KR BlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureUncategorized

Publisher Spotlight: Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books

A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of three books, most recently, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, forthcoming from C&R Press in September 2019. His novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (2015) was also published in translation in China (2018). He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books, lives in Brooklyn, and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com.

Kristina Marie Darling:  How did you come to editing as a career path?

Leland Cheuk:  Five years ago, I was a largely unpublished writer who’d just quit my day job to do a residency. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, eventually had a stem cell transplant, and on the day the transplant engrafted, July 13, a small press took my first novel, which had been roundly rejected by New York publishers. Two years later, I was sending my story collection around, and a small press took it on July 13. After a stranger saved my life and strangers working at small presses saved my books, I felt like starting 7.13 Books, which only publishes first books of fiction, was the absolute least I could do. Today, my third book is coming out in September, also on a small press, and 7.13 Books has published nine books. I’ve been extremely lucky on many fronts, and I never want to forget that getting any book published is a minor miracle.

KMD:  What does literary citizenship mean to you and how does it shape your editorial decisions, approach to book publicity, and engagement with the larger community?

LC:  I suspect that most writers, whether emerging or mid-career, can feel the reality that books are declining in importance in our culture. The industry has become more corporate and commercial. And there are more entertainment options than ever. Sales for adult fiction, for example, are down 16% in just the last 5 years. The literary world is a relatively small niche. Consequently, a certain level of evangelism is required to keep this niche thriving. As a small press, we try to make editorial decisions the old-fashioned way—based on the strength of the manuscript, and the originality of the premise and execution. The main question I try to answer while reading is: Why hasn’t this type of book been published already? As for publicity, there’s more noise than ever, and there are formidable structural barriers in the book supply chain that prevent small presses from achieving large-scale sales, namely corporate distributors. Literary citizenship is critical for small press books. We rely on other authors and emerging writers to review our books and interview our authors. I used to review books, most of the time for free, just for the writing credit. I continue to interview small press authors, blurb their books, and post about books on social media. This evangelistic work is all sadly unpaid, but vital to the literary community. If we don’t feed the fire, the fire dies.

KMD:  Please share one story about your press, your authors, or the books you’ve published that demonstrates this.

LC:  The more writers you have rooting for you (or even just curious about you), the better your small press book will do. We’ve had a nice run recently of titles that have been reviewed by Kirkus and Booklist and have received glowing blurbs from bestselling authors. Publicity-wise, Not Everyone Is Special, a story collection by Josh Denslow, has done very well, partly because Josh is active in the community on Twitter, and is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly and other publications.

KMD:  In what ways has your definition of and commitment to literary citizenship changed in the past few years?  What sparked these changes?

LC:  I worked in corporate marketing, so I tend to link everything to economics. The publishing industry is reliant on these megahits like Becoming or Fire and Fury or Fifty Shades of Grey just to grow one to two percent each year. That’s not an economically healthy industry. There’s a reason why Bertelsmann, a giant media conglomerate, owns Penguin Random House. Books are a smallish part of a larger portfolio of media properties, relatively low on the totem pole. The healthiest market for narrative financially right now is probably Film and TV, thanks to the success of the streaming giants. Financial success for a writer can be a small press book that earns a $5,000 (or no) advance, but then gets optioned for $80,000 to be a film that never gets made. Despite this economic environment, lots of people still want to write books. MFA programs get crapped on all the time, but where would the book world be without their instructors cultivating this desire to write? All writers, no matter how far along you are in your writing life, have to promote the magic of books, because if you just look at the hard numbers, in a purely capitalistic sense, the book world doesn’t look all that magical.

KMD:  Tell us about one forthcoming title from your press that you think will change the world for the better.

LC:  That’s easy. Farooq Ahmed’s Kansastan comes out this fall and it takes place in a dystopic Kansas that is a Muslim state besieged by its neighboring Christian state, Missouri. It’s early Cormac McCarthy if Cormac read the Quran instead of the Bible. It’s also very funny. Farooq is a Muslim American male writing high-concept literary fiction that’s not about immigration or identity. Why aren’t there more books by writers like him?