Sam Cooney is the publisher behind the independent Australian book press Brow Books and quarterly non-profit literary magazine The Lifted Brow.
Cooney will be appearing across four panels as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss how small and independent press is pivotal in providing fertile ground for budding authors, and for remaining artistically daring. But as someone who’s bio involves this many commas - publisher, editor, writer, teacher, host, prize judge, etc, - Cooney can tell us a bit more about the world of writing than just grammar.
The following interview has been transcribed from audio, and edited for brevity and clarity. All attempts have been made to keep the following text true to the original conversation.
Can you tell us about The Lifted Brow and its origins?
S: The Lifted Brow is a literary magazine/journal generally publishing fiction, non-fiction, criticism, poetry, comics, long-form essays, and more. It was started 12 years ago by a friend of mine in Brisbane, Ronnie Scott, somewhere along the way I got involved, and later on he left. It has always been about aiming to fill a gap. In Australia there wasn’t a publication like it, at that time, that was publishing writing that was experimental, writing that was from the margins, or writing that was very political. Many literary journals were what you’d consider mainstream, and I think, not very interesting, they were also aimed more for the aged 50+ crowds, and had very straightforward definitions of literature.
How did Brow Books come about?
S: Over the years everything The Lifted Brow has aimed to do has been about filling gaps, and so Brow Books is about the same thing. We realised that there were a lot of authors and books that were not being published. That is generally because publishing houses in Australia have to make money, a book has to sell a certain amount of copies, and so any book that is considered to not make enough money will generally not be published, not matter how important it is. So I, and everyone else at The Lifted Brow, think that’s pretty f**ked, and a bit of a problem.
When you read The Lifted Brow you can see all these different writers, backgrounds, ideas, but when you enter a bookstore you don’t see that. A lot of people walk into bookstores and they don’t see themselves reflected on the shelves, and that’s a problem.
The barriers to entering the publishing industry are pretty high, you have to have a bit of money, an education, skills, connections and partnerships with distributors. We decided to learn on the job, and start doing it, we didn’t wait, and we didn’t ask for permission. We hope that others start to do the same thing, we don’t want to be the only small micro press doing weird books.
Books should be about pushing ideas, and challenging readers, and I feel like Australian readers for a while now haven’t been challenged as much by their books as they should be.
What role does The Lifted Brow or Brow Books play in an emerging writer’s early career?
S: Literary journals have a huge part to play in what you might call the literary and publishing ecosystem. I think every publisher whether they admit it or not, owe a huge debt to literary journals and websites and reading nights.
Writers will also learn how to be edited, how to submit, how to be published, but also how to submit to deadlines, which gives writers a chance to write more, and write more, and write more.. Those are all huge skills, which university writing degrees don’t often teach or even talk about. Being published is its own skill set. I think The Lifted Brow and other similar journals teach those things. It’s a training ground for editors, publishers, marketers, publicists, designers, events managers and planners too.
What can we do to strengthen a sense of a writing community in our own lives or local areas?
S: I would say literature journals are terrific, so [you can try] creating your own small one. I think you can make something, it can be a website, something digital, or in print. It’s more about gathering together, discussing ideas, and creating and publishing something. Just like, The Lifted Brow [which] was originally created by a guy and a bunch of friends, and the first issues looked like a zine more than a magazine.
Events are really important. They’ve always been kind of the key thing for The Lifted Brow, where all the energy came from, where people met each other, and where things were read out. So, turning up to other events, to things such as Sydney Writers’ fest, to the smaller, DIY, grassroots-type events that are run by groups and collectives. If you turn up to things your brain will be turned on, you’ll be out in the world, you’ll meet other people and that can only be good for your own writing.
I think every writer should be joining a writing group, or creating one, just a group of people who meet every fortnight or every month to read each other's work and talk about it. It creates its own small community and then it also gives you deadlines and gives you feedback.
I recently finished Fiona Wright’s novel ‘The World Was Whole’ and a lot of it unpins the stereotypes so commonly given the the millenial gen. Wright coyly makes jokes about avocado toast, to a misunderstanding Bondi couple, but she also writes acutely about issues of home ownership and affordability, and gives a sense of the precarity of living in Sydney’s housing market.
S: I think it’s something I, and many at The Lifted Brow, all think about individually, and what we are all talking about. A past issue of ours was the Capital issue which was all about money, but it was really about how f**ked the world is at the moment with money, and how much it ruins everything around us, and about how hard that is to how do you navigate in a world, how do you participate in a world that is also ruled by a system that is breaking the world, but is also that you don’t necessarily agree with.
It’s one of the many reasons we created Brow Books, was that I was worried about the books that weren't being written and the writers that were going missing. Or books not being published or being written because of the structures and systems of the world that don’t allow people the time and space and permission to even do it. I kept seeing writers who I thought were some of our most interesting and provocative and vital writers in terms of what their ideas were, and their viewpoints, and their backgrounds, but weren’t being published because they never had the time to do it, or the space, or had to work one or two jobs to live.
So on the panel, we will talk about writing, and what it’s like being a millennial, but it’ll range much more widely than that, it’ll talk about housing, and income, and family, and the environment, and government, and stuff.
Can you name any young or emerging writers that you would recommend that we should all be reading?
S: Jamie Marina Lau, who’s novel ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ we published last year. She’s 22 now, and she submitted that novel when she was 19. ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ was created in writing class, so it was an automatic writing exercise she did in class, and she kept doing it and a couple months later she had 40 000 words and she submitted it to us.
Evelyn Araluen, she’s a Sydney based poet and an essayist, she’s maybe the smartest people I know, one of the smartest writers out there, she’s incredible. Not only is she smart but what she has to say is full of so much vigor, energy, and anger, and sadness. She’s another I would recommend. When she reads [in person] it’s like a different experience all together.
I’m a huge fan of the Western Sydney Writers Sweatshop, and I think Stephan Pham is really amazing. We’ve published Stephan a few times, and we’ve been working with him on a manuscript for a while, and we finally put pen to paper the other day. We’ll put a collection of his writings out early next year.
Voiceworks magazine - I think every young writer should be reading and submitting to Voiceworks. That’s how I came up, and I think they [and Express Media more broadly] are an incredible organisation, and publication.
Since the majority of our readers are UNSW students, do you have any final advice to young or emerging writers?
S: Everyone under 25 should be reading and submitting to Voiceworks. You should be submitting to other journals, including online ones, like Scum magazine, Subbed In [Ibis House], and going to their events. There is always going to be someone creating a publication, and if not create one yourself.
I would say that to read is the most important, I just think that the best writers learn how to write by reading, and doing a little bit of writing here and there is important, but I don’t really think you get to be a better writer by just continually writing and making the same mistakes, you get to be a better writer by reading other people, and critically reading other people, and then trying to bring some of that back into your own work.
Sam Cooney will be appearing at Sydney Writer's Fest on May 2, 4 $& 5 on a range of panels. Find out more and get tickets here. This interview was conducted by Audrey Pfister, the student coordinator and Editor in Chief for UNSWeetened Literary Journal 2019.