Kill Your Darlings’ final First Book Club pick for the year is Briohny Doyle’s debut novel The Island Will Sink, a meticulously and cleverly realised post-apocalyptic narrative that deals with questions of technology, memory and the meaning of disaster. The Island Will Sink is also the first book published by The Lifted Brow, an Australian literary magazine that specialises in the provocative, challenging and experimental. I spoke with the Brow’s publisher Sam Cooney about moving from magazine to book publishing, and what made Doyle’s novel the perfect debut.
The first and most obvious question – what made you decide to move The Lifted Brow into book publishing?
Moving into books was something we at TLB always thought might happen, because we like to make things fun and/or difficult, and also it’s something that favourite publications of ours – like n+1, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House, Granta, and HEAT (morphing into Giramondo) – have successfully done, that is, expand into book publishing – but in recent times it became increasingly obviously it was something that we at TLB thought must happen. Long story short, the types of writing we’ve always been publishing in the magazine (and on our website, too): we were not seeing many books being published in Australia of the same ilk. The whys of this are many and I won’t get into them here (basically it’s because of economics, though it’s actually more complex than that); it was increasingly vexing to realise that most of the books that we were engaging with most deeply were books that were from other parts of the world.
The Lifted Brow magazine (and the organisation around it) exists for two main reasons, currently: a) to publish and champion work from those in the margins (be they literary margins, demographic margins, socio-political margins, age margins, viewpoint margins, whatever) because this work at its best is exciting and provocative and unpredictable, and as such is inherently interesting, and incredibly important as part of our cultural landscape; and b) to provide ongoing support and community to these writers and emerging writers more generally, support in the form of professional development (working with editors, becoming better writers through continual publication), in the form of financial support (we pay our writers, albeit not as much as we’d like to), and in the form of morale-boosting, which is hugely necessary in this era of peak capitalism whereby writers are kicked to the curb and systematically rejected in large and small ways.
As anyone who has read our magazine at all would know, we’ve long been interested in publishing and championing writers (and comics makers/visual artists) that we reckon are just the best, most intense, most honest, most diverse, most culturally, socially, politically engaged writers out there, both in their literary aesthetics and in their viewpoints. We have done this because these writers represent the world as we ourselves see it, and so their work jumps out of the page – it is of the world, not just reporting on it. We know these writers are here in Australia, and in much great number than is being represented in the trade book publishing industry. The idea is that TLB can try and fix this a little bit.
Additionally, in Australia, definitely more so than in other Western countries, if a writer wants to have a sustainable and rewarding career in writing, then this person pretty much must eventually get into the book publishing game, for there is so little a chance of a career without doing so, what with the current dire state of longform journalism and literary journals and the like, in terms of financials. Of the writers we believe are mega important to the national and international conversations – if we can help them move from ‘writer’ to ‘author’, then try and sell these books in other territories, and then even if these authors quickly leave us and sign big deals with big publishers, we would be chuffed.
‘It was increasingly vexing to realise that most of the books that we were engaging with… were from other parts of the world.’
Lastly, if TLB as an organisation is to continue to grow towards (financial and creative and professional and emotional) sustainability, then book publishing provides a much more probable avenue to this than the publishing of a single, independent, fiercely anti-capitalist literary journal. (The journal isn’t going anywhere, but it also isn’t going to suddenly boom in some massive way, especially because we aren’t about to change the journal’s content to try and chase readers, for this is the quickest way down the plughole.)
What drew you to The Island Will Sink, and how did you go about securing it? What was it about this novel that made it the one to launch the Brow as book publisher?
This novel by Briohny is not what I imagined would be our first book – but it happened to far and away be the best manuscript we read when we did a call-out to our past and present contributors and writers we love. I envisaged that our first book – and that our list in the short to medium term – would be largely non-fiction, as this is where we saw (and still see) a big gap in the Australian market: for works of lyrical and narrative non-fiction that are experimental in approach or form (think of recent US works like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, et cetera et cetera, and look at many other nonfiction works from publishers like Graywolf, Verso, n+1, Semiotexte, and even McSweeney’s). But the very fact that Briohny’s novel is so exceptional (and reviewers have thankfully agreed), and that it’s been ten years in the making and had a couple of large stumbling blocks during which Briohny almost abandoned it, and also that it is by a longtime contributor to our magazine, means that it’s ultimately a perfect fit for us.
Securing it was both a simple and thorny process.
Simple because Briohny and I are both straight-shooters, so signing her up was a pretty excellent experience: we just laid everything down on the proverbial table, discussing everything we were each thinking for the book and her career, confessing what we did and didn’t know about book publishing, reinventing as much as we wanted what a book contract should look like, and just moving relentlessly forward instead of hovering around doubt.
Thorny because when we were pretty close to putting actual pen to actual contract paper, an established Australian publishing house suddenly professed interest in publishing the novel. This made what was a fun and easy decision for me/TLB into a difficult one, because I had to suddenly think real hard and long about whether TLB was the best press to put the novel out, what with our newness to the whole game. Caring deeply about the novel, and even more so about Briohny’s career, the absolute last thing I wanted was for my ego to get in the way – I didn’t want to ‘win’ the chance to publish the novel and then not do the job it deserved due to our lack of experience and resources. But ultimately, this publishing house had been given plenty of opportunities to secure the novel, and also had demonstrated that perhaps they didn’t understand what it was/what it could be – and I’d obviously made a decent enough case on behalf of TLB, because Briohny decided that TLB was the best home for it.
The concept of a literary magazine branching out into books is not a new one overseas – I’m thinking Granta, McSweeneys, New York Review of Books. Are these the sorts of models you’re looking to emulate with the Brow, and do you think it’s a model that can work in Australia? Or is the local environment and appetite different?
Ah, yep. Like I mentioned earlier, we were and still are looking at these literary magazines-cum-book publishers as models. Indeed, I was lucky enough to be able to visit McSweeney’s in late 2014 due to an Australia Council grant, for the specific purpose of learning how they transitioned into book publishing, and how they maintain such a dynamic model as theirs. And sure, we believe that it’ll work here – not because of them or anybody else who has come before, because a model can’t be copied, especially not with our market over here being different in many key ways, but at the very least their model and others are inspiration of sorts. But what we are trying to do with our move into book publishing is not revolutionary – we are definitely not saying that the Australian book publishing scene is fucked, and we are definitely definitely definitely not saying that we alone could unfuck it if it was.
The Lifted Brow has a reputation for experimentation – both in terms of writing style and in the interaction between image, text and medium itself. How do you see this philosophy transferring into the book publishing arm, and what are the different restrictions and opportunities for experimentation between book and magazine format?
We absolutely want to be as open to experimentation in our books as we are in the magazine – and even more so, in some ways. Obviously the cost of printing factor will often restrict many possibilities about what we might be able to do with a book-as-artifact (though the more I see literary works experimenting with the physical codex itself, the less enamoured I am with it, as at least nine times out of ten it’s just a big old gimmick that tries to hide a lack of meaning), but regarding the text-on-the-page itself (and any interplay with imagery), I am so very receptive.
The Brow has been, to a degree, radically transparent about the forces that go into its construction – where the money goes, and with the new edition, how much labour is expended. Has it been possible to scale these processes up into book publishing, or has a different approach been required?
Yes! The brand new issue of the magazine! It’s been a tough slog, this issue, but the editors and designers have done such an incredible job. Most exciting is that they have included a double-page ledger in the middle of it that details every hour of labour that went into the magazine (from contributors, as well as staff) and every dollar that was invested into it, too. The idea is that it’ll remind/wake readers up to what actually goes into the thing they are holding and reading and hopefully enjoying. But the idea also is for us ourselves to be given an alert (not that we need one, because we are painfully aware always of the reality, but still) that we need to strive to improve, because the magazine even now isn’t a sustainable enterprise, not at all. Having to record all of these hours and dollars for this issue is a great way for us to continue internally having the conversations we need to have as well as pursuing further opportunities we need to pursue.
Regarding the book publishing: that aforementioned Australia Council grant, which helped me (and three other TLB staff) visit McSweeney’s/San Francisco/the USA – a big part of that grant was explicitly for the production of our first book, which was obviously The Island Will Sink. Meaning that a fair chunk of the costs of making a single title (an author advance, editorial costs, proofreading costs, designing costs, printing costs, and so on) were offset in this instance.
Because The Island Will Sink has been so successful (we are into our third print run!), and especially because a big chunk of its costs were covered by that grant, we are going to make a healthy profit on that book, and we are going to invest that profit into the next books we publish. I am now and will be always (as along as authors and whatever other key personnel or groups are involved are okay with us sharing that info, of course) keen to share any and all details about how we publish books, including the ins and outs of costs and revenue, because we simply don’t do things to make money that we want – rather, we find the money to do the things we want to do, and so to hide or obscure how is to obscure the why, and for us the whys are everything.
Where to from here for ‘Lifted Brow Books’?
I’m currently reading pitches and manuscripts and chatting with a handful of authors, and we expect to make a couple of announcements soon. I can tell you that I am trying to keep talking to writers all around the country, in cities and in more remote areas, about books they are writing that I believe more than likely would not be of huge interest to most Australian trade publishers, but that are books that could and should find a healthy audience if we can get them out there.
We’re also planning to publish our second ‘best of’ anthology (here’s the first), as well as a comics/visual ‘best of anthology’, in late 2017.
I am also interested in possibly snagging the ANZ territorial rights to titles both new and old, terrific titles from other parts of the world that a) speak to the same concerns The Lifted Brow has, and/or b) haven’t reached Australian readers in a significant way at all, and/or c) demonstrate to writers here the kinds of work we want to publish, so that they think of us as the best place for their manuscripts, or even before that, feel energised to write these manuscripts.
Alongside the above, I am also interested, in the medium to long term, in a book publishing model that is less lumbersome and cumbersome than most literary trade houses in Australia. Instead of plodding from big book to big book and obeying the apparent rules of the market in which only novels and memoirs and single-author books sell, I’m curious about smaller and more agile publishing, whereby we publish more books more often: compact books like novellas, chapbooks, story collections with just four or five stories, and so on. I visited Singapore recently and hung out with the people at Math Paper Press, a publishing house run by the same people who run celebrated bookstore BooksActually, and was very inspired by the way they make books: very often their books come out of conversations, or reading nights, or by putting a couple of authors together in a room, usually all occurring within the bricks-and-mortar store itself. Lots of small books, published constantly, which speak to the time and space in which the authors and readers live: no one is really doing this here in Australia right now.
The Island Will Sink is available now at Readings.