Over a year ago, we introduced you to the remarkable Philistine Press. It’s my absolute pleasure now to bring you an interview with the site’s inspiration-in-chief Frank Burton, who keeps his patience with me whilst I ask him about what genre he’d define his genre-busting fiction as, and why Philistine’s books are all free (did I mention they’re all free? I can’t actually think of a single sane reason not to go and download them all now before you begin reading this).
1. There must be an anecdote behind Philistine Press…
I’ll tell you where the name came from. There’s a short story from my book, ‘A History of Sarcasm’ (Dog Horn, 2009) called ‘The Nature of Human Happiness’ which is a parody of a philosophical text, published by a fictional company called ‘Philistine Books’. It was written a few years before Philistine Press was launched. I thought at the time it would’ve made a good name for a publisher, not thinking for a minute it would end up being one.
Setting Philistine Press up was a bit of a spur of the moment decision – I had the idea and a couple of months later the site went live. That’s one great thing about the internet – you can get things done very quickly. I can’t imagine how long it would take to do things the conventional way – or indeed how much money it would cost.
2. You make a lot of saying there aren’t specific words to define Philistine books, but it certainly feels like there’s a Philistine kind of book, though I’d struggle to say what that is. If you were free associating for 30 seconds, what would you come up with?
I’d probably come up with the word ‘random,’ which I mean in the new sense of the word. It’s come to mean strange, weird, unusual – which could be applied to most if not all our releases.
Far from being random in the original sense of the word (they’re all carefully selected) our releases are often wildly different to anything else, and wildly different to each other.
So, I guess the word ‘different’ would be the most apt adjective.
3. I’m intrigued that you say you’re looking to reissue out of print books. That would seem to go against the idea of promoting books the mainstream wouldn’t publish?
What we’re really looking for are small press print books that are no longer available – so, still non-mainstream stuff. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t discourage out-of-print authors who once had major book deals from submitting – that would be cool. They’d have to be good, mind you – and of course there are many great mainstream authors whose books are no longer available.
I firmly believe republishing out-of-print work is important. The vast majority of small presses are only interested in original unpublished work, but I’m sure there are thousands of great books that aren’t available anymore – and that’s a shame.
Andy Hopkins’ ‘Dark Horse Pictures’ is a prime example of that – it was initially published with a limited print run and was only available to purchase for a very short amount of time. It’s a great poetry collection and it deserves more than that.
4. One of the things I love about Philistine is that the books you champion are markedly outside of the norm, but you don’t fall into the “too shocking for the mainstream” approach, either in terms of content or format. I wouldn’t say Philistine is stubbornly esoteric or intellectual, nor is it full of paraphilia, yet your books remain challenging…
Being challenging is important. I can’t think of any great works of literature that don’t challenge the reader in some way. Challenging doesn’t necessarily mean controversial or anti-establishment. I’m interested in anything that makes the reader see the world in a different way.
Some of our writers’ work could easily be called shocking (Mr If perhaps being the best example), but not in a ‘Look at me, aren’t I outrageous?’ kind of way. Those kind of tactics rarely work to a writer’s advantage.
5. You say you’re looking for more non-fiction. That’s got to be a massive challenge in steering the line between the kitsch, the nicher-than-you, and the downright obfuscatory.
Ha ha, yes. To be honest, I’m not dead set on publishing non-fiction and I’d only publish something that would sit well alongside our other books. I just like to keep the parameters for submissions as broad as possible. I’d hate to turn away the 21st Century equivalents of The Origin of Species or The Communist Manifesto just because they don’t fit within our guidelines.
6. Free is fabulous, but do you find yourself coming in for criticism for it, and if so from whom?
We don’t get criticised very often because people who aren’t interested in free online fiction don’t really acknowledge it or see it as important. A lot of readers aren’t interested in ebooks, free or otherwise, and that’s fair enough.
But plenty of people disagree with the idea of being non-profit. A lot of magazines aren’t interested in reviewing our work because it’s online and because it’s free. A magazine editor once sent me an incredulous email saying, ‘I can’t imagine any writer agreeing to have their work published without payment.’
I guess that kind of attitude ignores the fact that most writers are never going to make significant sums of money, and for many writers, money is of no concern.
7. One of the many things that impresses me is the quality of your products. Not just the editing or the excellent texts you select, but the way the digital files are put together. They’re beautiful things. Is that important to you?
Yes, absolutely. The work deserves to be packaged properly. Funnily enough, I’m in the process of redesigning most of the book covers and they’ll be online very soon.
I can’t take credit for any of the artwork – I’m not an artist or a photographer. I try to find the best artwork I can for each book. Sometimes I don’t need to look too far because the writers do it all themselves. Sarah Ogilvie’s illustrations for Rob Sherman’s poetry in Valve Works are perfect.
8. You give your work away for free, but certainly in my case (and I know I’m not the only one) you are *the* aspirational publisher for writers who care about the future of literature. Do you see yourself taking submissions again any time soon?
Yes, as soon as possible – most likely in the early part of 2012. I’m itching to reopen submissions but it’s not practical at the moment. We already have some forthcoming releases sorted, so I’m just focussing on them for the time being.