Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Interview: Gavin J. Grant

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Gavin J. Grant is the publisher and editor of Small Beer Press and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and coedits The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror together with Kelly Link and Ellen Datlow.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, let's talk about Small Beer Press. What made you decide to start Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet? Small Beer Press? What's the division of work between you two (Gavin Grant & Kelly Link)?

I was 26 and realized I had to do something before I died. So the obvious thing (to me, maybe not to others) was to rip off some time and resources at the place I was temping at the time and start a zine. Both of us work on story selection — now with help from Jedediah Berry, our part-time assistant editor who tries to avoid being caught in the middle.

Small Beer seemed like a natural evolution from the zine. After doing LCRW for a while we wanted to publish some chapbooks and then books. I'm in most days and Jed and Kelly are in a couple of days a week. We also get an immense amount of help from interns—who are unpaid, so we owe them huge karmic debts.

What's the work dynamic like? Do you find yourselves having common tastes when it comes to reading preferences? Has one affected the other's writing?

We have overlapping tastes, but in every issue of LCRW (and in the books we've published and in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror) there are always pieces that we each love more than the other does. We used to argue about it but as the years have gone by we're more used to it.

In choosing whether to publish a story/chapbook/novel, do both of you have to like the author or is consent from one enough? What are your criteria for choosing to publish an author?

Our criteria are that we have to love the book enough to work with it for a couple of years. One of us is enough, but it has to really be something we believe in.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced as a company? Distribution? Promotion? Finances?

Everything comes back to finances and sales. If we sell books through our website we get say 90% of the cost (we pay shipping and Paypal takes a percentage). If a book is sold through our distributor we can get as little as 35%. It's a challenge to publish books on 35% of retail.

What would you say is the biggest difference with Small Beer Press now compared when you first started out? What are some of the things you'd do differently?

Now we have an office and it's my day job so it's quite different from coming home from work and doing it. Otherwise it's maybe the same: booking and making ads, design and editing, shipping, reading manuscripts, trying to sell foreign rights, filing, all the usual boring stuff.

Small Beer Press has released various short story collections and chapbooks. Would you say mainstream publishers are now more open to publishing collections? What's the appeal of chapbooks for you?

Short story collections have always had their fans at the big houses and I agree with them that economically they're a hard sell. I wanted the chapbooks to be an easy introduction to a writer for readers. I sometimes think that the $15 signed, limited edition model is a better fit than an affordable $5. (I am somewhat obsessed with affordability!)

You have podcasts and fiction available for download from the site. What went into your decision to make such material available for free? Has it been working out for you in terms of promotion?

Hope so! I know a lot of people who listen to podcasts and I know even more who read online so it seemed a natural. Or, rather, it seemed daft not to have parts of the books online.

What's the current state of Small Beer Press? Is it earning a profit? In what direction will it be expanding in the future?

It goes along ok. We probably will stay the same size for a bit unless something surprising comes along. One thing we're doing next year if quite a departure (and we're having a ton of fun with it) is that we're going to publish a desktop calendar! We are actively (if sometimes slowly) looking for translations of weird stuff that we might like.

There are a few independent publishers that have popped up in recent years. What in your opinion differentiates Small Beer Press?

New presses are always popping up as people decide the niche they love isn't being served. Our books are (hopefully) 1) brilliant 2) beautiful 3) necessary.

I read in your other interviews that both of you met working in a bookstore. Can I ask when did both of you know you were meant for each other? Do you think you would have grown this close if it weren't for Small Beer Press?

We both seem to like working together. It's a treat.

How did both of you get tapped to do The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror? Again, what's your criteria in selecting stories and do both of you have to like a story in order for it to be included in the anthology (or make it to the honorable mentions list)?

I have a feeling everyone smart said no! Jim Frenkel (the book packager) and Terri Windling asked us and we were flabbergasted and honored. As I said elsewhere, one of us is enough to like it, but it has to be something we are willing to argue for. There is some horse trading, of course.

How different or similar is working on
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and your other Small Beer Press titles? Do you imagine yourselves sticking to The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for the next two decades?

The Year's Best is an unending job, which is usually fine, it's just occasionally the magazine and anthology pile is slightly too high for the time available. (On an autumn weekend the choice is: read a stack of magazines or go apple picking. Hmm.) The Year's Best, due to how many people have to get paid, pays pennies, so I'm not sure we can afford to spend as much time on it as it takes.

Which in your opinion is a bigger life/career change: working on Small Beer Press or working on
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror?

The Year's Best has meant we get invited to conventions and so on, so that's fun, but the day-to-day and year-to-year challenges of starting and running Small Beer Press make it a much bigger change.

With all the work you've been doing, how do you find the time to still write stories? Do you find yourselves transitioning more to editors rather than writers?


How do you see yourself? What amalgam of publisher-writer-editor do you find yourself currently leaning towards?

Mostly publisher as it's what is (theoretically) supposed to pay the bills. Some small percentage editor and writer. I like the writing as it makes me think in different ways. As a publisher there are unending streams of information and reading to keep up on and weird things to track down. There is way more than 40 hours of work per week there, so it's hard to justify sitting by a babbling brook thinking about what poem to write next.

Who are some of your favorite writers or favorite books outside of the genre?

A photo of our book shelves might be a better idea. M.T. Anderson, who (nominally) writes young adult books, Ursula K. Le Guin within and without, Alasdair Gray. I love Anthony Lane's and Elizabeth Kolbert's reviews and pieces in The New Yorker.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Did becoming editors or publishers even entered your mind?

The former? Not sure when the knowledge that you could become a writer filtered through to me. There were some authors close to where I went to high school (actually, I can remember hearing of one, the late Robin Jenkins whose books I still enjoy) [http://lcrw.net/wordpress/?p=438].

As for working with books: I had no idea what I wanted to be (besides an adult!) and publishing probably never struck me until I fell into it. I avoided it out of college because I didn't want to do the scutwork, not knowing that 1) I'd be doing it today and 2) it's how everyone starts so you might as well go that route if you can.

Have you thought of writing a novel?

I wrote a couple in my twenties. I have many bad ideas, few good ones.

You've both worked in bookstores previously. Are there any particular lessons you learned back then that you still carry with you?

Make books that are attractive. There are a million things looking for a reader's attention in a bookshop.

Also (and this is something that I still need to work on): customer service is hugely important. If you walk in a shop and you can't find anyone to help you, then will you come back?

One of the reasons I like having a table at conventions like WisCon, Readercon, or festivals like the Brooklyn Book Festival is that we're right there, trying to sell books, so people can come up and talk to us.

What's one of the harshest lessons you learned in establishing
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet? Are you a chocolate connoisseur and what's your favorite variety of chocolate?

The harshest lesson is one that comes up on a weekly basis: cashflow has to be positive. i.e. when there's no money in the bank and you can't pay the printer, everything comes to a screeching halt. Bryan Cholfin, who published Crank! and ran Broken Mirrors Press in the '90s, and a few others were very helpful here and it's the main reason LCRW is still a black and white, stapled, photocopied zine. We can run 1,000 copies off for just over $1,000 -- which means even with the bookstore discounts we can break even. If we ran it with a color cover with a perfectbound cover it would cost at least twice as much. Zines are done for love, not money.

I am a huge fan of chocolate but not really a connoisseur. As the years went by I began to very much enjoy dark chocolate. But, as I was reminded this summer, when you're half way up a mountain on a hike there's nothing better than a Cadbury's Fruit and Nut bar. Favorite? Maybe the Maya Gold from Green and Black (or whoever owns them now), and part of that is no doubt the halo effect of it being a Fair Trade bar.

In the US it's mostly only tea, coffee, and coffee that are Fair Trade whereas in the UK there are many more products. I think its very important to support Fair Trade and other programs like that. I'd rather (and this is a currently skint penny-pinching Scot talking) buy something made by employees paid a fair wage to encourage that market than to buy a bunch of cheap shit made in factories where wages and labor laws are a joke.

All our books are printed on 30% post consumer recycled paper (LCRW isn't), which is part of the same commitment.

How did The Best of
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet end up being published by Del Rey? (Did you have to pitch it to publishers?) Will we be seeing a part two in the future?

That was great fun. We talked about publishing it ourselves and then thought we might as well send it round and see if anyone else enjoyed it as much. We put together a proposal and it was fun to hear back from editors.

Jim Minz, who is now at Baen, bought it for Del Rey. Our first table of contents was twice as long as the published book so he had the fun of of talking us down to whatever length it is. He was our point of contact for everything and was incredibly helpful as the book worked its way through various departments. Even the list of subscription offers had to be vetted by their legal department (ok, so maybe we couldn't buy an election to go with your 4-issue subscription, but we could try). It was great to reprint these stories (and poems and so on) and get them out to a wider audience (and pay the writers a little more money, of course).

I really wanted to call it The Best of LCRW So Far, but that didn't work so I handwrite it on whenever I can.

In your opinion, how has the Internet, podcasts, and the Creative Commons Licensed changed the publishing industry?

That question is a panel or a conference in itself! How about: accessibility of audio fiction has never been higher and it's a growing and fascinating story. We have a lot of free audio on our site and I'd love to do audio books or more podcasts, but maybe that comes later.

The internet is also fascinating: there can be a blog storm of commentary but 90% of books are still bought by people walking into bookshops and doing the very traditional browse. What people read about on the net definitely influences those decisions.

Creative Commons is great fun and, as with podcasts, it can be a great ad for a book. Watching what the science and research community are doing with it is great: they're making highly labor-intensive information available for other people to work on. It's very utopian.

The one part of the internet that worries me in the great flattening-out-and-increase-of-accessibility is that when people go to what for them seems the easiest thing, it can be killing their local economy. Some online booksellers' higher discounts mean that local businesses are losing business and in danger of closing. There is nothing like the human capital of a well-informed bookseller (or any other kind of store) and when buyers shop online they are taking the money from their local stores that would pay people to do the job in their town. So while your local bookshop may not carry everything, they can usually order what you want. And, again, since most people buy books in bookshops, getting them physical bookshop is important.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

There is only one you who can write the stories you write so don't bother with the competent crap, go out and do something unique.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Only publish what you love.

Advice for would-be publishers?

Don't do it! No, just kidding. Here's a lazy link to a piece I wrote on it: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2005/20050321/grant-small-press-a.shtml

Anything else you'd like to plug?

It's a busy couple of months. Kelly's new collection, Pretty Monsters, came out from Viking as well as the latest edition of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.

This autumn we published Geoff Ryman's huge Cambodian novel, The King's Last Song; our first book for readers of all ages (ie the Christmas present that works for kids and adults), Joan Aiken's collection The Serial Garden through a new imprint, Big Mouth House; and we just published a debut novel, Couch, by Benjamin Parzybok (Kelly's shorthand for it is "Tolkien with a couch"). Somewhere in the middle of that there should have been a new issue of LCRW.