A Chat With David Byron Queen
David Byron Queen is the founder of Word West, an independent publisher and writing school based in New York. Word West is set to publish Cheryl Pappas’s The Clarity of Hunger — which we excerpted here — on September 7th of this year. Take a look at the rest of their catalog here, their workshops here, and their Twitter here.
The conversation was conducted via Zoom.
Evan Fleischer: For the sake of the transcript, why don’t you hit us with the elevator synopsis of the press?
David Byron Queen: We wanted to publish stuff we loved, no matter what condition we received it in, whether or not it was a really experimental, wild book or a very polished novel you’ve worked over years — we wanted to see that, too.
Our whole thing is is collaboration. That’s what we value the most, and so we wanted to create a collaborative, positive atmosphere where they might take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take in normal circumstances. But the bare bones is — we wanted to publish books that we thought were really cool and needed to get out there no matter what. No matter if we thought they would make money or not. They were things we fell in love with that we wanted to share with people.
EF: That raises two questions, then — why is a collaborative environment necessary, and what are the nuts and bolts and boring, practical stuff in the ledger a press like yours has to keep in mind? Like, you’re not one of The Big Five.
EF: Because there are two kinds of value being implicated here: one is artistic value, community, and things like that, but the other is in trying to figure out a way to articulate value to an economic rhythm that isn't necessarily used to or open to or understands what it means to be creative in this country.
DBQ: To answer the first half of your question: the fact that we’re not even, like, aiming at becoming a ‘big’ publisher gives us so much freedom to just try things. We can try books that might slip through the cracks elsewhere. We can try out wacky marketing ideas — like, we created a Twitter bot for Sebastian Castillo’s Not I that just spouts out lines of it. Or with Dustin Hoffman’s book no good for digging — he was getting stories published while we were working on it, and so we just kept incorporating stories as they came in. And that led to another book.
And that’s all on the fly. There’s no hierarchy of ideas — like, we don’t have to bring our ideas to a department. It’s just, ‘Hey, we should do this, let’s do this right now.’ And I love that we’re open to changing the initial idea of the thing.
At this point, there was a brief digression about including all the ‘Um’s’ and ‘Ah’s’ in the final transcript, including the idea of swapping those out and replacing them with single, long, meditative ‘Aum.’
EF: When you’re improvising like this — is there a way to center or ground yourself in that? When I was doing freelance writing, there was a degree in which it was thrilling — but there was also a degree to which it was incredibly stressful because I was my own HR department, I was my own PR department … Is it the fact that there's more than one of y'all that helps you release the figurative steam, or … ?
DBQ: I mean, we do have a structure. Don’t get me wrong. Like, we have certain dates and certain benchmarks that we try to hit with our editorial schedule. There’s a marketing schedule, an ‘absolute last day to send things to print’ kind of thing … So we’re a little more structured that I’m making it sound, but we really do try and remain as open as possible — to the idea that things can change, and often for the better throughout the process. And we try and incorporate the authors in all aspects of the process, too — like, when we’re working on covers, we’re not just going to say, ‘Here’s the cover.’ We want to get a sense of their aesthetic preferences, even down a color scheme that can fit their persona.
I don’t want to speak for my authors, but I feel like there’s also a degree to which we’ve become friends with them, too. I don’t know if other publishing houses are like that or not.
EF: A lot of publications and outlets I encountered as I was growing up seemed to be just as much interested in ‘maintaining their voice’ as they were in bringing new writers on. And as a result of their interest in ‘maintaining their voice,’ they often took on a reliably conservative, ‘closed’ approach to publishing. So why is it you’re willing to be open when other people aren’t? Is that a fair question?
DBQ: Yeah. I mean — I don't know what it is we're looking for until we find it. I’m trying to remain as possible to the just the possibility of discovering something new that I didn't know about. I like thinking of our output as having a fluidity to it. I want to publish so many different types of books and different voices from all walks of life, and I want to funnel that sense of discovery and excitement to the reader and offer them that experience, too.
I always love this quote from Donald Barthelme where he talks about when he goes into writing, where the only thing he tries to think about is that he doesn’t know anything. He calls it ‘Not-Knowing,’ but that’s how I view it.