In Conversation with Nathaniel Kunitsky of Knight Errant Press

by Sonali Misra

 

Sonali Misra (SM): Glad to finally have a chance to talk to you about your new venture, Knight Errant Press, and its debut release, F, M or Other. Could you first give our readers a little intro to yourself and how you found your way here?

Nathaniel Kunitsky (NK): When I graduated from the University of Edinburgh, I was at a loss as to what I really wanted to do, and my family pointed at my personal mobile library and told me I should probably look into something that has to do with books and the printed word. So, I saw the publishing course at Edinburgh Napier and thought, “Hey, this is for me,” and it feels like quite a generic, rather privileged way to get into publishing. And it is, but it also gave me insight into the industry and the ability to get a bit of experience through internships in the local publishing community. The publishing course and the internships are the reason I set up my own press because I was frustrated with how these things really worked – how internships weren’t paid, how diversity was seen either as a marketing ploy or something that made finding an audience difficult. I also found this attitude similar regarding translated books – Oh, an English reader is going to get really confused by this translated work and complicated name, so they’re going to just avoid that book altogether. I was quite tired of publishers catering to those attitudes instead of challenging them.

F, M or Other was a separate project that I really wanted to do, and I thought that if I want to change these things, even by a little bit, I might as well set up a press to publish the first project through it.

I was frustrated with … how internships weren’t paid, how diversity was seen either as a marketing ploy or something that made finding an audience difficult. I also found this attitude similar regarding translated books … I was quite tired of publishers catering to those attitudes instead of challenging them.

SM: Why did you choose Edinburgh, especially when a short train ride away in London you can find the hub of English-language publishing in this part of the world? And why did you choose creating your own venture as opposed to entering the publishing world through more regular means and changing it from within, even though I realise that’s extremely hard to do as an individual?

NK: As fun as London is, I don’t think I’d enjoy living in a big city. I grew up in one, and you’re not really connected when you’re living somewhere that huge. It’s also extremely expensive, which should be my first answer really. I already lived in Edinburgh at the time and enjoyed it. I prefer the people who come together in Scotland and do art and other creative work. I feel like a lot of good stuff out there in the UK comes from Scotland and the north of England.

I had about a year where I wasn’t able to work due to immigration reasons, so I had time, if not money and other resources, to start thinking about and working on my press. There are ways to change the industry from the inside and it’s a totally valid way of going about it – I’m not saying it’s harder or starting your own enterprise is any easier – but when you’re joining somebody else’s company, you can’t necessarily switch things around. You need to get to a certain position where you can make those decisions. It’s a really tough nut to crack because the people in the upper management – the people who make those decisions – rarely change. They also tend to have the money, and if you start at the bottom, you’re less likely to have the funds that can influence such decisions. Obviously, these things are changing, and I feel a lot of the times in a small press that you set up, you decide how it’s going to work and you become the tastemaker, whereas in a company you must always have in mind the tastes of your employers. It’s hard to do it both ways, but I think it’s particularly hard to do it from within the established industry unless you manage to climb your way up fast and command a lot of attention and respect. And even then, there are so many publishing houses that have certain views on what should and shouldn’t be published. Though I did hear of Headline that had an editor for a long time who won over a lot of respect and they’ve given her an entire imprint.

In a small press that you set up, you decide how it’s going to work and you become the tastemaker, whereas in a company you must always have in mind the tastes of your employers.

SM: Dialogue Books? [You can read more about Dialogue Books and Sharmaine Lovegrove in the Hachette UK’s Group CEO’s interview with The Selkie here.]

NK: Yeah, Dialogue Books. And she’s doing amazing things with it. But if we talk to Sharmaine Lovegrove, I think we’ll realise just how long it took her to get there.

SM: Do you believe that to create diverse books that represent various communities, publishing needs a workforce that represents those communities as well? Do you think the various diversity internships and work placement opportunities that most big publishing houses are offering these days are sufficient or is there something else the industry can do?

NK: I do think that the workplace has to be diverse, simply because everyone has such differing experiences based on the various characteristics they have. If these people are brought to the table and listened to regarding what work gets put out, I think we would see a change in what gets published and who gets published. For writers from marginalised backgrounds – people who don’t get their voice either heard or published in the mainstream press – I think there tends to be a degree of shyness about submitting to presses when they’re staffed by, let’s say, old white people.

For writers from marginalised backgrounds … I think there tends to be a degree of shyness about submitting to presses when they’re staffed by, let’s say, old white people.

Publishers are making steps towards changing things but I don’t think it’s enough, and it’s slower than I’d expect it to be considering how varied the UK population is. Personally, I’ve not hired people to Knight Errant Press because I don’t have the resources like a full-blown company, but one of my ambitions is to be able to secure funding so that I’ll be able to pay an intern for the entire year so they can learn about the trade. There’s also BAME access to the creative industry, which I think is great because that secures a space for them. As much as people say interview processes are blind, I don’t think they really are most of the time. I think there should be more opportunities for BAME people, for instance, so they can believe they can make it in creative industries like publishing. It’s all interlinked, and the class differences need to be addressed as well. For example, unpaid internships – not everyone can afford to work for free when they have to pay rent. The publishing industry needs to show it’s accessible to different kinds of people, and one of the ways to do this is by removing the prerequisite of having a publishing degree, which thankfully has been done by a few organisations.

SM: Is it necessary for one to pursue the master’s in publishing like you did to start a new publishing business?

NK: I don’t think so. It definitely helps because it gives you an overview, the basic skillset and the opportunities to attend various events and apply for internships. But, like many things in academia, it’s not up-to-date, so I found myself quite frustrated with the standards in publishing that were taught to us. So, you can definitely bypass it altogether and work your way in. And now, I don’t think it particularly helped me learn how to run a business, because there’s so much more to running one than knowing the individual parts of how a book gets made. You need to know how to run a company, run events, interact with authors, and the more in-depth things about editing. A lot of it you can learn on the job, but I don’t think you can learn these beforehand unless you’ve worked for many presses before. So, I think many people just jump into it, start a press and ask people for advice on the way.

Like many things in academia, [publishing courses are] not up-to-date, so I found myself quite frustrated with the standards in publishing that were taught to us. And now, I don’t think it particularly helped me learn how to run a business, because there’s so much more to running one than knowing the individual parts of how a book gets made.

I was a member of Society of Young Publishers (SYP) and I thought it was really useful while I was studying at Napier. Right now, I don’t find SYP as helpful for me. I found a full-time job in publishing that pays my rent and I’m lucky enough to enjoy it as well, but I’m also doing different things from the other job-seeking graduates in publishing. So, I’ve recently set up a group for small publishers and presses, and I’m developing that. It’s called the Radical Alliance of Small Scottish Presses and Publishers – it’s a long name, so it’s abbreviated to RASP.berry. The idea behind it is that while SYP and Publishing Scotland are there, they don’t cater to intersections of individuals or groups of people who do small-scale production of valuable books. I think those people do important work culturally but tend to be overlooked by both organisations, and they benefit by coming together and chatting about what troubles they’re facing and figuring it out, making connections and networking in the process. 

SM: What are some of the lessons you wish you’d known earlier? And were there any misconceptions you had regarding the business that got cleared along the way?

NK: First, I wish I’d known how much more time the whole business side of things as well as the creative one would take before I’d started. I’d foolishly assumed it would take two to four hours a day. Whereas in reality, I can’t even use a timer to measure how much time goes into Knight Errant because it slips in between everything, from checking the social media in the morning to answering emails every chance I can. Second, the importance of having a partner in business, although it can be quite problematic if you part ways. I think partners are a godsend because you have somebody else bringing in something different, but ultimately you have the same motivations and you share the workload. I’m running Knight Errant alone at the moment, and it’s bloody hard work. I do have a team, but they’re all doing their own freelance work – I’ve never stipulated they must be fully committed no matter what. So, I envy other publishers who are in a duo or trio because not only do they share responsibilities, but it also gives you the focus to do specific things and bring it all together, rather than be scattered. Third, the hidden costs in publishing, which I was aware of, like 60 per cent of it, but all the other costs like buying ISBNs, the number of government agencies that’ll request your book for free, and so on. I wish I’d known about them before. I also wish I knew how little support there was for small presses; publishers don’t like sharing their knowledge much. There’s no standardised author pay. There is the Society of Authors that gives estimates, but ultimately between publishers, there’s no hard-and-fast guideline about how much they pay their authors, even within ranges. So, a lot of that is being figured out as we go.

I also wish I knew how little support there was for small presses; publishers don’t like sharing their knowledge much … ultimately between publishers, there’s no hard-and-fast guideline about how much they pay their authors, even within ranges.

Misconceptions … they’d be regarding brand identity. I didn’t necessarily want Knight Errant to be labelled only as queer. I hope it’s not seen that way, but we haven’t yet produced work that isn’t queer, so I guess that’s the default set for now. But I feel like using specific words can be quite tricky because everyone assigns their own meaning to them. And people like pigeonholing not just other people but presses, brands and what they’re producing; even though you’re telling them exactly what you’re about, please don’t attach extra or diverging labels to us. I thought brand management and marketing would be less complicated but it is not. So that’s something for others to learn from. Whatever you have in mind, articulate it clearly but don’t be fooled into thinking others won’t make up their own mind about it, despite your clear messaging. I’d also thought distribution would be more accessible, but I’ve recently found that it can be quite restrictive for small presses and it is very much based on the economy of scale and how many books you have and what’s your print run, and that’s all dependent on how much disposable income you have to fund that. Last but not the least, having properly set foot in publishing, I have no idea how any small-scale publisher survives without external funding because you need money to start printing and make a book. But where do you get the money to fund the first book? And even when you have the first book, it’s unlikely to give you enough funds to do the second book. Publishing relies heavily on having initial capital from somewhere and the fact that a lot of people frown on funded work really confuses me because it’s almost an expectation that you should have at least ten grand stashed in your bank account for this to work.

SM: And that implies that only privileged folks can start their own publishing presses.

NK: Yes, exactly. So, funding for the win! And I’m afraid if those resources dry up, that’ll affect the diversity in publishing.

Publishing relies heavily on having initial capital from somewhere and the fact that a lot of people frown on funded work really confuses me because it’s almost an expectation that you should have at least ten grand stashed in your bank account for this to work.

SM: What advice would you offer someone looking to start their own indie press?

NK: Kickstart your indie books. Do not underestimate how much time you’ll spend on Kickstarter though – planning it, promoting it – it’s like a full-time job. Create a network you can disseminate your funding goals to – the faster it gets funded, the less drained you’ll be. If, for example, you don’t know how to do the production side of the work or the editorial side of the work or the distribution, it’s good to learn these things independently before heading over to Kickstarter, because you’ll have to calculate all these extra costs into your final budget. It’s not just about printing the book. You’ll either have to learn how to typeset a book or pay someone to do it, but either way, there’s the cost of the software or the freelancer who’ll do it for you. Short-term things like editorial and artwork have costs as well, but there are others like reprinting, shipping, storing. We also did a lot of marketing research by looking at other presses that were similar to ours and seeing what kind of strategies they used, how much they were able to raise for anthologies, and so on, and that was very useful. You need to be prepared to put yourself out there and run events, and that can be quite draining. If you’re not going to do events, then you have to figure out alternative ways to promote the book(s). Also, I don’t think multiple Kickstarter campaigns can run successfully if they’re too close together. As much as I’d like to do another Kickstarter soon, I set a minimum of six months between crowdfunding campaigns because of audience fatigue and social capital. There are only so many times in a year you can ask your close relatives and friends and extended social network for help with funding. So, you’ll be limited to a certain number of publications per year.

I don’t think multiple Kickstarter campaigns can run successfully if they’re too close together … I set a minimum of six months between crowdfunding campaigns because of audience fatigue and social capital.

SM: What’s next for Knight Errant Press? Is there a place our readers could submit their work to be considered for publication?

NK: Those are exciting questions! Knight Errant is producing a book this coming November aligned with an event for Book Week Scotland. It celebrates the idea of mapping queer experiences onto literal locations. It’s inspired by a project called Queering the Map, which is a geo-mapping project, so you can put your story down as a pin on a map. It’s a huge worldwide project, and I thought it’d be great to do that with fiction and nonfiction in the printed form because there are so few archived LGBT and queer works these days. It will be titled Queering the Map of Glasgow, and it’s in part inspired by a novel we’re hoping to publish in February 2019 by Ely Percy called Vicky Romeo plus Joolz. It explores the relationship between a butch/femme lesbian couple. It’s a rom-com with a unique take on Romeo and Juliet, it’s got a lot of cheek and is very Glaswegian. It’s quite funny and a product of its time, a time capsule of sort, capturing the early 2000s; it explores the gay scene then and the prejudices within that scene. It’s us going back to the queer theme, but it’s important because LGBT characters shouldn’t be the really good, perfect characters or the villains; like any other, they’re very much in-between. It’s important to point out that just because you’re part of a marginalised community, it doesn’t make you fault-free and prejudice-free. Later on in 2019, we’ll be publishing the second volume of F, M or Other, which will be the last volume but is closed for submissions at the moment. Also, we’re launching a new imprint with Queering the Map of Glasgow, and it’s called Wicked Wee Bks. I was always quite fascinated by pocket-sized books that are run in series and have a consistent graphic presentation, and I’m hoping to do that for Knight Errant as well. The work that will go into this imprint will be that which rarely gets taken up by traditional publishing because it’s either too long or short to be in that format. So, long-form essays, long short stories, flash fiction, letters, short novellas, poetry – not everyone has a lifelong collection of poetry in them but those few pieces are also worth putting out. We’re open to submissions for this imprint. And we’re always open for other submissions as long as people read the guidelines. I love it when people read what’s on our website because that tells us they care.

LGBT characters shouldn’t be the really good, perfect characters or the villains; like any other, they’re very much in-between. It’s important to point out that just because you’re part of a marginalised community, it doesn’t make you fault-free and prejudice-free.

SM: Thank you for sparing time out for this interview, and we wish you all the best for your venture.

You can buy a copy of the anthology yourself in local bookshops, or online at Knight Errant Press. You can follow Knight Errant Press at @KnightErrantPub. And you can read a story from the anthology here.

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NATHANIEL KUNITSKY

Nathaniel is the founder of Knight Errant Press, he loves languages and stories and occasionally dabbles in translation. Publishing is his way of engaging with the world as an activist. He enjoys curating and releasing into the wild the kind of content he wishes he’d had access to when he sought his place in the world. Knight Errant publish a polyphony of voices from the margins.