Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?

Brian, here’s a question for the small press discussion; What recurring characteristics and factors do you find yourself weighing up when considering whether to publish a collection/ text? What leads up to that decisive moment? Cheers, Stephen J. Clark


11219560_10203828863556682_4593675160824950728_oHi Stephen—At first I thought your question might be a relatively easy one to answer, and on some levels it is: I tend to know what I want to publish, generally. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there was quite a bit of unconscious thought and a few more overt goals that influence my decision-making.

Before we start, I’d like to disclose the fact that the above question comes from Stephen J. Clark, who is not only a fine writer, but also an extraordinary illustrator—you really should check out his work. It’s also worth mentioning that Swan River published Stephen’s The Satyr & Other Tales in 2015, and his artwork adorns the cover of The Green Book 14.

Green Book 14So now your question. Generally I think one of the strengths of small press is the ability to specialise and often take greater risks than mainstream publishers. Notice how with some of the best small presses, you more or less know what you’re going to get—and even if what you get is unexpected, you can still be assured of quality. There are small presses that focus on poetry, contemporary or experimental literature, early twentieth century pulp fiction, or in the case of Swan River Press, the broader genre of supernatural fiction. This is a mode of literature I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I touch on the beginnings of my affection for strange and uncanny in an interview conducted by Jon Mueller in 2017.

It might be obvious, but is probably worth stating, that the best small presses—those that publish books that dazzle and become the most treasured volumes in your collection—are usually driven by passion and a genuine love for what they publish. So on a basic level that decisive moment is when I have that feeling that I want to be a part of this book’s life. (Yes, books—the texts themselves—have lives. They’re conceived, written, and born; they grow through various editions. Some are seemingly immortal, some die quiet and early deaths, while others are resurrected to live their twilight years as our revered elders.)

IMG_2080Probably the best example of this is Swan River’s 2018 edition of The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s novel, at least in our genre, is certainly a revered elder. With Borderland’s reputation already secure, there was probably no good reason for the Swan River Press edition to exist. It’s widely available in myriad cheap editions; hell, you can even read it online for free if you want. But it stands as one of my absolute favourite novels of the weird and cosmic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it—to say nothing of the multiple editions of this book that I’ve collected. My shelves hold a copy of the first UK edition, the Arkham House, not to mention a rake of twentieth century paperbacks. I love The House on the Borderland.

Maybe it was inevitable that the next logical step in my mania was to publish my own edition of The House on the Borderland—and I aimed to produce the best that I could: everyone involved with the Swan River edition has a fascination with and deep passion for the book. And I think the final result exudes this enthusiasm. It’s a book I can be proud of knowing that all contributors channelled as much affection into it as they could.

When it comes to contemporary writers, I’m driven by a similar sense of passion. I admit that I am not generally open for submissions (I don’t think I could handle the deluge—this will definitely be the topic of a future post). But I’m first and foremost a reader, so I have my favourites, people whose stories I enjoy, and with whom I want to work. While I don’t want to single out anyone in particular, all you need to do is have a look at the titles by our contemporary authors and I can, hand on heart, say I put the entirely of my passion behind their work.

Now the problem with passion is, left unchecked and unguided by reality, it can be ruinous. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? So I’ve developed over the years a sort of unofficial mission statement for Swan River Press that guides some of my publishing decisions. And with only a limited number of titles I can produce in a year, this can leave some hopeful writers disappointed (or maybe even feeling locked out of my roster). While the most books I’ve published in a year is eight, I seem to average about six, so let’s use that as our baseline.

21752797_1893374134011115_5541895445579173781_oThere are a handful guides that I employ—often not successfully! But I do usually at least consider them. First, being based in Ireland, I am uniquely positioned to champion Irish fantastical literature. This is my mandate for publishing The Green Book, our twice-yearly non-fiction journal that focuses on writings about Irish Gothic, fantastic and supernatural literature. With two issues of The Green Book per year, that leaves four slots for hardbacks. Not a lot, huh?

The second guide in my mission statement is a reasonable mix of genders. Looking back over my bibliography, this is something at which I’ve failed. Of the 41 hardback books that I’ve published to date (end of 2019), only 10 are authored or edited by women. (Of the six books I have projected for 2020, only one was written by a woman.) I could do better in this area, and it’s something I’m aware of. We fare only slightly better with gender parity in our contemporary anthologies, of which there have been six. Thus far, 38% of contributors identify as women. This will increase overall with the publication of Uncertainties 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis, in early 2020.

IMG_0005Next up, I try for a mix of both reprints of rediscovered writing and publishing work by contemporary authors. Reprints are important because this is how great books are resurrected to find new audiences. Most of my reprints tend to be by Irish writers. For examples, there is Earth-Bound by Dorothy Macardle, The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall, and Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women. I feel all of these are important titles that are more than deserving of a second life. Conversely, it’s the duty of small press (but no less a pleasure) to nurture contemporary writers. Here you’ll find collections by Lynda E. Rucker, Mark Valentine, and Rosalie Parker. These are the people who are pushing supernatural literature into new and exciting places, and it’s the responsibility of Swan River Press to be a venue for this. Given that I can publish on average only four titles per year, I try for one of those to be an anthology of contemporary writing, such as our Uncertainties series. This gives me the opportunity to work with more writers than I would be able to with single-author collections.

IMG_0088Finally, I love a good anniversary—the celebration of works by some of my favourite writers. The aforementioned novel The House on the Borderland was published for the 100th anniversary of William Hope Hodgson’s death. Similarly, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea, one of my favourite ghost stories of all time, celebrated 150 years last October, and so it was too good an opportunity to miss. Anniversary editions are among the trickiest as their publication dates are immutable. These are often the books that barge in and take their place, regardless of anything else. In 2014 we celebrated the 200th birth anniversary of Le Fanu, so that year Swan River published Dreams of Shadow and Smoke (an anthology written in tribute to the Irish gothic author and his work) and Reminiscences of a Bachelor, reprinting Le Fanu lost Gothic novella “The Fatal Bride”, which hadn’t seen the light of day since 1848.

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Anyway, there you go. Publishing, for me, is driven by a deep passion for the work, but also guided a handful of professional goals. It’s often a balancing act: what I want to publish versus what I’m capable of publishing. But ultimately, when there’s a text that I come across, and I feel those stirrings of wonder and awe, I usually just know I’ll be publishing or looking for a way to publish it. And yet, despite my ambition, and the many books I would like to publish—I can only manage on average four titles per year (not including The Green Book). With a sense for the workload I can manage, taking on any more than this would result in a loss of quality—and that’s something I’m never willing to sacrifice. In the end, it ain’t easy. But I do my best always.

So I hope that answers your question, Stephen. If you or anyone else has any further questions or thoughts on deciding what to publish, please write in the comments below. I’d also be interested in reading comments from other publishers. How do you decide what to publish?

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

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?

Thoughts on Small Press #1

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Over the recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the small press, so much of it negative: its failings with regard to paying authors, unfair/ridiculous contracts and terms, and all around dodgy business practices. Small press publishing, done correctly and honestly, is never easy. This is not an excuse. It’s also true that substandard practices flourish in this arena, and unfortunate that all too often these shortcomings burst to the fore. The indictments, and the frustrations they beget, are not without merit. However, it is also lamentable when the small press—which has a lot to offer—undergoes so much public maligning.

I have my own opinions, but I’ve largely avoided participation in recent discussions concerning, near as I can tell, the spectacular flaws on many levels of the small press community. Such conversations always make for difficult reading. But instead of weighing in, I thought I could learn more by listening and paying attention to what others were saying. Much of what I heard is not new—scandal embroiled small presses almost always echo each other in their manifestation: broadly speaking, bad and/or disingenuous management.

Logo2My own experience with running Swan River Press—working with authors, talking to readers, exploring old volumes, discovering new ideas, and having extraordinary experiences I otherwise might not have had—has been nothing short of pleasurable. It is hard work, always hard work, but for me it is immeasurably rewarding.

Instead of levelling accusations, naming names, and rehashing wrongs, I’d prefer now to have a discussion about how to run a small press successfully: what small presses get right, how to do it well, and the challenges that those running a small press might face. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and certainly each small press operates differently, but I’m confident that we also share commonalities, and can probably learn from one another too.

I’d like to start by opening up to questions on running a small press. What challenges do you face? What operational mysteries seem inscrutable? We can talk about the creative aspects, the financial elements—anything, really. I’d like to hear from writers, readers, editors, critics, other publishers, artists—anyone who has had any experience whatsoever with the small press.

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Given that all small presses are different, maybe I should also give you a bit of background on my own. Swan River Press started casually enough in 2003 with hand-bound chapbooks—ghost stories mainly. By 2010 I had expanded into limited edition hardbacks with print runs between 300-400 copies. Again, I tend to stick to supernatural and fantastical fiction, mostly short stories, though occasionally novels. While I happily publish writers from around the world, being based in Ireland I place particular emphasis on Irish literature. I publish contemporary writers, such as in our Uncertainties anthology series, and bring back into print fine editions of overlooked or underappreciated works. I also run a twice-yearly non-fiction journal called The Green Book, which focuses on Irish genre writing. All of our books are printed traditionally, which is to say I’ve not yet ventured into print on demand or digital. If you want to know more, our website is a good place to start.

I’m employed in a full time day job unrelated to publishing, often working on Swan River during the evenings and weekends. My core team is a small one, consisting of a designer, a proofreader, and a typesetter, thought many others have contributed over the years. There’s no office or storage, apart what’s in my rented accommodation, and unless someone gives me a hand, I take care of the daily tasks myself. I’m not even certain I could say how many hours per week are devoted to the press, but sometimes it feels like every spare one. Even my lunchtime reading, though pleasurable, is usually a press-related investigation.

So where should we begin? 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!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #1

Remembering Richard Dalby

brighton4The first thing one learned about Richard Dalby as a person was that Richard didn’t use email. Or at least that was the first thing I learned. Communications came by typed letter, occasionally handwritten (especially the later ones when he was having eye trouble), and even, though less frequently for me at least, by telephone. But let’s face it, there’s something quaint and reassuring about getting correspondence in the post.

Last week I got out all the letters I could find that Richard had sent to me over the years. While I’m sure we started corresponding earlier, I couldn’t find anything dating prior to May 2010. There were no catalogues either—with that little gold return address sticker at the top—which I must have binned after placing my orders. I circled items in Richard’s catalogues the same way I circled toys in the Sears Christmas catalogue when I was a kid. The books always arrived wrapped in brown paper, then newspaper, then another layer of brown paper (this layer bound also with string, sometimes with an added layer of bubble wrap), then under that a plastic bag (carefully taped shut), and then the book. Books Richard sent were wrapped so well they had to be extracted from the packaging by meticulous operation. Nothing ever arrived damaged though. Not once.

Richard’s death last month startled more than a few. I remember exactly what I was doing just before the message came through on my phone. I was at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, flipping through an old issue of All Hallows, looking at the extensive interview I had done with E.F. Bleiler in 2006, thinking Richard would be an excellent subject for a similar career-length interview. The scope of his knowledge and decades of experience, as a scholar, as a book collector and bibliophile, as an editor, and later as a colleague and friend would have made for a fascinating exchange. That’s when my phone buzzed on the nightstand delivering the news.

I first met Richard in Brighton at the World Horror Convention on 27 March 2010. Thinking back now, we certainly must have corresponded before 2010 as conversation was immediately familiar and friendly. I don’t think I’d ever seen a photograph of Richard prior to meeting him in Brighton, so was struck by his boyish appearance. It conflicted with the fact that his publication history goes right the way back. Jesus, how old was this guy? Not that old at all as it turned out.

IMG_1844But Richard wasn’t just boyish in appearance; he had something of that youthful manner about him too. Maybe curiosity is a better word for it. He was inquisitive. After brief salutations and nice-to-finally-meet-yous, Richard immediately launched into questions. I’d been working on Stoker a lot in those days, and he wanted to know what I knew about “X” edition, or if I had ever been able to track down the exact publication date of “Y”. Of course I hadn’t. Sure, I know more than the average person does about Stoker, but Richard’s knowledge far exceeded mine and by no small amount. And yet he asked me questions anyway because that’s how Richard seemed to work. He probed, asked questions, compiled, collected, and collated. I think that’s one of the key qualities Richard possessed that made him such a good researcher, bibliographer, and anthologist.

That’s pretty much how our correspondence went too: Richard would ask me questions and I mostly answered with the written equivalent of a blank stare and a shrug. I asked Richard questions and he responded in more detail and depth of knowledge than I ever would have imagined. He was generous that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who benefited from his knowledge.

So there we were stood in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. He’d just asked me numerous questions on Stoker-related bibliographic mysteries, and what could I say? How could I respond? I opened my bag and took out my well-thumbed Bram Stoker: A Bibliography that Richard had co-written with Bill Hughes. I asked him to sign it. He did. As he wrote in my book, I kept thinking: “Why are you asking me these questions, Richard? You literally wrote the book on the subject.” But he treated me as a colleague right from the start. This Stoker bibliography—which I still consult—is one book of two that I now have in my collection kindly inscribed to me by Richard.

bss5Richard was also kind enough to edit one of Swan River Press’s Bram Stoker Series booklets, To My Dear Friend Hommey-Beg: The Great Friendship of Bram Stoker and Hall Caine, which I published in 2011. Much of our early correspondence centred on Bram Stoker, but also Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and as the years went by an increasing number of more obscure Irish writers. By autumn of 2010, Swan River Press had shifted from publishing chapbooks and booklets to limited edition hardbacks. Not only was Richard enthusiastic about this, but frequently offered his advice and expertise.

I remember Richard was especially keen to see Mervyn Wall back in print, and in advance of Swan River’s reissues of The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey in 2015, Richard allowed me to reprint his article “Mervyn Wall: Irish Author and Satirist” in the second issue of The Green Book. He also sent me a photocopy of Dorothy Macardle’s rare ghost story collection Earth-Bound, which I eventually reprinted in 2016. So too did Richard help fill in my A.E. collection by sending me stray volumes that he accumulated over the years. He was eager to see the sesquicentennial edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems, which I published in early April 2017. I sent him copies of the book—I’d gotten into the habit of sending him a few copies of everything I published—but I did not hear back from him, nor would I. I knew he was still having eye trouble, but I hoped that he had time to open the package and that he liked the book.

Richard’s generosity continued over the years, and even as I look around my office here in Dublin, I see a great number of books he had sent me. He knew I was on the lookout for obscure volumes, mainly Irish, and occasionally Richard would send letters with lists of books he had acquired, offering them with the note “free to you”. I sometimes think he picked up spare copies just so he could send them to people who were looking for them. There are early editions of Stoker and M.R. James from Richard on my shelves, books by Cheiro, some Le Fanu, a cherished first edition of Blackwood’s The Bright Messenger, and an odd little volume, Thirty Stories by Elizabeth Myers (simply because he thought I might like it), among many others.

Not long before his eyesight became even more troublesome, I got another such letter telling me he would soon be “downsizing” his Dunsany and Blackwood collections. Although he never got around to sending me a list of those titles, he wrote that he would soon be getting rid of the first editions which he “no longer needed to keep”—“Free to you,” he added. Generous as always, no doubt, but even then there was an odd hint of closing-time about that handwritten letter. It was always “Free to you”. Richard was either a very good bookseller, or a very bad one—depending on your perspective, I suppose.

Earlier this year I asked Richard if he would contribute to an ambitious project I have embarked on. Inspired by Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers, Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic, and other similar reference books, I’d decided to put together an encyclopaedia of Irish supernatural and fantastical fiction writers. With his scope of knowledge, Richard was one of the first people I approached. I sent him a letter with my list of authors and waited. What came back was a half-page list of ten authors about whom he wanted to write—many on which he’d already written; authors who he had revived and got back into print; authors who were on my list because Richard had introduced me to their work in the first place. Apart from the date in the corner (January 2017), there was no further comment, just the handwritten list. A week or so later I received what would be a short, final letter: a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, a few brief but enthusiastic comments about the encyclopaedia project, and the hope that with regard to his eyesight “all will improve this year”.

IMG_1843The last time I saw Richard was at the Friends of Arthur Machen annual dinner in York on 5 March 2016. I didn’t know he would be there, but was glad to see him again. We chatted a bit about the then forthcoming Dublin Ghost Story Festival, he regretted that he couldn’t make it, but was hoping to attend if we decided to host another. Richard that day wore an oversized jumper and I remember watching him inspect books that were to be auctioned off before the dinner. He picked them up one by one, bringing each one close up to his eyes to read the titles before depositing them back on the table. Richard bought two or three odd volumes costing not more than a few pounds. I don’t remember what the titles were, but I do recall wondering what his interest in them was. As for me, I bought a copy of The Haunted Chair and Other Stories by Richard Marsh, which Richard had edited for Ash Tree Press back in 1997. Richard was sat beside me in his oversized cream-coloured jumper, his hair was whiter than I’d remembered. I asked him if he would sign the book. He did. It’s the second book in my collection inscribed to me by Richard.

He made a quick exit shortly after that. Said he had to catch a bus back to Scarborough. I wish he would have stayed for the dinner.

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Richard Dalby has left his scholarly imprint on many hundreds of books and journals, not just those he edited or compiled himself, but those volumes that he shepherded into publication with the generosity of his knowledge and genuine love for supernatural literature. Back in 2014 Richard wrote to me: “I still have around thirty ideas for excellent collections and anthologies.” I suspect he was being modest. And it might be a selfish thing to write, but I hope hints of those books might still be discovered among his papers.

The loss of a friend and colleague is and always will be a horrible thing, and with someone like Richard that loss goes for double—along with him went a vast amount of knowledge. Commiserations regarding Richard’s death have been circulating the literary and small press communities these past weeks, and no doubt the void he left will not be filled any time soon.

I got an email from Peter Bell a few days ago. Like Richard, Peter also signed up to contribute to my Irish encyclopaedia, offering to write the entry on Katharine Tynan. Like many of us, Peter had looked to Richard for advice and assistance. Before he died, Richard gave Peter a copy of Tynan’s 1895 collection An Isle in the Water. “Some time ago,” Peter wrote to me in the email, “I’d asked Richard for more information about Tynan. With strange serendipity I opened the copy of Isle in the Water, and inserted I found notes on her Richard had sent with it . . . As if his spirit were still abroad!” Something tells me we are still in good ghostly company.

Richard, you are missed.

This reminiscence originally appeared in A Ghostly Company Newsletter 58, Summer 2017. Mark Valentine’s obituary for Richard can be read on the Wormwoodiana Blog.

Remembering Richard Dalby

Our Riverine Head

IMG_0002I never intended for Swan River Press to have a formal logo. But the stony-faced image used on the website – the visage that’s made its way into some of our publications, on postcards, tote bags, and of course at the top of this blog – has inadvertently become the press’s logo. In this post I’d like to tell you about where it came from and what it means.

Back in 2003, I published the first Swan River Press chapbook: The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man. I put “Swan River Press” on it mainly as an afterthought as I never intended to publish more. You see, I was living in a flat on Leinster Road at the time (number ten), about thirty seconds’ walk to the Rathmines town centre. Having lived in Rathmines since I moved to Dublin, I wanted to give the press a name that would resonate with the area where I’d made my home.

At some point prior I’d come across Clair L. Sweeney’s excellent book The Rivers of Dublin (1991) and realised that, like many big cities, Dublin is riddled with rivers and streams – only now the majority of them are underground, culverted and buried. The Swan River was one of these subterranean waterways; moreover, it passed by my house, beneath Leinster Road, just behind our fine Carnegie library. And even though I never intended for the press to last this long, what name to give it became obvious.

Apart from the bloated verdigris dome of St. Mary’s Church, one of the most recognisable buildings on the Rathmines skyline is the red brick clock-tower of the town hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and built in the early 1890s. The clock is sometimes called the “four-faced liar” as it’s four sides rarely seem to be correct or even in synch with each other. (I can actually hear the bronze bells tolling as I write this post. Also the rain against my window.)

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For those of you who don’t know, Rathmines is a neighbourhood in south-central Dublin, just over the Grand Canal. However, Rathmines developed as an independent township from 1847 until it was incorporated into the City of Dublin in 1930, which is why I believe the area still maintains a distinct identity. If you want a fictionalised tour of the neighbourhood, check out my short story collection The Bleeding Horse (2008) and the follow-up novella Old Albert (2011), two attempts at building an uncanny mythology for Rathmines.

Spot 4But back to the Swan River Press logo. Should you ever visit Rathmines, or if you’re lurking about here already, have a look at the keystone just above the main entrance of the town hall. It depicts a serene face with a seashell crown. In reality this is probably just Saint James, who is commonly associated with scallops. But in my own mind I’ve always considered it to be the personification of the Swan River. This made perfect sense to me. After all, the Custom House on the Liffey is bedecked with similar riverine heads, each one evoking a different river in Ireland. And the Rathmines town hall’s sandstone mascaron gazes out to where the Swan River still secretly flows. I have to say, I prefer my more fanciful notion to the Christian one.

The image was drafted by my friend and colleague Duane Spurlock. I believe it was originally intended as an illustration for Old Albert, though maybe Duane remembers more. Anyway, Duane had illustrated some of the chapbooks I did after The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man (a few copies of The Snow Came Softly Down and Tigh an Bhreithimh are still available in the shop). We also worked together on Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), for which he did illustrations. Gothic Dublin is now sadly out of print.

Duane’s pen and ink rendering of the mascaron is perfect. It reminds me that, though the river may be buried, it is certainly not dead. If you stand in the middle of the intersection of Mountpleasant Avenue and Richmond Hill, you will even hear the Swan River flowing beneath your feet on its way to the sea. Try it sometime.

The think the best images are imbued with grand meaning, and for me this one holds much. I’ve come to identify the face, this personification of the Swan River, not only with the press, but also with Rathmines, where I still live and take inspiration and publish books. A few years back I was fortunate enough to acquire Duane’s original artwork (thanks, bud!), and it now hangs proudly in the Swan River Press office.

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Our Riverine Head