F i ve years ago, Sofia Samatar, then an unpublished novelist without an agent, trekked from her home in California to WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention held annually in Madison, Wis. Amid the jumble of attendees and vendors was Gavin Grant, the publisher of Small Beer Press that he runs from Easthampton with his wife, the writer Kelly Link.
“I was a fan of Kelly’s — that’s how I found out about Small Beer Press,” Samatar recalled recently. Link, who has written four collections of unclassifiable short fiction revered by certain writers and an ever-growing group of dedicated fans, put out her first two books with Small Beer Press; her last, “Get in Trouble,” was published this year by Random House to rapturous reviews.
Link’s work is right in line with the books she publishes. Small Beer Press — the name is a Britishism referring to things of little importance (Grant is Scottish) — produces unusual, genre-defying works that might have trouble finding a home elsewhere. Link and Grant share editorial duties. Link designs book covers. And Grant handles everything else. The books that result might have elements of fantasy, science fiction, or both, but all share a pronounced sensibility shaped by its publishers’ profound and rangy tastes.
Samatar hoped her novel fit the bill. And so, at WisCon, she approached Grant at the Small Beer table. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ve written a novel.’ He did not seem enthusiastic at all, but he said, ‘Send me three chapters,’ and so I did.” In 2013, Small Beer released Samatar’s first novel, “A Stranger in Olondria.” It was hailed as a Proustian ghost story and went on to win both the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award. She is at work on her second book, which the press will publish in 2016.
“Some days I wake up and I’m still amazed that Kelly Link is my editor,” Samatar said.
This is the kind of story that doesn’t happen in publishing very often these days, if at all. Aspiring novelists don’t typically encounter editors out in the world who encourage writers without agents — however mildly — to submit sample chapters for consideration. But Link and Grant enjoy meeting strangers bearing books.
“I love going to Cons,” Grant said. “It’s fun when people come up to you and say, ‘I have a book — do you think it will fit?’ It demystifies things.”
“Science fiction and fantasy readers are really devoted, and they read very broadly,” Link said. “People [at conventions] know us. They ask what we have that’s new this year, what they don’t already own.”
Many readers have trouble remembering the correct title of the book they’ve just read, let alone the entity that published it. But the works Small Beer produces are so unique that they could come from nowhere else, a singularity that fosters the same kind of loyalty music buffs feel toward their favorite record labels.
But then, the couple behind Small Beer are fans themselves. In the 1990s, while working together at the used and rare bookseller Avenue Victor Hugo in its erstwhile location on Newbury Street, they endeavored to discover new speculative, fantasy, and slipstream fiction (which contains elements of both) by starting Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a zine they publish to this day. “The zine isn’t particularly serious business,” Link said. “But if we weren’t doing it, we wouldn’t get to see short stories by new writers.”
They started Small Beer Press in 2000. It was a heady time for genre-defying literature, with authors like Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Jonathan Lethem, and George Saunders who were busy wresting literary fiction from the tyranny of realism. Small Beer fit right in. The press published two titles in its first year of business. One was a chapbook from a writer named Dora Knez who had appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. The other was Link’s 2001 debut, “Stranger Things Happen.”
To their great good fortune, Link’s book sold well for a short story collection, bolstered by a glowing review from Salon.com book critic Laura Miller. At first, Grant held a job at the American Booksellers Association while Link worked as a freelance writer. To make ends meet, Grant and Link have edited anthologies for Candlewick Press and selected fantasy stories for the now-defunct series “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.” Thanks to a growing reputation and breakout titles like a two-volume set of Ursula LeGuin’s selected stories and Naomi Mitchinson’s “Travel Light,” Small Beer Press has always paid its writers and always broken even.
“Good years have carried over bad years,” Grant said. Having offices in Easthampton helps keep down costs, as do modest sales goals. “We don’t have to find as large an audience for our books as bigger houses do,” Link said. “All of the structure, the overhead, isn’t as high.” Still, said Grant, “we’re a for-profit, but when we want to transmute what we make into profit, it doesn’t happen very much.”
Luckily, “The audience for work which has a slipstream, speculative bent has really grown,” Link said. “There are an increasing number of people who really like weird books, and there are more and more weird books being published that aren’t stuck in science fiction or fantasy.” Accordingly, the number of books Small Beer publishes each year has increased. Its current yearly list hovers around six titles. Though this figure is easily dwarfed by the output of many other independent houses, not so the affection for the books it represents including titles published under its imprint for younger readers, Big Mouth House.
“There’s no reason for us to put out books for any other reason but we love them,” Grant said. “If I were a bookseller, I’d hand-sell our books day after day. As a publisher, that doesn’t really work. People say, ‘You published them!’ But that means I love them even more.” Added Link: “We’ve never passed on [publishing] something that we loved because we thought we couldn’t find an audience for it.”
Nicole Kornher-Stace, whose novel “Archivist Wasp” Small Beer will publish this May, is among the direct beneficiaries of their regard. “I wrote a young adult novel that didn’t have a romance. It didn’t have a love triangle. It didn’t have any high school drama,” she said. “Publishers and agents were rejecting me for those specific reasons, but I did not hear one single word [from Small Beer] about those issues. They just didn’t care.”
Another benefit of working with publishers who value taste over marketability? Covers. “One of the best parts about working with Small Beer is that they will never come to me and say, ‘Here’s this cover with your protagonist on the front in a tight dress with her butt sticking out,” Kornher-Stace said. Many larger publishers don’t give their authors any choice in the matter at all.
Small Beer resides in a warehouse-turned-arts space in an Easthampton industrial corridor. Its office has cathedral ceilings and gigantic windows whose light shines upon countless books. Nearly every available surface is covered with stacks of them, even Link’s desk. Since they had their daughter six years ago, she mostly works from home.
Although Small Beer hosts a steady rotation of interns from nearby colleges during the school year and employs, on a per-project basis, a number of remote editors, the office is often empty, save for Grant and, on some afternoons, his child. An old stroller is pulled up to one of the office’s four book-covered desks.
Within this quiet, airy space lies a serious mission, and a seriously weird one at that. “If you talk to writers, they say they’re writing the book they want to read; I think that’s what we’re doing as publishers,” Grant said. “We’re trying to make a space where we can publish interesting books. I want to read the books that crack the world open. By publishing [people like] Sophia Samatar . . . we’re making space for other writers to send us something else weird.”
Eugenia Williamson is a writer living in Somerville.