Today I am pleased to have a guest post by Barbara Friend Ish! She is the founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of Mercury Retrograde Press and the author of The Shadow of the Sun. Recently, she had to make the choice to either continue with her work as a publisher and editor at Mercury Retrograde or continue writing, and the press will no longer be publishing books by other authors starting the beginning of next year. However, she still believes that small presses are valuable, and today she is discussing the reasons small presses are important to her as both a reader and an author.
I Still Believe in Small Press
Long before I understood how publishing works, I was frustrated by the choices available to me in bookstores. Most stores, independents in particular, have painfully small amounts of shelf space allocated to SF and Fantasy. Even when I found large-footprint bookstores with big sections for genre fiction, they never seemed to have just what I was looking for.
Part of the problem, of course, was that I was craving the books I needed to write. No bookstore could have helped me with that. But the bigger problem was that bookstores, particularly big chain bookstores, must serve the popular taste or die.
My tastes have never run towards the popular. When all the book bloggers in the SF blogosphere are reviewing the same six books in any given month, I find myself seeking out the bloggers who delve into the off-the-beaten path stuff. Many of these rare gems are published by small press publishers; and once you understand a bit about how publishing works, it’s easy to understand the reasons why.
Publishing, like running a bookstore, is a business. Big publishers have big staffs: people who depend on them for paychecks. They can’t afford to run businesses that don’t make money. They’re not there for the love, even though individual members of the staff may be. They must choose works and authors that they know will sell many, many books: those books that all the book bloggers will review at once, that all the bookstores will carry, because many, many people can be counted on to buy them. They can’t choose the books that make them swoon; not unless they can bet that the rest of the genre book buying public will swoon, too.
This problem doesn’t just affect bookstores and readers: it is the central problem of many writers’ lives. If a writer has arranged her professional life in such a way that she must depend on her books to pay her bills, then she must write what she can sell. She must write what the publishers are willing to buy, which in turn means she must choose to write for the popular audience. With very few lottery-winning, golden-ticket-holding exceptions, all writers who want to be published by big houses must choose this route.
As a reader, I know my tastes are unusual. As a writer, I know my work is not mainstream. My bookish needs, as reader and writer both, can’t be met without the help of small press publishers.
Small press publishing is a labor of love. Except for the lucky few, it’s not a day job: it’s something done around the edges of the work that pays the bills. But because the people who work in small press aren’t relying on the books they publish to pay their bills, something magical happens: they can choose books that move them, rather than always asking whether a book will make enough money to sustain their staffs and pay their electric bills. They can champion writers who don’t want to work mainstream, at least on this particular novel; they can create opportunities for writers who still need guidance in their craft, the way publishers used to do a hundred years ago. They can bring to press works of limited appeal, and nurture them in the marketplace to give them the best chance available.
I’ve spent the past six years doing that work. As publisher and editor-in-chief of Mercury Retrograde Press, I spent my days finding, developing, publishing and nurturing works and writers that were either too early in their careers to go it alone at bigger houses or whose visions were too audacious for the safe, comfortable tastes of the popular market. As a publisher, I have taken great pleasure and a bit of pride in making spaces for these writers and works to succeed, and it makes me happy to see their stars rising into the heavens. As an editor, I revel in the opportunity to take the time to work with a writer to develop craft, to hone story, to stop and do it again, and sometimes yet again, when the work isn’t yet one that will stand the test of time. And as a writer, I treasure working in a place that is safe for creative people: knowing that I need not limit my work in order to ensure it’s sufficiently safe for the mainstream; knowing that I will be supported by an editor who won’t send me out into the world unprepared, to wait for the inevitable embarrassment when my mistakes are revealed; knowing that I can take the time to bring my work to its best potential. One of the greatest rewards of this phase of my creative life has been the feedback from readers who appreciate all of this as much as I do, who revel in fresh and frequently audacious visions, who would rather wait while a writer does her best work than storm poor George R. R. Martin’s house when a book is late. All of these things are precious to me; none of them would be possible without the freedom that comes from small press.
After years of trying to be both a publisher and an author, I have realized I must choose between them: that even if small press publishing is a thing that can be fit in around the edges of another job where necessary, it requires intense and sustained creative energy—and that it isn’t possible, for me at least, to devote myself utterly to two different creative enterprises. Having found it necessary to choose, I choose the thing that is the core of my creative life: writing fiction. But this doesn’t mean I’ve concluded small-press enterprises aren’t important, in fact necessary: quite the opposite. I think it’s too important to do halfheartedly; that if as a publisher I can’t give the writers and other creative people I work with, not to mention the readers, the full potential of what small press has to offer, then I will make way for someone who can.
As a writer, I can’t imagine working anywhere but small press. As a reader, I know that is where many of the greatest new books will always come from. I live in gratitude for the people who are able to make small-press publishing the center of their creative lives. I can’t wait to see what risks they take, what all-but-impossible gems they uncover and share with us next.
Barbara Friend Ish is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury Retrograde Press, a small press dedicated to writers and works that might undeservedly slip through the cracks at larger houses. She is also the author of Compton Crook Finalist novel The Shadow of the Sun and the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness. She founded Mercury Retrograde in 2007; in January 2014, the company will cease publication of other writers’ works. You can learn more about Barbara and her work at www.barbarafriendish.com