Interview with Eugene Lim, Managing Editor
How did Ellipsis Press start?
Selfishly. In 2001 I’d finished a novel and had spent several years trying to get it published. My friend Johannah Rodgers had read it and suggested we start a press to publish it, which we did in 2008. (I occasionally make the joke that self-publishing your novel is a game of chicken you play with yourself and one you must always lose. No one ever laughs when I make this joke.)
Tell us a bit about Ellipsis Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
From our submission statement, we say: “We like novels that look normal but aren’t (more than those that look weird but are actually quite normal)…” And I think that that gets close to it. The novel is a flexible container. I think I’m interested in those books that transform and transcend the genre but in a way that brings the reader along—does not forget or insult the reader—and, in the best case, expands what it is possible to understand via new forms of long narrative.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
Ellipsis publishes zero to three books a year. Ellipsis has turned largely into a one-person operation—albeit with great help from friends of the press like Corey Frost, Jeremy Hoevenaar, and Joanna Sondheim. We’ve published a little over a dozen titles, and I may go until we’ve published twenty books. Maybe more? Nothing is in the pipeline, but magic sometimes happens suddenly. I believe very strongly in the mission of the small presses. Far beyond the froth of commercial publishers, independent and small presses are largely where literature is born and lives. However, in general, it’s a movement fundamentally built upon volunteer labor; and, in specific, that’s a resource (along with structures for its gleaning) that seem unfortunately currently scarce for Ellipsis Press.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
Hmph. In the past fifteen years, the economics of small press publishing has changed in the sense that it’s much more possible to produce an object. What hasn’t changed is the ability for a small press to publicize and distribute their books in a way that they have a chance in a very competitive quote attention economy. So, in addition to diversity of race and class in narratives, which is a call and mandate I believe on many people’s minds, I think the next evolution for the alternative press world would be a few institutional or collective advances. What Entropy is doing to bring the community together—things like these small press interviews—is fantastic. So things like: book awards with enough funding and prize money to turn heads; a monthly or quarterly book review, similar to Rain Taxi or American Book Review but perhaps with the money to attract a full time staff; SPD bringing back its catalog mailers(!); annual book fairs NOT tied to making profit or the soft ponzi scheme of the academy; etc. All of which requires money—so what is a funding mechanism that the community can collectively accomplish outside/within capitalism? Has the community evolved enough that such institutions could be created? For me, foolish as it may sound, the most exciting development for the community of literature would be to try to create a vision for its existence and thriving outside of scarcity economics. And for that to be a mass movement, possible, desirable, cool.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Ellipsis Press?
The enterprise of the small presses is spiritually but not financially profitable. There are exceptions, but, in general, I don’t think small presses should charge fees or transmit any costs to their authors (though contest fees where there’s a guarantee of the manuscript being reviewed, a named judge, a transparent process, prize money or/and publication are okay with me), but I also think that authors should understand that there’s a near 99% chance that their books will not make money. I think this economic fact should temper or at least be factored into financial demands authors have from their small presses. (I’m not talking about established independent presses; I mean small presses with no paid staff.)
One way, certainly not the only way, to think of small presses is that they are the initial signal booster or catalyst for a literary existence—that is, they are a way to discover and promote emerging authors. Corollary to this, and similar to the chemical metaphor of a catalyst in its post-function disappearance, authors should maintain full rights to the work and thereby have primary access to any money from subrights and additional publication (e.g. a translation or when a book is picked up by a larger house).
One important, technical thing that is very hard but doable for small presses (and which I struggle to do but which allows small presses to interact with the commercial flow of the big houses) is to establish and keep publishing dates for titles at least a full season in advance. In addition, small presses should try to send out printed advance reading copies to periodicals and critics three or more months prior to pub dates. While this can add significant cost per title, I believe this can make a world of difference and allow titles to receive deserved attention.