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?

Our Haunted Year: 2018

2018 Christmas

Running Swan River Press can be a difficult job. The hours are long, usually after returning home from my day job (also weekends), and any financial risks are wholly my own. The victories are incremental, only often partly enjoyed with my attention fixed on what the next challenge might be. That’s why it’s nice to sit down with a cup of coffee, some homemade cranberry bread, and reflect on some of the successes of this past year. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.

IMG_2036The first book of the year was R. B. Russell’s Death Makes Strangers of Us All. I’ve known Ray for a good long time now, and where guidance is concerned, you can’t go wrong taking your cue from Tartarus Press. This is the third book Ray and I have done together. The first two were Ghosts (2012) and The Dark Return of Time (2014). Michael Dirda at the Washington Post seemed to like the book too, commenting that, “The disorienting title story of R. B. Russell’s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All takes us into an ‘unreal city’ straight out of Kafka or Borges.” Not too shabby, huh? You can read more reviews here and an interview with Ray here.

IMG_2079The next book was a long-time in coming: William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. This title is one of the two of which I own excessive multiple editions: the Chapman & Hall, 1908; the Arkham House, 1946; plus innumerable paperbacks, etc. The situation really is ridiculous, folks. I figured the logical next step would be to publish my own edition. And this I did, with my dream line-up consisting of Alan Moore (introduction), Iain Sinclair (afterword), John Coulthart (illustrations), and Jon Mueller (soundtrack) — everyone who participated shares a deep admiration for Hodgson’s masterpiece, which is really the only way to do a project like this one. Apart from some production difficulties (ugh), we produced a beautiful signed edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hodgson’s death at Ypres in late April 1918. Alan declared it the finest edition of The House on the Borderland that had ever been published. Some reviews can be read here, a wonderful discussion between John Coulthart and Jon Mueller is here, and if you want to listen to Jon’s soundtrack (and even buy a digital copy), you can do that here.

IMG_2100Next was up may well be our most unsettling book of the year: Nicholas Royle’s The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories. Apart from his introduction to Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never (2015), this is the first time I’ve worked with Nick. I suffered a few sleepless nights due to him, but sure, it was worth it. The stories evoke the uncanny in the Freudian sense, and that cover by Bill Bulloch is most disturbing. Reviewer Mario Guslandi also liked the book: “Royle’s dark fiction is always worth reading . . . His storytelling is impeccable, his plots always interesting and his characters credible.” If you’re still not convinced, you can read an interview with Nick here. You need a copy if you don’t have one already.

IMG_20180620_162604_437Shortly after The Dummy, we published Rosalie Parker’s Sparks from the Fire. This book was special not only because I got to work with Rosalie again, but also because Rosalie’s collection The Old Knowledge (2010) was the very first hardback book we published, ushering Swan River into a new era. Publishers Weekly gave a favourable review to what is one of our most popular books of the year: “[Parker’s] treatment of the fantastic is often so light and ambiguous that stories in which it does manifest are of a piece with tales such as ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Job Start’, sensitive character sketches whose celebration of life’s unforeseen surprises will appeal to fantasy fans as much as the book’s more overtly uncanny tales. Parker proves herself a subtle and versatile writer.” Naturally, I think you should buy a copy. Here’s an interview with Rosalie conducted by Jason E. Rolfe and some more reviews.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeAnd then there’s Uncertainties 3. I edited the first two volumes in 2016. This year, to keep things fresh, I handed the reins over to Lynda E. Rucker, whose collection You’ll Know When You Get There (2016) I hope you’ve already enjoyed. Lynda did a superb job in selecting stories, showing the broad range of what supernatural literature in all its guises can do. Do take a peek at the line-up! In addition to some great reviews, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, “Among the most memorable books I’ve read this year are [ . . . ] several slender, elegantly designed collections of short stories of the uncanny (Uncertainties Vol. 1, 2, 3) published by Swan River Press.” Okay, so she has a story in the anthology too, but still! In addition to all that, Robert Shearman’s “Bobbo”, Lisa Tuttle’s “Voices in the Night”, and Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “The Golden Hour” were chosen for Best British Horror 2019! I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to Timothy J. Jarvis’s turn as editor for Uncertainties 4 next year.

47575930_571374369993353_4001565216583188480_nThen there are issues 11 and 12 of The Green Book, the former of which was excessively late this year. I apologise. Anyway, issue 11 boasts cover art by none other than Mike Mignola. This marks the second time we’ve worked with Mike — anyone remember the first? Issue 11 features articles on Lord Dunsany, plus the first serialised entries from A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction, a long-term project I’m working on with Jim Rockhill. Issue 12 features more entries from the Guide, and our issues for 2019 will continue with these. The project has has proved an extremely enlightening one. I’m learning loads and my reading list has grown like you wouldn’t believe. Intrigued? Stay tuned.

dublin logo final copyThe reason The Green Book 11 was delayed for so long turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the year for me. The second Dublin Ghost Story Festival took place in late June. As in 2016, the festival sold out long before this intimate event and proved to be just as enjoyble as its predecessor. The guest of honour was Joyce Carol Oates (!!), and the opening night’s entertainment was provided by the great Reggie Oliver, who is surely one of the finest writers of the supernatural tale. Other guests included Helen Grant, Andrew Michael Hurley, V. H. Leslie, Rosalie Parker, Nicholas Royle, R. B. Russell, and Lisa Tuttle, each of whom brought with them their passion for the genre. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better believe we indulged the entire weekend in all things ghostly and strange, with discussions, readings, signings, and a trade hall that could easily claim the entire contents of your bank account. There are some photos over on Facebook. So will there be another Dublin Ghost Story Festival? I’d love to know the answer to that too!

37710479_2143309032570526_903951175399768064_nSure, running Swan River Press isn’t always easy, but looking back over the year I can clearly see the late nights and hard work were worth it. Thank you again to those who have shown Swan River support through this past year. I raise my glass to everyone who read our books and shared them with friends, wrote reviews, attended the festival, supported us through patronage, or sent correspondence and kind words. And a special thanks as always to the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill. They put in loads of work, and it’s due to their expertise that our books always look their best.

Oh! Before I forget, because I completely missed it during the year, October was our fifteenth anniversary — our first publication, a chapbook entitled “The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man”, first saw print in 2003. I’m working on a bibliography, Fifteen Years of Swan River Press, which I’ll try to issue as soon as I can.

I promise you I’ve got a full publishing schedule ready to go for next year. Some titles I’m particularly excited about, so make sure you’re on our mailing list. It’s the best way to get the jump on all things Swan River. You can also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I look forward to hearing from you all again soon.

 

 

Our Haunted Year: 2018

Sparks from the Fire: An Interview with Rosalie Parker

Sparks from the FireConducted by Jason E. Rolfe, © July 2018

Rosalie Parker was born and grew up on a farm in Buckinghamshire, but has lived subsequently in Stockholm, Oxford, Dorset, Somerset, Sheffield and Sussex. She took degrees in English Literature and History, and Archaeology, working first as an archaeologist before returning to her first love of books. Rosalie is co-proprietor and editor of the independent publishing house, Tartarus Press, and lives in the Yorkshire Dales with her partner, the writer and publisher Ray Russell, their son and two cats. Her most recent book is Sparks from the Fire.


Jason E. Rolfe: There is a phenomenology of place in your stories, a link between setting and experience that is extremely appealing to me as a reader. “View from a Window”, in particular, captures this almost perfectly. How is your work influenced by the places around you?

Rosalie Parker: The starting point for many of my stories is a real place, or spirit of a place, always tempered by the vagaries and necessities of invention. I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of distilling descriptions down to the minimum, leaving readers to flesh out the bones. Hence the landscape in “View from the Window” is a sketch book version of western Scotland, and “The Fell Race” takes place in some unspecified, undescribed village in North Yorkshire. I grew up on a farm in the south of England and I live now in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the British countryside is a constant inspiration, but I’ve also travelled a fair bit and in my last collection, Damage (2016), I set stories in several cities and countries. The beginning of “The Attempt”, in Sparks from the Fire, was influenced by a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

JER: My own personal hell would be a place in which all our questions are answered, all the mysteries of life are solved. The stories in Sparks from the Fire often walk the line between the known and the unknown. In “The Fell Race” for example, we’re presented with a mystery that, in the end, remains exactly that. Like Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, you provide us with a mystery that invites conjecture yet remains unanswered. What do you think it is about the unknown that people find so appealing?

Parker-PhotoRP: We encounter the unknown – new experiences, new people, new places – every day. I suppose that strange fiction dispenses, at some point, with the notion that life can be lived on autopilot, and helps you see the world with rejuvenated eyes. Novelty is always appealing, isn’t it? Psychologically, I think we’re essentially nomads. Unanswered questions, like new places, can be pondered and left behind. I worked as an archaeologist before coming to publishing and writing, and I’m fascinated by different cultures, from the past or present or future. That led to the writing of the story “Sparks from the Fire”. Ghosts are a good way into, or out of, another culture, as in “War Games”.

JER: “View from a Window” and “Messages” are wonderful examples of the slow reveal. You place us (never quite firmly) in the ordinary, and through often subtle revelations, guide us toward an unsettling end. Your pacing is excellent. How do you, as a writer, decide what to reveal to your audience, and when to reveal it?

RP: I very rarely plan ahead, so I’m revealing the story to myself, as well as the reader! It’s a sort of organic process of discovery that happens pseudo-naturally. The two stories you mention are essentially about information being drip-fed. If the pacing works then I’m doing my job properly.

JER: I use the term “unsettling” to describe your writing. The things you do to disquiet us as readers are often very understated – the sudden ringing of a telephone, a knock at the door – little things that jar us from our focus. What do you find unsettling? What leaves you feeling ill-at-ease?

RP: Just about everything! I “came out” a few years ago as suffering from Bipolar Disorder, and as part of that I experience periods of anxiety. I find I can take nothing, including good mental health, for granted. On a personal level this is uncomfortable, painful, but creatively it’s sometimes a useful state to be in, and particularly so for writing strange fiction. What can be more unsettling than being unable to trust your own brain? I suppose quite a lot of my characters are learning to distrust or relearn their assumptions or perceptions.

IMG_20180620_162604_437
JER: You’re an editor as well as an author, with an extensive list of editor credits to your name. You’ve also worked on a number of films. I’m curious if and how film and editing have influenced you as a writer.

RP: I enjoy the editing process and working with other writers has helped when I come to revise my own stories. I’ve learnt that I am not always the best judge of my own work, and I welcome editorial input and advice. It can be strange being at the other end of the process, though. Film is a different thing entirely – the visual image is of prime importance, although learning to write dialogue is essential for both film and short story writers.

JER: While your work has a classic feel to it, it strikes me as very contemporary and makes me wonder about your literary influences. Who are the writers, classic and/or contemporary, who have influenced you the most?

RP: Because of my work for Tartarus Press I’ve read widely in the genre, and I’m sure I’ve been influenced by many writers, especially those we’ve published. I most admire the brave, emotionally or psychologically; Robert Aickman comes particularly to mind, but also Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote more fearlessly than I could ever hope to. As a child, Alan Garner was a favourite, and I enjoyed Agatha Christie. I read English at university initially, so I have a good grounding in general literature, including Thomas Hardy, the Brontes and Dickens, and I read a lot of contemporary mainstream literature.

JER: When I read an original collection I’m always curious about the underlying ties that bind the stories together. Stylistically the stories collected here blend together nicely, and there is certainly an undercurrent that runs through them all – “a shadow world that haunts, disturbs, and threatens”. Can you share some thoughts on that world?

RP: I find it quite hard to tie the stories together, but I suppose “Unease” might be the best description of the effect I’m seeking in Sparks from the Fire. This is not necessarily wholly malevolent. In the shadow world hopes and desires can be explored, as well as fears and dread. In “House Party”, for example, Jamie is poised to start a new relationship, albeit one fraught with difficulty and even danger. In “Voluntary Work”, Carol’s special powers may be vindicated. The poltergeist in “The Birdcage” might ultimately prove beneficial. And perhaps the young people of “The Fell Race” are seeking a better world. There is room for love in the shadow world, and that is the biggest mystery of all.

Buy a copy of Sparks from the Fire here.


Jason E. Rolfe is an author of Absurdist fiction. His recent books include An Archive of Human Nonsense (Snuggly Books, 2017), and Clocks (Black Scat Books, 2018). A native of Southwestern Ontario, he currently lives in Chatham-Kent with his wife, his daughter, his dog and his rabbit.

Sparks from the Fire: An Interview with Rosalie Parker