisfying way. It took me back to the days of making mixtapes for friends, and thinking about flow, moving between moods, and setting up a kind of loose overall narrative from disparate parts.

This was an incredibly satisfying process. It was also really satisfying to work with the talented Swan River team of Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill, whose design and editing skills ensured the finished article looks superb. And it was a real privilege to have for the cover a powerful piece of art by modern surrealist, Brian Catling, from a series of paintings inspired by the writing of M.R. James — it mingles the ghostly and the bizarre in much the same way as the tales within.

The section below is taken from my introduction to the volume. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the stories and illustrate my thesis about the contemporary supernatural tale, and did so by relating a couple of incidents that had been much in my thoughts, and which seemed to me to show what I conceived to be the difference between the traditional ghost story and the tale of uncertainty.

Timothy J. Jarvis B&WI have twice, in the last year, visited a supposedly haunted site not far from where I live in rural Bedfordshire: Old St Mary’s, a derelict fourteenth-century church on a hill above Clophill, a picturesque village about thirteen miles to the north of Luton. Old St Mary’s gained a sinister reputation in the 1960s following a spate of desecrations — over a period of several weeks, on moonless nights, graves were broken open and bones disinterred, and the ruins were daubed with disturbing graffiti. It was thought to be mostly aimless vandalism, the work of bored young people aping, but the original violation apparently bore clear signs of a knowledge of the occult and of the practices of dark rites. That time, the skeleton had not been just scattered but deliberately laid out inside the ruin in a pattern associated with the Black Mass, and a Maltese Cross had been daubed on the floor in what was thought, from feathers found strewn about, to have been cockerel’s blood. Afterwards the place became a bugbear for locals, with teenagers from Luton daring each other to visit it at night. Now it is a heritage site and well maintained, but it still has a charge.

The first time I went up to the church, it was dusk, following a grey late autumn day. There were two of us out walking. As my friend and I approached the ruins they were thrown into stark relief when the sun, setting behind them, a ball of orange fissured with red, like the blood-threaded yolk of an egg, dropped below the cowl of cloud. The effect was Gothic. My friend and I wandered about the churchyard for a time, took in the views, then went back down the path towards Clophill. Between Old St Mary’s and the village, the path passes through copse, and as we walked under the canopy of reddening leaves, where all was gloom, my friend and I saw, out of the corners of our eyes, a hand reaching between us. We startled, looked round, but there was of course no one there.

The second time I climbed up to Old St Mary’s, there was a group of us. It was a warm summer’s afternoon, the sun bright and high in a clear sky, the only clouds frothy white streaks, like cuckoo spit. As we approached the top of the hill, a blue van towing a low trailer heaped with junk drove past and pulled up in front of the gates to the churchyard. Two nondescript men, one balding, the other tall, both middle aged and dressed fairly smartly in chinos and linen jackets, like stockbrokers in weekend attire, got out of the cab, leaving the engine idling, and began circling the vehicle. After some moments stretching their legs they wandered off among the graves.

As we neared the van — which spluttered on, the smell of diesel exhaust acrid in the air — we saw, atop the pile of broken things in the trailer, an old cathode ray television, screen smashed, with, in the body of the set, a Murano glass sculpture of a clown, of the kind popular in the ’70s, which now, as the generation that bought and cherished such things dies off, floods charity shops. The clown was set there in that wrecked TV like statues of the Virgin are in roadside niches in southern Europe.

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Rounding the van, we saw that the men who’d got out of it were cavorting strangely in the churchyard. The balding was flailing his limbs in some kind of jerky dance and the tall was darting hither and yon. Then he stopped running about and stood before a headstone. We realized a moment later that he was pissing against it. The other kept on dancing. We decided then, without a word between us, not go on up to the church. We were halfway back to the village again, just emerging from the copse, when we heard the van’s engine revving behind us, and it careered past, kicking up clouds of dust, forcing us into the ditch. As the trailer went by, I could swear the glass clown turned its head to look at me and grinned.

I’ve exaggerated some of the details here for effect (though not actually by very much). Two incidents that gave rise to the uncanny. But the first, closer in tenor to the classic Victorian ghost story, was far less disconcerting than the second, which has more in common with the stories of uncertainty found in this volume. We almost expect to see ghostly hands at haunted sites — there’s no real ontological rift. Preternaturally animated Murano glass clowns, we do not anticipate. The other key difference is that in the second story, the actual moment of the supernatural is not as important in creating the effect as the bizarreness of what led up to it — tales of uncertainty often show us a world always already off-kilter.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 4.



Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties I, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments

Logo2Occasionally on social media I see threads bemoaning the fact that authors and artists frequently are expected to work for free (and often do). There are similar threads concerning vanity publishing—publishers who charge authors to be published—as well as agents who charge up-front fees. All of this is summarily decided to be unfair with the consensus being that workers should be paid for their work. Here’s an example of the former issue, and a sample of the latter. A quick scan of these two threads will give you a pretty good idea of the complaints.

Payment of authors was also one of the core issues in November 2019 when the questionable behaviour and business practices of a mid-sized publisher created a maelstrom of outcry—and not without reason. Usually these outcries—taking the form of podcasts, blog posts, and social media hot takes—are filled with indignant and impassioned battle cries. Again, often not without reason. However, rarely do I see any practical conversation about paying authors. So I thought I would wade in with my own thoughts on the matter.

Let me say up front, because indignity often gives way to wilful misunderstanding: I support paying authors and artists for their work. Let me be perfectly clear about that up front. So here goes . . .

Background: I run a small press in Dublin. We average about six publications per year. While I work Swan River full time, I also have a full-time day job that pays my bills. That leaves Swan River’s income free to pay for Swan River’s expenses. My financial mantra is, “Pay your bills; owe no one.” In fact, were I to stop publishing right now, I could easily draw a line under things. I’ve written a few books, and perhaps more relevantly, have also turned down contracts that were not to my satisfaction.

So . . .

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Whether or not you choose to work for free is your decision. No one else’s. Similarly, how much you decide to charge is also your decision. Yes, there are occasions when you might choose to work for free—and there is such a thing as exposure or even tactical exchanges of service. There’s no question about that. But always remember: you’re the boss, you call the shots. While it is all right to ask someone to work for free (and there are many valid reasons for this), it is on you, the artist, to politely decline. Authors and artists, for all the whinging about being taken advantage of, wield a huge amount of power in this way. And, rightly or wrongly, the world of publishing is filled with pitfalls and charlatans. My own opinion is that your time is better served honing your intuition and professional savvy rather than directly trying to change that world.

Weighing up any given opportunity is part of your job. Of course there are situations where “exposure” (or some other benefit) may well be worth your while. But it is up to you to assess that situation: ask questions, not only of the publisher you’ll be working for, but also of your colleagues. What are the precise terms? Do you know anyone who has worked for them before? What was the experience like? Was there an actual benefit? How much work and money is the publisher putting into the project themselves? Are they established? Read one of their other books—is it professionally laid out and edited? What is their promotion and publicity like? In other words, you’re developing your expectations.

Unsurprisingly, you should be asking many of these same questions whether you’re working for a fee or working for free. While this might not be the sexy bit of being an author, it is realistically part of the job. So you need to do the work. Mistakes happen to the best of us too, so if you make a bad judgement (which doesn’t necessarily make the situation was wrong, but possibly just wrong for you), make sure you learn from it and adjust your goals and expectations accordingly.

IMG-3823_colorBut here is the hard part: how badly do you want to be published? What exactly are your goals? Bestselling author? Small press cult writer? Perennial guest blogger? The reason there are so many writers and artists working for free is because they’re often more interested in the satisfaction of simply “being published” . . . and believe me, like “being a writer”, this can mean a lot of things too. Anyone can slap text on a WordPress site or upload a PDF to Lightening Source and call themselves a publisher. And for some people that’s okay. But, let’s face it, you probably shouldn’t expect much money from that sort of thing either. So that’s the first thing I’d advise: establish your goals, assess your opportunities, and make sure your expectations are realistic.

My second piece of advice to authors and artists is much more difficult. It is this: know your worth. Ego will come into play here, because work is work. And everyone, especially creatives, believes their work is of the highest quality and value. Work is also cumulative, so putting in that work—and the decisions you make as to where your writing will be published—may ultimately influence the remuneration you can expect. You might even ask yourself if you’re at a point in your career where you need an agent.

There are plenty of guides out there explaining how to place your work: sending your newest masterpiece first to the top paying venues, then working your way down that list. Naturally, money isn’t everything, so the sequence of your list may well rank venues of repute or simply magazines that you’ve always dreamed of being published in a bit higher than the better paying one. The important thing is, you’ve done the research and made your list of venues you’d like to send work to.

Next, before submitting, you should have an approximate range that you expect to be paid for your work. If you’re just starting out, perhaps this range might be on the lower end of the scale. If you’ve built a reputation (judged objectively, not subjectively), you might be able to charge more. Other factors might include questions such as the size of the publisher you’re working for, the quality and type of publication they produce, whether it’s digital or print, the duration of the rights, or indeed whether or not you value the exposure. But before you even think about submitting, you’ll want to have at least a vague idea of what you will be happy with.

Kehrli LayoutBut the more practical question is: what payment can you realistically expect? Unfortunately I can’t answer that—everyone will be different, which means it’s also no use comparing yourself to others. However, there are a few ways you can at least triangulate the market. The first is by looking for any professional writers’ association that has issued guidelines (you might even consider joining one). To give an example: the Horror Writers Association defines “professional” payment as “five cents or more per word”. They also have definitions for “semi-pro”, etc. You may or may not agree with these definitions, but perhaps consider them as a good benchmark.

Next, you might want to research venues. Some of them post their rates online. Others you might have to ask—I would advise doing this in a polite email rather than publicly. In this way you’ll also get a good idea the range of the markets available. Similarly, you might also talk to other authors—your colleagues. (Really, you should be doing this anyway.) Do you know anyone who has published in the particular venue you’re looking at submitting to? And if so, what was their experience? If you’re feeling comfortable enough, you could even ask how much they got paid—and perhaps also how promptly, not to mention if it was in line with the expectations they had at the start. And what was the editorial process like? In time you’ll develop a set of criteria that is in line with where you are in your own career—to hell with the others.

I suppose that’s it. Know the value of your work and make your decisions accordingly. Keep in mind also that the creative fields are highly competitive. Yes, every writer and artist has the right to be paid for their work, but this does not mean that you are entitled to be published. And remember too: not everyone has the same goals. Some want to make money. Others simply want to see their name on something—anything. Some care about the artistry of their work, others do not. The important thing is that you make your decisions based on your goals.

So, as a writer, what are your goals?

When I started writing this, I was also going to address paying authors from the publishing side of the business. But I think I’ll go into that in the next post. Standby.

Does anyone out there have any further observations they’d like to add to the above? What have your experiences been like? I understand there are myriad aspects I have not addressed, such as editorial services, but am I at least partly on the mark? Do please leave a comment below!

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. If you want to support Swan River Press, have a look at our books. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

-Brian

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Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments

Thoughts on Small Press #3—How Did You Start?

1. What was the itch you couldn’t scratch that made you start Swan River Press? 2. How did you start? Was it one book that turned into a line, or was it always a plan to be a full press? 3. Did you know what was involved before you started out; did you do lots of research first, or did you just dive in and learn as you go? Would you recommend this approach to others interested in starting? – Angie McKeown


Chapbooks PhotoHi Angie—Thank you for sending me your questions. In reading over them, it looks as though they can be summed up with: How did you get started? It’s a good question because I think it probably impacts my approach to how I continue to run the press to this day. I mention briefly in my first post how I got started, but I’ll expand a bit more here. And I’ll see if I can come up with any broader thoughts on running a small press along the way.

The initial Swan River Press publications were palm-sized, hand-bound chapbooks. The first one, The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man (2003), was written as a Halloween greeting for friends and family. Wanting to create something charming and striking, I devised an excruciatingly slow printing and binding method that involved quartering a sheet of paper, folding each individual section, sewing the chapbooks together with heavy black thread, and pasting in a ribbon bookmark (which I had singed with a lighter so that it wouldn’t fray).

Old Tailor Original SketchThe story aside, these chapbooks turned out beautifully. However, the process of creating them took far more work than is practicable, something I was really only able to do once per year, and even then with considerable blistering to my fingertips. People liked them though, so I did five more—the second one, The Snow Came Softly Down (2004), I issued at Christmas time. The final chapbook, Quis Separabit (2008), I released as promotion for my first collection, The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories. I’d like to point out that Old Tailor was illustrated by Meggan Kehrli, who designs every Swan River dust jacket to this day. Subsequent chapbooks contain marvellous illustrations by Duane Spurlock (who designed our logo) and Jeffrey Roche. The chapbooks are worth picking up if you can find copies. I’m proud of them.

When I was typesetting Old Tailor, almost as an afterthought, I put “Swan River Press” on the title page. Never once did I think the press would become what it is today. This naïve approach probably worked to my benefit, as there was no pressure and it was all done for fun. As an aside, anyone interested in how I came up with the name Swan River Press, there’s an entire blog post about it.

SignI hope that more or less answers the first part of your question. There was no formal decision. It happened casually and without me hardly noticing. Swan River Press was mostly just borne out of an enthusiasm to create something people would enjoy. Broadly speaking, it’s this same passion that keeps me going still. While I try to run Swan River as a business, I am still driven by the urge to create publications of which I can be proud and that readers will love. Sometimes this urge comes into conflict with budgeting, but, you know, fuck it. Passion generally trumps pocket book in the Swan River office. Which isn’t to say I don’t run things professionally, but rather am guided by principles probably alien to or only dimly recognised by mass market publishing. A topic for a future post, perhaps!

But that’s probably one of the big keys to successful small press, and indeed any labour of love: passion. Enthusiasm will get you started, but passion is what pushes you to finish the projects you’ve begun—especially despite the odds. And while passion isn’t the only thing necessary to run a small press, it’s definitely what will carry you through those moments of difficulty, when you’re struggling to learn new skills, or slogging through aspects of the job that are simply no fun.

714KGU+CNqLIt’s also important to note that at this time I was (and remain) a big reader of small press. I read books published by Arkham House, Tartarus Press, Ash Tree Press, and others. I was also a fan of the Ghost Story Society’s journal, All Hallows, which, like its publisher Ash Tree, is sadly no more. However, I think from being a reader of small press, I learned to appreciate truly well-published books. Sure, they cost more money than a Wordsworth paperback, but connoisseurs of fine volumes like the feel of heavier stock, how the pages turn in a book with a sewn-binding, and even generous margins indicative of typesetting not governed by doing things on the cheap. These are some of the things that can set small press apart from mass market publishing. Maybe this answers the third part of your question: did I do any research? Absolutely!

Perhaps this wasn’t necessarily what you meant by research, though, when you asked the question, but in thinking about it, it’s no less important—and perhaps bolsters what I said above about passion. Which is to say I didn’t make the conscious decision to start publishing, so didn’t do any traditional research regarding methods and markets. Instead, I think I absorbed an awful lot of knowledge and possibility through my passion as a reader. Everything else I think I learnt as I went. Possibly the most valuable asset in this “research” were the connections I made, as a reader, with publishers, writers, editors, scholars, and other bibliophiles. And because of these friendships, I had an array of amazing people who were there to answer questions, give advice, and lend support.

Haunted History Series 01One thing that came about from publishing the early chapbooks is I had other writers approach me asking if I would publish their stories in this way. Knowing the amount of energy that goes into it, I didn’t think it was feasible. However, I did realise that I wanted to work with writers in more of an editorial/publishing capacity. And so was born the Haunted History Series (2006-2010). Like the chapbooks, these were hand-bound booklets containing single stories. Where the chapters were palm-sized and hand-sewn, the booklets were A5 and staple-bound. Again, the booklets were bound by hand, but it was more manageable for me. Moreover, it was a valuable first opportunity to work on stories as an editor. Also during this time I produced two more series: the Bram Stoker Series and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Series—A5 booklets (though these were hand-sewn) showcasing some of the research I’d been doing over the years on both authors.

As with the chapbooks, while I was working on the booklets, I still had no ambition apart from producing publications people would enjoy. So again, I avoided too much pressure. But looking back, these booklets were a vital step between my self-published chapbooks and the hardbacks that I now publish. Thinking about it now, the chapbooks and booklets were both low risk ways of gaining experience. I had no great scheme and made no grand promises, I just did the work and enjoyed it. That’s probably important for anyone wanting to do this: enjoy it.

The Old KnowledgeThe final step in the evolution of Swan River Press was Rosalie Parker’s submission of The Old Knowledge & Other Strange Stories (2010), which was our first hardback book. The story basically goes like this: Rosalie had originally submitted her book to another publisher. That publisher was known at the time for steadily deteriorating business practices, and though The Old Knowledge had been announced, it languished on their forthcoming list for some time. Excited to read the book, but knowing I’d be waiting for a while, I wrote to Rosalie and asked if there was an update on its publication. Rosalie wrote back and said that unfortunately there wasn’t, but asked instead of she could submit the book to Swan River. I wrote back quickly enough saying, “I don’t really publish full length books, just booklets and chapbooks.” At which point I went and had lunch . . . and thought about it . . .

Once again I had no grand scheme of launching a publishing house. By this time (which was the summer of 2010) Swan River already existed solidly, with a back catalogue of some nineteen chapbooks and paperbacks. So why not add hardbacks to that list? That evening I wrote back to Rosalie and asked her to send the manuscript to me. Surely it couldn’t hurt just to have a look. I loved it. Fuck it, I thought, why not? I made the decision to publish The Old Knowledge, and just sort of kept going from there!

Spines 1aWould I recommend this approach to others starting out? Given that it worked for me, yeah . . . I suppose so. But honestly, it was less of an approach than a series of informal decisions that lead me to where I am today. I think the benefits of doing it the way that I did is I wasn’t overcome by overambitious enthusiasm, which can be ruinous. Instead I created a few risk-free opportunities to gain experience, and without wasting the time of too many people. I also freelanced for Rue Morgue magazine at this time—and learned a ton (thank you, Monica!!) There was no pressure on me (internal or external) to produce anything. I allowed my passion to guide me and remained true to my own instincts, guided often by the insight of close friends. Contrary to the belief of some people, small press—good small press—is not a get rich quick scheme. From 2003-2010 I destroyed my fingertips publishing chapbooks and booklets. From 2010 onward I started publishing hardbacks—and that’s when the real work began.

So there you have it, Angie! I hope I’ve answered your questions, and thank you again for sending them. Does anyone out there have any further observations they’d like to add to the above? Any publishers reading this who want to comment on what got you started and what keeps you going? Do please leave a comment below!

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!

Thoughts on Small Press #3—How Did You Start?