“We are not farm teams”: Rebecca Rosenblum explains her decision to remain with Biblioasis for her second book

March 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of the 2008 collection Once. That book, published by the small Ontario-based press Biblioasis, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and received almost universally positive reviews. In the wake of her success with her debut, Rosenblum was in a perfect position to jump ship to a larger house. But, for her second book, the upcoming collection The Big Dream, the author decided to stay with Biblioasis. In its ongoing series inquiring into the gulf between large and small presses, TSR asked Rosenblum about her decision to remain with her originating publisher, and her feelings about how her association with Biblioasis has benefited her as an author.

Why did you choose to stay with Biblioasis for your second book?

1) Because I had a really good editorial relationship with John Metcalf – he pushed me, but only in the directions I wanted to go, and it was exciting to be challenged like that. I think the book is better than it would have been – much better – without that relationship.

2) Because I liked the “book-creation process,” for lack of a better term. I got to lay down a piece of art on a table with Dan (Wells, publisher) and John and say, can this be my cover? And the answer was yes. A lot of work was done to make sure I didn’t have to cut the book’s length at all. The copy edit was solid. I like the title page design. These things matter.

3) Because the promotion of Once exceeded my expectations. I was really thrilled with the review coverage Once got – more like shocked, really. I got to go to a few festivals, I got to be on the radio, do readings, do interviews. I am very much aware that not every unknown author of short stories gets to do this stuff. Some of it was luck, sure, but some of it was because Biblioasis worked really hard for me.

Did you ever consider the bigger payday you might have received from a larger house?

No. I mean, I should make it clear that I think I was paid decently for Once and will be for The Big Dream. My agent, Samantha Haywood, negotiated the latter deal and was very positive about it – she would never have let me sign anything inappropriate. Beyond that, no, money was not a factor.

What do you think small presses can provide an author that larger presses can’t?

I’m not really an expert on this, having only had the one experience, but I would think: flexibility – both in terms of what they publish and how they do it. I’m pretty sure that, without corporate oversight, independent houses have a lot more freedom to publish books that are outside the mainstream or controversial or just not super saleable. And they can fiddle with production timelines – my first book was out of my hands and onto store shelves in six months, which I think is unusual.

And, at least for me at Biblioasis, there is a sense of community. I admire a number of the other authors there, and it’s been cool for me to get to meet them and, in some cases, read with them. And of course, I like John a lot, I like Dan a lot, I like their wives, I like Dan’s kids. And all of those people have been kind to me, gone out of their way for me, given me hugs.

But I’m not sure what I’m talking about is a small-press experience; it may be just the experience that I have had at a small press. I know lots of writers who have really wonderful relationships, professionally and personally, with publishers both small and large. I certainly know editors at houses of all sizes who are warm, delightful people I would be thrilled to hang out with or work with. I also know writers who have had terrible, alienating experiences with houses of all sizes – there are a few people at every level of the industry who are jerks, or bad at their jobs, or both.

I think by making this a binary – big vs. small – the real issue is obscured. And that issue is, how can we create the best books and get them read by the most people? That question is being answered in different ways at different houses, with varying levels of success. I like the way Biblioasis does things, but not because they’re small – because they’re good.

By staying with Biblioasis, you were able to maintain a relationship with John Metcalf, your editor there. How important is the author/editor relationship in your experience?

I think I pretty much answered this above, but yes, for sure. He was really generous with support and encouragement, and considered it worth his time and long-distance telephone charges to make me feel better about things. Although I don’t doubt he was fully cognizant that I work more – and better – when I’m happy.

Aside from the personal relationship, the best editors offer their writers a kind of tacit promise: I will not let you fuck up, I will not let you chicken out, I will save you from your worst tendencies so that you are free to embrace your best ones. That’s worth its weight in gold, and John did, I think, do that for me.

“We are not farm teams”: Robert J. Wiersema on the small press/large press divide: UPDATED

March 18, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

The recent discussion about the relative merits and drawbacks of publishing with a small, independent press versus a large multinational got me thinking it would be interesting to hear first-hand from an author who has had experiences with both. Accordingly, I contacted Robert J. Wiersema, who has published a novel (2006’s Before I Wake) with Random House Canada, and a novella (last year’s The World More Full of Weeping) with the small Toronto-based press ChiZine Publications. The two houses could not be more different: Random House is a major multinational, part of the Bertelsmann media empire. CZP began as a two-person operation, co-owned and run by husband-and-wife team Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi.

Wiersema was kind enough to reply to some questions about the experience of being a large press author who moved to a small press for his second book. (NB: Wiersema is back with Random House for his third book, a novel, due out this fall.)

TSR: Why did you choose to go with CZP for your novella?

Robert J. Wiersema: Well, you don’t get any smaller than ChiZine – at the time I signed with them for The World More Full of Weeping, I think Brett and Sandra were running the company off their kitchen table. Now, I think they might have a desk. Just one between the two of them.

As to why I chose ChiZine? Well, for starters, they asked.

It was never a matter of choosing ChiZine over Random House – I’ve been very pleased with my experience with Random (and I think that feeling is mutual, though I suspect there are days when I put it to the test). But I’m sufficiently aware of the realities of the industry to know that there was no way that Random was going to publish a novella as my second book. It wasn’t even a conscious knowledge, just one of those inherent truths: novellas don’t get published as standalone books (yes, there are exceptions, but they don’t make the generalization any less true). So it was a non-starter. Such a non-starter that it didn’t even occur to me to try for it.

I submitted TWMFoW (under its previous name) to CZP for their online magazine. Online magazines are great, because they don’t have the length restrictions that come with print mags, and there truly is an online mag for every sensibility. And some of them – like ChiZine – pay. I figured, “Why not?” It was either that or the drawer and the “stopgap collection of short fiction” down the road.

It was Brett who suggested actual, print publication. They had published two books at that time, and they were lovely – high-end production values, they felt good in the hand. When faced with the choice between having a manuscript languish in a drawer vs. having a signed/limited edition hardcover and a trade paperback edition, what would you do?

And Random House was terrific with it. They have the option on my next book of fiction (after the upcoming novel), but they were very generous in allowing TWMFoW to appear with CZP.

The money? Well, I was under no illusions there. I actually took my advance in extra copies of the signed/numbered edition (my son, Xander, refers to that stack as his college savings account – I’m not ready to shatter his illusions quite yet). But the first round of royalties are due to arrive just as I need to replace my computer – they’ll more than cover that, and a couple of dinners out, and a stack of new comics, so all is right with the world.

TSR: How did the publication process compare to that of a larger house?

RJW: The publication process with ChiZine was … different than with Random House, due largely, I think, to economies of scale. CZP published four or five books the season that TWMFoW came out (which was only their second year in operation, and marked a huge increase in output for them), and every one of them got a blinding level of attention. The books are labours of love, and Brett and Sandra have a hand in everything. They’ve put a lot of themselves on the line for this venture, so they stand or fall with their authors.

And they’re willing to take chances, and be a bit indulgent. When I had the brainstorm to include the essay “Places and Names” as a way of explaining (primarily to my mother and myself) that Henderson, the setting for the novella and a bunch of my other fiction was, in fact, not at all Agassiz (the town I grew up in) – except in the ways that it was – I sent Brett an e-mail, and within five minutes he had said, “Sure, what the hell.”

“Brett, I’d like to include notes for the novella and the essay.”

“Sure, what the hell.”

“What would you think of including an extra short story in the hardcover?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

There weren’t any levels or committees to go through, no one to run ideas past. It was all very easygoing.

That said, I realize that I’m writing from a position of considerable privilege. I wouldn’t trade my experience with Random House for anything – I’ve worked with great editors, a great publisher, great designers, one of the best publicists in the trade. I have no complaints whatsoever. The experiences are just different – steak and chicken, you might say. They satisfy in different ways.

TSR: Do you think it’s harder for a book from a small press to get noticed amid all the marketing buzz from the multinationals?

RJW: Definitely. Marketing budgets are smaller and, more significantly for a new small press, profiles are lower. It’s hard enough introducing a new house, let alone trying to get attention for the books on an early list …

Which means that you end up having to go different ways – lots of grassroots stuff. A week in Montreal at WorldCon (at the author’s expense). Online stuff.

TSR: You said that you thought the format of TWMFoW (i.e. a novella) wouldn’t fly with Random House. Might another issue have been the genre (i.e. psychological horror)? As a general principle, do you think the majors are more conservative in what they’re willing to take a chance on publishing?

RJW: I think the perception is that the majors are more conservative, and that’s true to an extent, but it overlooks Penguin’s very impressive sci-fi and fantasy lists, Random’s mystery titles, etc. And it overlooks … well, me, as the novel that Random House is bringing out this fall will attest …

[This post contains material that has been corrected: An earlier version of this post stated that ChiZine Publications was a two-person operation. There are now seven people on staff. TSR regrets the error.]

Sam Hiyate vs. Dan Wells: Two visions of small presses

March 15, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

This past weekend, The Afterword book blog ran another instalment in its ongoing “Ecology of Books” series, this one dealing with authors who are lured away from small houses to major multinationals, usually with the promise of a bigger payday and a more powerful marketing push. The article included a quote from Sam Hiyate, founder of The Rights Factory, a Toronto-based literary agency:

“I’ve always seen the small presses as like the farm teams, to find and build writers … They shouldn’t ever expect to keep them once they reach a certain level unless they can match what the big publishers can give them.”

This comment raised the hackles of Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells, who is also quoted in The Afterword article. Wells responded in an e-mail, which The Afterword has posted online. Wells’s response reads in part:

We are not farm teams and this isn’t baseball. It doesn’t do justice to what actually happens in publishing … and it does not do justice to the authors on our lists. The quality of play on a farm team is almost always far below that of the majors: that just isn’t necessarily the case here. In baseball, if you’re one of the best, you move up to the majors, at least in part because excellence in the sport and commercial reward are very closely aligned. It just does not always work that way in publishing. Everyone, especially in the industry, or reporting on it, knows this. It’s simply not a question of a writer hitting their peak … then leaving. And how we judge “excellence” is not always the same. Are we speaking commercially? Aesthetically? There’s much more at play here than the quality of the work. No self-respecting publisher would view their press as a farm team. It’s a tired cliché, and an extremely disrespectful one. Coach House, Cormorant, The Porcupine’s Quill … they’re just damn good presses, with proud histories, who have made lasting contributions to Canadian literature and culture, and for frankly often very little reward. Perhaps it’s time that they get some.

Wells’s point is well taken, although the clear emphasis of The Afterword piece is on writers who defect to larger houses for financial reasons: the two writers used as examples, Joan Thomas (whose second novel, Curiosity, is published by McClelland & Stewart) and Andrew Kaufman (whose second novel, The Waterproof Bible, is published by Random House Canada), both cite financial considerations in their decisions to decamp from, respectively, Goose Lane and Coach House.

It’s interesting to note that the design of The Waterproof Bible is reminiscent of the books published by the American independent press McSweeney’s – in other words, it’s a large press book masquerading as a small press book. This is perhaps appropriate given Kaufman’s sensibility, which at first blush is more Coach House quirky than Random House mainstream. Wells envisions a day when Kaufman returns to a small press, and he may be right: the multinationals demand a return on their investment. If a first book doesn’t do well, they won’t sign an author for a second. (Kaufman, who signed a two-book deal, gets two kicks at the can.) Gone are the days when houses like McClelland & Stewart stuck with authors like Mordecai Richler through a series of lacklustre books on the understanding that the house was grooming him for the breakout they knew was coming.

This is where the smaller independent houses, far from being farm teams that publish authors’ apprentice work before sending them off to the majors, perform a valuable function. Smaller presses are more willing to invest in an author over multiple books, and a number of authors – such as Russell Smith, Cordelia Strube, and Maggie Helwig – have actually returned to small presses to publish books that are too esoteric (or, in Smith’s case, pornographic) for the multinationals to touch, or simply because that’s where they are most comfortable.

The aesthetic quality of the work does not, however, necessarily improve once an author makes the jump from a small house to a large one. Indeed, Canada’s small presses are publishing much of the most innovative, interesting, and aesthetically powerful books in the country. Money talks, but with the larger houses offering ever smaller advances, we may soon see more small press authors remaining with their initial publishers – and some large press authors returning to the fold.