Dostoyevsky Wannabe: Editor interview

An interview with Victoria Brown by Eleanor Beal

Victoria Brown, co-founder and manager of independent press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, gives an interview on the press for E:SF Online.

Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us how you became involved in publishing?

 Ok, my name is Victoria Brown and I’m one half (with Richard Brammer) of Dostoyevsky Wannabe. We got involved in publishing around five or six years ago when we founded the press. We had been involved in design prior to being involved in publishing and we started a zero-budget press because we wanted to design books and release the work of writers who we liked. We did it as a zero-budget affair because we didn’t have any money to start such a business, but what we did have was our own design and typography skills and we could offer for free so by using print on-demand technology we were able to start publishing, and that’s what we still do.

Please describe the overall vision for your press, how is it different from other independent presses?

At first, the press was more of an experiment with design. We were interested in the classic Penguin and Pelican books from the 1960s-1980s particularly because the books were released at such a fast-pace and even sometimes had little mistakes, which (for us) added to the charm of them. We were interested in that whole commercial excess despite being not all that commercial ourselves. Similarly, we also had quite typical 90s designer obsessions like Library music record covers which seemed to have the same quickly thrown together charm, but despite that still looked great. Both the Penguin and Pelican imprints and the Library music covers have a sort of collectable feel about them, and this was perhaps our first interest ahead of the writing inside, I’m afraid. We wanted to design a similar collectible set, the writing inside became an added bonus as, at first, we didn’t know who might want to publish with us given our idiosyncratic set up. Overall our vision is still one of design first, whether that be the design of the different publishing models work or the design of the books.

You work with different publishing models and imprints; can you explain how that works?

Yes, print on demand was the only way we could make Dostoyevsky Wannabe work as two working-class people with day-jobs and no extra money, so it became less of a business and more of an indulgence of our own interests and a place for new writing to come through. We have tended to create different imprints to do different things but by and large the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals has mostly taken precedence. In the first five years, we aimed to work with as many writers as possible by publishing a lot of anthologies. These were guest-edited by different people as we are weaker on the editorial side than we are with design, happily most of our guest-editors are very good editors. We don’t at all regret doing so many anthologies, but they do take a lot of time and we were trying to put out as much material as we could. In the first few years, we did overstretch ourselves, so we’ll be doing fewer in future. In fact, we will be doing fewer books all round starting this year.

What is the collaborative process between yourselves and your authors?

As I say, we are moving towards doing fewer books, but you’ll still see plenty from us, at least as many as most other small press publishers put out per year. Most, not all, small presses outsource the typesetting and cover design but we do it ourselves, which is where most of our time is spent. Therefore, we collaborate with authors in those areas rather than being ‘editors’ of the work and, I think, that is not typical for many small-presses who have to be all-rounders but who, arguably, often have backgrounds in editing. Your earlier question about our publishing models is applicable here actually. Our anthologies were largely what we termed open source-like and so it was a lot of collaborative effort and the books were priced at a very low price so nobody made any money but a lot of work was published that way. For single authors, our Option 1 method of publishing meant that the authors would receive all royalties due from the print on demand service and we received nothing. The Option 2 model is reversed where the author decided to take nothing and donate the royalties to us. We let the author make this decision at the time of publication, it was completely up to them. In either case, we took no control of the copyright from the author. Now we are experimenting with a tailored approach where some newer books are sold at a more usual price and we split any resulting profits 50-50 with the author. In this case, we take the copyright for a period of two years and it can revert to the author after that time, should they want it to. We just like to design different ways of working with authors in this way and different ways of publishing. Suffice to say this would NOT be a sensible way to run a publishing business in terms of making it profitable.

What generally inspires your interest and what do you look for in a manuscript?

We’re horribly subjective in this sense and we have no real ideas of ourselves as people who can spot quality as we believe many different types of manuscripts have many different kinds of qualities and a publisher tends to, at least partially, run manuscripts through whatever their motives may be. Whether they think the book will sell is one obvious consideration as they are taking the risk in laying out money for the print run(s) of course. This isn’t a consideration that we have had to think too much about due to our different publishing models so in some ways we’ve been freer to be more subjective. That said, some of our books have sold phenomenally well and gained a lot of attention (books by Isabel Waidner in particular), others have done respectably, and a few haven’t hit the mark for whatever reason. We have worked with authors who are quite established and also first-time authors. Our biggest seller was actually a first-time author.

Who/what influences you and how has that shaped the trajectory of the press?

As we’ve perhaps eluded to already, design is perhaps our biggest influence. Quite a wide sense of design that is perhaps more akin to Herbert Simon’s idea of design as being, ‘anything artificial that is created by humans’, including tangible products but also quite intangible things. DIY culture was an early influence, as were penniless record labels of the 1980s-90s, and we continue to want to do everything ourselves but as time has gone on everything from more classical typographical conventions to, perhaps surprisingly, computer programming has crept in as an influence in odd ways (the latter arising from deciding to write the code for our own website etc).

Tell us about the publishing process, what are the toughest/most pleasurable aspects for you?

The toughest for us is the lack of time that we’ve left for ourselves and perhaps the fact that we had that habit of taking on so many books exacerbated this. So, this is a problem entirely of our own making. It’s also tough for us if a first-time author perhaps doesn’t quite get the sales that they might wish to get and the fact that we can’t help them with that in more of a proactive way. We’re upfront about how we can only really promote Dostoyevsky Wannabe and they will have to promote their book and whilst some are very energetic and good at that, others may be less willing to push their book and sometimes that can be down to temperament. Plenty of writers might not find marketing the most enjoyable thing in the world and we totally understand that. The most pleasurable aspect is perhaps when we occasionally get a glimpse of how far around the world the books have travelled. Naturally enough, a book doing really well and being nominated for prizes and inspiring other writers is hard to beat too.

The recent pandemic has had a profound impact on many businesses, including independent presses. What ways has it impacted your press and how have you adapted to the current times?

At first, we did attempt to put a few eBooks out, but we didn’t have a lot of time. In terms of loss of revenue, well we tend not to be a profitable press anyway and have never been able to live off Dostoyevsky Wannabe so that wasn’t so much of an issue. Otherwise, we’ve been lucky in that we’ve been able to work from home throughout the lockdown. The main impact for us as a publisher is the way in which our schedule has been thrown out both at our end but also from the author’s perspective and that will be a bit of a tricky one to manage. Some things will be delayed, others on time. So that’s a bit confusing but mostly we consider ourselves quite lucky in relation to the pandemic.

What does it feel like when a book you have worked on and edited is published? Does it feel like your project?

Not really. The design bit feels like our project but given how we cannot afford to get into lots of edits with authors then we very much hope that it feels like the author’s project and that, overall, in that way, it feels like an equal collaboration. Lots of the writers who we have worked with have been proactive in organising their own launches and they’re much better at that kind of thing than we are. We’re both content to stay in the background. Many of the writers who we have worked with are good at getting on stage and doing readings and generally being able to do all of that type of thing.

What publishing projects are you currently working on and what would you like to work on in the future?

It’s been really weird for us to have a slower pace this year, but it’s been very welcome and it has left us somewhat refreshed if still battling the book schedule. Our next book is The Weird Folds, an anthropocene poetry anthology that is edited by Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams with a foreword by Timothy Morton and we’re very excited about that one as it’s nearly complete and will be out in October. Beyond that we have a collection of Andrew Gallix’s (3:AM magazine) collected journalism. Also Jane Goldman’s book of poetry, Sekxphrastics  and Dominic Jaeckle’s 36 Exposures (with photographs by Hoagy Houghton). Next year kicks off with a whole host of books from Glasgow including Ruthie Kennedy and Colin Herd’s guest-edited Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities book which collects pieces of collaborative work from a number of Glasgow-based writers. Also, there are single-authored books from the same city courtesy of Nicky Melville and Katherine Sowerby. Much of this Glasgow connection comes from Maria Sledmere’s stint as Dostoyevsky Wannabe editor, a role that she was far better at than we are (see the amazing Spam Zine and Press, edited by Maria and company, for more evidence of this). We’re also really pleased to have a second book from Nadia de Vries having previously published her first collection of poetry a few years ago. So, all in all, our schedule is shaping up nicely.