Don Weise: Magnus Rising
“I think debates over what makes a book great are largely among writers and people who teach literature. The rest of us I donāt think really care. Iād say weāre more interested in whether we connect with a book…”
A renowned stalwart in the publishing industry, Don Weise has over two decades worth of publishing experience, most of which has been dedicated to publishing LGBT literature. He’s served as Publisher of Alyson Books and was the Senior Editor at Carroll & Graf Publishers. Wiese also sits on the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation. In 2010, Wiese started his own LGBT publishing house, Magnus Books. Since its inception, Magnus has published books by an assortment of iconicĀ authors, such as Samuel Delany, Urvashi Vaid, Keith Boykin, and Edmund White.
Last month Magnus Books announced a new publishing venture with Riverdale Avenue Books (RAB), a publisher headed by veteran literary agent Lori Perkins, which specializes in e-books and audiobooks. The Riverdale/Magnus Books joint venture will publish some 24 LGBT titles a year.
Wiese took some time to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about the new joint venture, the future of LGBT publishing, and what characteristics make a book āgreat.ā
What inspired Magnusā joint venture with Riverdale Ave Books (RAB)?
Iāve known and worked with Lori Perkins as an agent for the past 10 years and sheās always been one of my favorite people in publishing. She understands me and the work I do better than any colleague I can think of. It got to the point where we could finish each otherās sentences. Weād talked about joining forces for a long time, but I never thought weād actually do it.
However, the changes in the publishing industry over the past couple years have been so dramatic and unpredictable, more so than Iāve ever seen in 20 yearsāand I donāt expect the changes to slow down or stopāthat the traditional model of cataloging books a year or more in advance and then printing hundreds of copies that might never sell suddenly felt impractical if not insane. The costs were too big and at the same time unnecessary when there are smart, cost-effective alternatives like print on demand publishing, which is our model, along with e-publishing, at Riverdale. By doing this I eliminate my two biggest challenges: print costs and returns. I just wish Iād done this sooner.
How does this venture affect or enhance Magnusā mission.
The mission remains unchanged mostlyāI think itās because Lori admires the work Iām doing that she proposed partnering in the first place. As an agent and editor, sheās been a big proponent of LGBT books and she wanted the new venture to feature gay lit prominently. I loved the idea because by working with her Magnus would have more resources than ever before. For example, I will have foreign rights agents selling in 15 territoriesāpreviously my jobāand weāre partnering with an audio company, so books will automatically have audio editions as well. The resources she offers will free up huge amounts of time for me and help generate revenue in areas not currently exploited.
What are the particulars of the venture?
Lori started Riverdale Avenue Books under the premise that books are entertainment and that readers will come back for more books from publishers who consistently deliver what they like. All five of the launch imprints are designed to be what she calls āconsumable.ā They include Pop, Desire (erotica and erotic romance), Truth (erotic memoir), HSF (horror, science fiction and fantasy) and Magnus, of course.
We have a New York office in the former office of Baen Books, a company that Lori considers to be the first successful genre e-publisher (they relocated to North Carolina three years ago). Our contracts and foreign rights department operates out of there. We also have an assistant and are looking for interns in both the editorial and promotion area. Our production department is off-site.
Are you working side by side with Lori Perkins to decide what is published by Magnus/RAB?
Weāll definitely work in tandem. Loriās been in the business even longer than I have, so I welcome her expertise. I say this not just because I value her input but also because itās a mutually respectful/admiring partnership. When we first sat down to talk about working together, we went over the titles I had slated for 2013, one by one. After completing the review, she said, āDon, this is a really good list of titles.ā I knew it was a good list, but it heartened me to hear someone else say itāespecially my business partnerābecause no one sees these books till theyāre announcedĀ and up to that time it can be a lonely, self-doubting experience where youāre not completely sure what will work. Books that should have taken off donāt while titles you had only modest expectations for excel. Going forward Iāll do many of the same kinds of titles Iāve always published, i.e. memoir, literary fiction, sex, self-help, but youāll see more popular culture and genre fiction than Iāve done before.
Will you each have different duties/oversight within this joint venture?
Magnus is part of the RAB line-up, and as such, we work together, although I am ultimately responsible for the editorial content. Lori is the publisher, so she oversees the editorial in the other imprints, as well as all the production, publicity, and sales. But we consult on everything.
Is there a certain literary aesthetic or subject matter that you look for in the books you seek to publish?
The first questions I still ask myself about any book Iām considering are: who is the audience and how do I reach them? I donāt see LGBT as a category per se. In mainstream publishing, LGBT tends to be seen as monolithicāas if thereās something called a Gay Book that presumably every gay person will buy and read, regardless of gender, race, age, tastes in literature, because itās gay-themed. Thatās the furthest thing from reality as most of us know. Even when talking about gay menās literature, what gay men do we mean? Guys who read commercial fiction exclusively? Guys who read academic works? Guys interested in erotica and sex-themed literature primarily? Guys who read all of the above? These men arenāt necessarily going to the same places to find out about books nor are they likely to care about gay books that fall outside their area of interest. So for me it comes down to knowing who more specifically a book is for, ideally the widest audience possible, but thereās something to be said, too, for communities within communities that are under-served and therefore looking for books that speak to their experiences. Iāve done a lot of publishing in this latter area, as a matter of fact. I suppose itās because I want always to enlarge our definitions of LGBT life beyond predictable assumptions and expectations.
LambdaĀ recently interviewed criticĀ Daniel MendelsohnĀ and he stated, ā [a] book that is only meaningful to the gay reader cannot be a great book. It is precisely the gay book’s ability to be interesting to a straight reader that makes it a great book. [ā¦.] What makes literature literature is precisely its ability to go beyond borders, beyond identities.ā Any thoughts on Mendelshon’s views concerningĀ literature?Ā
I think debates over what makes a book great are largely among writers and people who teach literature. The rest of us I donāt think really care. Iād say weāre more interested in whether we connect with a book, meaning whether it excites us, compels us, shows us the world in a new way, makes us laugh, arouses us, makes us want to read more by the same author. I happen to love the writing of the African American gay poet Essex Hemphillāso much so that I reissued one of his books,Ā Ceremonies. But do straight people read him? Do gay people even read him? Does the answer to either question reflect on the merits of his writing? Does it matter ultimately? More important to me is the fact that his poem to his mother, āIn the Life,ā still makes me cry after 15 years. That closing line about her never noticing āthe absence of rice and bridesmaidsā will forever choke me up, and how much greater can literature get than that?
I read the interview with Daniel Mendelsohn and there was much to be admired in what he had to say. I donāt know him but heās obviously a smart and insightful guy. But when the topic turns to Edmund White and his low opinion of him, Daniel sounds deeply envious and infantile. When he calls Edmund āa kind of mid-level writer who was able to have a career that was disproportionately important to his actual talent because there was a gay niche where a mediocre writer could flourish as a significant figureā and then goes on to dismiss Edmundās marvelous and critically-acclaimedĀ City BoyĀ as a ācrappy,ā ālazy,ā āsloppyā book that didnāt say āanything of particular interest about gay experience,ā I wonder if this has more to do with āthe great is the enemy of the good.ā I canāt speak to Danielās own writingāI donāt think Iāve read him, nor does his work ever come up in conversationābut you have to ask yourself whatās really behind this when he goes to such uncalled for extremes in a public forum. He says he hasnāt met Edmund but hears heās a ādarling person.ā Well, I do know Edmund and can assure you heās that and much more. Besides being a fascinating raconteur and best-read person I know, heās also the most generous, big-hearted, unpretentious person I can think ofāespecially for someone whoās a celebrated writer and doesnāt have to be any of those things if he doesnāt want to. As with Samuel Delany and John Rechy, I love the man as much as his work, and I wish there were more people I could say that about.
As you mentioned, things in the publishing industry are changing at a rapid clip. Since leaving Alyson and founding Magnus, what new publishing insights have you gained?
The biggest lesson for me has been to try and stop thinking along traditional lines of publishing, in every sense of those words. So much has changed over such a short period that decisions I made, even as recently as a year ago, I would today do differently. But you make the best choices you can with the information you have at the time and punishing yourself for not being able to predict the future really has no place or purpose. I would say in this sense the insights Iāve gained apply beyond just the business world. Sometimes in the navigating of challenging professional situations, including painful moments that you canāt imagine your way out of, you gain a broader insight. Much of this is professional insightāyou learn to be a better business person, but for some people you also learn to see yourself and your path, so to speak, in a more spiritual way and that impacts not only how you operate as a business person but also as an individual.
Do you have a vision of what LGBT publishing will look like in the next ten years?
Susie Bright paid me the highest compliment when she first saw the Magnus website. She called and said, āThis is what I hoped LGBT publishing would one day look like.ā I saved her phone message for weeks because, believe it or not, writers are not the only people desperate for recognition! Iām not sure, though, what Iād predict for the next decade of LGBT publishing. Iād guess for the most part the same kinds of books will be published, but where the real change will take place is in how theyāre produced, sold, and read. It may look radically different or the change may not be as all consuming as some predict. Anything is possible.
Since founding Magnus, are there any projects you have been particularly proud of?
So many of them, but I wouldnāt want to single out any one. I hope though that those writers by now know who they are. Iāve been lucky to have worked with some incredible people, almost all of whom Iād gladly work with again.
What can we look forward to in the upcoming year from Magnus/ Riverdale Ave Books?
First are three titles that were announced some time back but were delayed due to the transition of Magnus. They happen to be three books Iām especially excited about.
American Hipster by Hilary Holladay is the first biography of Beat godfather Herbert Huncke, who coined the word ābeatā and served as the groupās authority on drugs, gay sex, and the underworld of Times Square. Every time I re-read this book Iām knocked out by it all over again. Itās meticulously researched but also laugh-out-loud funny in places.
Alan Cummingās anti-circumcision book, May the Foreskin Be With You, is as extraordinary as Alan himself. It looks at how circumcision came into being, how it became more prevalent, and ultimately why itās harmful, even dangerous, not to mention unnecessary. I came to this title not knowing much about the debates but after reading the manuscript, Iām completely on board with Alan and fellow activists.
Best-Kept Boy in the World by Arthur Vanderbilt tells for the first time the incredible story ofĀ Denny Fouts, the most famous male prostitute of the 20th century, who appears more or less as himself in the fiction of Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, and Somerset Maugham, all of whom were fascinated by Denny.
Deeply Superficial, now out, is Michael Menziesā hilarious, and at times, really touching memoir about his lifelong obsession with Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, whom the author believed all through childhood were Ā his birth parentsābecause he couldnāt possibly be the son of his very unglamorous actual birth parents. The book takes readers around the world as the author chases after the starsā legendary pasts.
In fiction, I just finished final edits on The Red Shoes by John Stewart Wynne, which is one of best novels Iāve ever worked on (no heterosexual has weighed in on the book, however, so we donāt yet know if this is a āgreatā book or just a āmeaningfulā one. I like it anyway).
I should also mention Ethan Morddenās upcoming novella and stories, Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man, as well as Zane Thimmesch Gillās harrowing Hiding in Plain Sight, a memoir of being a homeless transgender youth, and new editions of Lillian Fadermanās Surpassing the Love of Men and Riki Ann Wilchinās Read My Lips.
Something I just signed and Iām very excited by is journalist Tim Teemanās unauthorized biography of Gore Vidal, which for the first time focuses on the authorās romantic and sexual lives. I listened to one of Timās interviews and was bowled over by the never-before-told stories of his life in Hollywood by those who knew Vidal and sometimes slept with him. This is explosive stuff! And it only makes me love Vidal more.
Weāve been discussing doing a biography of Ellen Degeneres, and are looking for a pop culture lesbian writer. Weāre also considering a biography of Anderson Cooper.