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(Image: Archi Banal)
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BooksNovember 9, 2023

Ten things creating our first book taught us about independent publishing

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Damien Levi and Amber Esau are the co-editors of Spoiled Fruit, a new anthology of queer poetry from Aotearoa, published by Levi’s tiny Tāmaki Makaurau-based micro-press Āporo Press. 

Amber Esau

While this has been a pretty wild year for life lessons, most of what I learned over this process has also helped me approach my writing differently… which is to say, I am now an even better procrastinator. 

1. Persistence is key

What’s the collective noun for a group of poets? A patience? Trying to round up writers – let alone poets – to send through work is only as slow as the third or fourth follow up email. To be honest, all the poets were actually pretty onto it with this one but I can imagine it could drag out for ages without gentle nudges and efficient problem-solving. 

There is just way too much admin, eh. Like art, life, most things really, the fun flouncy stuff is great but it’s only sustainable when there’s someone/something to maintain a bit of structure and keep everything on schedule. The work that goes into publishing a book can pile up without some massively cute organisational skills on hand. 

2. Shit happens, my g

If you don’t get a little sick of reading through a manuscript, have you really looked at it enough? Typesetting is solid but lowkey annoying af: last-minutes changes can throw the typesetting out, and it’s hard to do fast and easy if you’re working with freelancers and not in-house. Realising mistakes a little too late is mates with accidentally lighting a cigarette backwards. 

This links to the aforementioned efficient problem-solving. Whether the issue is that you don’t agree about an edit, or you can’t get in touch with someone, or you’re trying to get more dollars for the publication, you’ve got to be a little suave with it and solutions oriented. As someone who’s just a bit too neurotic, this was a really big learning curve for me. 

3. Platforming diverse voices will always be important af

There can never be enough places that share a range of voices. Not only does it help shape what our literary landscape can be but it offers up more possibilities to those of us that don’t quite fit the ‘norm’. It’s up to us to keep making new norms that better reflect the actual norms. This is in the stories we tell as much as in the way we tell them. 

At our soft launch in Tāmaki Makaurau, a few of the poets mentioned they were gassed up to be included, to have found a place where their work could exist unapologetically. This was heart-opening and satisfying. 

Spending this year with each poet’s words has reinvigorated my jaded ass. The rawness and emotional honesty and humour and hope and audacity is an elixir for anyone that’s felt misunderstood and out of bounds.

4 (3a). Nah, always

No doubt we connect to a shared emotional truth in a poem that resonates. That’s incredibly important, but I think this only accounts for some part of it. What about the collection of metaphors and images each poet holds out for us? We’re narrative creatures and we only know what we know, but there’s so much to listen for. There’s so much to miss. How do we keep exploring traditions if we keep having to define them over and over? Not gunna lie, it’s damn cute being able to exist fully in your work and to read the poems in Spoiled Fruit – all their frequencies hit different. 

5. It takes a village!

Without trust and faith in your team to do what they do, the work won’t move. Without an incredible community around you, you’re just floating apples. Be humble enough to know it’s not just yours, bots enough to offer up suggestions, and staunch enough to keep vibing. 

Damien Levi

1. Independently publishing a book is not easy

It seems fairly obvious, otherwise we’d see a lot more of independently published books, right? Well, there’s a lot of moving parts to a book that aren’t always obvious. Having completed the brilliant Graduate Diploma in Publishing at Whitireia, I was pretty well-equipped going into the making of Spoiled Fruit, but having to do it all in the real world without tutors as a safety net was tough. 

Although I managed to secure $7,000 from Copyright Licensing New Zealand, once I had paid contributors, our cover illustrator, my co-editor, the typesetter and tidied any other bits and pieces there wasn’t much left for printing. 

2. Representation in books can be life changing

Honestly, a bit corny but in my case very true! In 2021 I moved home to New Zealand after a three-year stint abroad. At that time I was really searching to reconnect with my homeland and te ao Māori, and to find reflections of myself in writing that I didn’t have access to overseas. I was fortunate to secure a copy of Rebecca K Reilly’s Greta & Valdin at the start of the infamous 2021 Tāmaki Makaurau lockdown and have never looked back. 

This novel resonated with me as a twenty-something queer-identifying urban Māori so much I decided to study publishing to help make more books like it. Two years on I have a chunk more student debt, a micro press and have published my first anthology, Spoiled Fruit: Queer Poetry from Aotearoa.

3. There are so many brilliant stories out there that aren’t being told

Although it feels like we’re seeing more books from minority voices in New Zealand than we ever have before, I think the colonial and capitalistic structures that built our publishing industry maintain a hold on who and what gets published. 

Poet and novelist Janis Freegard has done lots of fantastic work breaking down “Who gets published in Aotearoa?” and the data unfortunately shows that across poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles, Pākehā writers authored more than 75% of the books in the year 2019. 

I’m optimistic that this percentage has shifted in the last four years, but being optimistic alone doesn’t make change.

The homepage of Bad Apple Gay, the lit review website that Levi started as his first foray into publishing.

4. Sometimes you have to be the change you want to see

To platform and invest in minority writers I helped establish the online journal bad apple and then founded Āporo Press to publish them. 

We’re a drop in the bucket but I look to my tuakana in the independent space, Tender Press, Saufo’i Press, Dead Bird Books and Anahera Press to name a few, and all of them are championing work by authors that our major publishing houses overlook or can’t make work financially. 

Funding is sparse, returns aren’t fab and there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into publishing, but we all do it because we know someone out there will feel the way that I did about Greta & Valdin.

5. Building a community is key to success

When you have a book ready to publish and the money runs out, what do you do? Fortunately for me, the community that had built up around bad apple as well as the wider literary community came out in support. With their help, we funded the printing of the book through a Boosted campaign. 

Having a community that is engaged and interested in the work you’re creating is not only incredibly fulfilling, but a great indicator that your book will find its home with an audience. 

Hopefully Spoiled Fruit does just that, opening up the door for me to publish more writers from the margins and reach those readers who need to feel seen. Maybe we get funding, maybe our community bands together again to bring something to life ourselves. We’ll keep going regardless, in the face of an uncertain future, because what else is there to do?

Spoiled Fruit: Queer Poetry from Aotearoa, edited by Amber Esau and Damien Levi ($30, Āporo Press) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, and from Āporo Press. Spoiled Fruit is having a launch event on Thursday November 9 at Verb Readers & Writers Festival in Wellington – tickets and info here.

Keep going!