books & writing

Interview with Olga Gardner Galvin

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Olga Gardner Galvin provides safe harbor for humorists, cynics, and misanthropes at ENC Press, a small, independent publishing house specializing in satirical novels, and July 4, 2009 marks ENC Press’s sixth anniversary. ENC is an acronym for Emperor’s New Clothes, and so it makes sense Galvin’s focus is on novels that reveal the bizarre truths underlying our outer representations. Her catalogue’s comic plots cover much of the socio-political terrain of our times and concern everything from big media and business in big cities to expatriate decadence, sex-change clinics, and trailer-park love. Monkey See is her latest title, and Dear Mr. Unabomber and The Eternity Brigade are due to be published later this year. Galvin’s authors include When Falls the Coliseum’s own Michael Antman, Mark A. Rayner, and Scott Stein. One reason Galvin’s authors love ENC Press is that she has managed to keep each of her 18 titles in print since hanging her shingle online in 2003. To view her complete list and a couple classics available as free downloads, visit ENC Press.

But first, note Olga Gardner Galvin’s conscientious answers to my interview questions below.

AK: Congratulations on ENC’s 6th anniversary this July 4. My understanding is that you have managed to keep all of your titles in print since setting up shop. Could you explain how you have accomplished this?                                    

OGG: Keeping my titles in print has been my main goal from the beginning. I knew, going in, that it would be extremely difficult to attract attention to any one small-press title in a market flooded by hundreds of thousands of new titles every year. In traditional publishing, a book may be given a chance, but if it doesn’t justify its existence by starting to make money for the publisher within weeks, it goes out of print, to make room for the next contender. I don’t believe that making money in this market, where John Grisham and Dan Brown sell millions of copies, is a measure of a book’s worth.

I didn’t start my own press out of a deranged notion that I might get rich publishing novels. As Richard Curtis, the literary agent and one of the pioneers of Internet-reliant publishing, said a few years ago, “This is the worst fiction market I’ve seen since the Franco-Prussian War.” I set out to publish novels that I feel absolutely must be published. It’s personal for me. I put a huge amount of hands-on work into each of them because I believe these books must exist in published form — available to readers. I’m just glad I have the skills necessary to make these books happen.

AK: I believe I’ve read of recent unrest on the French-German border in Strasbourg, but it could be a coincidence. Could you tell me how you keep your expenses down while keeping your books in print?

OGG: I keep my overhead very low by producing each title, from the initial edit to the finalized camera-ready file, myself — I only pay for printing and binding in small batches. It makes running a small press financially feasible, because I reprint only after the previous batch has sold out. This eliminates storage and handling costs, and the money made from the sale of each batch is enough to pay for the next batch. Marketing directly to readers and not to bookstores also saves a great deal of money, with much the same results. Big publishers spend millions of dollars on publicity, advertising, and paying bookstores to display their titles on the front tables, and, paradoxically, none of these tactics are known to sell more books. Nobody in publishing really knows what sells books. It’s an alchemy.

AK: Is it tempting to stop printing even “small batches” of the novels that aren’t selling?

OGG: I keep all my books in print because I believe they are every bit as worthy of their continued existence today as they were when they first caught my attention. Some ENC titles have sold better than others, but to me, they are all equally brilliant. It’s hard for books and readers to find each other among today’s masses of readers, writers, and booksellers. ENC Press’s low-key, low-impact business model allows me to give each book all the time it might take for more readers to discover it.

AK: Could you briefly describe your background in the book business and how you came to own and operate your own press?

OGG: I wrote a novel, The Alphabet Challenge, for which I tried to find an agent. Eventually, I found one, but he had no success in finding a publisher for it. As any aspiring author, I was stunned that nobody recognized the obvious value of my work, and decided to learn more about the publishing industry, something that most authors, unfortunately, neglect to do. In the words of one highly critically acclaimed novelist whose brilliant novels are not bestsellers, “Knowing nothing about the publishing industry is practically a prerequisite to becoming a writer.”

I started taking classes at NYU, and by the time I had a thorough understanding of how traditional publishing works, I had an equally thorough understanding of why my novel would never be published by a major publishing house. I had an even more thorough understanding that there must be thousands of great novels out there that don’t fit into any category or genre, won’t appeal to millions of readers, and will be impossible to market in traditional ways because of their one-of-a-kind, impossible-to-label quirkiness.

But those were the novels I wanted to read. So I started to freelance in big publishing, meeting people, making connections, learning production process, doing free proofreading for small publishers in exchange for crash education in book and cover design, until I had all the necessary skills in place to produce a book, from a raw manuscript to a camera-ready copy.

AK: Is it rare for a woman to own her own publishing house?

OGG: There are about 50,000 small presses in the United States, by the last count. I’d guess, probably not.

AK: Why did you decide to publish satire? Does it relate to America in general or our recent leaders?

OGG: It relates to life in general. I’ve always found American literature — which, as a body of work, is my favorite in the world — curiously lacking in satire. Mark Twain is just about the only American satirist that comes to most people’s mind. I was born in the Soviet Union, and our literary tradition is extremely rich in hard-hitting satirical fiction. This is what I grew up reading and loving.

American satire is mostly nonfictional. I’ve learned from meeting people in big publishing that the mindset is: satire doesn’t sell. (That means not as many readers are interested in satirical novels as are in legal thrillers.) Therefore, it doesn’t get published. Therefore, readers don’t buy it. Therefore, we’ll never know.

But satirical novels are what I like best because satire is an extremely effective way to drive a point home. I like to read stories that have a point I find relevant (whether I agree with it or not), and I like to laugh. That adds up to satire.

AK: Is it difficult to wade through piles of submissions to find fiction that is genuinely funny?

OGG: Not really. I can usually tell at a glance, from a query, whether the author has a style and attitude of the sort I am looking for.

AK: If fiction submissions were ice cream, please tell us the flavors you would most enjoy.

OGG: Artisan, one-of-a-kind flavors are the ones that get my attention. Pear–Lemon Balm? Rose-Cantaloupe? I’ll at least give them a try; however, a lot of aspiring authors assume that if I like unorthodox flavors, it means I must like them all. Sorry, no. Watermelon-Sawdust is not going to pique my interest. Although that’s not to say that it won’t find its audience elsewhere.

AK: ENC’s comic novels are written mostly by men. Do you have or have you had any relationship to what is sometimes termed the “Oprah novel,” as in, a book written by a woman about a woman and primarily concerning women’s issues — bad or departed men, societal expectations based upon gender, workplace discrimination, etc. In other words, have you ever had a taste for that kind of long, engrossing, sentimental novel where the heroine must stand strong and overcome tremendous obstacles?

OGG: No. But we have Terror From Beyond Middle England — which is very funny and stands the whole chick-lit genre on its head, written by a woman, a UK author Sarah Crabtree.

AK: What do you see as the future for the book business? Will online purchases dominate the market? Will we see large brick-and-mortar stores lose market share to Amazon? How will the small press or independent store survive?

OGG: I’m afraid the independent bookstore might not survive. The publishing industry, especially with the proliferation of small presses and self-publishers, is now putting out around 200,000 titles a year. Due to the limitations of physical space, only a tiny fraction of those titles make it to the brick-and-mortar bookstores. Online, you can find books fast, and the databases are much better organized than clerks alphabetizing the books by hand.

I think Amazon, much like Wal-Mart, will swallow up a lot of other options. I don’t put my books on Amazon because I don’t see that the third-party value they provide is worth the staggering discount they demand. ENC Press titles are easily found on any search engine, and ordering from our Web site is very simple.

Amazon’s policies have been very detrimental for small publishers, and I think more and more small presses will go the same, direct-to-reader, route as mine, and there will be more small presses springing up to fill the gaps left by the big publishers cutting their losses, reorganizing, and taking fewer and fewer chances on new authors. Curious readers looking for something original will be discovering more of those presses and their titles. Readers looking for legal thrillers, space operas, murder mysteries, and what you call “Oprah novels” will still be able to find them on Amazon and in Barnes & Noble, published by major publishers, all completely interchangeable.

The whole big-publishing model is built around the second kind of readers. I’m looking to engage and entertain the first kind. I don’t mind that there are fewer of them.

AK: Your website invites undergraduates to intern at ENC Press. Could you elaborate on what a young person can expect to learn on the job at ENC?

OGG: Not necessarily undergraduates. Actually, most of my best interns are no longer in school. These are young people who love discovering books and sharing their delight in books that are like nothing they’ve read before; successful interns help authors that dare to write something original get the attention they deserve. Those of them who are interested in learning more about the book business, have the opportunity to learn the stages of book production and the economics of running a small, alternative press.

AK: Could you end with a story or anecdote about one (or a few) of the most absurd experiences you have had in the book business?

OGG: I can share my favorite query ever, verbatim:

dear literary agent,
i’m sending you the first chapters of my novel,there are 300
“chapters”,miniatures would be a more accurate term though,anyway,the whole takes place in one small room and there’s only two characters,the main character( “I” ) is a girl of indefinite age,she’s obsessed with OASIS and morrissey,she’s rather self-destructive(but i’m not going to give away everything),she gets paid by the russian cow killer,paid for sex,paid to maintain her life style (basically she buys too many cd’s)….
so far i’ve published a few of my stories in highly obscure magazines,a few of my “russian cow killer stories” have also been published.
i’m 23,i live in london(leyton),i stack milk bottles for a living,but i’m
hoping to make a living out of my stories,the sooner the better…
best wishes,
Delphine
ps delphine’s not a pseudonym,it’s my actual name,i had to adopt the “zoë smekens” to hide from an obstinate hacker.
pps the excessive use of commas is a trademark,as are the
OASIS/britpop/morrissey references.
ppps i don’t do capitals,spaces after commas or paragraphs.
pppps oh and i have to point out that this novel isn’t autobiographical.

AK: Thank you for your time, Olga.

Learn more about Olga Galvin Gardner’s ENC Press.

Alex Kudera's debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day, won the 2011 Independent Publisher's Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of the adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online at Psychology Today, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Southeast Review, and other locations. If you're interested in a sample-size portion, The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity is free wherever e-books are downloaded. When he's not reading or writing, he grades, frets, walks, lectures, and helps raise a child.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Olga Gardner Galvin”

  1. Applause!

    If it weren’t for dedicated people like Olga, literature would shrivel up and die and then it would bloat and turn purple, and then maggots would start tunneling around in there, and the smell, my god the smell! You would vomit, just being near it. And then a truck would come by and run over the rotting, festering remains, smearing the whole disgusting, nauseating affair all over the place. Truly not for the faint of heart. Best not to think about it. Better still to think about kittens.

    Thank heavens, though, that Olga and her ilk are out there keeping literature alive! Go, Olga, go!

  2. To second Andrew’s sentiment, let’s thank our shooting stars for the Olgas of the universe – and let’s give praise and kudos to writers of Alex’s ilk to interview them.

    Rest assured, when poetic justice conquers prosaic fluff, she won’t come wielding a field axe but a scalpel.

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