21 December 2010

Day 269: Matt Stephens of Fingerpress (interview)

Mr. Stephens contacted me in early December to announce the creation of his new publishing house Fingerpress, along with several titles he thought I might be interested in.  I thought I would take the chance to interview him, because how often is a new publishing press created?  The interview was conducted over e-mail due to the Ohio-England time difference and busy schedules.  Minor changes were made, but for the most part the interview is left intact.

A bit of background information about Matt Stephens:
I've written some non-fiction (IT) books published by Apress, NY, as my main background is in software development. One of these books (Extreme Programming Refactored) is highly satirical in nature, and caused quite a stir as it set out to slaughter a "sacred cow" in the programming world. I think it had a beneficial effect on the IT industry, as it caused people to question the snake oil that the "fashionable software gurus" at the time were selling.

That said, I'm passionate about both reading fiction and writing. Writing and programming have always been these two opposing disciplines in my life, competing for my time. Authoring the IT books was a way to bring the two disciplines together, so they could become complementary.

The decision to start Fingerpress began as a nagging thought in the back of my mind: as soon as I realised that it was possible, I almost had no choice in the matter. I wanted to start a nimble, agile publishing company that will take full advantage of the online world for marketing and distribution, and of course for engaging with the reading community. It's a business partnership with my wife Michelle, which so far has worked really well. Michelle's chief role is as Acquisitions Editor, sifting through the slush pile and picking out the most promising manuscripts - the ones that hit the right balance between originality, readability and (hopefully) having that commercial edge.

I still do IT consultancy and run training courses in software design, partly to pay the bills but also because it's my "other passion". You'll see that we're publishing IT books in addition to the fiction.

The Interview
LibsLIB: You started this press as an individual, how have you financed this endeavor and have you come across any difficulties while starting up Fingerpress?
Matt Stephens: With my partner Michelle, we've really started Fingerpress on a shoestring budget, financing it from our own pockets. It's been an interesting exercise in finding cost-effective ways of producing and marketing books. I like to think that we're a progressive company with a focus on connected, on-line marketing (e.g. our new Facebook page). But you could also take the viewpoint that we're using Internet marketing because it's the cheapest way to do it. Either view is fine by me, though!

LibsLIB: Where did the name Fingerpress come from?
MS: Just a play on "book press" and fingers. It seemed apt, as fingers are kind of essential to hold a book and turn the pages when you're reading (whether it's a print book or an ebook). They're like an invisible tool; we forget about them so easily when we disappear into a book's world, and yet it's the fingers that are holding that world while we read.

LibsLIB: You currently have four fiction works and one IT book, do you have a favorite? Why?
MS: They're all my favourite! Of course I have to say that, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be Dominic Green's Smallworld, as I'm a massive science fiction fan. Dominic's something of a hit in the short story world, but his novel was languishing undiscovered on his website. I contacted him, because I was looking for something that stood out from the mountain of submissions we were receiving. The book reminds me of something by Douglas Adams or Stanislaw Lem, even; but it also has its own originality.

Our "mainstream" books were selected by Michelle, and I became closely involved in the manuscript editing process. The Cyclist really opened my eyes to the kinds of dilemmas that went on during World War II. This French assistant Chief of Police is harbouring a young Jewish girl, the same age as his own daughter; and everything's fine (if a little precarious) until he decides he wants to bring a German officer to justice for assaulting and murdering a young woman. At that stage he's putting the lives of his own family at risk, in the name of justice. It sounds heavy, but it's also a fast-paced read; real war-time adventure.

And then Maria's Melody was written by this incredible woman who grew up in post-war North Germany but now lives in a remote part of Scotland. It's a memoir of her impoverished childhood as part of an outcast family, with an alcoholic father who would beat the children senseless, and an adulterous mother who was also prone to violent outbursts. But what really makes the book is how the children just accept their lot and get on with being children; they find happiness despite these quite awful grown-ups. I found the book to be a very rewarding to read; and editing it brought me that much closer to the story, of course.

LibsLIB: I noticed that you plan to make your sci-fi title Smallworld available for free on eReader, are there plans do to this with other titles?
MS: We'll be watching Smallworld closely to see if giving it away for free generates book sales. It certainly worked for the likes of Cory Doctorow; the theory is that an order of magnitude more people discover the book than would have otherwise, as it's freely available, and we encourage people to forward the ebook around. As long as a certain percentage of those people then buy the print book, then it's working.

So we're holding off from doing the same with our other books, until we see what happens with Smallworld.

LibsLIB: Was this a decision on your part, or the author's, and why?
MS: I was keen to see if giving a book away could actually make money. I suggested it to Dominic [the author], who (to my pleasant surprise) really liked the idea.

LibsLIB: Are there any upcoming titles we should be aware of, that you are excited about?
MS: The next novel lined up is Magic And Grace by Chad Hautmann, who was previously published by Penguin Books. It's almost a romance, but written with a contemporary wit; the style is reminiscent of Douglas Coupland, all wrapped up in a sunny Florida setting.

We also have - unannounced, so this is something of an exclusive! - the start of a fantasy trilogy for the Young Adult market, Colandra's Quest. A bus explosion catapults a man to the Celestial Hall. When the guardians realise their mistake, he is returned to Earth, but in returning with his body, he uncovers a demonic plot to take over the Universe. So there's intrigue and existentialism, with plenty of action and supernatural interventions. I'm actually really excited about this series.

LibsLIB: What kind of editing process do the books undergo through your press?
MS: We have an "in-house" copy editor based on Vancouver Island who gives each book an initial once-over. After that I do an in-depth edit, which might involve asking the author to make structural changes to improve pacing, character development etc. Then it's back to the copy-editor for a final pass, and then everyone scans the galley proofs for typos and layout errors. We also ask several people to "test-read" each book at various stages, and give their feedback.

LibsLIB: Who is your editor? What kind of works are they looking for?
MS: At the moment we're closed for submissions. We have plenty enough titles lined up for the next year or two, at least! But when we re-open the gates, Michelle (who does most of the acquisitions) will be looking to fill out each of the "lines" we've established: contemporary romance, historical/wartime drama, science fiction and fantasy. I'm also on the lookout to publish something that combines horror with steampunk, but it'll have to be highly innovative with top-notch writing.

LibsLIB: In our previous conversations, you mentioned a large number of submissions, do you have a number? And within what time frame did you receive said submissions?
MS: We were receiving 30 or 40 submissions a week, over a couple of months. There was some excellent material that we sadly had to turn away, just because of the sheer volume of submissions. But the other 98%... everyone seems to feel that it's their right to be published, which strikes me as odd; novel writing is a discipline that takes years to master. Not everyone feels it's their right to have their paintings hung in the Guggenheim, for example.

LibsLIB: As a small press, what do you offer readers that the larger presses don't?
MS: We're providing a showcase for talented writers who otherwise might not have had the break they deserved. We're also publishing established writers (Chad Hautmann and Dominic Green, for example). So really, we're all about the writing; good reads, with a sharp edge.

LibsNote: Look for posts about Smallworld soon.  In the meantime, go get your free digital copy from Fingerpress.  Available in ePub and PDF formats.


  1. Great interview. I am excited to check out Smallworld, and will be keeping my eye on Fingerpress; it sounds like an excellent project. Thanks for the interview, Matt and Amy!

  2. Thanks Dayna,

    I love doing interviews, so I'm glad to see that people actually enjoy them. I think you might get a kick out of Smallworld.


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