Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I was going through old files tonight and found a series of interviews I'd conducted with various editors in 1998. The purpose was to start a clearing house for the independent press, and to provide documented knowledge that could be carried forward to the next generation, so as to help avoid common mistakes while starting out (and helping to ensure a higher percentage of successful ventures). Unfortunately, after I'd finished, with the help of an accomplished web guy, compiling the information from a uniform series of questions and then cross referencing it online in some very creative and useful ways, the company hosting the site went belly-up without notice, the site disappeared, and no one could find the html files. Yeah, that was fun.

Anyway, I found the original interviews and thought reproducing two of them here might be of interest, as a snapshot of Wordcraft Press and Wildside Press back in 1998, since both are still around. Wordcraft is run by David Memmott, and you can find out what they've been up to since 1998 here. Wildside is run by John Betancourt, and you can find out what they've been up to since 1998 here. It's worth noting that in 1998, Wordcraft was one of the best indie presses willing to look at surreal and magic realist literature, while Wildside, now a POD (and increasingly off-set) juggernaut also doing some pretty out-there stuff through its imprint of Prime, was pretty much doing more traditional genre material. Given the interest in cross-genre material in the indie press these days, I find these little snapshots of once and future cross-genre publishers rather fascinating.

I'm going to leave any outdated info as-is from the time of the interviews, just to completely preserve the interviews in amber. (I love the mention of "doku-tech". How quaint. And in 2015, someone will say that about current interviews on the book industry...) I'm also not going to edit down some of the longer answers. You'll have to sift through it like a homo sapiens.

Admittedly, though, this is a long post. Buck up--what doesn't kill you makes you...not dead yet.

(Coming up soon--a mini-review of Clare Dudman's new novel, 98 Reasons for Being, and whatever else pops into my fragmented brain.)


David Memmott, editor/publisher of WordCraft Press

What is your particular editorial slant or philosophy? In other words, what makes your press different from other presses?

Most of the presses in the Northwest were of the regional realist school so Wordcraft of Oregon purposely set out to extend the range of literary work represented in the region by focusing on a personal interest in a Literature of the Fantastic. Since I was already editing and publishing a magazine, Ice River, which focused on speculative writing, it was quite natural to extend this vision to book publishing, beginning with many of the writers who appeared in the pages of the magazine. I wanted to promote literature that celebrated the imagination and valued its role in helping us achieve wholeness and balance. I was forced to ask myself, as an editor, how humanity can achieve wholeness and balance if we live in a world wanting to limit our experience to "Leave It to Beaver." How can we ever perceive depth or a sense of substance without shadow? It seemed to me that too much light or too much darkness results in a condition of blindness, the end result tending to be a dissolution of the self and a subsequent loss of form. So I sought a middle way. Just as literary art would lose its power by ignoring the shadow, it would also lose its appeal without form. I think of this in terms of a lower, upwelling energy of the Dionysian impulse refined by an Apollonian process culminating in "forms of feeling." Art is the marriage of vision and craft, intuition and reason, imagination and reality -- a whole-brain activity helping us to first define our Self and then the Self in relationship to Other.

Wordcraft books defy easy categorization, often crossing genres, taking readers into
some new territory while the author attempts to objectify a state of mind or a feeling or an awareness which cannot always be rendered in linear or realist fashion. These books are often ambitious, perhaps even attempting the impossible. They reaffirm, at least for me, that we really live in a "fantastic" world, a multi-dimensional world, a macro-quantum reality of surprises and paradox and yet interconnected in a kind of relative holism which ultimately reveals a universe of inherent meaning. Wordcraft books often confront absurdity with a sense of humor or strike deep with a scathing social satire, or present a startling image or metaphor which rings true in your mind on some transpersonal level long after you put the book down. These books are also at times perceived by some as "obscene" or "dark and depressing." But what they all have in common is their celebration of imagination and a sense of wonder with the world, perhaps the realization that if we were to attempt to create a "realistic" sense of human consciousness in forms of fiction we would end up with something nonlinear and spatial which moves both forward and backward in time (for time in fiction as in dream is essentially psychological), a fiction which moves in and out of various states of consciousness (revery, dreams, fantasies, moments of astounding clarity, disturbing memories, the often inexplicable,) yet uses this awareness to reveal character and explore what it is to be human. These books give form to our experience of the remarkable journey of life (which is of course a journey of the soul). This kind of fiction lends itself most readily to a "Literature of the Fantastic" but most of the features highlighted here would deal any prospect of NY publication a cold and quick death blow.

What have been your biggest critical and popular successes and what differentiates them from your less successful projects? (Which brings us to another question--How do you define success for your press?)

Burnt by Lance Olsen has probably been the biggest critical and financial success to date. That is, it has been the most widely reviewed, i.e. Publisher's Weekly, American Book Review, The Bay Guardian, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Texas Quarterly, and has moreover earned a profit for the press. The success of this book can, in part, be attributed to the author's efforts in promoting his work through readings, interviews, his webpage, and the contacts he's made as the result of being selected as Idaho's Writer-in-Residence as well as being a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award (Tonguing The Zeitgeist). Close behind Burnt is The Book of Angels by Thomas E. Kennedy which, in spite of receiving few reviews to date, has sold well, again largely due to the author's efforts in setting up reading tours, teaching workshops, doing interviews, etc. Less successful projects are generally those that do not break even, yet may be noteworthy for other reasons. The hope, of course, is that the more successful books will help pay for the less successful books.

In looking at the major professional houses (Harcourt Brace, etc.) what, in recent years, do you perceive as their strengths and weaknesses--what do they do well, and what do they do poorly?

Censorship of the marketplace extends far beyond the SF/Fabulist field as corporate
boards in every human enterprise seek to limit our choices and force consumers to buy only their products. Small presses may exist as alternatives, may even help new voices into print, but cannot at this point really threaten the big money boys. Successful small press publications do not garner enough of the market to cause any CEOs to sweat too much. If independent publishers of a literature of the fantastic are to make their mark in the marketplace, there will certainly have to be some kind of collective, an effort to combine resources while perhaps maintaining the diverse nature of individual tastes and editorial perspectives so central to the survival of independent presses.

I should make it clear that I don't believe that NY is incapable of publishing good books or that the Clarion school of SF produces "bad fiction" -- I mean to suggest that what they offer is limited by conditions that do not always promote good art. Recognizing the limitations does not mean we must reject what they do well, only that we could benefit from knowing what they don't do well, that there may be more to the world than can be contained in their formulas or descriptions. Science is such an example. We do not throw out scientific method just because we recognize the limitations of its descriptions. We often turn to religion or spiritual disciplines to gain insight into certain human experiences not readily verified by scientific investigation. Why should NY publication be the only description for the value of literature? More and more NY is beginning to resemble a McDonald's. There're choices on their menu, but its all fast food. It's okay to consume fast food now and then but what happens if it becomes your whole diet?

What I see happening to publishing in America is a microcosm of the corporate values
which strip us of diversity, narrows down our options, takes away our choices and concentrates the wealth in the hands of a powerful few who would control our destinies. There is plenty of wealth in the world; there is simply not enough humanity. The palaces are not being built by kings and queens or even malevolant dictators with total disregard for their subjects, but by CEOs pursuing the American Dream. This dream means nothing if it leaves so many behind.

If the truth be known, as a writer and publisher, I would love NY (and Hollywood) to notice my worth, though ultimately they need me more than I need them. So what does NY do well? One could argue that NY is strongest at marketing, advertising and distribution, setting up tours and promoting those books they most want to succeed, but the truth is that what they do well cannot easily be separated from the trends I find so disturbing -- the mass paperback fastfood mentality cranking out pulp to be consumed mindlessly without any promise of sustaining the soul. It's like the government's attempts to convince us that irradiated and genetically altered food should be allowed under the definition of "organic." The stylistic minimalism with its formulas for honed-down pageturners and media spinoffs is a money machine which views literary merit as a drawback. Imagine Joyce trying to publish Ulysses today? I can just hear a NY agent or editor say, "James, you obviously are a talented writer, but this is too wordy. You're not writing poetry here." Wouldn't it be a university press or independent press that would put it out? And we're told the NY publishing conglomerates are only putting out what the public wants. Do you believe that? These same conglomerates own the publishing companies, the movie studios, the software design firms and even the chain bookstores so one fastfood trend like McRib is run through every possible commercial venue until it's totally and irretrievably ground into a digested and regurgitated mash and force fed to the starving masses looking for nourishment and wondering why they end up with gas. NY has become a producer of "Soylent Green."

The proliferation of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, at the expense of independent bookstores, has been criticized quite a bit in recent years--although B&N, for example, does deal with small presses. What, exactly, are the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with the chains. And have you had to change the way you do business?

In "Godzilla's Children" (New Pathways #4), in talking about living with nuclear energy plants and radioactivity, my metaphor of Godzilla is pertinent to the proliferation of these "giants:" "Those of us who do not wish to identify ourselves with these giants nevertheless still become their servants. We may rattle our chains from time to time, but we still follow behind cleaning up after them and making excuses. The traditional euphemisms of growth and progress have wormed their way into the moral fabric of our society and reduces, by compromise, the most honorable men. The easy fix for every problem is to beef up the scale and promote a bigger and better version. Godzilla's Children loudly assert the immediate benefits of increasing the taxbase and payrolls but avoid discussing the long-term costs. They willingly surrender their critical faculties to large concerns and bend over backwards trying to catch the eye of some clumsy giant. The public seldom realizes the effects of Godzilla's favor until it begins to experience them firsthand."

Wordcraft of Oregon does receive orders from these chains and dealing with them hasn't really changed the way we do business. However, when considering the loss of
the independent bookstore, one must look at the larger picture, i.e. mainstreaming of cultural life, censorship of the marketplace, loss of diversity, loss of local control, the concentration of power, the widening chasm between rich and poor, the breakdown of community. Independent presses should do what they can to help sustain independent bookstores so our communities don't become extended family for Godzilla.

According to statistics recently released by the Child Welfare League of America, while the Dow Industrial average went from 805 in January 1, 1979, to 7,067 in
February 18, 1997, the number of children living in poverty increased from 9.7 million to 14.7 million. The United States accounts for 73% of homicides among children 14 and younger in the 26 richest nations (1993), 54% of the suicides (1994). The number of children reported as abused and neglected has risen from around 2 million to about 3.3 million over the past ten years. The number of children in out-of-home placements has risen from something like 275,000 to over 500,000 in the same ten year period (1986-95). Births to unmarried mothers has increased from 5% in 1960 to 30% in 1993. Percent of all teen births to unmarried teens has risen from 18.0% in 1963 to 71.8% in 1993. Children maltreated or seriously injured in homes earning less than $15,000 a year is 10, even 20 times higher than in homes earning over $30,000 a year. In comparing how many children live in poverty after receiving government assistance, in the United States 26% live in poverty before assistance and 22% after assistance; in France, of 25% living in poverty before assistance, only 7% live in poverty after assistance. Britain is able to reduce the percentage living in poverty after assistance from 30% to 10%. It's also interesting to note that the U.S. prison population has increased 456% from 1970 to 1996. Even though it has been shown that parent training, home visits, early childhood education, health and other services cut delinquency by 90%, and even though preschool and home visit programs save $7.16 dollars for every dollar invested, these social service programs and educational opportunities are underfunded and always under attack. The same culture that gives rise to billionaires like Bill Gates who can afford a $100 million home and still complain about his property taxes cannot rescue its children from getting their brains blasted by drugs like methamphetamine and crank. The same culture that sends a million people to gatherings on the Whitehouse lawn seems unable to perceive how much could have been done if they'd only donated the cost of the trip to those efforts or organizations they were lobbying for in the first place. A whole generation is self-destructing for want of human contact. This is not only a failure of compassion, it is an obscenity. Yet artists, reflecting this culture (as they cannot fail to do), are having to fight for their civil liberties every day because their art is too graphic, too obscene, too unsettling, too reflective of the culture in which they live.

All our advances in technology, communications and transportation mean nothing if it
does not help us learn and teach compassion, to extend a human hand to the least privileged among us -- the poor, the homeless, the sick, the old, the drug-effected, the learning disabled -- and elevate them, allow them to discover the dignity of self-worth and creative expression, free them to follow their bliss instead of looking forward only to a life of premature ceilings on potential, doors of opportunity slamming in their faces at every turn, and virtual imprisonment in minimum wage jobs or segregated from mainstream society in ghettoes, reservations, refuges or behind bars -- Godzilla's Children growing up in the shadow of the American Dream.

Relatedly, perhaps, what are some of the biggest problems you face as an independent? Please share some of your more creative solutions.

The biggest problem Wordcraft of Oregon faces as an independent publisher is consistency in the quality of design and printing for a reasonable cost on small runs of 500 - 1000 copies. The next few years will determine our future as we attempt to stay abreast of technological changes, learn about electronic publishing and webpages, while working toward increasing our audience and building a reliable revenue base. We hope to do more chapbooks which can be produced inexpensively using docutek technology in small runs of 150 -200 copies. This would allow us to publish more emerging writers. Finances are always a problem, so we must confine the number of projects we take on to what we can realistically afford. I've seen too many independents get in too far over their heads and collapse. Some attempt to do it all and cannot sustain the expansion of their activities. Others find themselves too far in debt because they were tempted to use "plastic" to pay for a book. Others become dependent on grants. Wordcraft of Oregon won't commit to publishing a book until we can guarantee enough capital to produce it in a timely manner (generally in about one year) and we have not, thus far, sought any public money. This means we can only produce about three books a year and maybe a couple of chapbooks.

Based on your own experience and knowledge, what role do you see independent presses playing in the next 10 years, and how does this role relate to trends among the large publishers?

I see the role of independent presses in the next 10 years as continuing to pick up the fringe writers who can't find publication in NY because their work is not deemed commercial enough or their subject matter is not mainstream enough. Many literary writers fall into this category, also most writing which is innovative and experimental. But electronic publishing will also play in important role in the future of independent publishing. It is already possible for a writer to design a book and send it on disk to a service provider who maintains the electronic file, catalogues the book on a webpage, prints and binds copies on demand, fills orders and sends the author a royalty check.

Large distributors like Ingrams are already offering titles that can be printed on site and shipped, requiring less warehouse space and reducing their overhead. Once the technology is refined enough that authors will be able to run their books through a standard industry template, then such distributors may deal directly with the authors and bypass publishers altogether. There are many other variables to even producing a hardcopy book such as paper costs, access to quality printing, costs of shipping and postage, the health of independent bookstores, the number of people who value reading in their lives. These are, indeed, times of change; you send up the weather balloons but you're never able to retrieve them because they're torn away by a whirlwind.

But perhaps the most important function of independent publishers in America over the next 10 years will be to safeguard our freedoms against those forces attempting to narrow down our culture, attack our civil liberties and direct our lives back into the values of the 50s. I don't see any way around the fact that independent presses and independent bookstores and independent anything must become more interdependent and stand together in defense of the Bill of Rights. Government and religion and coporate values are becoming more and more intrusive as the power becomes more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. When you're standing in the way of a rampaging Godzilla pursuing the American Dream, you're not going to be enjoying an environment which promotes freedom of expression.

What projects are you currently working on, and what can we expect to see from your press in the next year?

Two recent releases will keep me busy for awhile, THE EXPLANATION AND OTHER GOOD ADVICE, stories by Don Webb, and THE WINTER DANCE PARTY MURDERS, a novel by Greg Herriges. THE WINTER DANCE PARTY MURDERS just recently earned an advance review from Booklist. I already have two or three potential projects lined up for 1999, depending on circumstances, and will be taking off the rest of 1998 to do my own creative work, meaning I won't be reading for publication until January 1999.

Is there any topic not covered by this interview that you would like to share your views on or have all of the other interviewees share their opinions on?

I am convinced that a national cooperative effort between independent publishers of a
literature of the fantastic should include some kind of reading circuit. This reading circuit could possibly network efficiently through emails so an author can set up a tour of readings, booksignings, workshops, etc., to promote an independent press book. I recently worked with Thomas E. Kennedy and found it quite a stimulating and inspirational relationship in that Tom set up an itinerary of paid readings and workshops along with unpaid readings and booksignings usually at bookstores. The paid readings, appearances, workshops and performances could help subsidize the unpaid appearances and booksignings. Recently, I read with Lance Olsen, Thomas E. Kennedy and Brian Clark in Portland and Seattle. These were unpaid readings, but they helped promote our books and we were invited back to read again. Kennedy's paid gigs made it possible for him to participate in Portland and Seattle even though these were unpaid. We are thinking about planning a West Coast tour for the spring of 1999 and hope to follow such a strategy. It seems to me that independent publishers of fabulist literature could form a cooperative where perhaps readers or teams of readers could develop their territories then swap regions. A couple of presses, for instance, in the Pacific Northwest could set up a
network of venues and buddy up a Northwest writer with writers from other regions. The Northwest writer can appeal to his readers and help expand the audience for a writer from another region. Then a cooperative effort by independent presses from another region would make a similar arrangement so the Northwest writer might be reading with a writer from the Midwest or from the Atlantic states, etc. I would like to know if there are other fabulist literature presses who'd like to embark on such a journey? Is it possible to organize something like this?

The other issue is that of cooperative publishing and distribution. Does anyone have
ideas about what a cooperative publishing project looks like? What would the contract say? How do you share reponsibility for the whole project? Who does the day to day job of filling orders, running ads, sending review copies, etc.? How would an independent press maintain it's own distinctive vision without being swallowed up by a group vision?

John Betancourt, publisher of Wildside Press

What is your particular editorial slant or philosophy? In other words, what makes your press different from other presses?

I do books which interest me. It's led to some oddball projects like an anthology of stories about heroic science fiction, fantasy, and horror editors (Swashbuckling Editor Stories!), but also some worthy titles which no one else would do, like the first collections of stories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Bradley Denton. (Our set of two Bradley Denton collections won a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection of the Year, so we must be doing something right.)

What have been your biggest critical and popular successes and what differentiates them from your less successful projects? (Which brings us to another question--How do you define success for your press?)

It's a hobby; I don't have to measure success in financial terms. Success for me is selling out an edition of a book--it means we found a project we loved and readers loved it, too. Biggest critical success? Probably the Bradley Denton collections, which won a World Fantasy Award. Biggest popular success? Any of our Anne McCaffrey books, which remain our most popular titles. Favorite project? Our Mike Resnick novels, which have used increasingly esoteric binding materials. The most recent is a hardcover bound in Spanish cork. (Yes, the same stuff they use in bulletin boards.)

In looking at the major professional houses (Harcourt Brace, etc.) what, in recent years, do you perceive as their strengths and weaknesses--what do they do well, and what do they do poorly?

What they do well: get their books into the hands of readers. This is the most important part of the economics of publishing--a book can't really be judged successful unless it's accessible to anyone who wants to read it. Weaknesses? An unwillingness to experiment. In a fair world, there is no way a small press publisher like Wildside should be able to publish books capable of winning World Fantasy Awards. Books these good should be coming out from the "big guys."

The proliferation of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, at the expense of independent bookstores, has been criticized quite a bit in recent years--although B&N, for example, does deal with small presses. What, exactly, are the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with the chains. And have you had to change the way you do business?

Well, the science fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble talked me into putting 10,000 copies of one of our books into his stores. It nearly destroyed the company when the distributor he recommended went bankrupt owing us $35,000.00. Since then, I've learned to appreciate the advantages of being small! Direct-mail and especially our internet site (http://www.wildsidepress.com) give us a solid marketing presence.

Relatedly, perhaps, what are some of the biggest problems you face as an independent? Please share some of your more creative solutions.

My single biggest headache is with production--it's increasingly difficult to find reliable printers and binders who can work affordably at small print runs. (Our typical print run is under 350 hardcover copies.) One bindery I'd worked with for 7 years kept 2 books in limbo for almost a year and a half, with promises that "the books are being shipped" or "the books went out" or "we sent them to the wrong address and they just came back." Why they would choose to ruin such a long-standing relationship is beyond me. Their lies unravelled when a UPS shipping date they gave turned out to be a Saturday (UPS doesn't ship on Saturdays), and when caught they had to admit the books weren't quite done. Luckily I found another bindery 20 miles away, and I paid them to drive over and rescue my books.

Based on your own experience and knowledge, what role do you see independent presses playing in the next 10 years, and how does this role relate to trends among the large publishers?

I think we will continue to do books which larger companies are too timid to publish. I note that St. Martin's Press just brought out a Bradley Denton collection which contains about half the stories in the two books I published. Too little, too late, St. Martin's! They're following trends, not making them...and this is only going to get worse.

What projects are you currently working on, and what can we expect to see from your press in the next year?

More of the same...which is "whatever interests me." New collections from Esther Friesner, Morgan Llywelyn, and William F. Nolan. The sequel to Swashbuckling Editor Stories, which is Two-Fisted Writer Tales. Anthologies like The Best of Weird Tales: 1924 (We did 1923 last year.).


At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, we're still working on The Best of Weird Tales: 1924, and I hope to publish it this year. Some things never change...

-- John

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