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A small press surveillance

By Spencer Gordon

Look yonder, dear Loyalists, across that great (un) defended border and into an extraordinary land; a nation of such dazzling small press diversity that any foray into its tangled wilds can be — at even the best of times — a disorienting and intimidating ordeal. I’m talking, of course, about the US of A, and its comparatively vast roster of small and micro-press publishers: a host of intrepid producers who collectively dwarf our homegrown efforts to publish the marginal, experimental or just plain different.

Welcome to Border Patrol, a brand-new book feature that promises to guide you safely and securely through the unruly boondocks of the international small press landscape. As your trusted tour guide I pledge to keep you comfortable, introduce you to some fantastically talented and passionate people, and return you (relatively) undamaged to your Can Lit couches.

Small Beer Press

First up on the tour: Easthampton, Massachusetts’ Small Beer Press, founded in 2000 by the husband and wife team of Gavin J. Grant (publisher) and Kelly Link (editor and art director, as well as author of Pretty Monsters, Penguin 2008). The duo have been in the magazine and book biz since 1996, when they began publishing their slim, stapled ‘zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW), a biannual release that features poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and black and white art of a largely speculative bent. By 2001, Small Beer Press released its first chapbooks, and by 2002 they were ready to roll with their first full-length trade paperbacks.

A first glance, SBP’s website can be a bit overwhelming — there’s a great deal of information to sort and comb through. And yet, despite the wealth of data offered, the press employs relatively few people. “We’re a lean operation,” says Grant, who refers to his role as publisher as a “general dogsbody.” Aside from Grant and Link, Jebediah Berry (author of The Manual of Detection, Penguin 2010) acts as a freelance editor. “After that we employ freelance artists and proofreaders,” Grant continues, “and we’re lucky enough to have had a lot of volunteer help over the years.”

Peeking into the catalogue, a host of books and chapbooks — all novels, novellas, and short fiction collections, original or translated — awaits any curious explorer. And if you’re strapped for dough, or just enjoy reading from a screen, Small Beer Press now offers many of its books in digital format (at much-reduced prices). Recent titles include Julia Holmes’ debut novel Meeks, a “dark satire rendered with the slapstick humour of a Buster Keaton film,” the first-ever American edition of Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers by British writer Alistair Gray, an anthology of “original and innovative writing” called Interfictions 2, and even a writer’s datebook organizer, known as A Working Writer’s Daily Planner.

“We find books by asking authors whose work we like — so we read magazines, books, anthologies, websites, and so forth sometimes with a mind to looking for interesting writers,” says Grant. “We get recommendations from friends or people in the business, we get submissions from agents, and once in a while a query will work and we’ll buy a book from the submission pile. Couch, a debut novel by Portland, Oregon author Benjamin Parzybok, worked out that way.” Proof that slush piles sometimes do work, but don’t be sending your manuscript off to Grant and Link without first sending a query.

The challenges of production and distribution, while similar to our own, alter significantly south of the border due to an entirely different grant system. When asked about whether SBP received any government funding, Grant was obviously amused: “This is an answer full of laughs. We’re a for-profit commercial press, and the US government pretty much only gives grants to nonprofits. So no, we don’t get funding from the government or anyone else. Oddly enough, we did get a $1,500 grant from the French government — but that went to Edward Gauvin, who translated a collection of stories by French author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, A Life on Paper, for us.”

Grant, unfazed by a lack of funding, is yet optimistic of the state of small press publishing. “I believe — although I may yet be proven wrong — that publishers can run self-sustaining businesses, and that if we’re careful (and lucky), we can keep the business side of this going by publishing a series of interesting, slightly weird books.”

It’s this kind of plucky American ambition that should lift us up out of our occasional doldrums. And see? Our brief tour is now over. Aren’t you glad you stopped to look? I’d now advise forging ahead without the help of a guide and checking out what Small Beer Press has to offer. Find them online at smallbeerpress.com.

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