In 2017, Author Leland Cheuk, created the small press, 7.13 Books, as part of his effort to save quality manuscripts that may have fallen through the cracks at larger publishing houses. Cheuk’s own experiences as a MacDowell Colony fellow and the author of two books: The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog, 2016), shaped his desire to build his own small press. Cheuk had published in top journals, won awards and worked with agents, but still failed to sell his first novel. Thoughtful Dog talked to Cheuk about his own writing, the creation of 7:13 Books and what to expect from the press in 2019.
TD: You’ve been publishing books for over a year now through 7.13 Books which is a micro-press focused on debut literary fiction. How has the experience been for you now that you have a handful of books under your belt?
LC: It’s been very positive. I’m happy with how the books have done in terms of publicity and sales. Most importantly, I’m happy that the authors seem happy with the experience and now they’re off and running. I hope they do nothing but bigger and better things from here.
TD: You’ve said that the Big Five publishers have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, based primarily on economics. Is that true?
LC: Absolutely. It’s a bit of a chicken or egg issue. Do readers buy less literary fiction because they don’t want to read tough books? Or do readers buy less literary fiction because the Big Five publishers have directed most of their resources toward commercial, blockbuster titles. The industry is unfortunately antiquated. Five or six very large companies have had almost 20 years to figure out how to address the threat of Amazon, and I’m not sure anyone can name a single innovation that has slowed Amazon’s gradual takeover of the book industry.
TD: Thoughtful Dog has profiled both Paul Cohen’s The Glam Shack and Alex Behr’s Planet Grim. Both of those books were fearless. The Glam Shack was also an interesting book in that it was awarded a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award for a favorite manuscript that an editor (in this case Josh Kendall who was then at Viking) had tried, but failed to acquire. It seems that you’re looking for authors who take risks. What else drew you to these titles?
LC: Paul used to be my teacher and Alex was in the same class almost 20 years ago. Over the years, Paul and I went from student/teacher to writer friends commiserating about how hard it was to break through as an author. I’ve always admired Alex’s stories. I knew she had an MFA thesis. I knew Paul had a novel in a drawer. I was going to start a press just by putting up a website and soliciting submissions. But then I thought, why not start with a couple of books so future authors can point to tangible examples of 7.13 Books (and so I could learn the ropes a little bit).
TD: The Salon article you wrote, “I Wanted to Publish a Book Before I Died” is one of the most compelling essays I’ve read in ages. At age 37, you were diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Can you talk about how this experience and how it led to the creation of 7.13?
LC: July 13th is the date my stem cell transplant engrafted. If your transplant doesn’t engraft, it’s more or less a death sentence. They can try a second transplant, but it’s a dicey procedure if everything goes perfectly. The doctors came in that day and told me my counts were going up again. Once they left, I checked my email and the message from the publisher of Chicago Center of Literature and Photography accepting my debut novel for publication was just sitting there. Two years later, I was sending out my short story collection and on July 13th, Thought Catalog Books accepted it. So 7.13 is kind of a birthday for me, as a person and an author. Between a stranger saving my life by donating his stem cells and two small presses saving my books, I realized I had to do something to give back. Call it survivor’s guilt, both as a person and as a writer.
TD: You’re also a published author, yourself with a novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP, 2015) and a collection of short stories, Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog, 2016), but your own path to publication was a long one. Can you talk a little about the struggles you had to get your own books published?
LC: It continues to be a struggle. My next novel is on submission now. I’m on my third agent. I think I’m on course for becoming the most accomplished, least published writer. I’ve gotten into some of the best artist residencies in existence. I have the MFA. I’ve published stories and now books. And it’s still hard. Sadly for any literary writer to be traditionally published by a Big Five imprint, it comes down to making one of 30 or 40 gatekeepers see dollar signs in your work.
TD: Did you feel different after your book was published?
LC: Everything and nothing is different. A lot of anxiety is wrapped up in that first book. You wonder if it’ll ever happen. You wonder why it’s taking so long. You fear that when it comes out, no one will care, or you’ll die unpublished and have wasted all those years of your life in front of a computer, typing and dreaming, instead of loving and living. But once that first book comes out and you share it with readers, you realize all that angst was just a waste of time. Because six to nine months after your first book comes out, people start asking, what are you writing now? When’s your next book coming out? And then you’re right back where you started.
TD: You give your authors a lot of control in the process which is something they would not get at a big publishing house. How has that worked for both you and the writers?
LC: So far, so good, I think. I usually made pretty harsh edits, but if the author feels strongly about keeping certain aspects of the book as is, I back off and let the author be the author. I usually have the authors work with the designers on their covers, and that works best when the author has some professional experience in speaking the language of a graphic designer. I’ve occasionally had to step in and provide that guidance because I used to work with creatives for a living as a corporate marketer.
TD: I think there is a notion out there that writers don’t understand how the business works. You secured an agent, but your first manuscript didn’t sell. I do think there is an assumption that once you get your agent your book will get sold. Are there other myths out there about the business that are just wrong?
LC: No one keeps track of the batting averages of agents. If they did, you’d probably be shocked at how low it is. They get rejected a lot on your behalf, and it sucks for them as much as it sucks for you. I have a friend whose agent stuck with him for over a decade and five or six manuscripts didn’t sell. Then on his latest try, it went for big money. I’ve often said it’s better to have no agent than the wrong agent. You have to trust your agent, but not expect them to do everything for you. You have to keep writing, keep publishing. Having an agent is the only way to make good money on your book. Period. Having an agent is likely the only way you’ll publish a story in The New Yorker or Harper’s. But getting an agent is not the only way to sell a book. There are so many bizarre aspects of the publishing business. I would encourage writers to learn as much as about the industry as possible. Start googling. We write the words that make books, so we should know a lot about how books get into bookstores and how books get into the hands of readers. I didn’t know enough before my book got published. It was like being a chef, doing all the cooking, and never talking to anyone who worked the front of the house or any of the people eating your food.
TD: Let’s shift a bit and talk about process. What is a day in the life of Leland Cheuk like? How do you carve out time for your own writing while running a press?
LC: I put my fiction writing first, my freelance writing second. Usually by late afternoon or in the evenings, I’ll do press stuff. That said, I’m responsive on email 24/7. The heavy lifting for me is the editing and the layout. Both are very labor-intensive, and usually require me to set aside my writing for a week or two.
TD: What is the role of the writer in today’s political and social environment?
LC: Oof, big question! I would say that there’s nothing wrong with writers keeping their readers in mind when they’re writing. Obviously in the States, especially, this is a politically intense time. It’s a time when no matter what your political views are, you’re questioning the type of future you want to live in and the future you want your children to live in. So I have to say, if your manuscript isn’t dealing with those questions, at some level, it’s going to show (in a negative way), especially if the work is intended to be literary fiction. So I would say a writer’s role is to engage with the same existential questions as the writer’s readers.
TD: You’ve got 5 books scheduled for release in 2019. I see one of the authors, Farooq Ahmed, is someone whose work you had admired and you got the chance to publish him. Do you want to give us a preview of the titles?
LC: Farooq’s book is awesome. It’s dark, experimental, and not like anything that’s out there. It’s called KANSASTAN and is set in a dystopian Kansas that’s a Muslim state being besieged by Missouri, a Christian state. The voice of the narrator recalls Cormac McCarthy except rather than being inspired by the Bible, it’s inspired by the Quran. We’ll have an expat novel set in Shanghai, a fabulist story collection, a coming-of-age tale told from the perspective of a young Muslim American Lothario, and a novel about a romantic relationship between two women that spans decades and is told from many different points of view. 2019 is going to be an exciting year. Very excited by our 2018 books as well. You can get more info at 713books.com.
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