New Star Blogs

subTerrain interview with New Star majordomo Rolf Maurer



subT_64_INSIDE_FIN.inddBri­an 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.

GS 1969-10-29 WritingSupp1

Geor­gia Straight Writ­ing Sup­ple­ment #1, Oct. 29, 1969

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.