Indie Spotlight: Small Beer Press

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small beer press

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, a writing and editing superduo based in western Massachusetts, began Small Beer Press in 2000, and immediately built a list of titles that garnered a number of awards for science fiction, fantasy, and horror and also landed on a variety of “best of” lists from publications as varied as Time, Salon, Booklist, and The Village Voice. Small Beer books defy genre while also celebrating it; their titles are wondrous and fantastical, blurring the line between the speculative and the concrete in ways that are sometimes dark, sometimes delightful, and altogether original.

Small Beer and its imprint Big Mouth (which publishes fiction for readers 10 and up) have quite the stable of authors, not least of which is Kelly Link herself. Joan Aiken, Holly Black, Peter Dickinson, Lydia Millet, Ursula K. Le Guin, Delia Sherman, and Howard Waldrop are just a few of their notable names.

New discoveries, like Ayize Jama-Everett, author of a trio of Small Beer novels featuring Chabi, a half-Mongolian, half-black female martial arts expert, and flash and short story writer Mary Rickert, whose collection You Have Never Been Here was published by Small Beer this fall, are just beginning to rack up the awards and notoriety to continue Small Beer’s quickly established legacy. Rickert’s book in particular is an excellent embodiment of the dance with genre that exemplifies a Small Beer book. You Have Never Been Here is full of fairy tales and ghost stories, otherworldly and gothic, but Rickert’s stories are also as frighteningly familiar as the nightly news headlines or the small town “strange but true” tales that get passed around at the beauty shop or the bar.

What might be most remarkable is that Small Beer Press still accepts unsolicited submissions the old-fashioned way; they ask writers to submit the first 10-20 pages via snail mail with a forever-stamped SASE to their PO Box in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

For Ploughshares, Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link and share what goes on behind the curtain at Small Beer, what prospective authors need to know, and what surprises they have in store for readers in the new year.

Kate Flaherty: At the risk of sounding like a Small Beer fangirl, I’m amazed at your roster of writers. How did you amass (and continue to collect) such an amazing lineup—from reprinting Peter Dickinson’s work to acquiring new work from Greer Gilman and Ursula K. Le Guin among many others? What are the challenges in publishing (or republishing) authors with such reputations?

Gavin J. Grant/Kelly Link: Luck and persistence? We mentioned to Robin McKinley, Peter Dickinson’s wife, that we were fans and that we were very sorry that so many of his mystery novels were out of print. A few years later she contacted us and we were off: a new collection of stories (Earth and Air) and four reprints. Dickinson died quite recently. If anyone reading this is unfamiliar with his work, we recommend seeking out any of his mystery novels or his children’s books. He wrote nearly sixty books in all.

In one of our early books, Trampoline — an anthology that Kelly edited — we published Greer Gilman’s novella “A Crowd of Bone” which went on to win a World Fantasy award. Greer doesn’t write quickly, but everything she writes is astonishing. As for Le Guin, it began with an excerpt of Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial that Patrick Nielsen Hayden published in an anthology, Starlight 2. We loved the excerpt and asked if there was any chance that she’d translated more of Gorodischer’s novel. As it turned out, she had, and we were lucky enough to publish Le Guin’s translation.

Later on, we queried her on publishing a Collected Stories. She was very patient with us as it became a Selected Stories — it turns out ten of her eleven collections were still in print. How great is that? Right now we’re working with her on a collection of uncollected nonfiction. Le Guin is a touchstone writer for me and for Kelly. Our lives as readers overlap in fortuitous ways with our lives as publishers; I expect that this is true for most people who work in publishing, but not everyone gets to publish Ursula K. Le Guin.

Reprints are tricky. There are fewer reviews, and fewer chances therefore to bring the books to the attention of audiences who would enjoy reading those books. You have to depend upon word of mouth: bookstores, readers, diehard fans. Debut novels like Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp or Couch by Benjamin Parzybok are easier to get a little buzz for: readers and reviewers are more willing to give a first novel a shot. Everyone wants to discover a great first novel. Collections are a little trickier, but from the start our primary focus as a press has been short story collections, and we persevere. This really does feel like the second golden age of the weird short story

KF: Devoted readers and authors can chafe at the attitude that genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror are sometimes considered “less literary” than realistic or historical fiction, despite much evidence to the contrary. Does this bother you? Do these distinctions even matter anymore? Do marketing efforts ever force you to determine a manuscript’s genre?

GG/KL: There are no guarantees, especially at our level where our marketing budget is not going to buy front table placement at every bookstore around the country. We publish books because we fall in love with them. A lot of what we love is a little messy in terms of genre category, but fortunately (unfortunately?) we aren’t the ones who have to decide where to shelve them. Bookstores put books where they think they will find their audience. I think we spend less time worrying about whether or not books are literary and more time being surprised or gut punched or smitten with what a particular writer is capable of doing with characters or sentences or structure.

I always hope that our books will find readers within and without the genre they might most easily be assigned to whether it be science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, etc. Some people like silos they can’t see out of, some like to try everything. Our books usually cross multiple genres. There does seem to be an audience for the writers that we publish — books may or may not fit neatly within particular genre categories, but it’s pretty clear that audiences are a little trickier to pigeonhole

KF: You ask prospective Small Beer authors to send queries with 10-20 pages of a manuscript. What are you looking for to happen in those 10-20 pages? Can you share an experience of how one of your authors captured you in this short number of pages?

GG/KL: What we’re looking for is the same as any editor — and any reader in a bookstore or library looking for their next read: a story that grabs us and does not let go. If you wonder how editors make decisions, go into a bookstore and pick up books at random. Start reading. If you keep reading — if you decide to buy that book — the book is working for you. It’s the same for us. Sometimes we read submissions that are undoubtedly of publishable quality. But if we were browsing in a bookstore and came across that particular book, we probably wouldn’t buy it. As with that bookstore or library browser, we can usually tell within five pages whether it’s for us, but we ask for more just in case. And keep in mind, an editor isn’t just buying a book the way a browser is. An editor is going to read that book five or six times. They’re going to spend the next year or so talking about that book. You have to fall in love with the submission. You have to be on fire to make other people fall in love with it. You have to want to be an evangelist about it.

About five years ago (my how time flies) I started reading a small self-published paperback that an author had sent us to consider for reprint/publication. I was expecting to read the first few pages, to stick it in the return envelope, and never think about it again. Instead I read the novel, The Liminal People, in two hours and this year we published the second and third novels (The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones) by Ayize Jama-Everett and I can’t wait until he hands in his next novel.

KF: One of your most recent titles, Prodigies, by Argentinean author Angélica Gorodischer and translated by Sue Burke, is a rich and mesmerizing novel set in a 19th century German boarding house where every room and character holds a mystery. It’s historical fantastical fiction with a dash of magical realism, but also a slow moving ghost story of a novel requiring patience that’s not always a trait of 21st century readers. Was this a concern when you acquired the book? Has publishing Gorodischer’s fiction inspired you to seek out more translations?

GG/KL: Ever since we first read Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of “The End of a Dynasty” — excerpted from Angélica Gorodischer’s novel Kalpa Imperial  in the anthology Starlight 2 — we wanted to read more. We contacted Le Guin and discovered she had translated the whole book so we were overjoyed to have the chance to publish it (all the way back in 2003!). Since then we’ve published two more novels by Gorodischer, both of them completely different.

The pace of Prodigies (translated by Sue Burke) did not concern us because it’s so deep and hypnotic we were quite sure readers would be pulled in. Publishing translations is a little more challenging as some readers don’t seem to pick up translated books. I feel we have a couple of advantages that outweigh that though as we have readers who follow the press. These readers have wide ranging tastes and are often up to try something outside their comfort zones. Fortuitously, some percentage of science fiction and fantasy readers will read translations as they enjoy getting out of their sphere of familiarity, whether that means reading about imaginary empires (Kalpa Imperial), intergalactic salesmen (Trafalgar, translated by Amalia Gladhart), or 19th century houses (Prodigies).

Besides Gorodischer, we have published a collection of stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud (A Life on Paper, translated by Edward Gauvin) and the first anthology of contemporary weird Mexican writing Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo & Chris. N. Brown, and just a week or so ago another fascinating translation came in for consideration.

KF: What’s in store for Small Beer’s future? Any plans to expand your offerings? Graphic novels perhaps? What are you most excited about publishing in 2016?

GG/KL: I doubt we will move into graphic novels, picture books, or much in the way of nonfiction, given that although we enjoy reading all those things, we know less about the markets. God knows if we’d do that kind of book justice. We have published a few comics in anthologies and in our zine, LCRW, but, really, please don’t tempt us!

We have two books we expect will do very well in 2016: the first is a novel by Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories. Samatar is a legit literary star as comfortable with long form essays as Twitter, short stories, or poetry. Her first novel won a handful of awards and this one about women in war and their changing worlds is amazing. We’re also publishing A Natural History of Hell, a collection by Jeffrey Ford. There’s no one quite like Jeff Ford.