Welcome to Ask a Publisher! After the success of our Ask a Bookseller series, we’ve been reaching out to a bunch of our publishers with some questions about what they do. Up next we have Brian Lam of Arsenal Pulp Press, a Canadian publisher of diverse fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels.
Tell us about your publishing house in a few sentences.
Arsenal Pulp Press started in 1971 as an alternative small press specializing in literature and politics. We’ve evolved over the past decades to become one of Canada’s leading indie presses, specializing in LGBTQ literature, books by writers of colour, graphic novels, books on cultural issues, and literary fiction.
What is your role and how long have you worked there?
As publisher, I do a bit of everything: oversee acquisitions and finances, and participate in editorial, sales, publicity, and distribution matters. I started in 1984 as a co-op student majoring in creative writing, and have been here ever since. I bought into the company in 1992, and became majority shareholder in 2005.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
Most days never go as planned! Being on the west coast of Canada, we’re three hours behind New York and Toronto, and eight hours behind London, so I like to get to the office early. Activities can vary widely, from loading new deliveries of books into our warehouse, to managing website orders, to editing books, reading manuscripts, and paying bills. Many days are a blur; sometimes I go home wondering what I’ve accomplished.
What are you reading right now?
Because I have to read so many manuscripts and books-in-progress, I don’t get to read for enjoyment as much as I’d like. I’m finally reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me now, which is excellent.
What is the one book you wish you had published?
That’s a difficult question because every publisher puts their own imprimatur on every book they publish, so a book that another press published might well look very different if we did it, for better or worse.
What do you look for in a book? What makes a book amazing?
I look for new ways of telling stories, or new perspectives on subjects that speak to the culture in which we live. But ultimately it has to affect me on a very personal level – if I can’t stop thinking about it, then more likely than not we’ll want to publish it.
There have been many, but one that stands out was when Louis-Georges Tin, the editor of The Dictionary of Homophobia – a 700-page history of LGBTQ experience that we translated from French – stood up in the United Nations, book in hand, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
What are your favourite publishers and what do you love about them?
Among American publishers, I think Seven Stories, City Lights, Akashic, Haymarket, and Melville House do amazing books – combining the political with the literary. Here in Canada, I’d say the same about Coach House Books, Biblioasis, Drawn & Quarterly, and Talonbooks.
What would you like to see more of in publishing, and what have you seen enough of?
Diversity is a hot-button issue in publishing, but I’m still one of only a handful of people of colour who runs a book publishing house. I’d love to see more diverse faces at the top.
And finally… name three of your absolute favourite authors.
Another difficult question! But … James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, and Sarah Schulman.