Surely you've all been anxiously checking my blog, looking forward to that latest issue of Editorial Musings, because it's the middle of the monsth. Well, far be it from me to disappoint. This month's interview will be with Matthew Kressel, the publisher/editor of Sybil's Garage:
- What made you decide to start your own small press magazine in Sybil’s Garage?
It happened slowly. I joined the Altered Fluid (www.alteredfluid.com) writing group in early '03, and Kris Dikeman would often bring in these neat little 'zines like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Electric Velocipede. It was my first real introduction to literary 'zines, and I instantly fell in love with their independent style. I began thinking about what it might take to start my own.
In early '04 I started working at an internet café/print shop in Hoboken, NJ. I taught myself Illustrator and Photoshop and learned the rudiments of graphic design. I experimented, making bookmarks and stickers (when the boss wasn't looking), and I soon realized the print shop was the perfect place to start a magazine. I coerced some friends to send me stories and went to work. I printed the first issue of Sybil's Garage on the internet café's laser printer and stapled it together myself. If you've ever tried to print a double-sided book with a one-sided printer, you know how much fun it can be trying to keeping the pages in order. But, somehow, it all worked out nicely.
I only printed forty copies of the first issue, but I quickly sold them all. Because of its success I decided to do a second issue. I posted an ad on Craigslist.com, soliciting stories from people the NY metro area. Ralan from Ralan.com got word through a friend and asked if I'd like to list Sybil's Garage on his market listing website. I thought I'd be inundated with stories, so I at first I said no. But when I mentioned it to Altered Fluid, several of the members offered to help. Issue two, therefore, was the first issue with people besides my friends in the table of contents.
- I know you have an editorial staff that assists you with the magazine. Can you describe for us how the various responsibilities are doled out, and how you work with the various staff members?
Right now we have seven people reading for Sybil's Garage, including myself. They are Paul Berger, Lauren McLaughlin, Eugene Myers, Devin J. Poore, Mercurio D. Rivera and Greer Woodward. We all met through our writers group, Altered Fluid, and they are all talented writers. I trust their opinions because I've seen how they work, both writing and critiquing stories. They're my "slush" readers, filtering the stories before I see them. But I do my equal share of the slush reading too.
For issues two and three authors emailed us their stories, and I wrote a script to forward the emails round-robin to all the editors. But this got confusing at times, and we lost a few stories to that place where emails go when they die. To alleviate that problem I coded a web-based submissions system for issue four and beyond. The stories still come in round-robin, but now they are stored on a web server. The editors can access the site from any place with internet access (especially from their workplace, where I devilishly take advantage of moments when they should be doing other things). The submissions system allows us to see everyone's reading queues, to comment on the stories, and to forward them to other editors, all in one place. It makes the process of slush reading much more manageable for all.
If the editor likes a story, she forwards it to me. If I'm ambivalent and want another opinion, I'll ask all the editors to read it. In our submissions system, each story has a comment area, its own little blog, and I rely heavily on the comments when making final decisions. An editor from another magazine recently asked me if I'd consider selling my submissions system to, as he put it, "other overloaded editorial operations?" The short answer is yes. Please email if you're interested. J
I've also been picking the editors' brains for the cover of issue four. Getting the cover right is essential. Kris Dikeman and others have been helping me with the graphic design and text layout since issue one, and their help has been invaluable.
- What made you decide to go with a print magazine instead of an e-zine?
A magazine is solid, tangible thing, and I feel immensely satisfied when holding a completed issue in my hands. I enjoy reading fiction online, but if I have a choice, I'd rather read something in print because I'm frequently on the move. I also think, at the risk of sounding corny, that there's something magical about print. I used to work at the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan. For an exhibit they had a display case of small press publications from the early 20th century. I saw an original copy of the first chapter from James Joyce's Ulysses, which was originally released in chapbook form. I have to say, though it had a different color cover, it looked quite similar to Sybil's Garage. That gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. Recently, however, I've been considering publishing some stories online in addition to those in the print magazine.
- What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting his own small press magazine?
First, make sure you have the time. No matter how much time I give myself for Sybil's Garage, it always takes three times that amount. If you list your market on sites like Ralan.com or Duotrope Digest, you'd better make sure you have the time and/or staff to read the stories, because you will be swimming in slush before you know it. If your response times are in the months you'll discourage writers from sending to you. Try to split the reading with several people to reduce your load.
At Sybil's Garage, we try to keep the responses to within 30 days, and frequently we respond within two weeks. We're actually one of the top 25 swiftest responders, according to Duotrope Digest, only three ranks below the lightning-fast John J. Adams of F&SF. [Editorial face blushes.]
Next, make sure you have explicit guidelines. They will help you winnow the stories.
Have a great-looking website. Your web face says everything about your magazine. If your website is ugly, writers will assume you're disorganized and unprofessional.
Decide how much you will pay your writers. Pro rates can be expensive for a small press, but lower rates might discourage authors from submitting. You must strike a balance between what you can afford and what is best for the magazine.
Take a course and learn professional typesetting or have a professional do it for you. Microsoft Word won't cut it for publishing, and nothing ruins a good story better than bad formatting. Currently I use Adobe InDesign CS2 and lots of help from friends.
Because the small press won't have deep pockets, you will need to do everything on a shoestring budget, but without sacrificing quality. Can you coerce an eager group of volunteers to help you? (There are plenty of people out there willing to help.) But beware the "sure-I'll-help" trap that turns into "I'm-too-busy-right-now." Make sure you trust your staff to be available.
Professionalism is a must. Respond to emails within forty-eight hours. Use letterhead when using postal mail and print out address labels even if it takes twice the time. Attention to detail will pay off in the long run as people will see you are serious about your magazine and thus they will take you seriously.
Get your own domain name. Your own domain is much better than some long url that doesn't even mention the name of the magazine and is hosted at your cousin's college url.
Printing will be your most expensive aspect, and in most cases, it's the reason why most start up magazines fail. It's difficult to find printers who will do the small press runs and sometimes odd sizes the small press requires. Call a local graphic artist and pick her brain. Ask her where she does her printing. Check the inside covers of small press magazines you admire; they frequently mention their printer.
Get the word out. Get your friends to blog about the magazine. Submit your magazine to bloggers like "BoingBoing." Go to cons and schmooze, schmooze, schmooze. Ask a dealer at a conference to sell your magazine at her table. Send review copies of your magazine to sites like Emerald City, Tangent Online, IROSF, and other places which review the small press. Convince your friends to hang a banner ad on their websites. Do an ad swap with another publisher. Sell your magazine online on your own website and use resellers like ClarkesWorldBooks.com, ProjectPulp.com, and Shocklines. Accept credit cards with Paypal.
Finally, expect to do most of the work yourself. Expect to be overwhelmed, overloaded, and underappreciated. You do it for the love, right? J
- What sorts of stories would you recommend people to send over to Sybil’s Garage? What would you recommend against?
On our guidelines we say we prefer stories with a "tendency toward the strange." It's interesting to see what that means to different people. Though it hasn't been a conscious decision on my part, I notice we've been printing a lot of stories with a brooding, somewhat surreal quality about them. In general, we like strongly character oriented stories, stories which are emotionally evocative, and stories with a strong speculative element. But we enjoy straight literary fiction as well.
For example, there's nothing speculative about Samantha Henderson's "How I Got Fired From the Best Damn Job in the Whole Wide World," but it still has that other-worldly feel to it. In general, we are open to anything, but if you're in doubt, we always say, send it to us anyway!
- About how many submissions does your magazine receive each month?
For our reading period for issue four, which was four months long, we received 295 stories and about fifty poems, so that's about seventy five stories and twelve poems per month. With each issue the number of submissions has increased dramatically.
- What percentage of submissions is science fiction vs. fantasy vs. horror?
For some reason we see very few science fiction stories, even though we're open to them. I suppose it's because our artwork evokes the imagery of fantasy and horror more so than futurism and technology. This is ironic since a central theme running through each issue is the merger of the old and the new. Line art from the early 20th century sits alongside stories from the early 21st. In the film Blade Runner, though the characters walk in a deeply technological future, the landscape nostalgically reflects the past. You hear pre-war jazz tunes and see automobiles from the 1940s right next to flying cars. I love the juxtaposition of the quaint and the new. By putting in imagery of the past you call attention to the present and the future. It makes you wonder how the future will perceive us. Long story short, I would love to see more science fiction in future issues of Sybil's Garage.
We receive roughly fifty percent fantasy, forty-five percent horror, and five percent science fiction. And for some reason, we receive a lot of dead baby stories, perhaps in response to Yoon Ha Lee's wonderful and creepy "So that Her High-Born Kinsmen Came." However, one dead baby story per issue is usually enough.
- Can you give us an idea of what percentage of science fiction vs. fantasy is being accepted for publication?
As of this writing we have accepted one science fiction story for issue four. We'd certainly like to print more science fiction, but as I said, we received very few SF submissions, and so it was much harder to find one that suited our tastes. The other eight stories contain odd mélanges of horror, fantasy, and literary mainstream. As is often the case with our stories, most straddle several genres at once.
- Personally, I love to blab on and on about my slush discoveries. What about you? Any authors or stories you’ve discovered that you’d like to mention?
One of my all time favorites is Brian Conn's "Six Questions About the Sun." If that story doesn't at least get an honorable mention in one of the 2006 Year's Best, the editors must be smoking crack. Emerald City reviewer, Nic Clarke, said Conn's story is "a gloriously inventive alternate cosmology." We have it free online here:
http://www.sensesfive.com/samples/sixquestions.php, so you can judge for yourself.
Sybil's Garage was the first to publish Lauren McLaughlin, whose fiction has since appeared in Interzone, Salon.com, Year's Best SF 11, and other venues, and she just sold two of her YA novels to a major publisher. We were also the first to publish Mercurio D. Rivera, whose excellent work has been seen in Interzone, Northwest Passages, and in a forthcoming Interzone.
- What is your favorite part about working on Sybil’s Garage?
I love creating something from nothing. Creatio ex nihilo. I get an idea for the issue in my head and slowly watch it come together into a real, tangible thing. It's a small bit of magic. It's also exciting working with extraordinarily talented people, including poets, writers, artists and editors from all over the world.
- When might we expect the next issue of Sybil’s Garage?
Spring 2007, maybe sooner if I'm feeling ambitious.
- What are your pet peeves as an editor?
There are, of course, the usual things: people who ignore guidelines (please don't ever send a manuscript formatted in the "Neon" font), people who reject your rejection letters, people who submit three stories in ten minutes and then ask you to ignore the first two because they "weren't ready yet." But I've come to expect that as part of the game, and I'm cool with a little nonsense as long as that stuff is kept to a minimum. I remember what it was like starting out as a totally clueless writer, so I try to be sensitive to those who stumble along the way. But a word to the wise: sending me a headshot will not alter my opinion of your story. In fact, it might work against you.
- Who are some of your favorite authors, both in and outside of the genre?
In no particular order, and very much incomplete:
Jeffrey Ford, William Gibson, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ursula K. LeGuin, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Kelly Link, Charles Stross, China Miéville, Jorge Luis Borges, Frank Herbert, Ernest Hemmingway, Joyce Carol Oates, John Steinbeck, Milan Kundera, Hideki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Benjamin Rosenbaum, & everyone in Altered Fluid.
- Do you have any additional editorial aspirations?
In the near term I will continue to publish Sybil's Garage, but in the longer term, I plan to publish original novels and anthologies under the Senses Five Press flag. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. I been using the fantastic Small Beer Press and others as our model. We already publish chapbooks, like Kris Dikeman's Seven Things, and we will soon be adding several more to our library. We'll also be publishing a Best of Altered Fluid anthology at some point in the future. In general, I want to expand Senses Five Press into a full publishing house.
- Besides your publishing and editorial duties, you’re also a speculative writer. Do you feel your editorial work has helped you along with your writing, or perhaps vise-versa?
Absolutely. When you're reading a story for a magazine and you ask, "Is this publishable?" your brain switches into a different mode. It's like that optical illusion where two faces suddenly switch into a vase and back again, depending on how you look at it. Before I became an editor, I viewed my work from one point of view. Now, when I switch on my editorial eye, I see it from another. Usually, I can see what isn't working. Maybe the point of view is off or the language is stilted or the plot isn't moving, but I often know right away what it is.
Because of this, I write much slower than I used to. I examine my work with a fine-toothed comb, spending hours to make sure the language flows. In the end, though, I believe my stories are better off for it. What do you think?:
Thanks so much for your time.
Thank you, Doug! It was a pleasure and an honor!