It can be argued that the small press publisher is a key ingredient to shaping the future of science fiction and fantasy literature. Some of literature's brightest stars can be found in the books they publish. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to run a small press? I talked with the following small press publishers to learn about why they do what they do, the challenges they face, and the shining voices they publish:
- L. Timmel Duchamp of Aqueduct Press
- Mark Teppo of Resurrection House
- Gavin J. Grant of Small Beer Press
- Bill Schafer from Subterranean Press
- Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications
What I found was illuminating and interesting. Read on to discover the ins and outs of how small press publishers shape the field of science fiction and fantasy…
Q: Why did you start your own publishing company?
L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP: After several years of seeing one fine author after another being dropped by the major commercial presses, I realized that the field was being deprived of interesting work by experienced, "midlist" authors, suggesting that original, challenging fiction might be a harder sell to many publishers than repeats of what was currently selling well. I had long since noted that a few quality small presses were attempting to address the problem. And in the summer of 2003, I became convinced that I had the resources needed to become one of those small presses. I at once acquired a manuscript I'd heard about, which we published a year later as Gwyneth Jones' Life (which then went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award). Gwyneth was one of those midlist authors who had been dropped. A month after we released Life, David Hartwell told me he was glad we'd published it, since Tor hadn't been able to, however much he had liked it when Gwyneth had submitted it. Shortly after I published Life, I solicited Andrea Hairston and discovered she had a novel manuscript that, like Life, had been deemed unpublishable by the larger presses, which I acquired (and subsequently published as Mindscape). After that, manuscripts began flowing in, some of them through the recommendation of authors I love and respect.
MARK TEPPO: Some days, it's hard to remember why I started my own publishing company. :) But other days, especially those days when a box of books arrives and I get to put a new title on the shelf, I do remember. And it's because I wanted more options: both for myself and for other authors. As traditional publishing became more risk-adverse (a trend which has only worsened, in my opinion), it has become more and more difficult for a relatively new author to actually build a career. The expectation that your first book (or even your fifth book) will change the world or become a blockbuster hit is nonsensical—for most books—and yet, that's the magical hope that is pinned on each book. You might get another contract, but then it's all over, and people start talking about pseudonyms and different genres and what not. You never get a chance to develop your skills—or to find an audience—and I think writers need to have the opportunity to grow into themselves.
GAVIN J. GRANT: The urge to start publishing books was similar to the internal nudge to write: I wanted to see something different out there in the world. Part of it was Kelly Link's writing, but part of it was looking for and not finding enough writing that reflected the world in its true weirdness.
BILL SCHAFER: I was in my mid-twenties, looking for a way to be involved in sf, but discovered writing would never be my way in. I was friends with Richard Chizmar (of Cemetery Dance) and decided to try on the publisher's hat. Our first year, we released two stapled chapbooks. Last year, it was closer to forty hardcovers. Twenty-one years in, it seems to have been a good fit.
JACOB WEISMAN: I didn't start out to be a book publisher. Magazines and newspapers were my calling. I worked on every school newspaper I could, edited a literary magazine in college, and graduated to internships with Asimov's and Locus. (In retrospect it's not surprising, with all of my magazine experience that Tachyon has done so well with our anthologies and short story collections.)
I started by publishing a small zine that included fiction, essays, poetry, book reviews, and record reviews. Today it would be a blog. But the experience of putting together print publications was very formative. There's nothing quite like cobbling together a magazine by hand using knives, waxes, light boards, line tape, and barely functional computer equipment with extra-large floppy discs.
I always loved sf and when the opportunity came to publish a few books on my own, I took it. Early on, I was influenced by all the classic small presses: from Gnome, Arkham House, and Shasta to NESFA and Pulphouse. The early small presses, which started up before the majors entered the field in the 1950s, sought to preserve classic works of sf. That's what we did early on, publishing works by many of the pioneers of sf: Stanley G. Weinbaum, Ward Moore, Clifford D. Simak. But it wasn't long until we were publishing newer works by Jack McDevitt, Peter S. Beagle, and Michael Swanwick.
And that's what we're still doing today, only with novels and novellas in addition to collections and anthologies, with new books in the works by Peter Watts, Joe R. Lansdale, James Morrow, Ellen Klages, Lauren Beukes, Peter S. Beagle, and Bruce Sterling, among others.
Q: What are the biggest challenges of running a publishing company and how are you overcoming them?
L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP: The challenges I face running Aqueduct are probably very particular to us, since most successful independent presses don't deliberately choose to restrict their growth in order to avoid the rigors and limitations imposed by greater distribution. (We're keenly aware that the audience for the kind of books we want to publish is limited, and that appealing to a larger audience would fetter our ability to take the risks we embrace.)
One of the biggest challenges that falls to me (rather than other members of the Aqueduct team) is gauging how well a particular title will sell, which I need to do so that I can order the optimal size of print run. Since the larger the print run, the lower the cost per piece, it's financially painful to have to order a second run. On the other hand, if a print run is so in excess of its sales that it leaves us with vastly more copies than we'll ever be able to sell, the book might never break even. In the early years of Aqueduct, sales of our books to libraries often paid the printing costs; that changed in 2008 when the budgets of public libraries took a major hit, and our print runs had to be cut. Because our print runs were smaller, the prices of our books would have to be raised—though, fortunately, ebook sales began taking off at around the same time, meaning that some of a book's printing costs began to be absorbed by its ebook edition. I cope with this challenge by spending a considerable amount of time paying attention to what's happening in the publishing industry as well as in the sf/f field as a whole and stand prepared to adapt quickly to change. And Tom, who is our business manager, provides me with sales reports and bar and pie charts.
Another challenge I face is figuring out the optimal presentation for novels that are basically sui generis. How a book is presented via blurbs, jacket copy, press releases, and cover letters to review publications influences both its reception and its sales. I've learned that praise in blurbs that please the author sometimes puts off readers from ever even opening the book, especially when they emphasize the book's uniqueness. What attracts someone to pick up a book may not necessarily be the same thing they end up loving it for. I'm therefore working harder to understand which aspects of a book are more likely to appeal to its ideal audience (without, of course, misrepresenting the book).
A third challenge, which I haven't yet overcome, is the problem of how to get our ebooks into public libraries. The very libraries who purchase our printed books do not have access to our ebooks; that is solely because the distributor will not take us on. We have been looking into working with a sub-distributor dedicated to working with small presses, but so far without success. There are signs that that distributor may not hold a permanent monopoly over library ebook distribution, and that might allow us to solve that problem.
MARK TEPPO: Finding an audience is tough. I've been working in an independent bookstore in a suburban area over the last year, and the most eye-opening lesson I've learned is that it can be very difficult to get readers to try new things. As a bookseller, if you have $25 to spend on stock, are you going to buy a Stephen King book or a book by a writer no one has ever heard of? Naturally, once the bookseller has sold every King book to that customer and the customer is wanting something new, then the bookseller can offer them a book by an unknown writer, but that takes time. That presumes a relationship between bookseller and customer. As a publisher, I need to build a similar relationship between myself and booksellers, and it just takes time. Time and money.
We had two models to consider when we started: come out strong with lots of titles and hope that the wealth of material would raise awareness across the board of the press; or start slow, doing one or two books a year, and gradually work up to a busier schedule. We opted for the first model, and we've published more than twenty books in the last two years. One book received a Special Citation from the Philip K. Dick Award this year, another is up for the Shirley Jackson Award, and a few others have been on best of lists. Would I make this same choice again? Probably not. I might have more visibility now than I would have following the other model, but the first model is an expensive risk, and it takes a long time to recoup the initial investment.
GAVIN J. GRANT: Distribution is always a challenge since we publish a lot of short story collections but our fabulous distributor, Consortium, who has been very supportive over the years, has been bought by Ingram, and I am optimistic that it will end up with us getting even more support, wider distribution, and so on.
One of the constant challenges is to remind readers that one huge company running everything from publishing to printing to selling books (yes, I am talking about Amazon) isn't healthy. I am a big believer in competition and enjoy seeing the ups and downs of the book world, but every time our Amazon contract is renegotiated and our payments are dropped another 1/2 percent (that adds up over the years), I wonder how long we'll be able to deal with them. It's an industry wide problem, of course.
BILL SCHAFER: The financial end for a press our size is always an issue. We address that by having very strong direct sales through our site, and good relationships with the major wholesalers and online retailers. To anyone looking to start a press, I suggest looking for as many revenue streams as possible.
In recent years, ebooks have come on strongly for us, helping give added life to limited print runs. It's gratifying that our books don't disappear as quickly as they did before we went down the electronic path.
JACOB WEISMAN: The biggest problem in publishing is all the uncertainty. You publish the best books you can find, create the best packages to present them, generate as much pre-release buzz as you can, and then you line them all up in your schedule and you see what happens. If you've done your job well, good things tend to happen.
Q: What has publishing taught you about the publishing business, writers and/or genre?
L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP: Most obviously, I've learned that the field is bursting with talent—more, I think, than the market is set up to handle. Some of that talent won't get developed because the magical combination of factors needed to nurture and tutor it won't come together in every case. Part of my role as a publisher is to do what I can to nurture such talent. It has become clear to me that paying greater attention to the pool of potential talent has the power to transform whole areas of the field. I've also been fascinated to learn how inappropriate some of the mainstream assumptions about business are for our field—and, perhaps, for any creative field. The field's small presses do not compete among one another, and they don't compete with the large commercial presses, precisely because we aren't playing a "zero-sum game," and, perhaps, because many of us in the field wear two or three or even more hats. Obviously our field is rife with conflict, but its focus is usually not on the almighty dollar.
MARK TEPPO: Much like we say that every writer should spend some time reading slush, I think every publisher should spend some time working in an independent bookstore. It's easy to get caught up in the publishing side of things, but making the books is only half of what goes on. The other half is getting readers to actually pick up your books, and doing the convention circuit and the like isn't the same as the bookstore environment.
Frankly, it's never been easier to slap a cover and "publish" something that you've written, and the market is swamped with books that haven't been well vetted or well packaged, and readers are starting to become more discerning, but I think it's still a wild and untamed landscape out there. Publishers have less idea of what is a surefire hit, and readers are less likely to spend a lot of money on something they don't know anything about. Curating is becoming important again—whether it be from a bookseller, a publisher, or a reader evangelist standpoint.
Ultimately everyone wants to be entertained or moved or somehow swept up in a book, and that experience is a very personal one. I sell books every day to people who have no clue (and care even less) about whatever online fracas is consuming genre. They have ten dollars to spend on a book; they want to be entertained. They don't want a lecture. They don't want to have to make a decision about the future direction of our culture or societal makeup. They just want something that will ease their own burden for a few hours. I struggle with finding the right balance here. As a publisher, is it my job to lift the overall quality of the genre I'm publishing in, or should I just provide what a vast majority of readers are actually buying? And I know that I can't chase trends. By the time something is trending, it's too late to jump on board.
GAVIN J. GRANT: I think I know less now than when I started—maybe because I used to read a lot more about publishing then whereas now I just try to keep up with our submissions. I like that the sky is always falling in publishing. I'm not particularly worried about the future of publishing as I know readers will find ways to read, to find books, no matter what the format or what's going on.
BILL SCHAFER: There are a lot of wonderful people in this genre, those who've gone out of their way to help us as we've grown, and stuck by us. I can't emphasize enough how beneficial it's been to us to have published Joe R. Lansdale for the past twenty years. In the early days, we could pretty legitimately be accused of publishing little else but Joe's work, I think. He gave us a respectability and profitability early on that might have taken additional years to build otherwise.
JACOB WEISMAN: That persistence pays off. I just keep plugging away: every day, every week, every month, every year. It's such a large industry that it's hard not to get lost in the middle of it all, but I've managed to grow Tachyon just the tiniest bit every year, and I've been doing this for 21 years now.
Q: What writers have you published who you feel are criminally underrated?
L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP: Three in particular spring to mind: Gwyneth Jones, Eleanor Arnason, and Andrea Hairston. (I would once have added Nisi Shawl, but her growing visibility encourages me to think she will soon be on the field's radar.) Gwyneth Jones and Eleanor Arnason are beloved by certain critics, but suffer from low sales; both are award-winners and were once published by Tor, but seem to have little traction, even among many avowedly feminist readers. Andrea Hairston is also an award-winner, but has been mostly published by Aqueduct.
MARK TEPPO: Darin Bradley's Chimpanzee was our first book, released back in the fall of 2014. It's the story of a post-collapse world where the government can repossess your education if you can't pay off your student loans. The protagonist fights back against this memory loss, with some very interesting results. It's a fantastic modern-day love story, in a way, but it's also eerily prescient. I'm a little frightened about the world he's speculating in Totem, which will be coming out this fall.
We published Dale Bailey's latest collection last spring, The End of the End of Everything, and it's been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award (in a category that has very stiff competition this year). The collection came about almost as an accident, but the impetus came out of me reading his story "The Creature Recants," and reaching out to him about working together. What came out of that conversation was his first novel in more than a decade. The Subterranean Season is a collegiate horror story about the book nerd and the bully that goes really dark. And because it is Dale, it's marvelously witty and gorgeously written and emotionally evocative. He recasts the opening of the Aeneid as a collegiate fight song, for crying out loud. It's a great book that never really found its audience.
GAVIN J. GRANT: Is it a crime if a book is less popular than I'd hope? Not yet. Until the day that I can prefill everyone's e-readers with Small Beer titles I'm going to pass on this one.
BILL SCHAFER: Lewis Shiner, especially as a short story writer. I think he's stayed one step ahead of the size audience he deserves. I'd add Caitlin R. Kiernan to that list, too. She's prolific at shorter lengths, and doing work of a quality that few others can match. I hope that translates to increased visibility and sales of her novels.
JACOB WEISMAN: Michael Swanwick is probably the best short story writer right now in all of sf. He's able to create entire worlds in just a few sentences. His stories propel the reader right into the heart of the story with full clarity of what's at stake. Michael says that the clipped nature of his stories is due to the fact that he has so many stories he wants to tell and not enough time to write them all, but his stripped down method of storytelling is unique and utterly captivating. His non-fiction, remembrances, essays, and tributes are also top notch. The man thinks in stories. And it's not possible for him to tell a bad one.
The first book I ever published was Ganglion and Other Stories by Wayne Wightman. Wightman is mostly unknown because much of his best work appeared in Amazing Stories during a period when the magazine wasn't getting much circulation. He later wrote for F&SF, OMNI, and Asimov's. His stories read like early Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, or William Tenn interlaced with hints of horror. Paul Di Filippo writing in Asimov's described the Ganglion as "an all-star classic issue of Galaxy Magazine in book form."
Q: Can you tell us about some of your more recent titles?
L. TIMMEL DUCHAMP: I'll mention a few titles in our Spring 2016 list:
Andrea Hairston's Will Do Magic for Small Change celebrates the author's joy in story. To quote the PW starred review: "The entire work is filled with magic, celebrating West Africans, Native Americans, art, and love that transcends simple binary genders. Hairston's novel is a completely original and stunning work."
Eleanor Arnason's Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens is being hailed as one of the collections of the year. Here' s Gary K. Wolfe, writing in the Chicago Tribune: "The central conceit is that these tales are the work of an alien race, the Hwarhath, who only late in their long history come in contact with humans, whom they don't like very much but find fascinating. This first collection reveals a complex history of the Hwarhath through their myths, legends and even their science fiction, revealing a culture worthy of comparison to those of Ursula K. Le Guin."
Two Travelers by Sarah Tolmie pairs two portal fictions. In "Dancer on the Stairs," a woman wakes up on a stone staircase in a baroque palace, not speaking the language of the place and lacking the chemical signature that allows people to identify each other within a complex social hierarchy. Unable to communicate in words, she resorts to dance. In "The Burning Furrow," a man who runs a diner in present-day America is also a freedom-fighter in the northern, courtly realm of Dinesen. His people are abused foreigners at home, the servants of strangers, bound not by their overlords, but by their world itself, through a ritual known as the burning of the furrows. Only he and his family are free—for a time. Now that time is ending. As Publishers Weekly's starred review puts it, "Rich with detail, both stories are imbued with baroque sensibilities, a refreshing deviation from the typical medieval setting. Rather than relying on pure exposition, Tolmie uses the characters' interactions and personalities to bring color to the unique magic of each setting. Tolmie's investigations of identity, place, and personal meaning are a delight to read and a great contribution to the genre."
Susan diRende's Unpronounceable is the latest volume in our Conversation Pieces series. Earth has discovered it is not alone in the universe. The aliens—pink, shapeless, and peaceful—are very nice, but after a string of failed diplomatic missions, they ask Earth to stop with the crazies and send someone normal. In frustration, the UN devises a lottery to pick the next ambassador. Enter Rose Delancy, a Jersey waitress with a grudge against pretty much the whole world. Rose is not happy about winning; she's not particularly happy about anything. When she arrives on Unpronounceable—the planet having a name she refuses to attempt saying—she is nothing but rude to the Blobs, as she calls them, and they find it refreshing. She likes them; they like her. She settles in and starts teaching the natives all about junk food, movies, and sex. They show her a few things of their own involving the transformation of matter, but Rose is only interested in how it applies to sex. That is until she learns that she's been suckered to play the patsy for an interstellar takeover by Earth...
MARK TEPPO: We just put out The Hauntings of Hood Canal, the fifth volume in our comprehensive collection of Jack Cady's works. Jack was one of those writers who put out a half dozen influential novels during the last few decades of the last century, but who never could be categorized well enough to find an audience. He was too literary for horror, too fantastic for the mainstream, and too mercurial for a single genre categorization. But time and again, I hear from readers and writers who are stunned by the beauty and craft of Jack's work. We're really happy to be rereleasing all the books (and including supplementary materials that relate to the novels) as well as gathering up all his fiction and nonfiction into a cohesive collection.
This fall, we have Darin Bradley's Totem, which is the final book in his thematic "Dystopian Cluster." It's the story of a community that is tagged as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," and is completely wired for online voyeurism. The world watches as the radioactive God at the center of Aer slowly poisons its residents. Darin has taken our modern obsession with celebrity and religion and technology and turned it all into...well, something I hope doesn't come to pass, but wow, I'm just not sure...
GAVIN J. GRANT: In spring we published two big books, Sofia Samatar's second novel The Winged Histories and a collection of Joan Aiken stories, The People in the Castle: Selected Strange Stories. Next spring we'll publish Sofia's first collection of stories.
This month we have Jeffrey Ford's A Natural History of Hell, Jeff's fourth collection but first book with us. I've long loved his writing, so the day he offered us the book was a good one. Jeff's writing is so matter of fact yet goes straight from our known world to superbly weird from line one. He's a real storyteller. I'd love for him to have a 1/2-hour TV show where he just sits on a comfy chair — or at a bar! — and reads his stories.
BILL SCHAFER: As I write this, we're about to release a 780+ page collection by Alastair Reynolds called Beyond the Aquila Rift. To my mind, it's a top-five collection in any year, and maybe the best one of this year so far. I'd be remiss if I didn't thank my co-editor, Jonathan Strahan, on this project. Along with Gillian Redfearn (Al's UK editor), we carved those 250,000 words out of the better part of a million words of excellent short fiction. I'm enormously proud of this book, and how it's been received so far.
JACOB WEISMAN: Central Station is a fabulous novel by Lavie Tidhar, reminiscent of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Clifford D. Simak's City. Central Station is classic sf where the location, in this case a group of characters living in the shadow of a space port in a futuristic and multi-cultural Tel Aviv, is the book's true focus. It features a wonderful cover by Sarah Anne Langton that, like the book itself, manages to be something new but also a loving tribute to the idealism of the sf of the 1950s and 60s.
Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature is an anthology I've edited that looks at the recent trend of mainstream writers writing sf stories. It's a sequel, of sorts, to The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. That book dealt with the middle ground between mainstream writers and sf writers and was somewhat controversial. That book featured famous mainstream writers like Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, and Michael Chabon and famous sf writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler, and Connie Willis tackling similar themes. The new book features Junot Diaz, Katherine Dunn, George Saunders, Robert Olen Butler, and eighteen others. There are three Pulitzer Prize winners and three recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship (the so called "Genius Grant") and they are not the same three writers. This book took me several years to put together, and I'm very proud of it.
Dreams of Distant Shores is a wonderful collection of stories by Patricia A. McKillip, every bit as good as you'd expect her stories to be. It is her second Tachyon collection and her third overall.
Not So Much, Said the Cat is the latest collection by the aforementioned Michael Swanwick.
Summerlong is Peter S. Beagle's first novel in almost 20 years and will be a major event when it is released this September. A classic retelling of myth in the modern world.