Thoughts on Small Press #6—Deluge of Submissions

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Earlier this year, our friends over at Tartarus Press announced a call for submissions for their forthcoming 30th anniversary anthology. (Wow! Thirty years!!) The submissions window ran from 10 January until 10 April—a clean three months. Editor Rosalie Parker said on Twitter the other day that in that time, she received over five hundred stories. Five. Hundred. Stories. Yikes!

In a previous “Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?”, I briefly talk about submissions. I mention that I’m generally not open for submissions, fearing I would be unable to handle the deluge. Looking at what Rosalie Parker has to sift through, I suspect I’m not wrong.

I also wrote in the aforementioned post that I believe it’s the duty of small presses to nurture new writers, as these are the writers who are pushing literature into innovative and exciting places. Of course, I fully realise that being closed for submissions, generally, is at odds with being open to discovering new writers. This is an issue with which I have been struggling since I started Swan River Press. As you might have guessed, this is something of an issue of time, or rather, a lack of it.

So that’s what I want to talk about in this post: submissions from an editor’s point of view—or at least from my own point of view.

Although I’ve already given my background elsewhere, it might be worth doing so again here for context. Much as I’d like it to be, Swan River Press is not my day job. I’ve got a job at which I work regular full-time hours. Swan River tends to gobble all other hours in between—I daresay that, though it is not a day job, Swan River is certainly a full-time job. (If you really want to irritate me, try referring to Swan River as my hobby.)

IMG_0019Through Swan River, I publish on average maybe four books per years, plus two issues of The Green Book—again, I talk about some of this in the post I mentioned above. Six titles per year keeps me plenty busy. It might not sound like a lot to you, but in addition to editing and other more obvious jobs associated with publishing, there are myriad other tasks in running a small press (such as a horrific amount of admin), the bulk of which I perform on my own. In any case, I’ve learned six publications is more or less my limit with the resources I have currently available.

So let me talk about a specific submissions example. One of Swan River’s main venues for publishing contemporary writers is the Uncertainties anthology series. The series was conceived, in part, as a way to work with writers who I might not otherwise be able to accommodate by publishing something book-length. I edited Uncertainties volumes one and two myself (and am working on the fifth). The third and fourth instalments were edited by Lynda E. Rucker and Timothy J. Jarvis, respectively. (Incidentally, if you want to read Lynda’s and Tim’s thoughts on assembling these anthologies, you can do so here and here.)

Now I also readily admit that I’m a slow reader. Realising I wouldn’t be able to handle open submissions for the first two volumes, again, due to time restraints, I approached contributors directly. I was in the fortunate position to know enough writers who I wanted to work with—and, more importantly, enough who would indulge me by submitting a story. I approached only the number of authors I needed to fill the two books. I was pleased with how the process went, and feel both volumes turned out well. This is, of course, one way to assemble an anthology; not necessarily a wrong one either. However, I realise that most of the writers included were already established, with most names familiar to those who read within the small press. But how could I reach even more writers? I came up with a pretty good work around: Allowing others to edit Uncertainties would be a neat way of introducing fresh voices that I might not otherwise have published. My only editorial stipulation for the series is that an author can only be published in the series once—no repeats. This is another self-imposed restriction to keep from returning to familiar voices.

IMG_0015When it came time for Lynda and Tim to edit their instalments, I broached the idea of open submissions with each. I hope they don’t mind my saying, but both opted to solicit stories privately—the same as I had done, and I suspect for probably the similar reasons as my own: there were certain authors they knew they wanted to work with and the time commitment of ploughing through an open submissions slush pile would likely be overwhelming. And, like me, both Lynda and Tim have day jobs.

For Uncertainties 5, I’ve taken a slightly different tack. This time I’ve invited around fifty writers to submit stories—I figure I’ll have space to include stories by around ten or twelve depending. I’ve still mainly approached writers I want to work with, but am now opening up more widely to a limited number of submissions. Ideally I would like to assemble a future volume of Uncertainties with a completely open call for submissions. We’ll see.

Let’s get back to Tartarus Press’s five hundred submissions. There are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, every writer who submits will be a hopeful individual, dreaming that their story will be accepted for publication. When they submit, they will have every right to expect a response. This is really my biggest fear as a publisher: that I would not be capable of processing that many submissions, that I would likely become known in the small press community for my abysmal response times. Or worse, for my dead silence.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeLooking at this from an editor’s point of view, would anyone care to estimate how long five hundred submissions might take to process? If stories are on average 5,000 words, that’s a total of 250,000 words. Certainly not every word of every story will be read in its entirety. Some will be given a few pages before being discarded, while others might be set aside to be read a second, third, or even a fourth time. (Remember, I’m a slow reader too.)

Reading is not the only task here either. Submissions must be logged. Writers will also likely appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt, and eventually expect a response, be it an acceptance or rejection. Some might want to know why they were rejected, request a critique, or otherwise desire to enter into a convivial correspondence. There is nothing wrong with this on an individual level, but you can see easily how it might turn into an administrative nightmare, especially for one person, especially if the anthology isn’t their sole focus. And that’s all before the publication process even begins.

Meanwhile the various anxieties of each individual writer will grow. And let’s face it—most will be disappointed. And then there’s always the risk of negative social media reaction, despite best intentions. (Note: Writers out there who have taken to the megaphone to publicly chastise editors and publishers—rightly or wrongly—I’ve read your tweets and posts and would not like to suffer your wrath. I wonder how many publishers keep writing opportunities private for this very reason?)

So that’s basically it. This post is more an admission of failure rather than a prescription for success. I just wanted to mull over in the open the issues I face as an editor and publisher. I’ve been thinking about this submissions issue for years, coaxing myself to perhaps fully throw the submissions doors open for some future project.

IMG_2365Were I to venture into the open submissions arena, what are some ways I might protect myself from an unmanageable deluge?

Some of you might be thinking: ask for help or find an intern. To that I would say: People need to be paid for their work. Anthologies incur the highest production costs of all Swan River projects, often times not capable of earning back the money or time invested. While I have no regrets, I still wouldn’t be able to pay someone to do this work for me.

Perhaps I could have a very short period in which to submit? Really, though, this merely limits the amount of time people have in which to click “send”. Ideally you’d want to give people notice, sufficient time to write something suitable for the anthology. The last thing you’d want is for people to send you any old thing they have on their hard drives just so they can feel they submitted something by the deadline. (Believe me, even though I am not open for submissions, people still send me book proposals completely inappropriate for Swan River. In fact, recently, someone pitched an anthology that pretty much described exactly the remit of Uncertainties. See “Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments” in which I advise prospective writers to research at least a little the venues to whom they’re submitting.)

Hopefully I’ve outlined above some of the challenges an editor faces, especially when that editor works for a small, independent publishing house. Or perhaps I’m just whinging? Still, I can’t help but to feel sometimes that there are more writers than there are readers.

If you’re a publisher or editor, how do you face the challenge of submissions? I’d love to hear from you, about your processes and concerns—how do you approach the deluge of submissions? Or do you err on the side of an invite only system?

(By the way, I am actually open to submissions for The Green Book!)

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 #6—Deluge of Submissions

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

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?

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?

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, 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!

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 #2—What to Publish?

Thoughts on Small Press #1

Spines 8

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.

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

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