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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An Interview with Swan Isle Press

HFR's tribute to small presses. Check out past interviews here!

What makes your press different from other publishers?

Our books. And with great respect for my colleagues in large houses and small, each publishing house essentially has a unique editorial voice based on its authors and books. Those editorial choices, from content to book design, say something to readers about a publisher’s approach to literature, and express a unique identity. Just one example, that’s the way I feel about New Directions, as a reader. So it may be best to defer this question to our readers. In terms of background, Swan Isle Press is an independent, not-for-profit, literary publisher, with strong academic interests as well. Our resources are modest so we’re only able to publish two, sometimes three titles each year and have tried to create a balanced list of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

As an NFP publisher, the choice to advance a project is often a lengthy and highly deliberative process since virtually of our books are works in translation and all translations are by respected scholars. It’s very tough being only able to publish just a few books each year since we receive many manuscripts worthy of publication. Every project goes through informal peer review with respected authors and academics who help provide editorial perspective. Swan Isle Press began its life almost ten years ago with books of poetry translated from the Spanish. In 2000, works in Spanish by writers from Spain and Latin America were under-represented, and I perceived that there were unmet needs not only for Spanish speaking readers but also for general readers interested in Spanish and Latin American literatures. So, making original contemporary and classic texts more accessible in single language English translations and bilingual editions is very much a part of Swan Isle Press’s mission and identity.

What’s a recent book you’re excited about?

If I may, I’d like to answer in the plural since Swan Isle Press has just released two inspiring new books, Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey, the first major translation of his work from the original Catalan. This collection of short stories is remarkable on many levels, exquisite prose, and each of the stories mysteriously connected, so that the book can be read as discrete short stories but is really novelistic in terms of the narrative. But that’s for readers to discover…But in addition to the short stories in Winter Journey, there’s a fine epilogue by Jaume Cabré, essentially an essay that provides a generous insight into how the stories evolved, were written over a period of years, and I think would be of interest, instructive for writers interested in both the creative and more practical elements of how a work comes into being.

Swan Isle Press also just released a bilingual Spanish/English edition, The Light of Desire/ La luz del deseo. Poet Marjorie Agosín has written an intensely personal long poem that is both a secular and sacred meditation on love and its many layers of meaning. This beautiful love poem was inspired by The Song of Songs. The poem was written over a four-year span at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim which is both a neighborhood in Jerusalem and also home to a fine cultural organization for writers and artists. The poem has been sensitively translated Lori Marie Carlson. The edition also features the images of Chilean painter, Ramón Levil. (Mishkenot Sha’ananim is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, which serves both as a guest house for artists and scholars and as an international cultural centre, which may be of interest to HFR readers, writers, artists.)

What advice do you have for emerging writers looking to be published by a small press?

Whether looking toward a small press or large house: Write. That’s my best advice. Simply write and don’t focus on when or who will publish the work. It’s not even a matter of art for art’s sake, noble as that is. Rather learning and honing the craft of writing and discipline required to better express oneself is a fine objective. Starting a project and finishing it. All too often I receive queries, proposals, but the work is only partially completed and it’s clear that the writer has not fully committed to finishing the work, that the only incentive to do so will come from the outside. Frankly, true writers don’t need much advice or encouragement from me or anyone, they will find a way to write under any circumstances. And read. Writers are always good readers. Classics, contemporary works, anywhere one’s tastes and curiosity lead. In terms of submitting a manuscript, it’s best that the writer is familiar with the books on a publisher’s list. I’ve received some very fine manuscripts that are likely worthy of publication, but simply don’t fit within our current list and mission. Wasted motion for both the writer and the publisher. Small presses are modest operations, certainly in comparison to the larger publishing houses, so working with a small press is a highly personalized experience. In fact, it is more of a collaborative experience that brings together a diverse group of extraordinarily creative and passionate individuals who are committed to doing whatever it takes to bring exciting voices and stories to new readers. Audiences too, because Swan Isle Press reaches out to many communities as part of its mission with author readings at schools, universities, various cultural venues. So perhaps on the most practical level, since many small presses focus on a unique literary genre or niche, authors seeking to be published by small presses (or large) would do well to target those presses whose interests are most closely aligned with their own. When the right match is made, the result can be an amazingly rewarding experience for everyone involved.

What is it about a work that makes you want to publish it?

At Swan Isle Press, above all, the focus is on publishing highly original literature that brings a new voice, a new experience, a new perspective to our readers. Now when I say a new voice, virtually every one of our authors, as well as our translators, have been previously published. But as with many works in translation, an English language edition is the first opportunity for readers to be introduced to an author, and our bilingual editions are often the first time Spanish readers have access to certain works as well that might not have been possible otherwise. The book when published should have the potential to open a new world of expression and thought to the reader, and perhaps build some of those proverbial bridges that bring people closer together.

What prompted the founding of the press?

When all is said and done, my desire to embark on Swan Isle Press was because of a love of literature, my own curiosity as a reader, and to provide opportunities for important works to be published which might not otherwise have been possible whether with a for-profit house, or even with other indie NFPs or university presses. There was another significant mission when Swan Isle Press was founded almost ten years ago – the desire to meet an unmet need, namely to introduce outstanding Spanish and Hispanic voices to U.S. American (or English speaking) audiences. In 2000 relatively few presses were devoted to publishing works in translation, especially by little known or unknown writers. While today there are a greater number of small presses publishing works in translation, it’s still a small number as is attested to by Chad Post’s excellent online site Three Percent, which alludes to the very low percentage of books in translation published each year in the U.S.

Most of our books relate to Spanish and Latin American literature, yet Swan Isle still considers its greater mission to publish world literature in translation. Swan Isle expects in the coming years to include books from other languages and cultures on our list of titles and hopes to move that percentage up along with fellow publishers of world literature.

I continue to believe that words and ideas that are intrinsic to books make a difference in our lives, that discourse that’s engendered is vitally important. Indeed, the freedom to read, to write, to be engaged in critical inquiry, and to express oneself is all part of the democracy of books that I hope Swan Isle Press will continue to advance for many years.

It seems like with large publishers in financial straits, the small presses are getting more attention. So we ask: what has your press done to grow?

The economy has affected many sectors during the past couple of years and publishing is no exception, from the largest houses as widely reported in the news, to other publishers with far fewer resources. Swan Isle Press, as a 501(c)(3), independent publisher, has a business model comprised of book revenues and outside funding. We will only continue to grow if our books continue to receive support and that starts with readers. We also look to and depend on funding from various grant makers and other contributors who share in our vision and literary mission. We’re fortunate that many of our books are now being course adopted at various colleges and universities, that public, school, and university libraries have our books in their collections, and that individual readers have made our books part of their own personal libraries. Fulfillment of our mission and the ability to publish more books per year is only limited by time and resources. If your readers are interested in our Press’ unique mission, they can go to our website,, for more information.

Do you see further growth?

The potential for Swan Isle Press is unbounded, except by monetary constraints. And while our priority is publishing books in translation, with high editorial, design and production standards that reflect the quality of our content, we are also eagerly looking forward this coming year to issuing many of our current titles as e-books. It’s yet a new avenue for us to share our books with readers. Many of our books are already in digital form in BiblioVault, a digital repository for books founded by the University of Chicago Press. So we’re very interested in connecting with our readers in new ways. We’ve also just set up a Swan Isle Press Facebook page and hoping our readers will also find that of interest and hope our page will encourage discourse. Growth can be defined in many ways and discovery of new projects, authors, new ways of communicating with readers, and readers with us, those who share our mission, continue to inspire Swan Isle to grow.

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