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L. Timmel Duchamp and Her Excellent Aqueduct Press Celebrate Reaching the 50-Book Mark

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Among the sharpest, smartest independent presses out there, the Seattle-based Aqueduct Press recently reached a milestone: this past week they published their fiftieth book, in a span of only six years. That latest book is a collection of stories and essays by Chandler Davis, titled It Walks in Beauty. Davis' book is the first in a new series for the publisher: Heirloom Books, dedicated to bringing back into print and preserving work "that has helped make feminist science fiction what it is today."  This is in keeping with their general mission statement: "Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction. We promise to bring our readers work that will stretch the imagination and stimulate thought."

During the six years that founder and writer L. Timmel Duchamp has run Aqueduct Press, it's had an impressive string of award nominations and wins. Books from Aqueduct have won the Philip K. Dick Award, the Tiptree Award and the Carl Brandon Parallax Award, as well as been finalists for the Hugo Award and many others.

Most recently, Ursula K. LeGuin's Cheek by Jowl won the Locus Award for best non-fiction book/Art book.Why did one of the icons of science fiction and fantasy go with Aqueduct? Reached via email, Le Guin said,"I took Cheek by Jowl to Aqueduct because I wanted to have a book published by Aqueduct. It has a classy list, and the books are elegantly made, and it's on the West Coast, and it isn't controlled by its Marketing Department. And it's Timmi! Also, I had a specific idea about having a lot of little animal pictures all over the book. A commercial publisher is likely to throw this kind of idea to the Art/ Design/Cover Departments, where it dies instantly (and there are no illustrations, and the cover is both conventional and inappropriate.) At Aqueduct, I got a cover, and a whole book, full of little animals. I love it."

A lot of people love Aqueduct Press, myself included, because they've quickly established a reputation for quality that serves its core readership but is also of definite interest to general readers of SF/F and beyond. In addition, they've displayed admirable marketing and artistic savvy in creating a distinctive look-and-feel for their various book lines, including the Conversations series, which is a slim-sized paperback series intended to create a dialogue through publication of a wide range of texts, from poetry to essays, speeches, manifestoes, interviews, letters, and more.

Recent books include Through the Drowsy Dark by Rachel Swirsky, Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles edited by Duchamp, and The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick (mentioned previously on Omni). In addition, Aqueduct will soon publish suzy McKee Charnas' Dorothea Dreams as the second in the Heirloom Books series. You can find a full list of their books in print here.

I recently interviewed Duchamp about Aqueduct's success via email...

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Amazon.com: Most indie presses don’t last three years, let alone six, or ever reach 50 titles published. To what do you attribute your success and tenacity?

L. Timmel Duchamp: The quality of the books we publish, the community we serve, and the generosity of all the individuals who have contributed their time, skills, and counsel have all been essential elements for our thriving. Certainly I could not do it without my partner, Tom, and Kath Wilham. Tom handles the business-side of the work, Kath production. Another friend of ours, Lynne Lampe, does most of our cover design at a deep discount from her standard rates. And from time to time we have volunteer help with proofreading, copyediting, and our website.
 
When I started Aqueduct, two thoughts dominated my thinking: first, that mainstream publishers were for complicated reasons passing up excellent books that needed to be published; and second, that a solid audience for such books not only already existed, but was also a subset of a community known loosely as "feminist sf." And so my vision for Aqueduct Press was from the outset shaped by my sense of Aqueduct's being part of that community. WisCon, which aptly calls itself the "world's leading feminist science fiction convention," feels like home to us, and our decision to publish two series of publications-- the WisCon Chronicles (of which there are now four) and the Guest of Honor books (Without a Map by Mary Anne Mohanraj and Nnedi Okorafor, What Remains by Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman, and Plugged In by myself and Maureen McHugh)-- flowed from that connection.

Our newsletter, the Aqueduct Gazette, and our blog, Ambling along the Aqueduct, create space for conversation that goes far beyond discussion of the books we publish. I sometimes worry that I ought to be more narrowly focused on marketing our books, but I'd like to believe that since it's community support that keeps us going, I'm right to see Aqueduct as more than a producer and vendor of books.

Amazon.com: What was your first book, and do you remember anything amusing about your first days as a publisher?

Duchamp: Our first book was a collection of my own fiction Love's Body, Dancing in Time. We caught a major break when Booklist not only gave it a starred review, but also chose it for a special focus on historical fiction. (Never mind that Love's Body was science fiction! Of its five stories, one, a novella, was set in eleventh-century France, and another in 17th-century Bologna.) I had been so inculcated with the idea that publishing one's own work would call its quality into question that I let people know I was behind Aqueduct Press only when directly questioned about it. My friend Eileen Gunn, who used to work in the advertising industry, told me that was a mistake. She believed Aqueduct needed to be branded with my name to succeed and that I ought to be proclaiming it from the rooftops. So when I went to a party at the Nebula Weekend just a couple of weeks after we released Love's Body and I was standing around talking to about half a dozen other writers and someone asked me about Aqueduct, which of course no one there had ever heard of, I grinned hugely and said, "Aqueduct Press, c'est moi!" as I put my fingers to my breastbone with a dramatic flourish. A pause followed, and I saw my words registering. Everyone broke into astonished laughter. I then repeated this phrase everytime someone asked me about this press they had never heard of.

Amazon.com: You entered the world of publishing at a critical time in its history. What have the changes meant for you and your press?

Duchamp: You're referring, I think, to what feels like a vast techno-sociological shift in our lives in the ways in which text is mediated, and the implications of that for book culture. We've been living in a heavily digital culture for roughly a generation now. Books are written, marketed, read, and discussed within that context: which is something a small press cannot afford to ignore. This context, I think, works to the advantage of the really small presses (like Aqueduct), since it utterly changes the operations of gatekeeping in all sorts of interesting ways. Second, and probably most obviously, the advent of cheaper and slightly more comfortable and adaptable ebook readers and all the hype generated by the marketing of the Kindle and iPad has suddenly created a demand that books be available in digital formats. For publishers, ebook sales are insignificant (at this stage, anyway). Authors, though, tend to be anxious to see their books offered in digital editions, and so Aqueduct has begun the process of preparing digital editions of our books. We expect eventually to be able to offer epub editions of most of our books through our site. We've already begun to sell kindle editions of some of them on Amazon.

The publishing industry has, of course, been affected also by the sharp economic downturn-- corporate publishers have been slashing lines and jobs, resulting in even narrower notions of what is "publishable"-- i.e., what books they believe they can sell in profitable numbers. And so "midlist" authors previously published by the big guys, now deemed unreliable by the publishers' marketing departments, are turning to small presses. In addition, the field as a whole is depending increasingly on small presses for giving them a wider selection of books to read than the few that can be marketed profitably in mass quantities. I noticed something interesting, last Saturday, while attending the Locus Awards ceremony. Besides giving awards to the authors of the works that win, Locus also gives each of the works' publishers a "Scroll of Merit." As the publisher of Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl, I received one of these on behalf of Aqueduct. The other publishers receiving them, besides Eos/HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Del Rey, and Tor, were Nightshade Books, PS Publishing, Tachyon Publications, and Subterranean Press. The Locus Awards almost defines the mainstream of the genre. Anyone that thinks that small presses exist strictly at the margins of the field needs to think again.

Amazon.com: I know you love all of the books you’ve published, but are there any highlights or triumphant moments you most cherish?

Duchamp: About a year after I started Aqueduct, I accepted the Philip K. Dick Award on behalf of Gwyneth Jones, for her novel Life, which was the second book we published. Bounding joyfully to the podium to accept the award, I flashed on a conversation I'd had at the World Fantasy Convention a few months before, when a prominent sf editor congratulated me on publishing the book, which he said he had unfortunately not been able to publish himself because it had been deemed "unpublishable." I will never forget the feeling I had that night, holding up the award for the cameras, smiling so hard the muscles in my face ached.

Amazon.com: What have you given up to publish these books?

Duchamp: I've recently realized that I'm basically sacrificing my own writing career, which is not what I imagined happening when I started Aqueduct. I'm still hoping I can figure out how to be both a publisher and a writer. Sometimes I wish I could just ditch Aqueduct entirely. But my commitment to the press and its authors runs deep.

Amazon.com: In terms of reader feedback, can you share some of the most unique responses?

Duchamp: Although I'm frequently thanked with effusive emotion by readers and fans for the work Aqueduct does and even its very existence-- often the phrase used is "for doing what you do"-- such thanks still strike me as a unique response. The people thanking me are people who buy Aqueduct's books (and thus make the press possible). I always want to thank them. The ethos, I think, is that of the potlatch. Another response we frequently get, this time from people outside the feminist sf community, is grumbling or incredulity that a particular book is "feminist." If it's of high quality and interesting to read, they seem to think, it can't really be "feminist." I suspect that most publishers don't get either of these kinds of responses to their books.

Amazon.com: What would you like to see happen for Aqueduct over the next six years?

Duchamp: Two things would make me extremely happy: distribution of our books in many more independent bookstores than we have now, and a larger core of people sharing the work of Aqueduct.

Comments

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Possibly "publishing one's own work would call its quality into question" if one didn't have a fifteen-year history of short story publication in the best sf venues, a reputation in the feminist sf community as a scarily brilliant interlocutor, and endorsements from Hopkinson, Shawl, and Delany. In other words, if you're Timmi Duchamp, you don't have to worry.

Mazel tov, Timmi, and keep on "doing what you do" the way you do it (rather than some other thing in some different way).

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