Signal 8 Press is a Hong Kong-based publisher founded in 2010 by American expat Marshall Moore. The name comes from the system used in Hong Kong to describe typhoons; a signal 8 warning is issued for a potentially hazardous typhoon and is greeted with celebration by most residents as it means a day off from school and work. After an early focus on Asia, Signal 8 Press has expanded its coverage to include the Pacific and Middle East and even further afield. This geographical diversity is matched by the categories of books; there’s literary fiction and genre fiction (horror, sci-fi, thrillers), travel writing, memoir, and LGBT-interest fiction and nonfiction. Among the standout titles are: The Bride of Amman, a translation from Fadi Zaghmout’s controversial Arabic bestseller, which tells the stories of four women and one gay man in Jordan’s historic capital; Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine, a historical novel set in Angkor Wat, which was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize; and the mystery-comedy Rural Liberties by award-winning Australian writer Neal Drinnan.
What’s the Signal 8 Press origin story?
Right place, right time, right cascade of events. Before I was a publisher, I was an author. I had been living in Hong Kong for about a year, and during that time—which would have been around 2008-2009—I went through a series of unfortunate events with the publishers of the five books I either had published or had in the pipeline at that time. One press was bought out and shut down. Another went bankrupt, taking two or three of my books with it. A different one took over the rights to one of the novels that got dropped, but the publisher decided to shift the focus of his press and offered me the rights back. Yet another one… let’s just say there were issues of professionalism. I couldn’t get past the sloppy pagination (Times New Roman and ragged right margins!) and hideous cover art, and I refused to let them put my name on the mess they made of my book. This all happened in a very short span of time, maybe one year. Back then, Amazon had just launched the Kindle program, e-books were just taking off, no one in Asia was doing them yet, and I thought, why not? I felt there would be room in the market for someone who ran their press with a modicum of business sense, who made books that looked good and were edited well, and who generally did what they said they were going to do.
What is your work environment like?
My business partner Anshuman Das and I both have full-time jobs. I teach at a university, and he does IT things in the financial sector. (Anything IT-related is alien gibberish to me, so I’m afraid I can’t be more specific.) My work environment is my office alcove in my apartment. It involves a desk, a nice chair, a laptop, some windows with a good view of Victoria Harbour, and a big fluffy cat who comes along periodically to meow at me and demand attention.
You charge a fee of US$15 for reading submissions. Has this cut down on the number of non-serious enquiries you receive?
Mercifully, yes. In fact, our submissions have increased since we implemented it. As an author, I remember being appalled at the idea of submission fees. However, my role as a publisher forced me to reconsider my stance. Quite a lot of time goes into reading slush-pile submissions. At the moment, I do a lot of that myself. If I’m going to invest that time when there are so many other things I also need to do, I think it’s reasonable for the press to be compensated for that. (We used to have more personnel, but a lot went by the wayside while I was doing my PhD. If anyone’s keen to read slush, please email me!) And yes, it does act as a filter for the unpublishable crap we sometimes get, which is cause for rejoicing. We should have done this three years ago.
In the submissions sections you mention that you don’t like to publish books similar to ones you’ve already published. I found this surprising; isn’t it good to have clusters of specialization?
That came about because we kept getting queries from people who had written memoirs similar to Chris Tharp’s Dispatches from the Peninsula—about teaching English in Korea—which I had no interest in reading or publishing. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, I spent three years in the Seoulburbs myself. Those were valuable years, but they weren’t easy ones. I became acquainted with Chris through his blog, and I had him in mind when I set up the press. He’s a very good writer: he’s got the punchy urgency of good travel writing, and he has traveled all over Asia and written about it. I felt then, and still do, that there only needed to be one such book—at least in our list. Instead of specializing in books written by English-teacher expats, I’d rather Signal 8 Press continue to be diverse and interesting and a bit random.
Before you take on a manuscript, how much consideration do you give to the writer’s willingness and ability to promote the book?
We do look at it after having been burned on a few of our earlier books. One of our earlier authors decided after publication that he didn’t want to be an author anymore and wanted to focus on performance art. He slagged us—and writing in general—off in a couple of interviews, which I had the displeasure of reading. This was someone who actually had an audience, too. He could have helped make a success of the book, and chose not to. Suffice to say he no longer appears in our catalogue. Having learned that lesson, we definitely take it into consideration now. Several recent authors—Neal Drinnan, Sam Ferrer, and Xu Xi—have busted their asses to help promote their books. It’s a consideration, and even a whiff of psychologically unstable hesitancy is enough to make us think twice.
It’s very hard to pick winners, isn’t it? I’m continually struck by how difficult it is to predict sales for a new book. Are there any titles which have sold much better/worse than your expectations?
It really is. We’ve been very happy with Fadi Zaghmout’s novel The Bride of Amman, which we had the honor of publishing in English. Fadi’s a very big deal in Arab lit, with something like 350,000 followers on Twitter. He’s also a super nice guy, and we definitely got that one right. As for books that have sold below expectations, I’ll admit that one of our newest, Neal Drinnan’s Rural Liberties, hasn’t taken off the way that we had hoped. I’ve been a huge fan of Neal’s work since I discovered his books in Sydney almost 20 years ago. Having the opportunity to publish a novel of his has been a real privilege. The novel ranks among his best, and Australia is a very literary country, but I think it takes more of a bookstore presence than we have been able to achieve Down Under in order to make the sales what they need to be.
Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine is an impressive novel with a wonderful cinematic quality. It would make a nice film in the hands of the right director. Which of your titles strike you as having potential for television or film?
Thanks for the compliment! I have to agree with you, it’s a hell of a book, definitely another one I am proud to have published. I’d also like to see it made into a film. Among our other books that I think would translate well into film, there are a few. If I remember correctly, an adaptation of Fadi’s The Bride of Amman is already underway, but his second novel, Heaven on Earth, urgently needs to be filmed. Middle Eastern sci-fi set in future Jordan and focused on the tribulations of immortality? How has this not been snapped up already? I’d also love to see a Korean filmmaker pick up Giacomo Lee’s Funereal, which is weird and wonderful and very much about a certain place and time in Korea. It’s very now and very futuristic at the same time. Last one: I’d really like to see a documentary based on Firelight of a Different Colour, Nigel Collett’s biography of Leslie Cheung. Nigel spent years researching that book, and he did it without public approval (notice my choice of words) from Leslie’s family. The world has moved on; the closet is an archaic construct; and it’s time more people knew this gorgeous, talented, courageous man’s story.
What trends have you seen in publishing since founding Signal 8 Press in 2010?
There have been a few big changes. I think the one that has affected us the most is Peak E-books—which, ironically, has been a lesson in how little the people paid to comment on this stuff actually seem to know. If you think back to six or seven years ago, you may remember the clanging chimes of doom. Print was over! Everybody was going to switch to Kindle! Only that hasn’t happened, and I never expected it to. The book is a talismanic object. It holds significance above and beyond the story between the covers. Yes, you need lighting when you read paperbacks, but I think the experience of interacting with the printed word is something we’re culturally wired to revere. Like many people, I went a bit crazy for e-books for a few years and then remembered why I liked paper. In my case, because I have wrist injuries, I’d rather never hold a heavy hardcover again, but a lightweight paperback? Give me one of those any day of the week.
If you had asked me about future trends five or so years back, I would have said that the days of the big China book were over. I was expecting to see more coverage by region, but this hasn’t really happened. Was I ahead of my time or just wrong?
I think both of our presses were ahead of the times, especially in this region. We (S8P) were on e-books here in Asia years before anybody else was, yet they never caught on here—despite the regional fondness for tech—as much as we thought they would. There’s a localist component to this: people in Malaysia don’t read books from the Philippines, and vice versa. Singaporeans don’t read much from Hong Kong. Regardless of culture and geography, people tend to prefer stories that mirror better versions of their own lives back to them. Although there’s a market for the foreign, it’s not the mainstay on the bestseller lists. There’s also the issue of the times we’re living in: the US and Britain have turned inward thanks to political forces that have fostered a climate of isolationist xenophobic political stupidity. No matter how frenzied and interesting and weird and compelling the stories coming out of China are right now, the average reader in Kansas City or Hull doesn’t give a shit. We started our presses long before Brexit and Trump, at a time when the world we find ourselves in… wasn’t exactly unthinkable, but when it didn’t seem likely to turn out this way. China’s weird, irrational combination of belligerence and fragility isn’t going to win it any friends on the international stage. It’s the exact opposite of the soft power China used to wield rather well. “We’re interesting and we treat people well and our food rocks. Please come visit and get to know us” would work so much better. And as long as the present situation persists, as long as the US and UK are sidelined by their domestic idiocy, there will be very little demand for stories from a political and cultural Other. Which is part of the reason we’ve expanded our scope. Asia is more powerful than ever, but the divisions in the world at the moment are such that we need to begin thinking of how to break down or bust through those barriers.
What are some of your recent releases?
The book we’re releasing next is Xu Xi’s short-story collection Insignificance, which in a peculiar way mirrors some of the themes I explore in my novel Inhospitable. We’re having a joint book-launch party: Five Syllables, and Starting with I! The official pub date is June, but the book’s done already and available for pre-order. After that, there are the LGBT+ anthologies, which we’ll publish in November. The deadline has just passed, and the editors are about to begin reviewing stories.
Links: Signal 8 Press website