Last year my company, Affirm Press, an emerging publishing company with more ideals than commercial sense, embarked on an initiative called Long Story Shorts. It was a commitment to publish six individual collections of stories by new and emerging writers, the last of which – Two Steps Forward by Irma Gold – was published this week.
The goals of the project were twofold: to demonstrate a commitment to new Australian writers and to venture into a publishing no-man’s land to demonstrate the scope, delight and viability of short fiction (in which Australia has such a rich tradition). Of course we were also hoping to kick-start the careers of some of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers, careers that would be spent with us.
Truth be told, there were many times we regretted embarking on this venture. When, for example, our sales manager begged us to cop ourselves on (‘Six?!’ he yelled, ‘SIX short story collections!’) We received 450 submissions, from all over Australia. It was more than we expected and, frankly, more than we could cope with. We were inundated and had to close the doors for all submissions for months. We actually hated short stories for a while. Writers berated us for not responding earlier or insulted us for not responding the way they would have liked – to be fair, we did take too long to respond to some people, which was partly because we wanted to give everyone constructive feedback (naive, deluded us – we thought it might be welcome!)
But throughout it all, we loved the look of the series and keenly awaited each new cover from award-winning designer Dean Gorrissen. It’s immensely satisfying, as the digital age descends on us, to provide a series that seems to have aesthetically impressed just about everyone.
The series began with Under Stones, a collection of dark and moody tales from Bob Franklin, best known for his stand-up comedy and television acting. The collection won the 2010 Australian Shadows Award, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards, and described by Sonya Hartnett as ‘bruising and beautifully composed’. (The stories gave me the heebie jeebies, and I couldn’t read more than one at a time – with lie-downs and lashing of camomile tea in between.)
We followed that with music writer Barry Divola’s heart-warming requiem to youth, Nineteen Seventysomething, an episodic tale of teenage awakening. Gretchen Shirm’s cycle of stories, Having Cried Wolf, was shortlisted for the NSW Premiers’ Literary Award for New Writing, and earned Gretchen the Sydney Morning Herald Best New Young Novelist of the Year award. Emmett Stinson’s collection, Known Unknowns, was a favourite among the lit crowd and was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Fiction award for short fiction.
Leah Swann’s Bearings comprised a novella and short stories, and the series is completed this week with Irma’s Gold Two Steps Forward, which we hope will be as well received as its forerunners. The most remarkable thing about Leah and Irma was that the material they wrote specifically for Long Story Shorts sparkled. Clearly, when the authors stopped questioning themselves, second-guessing every decision – and just flipping got on with it – they found their voice and their unique style emerged. This was the case with Leah’s novella, which she wrote to meet in a few days to meet our deadline. Amanda Lohrey described it as ‘masterly’.
That in a nutshell was the value of Long Story Shorts: to provide an incentive for emerging writers.
Some books have fared better than others in the market, and there has really been no predicting which. Along the way, each has found admirers and been positively reviewed. We took a chance on books that bigger publishers rejected (which must be a familiar story to all indie publishers). It’s true we sometimes published books that nobody else wanted, as Frances O’Brien (aka Robyn Butler) from The Librarians put it at one of our launches – and some of these turned out to be our most successful ventures.
But sales and commerce aside, we knew we’d succeeded by one important measure when in a Sydney Morning Herald review, Kerryn Goldsworthy asked where Affirm Press were getting their fiction writers from because, for the second time in months, she’d been amazed by the quality of a debut short story collection from a previously unknown author.
In an age where short fiction (certainly for the vast majority of new and emerging writers) is widely perceived as unsellable, we went a little way to bucking the trend. While it’s certain you’re more likely to get wrinkles than rich from publishing short fiction, this series has surpassed our expectations and imbued us with enormous excitement and energy. We are now on the lookout for more emerging fiction writers, so hop to it. Submissions are open at www.affirmpress.com.au.
Martin Hughes is publisher at Affirm Press, where Kill Your Darlings editor Rebecca Starford is Associate Publisher responsible for fiction.
The culmination of Long Story Shorts is being celebrated Tuesday, 20 September 6–8pm (tonight!) at Eurotrash and there’ll be ‘mild-mannered malevolence’ from comedian and author Bob Franklin. All welcome.