Interview With Publisher Dr. Stephen Games

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)

I am the antithesis of a professional publisher. I set up EnvelopeBooks during lockdown because readers of my British books magazine, Booklaunch, were asking for help in getting published. I reckoned that not only could we help them but actually do a better job than many publishers do. 

So EnvelopeBooks became a service to writers with very good manuscripts who still couldn’t get a contract or find an agent. And since we try to help anyone who deserves help, we have ended up being a generalist publisher, equally happy with fiction and non-fiction, rather than specializing in one genre or another, as so many small publishing houses are these days. 

# What are the real-life stories behind your books?

I can’t say what real-life events motivated all our authors to write their books but a lot of them have put their lived experiences to work. 

Our very first title, Postmark Africa, is a collection of the journalism of Michael Holman, who, as a student, had been arrested in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and put under house arrest—leading to Amnesty International’s dubbing him a Prisoner of Conscience. Michael eventually managed to get out of the country, set up a base in Zambia and eventually became Africa Editor of the Financial Times

Another Zimbabwean writer, Fatima Kara, wrote her novel, The Train House on Lobengula Street, around her mother’s experiences as a first-generation Indian Muslim in Bulawayo, battling white racist minority rule on the one hand, and on the other, her husband’s refusal to give their daughters as much opportunity and education as their sons.

Kirby Porter’s novel, Frances Creighton: Found and Lost, recalls memories of Belfast just before the violence that started to erupt in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s; Brian Verity’s angry book, Why My Wife Had To Die, is an account of how the medical profession, social services and church failed to understand what it meant to be diagnosed with Hodgkinson’s disease; George Tomaziu wrote about being locked up for two months by Romania’s fascist government in 1944 for spying, only to be locked up again in 1950 under Romania’s Communist government, this time for 13 years. 

Very different books; very different back stories.

# What inspires your creativity?

As a publisher, you mean? Well, first there’s the creative response to the manuscripts we publish. My job is to identify books that have something to say and say it well, and I suppose that that requires creative antennae: one must be responsive to the mass of texts that come in and distinguish not just the promising from the weak but also the promising from those being published by other publishers and those that are already part of the canon of literature.

Then, I must become a partner of the author and work with them to ensure that the book is in as good as state as it can be before it goes to press, and that often involves a lot of editorial refining. Then there’s the job of visualizing a cover that will represent the book visually. We have these very cool covers—unlike any other publisher’s—and it is they that give our variety of titles their unity.

A quite different creative element lies in imagining how the book might appeal and how to market it.

All in all, being a publisher—for me—brings a whole variety of creative strands into play; that’s why I love it so much. But I’m very privileged to run my own publishing house; I don’t imagine that many of the staff who work for the Big Five publishers have the same rounded sense of achievement that I enjoy.

# How do you deal with creative block?

Oh, easy: do something else. Do as much as you can, and when you realize you’re not getting anywhere, do something completely different. Your mind will work out a solution while your frontal lobes are engaged elsewhere.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

What are the biggest mistakes an author can make in a book? Every author makes different mistakes: it depends on their level of skill, on their approach, on their background, on their fluency. For novelists, what bothers me most is excessive dialog. I tell writers: cut out the chat and just tell me what happens. Give me description; novels aren’t screenplays. 

For non-fiction writers, it’s probably the opposite: the need to vitalize pages of description or of argument. Most of us find it hard to concentrate on abstractions for too long; writers need to bring them to life. Here you probably do need people.

But in both cases, there will be writers who take no notice of these rules and come up with counter-intuitive works of joy and brilliance, so it’s hard to generalize.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Yes, come to EnvelopeBooks and ask for our help! Failing that, don’t be too literary in your choice of title. The search bots used by libraries and bookselling platforms aren’t very clever and are easily misled. If you were to bring out a book these days called “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the bots would group it with other books about animal abuse. You must outwit the bots by writing titles that are as stupid as they are. 

As for covers, it all depends on your publisher’s house style; there’s every chance that your cover will look pretty much like the previous book they did. It’s easier that way; most publishers want an easy life. 

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I know a lot of writers who think they’ve cracked it when Publishers Weekly agrees to review their book and who then regret it when they read what’s actually been written. Reviews can be upsetting—sometimes unintentionally, sometimes very intentionally.

A book of mine from 2001 was torn to pieces by every single reviewer who wrote about it in Britain. It was a historical study, and everyone thought I’d distorted the evidence. Each reviewer followed the lead set by the one before, and no one dared step out of line. 

They were wrong and I was right, but it made no difference, and you can’t contact every reader of a review to set the facts straight. (By contrast, reviewers in America, not being part of the London literary bubble, were completely independent in their responses and gave the book the thumbs-up it deserved.) 

How did I respond to the UK reaction? Very foolishly: I used the introduction of my next book to attack the reviewers who had attacked me, which diverted the reader’s attention from my subject to my sense of injury and injustice. 

Moral of the story: let the bad stuff wash over you and don’t make an issue of it.

# How has your creative process improved over time?

I don’t think “improved” is the right word. Creativity—the sort of creativity that I understand—is responsive, and changes according to need and circumstance. I used to draw and paint all the time, using the tools that were available when I was young. The art I produced was conditioned by those tools: different softnesses of pencil lead, different thicknesses of pen nibs; today when I design, I’m mostly using Photoshop and the results are very different. 

Is it more creative? Digitization gives work a quality of finish that wasn’t possible before computers; AI is stunning in the visual effects it can achieve. But the test of creativity lies in the way the mind works, not in the technical facilities that the hand employs.

My creativity today is more complex, I think, than in the past because I have to satisfy more goals. Every time I design a new book cover, I’m having to come up with something that is unique in itself and yet part of the EnvelopeBooks family. That’s a fascinating challenge and an exercise in creativity that I didn’t have to face before going into publishing.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

The worst thing is always the copy editing and subsequent proofreading; no matter how many times I do it, my eye immediately picks up a mistake—and then another and then another—when the book comes back from the printer, so I always now hand this part of the process over to an independent editor.

What’s most surprising? I guess it’s the joy of sitting down to design a cover, with no special preconceptions, and finding, an hour or so later, that a little piece of magic has happened without my realizing quite how. I’m always amazed by how this works—and that it continues to work, book after book.

What’s the best thing? Positive validation, I suppose. There is nothing better than having an author get the point of what one has done—and then finding that that validation is endorsed by reviewers, by fellow professionals and by readers. I had a stand at the London Book Fair recently—one of the two biggest book fairs in the world, along with Frankfurt—and it was very special to get appreciative feedback for our books from visitors.

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

Good question. Part of me feels like the family doctor. There are writers out there who need help because they can’t break through the publishing trade’s barriers, and I come along and convert their frustration to achievement. I feel so strongly about the importance of this that I’ve started adding the label “The People’s Publisher” to our branding. Writers are treated disgracefully by publishers and agents; they get humiliated and disregarded and they deserve not to be. Everyone deserves not to be.

For example, we have our mainstream publishing imprint, EnvelopeBooks, but we also have a subsidiary imprint called PostcardBooks, for authors whose work isn’t going to be commercial—personal memoirs, for example. The scorn that this attracts from the trade is really shocking. What’s wrong with helping people create an archive of their memories?

At the same time, I couldn’t do this work unless it also satisfied my creative ambitions—and it does, because I know that I’m producing exceptional pieces of work, and at a higher level than much more established publishers and at much better value. 

I don’t think I’ll ever make a fortune out of publishing—I’ll never be a Rupert Murdoch—because I don’t want to do the nasty things that rich people do to make a fortune, but I do think that EnvelopeBooks will be remembered for its creative brilliance. What we do is so cool, and in a field that isn’t normally regarded as cool. I feel like the Manfred Eicher of publishing.

# What role do emotions play in creativity?

It’s a complete roller-coaster. I suffer very badly from insomnia, and I’m kept awake equally by disappointments and by successes. More, in fact, by the latter. When I go to bed after some new achievement, the adrenalin just keeps me marveling about it all night! It makes it impossible to drop off; I just want to keep enjoying the sensation—a bit like eating a food you really enjoy. 

But I find also that every silver lining has a cloud; every time something wonderful happens, its evil twin appears and trips me up. Ups are always followed by downs; I just have to remember that downs are followed by ups.  

# Do you have any creativity tricks?

I was sent the manuscript of a memoir by a writer who was quite simply illiterate—in fact, she didn’t even know how illiterate she was. When I queried this, she got her daughter to knock the manuscript into shape. It got worse, so I decided to make the book even more illiterate—because the illiteracy was central to her story. 

If your creativity isn’t kicking in, it may be because you’re fighting your book’s inner logic. Try to work out what the book’s truth is; let it tell you what it wants to be—let it take you by surprise. 

But don’t copy—well, not if you want to be published by EnvelopeBooks. Other publishers want nothing more than the next closest thing to the last thing they did; I want the opposite. I want books that are themselves, and that means letting them lead you where they want to go.

One warning: try to imagine how your writing will read to someone who knows nothing of you and your ambitions. How would you win over someone who really doesn’t like you? How could you take them with you? 

A lot of people ask their friends to read their manuscripts and get back nothing but praise. That’s not what you need; what you need is feedback from your worst enemy. Then you’ve got something to respond to.

And one other thing: every overwhelming job can be broken down into doable bits. Writing is no different. But you do have to keep at it; you must be a marathon runner, not a sprinter.

# What are your plans for future books?

If I had half a year, I could complete three books of my own, but I don’t: all my time goes into developing other people’s books and that’s all I have time for. And it’s fine. The wonderful thing is, I don’t plan. Books come to me by some serendipitous process, and that beats anything I could have predicted. 

In the next year I’ll be publishing a reprint of NPR reporter Michael Goldfarb’s memoirs of the Second Gulf War (Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace), a history of wayfaring in medieval literature, the memoirs of a man who learns he is the product of his mother’s rape, the second volume in a five-part series that’s a sort of gay Bridgerton (Belle Nash and the Bath Circus), a series of controversial stories that invite criminology students to work out what damage has been done by whom to whom, a filmscript for an animated movie—Princess Brr-Rainy—about a genius princess who knows everything except how to make people like her, and a comedy set in neutral Ireland in the Second World War that pits together a German and a Brit who fall for the same colleen. It’s going to be quite a year!  

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I hate exercise. I love artichokes.


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