An Interview with a Small Press Publisher
Q: You’ve been active within the small press scene for over ten years now – how do you feel things have changed in that time?
A: I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of the small press, but it was in the mid-90s and like most other folk I was a frustrated would-be writer; turning my hand to editing and publishing an anthology in ‘98/’99 was my response to the question: how hard can it be?
The mid-‘90s are considered to be the Golden Age with a swathe of little stapled and photocopied magazines. Back then, digital short-run printing was very much in its infancy and out of reach to the hobbyist publisher. Nasty Snips and later Noel Hannon’s sf collection Shenanigans were printed traditionally with the lowest economical print run of 500 copies; since I didn’t have a clue on how to market and sell them, I still have a couple of boxes left of each…
If I had waited a year or so, then digital short-run technology would have caught up with the dream. Now, it’s the lifeblood of the small press and thankfully most titles produced today are easily of the same standard has those produced via the traditional method – unless you know what you’re looking for, then you won’t be able to tell.
The first digitally produced book Pendragon published was The Ice Maiden by Lockley & Lewis – it sold reasonably well (and copies still available) and gave the impetus to continue onwards…
In some regards I am quite snobbish when it comes to the technology: I don’t call it POD, which ostensibly it is, but the way I look at it I use the short-run technology within the same business model has a traditional publisher – I have batches of copies printed, and then sell those; if the demand warrants it, then I print another batch and then another, until there’s no demand. I don’t believe in “one book at a time”- I feel it cheapens the writing; I think that a book’s life should be finite with a definite end, not necessarily a limited edition either.
Finally, Paypal has also revolutionised the way in which the small presses do business – without it, I don’t think Pendragon would survive; even with the charges, the bulk of my orders are online via the website.
Q: Not only have you published great writers, but you have also commissioned great artwork. How important is cover design in selling a book?
A: Very; a cover does sell a book – and the larger presses could learn a thing or two from their small cousins, and thankfully most are. I count myself very fortunate in working with the likes of Vincent Chong, Ben Baldwin and Steve Upham to name but three who all produce great work and who are getting noticed, especially Vinny. Long gone are the days when all you needed to produce a book cover are some downloaded images from the Internet and an hour or so in Photoshop.
Q: What is the process in publishing a book with Pendragon Press?
A: First and foremost – if I like it, I’ll publish it; I do consider the finances, but if there’s cash in the pot, then it’s a green-light… just don’t expect it to be swift.
We’ll sign a basic contract which is usually for UK and Commonwealth rights, and with a token advance – and if that’s all agreeable, then it’s down to the edits.
I generally don’t line-edit extensively – I’ll correct typos if I see them, but I do expect the author to have a pretty good grasp of spelling and grammar (and thankfully, thus far, they do!) When I read the manuscript, though, I do provide comments and thoughts on this and that – if I really disagree with something, then I will let it drop if the author can give me a reasoned and well-structured argument why it should stay. So far, there have been no fisticuffs and we’ve both come to good compromises…
Whilst the author is scribbling away on the edits, comments, wot-not, then the next step is to look for an artist who I think would complement the story; in the case of Terry Grimwood’s novella The Places Between, Ben Baldwin’s cover actually increased the horror element to it and created a truly terrifying piece of work. Terry Cooper’s cover for David Barnett’s popCult! was for me pitch-perfect.
I always give the artist and author time to correspond when it comes to designing the cover – I don’t ruthese things; I want the best looking cover I can afford, and frankly if I can afford the likes of Vinny and Ben and Steve and Paul Mudie et al then the bigger publishers have no excuses.
The lengthiest process for me is the actual typesetting – so laborious; I generally can only do a couple of chapters a day, before I feel like throwing the keyboard away and stabbing my eyes out. And there’s still mistakes after it!
The author reads over the finished PDF and then the whole thing is sent off to the printer, and then the real work is about to start: selling the bloody things!
I’m thankful in that I have some loyal customers, and even strangers who have faith in the press to pre-order titles… occasionally months in advance.
When it comes to selling and publicity, I do expect the author to take on some of this… not that I’ll be sitting on my laurels, but there’s only so much I can do.
Long gone are the days when an author just sits at their desk, writing with the occasional visit to a bookshop to do a signing; they need to be pro-active in publicity which of course begs the question – when does being pro-active become spamming? That’s a toughie, and in all honesty I cannot answer it except to say that we all have own limits when we immediately bin e-mails from an author selling their new book…
I generally try and tie-in a book’s publication with that of an event where potential customers are likely to attend, though in later years Conventions have become quite swamped with new books which unfortunately means that good books get overlooked by cash-strapped customers.
Once the book is out and selling (hopefully), then it’s onto the next for both the author and publisher… and the cycle pretty much continues…
Q: What do you see the future holding for Pendragon?
A: Apart from it becoming my sole source of income...? Well, e-publishing is definitely an avenue I will be pursuing but first and foremost it will remain a dead-tree business, and a launch pad for talented and promising writers.
With regard to ebooks, I do believe that the Kindle and other e-readers won’t kill off the book – but, if they can actually develop an electronic book which actually looks like a paper book with flipping pages then maybe, just maybe, it will be the future.
In the immediate future, then the current staff of one – me – will be increasing; I recently put out a call for assistant editors and was pleasantly surprised at the response, so names will be announced soon.
The new chapbook side of the business will be strengthened, and possibly tied-in with electronic publishing in some way.
In a little under two years I will be forty years old and I’d like to think that by then I will be full-time, but I’ll probably still be plugging away at this hobby for another ten years from now, inching closer to my fiftieth birthday and still not grown up.
Q: Finally, what titles shall we look forward to in the next twelve months?
A: Pretty much a Gary McMahon-fest – he’ll be wearing his editor’s hat for a double-anthology called Visions Fading Fast, plus a Thomas Usher collection, To Usher the Dead. Within the next couple of weeks, Gary Greenwood’s long-awaited novel Kingston to Cable; and at the end of the year, Gavin Salisbury’s debut novella Fade-Out. There’s also a double-novella Lost Film collection by Mark West and Stephen Bacon, and a plethora of chapbooks…
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