Friday, August 30, 2013

An Interview With Rick Ollerman of Stark House

As was noted recently, I plugged away for well over ten years before anyone paid me to publish one of my novels. Who was this daring man, who scoffed at conventional wisdom and braved the currents of uncertainty to give an aging rookie a glimpse of the Land of Publication, where food tastes better, the winters are milder, and women ask you to autograph their breasts. (Richard Castle lives in one of the tonier neighborhoods in the Land of Publication.)

Rick Ollerman is such a man, and he proved his generosity of spirit yet again by agreeing to answer a handful of questions that, it is hoped, will provide some insight to his thought processes.

One Bite at a Time: Rick, you’re the first honest to Maxwell Perkins editor we’ve ever had here at One Bite at a Time. Describe your ivory tower for us. How’s the view?

Rick Ollerman: Only about knee high.

Stark House originally started out selling American versions of fantasy books by Storm Constantine. Then there were some collections by the classic fantasist Algernon Blackwood. Somewhere along the way, Stark House printed a non-fiction tribute to the great film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, co-authored by Ed Gorman and star of the movie Kevin McCartthy. A long way from classic hard-boiled and noir fiction, right?

But then Stark House did an original novel by a woman named Catherine Butzen called Thief of Midnight. We released a slightly updated edition of the classic Beat writer collection called The Beat Generation & The Angry Young Men. That came about because one of the original editors, Max Gartenberg, was Peter Rabe’s agent and upon Max’s passing, his daughter offered the book to us. Under the Shepardson Books imprint we released a collection of publisher Greg Shepard’s father’s old newspaper columns that talk about life in old California. After Thief of Night was published, we started publishing new novels by the great Charlie Stella.

All that’s kind of a long way of saying that what I do as an editor is not strictly the same thing that an editor at another house would do. Yes, I read manuscripts–last year I rejected two that were bought by other publishers and kept one, yes, your own Grind Joint. I have a constant trickle of manuscripts to go through and so far none but yours has really measured up.

I proofread every book myself, I’ve started to write many of the introductions for the books, I’ve edited and recreated lost pages for a previously unpublished novel by one of the greats, I sometimes write but more often revise or edit the teaser pages.

For our recent non-fiction book, Paperback Confidential, I edited that book which included writing an introduction, writing six of the 132 entries, and compiling the index of pseudonyms that I hope people find truly handy (the Pseudodex).

I’ve influenced which books have appeared in some of our collections, I’m recruiting possible cover artists for future books, and I’m also heavily involved in some of the publicity that we do.

Maxwell Perkins never had it so good. Better, I’m sure.

OBAAT: Tell us what’s up with Stark House.

RO: Quite a lot, actually. When we publish books by authors who are actually still alive, there’s a lot more work that goes into gearing up each launch, especially if the author is a new one. One of my pet projects is trying to establish what we, as a small house, can do for independent booksellers who are feeling fairly ignored by the Big 5 in New York. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made for doing business as usual, but I think there’s a potentially huge role in the future for small presses. For instance, I could go buy a book by Random House just because it’s published by Random House, but there’s no guarantee, not that there is with any book but go with me here, and I don’t know what I’m getting. But Stark House has a wonderful reputation, thanks to the curation of our publisher Greg Shepherd, that even if you’re unfamiliar with a book or an author, that you know if it’s published by Stark House there’s a good chance you already have a sense of the kind of book you’re going to get.

Recent numbers seem to show that e-book sales are leveling off and that the number of independent bookstore is increasing. By forging new and tighter relationships with the bookstores, I hope that we can deliver new forms of the books that give both the bookstores and the readers what they want, which believe it or not are not always thirty dollar hardcovers and oversized trade paperbacks.

We’ve also increased the number of books we release each year, and we want to keep trying to find top level new writers to introduce to the world. We also have a Crime Club service where readers can sign up and receive deals on each new book as it comes out, shipped in pristine condition in a cardboard wraparound container, and a monthly or so newsletter that not only let’s people know what we’re up to, but also adds discounts to selected back list titles. Joining either or both is as easy as sending us an e-mail.

OBAAT: How did you get connected to Stark House?

RO: That’s the simple question for me. I bought a Stark House book by one of my favorite authors, and after enough instances of people “jumping in their ear and driving off” I knew the proofreading was a little off. Soooo many publishers now just scan, OCR and print and don’t bother proofreading the work. This is especially true with e-books. I just read a half dozen as research for an introduction I’m working on and I couldn’t believe that a name publisher can charge you $9.99, a robust price, and knowingly supply you with a subpar product.

Anyway, I e-mailed Stark House and said I wanted to buy more Stark House books, but not if they were that full of typos. Yes, typos drive me crazy. I’m one of those. I’ve done proofreading for other publishers and I offered to do some for Stark House. Greg sent me the pages for the book I had just finished reading and things grew from there, especially after Ed Gorman ended his relationship with Stark House. I’ve been accumulating additional responsibilities since then.

OBAAT: What’s the best thing about being an editor at a small publisher?

RO: Those five minutes a year when you feel you’ve actually caught up. Otherwise, there are a lot of little joys, like when I can suggest an alternative novel for a collection that gets approved, or when I contribute to some of the things that I know would have come out differently without my involvement. All the positive reviews we get, like when prominent bloggers say they believe everyone out there should just be buying each Stark House title as they come out. The occasional hate mail you get back after rejecting someone’s work is a little harsh, especially when we go out of our way to be author-friendly. You know you’re in trouble when someone starts a sentence with, “I’m normally thick-skinned about my work”–you know that will be automatically followed by irrefutable proof that it really isn’t so.

Another good thing is uncovering previously unpublished works. We have a book coming out by Jada Davis, a man who only published two books in his lifetime, one of which, One For Hell, is like reading Jim Thompson on steroids and deserves to be known as a hard-boiled noir classic. But Midnight Road, coming in early 2014, is his masterpiece, a really poignant coming of age rural story where crime is an element, but only one among many other, more human ones. It’s a brilliant book that deserves the widest possible audience.

OBAAT: What’s your greatest challenge, working for a small house that’s earning its niche?

RO: Trying to keep it all going, trying to figure out where the small fish figure in the Big 5 dominated book world. When New York is simultaneously publishing expensive hardcovers and (relatively) cheap e-book versions, what does the customer do who still likes reading books and not computer files? What do the independents sell when the collectors buy the hardcovers but the only “inexpensive” solution is to get an e-book or wait for a not-quite-so-inexpensive trade paperback? There’s a place for all of it, but it’s a constantly moving target. The Holy Grail would be to give the readers what they want and give the bookstores what they need. The online sales seem to be taking care of themselves.

OBAAT: What do you do when you’re not editing other writers’ work?

RO: Theoretically, I started out as a writer but contracted a chronic illness that at one time left me bedridden for eight straight months. Not good for your workout program. That’s been an ongoing battle for many years now and while at first I didn’t want to do anything that took away from my writing time, I really wasn’t able to focus and concentrate enough to do it well. There’s a long list of writers who have had to stop writing, sometimes permanently, because of illness. Those guys are different from me, because you’ve actually heard of them. But still, the point remains.

Things have been slowly improving, which is good, and I just sold a short story recently, and a two-in-one edition of two of my early books is coming out next year from Stark House. I have a more recent book that’s sitting here in the first draft stage, and another project for Stark House that’s just waiting for a few more hours to be added to the day. I’m working on introductions for Stark House books, as well, that hopefully add to the value of each volume.

Beyond that, I home school our two children and get routinely mauled by three dogs and two Guinea pigs. It’s the pigs that make me bleed, though. Apparently I have fingers that look too much like carrots. I’d rather have the slobber.

(Rick will be accompanying me to the launch of Grind Joint, November 16 at 10:00 AM at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA.)

1 comment:

Charlieopera said...

GREAT stuff ... and for those who aren't aware, Rick writes the best friggin' emails in the world ... that's right, the world ... he always makes me laugh, even when he's breaking my balls (like yesterday) ... by the way, I'm hooked up to Skype (accepted whatever the fk (see, I'm practicing not cursing) I was supposed to accept) ... wish I could be in PA for that launch ... and it's true about his fingers ... Rick looks like Sting (good-looking guy), but his fingers? Until I learned about the pigs in this interview, I used to think, WTF?