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Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?

Brian, here’s a question for the small press discussion; What recurring characteristics and factors do you find yourself weighing up when considering whether to publish a collection/ text? What leads up to that decisive moment? Cheers, Stephen J. Clark

11219560_10203828863556682_4593675160824950728_oHi Stephen—At first I thought your question might be a relatively easy one to answer, and on some levels it is: I tend to know what I want to publish, generally. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there was quite a bit of unconscious thought and a few more overt goals that influence my decision-making.

Before we start, I’d like to disclose the fact that the above question comes from Stephen J. Clark, who is not only a fine writer, but also an extraordinary illustrator—you really should check out his work. It’s also worth mentioning that Swan River published Stephen’s The Satyr & Other Tales in 2015, and his artwork adorns the cover of The Green Book 14.

Green Book 14So now your question. Generally I think one of the strengths of small press is the ability to specialise and often take greater risks than mainstream publishers. Notice how with some of the best small presses, you more or less know what you’re going to get—and even if what you get is unexpected, you can still be assured of quality. There are small presses that focus on poetry, contemporary or experimental literature, early twentieth century pulp fiction, or in the case of Swan River Press, the broader genre of supernatural fiction. This is a mode of literature I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I touch on the beginnings of my affection for strange and uncanny in an interview conducted by Jon Mueller in 2017.

It might be obvious, but is probably worth stating, that the best small presses—those that publish books that dazzle and become the most treasured volumes in your collection—are usually driven by passion and a genuine love for what they publish. So on a basic level that decisive moment is when I have that feeling that I want to be a part of this book’s life. (Yes, books—the texts themselves—have lives. They’re conceived, written, and born; they grow through various editions. Some are seemingly immortal, some die quiet and early deaths, while others are resurrected to live their twilight years as our revered elders.)

IMG_2080Probably the best example of this is Swan River’s 2018 edition of The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s novel, at least in our genre, is certainly a revered elder. With Borderland’s reputation already secure, there was probably no good reason for the Swan River Press edition to exist. It’s widely available in myriad cheap editions; hell, you can even read it online for free if you want. But it stands as one of my absolute favourite novels of the weird and cosmic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it—to say nothing of the multiple editions of this book that I’ve collected. My shelves hold a copy of the first UK edition, the Arkham House, not to mention a rake of twentieth century paperbacks. I love The House on the Borderland.

Maybe it was inevitable that the next logical step in my mania was to publish my own edition of The House on the Borderland—and I aimed to produce the best that I could: everyone involved with the Swan River edition has a fascination with and deep passion for the book. And I think the final result exudes this enthusiasm. It’s a book I can be proud of knowing that all contributors channelled as much affection into it as they could.

When it comes to contemporary writers, I’m driven by a similar sense of passion. I admit that I am not generally open for submissions (I don’t think I could handle the deluge—this will definitely be the topic of a future post). But I’m first and foremost a reader, so I have my favourites, people whose stories I enjoy, and with whom I want to work. While I don’t want to single out anyone in particular, all you need to do is have a look at the titles by our contemporary authors and I can, hand on heart, say I put the entirely of my passion behind their work.

Now the problem with passion is, left unchecked and unguided by reality, it can be ruinous. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? So I’ve developed over the years a sort of unofficial mission statement for Swan River Press that guides some of my publishing decisions. And with only a limited number of titles I can produce in a year, this can leave some hopeful writers disappointed (or maybe even feeling locked out of my roster). While the most books I’ve published in a year is eight, I seem to average about six, so let’s use that as our baseline.

21752797_1893374134011115_5541895445579173781_oThere are a handful guides that I employ—often not successfully! But I do usually at least consider them. First, being based in Ireland, I am uniquely positioned to champion Irish fantastical literature. This is my mandate for publishing The Green Book, our twice-yearly non-fiction journal that focuses on writings about Irish Gothic, fantastic and supernatural literature. With two issues of The Green Book per year, that leaves four slots for hardbacks. Not a lot, huh?

The second guide in my mission statement is a reasonable mix of genders. Looking back over my bibliography, this is something at which I’ve failed. Of the 41 hardback books that I’ve published to date (end of 2019), only 10 are authored or edited by women. (Of the six books I have projected for 2020, only one was written by a woman.) I could do better in this area, and it’s something I’m aware of. We fare only slightly better with gender parity in our contemporary anthologies, of which there have been six. Thus far, 38% of contributors identify as women. This will increase overall with the publication of Uncertainties 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis, in early 2020.

IMG_0005Next up, I try for a mix of both reprints of rediscovered writing and publishing work by contemporary authors. Reprints are important because this is how great books are resurrected to find new audiences. Most of my reprints tend to be by Irish writers. For examples, there is Earth-Bound by Dorothy Macardle, The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall, and Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women. I feel all of these are important titles that are more than deserving of a second life. Conversely, it’s the duty of small press (but no less a pleasure) to nurture contemporary writers. Here you’ll find collections by Lynda E. Rucker, Mark Valentine, and Rosalie Parker. These are the people who are pushing supernatural literature into new and exciting places, and it’s the responsibility of Swan River Press to be a venue for this. Given that I can publish on average only four titles per year, I try for one of those to be an anthology of contemporary writing, such as our Uncertainties series. This gives me the opportunity to work with more writers than I would be able to with single-author collections.

IMG_0088Finally, I love a good anniversary—the celebration of works by some of my favourite writers. The aforementioned novel The House on the Borderland was published for the 100th anniversary of William Hope Hodgson’s death. Similarly, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea, one of my favourite ghost stories of all time, celebrated 150 years last October, and so it was too good an opportunity to miss. Anniversary editions are among the trickiest as their publication dates are immutable. These are often the books that barge in and take their place, regardless of anything else. In 2014 we celebrated the 200th birth anniversary of Le Fanu, so that year Swan River published Dreams of Shadow and Smoke (an anthology written in tribute to the Irish gothic author and his work) and Reminiscences of a Bachelor, reprinting Le Fanu lost Gothic novella “The Fatal Bride”, which hadn’t seen the light of day since 1848.


Anyway, there you go. Publishing, for me, is driven by a deep passion for the work, but also guided a handful of professional goals. It’s often a balancing act: what I want to publish versus what I’m capable of publishing. But ultimately, when there’s a text that I come across, and I feel those stirrings of wonder and awe, I usually just know I’ll be publishing or looking for a way to publish it. And yet, despite my ambition, and the many books I would like to publish—I can only manage on average four titles per year (not including The Green Book). With a sense for the workload I can manage, taking on any more than this would result in a loss of quality—and that’s something I’m never willing to sacrifice. In the end, it ain’t easy. But I do my best always.

So I hope that answers your question, Stephen. If you or anyone else has any further questions or thoughts on deciding what to publish, please write in the comments below. I’d also be interested in reading comments from other publishers. How do you decide what to publish?

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here, if you’d like to read it. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!


Our Haunted Year: 2018

2018 Christmas

Running Swan River Press can be a difficult job. The hours are long, usually after returning home from my day job (also weekends), and any financial risks are wholly my own. The victories are incremental, only often partly enjoyed with my attention fixed on what the next challenge might be. That’s why it’s nice to sit down with a cup of coffee, some homemade cranberry bread, and reflect on some of the successes of this past year. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.

IMG_2036The first book of the year was R. B. Russell’s Death Makes Strangers of Us All. I’ve known Ray for a good long time now, and where guidance is concerned, you can’t go wrong taking your cue from Tartarus Press. This is the third book Ray and I have done together. The first two were Ghosts (2012) and The Dark Return of Time (2014). Michael Dirda at the Washington Post seemed to like the book too, commenting that, “The disorienting title story of R. B. Russell’s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All takes us into an ‘unreal city’ straight out of Kafka or Borges.” Not too shabby, huh? You can read more reviews here and an interview with Ray here.

IMG_2079The next book was a long-time in coming: William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. This title is one of the two of which I own excessive multiple editions: the Chapman & Hall, 1908; the Arkham House, 1946; plus innumerable paperbacks, etc. The situation really is ridiculous, folks. I figured the logical next step would be to publish my own edition. And this I did, with my dream line-up consisting of Alan Moore (introduction), Iain Sinclair (afterword), John Coulthart (illustrations), and Jon Mueller (soundtrack) — everyone who participated shares a deep admiration for Hodgson’s masterpiece, which is really the only way to do a project like this one. Apart from some production difficulties (ugh), we produced a beautiful signed edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hodgson’s death at Ypres in late April 1918. Alan declared it the finest edition of The House on the Borderland that had ever been published. Some reviews can be read here, a wonderful discussion between John Coulthart and Jon Mueller is here, and if you want to listen to Jon’s soundtrack (and even buy a digital copy), you can do that here.

IMG_2100Next was up may well be our most unsettling book of the year: Nicholas Royle’s The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories. Apart from his introduction to Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never (2015), this is the first time I’ve worked with Nick. I suffered a few sleepless nights due to him, but sure, it was worth it. The stories evoke the uncanny in the Freudian sense, and that cover by Bill Bulloch is most disturbing. Reviewer Mario Guslandi also liked the book: “Royle’s dark fiction is always worth reading . . . His storytelling is impeccable, his plots always interesting and his characters credible.” If you’re still not convinced, you can read an interview with Nick here. You need a copy if you don’t have one already.

IMG_20180620_162604_437Shortly after The Dummy, we published Rosalie Parker’s Sparks from the Fire. This book was special not only because I got to work with Rosalie again, but also because Rosalie’s collection The Old Knowledge (2010) was the very first hardback book we published, ushering Swan River into a new era. Publishers Weekly gave a favourable review to what is one of our most popular books of the year: “[Parker’s] treatment of the fantastic is often so light and ambiguous that stories in which it does manifest are of a piece with tales such as ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Job Start’, sensitive character sketches whose celebration of life’s unforeseen surprises will appeal to fantasy fans as much as the book’s more overtly uncanny tales. Parker proves herself a subtle and versatile writer.” Naturally, I think you should buy a copy. Here’s an interview with Rosalie conducted by Jason E. Rolfe and some more reviews.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeAnd then there’s Uncertainties 3. I edited the first two volumes in 2016. This year, to keep things fresh, I handed the reins over to Lynda E. Rucker, whose collection You’ll Know When You Get There (2016) I hope you’ve already enjoyed. Lynda did a superb job in selecting stories, showing the broad range of what supernatural literature in all its guises can do. Do take a peek at the line-up! In addition to some great reviews, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, “Among the most memorable books I’ve read this year are [ . . . ] several slender, elegantly designed collections of short stories of the uncanny (Uncertainties Vol. 1, 2, 3) published by Swan River Press.” Okay, so she has a story in the anthology too, but still! In addition to all that, Robert Shearman’s “Bobbo”, Lisa Tuttle’s “Voices in the Night”, and Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “The Golden Hour” were chosen for Best British Horror 2019! I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to Timothy J. Jarvis’s turn as editor for Uncertainties 4 next year.

47575930_571374369993353_4001565216583188480_nThen there are issues 11 and 12 of The Green Book, the former of which was excessively late this year. I apologise. Anyway, issue 11 boasts cover art by none other than Mike Mignola. This marks the second time we’ve worked with Mike — anyone remember the first? Issue 11 features articles on Lord Dunsany, plus the first serialised entries from A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction, a long-term project I’m working on with Jim Rockhill. Issue 12 features more entries from the Guide, and our issues for 2019 will continue with these. The project has has proved an extremely enlightening one. I’m learning loads and my reading list has grown like you wouldn’t believe. Intrigued? Stay tuned.

dublin logo final copyThe reason The Green Book 11 was delayed for so long turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the year for me. The second Dublin Ghost Story Festival took place in late June. As in 2016, the festival sold out long before this intimate event and proved to be just as enjoyble as its predecessor. The guest of honour was Joyce Carol Oates (!!), and the opening night’s entertainment was provided by the great Reggie Oliver, who is surely one of the finest writers of the supernatural tale. Other guests included Helen Grant, Andrew Michael Hurley, V. H. Leslie, Rosalie Parker, Nicholas Royle, R. B. Russell, and Lisa Tuttle, each of whom brought with them their passion for the genre. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better believe we indulged the entire weekend in all things ghostly and strange, with discussions, readings, signings, and a trade hall that could easily claim the entire contents of your bank account. There are some photos over on Facebook. So will there be another Dublin Ghost Story Festival? I’d love to know the answer to that too!

37710479_2143309032570526_903951175399768064_nSure, running Swan River Press isn’t always easy, but looking back over the year I can clearly see the late nights and hard work were worth it. Thank you again to those who have shown Swan River support through this past year. I raise my glass to everyone who read our books and shared them with friends, wrote reviews, attended the festival, supported us through patronage, or sent correspondence and kind words. And a special thanks as always to the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill. They put in loads of work, and it’s due to their expertise that our books always look their best.

Oh! Before I forget, because I completely missed it during the year, October was our fifteenth anniversary — our first publication, a chapbook entitled “The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man”, first saw print in 2003. I’m working on a bibliography, Fifteen Years of Swan River Press, which I’ll try to issue as soon as I can.

I promise you I’ve got a full publishing schedule ready to go for next year. Some titles I’m particularly excited about, so make sure you’re on our mailing list. It’s the best way to get the jump on all things Swan River. You can also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I look forward to hearing from you all again soon.



Coulthart and Mueller on the Borderland

BorderlandConducted by Brian J. Showers, © April 2018

For Swan River’s new edition of The House on the Borderland (with a new introduction by Alan Moore and an afterword by Iain Sinclair), artist John Coulthart contributed ten illustrations, while musician Jon Mueller recorded a three-track album especially for issue with the book. Publisher Brian J. Showers discusses with the pair William Hope Hodgson, his classic novel, and its influence on their work.

Brian J. Showers: Do you recall the first time you read William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland?

John Coulthart: Yes, I was about twenty at the time. I’d been reading ghost and horror stories from the age of ten but it took me a while to get round to Hodgson after being alerted by Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. The first copy I found was the notoriously disgraceful 1977 paperback from Manor Books, the cover of which is still the worst of all the House on the Borderland covers. The quote from Lovecraft has his name printed at a much larger size than Hodgson’s; the house is a typical American farm in a dustbowl landscape, while the foreground of the cover painting is occupied by a preposterous corncob. If I hadn’t been so eager to read the book I would have refused to pay the mere 25p it was selling for. I was further aggrieved when I found the 1972 Panther edition (with excellent cover art by Ian Miller) to discover that Manor Books had omitted the opening poem and some of the novel’s other front matter. An inauspicious introduction.

1977 Manor BooksJon Mueller: I only just discovered the book within the last four years or so. I stumbled upon a mention of Hodgson in an article, and was surprised I had never heard of him. The article suggested that The House on the Borderland was his best work, so I figured I’d start there. I couldn’t help but see the similarity between the two men in the story, discovering the central character’s journal, and my discovery of Hodgson’s book. Both seemingly random, yet somehow fated. From there, this realisation grew to surreal heights as I too got lost in the nightmarish (not just descriptively, but literally) world of its story. Like the two men in the book, it consumed me. I wondered about the central character, his dog, the beasts, and what was happening as the universe seemed to implode within the house, and even within them. I walked away from the end of the book feeling like I was really woken from reality. That a whole other layer of existence was all around me. John, do you remember what your initial takeaway was?

Coulthart: Now that the book is so familiar it’s difficult for me to recall an initial impression other than one of surprise at the sudden change of tone halfway through. Any book that begins with a kind of adventure narrative — even one involving monstrous entities — can be relied upon to develop fairly predictably but that’s not what we find here. I was also impressed by the lack of resolution or tidy explanation, an unusual thing in genre novels even today. The inexplicabilities at the heart of the novel are a persistent attraction.

1969 Panther HorrorShowers: When I first read The House on the Borderland, I was floored by the sense of cosmic wonder that it elicited from me. Some readers have observed the book is clunky in its construction, the less sympathetic have gone so far as to call it naive. But for many readers it undoubtedly holds real and inexplicable power. What do you think those inexplicabilities are?

Mueller: I think the natural reaction is to try to make sense, or understand, or know. But we can’t. We’re given many details, but what they lead to, if anything, is something we struggle with in general. That being said, there’s no hint with a book like this that we have a chance of knowing. In fact, it builds an empire of not-understanding, but within that not-understanding, an odd feeling like we’re there, within it occurs. That is a peculiar situation for a human being and I think that’s why it’s so alluring.

Coulthart: You could write a long list of the questions the book presents, beginning with the House itself and its connection to other dimensions. Then there’s the Recluse’s relationship with his sister, the nature of the Swine-things, whether the visions are real (as in genuine views across time and space) or hallucinations/dreams, and so on. Inexplicabilities such as this stimulate the mind because of the gaps they create, gaps which are then filled (successfully or not) by the reader’s imagination. Whether Hodgson’s inexplicabilities are a result of inexperience or design is of no consequence, it’s how they affect the reader that matters. People who complain about such things don’t seem to realise that filling in the gaps and providing explanation destroys the frisson of the weird tale. Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti deal with similar disjunctions in their own work. If you want “well-constructed stories that make sense” there are thousands of examples elsewhere; many of those polished and coherent tales were being written by Hodgson’s contemporaries, none of whom are remembered or read today.

Showers: How did you each approach or engage with Hodgson’s text with regard to your own creative contributions — John’s illustrations and Jon’s soundtrack — for this edition? Did you take inspiration from any other sources?

IMG_0291Mueller: I was following through on some existing approaches I had been working with but tried framing them within the context of particular sections of the book — the emotional energy it expressed, the tension building and seeking catharsis, but also the moments of surreal calm, which of course get interrupted by more chaos. I bookended the work with dense gong sounds to represent the complex detail with no definition or resolution, as we’ve been discussing here. Like asking, “What do you expect here? What’s in it for you? What sense can you make of all this?”

Coulthart: I think I paid closer attention to the details than I had done in the past. If you’re illustrating a story in a fairly realistic manner then you’re forced to address certain questions of appearance that might otherwise remain unresolved while you’re reading. So the Recluse describes himself as an old man, and yet (as I think Iain Sinclair notes) he’s very active in the earlier chapters. There’s a couple of slight nods to other artists: I’ve always liked Jack Gaughan’s cover for the Ace paperback so the House in the Arena is reminiscent of his painting. And the figure floating in a fiery nimbus is a nod to Philippe Druillet who does this in some of his Lone Sloane comic strips. It only occurred to me later that Druillet was also one of the first French artists (possibly the first) to illustrate Hodgson in 1971; looking at his drawings it turns out that he had his Recluse floating through a landscape in a similar fiery nimbus.

HotB0Showers: Do you have any other thoughts on The House on the Borderland or William Hope Hodgson that you’d like to add?

Mueller: I’m fascinated by Hodgson’s personal life and how his literature came out of it. How the isolation of the sea, his hatred of it, and the torment by other sailors he experienced perhaps brought about his aim for revenge against forces that seemed to outnumber him. I admire how he potentially translated some of his many struggles with these forces into creative endeavours. I think that’s why The House on the Borderland has no resolve. These forces never really die. They just change form.

Coulthart: It’s tempting to wonder what he might have done had he survived the war, but then he wouldn’t have been William Hope Hodgson if he hadn’t also insisted on returning to the Front after having been wounded. The men of action in his novels and stories are all personae of the author, the Recluse included. Even if he had have lived twenty or thirty years more I doubt we’d have anything else like The House on the Borderland, it’s sui generis.

Buy Swan River Press’s The House on the Borderland here.

Listen to Jon Mueller’s soundtrack here.

Jon Mueller is a Wisconsin-based artist whose aim has been to use drums, percussion and sound as a way to express something felt but not easily defined. More about his work, performances and recordings can be found at

John Coulthart is a World Fantasy Award-winning artist, designer and writer. His illustration and design work has been exhibited worldwide, and includes commissions for Abrams, Angry Robot, Granta, Harper Collins, Savoy Books, Tachyon, and many others.