Stephen Games, Author-Publisher-Episode #275

Dec 26, 2023 | 0 comments

“I find myself just having to say all the time, keep it simple. Write as if you’re writing a letter to a friend. And, it’s that level of simplicity. Just communicate simply. It’s best.”
~Stephen Games

Author-publisher Stephen Games came to publishing after a lifetime of reflecting on the creative arts. Stephen is a former architecture correspondent for The Guardian, documentary maker for the BBC, and opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times.

He has a PhD from Cambridge University for research into the work of the celebrated German architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, about whom he’s published four books. And Stephen has produced another four books on the writings of the conservation campaigner and UK poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman. He also studied Graphic Design and Architecture and has taught as an adjunct for Temple University, Boston University, and the University of Kent.

Stephen launched Envelope Books in 2020, with a philosophy that states, “What is a book but a letter from a writer to a reader?” As such, Envelope Books, which is a generalist micro-publisher—and postal service of the mind—is a spin-off from the UK’s largest books magazine, Booklaunch. The imprint aims to select manuscripts from every corner of the mental map, branding them with their stunning, trademark envelope covers, before getting their books directly into the hands of eager readers.

Set up to help authors who have struggled to navigate the obstacles thrown up by mainstream publishers and agents, EnvelopeBooks is flexible and open to all fiction and non-fiction submissions.



Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat: 

Stephen Games: Envelope books because I found myself saying to writers and writers, I don’t know whether they’ve been to creative writing school or not, sometimes, they get a little bit fancy and, you know, the prose is a little bit byzantine, a little bit purple. I find myself just having to say all the time, keep it simple. Write as if you’re writing a letter to a friend. You write the letter, we’ll put it in an envelope, you know, I mean, that’s the kind of idea. And, it’s that level of simplicity. Just communicate simply. It’s best. 

Steve Cuden: Is that the concept behind the phrase a postal service of the mind? 

Stephen Games: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s, you know, they send us the envelope, we wrap it, we send it all around the world.  

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden. A podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden. 

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, the author-publisher Stephen Games, came to publishing after a lifetime of reflecting on the creative arts. Stephen is a former architecture correspondent for the Guardian, documentary maker for the BBC, and opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times. He has a PhD from Cambridge University for research into the work of the celebrated german architectural historian sir, Nicholas Pevsner, about whom he’s published four books. And Stephen has produced another four books on the writings of the conservation campaigner and uk poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. He also studied graphic design and architecture and has taught as an adjunct for Temple University, Boston University and the University of Kent. Stephen launched envelope Books in 2020 with a philosophy that states, what is a book but a letter from a writer to a reader? As such, envelope Books, which is a generalist, micro publisher and postal service of the Mind, is a spin off from the UK’s largest books magazine book launch. The imprint aims to select manuscripts from every corner of the mental map, branding them with stunning trademark envelope covers before getting their books directly into the hands of eager readers. Set up to help authors who have struggled to navigate the obstacles thrown up by mainstream publishers and agents, envelope Books is flexible and open to all fiction and nonfiction submissions. I’ve read one of envelopes books, the novel Francis Crichton found and lost, written by Kirby Porter and found it to be a powerful meditation on life, death and memory, set during very challenging times in Ireland. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s my great privilege to be able to spend some time today speaking with the extraordinarily multitalented writer and publisher Steven games. Stephen, thanks so much for joining me on the show. 

Stephen Games: It’s a real pleasure to be here. thanks, Steve. 

Steve Cuden: Well, the privilege is all mine. Believe that. 

so at what age did you become very interested in words and books and writing? How young were you? 

Stephen Games: Well, I think I always have been. one of the difficulties I studied architecture, as you said, before, and one of the problems that I always had as a student at Cambridge was that there are, there are different paradigms, let’s say, and architects tend to think in a certain way. They think visually. I certainly do think visually. I mean, I always have done, but I’ve always been sensitive to the word as well and it always caused me a lot of problems, some of the things that we’re taught, the ideas we were taught and the, I don’t know, the sort of internal inconsistencies of what we were taught. architects have their own really odd, arcane language. It means a lot to them, it doesn’t mean a lot to other people. And immediately I got out, I knew that what I wanted to do was to write about architecture, to explain architecture to the public, really, rather than I had never actually wanted to practice. And it was extraordinary, it was a very, very quick learning exercise to discover that some of the things that one had grown up with in architecture was simply, they were unsayable. They made no sense. 

Steve Cuden: What do you mean? They were unsayable? What do you mean by that? 

Stephen Games: Because they were so, cliche bound. I mean, these were cliches which architects use amongst themselves. They seem to mean a lot, they have huge potency, in an architectural discussion. But when you offer them to, the public, the public roll their eyes and find, no meaning in them. And there’s always a great battle with architects. I’ve got something at the moment, I mean, in the next edition of book launch. Book launch is this, as you said, a big magazine, a books magazine in the UK, we have a circulation of 50,000, print run, that is, which is big for the UK. And a, couple of town planners have put together a piece about the urgency of using town planning to reconstruct Britain, to reconstruct thinking about Britain, where the core of Britain is. One of the problems is that everything is slumped towards London. London is highly favoured and the rest of the country feels that it has to survive on the crumbs, if you like. so there’s this idea to m move the upper house, like the Senate, as it were, to somewhere in the midlands, because that would be a fairer thing to do and it would catalyze that area. But the sort of language in which the writers have cast their thoughts has been so difficult that one’s had to sort of reconstruct the argument for them so that it makes sense, so that it’s free of the special, the special rhetoric that architects and town planners use. 

Steve Cuden: Would you say that architects, have a language that most people just purely don’t understand? 

Stephen Games: Yes, of course. there was a book that I was brought up on by an extraordinary german architectal theorist, which had a picture of a child sitting, on the sand at the beach at the seaside. And the caption of it that was a child concretizes its existential space. That was the picture facing the title page of the book. I mean, that’s, you know, that’s, that was the, that was the easy bit. 

Steve Cuden: Not your average sentence. 

Stephen Games: That’s right. 

Steve Cuden: So were you always in love with architecture, even as a young man? 

Stephen Games: Yes, I think I always was. And I’m. I mean, at the moment, as we’re talking at the moment, I’m, I happen to be, recording this in a little room in the Salem public library. It’s absolutely, absolutely gorgeous. And, I mean, it was very difficult getting here on time for this interview because you have to stop every minute and take a photograph of the buildings. It’s so cute. I mean, it’s. What is it now? It’s the, it’s the end of October. I couldn’t park in the street outside the library, by the way, because, the librarian said, you know, if you could come any other month, you’d be able to park outside for as long as you like. But it’s October, so all the parking is restricted because there’s so many tourists here. And they, you know, you stay for 50 minutes, they’ll tow you away. You know, I don’t mind being towed away. It’s the idea of being ducked in the village pond that really was. 

Steve Cuden: Oh, yeah, yeah. You don’t want to be ducked in the village pond, that is for sure. 

So where did you then train as an author? Where did you just write, write and write as a kid? Or did you go to school to learn how to write? 

Stephen Games: I think that’s a very american question. 

Steve Cuden: Well, I’m an american, so I qualify. 

Stephen Games: one of the great things about America is that everything is professionalized, and, writing is professionalized. And so it’s very common for people to go on creative writing courses at university, and they learn the skills, because why not? you can train all skills. My, experience, in the UK, which is very much not or wasn’t so professionalized, I came out of university. I mean, even at university, I was writing reviews for one of the two political weeklies, the New Statesman. I won a writing prize. The result of that was in my last day at Cambridge. I discovered I was a young critics prize that the Sunday Times had offered, and immediately I started writing. Within a short while, I was seeing. It was such a different climate in those days. In those days, I could phone up the Guardian at about 10:30 in the morning, and I could say, there’s a very important new building in London that’s being opened today. Would you like a piece about it? And they said, yes. Can you get us 800 words by 530? And, I mean, I lived like that for ages. It was. It was perfectly simple. 

Steve Cuden: But you had, you had clearly an interest in writing. Not everybody that was at Cambridge was wanting to write articles for the Guardian or anyone else. 

Stephen Games: Yes, I did, because I thought there was a really, really important job to be done, which is mediating between, architects and the public because they talk different languages. And in the end, what I discovered was that the language of architecture is, highly self serving, and is very defensive when it comes to critique. And actually, if you untangle the language of architecture and try to talk about a building in language that the public will understand, you actually have to expose yourself to questions that architects cut themselves off from. It’s a very, very valuable thing to do. So, in fact, the end of this contest was public, one architect’s nil. 

Steve Cuden: Do you think of yourself in life primarily as a writer, or do you think of yourself as a publisher? How do you think of yourself when. 

Stephen Games: It comes to envelope books, which was set up three years ago? One of the things I love about it is that it calls on a whole range of skills that I have, and some of them are writing skills, editorial skills, and some of them are decisions about how best to place a book and how to. How to market it. And it calls on my design skills, because I do all the covers. I just love it. I also find it’s an extraordinarily sociable. I mean, it’s the most sociable thing I’ve ever done, because I have to engage closely with authors for months and months and months. So we have to get into a very intense Sunday. It’s very painful, often, much more often very rewarding relationship. I just adore it. 

Steve Cuden: Well, let’s explore that a little bit. When you say it’s painful and rewarding, give us, an idea of what you mean by that. 

Stephen Games: Well, authors have typically, especially new authors, inexperienced authors, unpublished authors, have very, very unrealistic expectations of what publishing is going to do for them. I mean, that’s one of the things you have to hold their hand and you have to explain. Certainly in the UK that tend 11,000, 12,000 books are published every month, right? That’s 120,000 books a year. New books a year. Their little book is going to have to compete with that. How is it going to number one? Number two, there are 275 imprints owned by Penguin Random House. 

Steve Cuden: Wow. 

Stephen Games: that is a lot. And that is one of the biggest publishers in the world. We have this little tiny startup company. It started three years ago. How on earth, are we going to get any attention? all the established publishing houses, through their marketing divisions, have very, very well established relations with the books editors of the national newspapers in my country, the London Times, the Guardian, the observer, the Sunday Times, whatever, the Financial Times, I mean, in the US, the Washington Post, the New York Times and so on. To try to break through what is effectively a cartel is unbelievably tough. 

Steve Cuden: Close to impossible, I would think. 

Stephen Games: Yeah. And in the old days, and I mean, way back before COVID I mean, now these days, it’s 17 times more impossible. In the old days, you could phone up the switchboard of the newspaper, national newspaper, you say, can I speak to the books editor, please? And they put you through, you know, with COVID everybody went home and worked from home, which means they’re not working on switchboard numbers, they’re working on their cell phone numbers. Who knows what their cell phone number. You can’t get to reach them. They love it. They are now out of reach. And one of the things about publishing is that there is real value, in terms of status, in being out of reach. So poor authors, for example, if they’ve got a book and they want to find a publisher, they go onto the publisher’s website, and they look for how to submit their manuscript. So what does the publisher’s website say? It probably says, we’re not open to submissions at the moment. Come back in six months. And in six months it says, we’re not open to submissions. Come back in 6 hours. Or it might say, we only accept submissions through an agent. Get an agent. Or if they do say we’re open to submissions, they’re probably a questionnaire that you have to fill in a great length essay and, you know, explain and defend yourself as a writer. And then you send it off and you may or may not hear. And if you go to, an agent’s website, almost universally they say, we’re not open to submissions. 

Steve Cuden: Right. Sure. 

Stephen Games: It’s very, very very difficult. 

Steve Cuden: You know, it’s never been an easy thing to become a published author, but it’s getting more challenging. 

Stephen Games: Yeah, but, so the thing is, there’s this, it’s almost like the more important you are, the more Simon Schuster or penguin or whatever, that the proof of your eminence, of your superiority is the fact that people can’t reach you. And it’s really, really cruel. I mean, in my world for envelope books, I make a virtue of the fact that you send us a, you send us an email, we answer within at the most, 48 hours. I like to respond with him, you know, because it’s just, writers are just humiliated all the time. And there are a lot of very, very big egos in the editorial world of publishing. And, one, they get off on being able to say no. It’s a great place to be able to say no to someone that makes them more powerful than you. 

Steve Cuden: Well, that is their power. 

Stephen Games: That is the power. 

Steve Cuden: They can say yes, but they say that so infrequently that the power isn’t saying no. 

Stephen Games: Yes, it happened. It’s a great pity. Sorry. 

Steve Cuden: I was going to say, how did you come to decide to then become a publisher? You didn’t work for a publisher and learn the business that way, did you? 

Stephen Games: No, I didn’t. Just in the same way as I never learned how to be a writer. 

Steve Cuden: You just do it. You just jumped in with both feet. 

Stephen Games: Well, years and years ago, I mean, when I was writing about architecture, I was taken on and became the assistant editor of an architecture magazine, the magazine of the Royal Institute of British Architects. And I was there for about a year and a half. So I had a bit of experience of subbing and editing and stuff like that. But this is a whole different, this is a whole different story. This happened really. I mean, everything is serendipitous. And this particular case, I had always had the idea I wanted to produce a sort of popular magazine of philosophy, actually. And in the UK, especially in London, there is an evening newspaper called the Evening Standard. It’s a. It’s London wide, it has a very big circulation, but typically it becomes available from about 03:00 in the afternoon. And the idea is that on your commute home, you buy a copy or you get free a copy of the Evening Standard now and you pay. That is what you read on your ride home, on the bus or on the train. In recent years, the business model for newspapers has gone down the toilet. And the business model for the Evening Standard, you know, they’re not making money anymore. 

Steve Cuden: newspapers are in deep trouble. 

Stephen Games: They are in deep trouble. And the quality of writing in this, what had been once quite a good daily evening paper, has declined terribly, terribly badly. So if you’re very, very interested in Britney Spears or, in, football or sport or, clothing or cosmetics, then there’ll be a little 100 5200 word piece that might take up your time. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing. There’s nothing in it. And, I was thinking, can we not do a magazine that’s a bit ambitious and gives people who want to read something, something to read something to read? I wasn’t able to do this because there was a complete monopoly on the sale of the Evening Standard outside train stations in London. So I couldn’t compete. But my thought was that I would persuade, I would encourage, I would woo, publishers to provide extracts from their new books and we would print those. And those would be. That would be the subject of my alternative evening paper. Well, it didn’t happen. It, ah, couldn’t be done. But I took the idea and did the best that I could under other circumstances, which was to produce not even a weekly, not even a monthly, a quarterly magazine of extracts from new books. And it’s called book launch. And that now has a circulation of 50,000. It’s not massive, but New York review of books is 120,000 pro rata. To our, population in the UK, 50,000 is a lot. 

Steve Cuden: That’s healthy. 

Stephen Games: It’s not bad. After, a year or so, readers of book launch started coming to us and saying, I’ve written a book. Can you advise? I mean, how do I. I just can’t find a publisher. And after a while I thought, well, maybe we, maybe we can set up a publishing arm, perhaps we can help. And so we did. And that’s envelope books and envelope books. Because I found myself saying to writers and writers, I don’t know whether they’ve been to creative writing school or not, sometimes they get a little bit fancy and, you know, the prose is a little bit byzantine, a little bit purple. And I find myself just having to say all the time, keep it simple. Write as if you’re writing a letter to a friend. You write the letter, we’ll put it in an envelope. You know, I mean, that’s the kind of idea. And, it’s that level of simplicity. Just communicate simply. It’s best. 

Steve Cuden: Is that the concept behind the phrase a postal service of the mind? 

Stephen Games: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s, you know, they send us the envelope, we wrap it, we send it all around the world. I mean, our books are available all over the world. so, yes, and I mean, equally. Equally well, the writer could be anywhere in the world. We’ve got an extraordinary range of writers. I’ve got, Tundeo. So Sano is the West Africa. He’s actually the Pidgin English correspondent in the BBC’s West Africa bureau. 

Steve Cuden: Pigeon English. 

Stephen Games: Isn’t that cool? Because if you live in Nigeria, one of the languages you, know, apart from m, whatever the tribal languages are, is English. But English is spoken in Pidgin. There are pidgin Englishes. There are hundreds of different pidgin englishes around the world. It’s how your particular local language has taken from English and adapted it. And he does his reports in Pidgin English. He’s absolutely brilliant. So we’ve got him there in Nigeria and Lagos. we’ve got Fatima Kara, who lives half the year in, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but half the year in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, with a wonderful novel that she’s written, really, about her family of, Muslim Indians who arrived in what was then Rhodesia in the late 1940s. And the troubles they had getting established, particularly in the face of a white authority, but also the problems within the family, the cultural problems. and in this particular case, a very strong minded mother who wanted the best possible education for her daughters. And a very strong, well, actually a rather weak willed father, much more traditionalist, who didn’t want his daughters to have an education because it would have made them unmarriageable within the cast. it’s a lovely, folksy, but very attractive story. First part of a two part saga. So there are two examples of writers from Africa. Oh, and Marguerite Poland as well, who is one of the most celebrated writers, in South Africa, whose book, a, sin of omission, won the book of the year prize in South Africa two years ago. 

Steve Cuden: Do you seek out authors who are telling more personal stories and powerful tales of, experience in life? 

Stephen Games: I’m looking for people all the time. whether they’re. I mean, I’m not looking for. I’m not. I’m not looking specifically for novels. I mean, novels and, non fiction. great. an Instagram. No, a TikTok. Young woman who goes viral on TikTok offered me her poetry a couple of months ago. I’m not quite sure whether I want it, but I am looking up the whole time. I mean, I was in Boston. I’ve been in Boston for the last couple of days. I mean, riding the tea, is that what it’s. Go to the, subway system? And I’m just nosy. I mean, I just. I’m sitting in the carriage, and sitting a couple of seats away from me is someone from Sudan, and sitting across the carriage from him is someone from. I think he said mali or Burundi. I can’t quite remember. They don’t know each other, but they’re both african, and they’re having this amazing conversation where they’re comparing notes about where Africa is going, and it’s just. I mean, you just stop everything you’re doing and you just listen, because it’s so fascinating. The guy from Sudan, said he had a great friend who did a couple of years ago, and, you know, and they’re saying to each other, both of them said, you go to Sudan. It is the loveliest country. The people are absolutely wonderful, and there’s this war going on, and they’re butchering each other. How can they be doing it? And the guy from Sudan said, yes, I had a friend who just built a house for himself there. 60, cost, $65,000. Beautiful house. Within six months, it had been demolished. It had been bombed. I mean, his life is wrecked now. 

Steve Cuden: Wow. 

Stephen Games: I just want, you know, and it’s difficult. You don’t want to be kind of condescending, but you want to say, look, here’s my card. If you’ve got a book, get in touch. 

Steve Cuden: So how does it then work for you? Clearly, you cannot publish every author that comes your way. How do you decide what is your criterion? 

Stephen Games: Well, look, this is an american show, and I don’t want to do what John Lennon did years and years ago, but, you know, I’m God. 

Steve Cuden: Well, I know you’re God. So how does God decide to make this book but not that book? 

Stephen Games: So I have to like it. I have to like it. And I don’t have a set of criteria. 

Steve Cuden: I see. So it’s. It’s purely. It’s purely going by your gut. 

Stephen Games: Yeah. Does it, does it talk to me? Does it say something? is there a really strong idea there? I’ve had books, come in, which are frankly, really badly written, but there’s a very strong idea. And I have teams of editors, and I have to brief the editors, and I say, look, take this. Help this writer, help them, you know, with a family doctor or a, consultant or a surgeon, right? They need this cut off, but they need that added in. And you can work with them, you can, you can work with them to try to encourage them to do it themselves, or we can go in really radical surgery and we do the job. I myself, a very, very interventionist. I mean, I go in with big, big boots, and I have done a lot of rewriting on some of the books that we published because it needs it, because the authors needed that sort of help. And the results are stunning. Absolutely stunning. One of the things that. Just amazing. I mean, I’ve. Last week I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the, third week in October in Germany, and it is the biggest, the most important book fair in the world. And you wander from exhibition to stall to exhibition stall, and you pick up books and you flick through them and read. It is quite extraordinary how much rubbish publishers, publishers of a really, really major, reputation are prepared to put out and you think, you know, you shouldn’t have let that go. You know, that needs, that could be a good book, but it isn’t at the moment. But there, you know, I don’t name the publishing houses, but they’re prepared to come behind a book and they’ll put money behind it and they’ll put a publicity budget behind it and they think it’s okay and it’s not. And there are a lot of smaller publishers who just don’t get what a book should look like. I mean, there is an aesthetic to a book. when I was first starting out, one of my favourite designers in England, very, very, very strong track record as a kind of modern designer in inverted commerce. And he said, well, Stephen, you’ve got to, I mean, you’re modern, young, not that young. This new venture, you know, go modern. I mean, challenge publishing conventions. Have your text on the page ragged, you know, don’t range. Right? have it ragged. That’s what modern, that’s what modern typography looks like. And actually, when you look at a book where the text is ragged on the right hand side, you’re asking the brain to make so many more decisions. You know, where does the eye stop. It has to stop a little bit further over on the right, on this line, then a bit less on the next line, then a bit more on the right. And you just. What you want, you want total invisibility. You just don’t want the eye making decisions, you want the brain absorbing it as easily as possible. You want the best typeface, you want the most invisible type face. 

Steve Cuden: When you talk about ragged on the right you mean it’s not justified on. 

Stephen Games: The right it’s unjustified. He was asking for the text to be unjustified. Exactly. 

Steve Cuden: So I’m curious. I asked this question of lots of different creative people and I think it’s particularly cogent with you. And that is what for you makes a good story good. What are those qualities that make a good story good? 

Stephen Games: Well, I mean, Marguerite Poland’s book, a sin of omission. I just burst into tears towards the end of it and I’m quite hard. But there was an ending that I hadn’t expected and it completely took me by surprise. I mean, I want to feel that my books are important. It’s really, really important to me that all our books are edited to a very, very high standard and we’re very, very serious. On the very, very first book, I copy edited myself. And after the book was finished I thought, well, I don’t need to send it out to a proofreader, you know, I can do that. Boy, I’m never going to make that mistake again. It must have gone through five editions before we’d finally got every single mistake. You have to have another pair of eyes do your proofreading and that’s one important criterion. A lot of publishers don’t, they don’t have the money to do that and it really tells. 

But in terms of importance, the second book I did was a book by someone called Jonathan Lawley. Comes from a rather posh family. He’s related to the Cecil family. Cecil was one of the advisors to Queen Elizabeth I for years ago. his grandfather was the deputy commissioner for the Andaman Islands. The Andaman had been a set of hills, sort of somewhere between Burma, Myanmar and India. And a group of african pygmies must have walked from what is now Botswana, across what would have been the dry land that would later have flooded and become the Indian Ocean. And they found themselves up in the hills in what is now the Andaman islands. When the Indian Sea flooded, Indian Ocean flooded. And so they became stranded on these islands and there were these twelve tribes, pygmies living at, I mean, essentially paleolithic, stone age tribes people. The British arrived there in 1857 in the Andamans, and built a penal colony in Fort Blair, one of the islands, where they took the convicts, where they locked up people who’d been involved in the indian mutiny of 1857. The British then realized that there were these other peoples, these strange pygmies, who they tried to put into clothing and they tried to give Christianity to, and they tried to teach English to, and they tried to send a school, and, within about 50 or 60 years, most of them were dead. They caught diseases. Three tribes remain. And Jonathan Lawley, the grandson of the commissioner from 19, 1922, went across in 2018 to see the place that his mother has always talked about and discovered these people discovered that they are on the point of extinction, and wrote a book called a Road to extinction, because India, which now runs the Andaman islands, had allowed a trunk road to be driven, to be, built through their forests, on which indian tourists now come in hoards day after day after day, tempting the, tribes people out of the forest with packets of biscuits, which the tribes would just adore. And we hand you a packet of biscuit, you hand us a pot of jungle honey or your bow and arrow, which you use for hunting pigs. And the people are becoming obese, they’re becoming indolent, they’re becoming, dependent on the tourist gifts. There’s alcoholism, there’s prostitution, it’s a disaster. And Jonathan has written this very, very important book explaining how we got to here and pleading with the indian government to give these people more protection. I think that was well, well worth publishing. 

Steve Cuden: It sounds to me like you have a, you have a desire, or you take joy in books that are revelatory about humanity. That’s what it sounds like. 

Stephen Games: I think a book has to do something. 

Steve Cuden: Well, there’s no question, but you could write a book about a building and an architect, but not really discuss much about humanity at large. You could be very specific about that building, but what you’ve described in the three or four books you’ve talked about here, it’s really about how do humans interact with one another. 

Stephen Games: Well, I suppose that is true. Again, going back to architecture we talked about before, one of my problems is that architects just don’t like people. And, you know, when you look, if you look at books of architectural photographs, they never have people in them. I mean, when I was a student, one of my, what I thought was one of my favorite buildings was the Mies van der Rohe pavilion. the Barcelona Pavilion, the Barcelona exhibition in the mid twenties, and that building was demolished, but has been reconstructed on the site. And you go there and you think, where do they keep the kids bicycles? Where’s the toilet paper? Where are the bins? And it is as if people don’t live there. Another, I think, very, very important thing is in the history of architecture. The history of architecture is really a history of monuments. History of architecture needs to be a history of buildings that are lived. How do we live in a building? I mean, the house, the house is the key building. There should be histories of architecture which are constructed around the house, not around the palace or the castle or the railway station or the library. You know, it’s the fundamental thing. And there’s so much that if I had time, if I had time, I tell you, I would so love to do the history of architecture that hasn’t been written. New books about history come, about architecture come out almost daily. They all play with the same ideas, the same stale ideas. The 20th century was a gropius and Le Corbusier and Alpha alto and Frank Lloyd Wright. And so, yeah, we know, we know, we know, we know. 

Steve Cuden: Well, of interest to me because I’ve been a writer for a very long time, and I am, a structuralist. I enjoy well structured books, plays, movies, etcetera. And that is architecture. It’s a form of architecture. You’re just not building a building, you’re building a story. And so I think you probably have a sense of that, too, when you develop whatever authors you help to develop, it’s absolutely true. 

Stephen Games: And you have to say to an author, I have to say to my, look, I have to say to myself, one of the books I’m bringing out, next month is an adaptation that I’ve written of an Andrew Lang fairy tale. Andrew Lang, in the 1890s, was the great fairy tale writer. he was a Scot, and he published the yellow Book of fairy Tales and the Red Book of fairy Tales and the Orange Book and so on. He wrote the first fairy tales himself, and then he employed teams of elderly scottish women to gather fairy tales up and read, write them in his style. They’re absolutely ghastly. but the very first one that he wrote is fabulous. And I’ve just, I’ve just, about published my version of that, actually, as a film script, in film script format. Because I have a 17 year old daughter, you know, she, she doesn’t know what a book is. She picks up a book and she says it’s an awful lot of words. Yeah. You know, that is one of the handicaps of books. And it suddenly occurred to me that if I write a book as a film script, there are about 50% fewer words on a page. That could be quite an appealing format for teenagers. So I did that. But I’ve been writing this book for years. I haven’t known what to do with it. And years in the 1990s, I thought, well, I’ve written this as a film script. I’m going to take it to Los Angeles. And I took my film script for Los Angeles. I thought, I’ll sell it immediately. And within a month or so, pulp fiction came out. And I had written this story which started at the beginning and went to the end. And I saw pulp fiction. What order is pulp fiction in? What is the chronological. That’s the first act of pulp fiction. 

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s one of the structural questions about pulp fiction. 

Stephen Games: That’s right. It’s fascinating. And I just thought to myself, we’re so naive. We all thought the story had to start at the beginning and end at the end. It doesn’t. And, I put the script back in my pocket. It wasn’t seen again ten years. So, yes, that issue of structure is very important. 

Steve Cuden: Well, but do you know anyone that could publish that book for you? I’m kidding. Of course you could publish it. Now I’m wondering, do you think that it’s been very important that you have been a longtime writer who then understands writing and authors, to then become a publisher? How important has being a writer been to this process that you’ve been through? 

Stephen Games: Totally. Because, I shouldn’t have, I guess because it’s unseemly. But I have huge confidence. 

Steve Cuden: By the way, that’s highly unusual. Most writers don’t have any confidence in. 

Stephen Games: Themselves, the ones I know, I’m terribly elderly. And, you know, I have a. Like you. Well, your bit is great. I think mine is white. But I’ve been around for a while and I don’t know, I just, I can do it, you know, I can do it. And there are a lot of editors. I mean, I’m sending books out all the time to edit copy editors. And I say, do this with it. Do this with it. And it comes back and I say, I’m sorry, you just haven’t got it. You just haven’t got it. So I seem to be able to. I seem to be able to suss out books that have value and I then know what needs doing to them. 

Steve Cuden: And you get to that because you’re a writer, because you have an understanding of it, correct? 

Stephen Games: I don’t know. I mean, it may be because, who knows? I mean, maybe because I was a graphic designer. Maybe it was because I studied architecture when I was a graphic designer. Ah. I was at a college, which is now six colleges in London, called the University of the Arts, London. But, in my day, my college of school, the Central School of Art, founded by a very, very important architect, designer called Letharby in the 1890s. I think when I was there reading graphic designing, graphic design, we had an absolutely fabulous tutor, an American, a New Yorker, who taught me, a man called Bob Gill. He was a stunner, and Bob was the sort of person, I mean, if this is what you wanted, Bob was straight down the line. You couldn’t mess about. And we had, I suppose, 30 people in our class, and we would be set a design exercise, and then we would have to put our work up on the wall and explain it. And typically you’d say something about your work, and your tutor or your tutors would say, well, I don’t think that works for me. I don’t think you’ve handled that very well. And then the student would say, well, you know, as well as that I was trying to do this. And Bob would say, it’s don’t try and do two things. Do one thing. See if you can do one thing. Get one thing right. And, this idea of, well, you know, I’ve got an, I’ve got another backup plan up my sleeve that didn’t for Bob, that didn’t work, and I think that’s terribly, terribly important. Get the one. Know what the one thing is that you’re aiming at. Get it right. Don’t try and do something else. 

Steve Cuden: So what then would you say of a new writer, or a writer seeking who’s maybe established but needs to be published and can’t find a publisher, what would you say? Are the things that help a book to stand out, aside from a great story? That’s obvious or a great way to tell it. But are there other aspects that you have noticed over time help to get the book published, to get your attention? 

Stephen Games: Yeah. Be literate. 

Steve Cuden: Be literate. 

Stephen Games: I know it’s very, very, very difficult. I mean, I am a, I’m a small minded pedant. I mean, I really am. I get books all the time where the comma splice just drives me mad. Essentially, there’s two sentences joined together by comma, when they should have been joined together by a full stop in a new capital letter. 

Steve Cuden: Sure. 

Stephen Games: People don’t get it. Spelling, is bad. grammar is bad, syntax is bad. 

Steve Cuden: So this is very interesting to me because I’ve been teaching screenwriting at a university for twelve years, and one of the hallmarks of young people today is they don’t understand grammar at all. 

Stephen Games: That’s right, because they’re speed, typing on their iPhones. 

Steve Cuden: And you’re saying that this is what separates the likely to be published from I’m not going to publish you at all. If you can’t spell, if you can’t, you don’t know punctuation, you don’t understand grammar. That’s really going to separate you out, isn’t it? 

Stephen Games: It’s not the criterion of your greatness. It’s just a barrier. It’s just another handicap. You don’t know how to write and spell and stuff like that. The editor, look, it’s just think about it, just as a commercial thing. The editor is going to be saying, well, how much do we have to spend on knocking this into shape? So it’s just another bit of expense. 

Steve Cuden: Do you ever get an author that you’ve edited that way and they object to the way you’ve edited? 

Stephen Games: I’ve done the opposite. I’ve had an editor who writes really badly, and I thought writing about her dysfunctional teenage years, and I’ve said, this is really good because the illiteracy is a perfect cipher for her dysfunctionality. And I advised her there to make it more. More illiterate because that actually worked. it represented that many of the problems she was going through. You know what she did? She gave the text to her daughter who just finished English lit. She just majored in English lit. She said, can you do that? Stephen wants this. She did the opposite. She kind of tidied it up. She made it and she made it either. Neither one thing nor the other. I said, well, I can’t use it, I’m afraid. The point is that every book has something about. Well, every book that’s worth writing has something about it. You just have to find, I mean, as the editor, as the publisher, you have to find what that thing is and how you’re going to, how to make that thing stand out, how you sell it on the basis of that thing. One of the things that I struggle with all the time is that, and I think it’s, it may well be the part, the result of creative writing school. There’s just a lot of formulaic stuff that comes in. 

Steve Cuden: Well, sure. Well, if they’re if they’re publishing 120,000 books a year, there’s going to be some formulaic stuff that comes out through there. 

Stephen Games: So the publishers want duplication, but the writers seem to have learned certain tricks, and it’s. They just love to repeat what they’ve learned, maybe what their creative writing tutor told them to do. It’s baffling to me. I have no interest in that. 

Steve Cuden: So, obviously, you have given plenty of notes in your time. You’ve received notes, you’ve received editorial notes. You’ve given out plenty of editorial notes. You have done your own source of editing. What do you think is the best way for both an editor or a publisher to give a note to an author so that they’ll understand it? And also for you, to then receive notes back from people. What is the best way to deal with notes? 

Stephen Games: I don’t like talking to people on the phone, certainly. So note giving is very helpful. written notes? Yeah. Yeah. 

Steve Cuden: Is there. Is there a way to do it that’s diplomatic, that eases the pain that you’re about to deliver? 

Stephen Games: I’m not very good at doing that. 

Steve Cuden: Mmm. 

Stephen Games: I was editing. I edited a novel by a young writer in South Africa, and I thought it was a very interesting novel, but she wanted to be chick lit. And I said, I think you. I think you can aspire. I think this does more than chick lit. She wanted it to be a sort of. Sort of self help book, a therapy book as well. And I said, I think there’s a very strong storyline here, and I think you can cut out all that stuff, which you don’t handle very well, actually, because when it gets to the therapeutic stuff, you’re quoting people you’ve read, and it’s not your world. We have all read Deepak Chopra. Great. You know, he doesn’t need your publicity. just tell me the story. And I rewrote about a chapter that she’d written. I said, I want it like this. And I think that was my first big response to her book. After we started work on it in a later version of the book. This was going on for about six months now. I came across a chapter where she, the character in the book that is modeled on herself gets a letter, gets an email from her publisher with a critique of the book that she’s written, which makes her burst into tears. So it seems that I made her burst into tears, and I’m really sorry. You know, sometimes I’m very, very clumsy and crude. and I say what I have to say, and I do make people upset. 

Steve Cuden: I guess you’re a blunt deliverer of bad news. 

Stephen Games: I am a blunt deliverer of bad news. but for those writers that can handle it, we end up with stunners. 

Steve Cuden: What do you think that writers today who are starting out, they have a dream of being a writer and they’re actually writing, but they’ve yet to be published. What do you think that they should be thinking about in terms of trying to get to, the point of being published? 

Stephen Games: Well, there’s, don’t give up, your day job, certainly, to begin with. Everybody wants to write. it’s very, very hard to. The, books that do get published, say one, one in 10,000 chance of your book getting, getting noticed. there’s a big issue of whether you’re going, look, we have a number of things that we do. we have a sales organization in North America, we have a sales organization in London that covers the rest of the world outside UK and outside North America. And their job is to get shops to make bookshops aware of books and get those books shelved, or put on windows displays or table displays, whatever, and sold. But the book has to have the legs to do that. I get books all the time by people who’ve written their memoirs or grandchildren who’ve discovered that their grandfather never told the story about how they survived Auschwitz, for example. There’s a lot of that, you know, survival stories now. And the grandparents themselves, they never talked about it. They were part of their way of surviving, the concentration camps was to shut the hell up and just get on with life, put it aside. And then along come the grandchildren, they say, I mean, how did you do that? And they get their grandparents to open it up and suddenly there’s a raft of books like that. I don’t think they’re very commercial. They’re very important to the family and they’re collectively they’re a very, very important archive. We don’t want to lose those. Is anyone going to go out and buy them? Yeah, I didn’t. Not really. 

Steve Cuden: Not really. 

Stephen Games: All you can do is you make as good a book of it as you can and you give it the professional copy editing and proofreading and editorial, intervention that you can, and then you put it up on, I’m afraid, have to use the wicked word, Amazon. you make it available on Amazon and people can buy it all around the world and they’ll sell or they’ll give away 100, 5200 copies and that’s as far as that book is going to go, and that counts for a lot. I’m, you know, I don’t know how it is, but in the three, we’re not even three years old yet I’m getting a submission a day. I think that’s a lot. 

Steve Cuden: That is a lot. 

Stephen Games: A lot of this stuff. It’s not going to go anywhere. And it’s not because it’s bad. It’s because it doesn’t have, it’s not unique. It doesn’t have commercial legs. It hasn’t, it’s not going to jolt someone out of their, daily life and say, my gosh, this is something I never knew, is that part of. 

Steve Cuden: The philosophy behind the unique covers to the books is to try and attract commercial, sales? 

Stephen Games: Oh, well, it’s doing a number of things. One is because we publish fiction and non fiction. There’s no. If I were cleverer, if I were more professional and I was starting up a publishing company today, I would choose a topic because that’s the sensible thing to do. You get known for doing books on health or self help, or you get known for books on militaria or biography or gardening or whatever, and then you have customers, buyers, readers who come back to you again and again for more of the same. I’m an idiot. I’m an old fashioned, non niche generalist, and I do books that I think deserve to be out there. That is really, really stupid. That means that there is nothing, they have anything in common, what the covers do. The covers sort of tie them together into a kind of visual family, and they do it very, very effectively. And we had this stunning exhibition stalled at the Frankfurt Book fair last year, and I just wallpapered the stall with giant pictures of our covers. And, people were just coming by who’d never seen it, heard of envelope books before, and their tongues were just dropping out. We also get very, very good feedback on Goodreads, you know, the Amazon, site. And we, have book bloggers. And it’s great because our, covers mean we have, we get two bites of the cherry. the book arrives at the book bloggers and they immediately tweet or send up a message on Instagram or something, saying, just received another book. Gorgeous book from envelope books. They’re so beautiful. We’re just a lot, you know? And then a month or so later, then they do the blog and they say, well, we read this book and it’s great as well. So I get a tweet on the COVID and I get a tweet on the book itself. So those covers are very, very important in establishing our, brand, but also tying the books together into a family that makes sense. 

Steve Cuden: And I think one of the things that, ah, also ties all this together is you are the individual, really. You’re the middle of all of this. All roads lead through you. And clearly, just the way that you talk about the books and the way that you talk about authors, you’re very passionate about it and your passion comes through. And if it was just you were just producing widgets, none of that would matter. The book cover wouldn’t matter. But you’re not producing widgets, you’re producing things in which you have, I can tell, a personal investment in their success. 

Stephen Games: It matters to me, huge. I mean, obviously, I’m going to have to work out some kind of succession plan. You know, what happens when I’m, when I’m, when I’m, when I’m gone, I don’t know what’s going to be there, but it matters. I say it matters to me also, because just so many people in publishing, they’re just holding down on a job and it doesn’t matter. And there’s career advancement and there’s salaries and there’s. And you read, in the UK, you read the magazine called the bookseller, and in, in the UK, was it publishers, Publishers week. And, the stories are basically about who’s now become the chief executive, which publishing company’s been bought up by who. And I just didn’t think that the love of the book is there. I don’t think it matters. What matters a lot is making money. And of course, who doesn’t want to make money? I want to make money as well. 

Steve Cuden: Sure. 

Stephen Games: But there’s got to be more to it than that. Otherwise, it might as well be hamburgers and, you know, Kentucky for. 

Steve Cuden: Well, and clearly that’s not what you’re doing. You’re doing something unique and special with each book. 

So I’ve been having this absolutely fantastic conversation with, the publisher, Stephen Games envelope books, and his own books that he’s published over time. And I’m wondering, can you share with us a story from your experience that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or maybe just plain funny. 

Stephen Games: I’ve got a lovely book that’s coming out, in March, next year. And the author is David, Toreschuk. David was born in the borderlands of England, Scotland, in about 1948. And it was a fairly bleak childhood, but he somehow managed to get himself a scholarship to Oxford, Oxford University. And, from there, he bounced very early into british news television as a young man in his early twenties. And from british news coverage, he went to New York and he became a news reporter there. He’s an amazing guy. He now presents a religion program, out of New York. But for many, many years, he was an international. He was a foreign correspondent. There was one problem, and m he was able to talk to politicians and to refugees and the oppressed and whatever, everybody. But there was one person he couldn’t get clear answers out of, and that was his mother. And the question that he wanted from his mother was, who is my father? And she would never tell him. And he knew nothing. And I think the instability of not knowing who his father was clearly, had a damaging effect. I mean, the time was right as. But he spent 27 years as an alcoholic. And, I mean, he went through everything, had to go into rehab and so on. He’s fine now. In his fifties. His mother said, david, sit down. I need to talk to you. And they sat and they talked. And she said, look, when I was 15, I was raped. And, the story was apparently that she went with a friend of hers from school to a church in the area that she’d never been to. It wasn’t her church. And there was a priest there. And after the service finished, the priest said to her, would you like me to accompany you home? And on the walk home, he raped her. Never said this to him before. The question then was, who was the priest? And part of this book is his talking about his life as an international correspondent. Part of the book is this sort of. You were talking more about structuring. Interwoven into that is the story of how he traces, if he’s able to trace, his father. The problem for me as a publisher was, what do we call the book? And he had given it some sort of title, which meant nothing at all. And me being kind of blunt and interventionist, I said, well, why don’t we make m the give the book the title? That’s obvious. Who raped my mother? So I gave that the title, and we did some dummy copies, and I sent it off to my sales team in America, in Pennsylvania, and I sent it off to my sales team in London, and I said, can you sell this book? It’s going to be called who rate my mother? And the answer was, you can’t do it. You can’t do it. The public won’t accept it. It’s not, you know, nice enough. It’s too in your face. It’s too blunt. You have to tweak it. And we took, I mean, we took three months. The book was finished. Took three months. Just trying to work out what the car, how to tone it down. And the word violation at one point replaced the word rape in the end. We’ve called it a question of paternity. And everybody seems happy with that. 

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s toned way down from. 

Stephen Games: That’s toned way down. And now whether that’s too, whether that’s too low on the dial, you know, who rate. My mother is kind of, you know, I’ve got a dial on this guitar that goes up to eleven. You know? You know what I mean? 

Steve Cuden: I do. And, and, you know, the subject itself is not exactly a happy go lucky subject. So it’ll, be a tough sale. Just from that perspective. 

Stephen Games: I think it’s going to be a really good sell. I think it’s going to do very well. I mean, he covered, for example, he covered the troubles in Northern Ireland and he just has a fantastic chapter on what it’s like being caught in a hail of bullets or being caught in bombing raids by the IRA in Belfast. relations between the journalistic community out there and the IRA and the british troops and how they sort of finesse the tomb. The fact that they were distrusted by both sides, but they were needed by both sides, how to be a journalist under those. It’s a great book. It’s a great book, but, Yeah. So the question of how you do a title can be a real problem. 

Steve Cuden: Oh, I think titles are super important and they can help you to sell a book, there’s no doubt about that. And the fact that you put it out and got feedback, I think that was very important and very smart of you. 

Stephen Games: Yes, it was important to get feedback. 

Steve Cuden: So, last question for you today, in all of your experiences, you’ve already shared with us a whole bunch of great advice and tips, but I’m wondering if you have a single solid piece of advice or a tip that you like to give to people who are starting out in the business or who may be in a little bit and trying to get to that next level. Is there something you like to tell people normally or regularly? 

Stephen Games: Yeah. Offer your book to envelope books first because we’ll take you seriously. Don’t, be put off, but be realistic. The chances are, I mean, this is a really tough thing to say because on the one hand, you want to, you want to encourage, you want to cheat people up. You’ve got something there you’ve got something to say. It might be really, it might be something that the world needs to know. On the other hand, you need to say, statistically, the chances are your book’s going to go nowhere. Statistically, the chances are, even if you get published, your book is going to go nowhere. You know what? When a book comes out, I mean, the timing is important. Oh, here’s another. Here’s a really important thing. I have authors who come to me all the time. They just can’t believe how long it’s going to take to get the book out. They give the thing to me, we read it, try to assess it, then we decide on a plan of action. Then it goes out to a copy editor. Then we come back, we try to work out what happens there. Then when it’s ready and all the changes have been made. And that can take months and months and months. Then, we start talking about COVID design, rear design, check the titles, right? And so on, typography, layout, and so on. Then it has to be proofread. Only when it’s ready and in really good condition can we then send the book to the sales team. And, they want six months. Wow, six months? Yes. To talk to Barnes and Noble and to Amazon and all the independent press and in my country, waterstones and dawns and so on, they need six months clear. So, whether I like it or not, and when I released, when I started it off, I thought I could do the whole thing in a four or five month turnaround. You can if you’re going to upload it to Amazon, but if you want to get the wheels working, and if you want people to come on board and try to sell it, the timescales are absolutely monumental. And the other thing is also, publishing works in a sort of half year cycle. So we, at the end of last month, had to tell our sales team what we were publishing up to next August. That means that we are now thinking about what we are going to be publishing from August to January, 24, 25. That’s a long way ahead. And authors, they get antsy. They want something to happen, they can leave. If you’re keeping them waiting, you’re not doing a very good job. You’re not really taking them seriously. And it’s very, very difficult to say, look, there’s a queue. You’re in the queue. You’re in the line, right? We’re doing all that needs doing. But we’re not on your time scale. You have to be on our time scale. 

Steve Cuden: I, think that’s really valuable advice for anybody who’s thinking about becoming an author or trying to get published. It is a long term proposition. I think the key then, is to say to the authors, I hope you say to them, go write another book. 

Stephen Games: Yes. Yeah, exactly. Don’t sit around and fret. 

Steve Cuden: Go produce more. 

Well, Steven games, this has been just a fantastic hour on StoryBeat, and I can’t thank you enough for all of your time and your expertise and your wisdom, to share with everyone on StoryBeat today. Thank you so much. 

Stephen Games: Well, thank you, Steve. I’ve loved doing it, and you’re very good. I mean, you’re a very canny interviewer, and I’m impressed. I’m impressed. 

Steve Cuden: Well, thank you. 

Stephen Games: it’s not easy doing these things. And you’ve gotten through 275 people. You’ve had 275 sets of questions that you’ve need to. You did a good job of me. Thank you so much. 

Steve Cuden: And so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, tunein, and many others. Until next time, Im Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable. 

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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