Out to Lunch …

… a cautionary tale from Fiona Pickles

As some of you probably know already, Manifold Press began its existence on a day back in mid-2009 when Chris Quinton and I went out to lunch together. (There is a school of thought that we’re permanently ‘out to lunch’ anyway, so this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise.) What neither of us expected, though, was that we’d set off all innocent and unencumbered, and over the omelette, chips and side salad we’d end up sketching the tentative outlines of a new business – which made its publishing debut in May of the following year.

It all happened because Chris had been dealing with publishers who insisted on American spellings even when the characters were British and the book was set in Britain – which neither of us thought was appropriate – and she’d also had a sex-scene quota imposed on her in one book and another rejected for its lack of sex scenes. This, of course, prompted a debate which we’ve never really got to the end of … about whether or not sex scenes are necessary in m-m romance, or indeed in fiction generally. (Jane Austen managed very nicely without them, for example.) We both felt that the genre shouldn’t be defined entirely by a particular ratio of sex scenes, and that it should be possible to write good quality m-m fiction without lavish descriptions of what we usually refer to as ‘the plumbing’. We’re not talking about prudery here, you understand, but about not wanting to impose artificial constraints on an author; if a book needs scorching sex scenes, hopefully the writer will include those and everybody will be happy. If it doesn’t, though, and if the writer’s going for a subtler effect, we’re not in the business of persuading them to change their mind.

You might imagine it would have been easy to pull everything together relatively quickly, from that point on. After all, we knew quite a few m-m authors who had proven track records in fandom – many of whom liked to write long, thoughtful, plot-driven fiction with the emphasis on character. How difficult could it be to persuade them to try their hands at something a little different? And surely we’d start to attract new people as we went along, who would keep the pot boiling while the first authors wrote something else? Well, in theory that was accurate, as far as it went – Julie Bozza and Jane Elliot found their way to us through the mysterious working of the Intertubes Machine, for example, and have both become stalwart members of the team – but we soon realised that working methods and speed of composition can vary immensely between authors, and that there are any number of hazards which can derail them and reduce our publishing schedule to rubble overnight.

We won’t pretend to have been a fly on the wall during our authors’ moments of creativity, but there are some generalisations we feel pretty safe in making. Liam Livings, for example, writes quickly – very quickly indeed! We only have to follow him on Twitter or Facebook to know that he produces words at a phenomenal rate, which makes many other writers profoundly jealous. Adam Fitzroy, on the other hand, polishes and polishes and polishes obsessively and produces innumerable drafts of everything – which makes for a very slow rate of progress overall. We’re not saying either of these approaches is better than the other, of course, but as a publisher it’s useful to know that one author is a ‘hare’ and the other is a ‘tortoise’, and to adjust our plans accordingly.

And then there are the unexpected hazards. Over the five years since our first titles saw the light of day we’ve had more than our fair share of crises to deal with; illness either of the author or of a close family member, bereavement, house moves (including one for the Press itself, with another following the next year) and just about every domestic calamity you can possibly imagine. Tough as our authors are, it’s difficult to be inspired and creative when you’ve got no heat and the builder’s just put his foot through the ceiling! At times like these we know Chris Quinton and Morgan Cheshire decamp to a local café and work there, but others aren’t quite so lucky – and sometimes the progress of a book is halted, or even derailed completely, by what in ordinary circumstances would be a relatively minor mishap. (As anyone who’s ever had to stop in the middle of a flight of fancy to clear up after a vomiting cat will no doubt recognise!)

But it would be a mistake to emphasise the down side of this preoccupation too much, of course. There are undoubtedly days where the workload is overwhelming and the learning curve not so much steep as suicidal, but then every so often there’s a ray of light; a supportive e-mail, an enthusiastic review, an award, or even a single reader commenting on Goodreads can suddenly turn the dark night of the soul into Blackpool Illuminations. Publishers, you may be surprised to learn, are creatures of emotion just as much as authors; the hours are long and the rewards are few, and there are definitely times when we wonder how we ever got involved in this business in the first place. To balance that, though, there are occasions like Queer Company and the UK Meet, when we can get together with other people on the same lonely treadmill, share experiences and exchange horror stories. It’s also a great occasion for picking up the occasional writing tip, so don’t be too surprised if you see one or two people pinning Liam Livings into a corner and refusing point blank to let him go until he tells them – in words of one syllable or less – JUST HOW THE FLIPPIN’ HECK HE DOES IT!

Well, it’s never too late to learn …