Zoe Dattner and I met at RMIT studying Professional Writing and Editing. We were taking many of the same classes and we ended up doing Visible Ink, the professional writing students’ writing collective and publication. We published a book as Visible Ink does every year, a collection of stories from the class, and that was a revelation. Sometimes you do something for the first time but it’s like you’ve been doing it all your life.
I then went on to work at Macmillan, post-RMIT, and a year or so later, Zoe joined me and we enjoyed working together in marketing there. The dialogue about starting our own company began because we wanted to publish books that we selected, and then we wanted to be in charge of everything to do with them – the editing, the design and layout, the marketing, the publicity. We didn’t want to continue to be just a little part of a much bigger process. So eleven years ago we quit our jobs and started Sleepers.
There are great books that are not being published and we have always wanted to find and publish them. That’s what we do. Whenever we read a manuscript that we fall in love with, we publish it. We publish a few books a year – just as many as we find and love. We have published mostly fiction to date – novels, mainly, and an annual collection of short stories, The Sleepers Almanac. We are just about to publish our first young adult novel, and we’ve just signed our first memoir. Being independent publishers means that we are not driven by a board or the market or anything sensible like that. We simply find books that we love and, complicatedly, find a way to fund them (i.e. grants). Naturally, we can’t pay advances.
We have always had a special affection for emerging authors, and our attention is often focused on new writers. It is hard finding a way to be heard when you are a new writer – it can be difficult getting a platform. They are a risk.
The people we have published are usually of a like mind. They have read our books. They know the work of the emerging authors around now. They understand that to be a small press publisher is an act of faith, one we make no money from. They are well read – most of the people we publish are incredibly well read, and I think you can tell by their writing.
Sleepers is part-time and it doesn’t pay our bills. It is a labour of love. This is the same for most independent publishers. From an author’s perspective, they may deal with the same one person in a small publishing company, from editing through to layout and publicity. This can have disadvantages, of course, and small publishers need to be careful of burn-out, but the advantage is that there is a real sense of ownership. We love our books, all of them, and stand by them. I feel very strongly that the books we publish need to be in the world, and deserve decent representation – they deserve to look nice, they deserve to be well edited, and they deserve as much of an audience as we can get for them.
I do not believe that books should have as short shelf lives as they have. I do not give an author a couple of weeks of publicity time. They have as long as it takes. I am always at the end of the phone or email, even for an author whose book was published a couple of years ago. It is an ongoing relationship.
Although the world of book publishing is changing rapidly, and has changed a lot over the past few decades, what drives us is still a very old-fashioned sense of good literature as something that should exist in the world and should be read. Moreover, I believe that books are imperative to a sane, intelligent society’s running. That includes fiction.
I am personally very cynical about a lot of books in the world. A lot of people are, of course, but it is terribly uncouth to be as honest as to say that I think so many books are a waste of good resources and good brain cells. Books can change a life – they can open up worlds that didn’t previously exist, and you can find your way out of predicaments by seeing how other people have. When you are doing something because a fictional character from a book did it and it turned out to be okay for them then books are part of you, and I think I have surrounded myself with people like that. I live in the world of books.
Louise Swinn is the editorial director of Sleepers, the chair of the Stella Prize board, and was one of the founders of SPN, the Small Press Network. Her fiction and reviews have appeared in the Age, Overland, Meanjin, The Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, the Australian, Kill Your Darlings, and Best Australian Stories.
Sleepers, the brainchild of friends Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner, began in 2003, publishing the annual Sleepers Almanac alongside critically acclaimed novels. Their first novel, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, won Age Book of the Year. They have since published Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, David Mus- grave’s Prime Minister’s Prize-shortlisted Glissando, Eleanor Limprecht’s What Was Left, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Inheritance and Vanessa Russell’s Holy Bible, and more. Full-length manuscript submissions are open year-round – for more information see www.sleeperspublishing.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.