Chomu Press in Focus
Back in Black Static #23 I reviewed three titles by new publisher Chômu Press, and a couple more last issue. By way of following up on that I put some questions to Chômu editor Quentin Crisp.
PT: How did Chômu Press come into existence, and what is the significance of your name?
QC: It was really Léon's idea. (I know that a number of people have the impression that Chômu is just me, but it's not; Léon, incidentally, is my brother.) It is something of a long story, depending upon where you want to start, but in essence, Léon was familiar with my frustrations with the publishing scene, has a background of business experience and was interested in diversifying his business activities, so suggested an experiment in publication, which became what is now Chômu Press.
The basic idea was to make top notch mind-bending literature more visible and more readily available to a wider audience. One of my own pet frustrations in life has been how people stick to their comfort zones for reading, so personally I saw this as an opportunity to push an agenda of wider reading. Paul Jessup did a blog post a while back that I liked (see first link below) in which he suggested you should just walk into a bookshop naked and pick the first book you find off the shelves and start reading and stuff like that. I tend to feel that, when it comes to things like films, books, music, etc., there are two kinds of people. There are those who are like the English or Americans abroad, who won't sample the foreign food and who stay in the tourist areas, and there are those... hang on, I'll abandon that analogy and get literal. There are those who feel threatened when they see the name Villiers de L'isle-Adam referenced on the back of a book because they've never heard of him and therefore feel like their intelligence has been impugned and slink off in a sulk, and there are those who see the name Villiers de L'isle-Adam on the back of a book and think, "I've never heard of this guy - fantastic! A chance for me to swim surreally and exotically and irreally in the green and pink iridescent sky of new vistas of Villiers de L'isle-Adam!" And there are also a few who already know who Villiers de L'isle-Adam is and think, "Hey, cool, someone else knows who Villiers de L'isle-Adam is."
So, Chômu Press is first and foremost for the two latter kinds of people. We would be wrong to ignore this hardcore of those who appreciate the underappreciated, as we couldn't exist without them, and we very much appreciate them in turn. Others, indeed, do ignore them - we don't. BUT, just as the Lord delights more to welcome back into the fold the sheep that has strayed, so it is also a great delight to us to welcome into the fold those who have hitherto felt threatened by names like Villiers de L'isle-Adam, by the aesthetic of yuugen and by general irreality.
As to the name 'Chômu Press', there is a great deal of significance. Before the publishing company was set up, Justin Isis and I had a kind of blogzine thing called, simply, Chômu. We got the name from an essay by Lafcadio Hearn. It's actually the pen-name of a Japanese poet, but is also an allusion to the old Daoist fable about the man who dreams he's a butterfly and then wakes up and doesn't know if he's Chuang-tzu who has dreamt he's a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he's Chuang-tzu. The two Japanese ideograms that make up 'Chômu' may be rendered literally as 'butterfly dream'. I find this to be a name of multi-faceted significance, and I'm sure other people will, too. Anyway, so, when Léon asked me to suggest a name for the publishing company, I took the blogzine as my cue, because I felt that it would be nice to perpetuate the spirit of the blogzine in some way in the publishing company... and that's how it came about.
PT: What do you find to be the most difficult aspects of running a small press? What advice would you give to anyone thinking of following in your footsteps?
QC: Well, there are many difficult things. I was a writer for a long time before sitting on this side of the publishing desk, and I never before really appreciated what it is that publishers do. I now appreciate quite intimately what is involved, and I hardly know where to start in answering the first question here. One thing is the sheer volume of work when, as a new small press, you can't afford much staff. Promotion is not easy, either. Books are 'slow life', which is good, but running a publishing company unfortunately often feels more like a scene from Metropolis or something - the hissing steam and the gears of industry so that the reader can enjoy one of the most leisurely of all human pastimes. But one finds oneself wanting to interrupt the reader's serenity and say, "Tell your friends about the book. Make them buy it now!" Publishing is full of such contradictions, I think. Anyway, because books - unlike music and films - are such a slow thing, it really requires great nerve to keep faith waiting for people to catch on to what you're doing. So, the hours required, the faith required in what you're doing - these are difficult. I think a certain amount of steely firmness is required to remain true to your vision, but there's no point in doing it otherwise.
As for advice... don't compromise on quality, I suppose I would say. Send out review copies of your books and be aware that some places require these copies months before the book's release. People can be coy about it, but the fact is, publishers sell books. That's what they do. No book sales, no publisher. So you have to make sure people know you exist and that you have something that (hopefully) interests them. In my opinion physical presentation of the books is also important. Getting a good cover, proofreading, the right font, clear and consistent textual formatting - all this takes time and money, but is a necessary investment, both in terms of producing something that does the text itself justice, and in showing to readers that you know what you're doing, that you care about it, that you have style and nous, etc. Obviously some great books are badly presented and vice versa, but as a publisher you shouldn't rely on the reader to remember this.
PT: And what aspects are the most fun/gratifying?
QC: Knowing that you have been instrumental in the publication of works that provide a real alternative to the mainstream, seeing and feeling the finished books. The collaboration we have with the designer Bigeyebrow has been particularly great. I love all kinds of creative collaboration. For instance, I had the idea of asking Hanna Tuulikki of nalle whether she would be willing to provide cover art for Revenants. I had no idea whether that would work out, but it was one of those "wouldn't it be great if" ideas that you sometimes get, and it came to pass. She came up with some really classic-looking cover art for that.
I'm actually really proud to be associated with all our releases. I almost feel the attachment to them that an author does to his or her own work. In fact, I even dare say my satisfaction in being involved with these books as an editor is in some ways greater than the satisfaction I've experienced as an author. I suppose as an author I've had high expectations and this often leads to feeling deflated, but as an editor I get the satisfaction without the sense of deflation.
I'm also especially glad that we've been able to publish some debuts (from Daniel Mills and Justin Isis), that we've been able to publish names from outside 'the scene' (John Elliott and Joe Simpson Walker) and that we've been able to get the mix of names we have (Jeremy Reed, Michael Cisco, Mark Samuels, etc.).
PT: What would you say distinguishes Chômu from all the other small presses (Gray Friar, Screaming Dreams, Pendragon, Eibonvale etc) in the field? What's your mission statement?
QC: I suppose there are plenty of things we have in common as well, but as to what distinguishes, I think that Léon brings an innovative business approach because of his background (it was his idea to bring in Bigeyebrow, for instance). I think all the small presses have their particular identities, but often this is based on genre, for instance, specialising in ghost stories and so on. Our identity is not so much genre-based as aesthetically based. We actually have a secret aesthetic code (which unfortunately I can't reveal here) that governs what submissions we accept for publication. I mean, really, it's all implied in the name, I think. Chômu. Not a very familiar word to English speakers. It probably looks vaguely futurist or a bit anarchist (incidentally, our butterfly-dreamer Chuang-tzu has been described as "the first anarchist", I believe). Its etymology, on the other hand, is quite delicate and... well, that etymology is given above, and I think it pretty much speaks for itself. I think it's a name that sounds awkward at first, but that people can go on unpacking at will.
As I write this, we've just come back from FantasyCon in Brighton, and a number of people who came to the Chômu Press stall remarked, independently, that it was refreshing and/or interesting to see that we weren't presenting and marketing our publications as horror. I think this is a revealing observation. I, for one, would never even have thought of marketing our books as other than what they are, which is, primarily literature, fiction, just that. The implication of the observation is that there is a particular way that horror is usually marketed, and I think that's true, and it's not something we do. Only a portion of what we publish could reasonably be described as horror anyway, but I think the observation is made because there is a strain of horror in what we do. I don't really care about horror per se, though, or any other genre, personally. I remember an interview with Elvis Costello (I think it was) in which he was talking about some musical collaboration, and the journalist was asking if it wasn't difficult or strange for Jazz musicians and pop musicians to play music together. And Costello answered that no one except journalists and record company bosses cares about that kind of thing, that for musicians it's all just music. I feel that way about writing. It's like, if I were a painter I might have a preference for blue or green or brown (and biases do give identity and interest, of course), but for the most part I'd be happy that there were lots of colours to choose from and use, and it would seem peculiar to me that some people have a kind of tribal loyalty to one particular colour and never want to lay eyes upon any other. So, it's not a question of saying to people who love red, "No more red!" (You know, who wants to ban red - that would be ridiculous.) It's more like saying, "Why not try a bit of pink or turquoise sometimes, too?"
All this might sound even condescendingly basic, and in fact some of the publishing names you've mentioned probably have similar attitudes, but being a writer for many years before being an editor, this is honestly what I feel I've been up against. You could call it chromophobia.
I hope the above is not too vague. To go to the other end of the spectrum and give a few specific examples of what makes us different. Joe Simpson Walker makes us different. John Elliott makes us different. Justin Isis makes us different. Jeremy Reed makes everything different. I'm guessing that the instances of what make us different will continue to add up as we carry on.
As to mission statements... well, there are various slogans and soundbites that could be used. If I were to give it straight without trying to be clever, I'd say that in the realm of words, literature is the particular arena of imagination and beauty. Imagination, should, by definition, be boundless, or, in other words, the more possibilities someone can explore, the more imaginative they are. So surely categories are actually unimaginative, or anti-imaginative? I suppose categories have their uses, but what we're interested in is imaginative eureka moments, that feeling of leaping over the fence.
There's something else I should mention, which has been part of our public mission statement somewhere. I think one thing that makes us different is that we have a specific business plan for getting our writers to a wider audience. Chômu is actually predicated on that idea (this is partly because of my own frustration as a writer in only ever having limited print runs). Now, this is a gamble. The easiest thing to do for the kind of works we're putting out is to target a niche audience and make collector's editions that will give you a high return. But that's not what we're doing. We're specifically looking to change people's reading habits, so that people 'out there', so to speak, wake up to the fact that there is an indie book scene and that it involves living authors, exciting authors, diverse authors. Now, what we're doing is actually a gamble, and you know what that means - it's possible to lose. So, if people like what we're doing, they should support us now, while we're still around, to make sure we stick around.
As for soundbites - I can give a soundbite. It's a bit silly, but most soundbites are, I think. Ready? It is: "Chômu Press - you know you want to!"
Er... as usual, I can explain that soundbite in several paragraphs if necessary.
PT: Do you prefer the label small press or independent press? Is the distinction, if there is one, important to you?
QC: It's not really an important distinction to me - it may be to others. Obviously "independent" sounds cooler than "small". Independent, in fact, sounds big and clever. But to me, as prefixes to 'press', they are basically the same thing. I do like the association of "independent" with "indie music", though. I know some people might not like such an association, but to me "indie music" is a term that has about it an atmosphere of enthusiasm and energy. "Indie press" doesn't sound bad, I don't think. You know, you don't have to be comatose to be intelligent or beautiful. (And this is where someone's bound to say, "But it helps.")
PT: If all goes according to plan, you'll have released thirteen titles this year. Presumably some of those have been in the pipeline for quite some time. Can you keep up this pace for the future?
QC: Our schedule isn't inked in indelibly very far in advance, but we do have plenty of things in preparation. We were actually hoping to release more titles this year than we have, but we realised that this was not practical and would mean compromising on quality of production and so on. Our pace for the future may conceivably slow down or speed up, depending on various factors, though it's probably fair to say that the more books we sell the more likely we are to step up production. There looks like being a gap at the beginning of 2012, though, as we wanted to concentrate on getting the Dadaoism anthology out, so we've kind of put other things on hold in order to achieve that.
PT: What made you opt for PoD as your preferred method of publishing? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Do you have any plans to diversify into other formats, such as e-books or signed, limited editions?
QC: There are a number of advantages to PoD. One of the main ones, actually, is distribution. Our printer, Lightning Source, also has a worldwide distribution system, so that makes the books more visible and accessible. There's also the obvious advantage that there is no specific print-run. That is, with a limited print run of 300, once they're gone, you basically know that that's it, unless the book gets picked up by another publisher in the future. With PoD, the door is open, at least while the publisher itself exists. And, of course, the initial outlay is cheaper, or it is in theory. I'm not responsible for the money side of things, so my knowledge of the details there is sketchy.
We actually do release books for Kindle, so that choice is available to readers. We may also do hardback limited editions in the future.
I suppose there's a lot of debate at the moment about the various merits and demerits of the different formats. Personally I prefer real books, and I believe that, despite being made of paper, they are more environmentally friendly than e-books, which require the huge technological infrastructure of electronic readers that will be upgraded and thrown away, upgraded and thrown away until the world ends in the not-so-distant future. Between hardbacks and paperbacks, I think I'd say that it's good to have a few hardbacks around, because these are the editions that are most likely to ensure that a book will still exist and be readable and retrievable in a hundred years time or more. But they are expensive, and, to me, the best cheap alternative to them is the PoD paperback. Only the number of books actually bought is printed, so this enormously reduces the number of books that have to be pulped.
Also there's the question of which format is most author-friendly. There's been a lot of talk about e-books being author-friendly because they cut out the middle man, etc. Well, speaking now entirely as an author, and not as a publisher/editor, I'm not on friendly terms with them at all, and would be quite happy to live in a world where they had never been invented. I think there's an optimum point for accessibility and cutting-out-the-middle-man as combined with a respect for the author and literature, and that optimum point, as far as I am concerned, was reached in PoD paperbacks. If you like authors, if you support the whole idea of literature, literacy, imagination, culture, fairness, that kind of thing, my own feeling is that the best way to express that support is not in buying e-books, but in buying PoD paperbacks.
PT: Just lately there have been a lot of concerns voiced about the low number of female writers being published under the speculative fiction umbrella. Chômu has a more diverse line than almost any other small publisher, and yet you still haven't published anything by a woman. What's your experience here? What percentage of your submissions come from women? Is your perception that there are less women writing imaginative fiction or that they are less likely to submit?
QC: When Chômu was still in embryo there was a very short list on a scrap of paper that contained the names of writers we definitely wanted to publish. The list has grown since then, but I remember that first list distinctly (as should be easy to imagine). There were on it only three names, two of which were male and one female. The two male writers in question have since become part of the Chômu fold, but as yet the female writer has not. I hope that may yet happen. I have actually solicited submissions from women writers, but so far (at least in general submissions) nothing has come of it. I don't really know what this means - whether or not it's representative of anything - but that has been my experience. (I should note that in one or two cases, I think sheer misfortune has been involved, in terms of there being no available material to publish.) At the time of writing, the table of contents for the Dadaoism anthology has just been finalised, and I can reveal that there are a number of women writers in the line up. Hopefully this will signal to other women writers that we are not at all unapproachable.
The general percentage of submissions from women has been pretty low. I'd guess, without counting, that it's been about 4% of what we receive. Again, I don't really know why this is. With the anthology, the percentage was much higher. I believe links to the submissions guidelines were put up in a couple of places on the Internet (thank you), and the scenes associated with these places maybe have a higher concentration of women writers. I think we really did get closer to 50% for the anthology submissions. The proportion of women in the anthology probably is actually lower than the proportion of submissions we received from women. Obviously our criteria for inclusion didn't refer to gender.
I don't really see why there should be fewer women writers in speculative fiction, at least I don't see why it should be inevitable. To be honest, the whole thing is beyond me, especially in the sense that I do not, myself, feel any especial loyalty to any particular genre. We do know - don't we? - that culturally, all manner of things are traditionally seen as masculine or feminine, and there are numerous chicken-and-egg questions here. The stereotype of a science fiction fan is a spotty, white, male geek who can't get laid (please refer to Weird Al Yankovic's song 'White and Nerdy'). I have honestly never, ever heard anyone describe this as a bullying or a prejudiced stereotype. Maybe I haven't been paying attention. Anyway, I think there's a kind of mystery to such stereotypes. It's possible that people just do their own thing and congregate in their own way. Or it's possible there is a problem of exclusion. More likely it's a mixture of both. The difficulty to me is that, it seems if you want to fight exclusion, you have to form a group identity, but group identities also seem to be precisely what excludes.
If the proportion of women writers in speculative fiction is a problem it has to be because talented female writers want to get on in the field but are in some way unfairly neglected. I can imagine that this might be true, because I can see talented writers as a whole, male or female, are unfairly neglected, and it seems to me there must be social factors at work. There's a bit in Far-Off Things by Arthur Machen where he talks about how easy some people find it to get on in the literary world. I've excerpted it on my blog (second link below). How do you fight that kind of glass ceiling, that kind of not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know? I would personally love to know how to fight it, and I think that Chômu Press is here to fight it. I suppose the main thing is just getting people to realise that it's so much more fun to have an open mind.
PT: How hands on are you as an editor? What kind of input from you can an author expect once his/her submission has been accepted?
QC: So far, I have never had to suggest anything in the nature of changing a major element of a story's plot, or that kind of thing. I will do the basic kind of proofreading corrections (spelling, grammar, punctuation, continuity) and also make suggestions where I think something doesn't flow or doesn't make sense. My general feeling is that we are publishing good writers and they know what they're doing, so I think the things I'm correcting are largely incidental, though important in that uncorrected they tend to mar the reading experience. I'm afraid that errors have got through in some of the titles, much to my regret, so we're trying to tighten the proofreading up. Recently, we've begun to get some more help in this particular area.
PT: I notice that some of your authors are active in promoting other Chômu titles - writing introductions, reviews, blurbs and endorsements. Is this simply a shared aesthetic in action or something more calculated than that? What level of involvement, if any, do you expect of writers when it comes to promotion?
QC: It's not really calculated. I think there is a scene, in which I have had one foot, and a lot of people in this scene know each other's work. It has occurred to me that this can look like a whole load of people scratching each other's backs, and we should not underestimate the possibility that it can become such, but if it's sincere (which as far as I'm aware with the blurbs and so on we've used, it always has been), I don't really see the problem. In fact, it's nice to have a bit of a family feeling about Chômu. Incidentally, I read a comment on a message thread somewhere about me and Justin Isis "swapping introductions" for our books. This made me chuckle for some reason. In this particular case, I actually offered to try and get someone else to write the intro to Justin's book, as I wasn't sure that my name carries much weight, and I thought the book deserved as much weight behind it as possible. But Justin said he'd prefer it if I wrote it, which I was more than happy to do. I think there's a lot to be said for DIY enthusiasm. Also, Justin's intro to my book actually demonstrates some, though not all, of his strengths as a writer. It's a great intro. Somehow Justin always seems to manage to cut through labyrinths of thought like a pair of scissors through ribbons.
In terms of the whole promotion question, it's difficult actually. A lot of writers really, genuinely don't like to promote themselves (I'm one of them, by the way), and this is fine. But, the fact is that we need to promote the books. If the writers feel like promoting each other, this would seem to be the ideal solution. I've noticed something, incidentally, about book promotion. Many people don't like it when authors promote their own work, and, though I can understand this, I think that people should bear in mind just how horrendously hard it is being a writer. I know very well that this is a subject that bores some people, but I think it principally bores people who never really listened in the first place. In my experience, very few writers are privileged whiners, by the standards of the societies in which they live. Some are, of course - the more famous ones. But sometimes I can hardly bear to go on witnessing the injustice of so much rich and brilliant talent scorned, since it really does seem to me that the tendency is for the better writers to be neglected. And I also have a notion that there is a degree of inverse snobbery at work in literature that does not operate to the same extent elsewhere. In short, while self-promotion is not always well-judged, it is at least not a crime, and very often the writers themselves do not want to do it, but are doing it out of duty to publishers and so on. So, I think some understanding is in order.
I think that people's attitudes when it comes to fiction are interestingly complicated, or even twisted. I read a book about book promotion (Plug Your Book) to see if I could pick up tips for Chômu. It occurred to me that it was actually written for non-fiction authors, and that in the world of non-fiction people don't have complicated attitudes about promotion, because there is not so much of a 'cult of personality' thing going on.
PT: What can we expect to see from Chômu in the future?
QC: So far we've basically been publishing what has been submitted to us - not everything, of course, but those pieces that have been both outstanding and appropriate. But we have plenty of ideas for more proactive projects - anthologies, collaborations, mutations. I don't want to give too much away, really, because publishing is a very uncertain occupation and it seems like you don't really know if you'll be around from one day to the next. I hope we do manage to stick around, though. Earlier in the interview I mentioned being able to explain the soundbite I gave, if necessary. Perhaps I could explain it here. Books are slow, and that does make me a little impatient, because for survival, very often speed is needed. I remember a bit in a David Bowie interview (too long ago for me to quote verbatim) in which he described the days just before his star was really on the ascendant. He said he had this feeling of trying to drag unwilling children up a hill, and saying to them, "No, we can do this thing! We can do it!" I suppose I feel a bit like that. I can see how wonderful Chômu is, and how much more wonderful it can be, but these things take time to unfold. So, to switch from Bowie to Morrissey, there's a song by The Smiths called, I Don't Owe You Anything. In it, Morrissey has walked miles to knock on someone's door and ask if they want to stop being boring and actually go out, etc. Of course they say, "I don't want to go out tonight." But Morrissey is persuasive: "I know what will make you smile tonight."
So, that's my feeling about the future of Chômu. I know what will make you smile. The Dadaoism anthology is on its way. It will be a taste of things to come. We can try new things, exciting things, get to know each other, have fun, ascend the hill. We can do it.
PT: Finally, if money was no object, what would be your dream project?
QC: I've mentioned being into collaboration, so I asked Justin to collaborate with me on this question. His answer is:
JI: Probably some kind of massive combination experimental film/group sex/magick ritual with elaborate costumes and hundreds of participants. I think total lack of funding is the only thing that has prevented me from heading in this direction and focusing on writing. I would also like to build an experimental city whose structures would have no apparent purpose, or a number of contradictory/improvisatory purposes that could be realized on the whim.
QC: As for me, I think the establishment of some kind of art/science colony in which the residents correlate their dreams and extrapolate from the results, in different media, new ways of living, new technologies, and so on. As a matter of fact, I'm currently collaborating with the performance artist Dominika Kieruzel on the creation of a new language, and we're exploring associated concepts (see last link). More money would mean more time to do this kind of thing, or I presume it would, and that is, indeed, what I would like to do.
I've also consulted Léon for his answer to this question, and it's interesting how much our three answers have in common. He says he'd like to create "an environment and community that would be ideal for authors to write, e.g. an island somewhere". He says the idea is still a bit vague at the moment, but "It could be called Chômu Island. Maybe a bit like Fantasy Island. (Actually, I don't remember what Fantasy Island was actually like)".
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