(FEATURE) On The First Five Years of Dostoyevsky Wannabe
As storms of various average names raged across the UK, SPAM stayed fashionably online and caught up with our DIY indie publishing comrades Dostoyevsky Wannabe over gmail. The Manchester-based press have been going an impressive five years now, and with the absolute power couple that is Richard Brammer and Vikki Brown at the helm, you’ll find all the off-kilter zeal of Stereolab combined with the stylish swoon of The Carpenters (fyi the two band t-shirts Rich and Vikki wore when we first met IRL) in their impressive back-catalogue of books (fiction, poetry and beyond), anthologies, collections and other materials. In this piece, Dostoyevsky Wannabe unpack the origin story of the press, the dazzling success of Isabel Waidner, the impetus behind THOSE covetable designs and, most importantly their love of GLASGOW – not to mention some very exciting publishing announcements…
On ‘phase 1’ of Dostoyevsky Wannabe
> ‘Phase 1’ is how we’ve started to refer to the first five years of doing this thing. It’s anyone’s guess why we’ve started calling it that because it’s not like the first five years was a tremendously well-defined plan written by some nameless council or corporate body. Overall there definitely wasn’t that much of a plan at the beginning and it’s possible to say that the whole thing is perhaps really just a design and publishing experiment that got out of hand. We think perhaps Phase 2 was the name of the repository of code that held our second website redesign or something, so perhaps that was the reason, like Autechre songs named after whatever they named their MIDI files. We’re arguably in phase 3 now. We wonder what that will be like.
> At the beginning we just wanted to make objects and to probably do something that was like some kind of 1980-1990s indie record label or some other such vague aim. We were writing a bit ourselves, so we thought we’d make books and put them out somehow as long as we could find a zero-budget way of doing it. A small press did seem a bit like an indie record label somehow (one of us is doing research on this at the minute and there are a few interesting similarities actually). Actually, we were reading an old article in an old copy of The Face today about Heavenly Records and it sort of reminded us how much we had sort of unconsciously been influenced by their approach. Anyway, the identity and the covers came before the content of the books and that was partly because when you start a press nobody necessarily wants to publish with you much because they don’t know whether it’s worth it. The idea for the Cassette anthologies and the fact that we were a little bit connected to indie literature in the US (via the internet) helped because a few writers who were more or less well-known over there submitted to the first one and Sam Riviere, who was doing quite well with his 81 Austerities book in the UK, also agreed to be in one of the early Cassette books. At the time we didn’t think much about editorial and just wanted to make books that looked good together and we were massively naïve about lots of things but that’s ok, we don’t mind a bit of naivety. Since that time, we’ve learnt plenty about publishing but also a lot about other things too.
> A few years ago, we would mostly refer to ourselves by saying two things 1) that we weren’t ‘proper’ publishers and 2) that we didn’t know what we were doing, and, at various times, that’s definitely been true. We do sort of increasingly know what we’re doing these days, so any dumb pose is perhaps wearing a bit thin (although we’re totally capable of completely getting things very wrong too). In terms of not being ‘proper’ publishers, that’ll probably always be true in some sense because most publishers are not designers who also publish and are usually purely publishers and they don’t usually change their publishing models all over the place like we do, at least not on purpose. It’s kind of small press publishing business suicide really to do that. That said, some books that we’ve published have been shortlisted for major prizes so we must be doing something right, at least some of the time.
On Isabel Waidner
> We’re more than happy to talk up Isabel because they are brilliant. Someone recently asked how we’d found their writing like it was a great mystery how we’d done it but it was quite simple from our end really. For a long time, we had rolling open submissions and Isabel sent Gaudy Bauble to us when, as far as we understand, it had been not picked up by a few other presses and we accepted it after reading just a few pages. It had that energy which is ALL Isabel’s and that came fully formed from the off. It’s an energy and a style which has somehow evolved and gotten even better with We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (even as it was pretty much fully formed with Gaudy Bauble). It’s just brilliantly exciting writing and we have to say we’re not just the publisher of their first two books, but we’re fans and we’re as excited to read what Isabel does next as many readers who’ve picked up on their work will be.
> We have a lot of affinity with Isabel, we’re a similar age, have broadly similar previous experiences in DIY/indie/whatever you want to call it circles and Isabel has become a really good friend. They are definitely willing to experiment both in a literary sense and in the sense of being VERY energetic in promoting their books. They don’t finish the book and then walk away waiting for the publisher to go to town doing everything for it whilst they sit back (this is just as well given our policy on such things). Isabel has been smart enough to do more to promote their books with us than we have although, in truth, we’ve made a good team and the two books (three including their anthology Liberating the Canon) have sold ridiculously well by any independent book sales standards and they don’t really stop selling either somehow. Isabel will basically always have a place with Dostoyevsky Wannabe but we have been gently suggesting to them, perhaps since Gaudy Bauble, that they go to a press who can afford them better distribution than the limitations of our print on demand setup because we want their writing to get to as wide an audience as possible and there are other larger publishing presses (small press and otherwise) who could do that.
> We have long had this kind of residual guilt perhaps that we are never quite good enough in that way (don’t worry about that though as we’re probably overly confident in other ways). This arose from the self-declared idea that we’re not ‘proper’ publishers, at least not in the way that every writer who we work with can easily gain a large readership, which is something that rarely happens across the board with every author anyway, for any press. Some of it is just typical working-class insecurity because money obviously helps when being a small press and we haven’t really got much which is why it’s often quite a middle-class thing. It’s not just all a case us being kind of chronically unambitious though and, in fact, we’ve realised it is just us being realistic according to what we want Dostoyevsky Wannabe to be because we are committed to being designers AND publishers and we haven’t got and we’re not planning to develop the resources to promote books as the only thing that we do. The design side is a huge interest for us and maybe this can cause us a bit of anxiety because we know we can’t promote writers in the kind of manner that publishing more generally might be able to do. For writers who aren’t that independently minded and who want to defer a lot to the press, people who need the press to push their book way more than they do, are not really that good a fit for us or us to them. It’s not like we won’t help. If they tag us, we’ll always retweet but there is a limit to what we can do. It’s always hard because we want EVERY book that we work on to do really well and find lots of readers and happily a good proportion do and we work hard for those books but, on the other hand, if a writer is so independent that they sort of reduce us to the status of pushing buttons and they want to take lots of control over everything then that doesn’t work either because we’re sort of reduced to being their unpaid employees so it’s a difficult balance to get right. We hope that admission doesn’t put writers off though (it doesn’t seem from the massive numbers of submissions we get) because with every new author who we work with we’re experimenting with all of this as a process. It’s not like all writers are the same either, there are many scales of writerly ambition and Isabel’s success whilst working with us proves that things are possible even with a set-up such as ours. We’ve been hugely lucky to work with so many different and interesting writers and we look forward to more of the same in the future.
> Oh, and by the way we totally, and obviously, think that We Are Diamond Stuff should win the Republic of Consciousness Prize this year but then we would wouldn’t we. The book world certainly has plenty going for it beyond prizes but the ROFC was the first prize that Isabel was nominated for and it does a lot of great work for small presses. We’re honoured to be in the running for it, as ever. So keep your fingers crossed for us!
On Publishing and Design
> It’s probably practical for us to separate design and publishing when we’re talking about it to people, just for the sake of clarity but in our minds, and in our plans, they’re one and the same because we do view our deliberate experimentation with different publishing models as a form of design in itself and we view publishing as a creative act in its own right. Maybe we’re designer-publishers or something and that’s not that weird historically and there is some precedent for it inasmuch as, before the whole middle-class industry of publishing grew into its broadest conventional modern form, printers were often the publishers and so what constituted publishing would have been quite different from that angle in a similar way that it is from our design angle. It’s common for small press publishers to maybe not overly think about design and typesetting so much on a personal level because they maybe outsource it and focus mostly on editorial.
> Something which was clear to us from the beginning, and it’s something that we’re still really into, was a lot of 20th century album and book cover design, particularly the more repetitive, quite heavily circumscribed styles based on things done in between the lines of a grid. We always really liked the anonymity of design which was sort of commercial work done quickly and loads of it rushed out at some tremendously productive pace complete with little mistakes but mistakes that had some charm about them. It was a weird decision for us to decide to ape the style of Penguin and Pelican books because they are so well known and there are lots of designers who practice by designing a Penguin type cover in some way but we were comfortable with our decision because we decided to not copy the covers but instead to use the Marber grid that was created by Romek Marber and which underpinned many (not all) of Penguin and Pelican books from the mid-century period onwards. We started to use the grid to make designs instead of exactly copying the Penguin designs and we continue to use it, sometimes breaking it and sometimes adhering to it a bit more. We’re currently updating the bottom part of it for ourselves to make it into a more compound grid actually, but you’d have to be a design geek to want to know about that.
> It’s interesting that people might look at those Penguin/Pelican books and assume that there was some huge Penguin factory or huge corporate concern where words went in at one end and some machine, tended by a group of designers in white coats, spat out books at the other end but it was actually more interesting than that from what we can tell. For instance, it was odd to find that Romek Marber worked from his home throughout his career, almost like a freelancer and in more DIY circumstances than you might imagine. Having arrived in the UK in 1946 after only just escaping death in the concentration camps, he came to England hardly able to speak English and got a job sweeping floors in a London clothing factory where he became friendly with a Belgian dress designer who found that Marber was interested in art and encouraged him to take evening classes. As a refugee at the time, he wasn’t allowed to apply to join St Martin’s College to study painting but he was allowed to do a more vocational course so that’s how ended up as a commercial designer. He lived in a shared London house for a good while and we read somewhere that he had to wait until people went out on a Saturday night so he could develop photos in the kitchen sink and it was this work that went on to become the Penguin covers. I think we were really taken with the idea that he was a bit DIY in this because whilst we’re obviously not in anything like the same boat as he was we have always been quite DIY at root ourselves. We were (still are, largely) penniless and we have to keep our overheads low by only using different forms of print on demand, but we have always essentially been kind of indie DIY at root because having no money often leads a person down that path. The thing is we didn’t just want to be all about photocopying and paste up aesthetically, even as we like that cut and paste aesthetic just fine, so even though we have little control over the types of paper or the actual printing of our books, there’s still a lot of control that we can have as designers to get quite a good looking book in a way that doesn’t bankrupt us.
> Of course, we were also quite influenced by the obvious examples of indie label designers from Manchester like Peter Saville and that kind of overly-audacious post-punk approach to design that was often partly doomed to commercial failure but which was just going to go ahead and do it anyway but we have to be careful about getting into that because if you mention the Hacienda too many times in a row some huge corporation puts up another luxury living skyscraper in Manchester and we’ve perhaps got enough of them already.
On Future Things
> We are experimenting with the idea of branching out into non-fiction books alongside fiction and poetry (we’re open for non-fiction books mostly on music and design and technology so if anyone has ideas for these then please check our site and send a proposal). The fiction and poetry side will perhaps slow down as a result, but that doesn’t mean that we are not more committed than ever to helping get work out by fiction and poetry writers whose books we like.
> As far as titles are concerned, first up in 2020, we’ve published an anthology in collaboration with Partisan Hotel, also we’ve had Lee Rourke’s Vantablack, SJ Fowler’s I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs), Nadia de Vries’s Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities Amsterdam anthology and we will be publishing Marcus Slease’s Never Mind The Beasts. Also we’ve got Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams’ book of Anthropocene work (poetry and essays) and 3:AM’s Andrew Gallix is publishing his collected reviews and journalism with us. There’s plenty more in the pipeline too just not as many as previous years. On the subject of Cities anthologies, these are all totally an open source effort for the editors, for us, for everyone involved, and all for no money because we sell them at virtually cost price so it’s the case that some happen and some don’t and we’ve had to scale down our own commitment to them and do fewer in future years but they’re still very much an idea we like.
> Why does Glasgow get a mention all on its own? Well, first, even though we’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of different writers in lots of different cities, we are big fans of Glasgow as a city and have been for a while. We’ve always enjoyed the relaxed democratically collaborative spirit of the place since we first made the trip up there and visited Good Press and Monorail and we’ve since found that the same attitude prevails and exists beyond those places across both music and literature, not least in what you do with SPAM. Secondly, we mention Glasgow because it seems that a good percentage of the books that we’ve decided to publish in 2020, and even more so in 2021, are coming from poets who are either from Glasgow or based in Glasgow. First up this year is Jane Goldman’s book and having met Jane at Colin Herd’s brilliantly collaborative launch for his book You Name It with us last year, we’re very excited about that one. In 2021, we’re turning even more towards the city, at least for a while, to publish books by Kathrine Sowerby and Nick-e Melville which (hopefully) will happen at a similar time to Ruthie Kennedy and Colin Herd’s collaboratively edited Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities Glasgow anthology. From the sounds of it this will be a book that reflects just how good Glasgow and its poets and writers are at working together to produce amazing work, plus it seems like it’ll be a good night (or a couple of nights out) and one where we’ll be able to satiate our need to listen to Jonathan Richman whilst at the same time hear a few new bands that we’ve never heard of — and maybe coincided it with when a Divine night was on (which is a favourite of ours).
> Anyway, that’s your lot. We’ve rambled on enough now and thanks to everyone at SPAM Zine for giving us the platform to allow us to ramble on.
For more on Dostoyevsky Wannabe, including their excellent ‘Materials’ section, delve into their beautiful new website here.