A Conversation with Steve Berman

Amanda Jean talks balancing writing time and Lethe Books’ LGBTQ collection with editor Steve Berman.

Continuing our celebration of Pride Month, our LGBTQ Director, Amanda Jean, sits down with author, Steve Berman. Steve lives in New Jersey, the only state with an official devil. His work has been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (Vintage: A Ghost Story), several Lambda Literary Awards, and a Shirley Jackson Award (Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe). He is a publisher at Lethe Press, and he almost fell off a cliff while exploring a ruined Buddhist temple in Mongolia. Honest.

Amanda Jean: Like a lot of publishers I’ve spoken to, you have more than one role: you’re a publisher, editor, and writer. Which of these roles requires the most dedication?

STEVE BERMAN: That’s a very good question. I would have to say that, for me, writing is more demanding on my time and creative energy. Editing comes naturally to me; I’ve been a critique partner to many writers for over two decades. And I adore talking about writing, storytelling, and helping others figure out what story they really intend to write. Publishing can be fun or frustrating. It’s akin to parenting — there are times when you are incredibly proud of your children (our books) and you are taken aback when others don’t see the good and the wonder in them like you do. But writing … it’s very hard for me to balance my time and workload. I’m a slow writer. I write awful first drafts. I need to revise often. I don’t write for the same reader that many of my friends or Lethe authors do. I don’t advise anyone to juggle these three tasks. I worry that I am letting someone, even if it only be myself, down.

One of the things that sets Lethe Press apart is the emphasis on speculative fiction, but also that you have an imprint — Tincture — dedicated to LGBTQ authors of color. How did that decision come about?

When I was helping out at Giovanni’s Room, the gay bookstore in Philadelphia, I noticed how few LGBT books existed that featured people of color as protagonists. Philadelphia has a vibrant gay black community, and they want to read books about individuals they can relate to. At this time, Thug Lit was a big thing and the bookstore had an entire bookshelf devoted to African-American authors, but a lot of the readers were buying gritty urban romances about men on the down-low. And if you were Latino- or Asian-American or South Asian-American, you might find one or two books in the entire store that were apt. That told me there was a niche, a deep one — perhaps a canyon — that was being ignored by publishers. So we now have over a dozen books in the Tincture line. I’m hoping for many more. Ironically, most of the POC titles are general fiction and not spec fic, which, as you said, is our specialty.

Lethe is also unique for having been around since 2001. A lot of small presses, especially queer presses, unfortunately tend to fold well before their five-year anniversary, but Lethe is in its fourteenth year. What do you think contributes to your longevity?

A heap of luck and good will on the part of many readers? A lot of small presses using print-on-demand technology (which we do) discount the books so that no brick-and-mortar bookstore would want to carry them. They rely on Amazon and their website for sales. I took the opposite approach — I wanted Lethe books in stores. I shocked many retailers by telling them, “Yes, you can order at a 50% discount. Yes, the books are returnable.” Authors want to be able to step into a bookstore and see their books on the shelf. That said, I would be a fool not to pay attention to online sales. We recently revamped our website so people can buy from us or from an independent bookstore or from Amazon.

Also, we have a fair amount of authors who realize the state of gay presses is precarious, and they do a lot to help. Some authors are like sea turtles: they email during the publication process, thank me for the contracted author copies, and then I never hear from them again unless they have another book. Eggs buried in the sand, now let’s go out to sea and forget about them. And a great many of these lackadaisical writers sell poorly. They fail to cultivate a fan base. They couldn’t care less if anyone reviews them. Writing is a pastime for some folk. And then, there are the authors who have ambition, who have a goal, a mission to tell a story, many stories, to many people. They ask, “What can I do to help?” And I always reply, “Here’s how we can help each other.” To them, I give extra attention, send out extra review copies, purchase Kirkus reviews, etc. Because they are passionate about their own work.

You have a long history in the world of publishing. I’m sure in that time you’ve seen the nature of the business change quite a bit. Do you have any conflicting feelings over, say, the rise of ebooks?

Ebooks are wonderful things. People with limited vision can increase font sizes or use software to have stories read to them aloud. Want to bring along ten books on vacation? That e-reader makes it a breeze. Have a limited spending budget? Ebooks are often cheaper than new books. To raise your fist in disgust and denial at the existence of this medium is akin to complaining about that damn sun rising in the East … again. They are here to stay. Have they murdered print book sales like mp3 songs have the CD? No. Many people like to own print books.

What I do not like is the consumer who bases what he reads solely on the price of an ebook: “Well, I would gladly buy the latest Miss Mumbletypeg Mystery at 4.99, but 6.99 is robbery!” Ask yourself, when you go out to eat, are you denying yourself some pleasure because of two dollars? And a good book lasts longer than a full belly.

I’ve heard that you prefer writing short stories to novel-length works. Does this still hold true, and why?

Alas, yes, it remains true. A short story is a brief encounter with a reader. A tryst. A moment in time that can never come again. It hopefully lasts in memory. A novel, because of length, because it often needs an entire cast of characters, demands more and more from me. If I write a story about a gay student in high school, I do not have to dwell much on what the Gay/Straight Alliance is like, unless it is vital to the character or the story plot. But in a novel, set nowadays, in a Blue State school, a Gay/Straight Alliance is a reality, and I have to tell whether or not my protagonist has joined the club, what he thinks of it, what happens then, as it is incredibly important to the verisimilitude of character and setting. But maybe not plot. Could be an alien invasion, but I do need to know if he or she has gay friends, what activities they do together, what clique he or she belongs to, etc. Novels are damn hard.

What genre do you think is underrepresented in the LGBTQ fiction world?

I cheated on this one and went to Wikipedia to refresh my memory on all the genres people/bookstores/publishers claim exist.

How about Wuxia? Or Comedy of Manners? Bangsian Fantasy? And Family Saga (probably because LGBT folk created artificial families in the past to replace homophobic biological ones). There are pretty obscure genres, obviously. And I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek. The LGBT fiction field is a pretty vibrant one. A great deal of it revolves around romance — is that because it is what readers want or because the way to identify gay or lesbian or bisexual individuals is through their romantic interests? Chicken or the egg quandary. If you posed me a genre, in 15 minutes I could pretty much name a few writers working in that field. That is proof we have a healthy readership. I just wish there were more of a community. It’s a bit fractured: the romance writers have their conventions, the literary crowd have their events, the spec crowd rarely goes to science-fiction author conferences, and the Old West writers must be stumbling around looking to paint a wagon. LGBT authors should interact more, regardless of their genres.

How different is the process of editing an anthology vs. a single title?

Oh, it’s a totally different creature. Some anthologies are reprint anthologies. So the editor is really more a collector of stories — the workload depends on how well-read she is in the topic. Original fiction anthologies are more demanding. You have to herd cats. You have to find authors who can meet the demands of the book. You have to hope they are interested (usually bribing them with money is incentive). You have to realize that some of these folk will never complete their stories. You have to nudge them along if they are tardy. You have to give them feedback to ensure their story is the best it can be. And then, you have to realize that you’re probably going to lose money since anthologies sell less than a tenth of a great novel’s sales. They’re fun, but doing too many can kill your press.

A collection or a novel is a relationship. A partnership. There has to be a great deal of trust for both parties. The author must believe that the editor can and will do everything reasonable to make the book shine. The editor must believe the author is up to the task of revising again and again and again. We recently released a single-author collection that took a year’s worth of revising from three different editors. The result was a starred review in Kirkus. We hope the book is a contender for many awards. If we had not been so demanding, the book would not have earned such high praise.

Finally, do you have any goals you have yet to achieve?

I would like to write another novel. Sooner rather than later. I would like to win a Lammy Award for a book I edited. And one for a novel or collection. I would like to know that something I wrote or published brought a woman, a girl, a boy, a man, some comfort and chased away depression. I can never hear that enough, and it’s not a goal that I will ever consider met until it happens a thousand times a thousand.

Interview originally published on 6/17/15.