Brian Kaufman, editor of subTerrain magazine as well as publisher over at Anvil Press, interviewed his colleague Rolf Maurer, the publisher of New Star Books, for the current issue of subTerrain. Brian has consented to us publishing the interview on New Star Blogs. From subTerrain #64:
subTerrain Editor Brian Kaufman in conversation with New Star Books publisher, Rolf Maurer.
New Star Books is a literary press located in Vancouver, BC. Founded in 1970 by a group of writers and editors, the press currently publishes 6 to 10 new titles a year under the steady guidance of publisher Rolf Maurer.
subTerrain: You came to New Star as Publisher some twenty years after the initial founding of the press. What drew you to New Star and how did you get involved?
Rolf Maurer: About ten years, actually. Lanny Beckman was looking for someone to replace Kathy Ford, who had been working at New Star during the summer of 1981. Kathy mentioned to Lanny that I was getting restless over at the BC Teachers’ Federation, where I produced the member newsletter. One August morning Lanny phoned and offered me what had been Kathy’s job. Up until that moment, I presumed that I would fetch up at a newspaper job somewhere; I had never given a moment’s thought to working in book publishing.
So the answer to the question, “How did you get into book publishing?” is, in my case: “I got a phone call out of the blue offering me a job.”
subT: New Star started out as so many other Canadian indie presses did, with a group of writers who shared a similar interest in contemporary literature, or had a unifying political agenda driving them to issue material, statements, in the form of pamphlets, magazines, or books. This “informal group” that grew out of the Georgia Straight (then a “radical” publication) … do you think there was any intention to start a book publishing company, or did it just sort of organically develop? Were you involved at that time?
Maurer: I was not present at the moment of creation. However, the writers involved with the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, some of them certainly, had an idea all along that they wanted to publish their and their friends’ books. That much is clear.
subT: I believe in recent years you have opted to not deal with Chapters/Indigo at all. Is this still the case? Do you fulfill special orders? Could you expand on why you have decided that you’re better off not having your press deal with our national bookstore chain?
Maurer: Nope. This is a pernicious and for some reason enduring myth about New Star. In 2002, New Star began distributing its own books, after our sales via our TO-based distributor declined precipitously over a three-year period (and then the distributor went bankrupt). “This will never work,” colleagues told me. “Chapters won’t buy your books unless they’re carried by a national distributor.” This was false; we sold directly to Chapters from the very first day.
In fact, after we assumed self-distribution, our sales went back up to their previous level, mostly because we were able to compete on the basis of terms. The BS about the supposed “unavailability” of any our books, which was ill-informed and which I considered to be a slander, was just the usual people drinking the usual Kool-Aid; the exact same people in the trade who imagined that Chapters, esp. the merged Chapters after 2002, represented some sort of golden golden opportunity for them, if not for Canadian readers and writers. Those people constituted a solid majority among publishers at the time, and probably still do.
subT: How is the arrival of e-book technology affecting your publishing program? Is it something that you embrace, abhor, ignore?
Maurer: Books in e-format have become part of the landscape, and it seems clear that they will exist in this format alongside the older technologies, at the very least. It’s something I personally have not adopted, but it’s not something we’ve ignored, either, even though we have not jumped onto the e-book train.
It’s given us a chance to watch developments unfold from a little distance behind the bleeding edge. (As non-ACP members, New Star was not eligible for the federal $$ given out to publishers to digitize their backlists a few years ago.) We’ve dabbled in the e-waters, but have no comprehensive current practice of releasing our books in e-format near the time of their p-publication date. I am far from convinced that dedicated e-readers have a future (except in the landfill), and our own R&D has devices like tablets and phones in mind, and comparisons like video games and movies — not books, primarily. Our own development work is focussing on other platforms, and platform-agnostic formats.
subT: New Star has a reputation in some minds of being a press that “makes no compromise with public taste,” that will sometimes take on a book nobody else would touch … can you elaborate?
Maurer: In some minds maybe. That doesn’t describe our approach to a manuscript.
Sometimes, we can make a book work, or at least we think we can make a book work, economically and financially, where another publisher might not see it. Sometimes we turn out to be wrong about that; and sometimes we turn out to be right. However, at no point does the book that we do become any less of a commercial proposition than when anybody else does it.
This willingness to try to make a culturally interesting artefact an economically viable one as well, is frequently misunderstood as an ability to perform miracles; and it is frequently misinterpreted as an appetite even for taking on books that are likely to lose money.
At its most extreme, our discernment and bravery is mistaken as some sort of duty to publish non-commercial titles, books for which there are in fact few or no readers. There’s Penguin, and Random House, and D&M, for “commercial” titles; and then there’s New Star, for those titles that “Make No Compromise to Public Taste.” But this reflects a misunderstanding of what we do, which is what every publisher does. We only publish books for which we believe there are readers — even when we turn out to be wrong about that.
Sometimes a writer will come to me with a project they’re in love with for whatever reason, but which even they acknowledge has no audience. I wonder why they’ve come to me. Please do not approach me with any book project whose chief attribute is that no other publisher will touch it.
So if it says that anywhere on our website, or on anybody else’s website about us, that needs to change.
subT: When you imagine her, or him, who is the ideal reader of New Star books?
Maurer: I’m happy to let the reader decide that. Whoever it is is certain to be reading books from many different publishers. My ideal reader isn’t noticeably different from an ideal reader of Anvil, or Penguin, books.
subT: I have always been impressed by the high production quality & design of the New Star books, and I take it that you consider the look and feel of the book to be equally important as the content it is presenting?
Maurer: I do. Some people imagine that a book is pretty much all text, that the physical book is more or less incidental. But the physical book is integral to the reception of the text it contains.
The look and feel of a book should impart to the reader something about how we want the contents to be received. A book that pays attention to the presentation of the material says something about that material, and helps establish some expectation. But also, yes, part of the pleasure of the text derives from the beauty and utility, the pleasurable aspects of the object holding the text.
subT: Where do you see the book publishing industry in 5, 10 years?
Maurer: I’m allergic to making predictions.
subT: What exciting books are forthcoming from the press?
Maurer: After Desire, George Stanley’s new book. Rolf Knight’s readable and very pertinent memoir, Voyage Through the Past Century. A great book of photographs documenting Vancouver circa 1967–75 by a guy named Vladimir Keremidschieff. A book about Svend Robinson. New books from Peter Culley and Donato Mancini. Transmontanuses on sasquatch, fruit, and pot. I have a writer who’s getting excited about invasive species. That’s some of what we’re working on.