Interview: Emily Gould and Ruth Curry of Emily Books
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Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have been hand-picking dark yet illuminating, subversive books for more than three years as the publishers of Emily Books. The digital feminist subscription service offers one juicy read each month, celebrating and promoting writers that are ripe for discovery (or rediscovery, in the case of many of their re-issues). As Emily Books looks to broaden its scope and provide a new and improved online space for its community to gather, we talked to Gould and Curry about their working relationship, their tastes, and how to market a book that doesn’t neatly fit into traditional publishing categories.
What is an Emily Book? What are the qualities that draw you to particular pieces of writing and makes you want to publish them?
Emily Gould: In a way, our whole project is about finding the answer to this question! That's one of the reasons we asked our subscribers to answer it for our video; there are so many right answers. One time a while back we sat down and made a list in a notebook of the qualities that can add up to making a book an "Emily Book" and then we figured out which book ticked off the most boxes on the list. (At that point it was Inferno by Eileen Myles.) It was a funny and weird exercise that revealed a lot about each of our tastes; where they overlap and where they don't. There were superficial thematic things on the list like "sex work" or "heroin" or "East Village in the '80s" but there were also things like "funniness" "writing that is conscious of itself as writing" "New Narrative" "body horror" "un-sexy depiction of sex," et cetera.
But more than any one specific quality, we look for books that might seem prickly and unfriendly and unlovable, but are so worthwhile when you get to know them. You know, because you've worked in publishing, that marketing some books is just, like, a layup. Maybe the author has a really great backstory; she wrote the book entirely on the F train, or while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe the plot itself just begs to be described at sales conference: it's like Harry Potter ... but with magicians instead of wizards, and sex!
Now imagine how you'd sell, say, Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger, which has a convoluted and not super important plot and is about teenaged sexual awakening, S&M and postcolonial literary theory. We set out to market books in a different way out of necessity. We basically had to say: OK, just trust us. We're going to pick these books that you might not necessarily buy based on a description or a review, and we're going to send them to you every month, and you might hate some of them, but our batting average is going to be such that you feel like subscribing is worth your while because you will end up loving books you would never in a million years have read otherwise.
Our books are also, with a scant few exceptions, all funny (even if it's very dark humor), and they're also all short! I tend to like short books. Ruth has a slightly longer attention span and, I would say, a higher tolerance for books that don't reach out and grab you by the jugular immediately.
We once posted a gchat transcript of our selection process.
Ruth Curry: It's funny, looking back on that gchat and remembering how much I really DID NOT LIKE Maidenhead at first. That was a real eye opener for me, that I have my own internalized misogyny to deal with, and that it affects the way I experience art. Another characteristic of many Emily Books is that they don't remind me of anything except one another — they are sort of sui generis in that way, except Maidenhead, which I realized (per this gchat) reminded me a LOT of The Rachel Papers.
How much of your work do you two do over gchat? In other words, how do you handle the mechanics of being business partners with your best friend? Do you set any boundaries or make any weird rules?
RC: We used to do a lot of work over gchat, especially in the beginning. Now we do most of it face-to-face. We are members of the Pratt Library and we go there every Sunday for a few hours to work on Emily Books together. Plus we're constantly doing the more specifically individualized parts of our roles on our own time during the week, checking in over email/text/carrier pigeon/Twitter, stuff like that.
We have an amazing intern who helps us out and figuring out goals and tasks for her helps us both stay sane/organized.
The mechanics of working with your best friend can be um, difficult — I don't think we knew how difficult they could be when we got started! — and they are constantly evolving as we ourselves grow and change. We have a "date night" every Thursday where we hang out and try not to talk about Emily Books stuff and just be, like, friends that gossip and watch Broad City and cook for each other. We also quite recently made a rule that if it ever came down to Emily Books or our friendship, the friendship wins, although we both obviously hope we don't have to actually test that! I honestly feel really lucky I get to work with my best friend, and I can't imagine doing this with anyone but her.
Tell me a bit more about what you envision for the "next generation" of Emily Books, both editorially and for the Emily Books community.
EG: We always cite what Autostraddle has accomplished when we talk about the kind of online community we want to build around our books. They are a site with a much larger, broader scope, but we live in awe of the vibrant health of their comments and forums — people treat each other with such respect and care, without being sanitized or sycophantic. They are experimenting right now with a membership at different levels, with different levels of access. For ourselves, we just want to have a small barrier to entry that will, we hope, create a place where readers of the books we sell and write about can talk to each other and feel safe doing so.
As we've focused on the back end of our business lately, we haven't been assigning essays and Q&As about the book picks, but we do have an archive of great ones about past picks. We're eager to start doing that again. The new site will put that content alongside the books, and have a place where book club conversation can take place, with our active participation.
Anything else you’d like readers who’ve made it this far down the page to know?
EG: This is a make or break moment for us; we love what we're doing, but whether we can continue to do it depends on whether there's an audience for these books. We devoutly hope and believe that there is, but one of the reasons we're Kickstarting this project is that we need to know for sure, and this is a way to find out.