When I began The Mookse and the Gripes in 2008, one of the blogs I looked to for inspiration and enjoyment was Rob Redman’s The Fiction Desk. At the time, besides covering fiction, Rob’s blog offered editorial services to writers. Then, in 2010, Rob shifted gears a bit by venturing into publishing, relaunching The Fiction Desk as a publisher of new short fiction from around the English-speaking world (and soon the non-English-speaking world too!).
I myself think that working to publish and promote short fiction is an awesome thing, and I admire Rob’s courage and passion as well as the results. So far The Fiction Desk has published three anthologies: Various Authors, All These Little Worlds, and The Maginot Line. You can subscribe to The Fiction Desk at its website here, or you can purchase the volumes on Amazon (though in the United States only in e-format), the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), or from The Fiction Desk itself (which also offers free worldwide shipping).
I have been meaning to ask Rob some questions about his work at The Fiction Desk.
Q. Rob, in this day and age, why did you decide to start a literary magazine?
It sounds corny, but I started it because I wanted to read it! Like a lot of readers, I’ve tended in the past to neglect short stories, and at least in the UK, they’re often treated as the hair shirt of the literary world: dry exercises in craft sandwiched between self-indulgent non-fiction and poems about twigs in winter. They’re often surrounded by advertisements for writing courses and other authors’ services, which I think risks sending a message that short stories are only of professional or academic interest, and you can see why a lot of readers have come to assume that they won’t have a good time with short fiction. On the other hand, short stories seem to get a better ride in genre publishing, where there’s a huge energy and will to entertain. I wanted something that had some of that energy of genre publishing, but applied to general fiction. For the same reason, I also decided not to carry any advertisements or have any non-fiction in there, and to make our publications feel very much like books rather than magazines: it’s just new short fiction, in a pure and hopefully entertaining form.
Q. I know what you mean about the short story. Through no fault of its own, the short story isn’t widely read or appreciated, and I’ve heard it said this is particularly the case in Great Britain, where you’re based. Why did you decide that The Fiction Desk would focus exclusively on short stories?
I wanted to work with a good range of authors and stories, and with limited resources, short stories are the obvious way to do that. As a new publisher you also have a responsibility towards your authors: if I publish a selection of short stories from different authors, and it falls flat, the authors get their rights back in a few months, and there’s no real harm done. (Our subscribers also give us the security that the anthologies will never really fall flat, so I can be sure that the stories I publish will find an audience.)
If I, as a brand new publisher, had taken novels that authors had spent maybe years over, bought the rights, and then tried to market them with no marketing experience or real resources behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to do justice to the authors’ work and it wouldn’t have been fair on them. As The Fiction Desk grows in experience and readership, we’re getting gradually closer to the point where we can look at publishing some longer fiction as well, but it wasn’t the best way to start.
Q. It seems, then, that practical concerns, at least partly, have directed you to short stories. How has your relationship to the short story gone up or down as you’ve read so much for these anthologies? As a snarky follow-up from a short fiction fan: In other words, do you look forward to the day when you can throw practical concerns out the window and focus on longer fiction or do you see yourself as continuing to give short stories another avenue through The Fiction Desk?
The practical concerns were really only a relatively small part of the decision to focus on short stories, so the short fiction fan can rest easy! It would be interesting to add other projects as time goes on, but the anthology series is and I think always will be the core of The Fiction Desk. It’s far too exciting to work on to ever let it get neglected.
Q. What would you say is the “style” of the short fiction you publish?
That’s quite hard to put my finger on. You’ve read the anthologies: you tell me!
Q. Fair point. Your anthologies show a range of events, characters, and styles that makes it difficult to pin down anything too particular. Having read three of your anthologies, though, I believe that if I read a piece of short fiction somewhere I might (only might) be able to tell if it was a good fit for The Fiction Desk. If forced to say why I’d say that the fiction you publish moves away from showy style and metafiction and concerns itself primarily with people who seem to be your average folks from the street. The language, appropriately, matches that tone. That’s not to say what happens to these characters is average or that, in the end, they turn out to be average. Now I’m seeing exceptions even to all that I just said. But in general am I being fair or am I way off?
I think that’s very fair. Showy style and metafiction tend to leave me a little cold these days, and contribute to the problem I mentioned earlier, where short fiction can be seen as inward looking and interested only in the craft, rather than as an engaging way of dealing with the world in general. (It’s not always that simple, of course, but it often is.) On the other hand, I don’t want the anthologies to get too narrow in focus, so I try to regularly step outside my comfort zone and keep things interesting. In a sense, I think the selection reflects the behaviour of a real reader: there’s a certain preferred style, but it does move around and outside it from time to time, when there’s something suitably tempting.
Q. When publishing these anthologies became more than just a thought, how did you get started? How did you get the word out for submissions? How did you figure out how to publish a book? How did you get people to buy that book?
Having a blog really helped, as I already had a network and an audience. Social media is great, but you have to focus on what works for you: I actually deleted our Facebook account, because I dislike Facebook, and so wasn’t engaging with it. Twitter’s been great, though. We’ve also been lucky enough to get some fantastic bookshops on board: The London Review Bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and The Martello Bookshop in Rye have all been wonderful.
As for the publishing process itself, I’d worked on bits and pieces in the past, so I had a fairly good sense of what I was doing. And I’d spent a couple of years looking into and researching options before I actually decided to go ahead.
Q. About how many submissions do you receive, and what is your selection process?
We get around 500 submissions a month, but we’re always looking to push that up. Unlike many publications, I try to source the majority of what we publish from our unsolicited submissions, because that’s where a lot of the most exciting and fresh stories actually are. It takes a lot of work to sort through, but it’s rewarding and it’s democratic: we publish some very good stories through contacts or scouting, but whoever you are, and wherever you are, if you write the right kind of story, you stand a fair chance of getting accepted by us. As an independent publisher, I have a responsibility to offer opportunities to new writers, and I take that very seriously.
As for the selection process, I go a lot on instinct. I do all of the selection myself, as it’s such an important part of the process. I can never quite understand how so many editors can trust interns or volunteers to go through their submissions for them, although of course it’s very time-consuming. In the first place, I’m looking to be grabbed. Short stories have a lot of competition for readers’ time, both in terms of literature and the wider world, and so I need stories that people aren’t going to be able to put down. Resonance is important too, and more than once I’ve plucked a story out of the ‘to reject’ pile because I’ve found myself thinking about the characters for days after reading it. (I have a ‘to reject’ cooldown pile for exactly that reason.)
The only real answer to this is that I’d like them to know what we publish. There are a lot of online conversations, interviews, and so on where editors try to communicate what they’re looking for, but the only real way to know what a publication wants is to read it. There’s no substitute for that. In an ideal world, every potential contributor would read at least one of our anthologies before submitting, whether bought new, bought secondhand, borrowed from a friend, or ordered through a library. When we launched, I gave away 500 copies of Various Authors to creative writing schools around the country, in order to encourage submissions and really get across what we were looking for.
Q. What is your editorial process or methodology?
There will usually be a copy edit, which I’ll return to the author for approval, then I’ll do the typesetting, proof it twice myself and then send it to the author for final approval. (Proofing is the hardest part of being essentially a one-man operation. You can learn to typeset, you can learn to build a website and code an epub file, but it’s very hard to learn to proof a text that you’ve already read and edited multiple times.)
Q. What is the best part of running The Fiction Desk?
It’s the writers. Half of my job is to give our readers a book they’ll enjoy; the other half is to give our writers a publication they’ll be proud of. There’s nothing better than an email from a contributor telling me they’ve received their copies and they’re happy with the result. Sometimes I’ll look at our anthologies and hardly believe that I’ve had the privilege of working with such talented people.
Q. What is the worst part of running the Fiction Desk?
It’s the writers. We get a lot of submissions from people who don’t format their manuscripts properly, don’t bother to read our submission guidelines, don’t bother to take a few minutes to browse our site and see the kind of thing we publish, let alone read a copy. It’s frustrating because I know how much they’ve invested emotionally in their writing, and how much time, and how important it is to them, and I hate to see them let themselves down like that. People interested in submitting to The Fiction Desk can read our submission guidelines here.
Q. Please tell us about how you stumbled on to a few of the stories you’ve published. What is it like to find one you’re excited to publish?
I met Jason Atkinson several years ago in Rome, and he immediately struck me as somebody who would be a good writer. That occasionally happens: you’ll be talking to somebody and have the strong sense that they’ll be able to write. It’s nothing to do with how they talk about writing, but how they talk about the things they’ve seen and done and they way they’ve considered them. It’s about observation. I pressed Jason for some stories and was excited with the result. At first glance his stories (‘Assassination Scene’ in Various Authors and ‘Get on Green’ in All These Little Worlds) have that kind of detached, sardonic tone that’s superficially typical of a certain type of contemporary writer, but beneath that there’s a raw sensitivity that’s really refreshing.
One submission that really struck me was James Benmore’s ’Jaggers & Crown’, which appeared in The Maginot Line. It was such a wonderful, solid performance from beginning to end, and really exciting to publish. James has a novel coming out next year, the first of two about the Artful Dodger.
I also love effective genre crossovers: Mandy Taggart’s ‘Man of the House’ gave me a chance to publish a ghost story, and a good one at that, and I was really excited to have the chance to publish writers like Charles Lambert and Mischa Hiller, whose work I’d enjoyed before becoming a publisher. (Mischa Hiller’s novel Shake Off is just waiting for somebody to turn it into a new British thriller. There’s a touch of Hitchcock to it.)
I’ve been excited in one way or another by every story I’ve published, and that’s why I’ve published them.
Q. In your introduction to The Maginot Line I really enjoyed your discussion about how you designed your covers (readers, check out an extended an illustrated version of this introduction on The Fiction Desk blog here). What does the rest of your production process entail?
As I suspect is the case with most indie publications, I do everything ‘in-house’, from editing the stories to coding the ebooks. I’m not actually a huge fan of reading ebooks myself, and I always find it slightly odd that I can create an ebook but can’t bring myself to read one. I choose Goudy Old Style as our main font (almost everything is in it), because I think it reinforces our values of traditional storytelling. It’s also very pretty, if a slightly controversial choice for book text. The physical aspect of the books was probably the thing I was most nervous about when we started, as I had experience of editorial work, but of course production and design are completely separate, very specialised fields. I would still never hold myself up as any kind of book designer, but I think I’m getting away with it within our titles, and of course constantly trying to refine that aspect of our publications.
I didn’t think about it when I launched, but looking back I realised that I’ve always had an interest in the process of putting a publication together. When I was a boy I used to produce handwritten magazines for the neighbourhood. At one point I rearranged my entire bedroom into a magazine office, which was actually much better equipped (for the time) than what I have now with The Fiction Desk. My grandmother edited the bulletin for her air sports association, and she taught me a lot about how these things are put together, although back then it involved a great deal of Letraset and glue.
Q. Perhaps that craftiness goes beyond you book design. In your latest volume, The Maginot Line, the organization of the stories seemed to be deliberate. For example, I think reading “Man of the House” right after “The Maginot Line” makes “Man of the House” even more surprising as we pick up on similarities between the two only to have those similarities subverted in a very interesting way. Was this intentional? In general, how do you go about organizing each volume?
Firstly, there’s an overall rhythm to take into account: the stronger stories and the more downbeat ones, the longer and the shorter. A really long story can stop a reader in their tracks, so you have to be careful how you place them. Then you have to think about the psychological journey the reader takes through the book: let’s say you have a dark story with a shattering ending. Sometimes, a light fun story will follow that very well. Other times, it will be hard for the reader to concentrate on the fun because their mind has been left in another place by the darkness of the previous story. It’s not fair on a story to present it in a place where the reader will be in the mood for something else, so you have to coax people between stories. The two stories you mention were a particularly good opportunity to do something interesting with that. The brief introductions to each story can also be a handy way to adjust a reader’s expectations and frame of mind between pieces.
Q. With three volumes out of the way, what have you learned that you wish you’d known before volume 1?
It’s rather dull, but I wish I’d known that Royal Mail was going to massively increase its prices for postage and services between 2010 and 2012. That caused me — and every other small business in the country — a few headaches.
Q. When can we look forward to volume 4 (and can you offer any clues about its cover and contents)?
Volume 4 is well on the way; I’d like to see it out within the next month or so. Although we’re ostensibly a quarterly, the gap between volumes is still a little longer than that, and the hold-up is always down to the challenge of finding the right stories. I believe our subscribers would rather wait for a solid volume than get a mediocre one to deadline, but hopefully as word of what we’re doing reaches more writers, we’ll be able to pick up the pace a little.
The next volume will also feature our first translated story. I don’t publish much in the way of translated fiction because I like to work directly with the author on the text, which isn’t practical over a language barrier. But I couldn’t turn down this one.
Exciting news! Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your work, Rob. We look forward to hearing more about the new volume when it gets closer to publication — and, of course, to reading it when it arrives!
You’re welcome! Thank you for inviting me.