Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Get to Know Literary Ontario, with Sumanth Prabhaker of Madras Press

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Sumanth Prabhaker

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a unique and market-defying press that publishes individually bound short stories and novellas in beautiful but inexpensive limited editions. All proceeds from sales of the books go to a charity of the author's choice. The recent Madras Press list includes new work by Ben Marcus, Andrew Kaufman, Ken Kalfus and Donald Barthelme.

This summer Open Book will be checking in with short story writers and publishers to celebrate and explore a genre in which anything is possible. Sumanth Prabhaker starts us off by telling us about Madras Press's origins and why he thinks this transitional period — when the affairs of the publishing world sometimes look a little bleak — is so full of potential.

Open Book:

Tell us about Madras Press. How did it get started, and what makes it distinct from other small presses?

Sumanth Prabhaker:

Madras Press got started in my living room. I was rearranging the books on my bookshelves, and I kept putting certain ones aside without really thinking about it, and eventually I had this pile of favorites, and most of them were thin or tiny or both. And I thought it would be neat to start a company whose whole project was to create those kinds of books, the kind that are nice just to hold and look at, if not to read as well.

Our books are small and they don’t have blurbs on them, and the covers are uncoated, and some of them are colourful. They’re printed in limited editions and they cost about as much as a greeting card. The net proceeds from each book’s sales benefit a charitable organization of the author’s choice. Beyond any of that stuff, I think our books as objects feel appropriate for the stories within them — that is, the physical components and distribution model have been built with the content in mind. It’s a trait we admire in presses like Featherproof and Melville House and Akashic, and one that seems to hold very little bearing in the workflow at most larger publishers.

OB:

How do you select the stories and novellas that you publish?

SP:

It’s hopefully a good mix. Sometimes we have someone in mind and we pursue him or her; others approach us; and others come to us in the mail. In our second series, we published our first classic reprint, a Donald Barthelme story from The Dead Father and Sixty Stories, paired with an afterword by Rick Moody. That’s a project we’d like to continue doing.

OB:

Do you see common themes or a stylistic preference in Madras's list of titles?

SP:

I don’t see a clear one, but I bet anyone who read them all would be able to. We happen to appreciate speculative fiction and fabulism, but only when it’s good. I also like food writing a lot and am trying to put together a series of little books about eating and cooking. And a good murder mystery can be very special. But if we’re doing our job right, the books, no matter how different in content, should share a sense of necessity — that this is the way in which they ought to appear, rather than bundled into a magazine or a larger collection. That feeling that a story could do better on its own than with others is something we always look for.

OB:

The materiality of these wonderful books is obviously very important to you and your authors. Do you think that a book's production value will become more and more important when it comes to a reader's decision to buy a physical book rather than an ebook?

SP:

That makes sense to me, anyway. If it’s so much cheaper and easier to read on screen, those invested in physical books will have to capitalize on their peculiarities to stay competitive. Making a book more pleasant to hold in your hand than a mouse or tablet. Printing on paper that feels good every time you turn a page. Producing a book whose trim size seems to want to enhance the reading experience, rather than simply to hold some hardware. And maybe most importantly, offering products for sale in stores that are actually fun to visit.

I can understand preferring the iTunes bookstore to visiting a Borders, because it’s equally a chore to visit either of them — they’re ugly and the lighting is terrible and I don’t know the people who work there and there’s no character to the selection, so of course the cheaper alternative wins. But it’s more than worth paying full price for a book when you buy it at, say, Ada Books in Providence, or Type Books in Toronto. Because you’re buying the experience, then, of going to these amazing places where good books matter and bad books don’t. Until someone figures out how to replicate that feeling during an online checkout, there will always be a reason to pay more for a book than for its digitized content.

OB:

What is the biggest challenge to running a press like Madras?

SP:

It’s never easy to turn down a good manuscript that comes in the mail. I hate that part. Too often we’ll find something that’s really good, but just not the right fit — maybe too similar to something we’ve already published or are planning to, or something we wouldn’t be equipped to market well enough — and we have to pass on it. And, being a writer, I know how loaded those rejection notes can seem, so it’s particularly important to me to be able to convey the it’s-not-you-it’s-me-ness of the transaction. I’m sure I’m awful at it.

I also didn’t enjoy filling out the 501(c)3 paperwork.

OB:

It's easy to be bogged down by the bad news stories about publishers and distributors going under. What is your opinion about the state of Canada's publishing industry?

SP:

Things maybe look a little bleak from certain perspectives, but eventually I think this period will be looked back on as a very good transition, one during which the myth of the sustainable publishing conglomerate went away and room was made for some really wonderful small presses to establish their catalogs. As long as places like Coach House and Gaspereau and Mercury are able to do business, I see no reason to panic.

OB:

Tell us about your own writing projects. What are you working on these days, and how does your involvement with Madras influence your work as a writer?

SP:

I’ve got a couple of other novellas, besides my Madras Press book, A Mere Pittance, and I’m a little unsure what to do with them. One is about tree sloths and one is about a guy with bad dandruff. I’m currently at work on another novella, all dialogue like A Mere Pittance, involving some Scientologists. And I’m researching in anticipation of a book of short stories I expect to write over the next few years, mostly about Nikola Tesla.

I’m sure these two parts of my life affect each other, but I may not be the best person to tell you exactly how. I have lately begun to worry less and less about how saleable a story might be before or as I work on it, and I’m sure running a company like this is somehow responsible for that — reshaping my definition of success as a writer, and focusing on the clear communication of sentiment and experience rather than on the potential to make money or garner fame among a threshold of readers. The idea of the thing itself being what matters, rather than how it can function in an oversaturated market.

OB:

What's next for Madras Press?

SP:

Lots of neat stuff. At least two more series of these little square books, with a similar selection of authors we know we like and authors we didn’t know about before but now we do and we like them too. Then maybe a change in format — something larger for a while, like the beautiful letter-sized serial booklets coming out from Fantagraphics now. Or something regular-sized. We are open to new ideas, anyway.


Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a non-profit publisher of individually bound short stories and novella-length booklets whose catalogue includes work by Aimee Bender, Ken Kalfus, Ben Marcus and Rick Moody. He is the author of the novella A Mere Pittance.

For more information about Madras Press and to purchase their books, please visit their website.

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