Interview: George Sandison on Unsung Stories, Kickstarter, and 2084.
Unsung Stories are an independent publisher of 'literary and ambition speculative fiction'. They are making the news at the moment with the launch of a Kickstarter for 2084, a short story collection of dystopian fiction. At the time of publishing the book has achieved more than twice its funding goal, and shows no sign of slowing. George Sandison, Unsung's Managing Editor, was kind enough to speak with us about the project, as well as Unsung in general.
You spoke in a previous interview about how fiction can influence the human culture. Did you have that in mind when you were putting this collection together?
I try to be realistic in my expectations, so most of my thinking around the collection was more mundane and focused on making the book, to be frank. I’m also generally most interested in the relationships individual people have with specific books more than being able to predict what speaks to the masses. So when it came to this collection I wasn’t thinking of a grand vision, more that the idea was timely and would interest people. The responses of the contributors was the first confirmation of that.
The discussion about what fiction achieves is nuanced and complex. I saw Michel Faber speak at an event and say he’d given up on fiction precisely because it cannot effect change. I was at that event having read The Book of Strange New Things, a work I found very affecting for its exploration of the gaps in communication intimacy creates. Did his book affect change in me? Perhaps incrementally – I certainly read it at a time when the themes related to my own life – yet the author had come to a different conclusion.
Fiction is a great on-going conversation so the influence it has on culture is manifested and represented in the ideas that gain traction. And dystopias are always about today, so any success of the collection – to my mind – will give us a point of connection to discuss those fears, hopefully in a more constructive fashion that we’ve sometimes seen recently.
How did you go about picking your authors? You've published a lot of them before, are they all existing relationships?
They’re not all existing relationships, no. We drew up a list of writers that we thought would be interested in the theme because of their work. Some of them are so clearly natural fits – Anne Charnock and Dave Hutchinson, for instance – that it would have been slightly ridiculous not to invite them. Then we got in touch and asked them.
There may be a lot of people encountering Unsung for the first time with this Kickstarter, how would you introduce yourself to them?
It was always a quiet hope that the Kickstarter would bring Unsung to a wider audience so it’s incredible to see that happening. As for how to introduce us?
Hello! We publish speculative fiction of all flavours, and we like it ambitious and literary. We like books that aren’t like any other, books that celebrate the potential of genre fiction, books that don’t conform. We like making books beautiful. We don’t want our authors to compromise, just to make their book as good as it can be. You don’t have to be a big publisher to do things properly. The best way to judge us is by our work.
On the Kickstarter page, you say that "We need dystopian fiction now, perhaps more than ever" and you've talked about how science fiction is a way to explore hypotheses. Can you give us an impression of what kinds of ideas the collection is going to explore?
We’ve got stories about Europe and the refugee crisis, narcissism and the pursuit of beauty, the prospect of growing old in an ever advancing world, the surveillance state, love in the age of editing, the violence of home entertainment, global warming, a nuclear winter and even a referendum, for good measure.
We are more aware than ever of the complexity in the world, and all the potential dangers we face. If we had one writer from every country on the planet we’d barely have started getting it all down.
The Kickstarter was already funded after 2 days, and is continuing to grow, congratulations. Were you expecting this kind of popularity? Does that make you more interested in trying this method again in the future?
It was 11 hours actually: 11 staggering, humbling hours. I was quietly hopeful that we’d hit funding early and see some modest success. As I’m writing this, 6 days in, we’re already at that point. So it’s a surprise to me, yes. And it’s only happened because of the support we’ve had from our friends – reviewers, publishers, authors, fans, the lot.
As for trying it again? Absolutely. But not immediately. For one thing we’ll have a lot of work to do from this project, for another we’ll need to get more stories together. Crowdfunding is particularly well-suited to anthologies because you’ve got so many contributors to make people aware of the project – and that’s the critical thing.
At the time of this interview, you've got 24 days left. If the book continues to fund and moves well beyond your goal, does anything change in terms of what it's possible to do with the books?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve already got in touch with more authors with a view to adding stories to the collection. It all depends on how much money we make, of course, but we’re looking into a few things at the moment. We’ve never made an audiobook before, for instance…
Dead Ink are doing something similar at the moment with #PublishTheUnderground, but they're using their own platform. What do you think about Kickstarter as a platform for launching books?
The pros and cons of Kickstarter are pretty transparent really. The big advantage is it’s an internationally known platform and that profile helps you reach a bigger audience. People will browse Kickstarter, for instance. If they host a successful project they’ll help it get more attention. It’s simple to use, and an established, trusted system. But the con is they take their percentage.
That percentage is a key thing, and I totally get why Dead Ink are doing it themselves. I suspect they’ll have encountered different challenges from us, but for the extra hassle they don’t have to divide the pot and they get a direct relationship with their customers. And that’s a really powerful thing. And Other Stories did it with their subscriptions, hopefully Dead Ink will with their crowdfunding.
Also, those covers are excellent!
I'd like to talk a little about the cover art for your books, actually. I think they're all wonderful. I think that indie presses are kicking ass with covers in general at the moment. How do you pick your artists?
It is one of my favourite parts of the job. We go to places like Behance and DeviantArt and we spend time researching them. We do this for every book and we decide together. It’s about finding the artist whose work best reflects the themes and mood of the story. Then we give them a lot of information about the book, including key passages, a few things we don’t want (specific images to avoid, for example) and leave them to it. Our job is to make sure they understand the work; theirs is to make something beautiful.
Do you think indie presses have more scope with what can be done on covers?
It comes back to identity. We want our books to be eye-catching, and clearly ours. So someone can see, at a glance, an arresting image and an identifiable style. I think that comes out of having less scope, though, a necessity to stand out. We’re not a major house and we don’t have large publicity budgets. You have so little time to capture someone’s imagination, so you have to use it well. Every time someone says we have a beautiful cover that’s another little win for Unsung.
You've made it very clear that you don't see much of a difference between genre writing and literature, which seems like an opinion which is evolving and becoming ever more popular. Do you think that smaller presses like Unsung are playing a big part in that? Perhaps with initiatives like Unsung Shorts?
First of all, for me the biggest distinction is between commercial and literary fiction, and that’s not a value judgement either. Writing should be assessed in the context of its intent and aspirations. These aren’t discrete or opposing things either. It’s the balance between writing to entertain and writing to develop ideas, literary form, etc. Literary genre writing has always been there, so it’s about breaking down this bizarre barrier some people see between speculative fiction and ‘proper writing’. Like why is magical realism afforded more academic scrutiny than fantasy? How come Nineteen Eighty-Four is read by all, but The Dispossessed slips under the radar for some?
Smaller presses work differently from the major houses. The larger publishers are more likely to look at a list collectively and work out how best to publish work that fits their audience and broader market trends. They can, and do, publish outliers but the core business needs to be publishing work their customers want to read. The indie dynamic is slightly different. Our list should give a clear indication of our identity and what we value, but the individual books are very different indeed.
I think indie presses, and their readers, will always lead the charge because it’s inherent in both why and how we publish. They will look at an outré work and see the potential, not the risk that it doesn’t fit a list. There’s an implicit promise in what we do – that we’ll only make books we truly believe are important.
You give a huge amount of information about what you do and don't like on your submissions page. I think that's hugely helpful, and perhaps something other publishers are missing out on. Why was it important to you to do this?
That was actually part of our initial process, the whole, ‘Who are we and what are we doing?’ So writing it was as helpful for us as it hopefully is for writers! With things as complex and subtle as personal tastes you often have a very strong instinctual sense of what fits and what doesn’t, but communicating that to someone else is tricky. If we can’t explain to writers what we like, how can we explain to a reader what makes a book worth reading?
It’s an admittedly fairly diverse set of influences – we are a touch eclectic – but that’s who we are, and what we like. Those barriers I mentioned, I don’t really understand them. It can be tricky to say what you don’t like as well (and for the record, Dan Brown is massively successful, so clearly he’s tapped into something with universal appeal). But the truth is we don’t all like everything. Imagine how dull it would be if we did.