High on every book person’s list of Things We’d Do Given Unlimited Time & Money—right after own our own bookstore—is run our own independent press. Who wouldn’t want to have the ability to take writing that appeals to us, writing that is most likely underserved by the traditional publishing establishment, and share it with the world? But then we come to our senses, or realize how overstretched we are and . . . we let go of that dream.
Which is why I admire Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, co-founders of Small Beer Press and lit zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW). I’d heard of LCRW years ago, but Small Beer came back on my radar screen when I heard they were publishing John Crowley’s Endless Things. Being a fan of Crowley, it seemed the height of cool to publish one of hiss works. But it didn’t stop with Crowley. There was a small parade of incredible authors being published by Small Beer (you’ll see more names below). And then in 2010 I picked up Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy. That’s when I realized Grant and Link were publishers of exceptional vision and bravery.
Grant and Link have a specific literary aethestic. It just so happens that this aethestic is difficult to describe. Some use the term slipstream, meaning prose that is fantastic, surreal or speculative. Some use the term ‘strange’, while Grant himself calls it ‘weird’. While Small Beers’ books defy categorization, you know one when you see one, and that’s due in no small part to Grant’s and Link’s clear vision.
Steampunk!An Anthology of Fantastically Strange and Rich Stories (Candlewick Press) is Grant's and Link's latest project
It seems that Small Beer and your lit magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, have a lot in common with the independent music scene, which flourished in the 1980s and beyond. That sense of wanting to do promote art that appeals to you but isn’t getting mainstream attention. What made your decide to start your own independent publishing house centered around this particular type of fiction?
When we started our zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW) in 1996 it was very much inspired by music zines. I’m not a huge fan of punk music, but I love the ethos and the world view. I like to remind myself and everyone else that you can go out and do something that could make a difference in the world. LCRW exists because none of the magazines I was reading was quite what I wanted. If I had an actual budget, we’d have more nonfiction, but c’est la vie. We started out publishing fiction that fell between the cracks: too this for one magazine, too that for another. We were lucky and very much of our time: many other publishers sprang up at the same time and now I look around and there are tons of places publishing what I really love: fiction, slightly weird.
Small Beer was a natural progression from LCRW and it’s still working really well as a home for books that might have difficulty finding a home elsewhere.
How do you decide what to publish in a given year? I imagine that, since your press is well-known within certain circles and highly regarded, you have both authors who come to you looking for a home for a particular work, and have your eyes on certain authors you’d like to work with. Do you want to talk about how you came to publish any particular works by more widely known writers, such as Holly Black, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler or Poppy Z. Brite? Or highlight one of your lesser-known but fabulous authors, a current favorite or new release.
Part of it has been luck. When we started out we knew that Carol Emshwiller had this novel, The Mount, that no one would publish. We read it, had our minds blown, published it, it won the Philip K. Dick Award and is now taught all over the country. There have been books we’d loved to have published that we missed for various reasons. Quite a few of our books have been us pestering authors and agents to see whether a favorite author has something new—or something that hasn’t quite fit elsewhere.
Kelly and I both loved Poppy Z. Brite’s New Orleans cooking novels and, in a fit of optimism, we hoped that we could inspire her to write more of them if we proposed a paperback of Second Line. She may not write more, but at least we got to spread the word on books we love.
One of our new books, The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, was originally self-published. A mutual friend, the writer Nalo Hopkinson recommended he send it to us and the rest is history. We get quite a few self-pub’d books, but his grabbed me from page one. It’s a quick, tight, thriller with a superhero-ish main character—not our usual book, but I loved it, so we were happy to put it out.
One of Kelly Link's short story collections
Let’s say someone wants to follow your example and start up her own independent publishing house. How would you recommend she start?
Everything in publishing has a longer and longer lead time do as much prep as you can long before you even announce the press. Come out of the gates with an initial list of titles (1,2,5, it doesn’t matter) and a distributor lined up. (Print distribution contracts are usually exclusive; ebook distribution contracts are usually nonexclusive.)
People love a new press, a new voice. Don’t miss your chance: exploit your freshfacededness!
One of the non-intuitive surprises is that if you have some successful books they can make life hard as they will take up all your time but you still need time to concentrate on the other books. This isn’t a complaint, just an observation from experience so you need to be able to plan on ways to find more time or get more help if the work expands. As it will!
A key factor in your success is that, as editors, you guys have a fabulous eye for good writing. Any tips for aspiring acquiring editors regarding cultivating a distinctive list that reflects a precise taste?
You are too kind! I would just say trust your own taste. We’re lucky in that when we’re not sure we can check with the other person and see what they think.
You live in Easthampton, Massachusetts, which I consider the western part of the state (maybe it’s more central Mass, but coming from the Boston area, it seems western to me!) a gorgeous area that’s away from the congestion of Boston. Maybe I’ve completely over-romanticized your situation, but it seems like he best way to live, away from the madding crowd, doing something artistically and personally satisfying in a beautiful place. Please do not dissuade me. (Okay, that’s not really a question.)
It’s definitely Western Mass! And I won’t dissuade you. I love cities but doing what I do I can’t afford to buy a house in a city. I wanted a place for our kid to be able to go and play in the garden and be able to cycle into town. We’re working as hard as we can so that this somewhat idyllic dream will come true!
Is there a five-year plan for Small Beer? What would you most like to see happen/want to do next?
I am hoping that in five years time we will still be publishing paper and ebooks. Our plan is to keep publishing books and see if we survive the seismic shift in the bookworld. We love books and indie bookstores (new and used), and have some sympathy for the book chain stores as they are fighting to survive against the WalMartization of everything. WalMart are good at some things, but selling the kinds of books we love isn’t one of them so we have to try and ensure that bookstores that will stock our books survive. Every dollar spent is a political act which remakes the possible futures — in other words, if you don’t shop at your local bookshop / hardware store / bike shop / clothes shop / grocery store then all that will be left are chains which are exactly the same from one side of the world to the other.
This pretty much sums up Under the Poppy: "A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel . . . will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."—Tor.com Would you like to win a copy? (Of course you would!) Leave a comment below.