Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Tony Geer of Conversation Tree Press
Tony Geer is well known as a collector and friend to many in the small press community, but has more recently set out to start his own imprint called Conversation Tree Press. His passion and commitment to quality of materials, design, and running his business are clear to anyone who has read anything he has produced regarding the press so far. The focus of CTP will be on science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, and contemporary fiction. His first title, Peter Pan, will be released to preorder on October 26th and his next two titles are already lined up and in progress currently. We are very excited to get to hear more about the direction of Conversation Tree Press and Tony's vision for the future.
Q: This press is a brand-new venture for you, but the inception of what we now know as Conversation Tree Press began years ago. Can you tell us a little more about how it transitioned from a dream to now having prototypes of your first book in hand? Was there a distinct moment you realized that Conversation Tree Press could actually be a reality?
I had my first experience printing letterpress about seven years ago when my now-wife bought me a printing lesson at a little studio as a present. Having enjoyed the workshop a great deal, we ended up printing our wedding invitations ourselves there a few weeks later. Hoping to do more printing, I looked into acquiring a tabletop press but even something as relatively small as that would not work in the condo we were living in at the time.
Fast forward to a few years later, and a few big things happened all within the space of less than twelve months: a newborn baby, a move to a new city, a job left behind, and the start of the pandemic. With more space at our new home, I started thinking more seriously about printing again, and then found out that Don Black, the only letterpress equipment dealer in Ontario, was about to close his business. I needed to ensure I picked up everything I would need to print while building my workshop quickly, or as quickly as one could during a pandemic.
Luckily, I had the help of a good friend, Michael Torosian at Lumiere Press in Toronto, to help guide me, and together we selected everything needed to put together a letterpress workshop well-equipped for hand printing before Don closed up shop.
As I started learning to print, I realized how much I enjoyed it and how little fulfillment I found in my previous career as a project manager. Adding a second child to the mix also had a funny way of reminding me of how valuable time is and how quickly it goes by. With my wife’s blessing, I decided to pursue printing and publishing full time, and from that point on it was very real.
One of my presses – the cylinder proofing press – is perfect for applying even pressure across a wide area, as you need when printing a book, but it’s hand cranked so only suitable for shorter runs. Realizing that some of the books I hoped to make would require larger runs than I could do on my own, I started exploring the best way to make that happen.
Having been a collector for much longer than I’ve been a printer (see The Book Blog [http://thebookblog.com]), I already knew of many private presses, printers and binders. Knowing that Pat Randle at Nomad Letterpress, Phil Abel at Hand & Eye, and Paul Kidson’s team at Ludlow Bookbinders all did impeccable work, they were my first choice. I was happy to find out they were also very fine people who were willing to answer any questions and share their knowledge.
Putting together spreadsheets, reviewing sample materials and papers, and signing contracts are all reminders that this is real, but the most fulfilling moment so far was when I received the first prototype – the Standard state of Peter Pan.
Q: That must have been an amazing feeling! Peter Peter has already been announced for pre-order in the not-so-distant future. How are you feeling right now and how has being a small press owner been different than what you imagined so far?
We're confident everything’s on track for a successful release, and really proud of how the prototypes for the books have turned out. The bar has certainly been raised over the past few years and I think they hold their own well.
One of the most unexpected things for me is simply how fulfilling it is. The Press is my full-time job, so it’s obviously a huge commitment and a lot of work, but I get to do what I love every day – read books and play a part in making them – and it’s immensely satisfying. I’m very fortunate to be in this position and thankful to everyone who helped make it happen.
Q: When describing the name of your press, Conversation Tree Press, you paint a beautiful picture of your hometown in Belair, Guyana, and the complicated history of a central “conversation tree” in your town. This was a place where former slaves and indentured laborers gathered, shared stories and built communal bonds. How do you see your vision of Conversation Tree Press uniquely bringing people together in the small press community?
We decided very early on what was important to us, and that guides us as we grow and build a community that not only shares our passion around the work we publish, but also for the design and craft of making books.
One of the primary ways we do this is by celebrating the craftsmen and craftswomen we collaborate with. We’ve talked before about the wonderful printing we’ve seen from Pat Randle at Nomad Letterpress and Phil Abel from Hand & Eye Editions, and the talented bindings and papers that Paul Kidson and his team at Ludlow Bookbinders make. We’re excited to talk more about the handmade paper that will be used in our Lettered Edition, and we always identify the makers of the materials we use, like the Cialux and Canapetta book cloths and decorative papers from Rossi.
We’ll also continue to share more about what goes into making a book, like the interior design and the post we made showing our use of the Van de Graaf canon when designing the layouts for Peter Pan.
We give a great deal of thought to the typefaces we choose for each book, and we’re happy to share our thinking and details about it with our collectors, like we did when talking about Austin (typeface) and why we selected it for Peter Pan.
Beyond our relationship with our collectors and our partners, we’re also proud of the friendships we’ve built with other publishers. Marcelo at Areté Editions, the Crispins at Barbarian Press, Michael Torosian at Lumiere Press, Anthony Kaye at Curious King, Rich Tong at Lyra’s, Bill at Subterranean Press, and Griffin Gonsalves at No Reply Press, have all provided help and advice along the way and we’d be remiss not to thank them for their generosity of spirit.
And finally, but by no means the least important, an important part of building our community closer to home is through our Land Acknowledgement on our website, which will also be included in our books. It’s a small part of the reconciliation process that we’ve embarked upon to build a balanced relationship between Indigenous communities and new settlers like ourselves.
Q: It is inspiring how clear of a vision you had before even creating the prototypes of your first release. How did you decide what your first book would be? Did you always plan for it to be Peter Pan or did the title present itself to you in an unexpected way?
I’ve always had in my mind a long list of books I enjoyed a great deal and wanted to have nicer editions of. When it came to selecting the first book, I knew that as a new publisher it was best to start in the public domain (PD) before trying to acquire rights for contemporary books.
There were a few ideas to begin with, but I’ve always enjoyed Peter Pan, and as a tale for both children and adults, it was a good candidate. While there is no shortage of editions in print, it rose to the top of our list because there were many opportunities to make it special.
Including Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, lesser known but equally as charming, would capture the entire Peter Pan oeuvre in one volume, something not easily found. The other things, like the introduction by Harvard Professor Dr. Maria Tatar providing unique scholarly insight, and Charles Vess’ singular talent unleashing the books’ rich potential for illustration, came as time went by.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, but it does sound like you have aspirations to do limited editions of contemporary works in the future. How do you see the rhythm of future releases playing out in terms of classic and contemporary titles?
Publications definitely skew towards being in the public domain (PD) here at the start of our journey, for the reason mentioned above. It brings me great joy to give the fine press treatment to books that I grew up reading as a boy, collaborate with artists to see the pages come to life, and know that my children will read them as well.
The PD titles we will be publishing have been carefully chosen because there was an opportunity to do something new or different with them. A good example is including Peter Pan in Kensington Garden in our Peter Pan collection, a tale that relatively few people are aware of.
But our intention has always been to acquire rights to contemporary titles, a process which we’ve already started, perhaps with fewer PD titles in the mix as time goes by.
Q: There are many reasons why you would choose not to do a particular book (i.e., unobtainable rights, size, too many treatments already, costs, etc.) but what would be your absolute dream book/series to produce if there were no limitations?
I would love to do an edition of Lord of the Rings, and was very tempted to after learning that the books were set to come out of copyright in Canada at the start of next year (2023). Unfortunately, Canada is in the midst of extending its copyright laws by another 20 years to match the rest of the world, so that won’t be happening (at least not in the next 20 years!).
Q: Announcing a potential series twenty years in advance might not be a bad marketing strategy for collector loyalty actually! I know you have a high level of respect for illustrators and you have included Charles Vess’ name on the spine of Peter Pan, making it clear with your first release that quality and quantity of illustrations will be a key part of Conversation Tree Press. How important is the role of the artist and illustrations to your current and future projects?
We love reading well-illustrated books ourselves as illustrations elevate the reading experience. This can be done by granting us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a world, in a way that mere words can’t, or by evoking a feeling that’s in harmony with the words on the page. We know this is just as important to collectors, so careful consideration is given to the artist we collaborate with on each book, and we include as many illustrations as time and budget allow.
That collaboration sometimes extends to the bindings as well, if the artist would like. We will soon be starting prototypes on a book where we’ve been working very closely with the artist on a particular piece that will play an integral role in the bindings. Without their input, it would not have been possible to pull it off.
The illustrations themselves also influence which materials we will use and what type of binding will be executed to ensure that everything works together in harmony - the words, the art, and the bindings.
Q: In our previous conversations, you have mentioned that doing Conversation Tree Press publications via letterpress is very important to you, even so much so that it might govern what works you may or may not release. What role does the quality of materials and process play in your vision for the individual works as well as the press as a whole?
Our mission is to utilize the traditions of fine press bookmaking—letterpress printing, hand binding, fine materials, and a harmonious design—in the making of books. As you mentioned, there are some books we’d enjoy creating fine press editions of, but could potentially be too expensive to produce. For example, having to split a book with a high page count into two volumes would double the cost and time to hand bind, compared to a single-volume edition.
A harmonious design, including the thoughtful use of materials, also plays an important role when we’re thinking of the binding for an edition. For example, if we decide to do a binding in wood instead of leather, it should be a carefully considered decision. Beyond ensuring the wood is cut in a way to ensure minimal/no warping (quarter sawn), the type of wood selected should also fit within the context of the work. Given the choice between an exotic type of wood and one more readily available that aligns with the time and place of the novel, we’d always choose the latter. We often say that our role is to honour the work of the author, and the materials we use are an important part of that.
Q: That is really important, because when experimenting with new materials or unorthodox design, there is always the danger of crossing the line from inspired to feeling like something is a gimmick. Obviously, this line is subjective, but as you think about pushing yourself to be more creative, where do you think that line is for you personally? How do you know if you’ve crossed it?
The design of every book that we've worked on has come out of a great deal of reflection and respect for the work and the broader context that it's set in. If something doesn't feel right about it, then we simply haven't arrived at the best solution. Paul Rand, the famous American graphic designer, was asked to come up with a few logo options and famously responded:
“No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you.”
Every aspect of our work and every decision that led to it answers the question - what’s the best manifestation of the book, given the constraints we have? If we feel satisfied that we solved this problem well, that’s what we go with.
Q: You have mentioned you have your own workshop on your property and may produce some smaller projects under the imprint Conversation Tree Press Editions. How do you see these releases being different from the larger releases for Conversation Tree Press other than the size of production?
Everything about an edition from Conversation Tree Press Editions will be smaller – the trim size, the page count and the run. With a smaller print run I’ll be able to experiment a bit more with what I choose to print. It’s still very early, so there’s not a lot more to add right now.
Q: Well, I am definitely excited about this. It really opens up the opportunity to do some smaller runs of titles that might not usually get that treatment. It seems we have entered the golden age of small presses and those of us who partake have no shortage of options. What do you hope people will value in Conversation Tree Press the most and what makes it stand apart from other small presses?
It certainly is an embarrassment of riches.
When it comes to the books themselves, two things that set us apart from many small presses is that all of our editions will be letterpress printed and lavishly illustrated. The craft of fine press bookmaking is an important feature of our production, as illustrations are an important part of the reading experience for us, so we invest heavily into these two aspects for every edition we make.
As we aim to publish only three to four editions per year, we have the luxury of both waiting for the right artist to become available and giving them the time they need to complete the work. We’ve waited for a year for an artist, and we have a book in development where the artist will take two years to complete all of his work.
And as mentioned before, our collection of weird fiction, Weird., represents an unmatched commitment to seeing the genre’s greatest works published as fine press editions. Over time, we hope our collectors will be able to value not just the work that we do, but the level of service we provide.
Q: That’s a fitting title for the series! Let’s talk a little bit more about Weird. Esteemed weird fiction scholar S.T. Joshi will be at the helm curating, editing and introducing the 20 volumes of this series. How did you meet S.T. Joshi and how has the conversation evolved over time as you planned out this project?
Yes, we spent a great deal of time coming up with the name of the collection, and the full stop at the end really pulls everything together.
S.T. Joshi’s name is likely familiar to anyone who reads weird fiction, but I first heard of him from one of the books he edited for Centipede Press and his contact info is easy enough to find. We exchanged a handful of emails and then had a very productive video chat where I shared my vision for the Press and the weird fiction collection. He was very excited and we were able to move ahead pretty quickly, with the contents for the majority of volumes already decided upon. Writing introductions and editing the texts will continue for some time.
Q: As a collector, you would be familiar with different works by some of these authors by imprints like Centipede and Pegana Press. Obviously, there is plenty of space for new releases as many of these were produced in small runs and are now not available to newer collectors. Other than presenting opportunities to collectors who have missed out, is there anything specific that you are hoping to bring to the small press community with this series?
Centipede Press, Hippocampus Press, and Night Shade Books have all done a great job putting together definitive editions of the bodies of work for multiple weird fiction authors over the years. Mike at Pegana also does a stellar job producing his hand-set chapbooks and novels.
How our collection differs from what’s been published before is that S.T. Joshi is now using the experience he’s built up over his entire 50+ year career to select the very best stories from a wide range of authors. Some volumes collect work from a single author, simply because their body of work yields many stories that shouldn’t be missed. Others, anthologies based around a theme, will see work from many contributors, some perhaps not often heard from.
For our part, we’re commissioning new illustrations from some of the most gifted illustrators today, printing the text via letterpress, using premium materials across all three states, and having them hand bound – a truly fine press treatment of work that is highly deserving of it, but rarely seen at this scale when considering word count and print run.
Many of the stories are also taken from S.T.’s personal files, compiled over decades and continually updated to present the most accurate text, and not simply taken from the first edition available in the public domain, so these are essentially the definitive versions.
Q: When speaking of writing weird fiction, Lovecraft suggested that the most important component was "the mood" and that everything revolved around capturing this in each aspect of the story. Weird fiction often carries with it a pervasive mood of uncertainty, a speculative and existential unease rarely approached in other genres. What is it specifically about the genre that drew you in initially?
The mood is certainly one of the big factors. Many of the earliest weird fiction stories I read were set in the Victorian age, or just after, and the contrast between the mildly mannered, polite Victorian society and the eldritch terror that lurks beneath the surface has always been appealing. I also enjoy the writing style, which requires focused reading sessions without distractions, more so than some other contemporary books.
Q: I am personally very excited to see how that series evolves. If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Conversation Tree Press, what would you hope that it would be?
Q: Is there anything you can tell us about what is coming next for Conversation Tree Press?
I am actually in the middle of preparing a longer update that will reveal some details on future projects that should be posted before the pre-order of Peter Pan goes live, so keep an eye out for that.
Peter Pan opens for preorder on Oct 26th at 12pm EST
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Tony for his commitment to excellence and time. If you want to see more from Conversation Tree Press you can check them out at https://conversationtreepress.com/ and sign up for their mailing list to get periodic updates. You can also follow Conversation Tree Press on Facebook for more info.
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault
*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.