Small Press Roundup

By James Schellenberg

Is genre fiction dead? More specifically, what about science fiction, fantasy, or horror? All have been declared moribund at one time or another—and indeed the horror genre pretty much died off for a while (see Paula Guran's comments on Locus Online, which also offer a possibly necessary corrective to what I'm about to say).

So how to keep a field of creativity vibrant, or if it has indeed suffered a low moment, how to rescue it from that low point? Usually an endeavor like this means innovating, which in turn means taking risks. When I look at the small presses that I'll be discussing here, I see risk-taking, some of it rational and other times irrational (that it is to say, decisions made for love rather than money), but all of it performing the crucial role of incubating talent and making lovely works of art along the way.

I should add that calling small presses "incubators" is possibly contentious, for several reasons, mostly because it implies that the natural desire is to move on if possible. What about those people who want to stay small? This reason subdivides into two: there are those who, in Guran's formulation, are too afraid or too incompetent to venture outside their tribe, while some people make compelling ethical AND economic reasons to stay indie (Jim Munroe's summary with some older numbers, and some reference to the music industry). Other reasons might be illustrated by taking a look at another stay-small type of argument that some find hard to understand: not every novelist will be thrilled to have a movie version of their book. To see my point, emotionally speaking, check the comments by Le Guin about the recent Earthsea miniseries; here we see that Le Guin could bring non-white characters into a lowly work of fantasy in a way that's not replicated in something as "mainstream" as a TV miniseries. Just like movies and TV are not the automatic endpoint of the life cycle of any written work, big publishing imprints are not always better for their size.

(As an aside, it is ironically true that novels do end up as incubators for ideas in Hollywood, even if the end result is not always a happy one. Part of this incubator role is simply the relative costs involved; I've discussed this in relation to Terry Gilliam in an article called The Cost of Creativity).

That is not to say that small press is pure gold. What happens when the opposite is true? If risks aren't being taken? When the indie side of things is in trouble, the most creative people in the business—the opinion leaders, the innovators, and so forth—get worried. I'm thinking about movies and videogames. Arguments go on about the "indie-ness" of indie movies—see Edward Jay Epstein's The Indie Game for a thorough explanation of how indie movies work nowadays. Similarly in videogames, budgets are one of the stumbling blocks for indie companies (two articles on The Escapist are relevant here—Setting the Stage by Jason Smith, about how EA started as a minuscule company in 1982 and became a billion dollar behemoth, and Unrisky Business by Mark Wallace, which takes the movie-videogame analogy as its argument). There are attempts to fix this, but they face big obstacles—I'm keeping my eye on Manifesto Games to see if it succeeds.

Having said all this, I'm happy to report that SF/F/H is in darn good shape, at least in comparison. What follows is a list of small presses in the field, and this list represents a tremendous amount of hard work on the part of many, many people. I'll also point out innovative projects, because there are more than a few.

This list is definitely not complete (see links following); it's only a list of presses that one single person has encountered by way of the local library.


My Tentatively Complete List

Aqueduct

Aqueduct is a press from Seattle with a clear but somewhat intimidating slogan: "Bringing Challenging Feminist Science Fiction to the Demanding Reader." As we will see over and over again in this list, even if this is a small audience, it doesn't matter—the quality is high and it makes a lot of sense, tactically speaking in such a competitive market, to find a niche and stick it to it as faithfully as possible.

Aqueduct has published Life by Gwyneth Jones, a novel that won the 2004 Philip K. Dick Award. But they tend not to do regular novels and instead focus on what they call Conversation Pieces, a series of shorter books. I have Volume 4, Kim Antieau's Counting on Wildflowers, which republished select entries from Antieau's excellent blog, Furious Spinner. I'm planning to get Volume 8, Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, a writing handbook based on the similarly titled workshop that set out to help authors write with confidence about characters unlike themselves.

Ben Bella

Ben Bella is a mainly non-fiction press based in Dallas. They have done a whole series of pop-culture based essay collections, publicized under their canny Smart Pop line. These include King Kong is Back! edited by David Brin and Mapping the World of Harry Potter edited by Mercedes Lackey. Unfortunately, the essay collections are uneven in quality, and for every standout there is often a piece filled with mundane ramblings. The good news: the packaging is catchy, the timing is on the money, as the King Kong and upcoming Narnia books illustrate, and the topics covered are current ones but not overdone or stale—no exegesis on The Da Vinci Code, thank goodness.

Ben Bella also publishes fiction, both reprints and first editions. They've republished The Sheep Look Up in a handsome edition, and published James Gunn's novel Gift from the Stars and some new David Gerrold. Unlike many other small presses, Ben Bella publishes very little short fiction, but the Smart Pop series has plenty of short essays.

Edge (including Tesseracts)

Edge is a Canadian publisher that purchased Tesseracts in the last few years. Classic Tesseracts titles by Phyllis Gotlieb, Elisabeth Vonarburg, and Candas Janey Dorsey are still available. Edge has recently published the ninth entry in the long-running Tesseracts anthology series, appropriately titled Tesseracts Nine and edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman (see my review at Challenging Destiny). The next entry in the series will be edited by Edo van Belkom and Robert Charles Wilson.

While Tesseracts as a publishing line was often more focused on the literary side of Canadian speculative fiction, Edge aims a little wider. They've published a few novels by Australian writer K.A. Bedford, and they've also reprinted Tanya Huff's marvellous and subversive Stealing Magic.

Golden Gryphon

Golden Gryphon is mainly focussed on SF short story collections. And they really have some of the best practitioners of the short story craft in the business. I've personally seen Andy Duncan's Beluthahatchie and Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives; the backlist also includes James Patrick Kelly, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kage Baker, Lucius Shepard, and Robert Reed. Quite a few of the books feature cover art by Bob Eggleton.

I don't have extensive things to say about Golden Gryphon except that if you're interested in reading topnotch short work, some of the best in the genre or out of it, check out the collections from this imprint. If you're learning the craft yourself, it's like a cheat sheet that points out all the right answers.

Night Shade

I haven't encountered as many Night Shade titles myself but they are popular, especially among collectors (this press seems a little more focused on limited editions, just like PS Publishing, mentioned below). They've just published an important collection by Joe Haldeman called War Stories, which is exactly what the title indicates—Haldeman's stories about war, including two novels. Night Shade grabbed Ministry of Whimsy in 2003; their website has a very active discussion board.

Prime

I found out about Prime mainly because of Holly Phillips's excellent In the Palace of Repose. Prime is also publishing Phillips's first novel, The Burning Girl, which I have high hopes for.

Prime has surprisingly handy author bios for every author they've published. Now available through Prime is the newly launched Fantasy Magazine.

PS Publishing

I like PS Publishing. For one thing, they have a spiffy website, something not all small presses can boast about (see my comments below on the University of Nebraska Press). They have also published some fantastic original novellas in limited editions. Some of the best were republished in North America as Cities. PS has scored with some Ray Bradbury reprints, and the Steven Erikson novellas, side stories from his Malazan series, have been quite popular (although I didn't care much for Blood Follows, the only one I've had a chance to take a look at).

PS has also started a magazine, called Postscripts. Talk about ambitious! The magazine market illustrates the same tremendous pressures involved and the tilting-at-windmills optimism as book publishing, especially since magazines go out of business and new ones come into play with greater rapidity. Postscripts is at issue 4 and seems to be making a good go of it.

I'd also recommend signing up for the PS e-bulletin (or reading it on the website), since it gives the ordinary reader a glimpse into the hectic life of a small press. PS seems to be doing well, which exacerbates the hectic pace.

RJS Books

RJS started out as an imprint of Red Deer Press, which was recently acquired by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, essentially moving RJS from one small publisher in Canada to another. The line is edited by Robert J. Sawyer. They are only about 5 or 6 books into their lifespan; my favourite so far is Karl Schroeder's The Engine of Recall.

Small Beer Press

Small Beer has very high production values, and they have made some great choices. I've recently reviewed Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh, a collection that I use to brandish in front of genre-skeptics and prove to them that they need to wake up. Small Beer has also published some great work by Carol Emshwiller, Sean Stewart's recent novel Perfect Circle, and two collections by one of Small Beer's editors, Kelly Link. Link's Magic for Beginners was on many mainstream Best of 2005 lists, if that makes a difference to you.

Like PS, Small Beer has their own magazine. In this case, it's that one with the strange and lovely title, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Worth checking out.

Subterranean Press

I know Subterranean from its list of exclusive Charles de Lint titles. They've also published some limited George R.R. Martin editions and a fair amount of horror.

Tachyon

Tachyon has done quite a few short story collections, in a similar vein as Golden Gryphon. Tachyon boasts collections by Michael Swanwick, Terry Bisson, Eileen Gunn, and Carol Emshwiller (I've reviewed the latter two at The Cultural Gutter). I'd also like to get my hands on the two volumes of The James Tiptree Award Anthology.

Right now their most innovative thing is James Patrick Kelly's Burn, available in a dead tree edition from Tachyon and which Kelly is also podcasting at his website. I'm about halfway through the story and I'm enjoying his narrative voice. Kelly's Free Reads series was a success, so I'll be curious to see where the Burn experiment goes.

University of Nebraska Press

UNP reprints classic SF, stuff that would otherwise not be widely available, in two series. I'm most familiar with Bison Frontiers of the Imagination series, and they've added a new one called Beyond Armageddon (mostly Paul O. Williams and Robert Silverberg so far).

It can be difficult for a small press, usually with only a handful of staff and that staff made up of people picked for their knowledge about print publishing, to keep their website in good shape. Some sites are out of date, hard to search, or not standards compliant. But if the books are good, who cares? True. In the case of UNP, they presumably have some wider expertise at the university to draw on, so I feel more latitude to criticize. For example, the direct link above leads to a spatial interface not seen on the web since, say, 1997, and check out the funky side-scrolling navigation on each of those category pages. The main UNP site has some serious search issues as well. Web design and search are hard, but not this hard.

Wheatland Press

Wheatland is known for its Polyphony series, which is up to 5 volumes now. All 5 volumes are being republished in hardcover. They've done some single author collections; I'm also keen on Weapons of Mass Seduction: Film Reviews and Ravings by Lucius Shepard.


Info for Completists

Obviously there are a lot more small presses in existence than my paltry list might indicate. Here are two places for people to look if they want a complete list.

  • The Speculative Literature Foundation's Small Press Co-Op. One of the more interesting programs of SLF, the co-op is a voluntary group that started recently and has grown quickly.

  • Locus Online's Publishers Links Locus Online lists them as SF/F/H Specialty Publishers, and it's a pretty good list (although suffering from some inevitable decay—at least four or five are dead links, and one publisher was hit severely by Katrina and no longer accepting submissions or orders).


An Emerald City Index

In issue 100 (Dec 2003) of her popular zine Emerald City, Cheryl Morgan had this to say:

"I have been noting for some time now that much of the best SF&F published today is coming from small presses. Obviously their product can be difficult to find in the shops, and even Amazon isn't necessarily a reliable source. There is a barrier to be overcome if you want to buy these books: you have to seek them out. It is worth it. But I don't expect you to take that on trust, so in order to encourage you I am starting a series of interviews with small press publishers that I hope will give you more confidence in them."

If you scan through these interviews, you'll notice how recently many of these presses started, as if the last few years were like steam engine time. Expertise got shared among putative competitors, and good publicity for one imprint seemed to help everyone starting out. Setbacks . . . yes. Hard times and heartbreak . . . of course. Also instructive and encouraging.

So here is a handy index to someone else's hard work. Morgan has talked to a number of British presses that I'm not familiar with, and all in all this is an incredibly useful set of interviews.