Swan River Press | Interview with Author and Publisher Brian J. Showers

Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He is an author of gothic tales and also a publisher at Swan River Press, based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, Le Fanu Studies and Supernatural Tales. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse (Mercier Press), won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (Nonsuch, 2006) and Old Albert — An Epilogue (Ex Occidente, 2011); with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu(Hippocampus Press, 2011).

The Independent Publishing Magazine caught up with Brian Showers for an interview…

How do I best describe Brian J. Showers? – Essayist, Reviewer, Author, Literary Historian, publisher…
A little bit of everything, maybe! Why choose just one? I enjoy all aspects of publishing and find myself in maybe the unique position to indulge in all of them. I reckon I’m mostly identified in terms of my interests, which is various aspects of supernatural fiction. So regardless of which hat I’m wearing, I’m usually engaging with what I’m truly interested in.
You’re unusual – in the sense that you don’t see and experience writing and publishing in a modern linear way – but, rather, take your passion and roots in literature from traditional heroes. When I first came across you as an author, and Swan River Press, I immediately thought of Dickens’s periodical publishing his novels in newspapers, through to esoteric presses like City Lights, The Paris Review, Granta, Gray Friar, Hippocampus, Tartarus and Soho. You seem to like working outside the traditional box – how and why do you think that came about?  
All these roles are connected. I think most writers who are published commercially usually get some sort of an insight into the publishing business, which is everything from editing to cover design to marketing. I really find that process enjoyable and integral to the creation of a book as a whole. For all of the books that I wrote, I was given a fair amount of input into the cover design. I’d probably get grumpy if a publisher didn’t at least ask me for my input.
I’m not sure the writer/editor/publisher is all that odd. You mentioned Dickens and his magazine All the Year Roundalready. There was also Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who edited both Belgravia and Temple Bar; Le Fanu edited the Dublin University Magazine, Erik Larsson runs Image Comics and Susan Hill has her own publishing company as well. Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, who together run Tartarus Press, are both accomplished writers. I think the overlap is pretty common. I’ve even gone so far as to hand bind books. It’s definitely not practical for mass production, but I like the intimacy of something that’s handcrafted. Like all of these other roles, it’s an experience that widens my understanding of books.
What brought a resident of Madison, Wisconsin to Dublin, Ireland?
I’d visited here in summer of 1999. I was already thinking then that I’d like to move to Europe and try living here for a while. Not speaking any other language well enough to survive, my options were narrowed to Ireland and the UK. Edinburgh was actually my other choice, a city that I still love to visit. But I ended up in Dublin . . .
You studied British Literature and Communications at college. Were you already writing then or did the passion to become an author come much later?
I have a “book” that I wrote when I was seven or eight years old. A bunch of one page stories—all having to do with ghosts and dinosaurs—that I also illustrated. The whole production was stapled together. Lots of staples! I must have been concerned that the whole thing would fall apart! For better or for worse, it’s still around—tucked away at my parents’ house. In high school I wrote a few stories for the literary magazine. I vaguely recall witchcraft and cannibalism (or perhaps I’d rather just not elaborate). During my undergrad I wrote comedy sketches for a local late night talk show. It was loads of fun and probably another example of multiple hat wearing. I found myself working production, scheduling, and as technical director during the weekly live broadcasts. That sort of wider involvement can make you aware of other issues surrounding a production, whether it’s a book or television program. But to answer your question more directly, it wasn’t until I moved to Dublin that I started taking writing more seriously. An awful lot of opportunities presented themselves to me when I moved here, so I consider myself fortunate in that way.
You have had books published with Nonsuch and Mercier Press in Ireland. Can you tell me how that came about and what in general your experience was of submission and having books published by commercial publishers?
It all seemed a bit easy! Well, that’s not entirely true. I think I’d sent Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublinoff to thirty or so publishers, most of whom declined, including one that declined a year or two after the book was already out with Nonsuch! I think I’d already more or less shelved Gothic Dublin by the time I sent it to Nonsuch, so their accepting the book was more a pleasant surprise. I’ve never been hellbent on “making it big”, so whenever a publisher likes something I’ve written—enough to publish it—it’s more like a bonus. But I have heard stories where people try half their lives to get published, so I’ve no doubt the experience is different for everyone depending on their aspirations.
The experience I’ve had with publishers is a mixed bag. I mean, I definitely got some insight into how things “work” (or don’t). Some lessons I am grateful for, certain aspects left me baffled and angry. Others were just weird. For example, The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories was originally entitled Ghost Stories of Rathmines (an homage to Le Fanu’s “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod”). Mercier didn’t like my title, mainly because when they solicited to booksellers, the booksellers were vaguely confused. Maybe they were worried my title wouldn’t sell in Fairview. Fair enough. So Mercier sent me a list of alternate suggestions that the booksellers liked better, one of which was The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories. I wrote back and said that’s all well and good, it’s an evocative title and all, but don’t you think it’s strange that there’s no story in the collection called “The Bleeding Horse”? The editor at Mercier didn’t think that would be a problem. No problem at all. Not even with the subtitle “and other ghost stories”, I asked? Nope. So I changed one of the story titles to “The Bleeding Horse”. But I do remember feeling slightly concerned that they didn’t think it’d be funny to call The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Storiesand for that book not to have a story in it called “The Bleeding Horse”. I wonder if the booksellers would have noticed?
But all of these experiences have informed my own interactions with the authors I work with while I’m wearing my editor/publisher hat.
Initially Swan River Press was a way of publishing your own work in chapbook format, but now you publish other authors. How did the move from a self-publishing imprint to a fully fledged independent press come about?
I didn’t really start the Swan River Press as such to publish my own chapbooks, and when I started making the chapbooks, I never imagined I’d someday move to hardback books. The chapbooks were elaborate Halloween and Christmas cards that I made to send to family and friends. Only this time I didn’t do the illustrations. Those were done by various friends, including Meggan Kehrli, Duane Spurlock, and Jeff Roche. Given the amount of work that went into these chapbooks, I ended up making quite a few copies at a go. It just seemed sensible. I think the biggest single print run was three hundred, though some chapbooks have had multiple runs at this point. Anyway, I put “Swan River Press” on each chapbook because my house at the time was on the “banks” of the (now) subterranean Swan River. And they proved popular enough that I figured I’d sell off the remainder. After all, postage and materials aren’t cheap!
In time I got a few nice emails from writers asking me if I’d publish their stories as chapbooks. They obviously liked the format, which was A7-sized. Now I was only capable of producing one chapbook title per year—and that was my own. Like I said, the process is quite labour intensive! It just wasn’t feasible for me to publish chapbooks for other people, but I did realise that I wanted to start working with other authors. So I settled on A5-sized booklets as a compromise. Still time consuming, but they were much easier for me to make. And this was also a good opportunity to keep working with Meggan Kehrli, who still handles cover designs on all Swan River Press books.
How much did you first understand the role of a publisher and what it would entail when you published your first books for Peter Bell, R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker?
I had a reasonable idea about a number of aspects with my previous experience in professional writing and publishing, but there are certain details when it comes to publishing hardback books that prove much trickier. There are just certain practical questions that need answering, different logistics that need sorting. I’m indebted to Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, who have been running Tartarus Press for something like twenty years now, for their continued support and advice.  Tartarus is one of the best small presses operating today. Their books are real works of beauty. As for me, well, I’m still learning. But I think I’m on the right track because feedback so far as been excellent.
Why did you decide to expand from publishing in chapbook format to hardback editions?
I’ve done three format publications to date: chapbooks, booklets, and hardbacks. Each one has inherent limitations. The most obvious is space. The chapbooks could only handle around 5,000 words, the booklets 25k words, and the hardbacks I can do something like 55k words. The other is production. Since I made all the chapbooks and booklets by hand, I spent a lot of time putting those together. I loved it, but it’s just not practical at the end of the day. Were I to calculate the cover price based on the amount of work I put into them, they’d be way overpriced. Each shift in format has seemed like a natural progression. I like the hardback format, so will stick with it for the foreseeable future. I think my days of chapbooks and booklets are over. That said, I’ve been tinkering with the idea of doing a deluxe hand bound edition of Le Fanu’s humorous tales. A couple of months ago I devised a way to hand bind hardbacks, so I’d like to give that a go just for the fun of it.
What plans/developments do you have for Swan River Press?
R.B. Russell’s Ghosts and Peter Bell’s Strange Epiphanies have been resounding successes as far as I’m concerned. It was really with the publication of these two books that I’ve started to wonder what else I can do with publishing. This past year I’ve been mostly engaged with doing a masters in popular literature at Trinity, but once I’m finished with that, I’ll likely throw myself into publishing and see what happens next.
Has being an independent publisher for other writers impacted negatively on the time you have to write?
Definitely. But I’ve never written consistently either, so that’s nothing new. Also, I’m not certain I look at it in terms of negativity because I’m just engaging in different aspects of the things I’ve always enjoyed. Whether it’s publishing, writing, editing, working with Meggan on a cover, or even attending discussions for my masters class—it all sometimes feels like one big indulgence. I’m really fortunate that way. It’s work, don’t get me wrong, but I love it.
What is your feeling on the ebook digital revolution taking hold of the industry now?
I admit I’m not an ebook reader, but I do kinda want one. A good few people in my class use them, which I’m sure is extremely handy when you’re searching for text. As soon as I get the time, I’m going to issue the entire Swan River Press hardback as ebooks. I just haven’t set aside time yet. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ebooks. It’s a change that I’m sure both readers and the industry will settle into. Regardless, I’m sure there will be a place for tree books in the future. At least there will always been room on my shelves—though I mean that figuratively more than literally! Like most booklovers, my shelves at home operate at capacity.
As a publisher, what do you look for in a good submission?
I don’t take submissions. At least not yet. I’m a slow reader, and I can only imagine the deluge I’d get if I opened myself up to general submissions. At the moment I have been approaching writers I already admire. I’ve actually had only one unsolicited submission so far. I was already familiar with the author’s work and delighted that they thought of me to send their work to. Realistically, I don’t have the time yet.
Where do you see the publishing industry in five years time?
I’m not sure I could speak for the industry. I’ve been interested mostly in small press for at least fifteen years. The stuff that I like to read wouldn’t be found on the shelves at Eason’s. I suspect the concept of “industry” applies more so to the larger publishers. Or maybe I’m just being naïve. I think a lot might have to do with your goals as a publisher or writer. One thing that does seem to be true: the small press can cater to those who want quality books and interesting writing that might not otherwise get noticed on the shelves of your larger, local bookshop. I suspect that small presses might thrive in that way.
Ten books you want to read/reread on your desert island before/if you’re rescued?
My re-read pile would be:
The House on the Borderland, William Hope Hodgson
Hell House, Richard Matheson
The Collected Short Stories of Robert Aickman
Prince Zaleski, M.P. Shiel
The Unfortunate Fursey, Mervyn Wall
The Collected Connoisseur, Mark Valentine and John Howard
The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath, H.P. Lovecraft
We Have Always Lived in a Castle, Shirley Jackson
Dramas from the Depths, Reggie Oliver
The Pretty Good Jim’s Journal Treasury, Scott Dikkers
Hopefully I’d be rescued though, because my “to read” pile is certainly teetering!

I hope so too! Thanks, Brian, for joining us on The Independent Publishing Magazine.

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