It’s a literary open secret that without indie publishing there would be no Joyce, no Beckett, no Nabokov, and certainly no Bloomsbury Group. Indie presses are the bulwark of originality, the last bastion of fearless storytelling, and are constantly in the vanguard of literary progress. Indie publishing is where the real writing takes place these days. Thus, celebrate with us the breath of bookish fresh air they introduce to our lives by reading our interviews with the most fascinating indie publishers of today.
Meet Leland Cheuk.
A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of the story collection Letters from Dinosaurs (2016) and the novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (2015), which was also published in translation in China (2018). His newest novel No Good Very Bad Asian is out now from C&R Press. Cheuk’s work has been covered in Buzzfeed, The Paris Review, VICE, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and has appeared in publications such as Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, among other outlets. He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute.
We asked him a few questions about his journey as a writer and publisher.
The Nonconformist: What made you decide, “I’ll become a publisher”?
Leland Cheuk: After publishing my first two books with small presses, I started to get a sense of what it took to publish a book and what’s expected of the author on the self-marketing side. It doesn’t take a whole lot. A little bit of money. Some elbow grease. If you’ve worked in an office before and have produced professional materials, you probably know how to find a cover designer or lay out text in InDesign. If you don’t know, you can quickly learn it. A little bit of effort and money to make someone’s lifelong dream come true seemed like a no-brainer.
The thing is the book industry seems to be publishing more and more books. They’re just not literary ones.
NC: Your press’s name has a story behind it. What does 7.13 stand for?
LC: 7.13 stands for July 13th, which is the date my lifesaving bone marrow transplant engrafted over five years ago. That same day, a small press in Chicago picked up my first novel for no advance. I was able to become an author while I recovered from the transplant. Two years later, a small press in Brooklyn picked up my short story collection on July 13th. After that, I started thinking about starting a press and doing something positive with my new lease on life and all the good luck I’d had.
NC: According to the statement on your About page, your press prides itself on publishing debut authors whose works “fall through the widening cracks” of the mainstream book industry. Why did you make it your mission?
LC: Most writers know how hard it is to get that first book, but I don’t think they truly realize how slim the odds are. We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of writers with manuscripts and maybe a few hundred literary books get published each year. Getting into Harvard is easier than finding an agent let alone finding an agent who’s able to sell your book to a big house. The thing is the book industry seems to be publishing more and more books. They’re just not literary ones. They’re celebrity memoirs and other books of that ilk because big publishers need to make big money to make tiny profits to show growth to the media companies they belong to. To a certain extent, writers need to accept that this new reality (or maybe it’s always been this way and it’s an old reality) will not get better. That’s where an indie press like 7.13 Books comes in.
Getting into Harvard is easier than finding an agent let alone finding an agent who’s able to sell your book to a big house.
NC: What is it like to be a small press publisher these days? How do you find a balance between your everyday life and publishing duties?
LC: I usually work on the press after I do my own writing, so it’s usually late in the afternoons or on weekends. I always put myself first. I don’t take on more than I can take. I learned from watching other small presses operate. If you’re one person and you’re publishing a book every month, you’re probably going to meltdown and it’s not going to be a good experience for your author. I’m focused on delivering a good experience for the author, and that means being clear about what I’m committing to and what I’m not committing to.
NC: You’re an author yourself. How do you manage to reconcile the sensibility of a writer with the critical eye of a publisher?
LC: I keep a separation of church and state with regards to my writing. I would never publish my own work, for instance. I don’t promote my work on the 7.13 Twitter account. I want to keep 7.13 all about my authors. As for my critical eye, I read fairly broadly and don’t expect the books I take on to resemble my work in any way. I do feel editing my authors’ work has made me a better editor of my own work. Practice makes perfect.
NC: What gives you more pleasure: writing your own stories or publishing and promoting first-time authors?
LC: I’m an author, first and foremost. I’m trying to make my mark just like my authors are trying to make theirs. I wish I could do more to promote my authors without sacrificing my own work or my time with my loved ones. There’s always more that can be done.
The big houses are trying to be the Whole Foods and most small presses are trying to be your neighborhood grocer.
NC: Let’s talk about your influences. Who inspires you as a writer and who is your role model as a publisher?
LC: As a writer, I started out being very influenced by Martin Amis, Haruki Murakami, and Saul Bellow. Over time, I’ve become more influenced by comedic authors as well as authors who straddle the line between spec lit and literary, writers that span the gamut from George Saunders to Meg Wolitzer. There are really so many to choose from. As a publisher, I was influenced by Michael Seidlinger at CCM/The Accomplices as well as Johnny Temple at Akashic. I love their books. There are so many indie presses out there to admire.
NC: How would you describe the current state of the publishing industry from the perspective of a small press publisher?
LC: It’s always going to be challenging financially. Because reading probably ranks behind, say, TV in terms of importance in our culture, chasing scale like the big houses are doing is always going to be tough. They’re trying to be the Whole Foods and most small presses are trying to be your neighborhood grocer. I think there’s something to be said for staying small and sustainable, whereas the big houses have to show growth every quarter, every year in a world where books are becoming less and less important. I’m focused on delivering positive experiences to my authors, even if those experiences are relatively small in scale.
NC: What frustrates you and what delights you as a publisher?
LC: Bookstore returns frustrate me. I love seeing my authors check things off their writerly bucket list.
NC: If you were to sum it up in a few words, what is being a publisher all about?
LC: Being a publisher is about being in service of your authors.
The big houses have to show growth every quarter, every year in a world where books are becoming less and less important.
NC: Which current and forthcoming titles from your catalog would you describe as must-reads for every self-respecting book lover?
LC: I’m very excited about our late March 2020 release Edie on the Green Screen, the first novel by New York Times bestseller Beth Lisick. She’s a personal indie lit hero of mine from San Francisco, so when the opportunity came up to work with her, I was like, uh, yes, please. It’s a very funny book. Fans of Beth’s nonfiction will not be disappointed. Next up after that in June is Misery Boy, a novel by Rose Servis, another very funny book about a very difficult and neurotic young man. Her writing reminds me of Halle Butler’s.
NC: What are your plans for the future as an author and as a publisher?
LC: We’ll keep the press going as long as there are readers who appreciate the books and authors wanting to publish. The important thing is being able to deliver a good experience for the authors. We might go to one or two books a year instead of four or five or we might do more books. Only time will tell.
NC: If you were asked to give advice to those dreaming of setting up their own small press, what would it be?
LC: Just do it. It’s really not that hard. Just don’t try to do too much. There are lot of cautionary tales out there about presses that grew too much too quickly (see: Curbside Splendor). Keep the author’s experience front of mind.
Run by authors for authors, 7.13 Books is committed to making beautiful works of literary fiction and offering a publishing experience that’s respectful to and even reverent of first-time authors. 7.13 Books is part of a vibrant independent press ecosystem that is passionate about keeping literature alive and saving quality manuscripts that have fallen through the widening cracks of a backsliding, inefficient book industry.
Photo: Courtesy of Leland Cheuk