Cipher Press is a new independent publisher of queer fiction and non-fiction whose stated aim is “to amplify queer voices and to champion LGBTQI+ writers in the UK and beyond”. Amid the global pandemic, Cipher Press have published There Will Always Be Nights Like This, a chapbook of short texts by thirteen LGBTQ writers exploring what it means to be queer and living through the COVID-19 lockdown.
On the way now is their first full-length book: Large Animals, a collection of stories by Jess Arndt. Cipher’s website describes it as “a bold, soupy, and cannily queer collection of stories that confronts what it means to have a body”. Which is a pretty wonderful description: soupy! But what kind of soup – rich, spiced parsnip or zinging gazpacho with chilli and watermelon? Or something else entirely? Also, you know the way the tail of a happily snoozing cat twitches unexpectedly – apparently independent from the animal itself? Jess’s sentences are like that – lazing contented, then suddenly charged with flickering fires.
Anyway, Cipher Press was founded by Jenn Thompson and Ellis, with creative direction from Carly Murphy-Merrydew. Over a few emails with Jenn and Ellis I found out a bit more about Cipher Press – the backstory and some plans for the future.
Hi Ellis and Jenn! Let’s start at the beginning: how did you both meet and what made you want to start a new publishing house together?
We met eight years ago at a queer disco in Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club and spent a lot of time in the grotty smoking area talking about books and about how neither of us were much good at dancing. We’re both from publishing and editorial backgrounds, and over the years have been to plenty of book events and readings together. One big part of our lives was full of books, and another part full of queerness, and at the intersection we talked a lot about the stories we wished were being published, and about existing stories that we wished were queer. We’d talked about starting a press for a while, and last year we decided to go for it. It feels like the right time.
I love the name Cipher Press – could you say a little about how you landed upon that?
Thanks! It comes from the fact that queer storytelling has a coded history. Queer narratives were hidden in other, more mainstream narratives, more ‘acceptable’ narratives. Readers have long been decoding these narratives to find characters they identified with; they had to kind of decode the queerness, whether it exists in a certain character in a crime novel, in pulp, or in a science fiction plot. Lesbians, for example, could assume that a lesbian pulp novel that overused the word Twilight in its copy was likely written by a lesbian for lesbians, rather than by a male writer writing for men. Likewise, queer readers have a history of picking up on clues and attaching queer narratives to certain kinds of stories. All this is to say, we like the idea of these little queer ciphers hidden throughout literature, and we named the press after them. We wanted to bring these ciphers to the front.
On your website you mention that you still don’t often see the kind of books you want to see on shelves. Why do you think that is? (I realise that answering this could be a book in itself…)
It’s a complicated question, or rather a question with a complicated answer, because it comes down to trying to express what queerness is, and how we personally relate to it. The word has become more mainstream in recent years, and it’s often attached to anything LGBTQI+. Which it is and it can be! But for us it’s also about art, aesthetics, and language, and although there are definitely more books by queer writers being published (especially YA books) they’re only telling a part of the story. I wonder if there’s still a reluctance from bigger publishers to publish books they don’t feel can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience as well as a queer audience, or that they don’t see certain books as accessible to a wider readership. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the queer community isn’t a homogenous thing, it’s as varied as the straight world. We’re interested in books that add something new to the canon.
The visual identity of Cipher Press is already very strong – the website, the logo, the cover of Large Animals. Could you say how this developed and maybe why it matters to you?
From the start we wanted to create a certain aesthetic for the press, one that pays tribute to queer culture and history. There is a very particular visual culture that comes with queerness as we understand it, from music to literature to art to language, and we wanted to use identifiers from that culture in our design. At the same time we’re an independent press, and we want our books to look at home on the shelves beside other indie press books.
We’re really thrilled with how the Large Animals cover turned out. Cipher’s creative director Wolf worked closely with Jess Arndt throughout the design process, and Jess contributed some really great ideas. We love how the cover is unapologetic and in-your-face while also being organic and strange. It gives a good sense of the text.
You’re launching the press with Large Animals so I’m assuming (correct me if I’m wrong though) that it’s something of a statement of intent for you as a publisher as well as an important book in its own right. What made you choose this as your first book and what can we expect from it?
Yes! Large Animals is definitely a statement of intent for us. For starters, it confronts ideas of gender and the body, which is really important to us. We want to publish outside of the cisgender experience. Secondly, its expression of queerness is really bold and contemporary; it aligns with a lot of conversations around gender that are happening within our community, and sometimes outside of it. And this goes beyond just what the stories are about, it’s expressed in the way Jess Arndt uses language. Jess is an incredible writer of sentences, and the way they use language is almost a new queer language in itself. The stories are often strange, messy, sometimes uncomfortable, but they are sharp, hilarious, and very astute, almost supernatural at times. We’re really thrilled and lucky to be publishing Jess’s collection here, and definitely feel it sets the tone for Cipher.
Without giving anything away (unless you want to of course) could you give us a taste of what’s in the pipeline beyond Large Animals?
The coronavirus has thrown a little spanner in the works in that we’re having to be more cautious now with what we publish and when. We might have to publish fewer titles than we would have liked. But we’ve got two really incredible books lined up for 2021 so far. We’re not quite ready to announce them yet, but we’re very excited. Next year, our big push will be to find new UK voices. We’re also planning another chapbook in our Cipher Shorts series – we published the first one, There Will Always Be Nights Like This, during lockdown and it had such a great response, we’re keen to do another. This time the focus will be on queer writers of colour.
Could you say a little about the process of putting together There Will Always Be Nights Like This? Were there any surprises along the way – maybe in terms of the stories themselves or how lockdown has impacted queer writers or how people have responded to the collection?
We always liked the idea of publishing a chapbook series to showcase both new and established queer writing – as a sort of nod to a lot of the queer publishing from the 80s and 90s (and still often now) which took the form of pamphlets, zines etc. When the lockdown happened, we had to cancel all our launch plans for Large Animals, which was really disappointing and left us with a gap in our schedule. So we decided to fast-track the Shorts series. We kept thinking about our community; our experience of the queer community has always involved gathering, being in physical spaces, in bars, clubs, bookshops, event spaces etc. And we wanted to explore what happens when that act of physical gathering suddenly stops. So the submissions brief was for stories, poems, and essays about the interactions and spaces we miss, and the idea was to produce a collection that acted as an antidote to social distancing.
The submissions window was only two weeks, and we received 200+ submissions. There was a rush to get it together as we wanted to publish during lockdown, so there was a lot of intense work. We were really pleased with the way writers had responded to the brief, we had some really creative submissions spanning all genres. We had a lot of submissions about sex, gender, and bodies, which was interesting. For some queer people, being alone and inside without distractions has meant facing up to the fact of their bodies and gender, which isn’t always easy.
We weren’t expecting the response when the chapbook went on sale. We sold out of the first print run in just over 24 hours. We did another print run, which is still selling steadily. The consensus from readers has been overwhelmingly positive, which has been really great.
And for the next chapbook, on queer writers of colour, will that be something people can submit to? If so, what kind of submissions will you be hoping to read and how can people be kept in the know when your submission window reopens?
Yes we’ll definitely keep the submissions open – we want to make the process as accessible as possible. We’d like to hand over editorial decisions to a queer writer of colour though, so we’re looking to find a guest editor. We’re still ironing out the details of how that would work, but we’ll be announcing the submissions window on our social media channels, so people can check there.
Working with a queer editor of colour sounds like a really good idea – are you in the process of discussing this with somebody or would you like to hear from people who might be interested?
We have a few writers in mind who we’d really love to work with, but we haven’t approached anybody yet so we’re definitely open to hearing from people who might be interested, for sure.
[If you are a queer person of colour who would like to discuss this with Jenn and Ellis then you can contact them here.]
Really looking forward to seeing how this develops. In the mean time, I wonder if you could say something about the rhythms of running an independent publishing house?
From our experience so far, the rhythms of running Cipher Press have been constant and gusty. There’s a constant hum; admin to do, ideas to develop, plans to make. And then there are frenzies of activity when we’re signing a book, printing, packing orders, or doing press work. We’re very new and very small (there are only three of us) which has meant, to a certain extent, we’re able to set our own rhythms and figure out what works best. We’re still trying to figure the logistics out, but when things are moving particularly fast or we find ourselves overwhelmed, there is the excitement of speaking to our authors or connecting with readers, which helps us along.
How those rhythms challenge or have to fit around your existing lives and work?
We all have full time jobs on top of Cipher Press, and it’s definitely challenging at times trying to find a work rhythm that allows us to do everything we need to do. Those short frenzies of activity can be especially tricky to work around, and we do find ourselves putting in a lot of late nights, early mornings, and weekends. But generally we’re able to keep a constant hum going. In some ways the lockdown has been helpful – Ellis was furloughed for a while, so was able to catch up on a lot. Ultimately we’re trying to grow Cipher Press into a sustainable business, and we accept that will involve altering the rhythm of our lives a fair amount. But it’s working well so far.
And also maybe how those rhythms differ from or are constrained by the wider publishing industry?
I think being so small means we can do certain things differently, and there are certain things we have to do differently, not having the budget or resources of a bigger house. We have to think creatively a lot of the time and do things against the grain, especially when it comes to promotion and events. We’re still learning as we go, and I’m sure there will be many aspects of the industry as a whole that add constraints to our plans. But as long as we’re able to keep up with the work, and make sure we’re ready to present our titles in line with the trade, we’re hoping we can improvise the rest.
You can buy a copy of Large Animals by Jess Arndt direct from Cipher Press. And you should! While you’re there, why not pick up a copy of Cipher Shorts #1: There Will Always Be Nights Like This. You can also follow Cipher Press on Twitter and Instagram.
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.