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!

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!

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