Small Beer Press: A Snapshot
Publishers: Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link
Titles per year: 6 to 10
Genre: Fiction: novels, short story collections; Nonfiction: writing craft
Aesthetic: speculative, slipstream, weird, cross-genre
Affiliated Projects: Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (literary magazine); Weightless Books (indie e-book distribution site); Big Mouth House (young adult and middle grade book imprint)
I don’t know if this is normal, but when I ordered four books from Small Beer Press, the books came with a small plush spider. Based on the current catalog they also included, I decided it must be a promotion for Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson, a historical novel about 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, which at the time was Small Beer Press’s latest release. Maybe it was scooped up by accident from Small Beer’s Northampton home office. In any case, it caused me to look up and follow Susan Stinson on Twitter, and the spider now lives on top of my computer.
Even before I reached the books, something else impressed me about the box I ordered: the books were packed with padded envelopes from review copies sent to the editors of Small Beer. So, in addition to printing their books on 30% post-consumer recycled paper, Small Beer Press isn’t adding to the useless surplus of the world’s foam packing peanuts, or sending boxes with far more packing material than product, like some rainforest-namesake company that shall remain unspecified.
The second order I placed with Small Beer came with a free chapbook of stories from Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters and Eileen Gunn‘s Questionable Practices: Stories. Small Beer’s blog Not a Journal relates numerous times when the publishers have given away chapbooks, Writer’s Planners, signed copies of books and other fun things. When you buy a subscription to their literary zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, you can choose to include a chapbook, a mug or a bar of chocolate. Yes, chocolate. To commemorate the “Red Line of Death” discussed in Kate Wilhelm‘s writing craft memoir Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Small Beer accompanied the book with a red pencil. To promote Laurie J. Marks’ fantasy novel Water Logic, in which the characters drink a substantial amount of tea, Small Beer created a special blend of black tea and sent it to reviewers and booksellers. When asked about their innovative promotions, Gavin J Grant told me, “perhaps the most fun was carrying an inflatable couch around BookExpo and offering people a momentary rest. It was nominally to publicize Couch, a debut novel [by Benjamin Parzybok] we got from the slush pile, but really it was just a ton of fun.”
One of the books I ordered was publisher Kelly Link‘s first book Stranger Things Happen. This collection of eclectic, strange and wonderful short stories was the first book published by Small Beer back in 2001. In a 2002 RevolutionSF interview with co-publisher Gavin J. Grant, he explains that Kelly Link had “published a number of stories, and was interested in doing a collection, but all the larger publishers wanted a novel as well and at that time she wasn’t interested in writing one… After a contract with another small press didn’t work, we decided to do it ourselves.” That decision led to a short story collection that was favorably reviewed and featured everywhere from Publisher’s Weekly to NPR, and became a Salon Book of the Year and a Village Voice favorite. This collection also launched a publishing house that has since published work by speculative fiction superstars like Ursula K LeGuin, Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Kress and Angélica Gorodischer. A full history of the creation of Small Beer Press can be found here. Kelly Link published another award-winning collection with Small Beer Press, Magic For Beginners, but her next several books found a home with Penguin (now Penguin Random House), one of the “Big Five” New York publishing houses.
Small Beer (which is a Scottish phrase akin to “small potatoes”) now releases six to ten titles per year, and specializes in speculative work that crosses and defies boundaries. North American Lake Monsters is contemporary horror, but Ballingrud’s stories also challenge and subvert some of the common tropes of that genre. Kij Johnson‘s At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an eclectic collection, with straight science fiction and fantasy stories alongside magic realist and fabulist stories. Many Small Beer books are solicited from writers that Gavin and Kelly already know and respect, but they are open to submissions and some of their titles do come from the slush pile. Gavin told me, “it took us 8 years of reading before we found a match and then a couple more years until we found another. We only read paper submissions and are not particularly quick at responding, but everything does get read.”
The submission guidelines on the website offer little advice about what kind of work they look for, aside from “be familiar with our books.” Having read some of their books, I would say Small Beer looks for impeccably-written work that blurs genre boundaries. In the FAQ on Kelly Link’s website, she says of Small Beer’s aesthetic, “What we publish are short story collections and novels, mostly stuff that would fall into the category of fiction that the writer China Mieville calls ‘weird shit.'” I asked Gavin, “What is it that will turn you on or off about a slush submission within the first few pages?” and he said, “that impossible to describe ‘voice.’ It’s the same thing any reader is looking for in a bookshop when they read the first few pages (or page 70, or whatever), to see if the book speaks to them. Since we ask for 20-30 pages of a manuscript, it’s easy to see if the story carries us forward or not.”
Small Beer books, as well as their imprint for younger readers called Big Mouth House, can all be found in print as well as in various electronic formats.. Weightless Books is Small Beer’s electronic counterpart, run by Gavin J. Grant and Michael J. DeLuca, and offers DRM-free ebook distribution for book and magazine publishers. While Small Beer’s print books are available for order on their website and most other online retailers, they also work with independent bookstores to get books stocked in the brick-and-mortars. To allow readers a taste of Small Beer’s books, free podcasts of published stories and select written excerpts are available on their site.
Small Beer Press is active on social media, with nearly four thousand Facebook likes and close to three thousand Twitter followers. Their feeds are full of announcements about readings, reviews, interviews and other achievements of their authors. A calendar on the Small Beer website also keeps track of author readings around the country, and Not a Journal keeps readers up to date about longer-form announcements. Offline, Kelly and Gavin frequently attend conventions such as AWP and ReaderCon, as well as regional book festivals. Books published by Small Beer get reviewed by high profile publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Locus and The New York Times, and win, or at least get nominated for, numerous awards.
Small Beer is a successful and important independent press, and anyone interested in starting a new press would do well to study their model. In 2005, Gavin published an article with Strange Horizons titled “How to Start a Small Press,” which illustrates some of the challenges and rewards of the independent publishing world. In this article, Gavin says “In recent years there’s been an incredible rise in peer-group-published zines which, powered by said peer groups’ continued and increasing expectations, reliably publish ever-better zines and chapbooks. This is the easiest way to get into publishing and—if done well—can only be good for both readers and writers.” When asked which independent publishing houses are currently doing good things, he told me, “I like what Nouvella is doing and I was just reading today about Peirene Press, a UK publisher doing something similar. Although I started an indie ebooksite, WeightlessBooks.com, I am a big fan of reading things on paper and am enjoying the very old school Poetry and the not-so-much (yet!) Tin House. Otherwise, the Dorothy Project? Oh, there are so many!”