In Conversation with Topside Press: Tom Léger, Julie Blair, Red Durkin, and Riley MacLeod
Author: Theodore Kerr
April 22, 2013
How do you create of a successful press with broad appeal, amid a sea change in publishing, while speaking specifically to, and with, an underrepresented demographic and community? This is the challenge and opportunity of Topside Press, a publishing house focusing specifically on “authentic transgender narratives.”
Following The Collection, their first release—a book of 28 short works by transgender writers—Topside released the novel Nevada by Imogen Binnie this spring. The book takes the reader into the mind of Maria Griffiths, “a young trans woman living in New York, trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail.” It is an impressive debut, that writer Michelle Tea said blew her mind. Waiting in the proverbial wings of Topside Press is Ready, Amy, Fire by Internet sensation Red Durkin, which comes out this summer.
Earlier this spring, Topside Signature, an imprint of the press, which publishes transgender non-fiction, as well as queer fiction and non-fiction, released My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B, and is set to publish Freak of Nature, a collection of essays and stories from former nun and comedian Kelli Dunham.
In the interview that follows, Ted Kerr talks with those involved with Topside Press: author and social media maven Red Durkin, publisher Tom Léger, editor Riley MacLeod, and designer Julie Blair. What emerges is not only insight into why staking claim in transgender fiction matters, but also how Topside is approaching the broken world of publishing with a fresh and innovative approach that should make everyone pay attention. For many who are intrigued with Topside, it is the press’ bold and bright aesthetic that has pulled them, so the interview begins with design talk.
Let’s talk about the design of The Collection. What is some of the thinking that went into making it?
Julie Blair: There is no solid thing about this book other than it is an anthology. There is no theme you can pick without making an assumption or being really obvious.
Tom Léger: We were doing some stuff for SRLP (Sylvia Rivera Law Project) when it was starting off and Dean (Spade) specifically told me, “Don’t put any pictures of people in it. I don’t want there to be any idea that this is what a trans person looks like.” This has really informed how we have made decisions for the last ten years, none of our books are going to have top surgery scars on them, or pictures of trans people smiling.
Blair: Right, because it is either joining a conversation that is oppressive—or worse, part of really tired conversations around what contributes to oppression.
Léger: We tried to make a book that looks like a real book, even the interior. We labored over the font and the margins. We want it to be very readable and look good. So many books that get published, even by big presses, go out with sans serif fonts and no margins. It’s really obnoxious and you can’t read the book.
Red Durkin: I can say, having experience as a bookseller, it is embarrassing to take someone to the gay fiction section.
Blair: The design of most of those books is so unintentional. It is not speaking to the person looking to buy the book. So much of why people still like books—and why there is so much romance around the loss of books—is that a book cover instantly speaks to you the way an album cover does. So many small press books or gay books have something too obvious going on. The cover is not actually setting the tone for what is going on inside. I wanted The Collection to look brainy and fun, because it is, and it is for everyone.
Riley MacLeod: I don’t want to say that our books look like “real” people books, but that is one thing we are fighting against, this idea that our books “thinks it’s people.”
Thinks it’s “people?”
Léger: Yeah, so many of the reviews for The Collection have not even been about the text.
Our joke is that the reviewers seem to be saying about the book, and the contributors, “Oh, it thinks it’s people!” Even the Lambda review, it was two paragraphs about how no one knows how many trans writers are in the world, then a paragraph about Red—which she was thrilled about—and that was it. It was really sweet, but we want to be taken seriously as writers.
Blair: And as people who have cultural ideas. We are not just sharing our body with the world to look at.
Durkin: When you talk about how nobody knows how many trans writers there are in the world, you are forgetting that nobody knows how many writers there are in the world. It is not suddenly more mysterious or more spectacular because we are trans.
MacLeod: We praise queer and trans books because of the person’s experience and not because of the quality of the work. I think something we have been trying to do is move beyond that. And I think the look of the books reflects that too.
Léger: I never call The Collection an anthology. An anthology is a record of what happened in the past and a collection, for me, is something that is happening in the future.
When did you start thinking about doing The Collection?
Léger: We started working on it around November 2010. And then we put out the call.
How many submissions did you get?
MacLeod: Around 400.
Léger: And we published twenty-eight. And most of the people we published in the book we never met in real life.
Blair: Or even on the Internet.
MacLeod: One thing that was important to us was how many trans anthologies are always the same big name people, and its not that we didn’t want those people, we just tried to judge submissions on the quality of the work. We didn’t think, oh well it has to include this person, or so and so.
Yeah, you don’t even have like “ Introduction by…famous trans person”
Léger: We tried. I actually don’t know any trans fiction writers. We thought we would then try to get blurbs and an introduction from famous people. We have been doing favors, providing space, and helping people out for 10 years in this community and no one would get back to us. Some people said they would do something and then they wouldn’t. The reason four out of our five blurbs are from cis women, is because we could not get anyone else. And I’m not mad. It’s not about us. It is about how outside of the mainstream this project was. Fiction is not a priority. But that doesn’t stop us. We didn’t wait around for a famous person to bless us.
In the meantime, the book has sold….
Léger: Good question. We know how many books we have printed because they are all done on demand. I know we have sold less than 1000 copies.
So there is not a warehouse full of The Collection?
Léger: No, to do that we would have to have a stockpile of money. If you are distributing through SPD (small press distribution), the cut they take is like 35%, and then the bookstore takes 50% when they sell it, and you are left with 15% to print the book and pay people.
How did you learn this?
Léger: Through the Internet. Googling everything we didn’t know.
Were you able to pay the contributors?
Léger: Yes, everyone got paid $200 or 20 copies of the books. We based that on their share of 3000 books sold. And we just finished paying them this week.
So the money came from the book sales.
Léger: Yeah, we have no money. We could have given them a sob story and promised them exposure but it was important to us that we built a model that was not based on exploitation of artists. And it was important for us to professionalize writing for trans people.
Where have most book sales come from?
Léger: Mostly from the Internet. We sell through every possible place where you could buy books, Amazon, bookstores. But honestly selling books through bookstores is like a donation to them. And the lead-time is crazy. We get paid like 120 days later and by then we are on to our next book. It will be different when we have 40 books out but for now, we make so little selling to them. It is our pre-orders that pay for everything. The reason we sell at bookstores is so we don’t cage in the work for the writers. We don’t want books to become irrelevant.
What were the submissions like?
Léger: We got a lot of suicide narratives and a lot of thinly veiled autobiography.
MacLeod: And it seemed like people didn’t know how to get into trans fiction.
Durkin: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a tendency for trans people to write autobiography, or semi autobiographical stuff, or basically tell their own life story, as though it weren’t real, because trans people have no other stories they know of. There are no archetypes or narratives constructed for trans people.
Léger: I think the way gay marriage infected gay men into thinking they had to get married, popular stories about trans people like Boys Don’t Cry, Silence of the Lambs, and stuff on Law and Order, limits how trans people think about themselves. I think the best thing to come out of The Collection is for it to help trans writers relearn how to think about transness in their own writing.
Durkin: I think the blurb we got from Annie Danger sums it up well: “Most books are about who trans people are, this book is about what trans people are thinking.”
MacLeod: Trans writing isn’t holding itself to a higher standard because there are no models to aspire to. And yet, all the stories in The Collection are good.
Léger: For good and important reasons. Something like Susan Jane Bigelow’s “Ramona’s Demons.” I don’t like fantasy but the story is well done. It has complex analysis and we know readers will like it.
Blair: And it trains the audience: this is what you should expect. Like with Buffy, they didn’t just take Melrose Place and add monsters. They took the opportunity to use these monsters and consider what is challenging for them. “Ramona’s Demons” is about being trans but the plot is not about this woman being trans. It is about this fucked up thing happening to her because she is trans.
How did the actual work of creating The Collection go down?
Léger: Once Riley and I got the big pile of stuff to read, we split it up, and we switched. We both read each other’s “maybes” and then we argued. In person. We said yes to about half, and the other half we gave suggestions and asked for rewrites.
MacLeod: There were a lot of people that were on to something.
Léger: Right. We worked with people individually.
You weren’t collectors, you were editors.
Léger: Right. Good writers are always excited about feedback. I have never had a good writer be like, “that was really mean, and I am never talking to you again.”
MacLeod: I think trans people get that. In Portland the moderator at one of our readings asked writers in the audience what kind of feedback they got in writing workshops. And I thought about how I am always getting stuff like, “You are so brave.” The Collection was an opportunity to really help edit someone’s story.
Léger: Just like no one has ever read work like this, no trans writer has had this kind of audience. Not just a trans audience. I don’t think this is just for a trans audience. I think one of the most offensive assumptions about what we are doing is that this is a book just for trans people. Trans people are part of the literary landscape and we deserve a voice in it.
What about the editing?
Léger: A lot of revisions over a couple of months.
I guess I am asking all these tedious questions because in a short amount of time Topside has put out a lot of amazing stuff and I just want to get a feel for the amount of work it takes.
Léger: Right and yet anyone could do this.
MacLeod: It is not like writing a book or publishing is in the hands of the gods.
Blair: It’s time or money.
Léger: We didn’t need $25,000, none of us needed to work in publishing.
Blair: I only happen to enjoy type setting because I am perverted.
Were the other books already cooking when you were working on The Collection?
Léger: Imogen, who we knew from before, and is in The Collection, emailed us the manuscript for Nevada, which is out right now. I did not read it for like, 6 months, because we were so busy. But when I finally did, I freaked out because it was soo good. I knew we had to publish it.
What do you think about exposure? It’s important that people read these books like Nevada, that people might not read otherwise?
Léger: Sure. I feel that we are the publishing wing of the large trans movement.
If you are the wing, what are the other parts?
Léger: Organizations that are doing the direct work, like Fierce and SRLP, people who are doing ground work with real trans people. You cannot have a political movement without art. These things are inseparable. Art does not come later.
So like Gran Fury’s relationship to HIV/AIDS and ACT UP?
Léger: It is interesting, if we look at how ACT UP was organized, it was loose with many parts moving together. We have a much more disparate movement in trans and queer culture now.
And is that related to what is going on in publishing. I mean, I am trying to get a sense of who your peers are?
Léger: Well I try to familiarize myself with who publishes all the gay people, and what they are doing, and what they are doing better than us and not as good as us.
And are you finding any role models?
Léger: It is really tough.
MacLeod: I used to work at a publishing house. The business is messed up.
Léger: I think what got me thinking about Topside was around this time Penguin said they were taking no new titles, which is like a grocery store saying they were taking in no more vegetables. And I remember thinking, who cares if Penguin wants to publish you? They are not doing anything interesting anyway. There is already no money in it, so how can we get value out of it? Why spend a year begging for Simon and Schuster to publish you when you could be getting your book out and be doing something with it? I mean actual change, growth, conversation!
So you are thinking about influence over prestige. How does your Pretty Queer blog fit into all of this?
Léger: Many of the people pitching us books have written for the blog. And to be honest a lot of what people are pitching should be blogs. There are a few anthologies that people have published and they should be tumblrs.
Blair: Right, there is no reason there that essay should be waiting for a book. People are looking for something to read TODAY!
Léger: And the only reason people want to publish these books is for the crown of having had a book published. And I am not interested in giving someone a crown.
Blair: It’s not books that are dead, it’s the prestige of them that is dead.
MacLeod: I think with our background and curiosity we have knowledge and skill to know what should be a book. We are invested in changing expectations around trans literature. It is not like there is only one story to tell. We are asking: Who are you going to be as an author?
Léger: We get to publish books other presses wouldn’t touch. And we are better for it because the work is really good, and there is an audience for it. So there is a huge business opportunity….
Wait, what is the business opportunity?
Léger: That trans and queer people want to buy books. Literature needs to be part of the conversation, not outside of the conversation and not only happening in universities. I think it is politically expedient of us to learn how to market these books in a way that is easy to give to a mass market. Riley and I have written numerous plays and I have never gotten so many back pats as I have with this book—and we didn’t even write any of it. Books matter because they stick around.
Durkin: You can’t consume books passively. I have read books with trans characters and yet I have never read a book for me. Nevada is for me. It touched me in a way that is unprecedented in my life before to the degree that I didn’t know that I could expect relate to a book that well.
Why is that?
Durkin: There is an understanding from the author that is unparalleled in trans literature. It has never been asked for by the publisher. No one has ever cared if the trans person felt real.
Léger: No one sees the trans people as a demographic.
Blair: Of course!
Léger: Yeah, because they keep buying our books.
MacLeod: We were talking about this when were going through submissions from The Collection, what we don’t see a lot is a trans person as a protagonist, or as characters in of themselves.
Léger: Middlesex is about Jeffery Eugenides feeling like a nerdy guy so he wrote a weird guy that he thought he could relate to.
MacLeod: And that is what it is about Nevada. It is about a trans person as a person and her experience.
Blair: I was so ready for it. Consuming culture as a trans woman you are so detached because it will not be about you. The closest it gets is the culture telling you that you don’t exist. And the difference with Nevada is how it is in your face: I AM TALKING TO YOU.
Durkin: Literarily, it is like having a TV character turn and say: “RED DURKIN, this is you!” Without Topside being around, I am not sure Nevada would have gone anywhere. No other publisher would have been committed. Even if the final draft had been presented to a publisher, they would have passed on it.
Léger: But it’s not like we published Imogen’s book out of pity. It is a really good book. And we didn’t publish it only for trans women. If anything I think her book is the future of lesbian fiction. It is a queer woman, dealing with queer things in a queer space.
Blair: It is a trans narrative evolved.
Léger: And we are putting our money into the book. We gave her a very modest advance; instead of cash we gave her the equivalent of $1000 in books at cost so that she could sell them at a price she determined. And we were able to organize a two-month tour on $3500 because we have a community of people who want to support our art. That is more than most presses can give. We are thinking not about just this book, but Imogen’s tenth book.
MacLeod: We are trying to think of the arc of their career.
Léger: We want to publish more. But we are not sure what else we are going to get. There is an epidemic of crappy trans non-fiction getting published. Most trans non-fiction gets done because it is a function of selling a trans body: poor trans people sell their bodies for money; rich trans people sell their bodies through books. That is not revolutionary or helpful. Our focus is not finding what is going to sell the most copies, or finding the most famous trans person we can. We believe in good writing.
MacLeod: And readers don’t always know that they want good writing.
What is Topside Signature?
Léger: Our friend Sarah Schulman had a manuscript for a book by Cheryl Burke, a performance artist who passed away at a young age. Sarah was in charge of getting the book published. Cheryl had been working on for ten years and it is really good, it is her autobiography. Sarah had a duffle bag of the papers, and she trusted us. God knows why. We tried our best. It has gotten exposure but we can’t get people to buy it.
Did Signature come out of the desire to publish Cheryl’s book?
Léger: Yes. I think a lot of other places would have been fine publishing it all under the same umbrella and I am totally fine with that but the difficult thing, we have done a lot of trans art and anytime you try to do trans art with other stuff, the trans work gets pushed to the edge. We are focused on trans fiction.
You are really asserting that trans fiction matters.
Blair: It’s its own thing.
Léger: We are in this honeymoon period where people are sending us stuff that has been sitting on their shelves and we are scooping it up because we know it is good. Like Red’s book is coming out next year.
MacLeod: Our willingness to engage in the editorial process is what sets us apart. The way technology works now anyone can self publish. But there is no one to edit, or to say, “That is not good.”
Léger: It is actually a huge disservice to publish trans work that is not good. It stunts their growth as a writer.
Durkin: And it lowers the bar for everyone else. You see half ass rave reviews for books by trans authors from people who probably have not read the book. It’s more of the “you are so brave” and the “you think you are people” mold. It keeps trans people stuck in a mold.
Léger: I never want to sell a book because someone feels sorry for us. If we are not publishing books that people are beating down the door to get then we are publishing the wrong books. I want someone to buy it because they want to read it.
MacLeod: My dad came to our reading at Housing Works. Here is a man who up to this point has read two books in his life: Lord of the Rings—which is technically 3 books—and Mortal Friends, and he bought our book and he called me to discuss it. That to me is like, wow!
Why do you think he read it?
MacLeod: I think the book has made him realize things about trans people that I, as his kid, can’t make him understand.