Tuesday, November 30, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Rolf Maurer on New Star Books;

New Star is a small Vancouver-based press issuing 6-7 books a year. Two-point-x people. We publish in a few broad areas: non-fiction with a social issues / politics focus; non-fiction books about BC history & culture, many of them under the Transmontanus imprint; poetry, and prose literature, which might be fiction, or non-fiction, or about literature.
1 – When did New Star first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
New Star began circa 1970 as a spin-off of the Georgia Straight, the free weekly entertainment giveaway that started out, believe it or not, as an underground newspaper. Specifically, for a few months in about 1969, a group of writers and editors produced something called the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, and this evolved into a series of books by local writers called the Georgia Straight Writing Series. The GSWS crew was aligned with a group within the Straight that eventually split off to form the Grape, and at that time the name of GSWS was changed to Vancouver Community Press. That would have been around 1971. In 1974, VCP was renamed New Star Books.

Along with the name change came a change in focus: much of the literature, and all of the formally interesting stuff was dropped from the list, which came to be dominated by increasingly tendentious non-fiction political books, if not tracts. The focus on serious political non-fiction continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, albeit the really tendentious stuff fell off the list in the late 1970s.

After I bought the press from Lanny Beckman in 1990, I brought literature back onto the New Star list.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
The "small" follows directly from the decision to publish books that are of little or no interest to larger commercial outfits --- either because their overheads are such that they can't take on anything that forecloses a mass audience and concommitant sales, or because their editors simply cannot recognize as worthwhile anything that doesn't resemble something that sold lots of copies last year.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
We publish both books and writers that in one way or another are doing things not being done, or not being done in quite that way, that we nevertheless think are interesting and likely to have an audience.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
Edit them well; design them well; print and bind them; ship them out to whoever we can interest in them.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
This depends entirely on the book I'm working on. At one extreme, I'll be part of the conceptualization of the book, with suggestions about the content and structure of the book (much more common in non-fiction). I'm less likely to be involved at that level in a literary work, where the editing is more likely to consist of a line-edit. An extreme example is Captivity Tales by Elizabeth Hay, where it seems that the only change I made to her perfectly polished manuscript was to inadvertently insert a typo in the first para. (That's a great, great book incidentally, by far the best thing that Liz has done, and I don't understand -- although I do -- why it's never talked about, and why instead she's known as the author of Late Nights On Air, or whatever.)

For prose, substantive editing and copy-editing are best done by different people, and ideally you'll have a third person (apart from the author) to proofread as well.

With poetry, I rarely do much in the way of line editing: I look for typos, hyphens that should be em-dashes, &c., and leave the suggestions on the level of each line to the other poets that the author is generally showing their manuscript to. However, with poetry, I've been known to have ideas about the content of the book as a whole, and the sequence of poems within that book. That isn't author-specific either: I've edited a book by George Stanley where I was deeply involved in deciding the sequence of the poems, and another where book's form was completely determined by the time the manuscript reached me. It really does depend on the book.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
New Star handles its own fulfillment. We do what everybody else who distributes books, their own or others', does: send out bibliographic data about the books; solicit orders; fill them and ship them from our Vancouver office. That said, "distribution" is one of the most mal-understood concepts in the book trade.

Our print runs typically range from 600 to 1000 for poetry titles, 800 to 1200 for literary prose, 1000 to 2000 for non-fiction titles.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
Usually a couple of different editors will be involved, and the typesetter and another person, who is not the typesetter but who might be the substantive editor or the copy editor, are involved at the production stage. We work with one freelance editor who does a lot of our non-fiction, and occasionally we've used other freelancers, mostly for non-fiction. Fiction and poetry we tend to edit in-house.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
N/A. I'm not a writer, even on the side.

10 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

11 – How do you see New Star evolving?
I'm less and less inclined, as I get older, to make pronouncements about what to expect. How New Star evolves depends for instance on how Canada's literary culture evolves. Apart from the work of a handful of presses and a few dozen writers, for the past couple of decades it's mostly been devolving, it seems to me. Whether Canadians have the same cultural optimism and appetite for the work of their own writers &c. as they did in 1967 is an open question: if our political leadership is any indication, and if the leadership of our arts councils over the past decade is any indication, we may have become sick of ourselves, or complacent / taking it all for granted.

12 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
The space I've made for certain writers, whose work is now more broadly accepted than it was ten or twenty years ago, is what I'm proudest of. Writers like Lisa Robertson and Terry Glavin come to mind. I'm still working on making Donato Mancini somewhat less obscure. (He's doing a lot more about this than I have been able to.) Peter Culley, George Stanley, but I was hardly their first or first-ish publisher, and they still aren't household names either.

I remember clearly people shaking their heads at my decision to publish Debbie: An Epic, and I remember one of my Ontario sales reps telling me, the year Glavin's This Ragged Place was a GG finalist, about a bookseller who cited it as an example of the irrelevance the GG's had fallen into: "Look, they've shortlisted a writer that nobody's ever heard of!" This was not long after the GGs were moved to the fall, to coincide with big publishers' marketing plans.

I am very proud of our poetry list in general, not just Lisa's work. I think it's become one of the most interesting lists in the country. I am proud of the Transmontanus series, short books about various more-or-less arcane aspects of BC culture & history.

Biggest frustration? Gosh, so many to choose from. I guess my biggest frustration is the pusillanimity of my colleagues, almost all of the Good Germans who are reluctant to risk their meagre positions by either standing up to forces hostile to a healthy literary culture, or by publishing somebody, or something, that hasn't been previously published. There are exceptions. They know who they are. They might not be the people you think of first.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
One of the great advantages of being in the first wave of modern Canadian publishing and writing, which I date from approximately centennial year, is that there were no real models; we had to make it all up as we went along. I came into the trade at what I now see as the very tail end of that era, the early 1980s; but I did not, and still do not, have any specific models that I try to emulate.  In any case, concepts like "Penguin" or "New Directions" or even "Coach House" or "Talon" have a completely different meaning than they did a generation ago.

14 – How does New Star work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see New Star in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Well, publishing is an eminently social act. And terms like "the financial community" have, over the years, blunted my appetite for this particular term. Are the readers of a particular book or writer a "community"? So, on one level, I'm not so much interacting with a literary community, but a community of citizens --- the "at large" (which contradicts the original meaning of community, which is the opposite of "at large"), some of whom identify as readers and some more of whom from time to time read a book, and thus might be interested in what a given writer has to say, a given book has to offer.

There are certainly communities of writers, and KSW would qualify. New Star's poetry list certainly responds to the interests and concerns of that particular community: as an editor and publisher, my reading habits and my taste have been heavily influenced by the various poetics that have been associated with the KSW, or with writers associated with KSW. And that includes the ideas about writing that circulate among other local writing communities that have in their turn influenced the KSW gang: communities in San Francisco / Oakland, in New York, in Buffalo, Philadelphia, even Toronto.

I'm a member of the KSW board, where I don't (have to) do very much. I'm also a member of the board of the People's Co-op Bookstore, where I am somewhat more active. For instance, I have been one of the people working to embed the store more directly in the community by making it a venue for readings, discussions, launches, &c. During the month of November, the People's Co-op hosted the 2010 version of Respondency West, which was itself inspired by the Influency series in Toronto a year or two back.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
We organize public launches for most of our books, and within our limitations (Canada Council gives us $1,500 -- $2,000 a year for author tour promotion; our overall annual budget for that sort of thing is around $8,000, which isn't very much) we do our best to help send our writers on the road. It's not lost on me that for many poets, the royalties are a minor consideration and the real payoff might actually be a trip or two to some exotic realm, almost always one of the aforementioned sites of local communities with interesting poetics.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Well, the internet is just the way we talk about things these days. So we try to use it to make sure people know about our books. Obviously it's affecting what we do, just as television affected how radio worked without actually replacing it, and radio before it affected print without actually replacing it.
17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Of course, although we do have some barriers in place: for instance, we state that we don't accept unsolicited poetry manuscripts. This has the desired effect of encouraging writers with serious submissions to contact me first.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
They're all special, so why don't I just say something about the three most recent titles we've issued.

City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver In the Sixties, by Lawrence Aronsen --- special because it's one of the surprisingly few books so far about the sixties, an era whose importance I would argue for.

Sweet England, a novel by Steve Weiner, a tremendous writer living here in Vancouver and whose first two novels were published by big houses that probably lost a shitload of money on them: great art usually NE great commerce, at least at first.

Caprice, the reissue of George Bowering's novel, because we think George is a great writer and there was something wrong about the fact that his great trilogy of BC historical novels was out of print.

And we're currently steeped in the first of our 2011 books, including new ones by Roy Miki and Donato Mancini.

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