The publishers of Portland, Oregon-based Night Shade Books look more like hell-raising bikers than gentleman indie publishers. Jason Williams, pony-tailed, built like a bear, is a Marine veteran who grew up "all over Oregon, mostly in the redneck parts." Jeremy Lassen, also bear-like, was born in Duluth, Minnesota, recently sported a Van Dyke and samurai-style topknot. Neither man is a shy when it comes to expressing opinions on book distributors, the small press, or the fate of the novel as an art form. The two met at the famous indie bookstore Borderlands Books in San Francisco in the late 90s. From its inaugural launch at the World Fantasy Convention in 1998, Night Shade has grown into a successful independent press with 50 titles and 40 authors. Much of the company's success can be attributed to how well Jason, 31, and Jeremy, 33, work together. (Co-founder Benjamin Cossel left the company in 2002).
Night Shade is now poised for much greater visibility with the recent publication of epic science fiction novel The Algebraist by Iain Banks (Look to Windward, The Wasp Factory) They have received a mention in The New Yorker and won a World Fantasy Award in 2003. Their publishing credo is direct: "When a novel takes over everything else in your life, and you get nothing done ... that is brilliant! Give [us] a great story, with great characters and great writing, and we're happy."
Mahesh Raj Mohan: Tell me how Night Shade Books became the publisher of The Algebraist.
Jason Williams: We had developed a very good relationship with [M. John] Harrison's agent, Mic Cheetham, who also happened to be Iain M. Bank's agent. We ended up publishing Iain's collection, The State of the Art, in the US for the first time, but even as that book was in production, Mic was dropping a lot of hints that he wasn't very happy with his U.S. publisher, and that things might be kind of fluid. There was even a night in London, where Jeremy and his wife spent the night drinking horribly expensive scotch, and signing karaoke with Mic, but the less said about that night the better. Jeremy has a terrible voice. Eventually we made an offer, and they accepted.
MRM: Why did Banks decide to go with a small press publisher over a juggernaut like Bantam?
JW: It was never about the money (as Iain is a huge deal in the UK, and gets gigantic amounts of money from that market), but rather about how important the book was to the publisher. Iain had been bounced around between houses quite a bit, and it seemed nobody could figure out how to market him. All things being equal, a marketing department would prefer something that's easy to promote over something that's hard to promote.
For us, Iain practically is mainstream. When you've had to promote books using statements like "Well, so Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs save the world from Cthulhu" or "Urm, Philip K. Dick meets Gore Vidal" or "It's not any one genre, but it will make your head hurt", Iain Banks is easy to market by comparison. After convincing Borders to take several thousand copies of a book of fake diseases [The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases] convincing them to support a book that actually had a plot was a snap.
MRM: What is the philosophy behind Night Shade Books?
JW: We don't stick to any one genre ... we don't think in terms of artificial high brow/low brow distinctions. We both have broad tastes, and our list reflects that ... from the weird fiction of Manly Wade Wellman, to the big brain lit-fantasy of M. John Harrison, to the heroic fantasy of Karl Edward Wagner. Those works don't have much in common, other than that they represent some of the best work in their respective sub-genres, and they were all horribly under appreciated. As a small press publisher, practicality drives our philosophy as well. We don't have the financial resources that a large house does, so, we have to work harder at it, particularly when we were starting out. We would go on all night long brain storming sessions to try and figure out what we should be doing, that nobody else is thinking of.
Jeremy Lassen: The small press field is filled with companies who publish the same 10 authors that everyone else is publishing, and we've always been careful to try and think beyond the usual suspects. It's one of the reasons why we call ourselves an "independent publisher" instead of a "small press" publisher. We want to have a broad list of titles, and we want to appeal to a diverse group of readers. The company philosophy, in a nutshell, is to only publish books we want to read, and try to keep as much variety as possible.
MRM: Night Shade has published or will publish several short story collections (including the upcoming Last Week's Apocalypse by Douglas Lain), and the conventional wisdom is that they don't sell nearly as well as novels. Have you had financial success with some short story collections?
JL: Yes we have. Conventional wisdom is always right, except when it's wrong. The landmark book that helped shape our company's public image was a collection from a then obscure British fantasist [Harrison's Things That Never Happen.] One of our best selling collections from 2004 was a collection by a mid-list SF writer who was between publishers at the time we contracted for it. [Kage Baker's Mother Aegypt]. You can never predict which collections are going to be the important ones, or the ones that sell beyond your expectations. The short form is still critical to the speculative fiction genre. So there will always be the need for collections. And given our overhead, we can do a collection, and have modest expectations for it, and still squeeze out a little bit of profit, if we keep our costs controlled and our expectations level.
Doug's book is the perfect example of a collection that needed to be done. Jason had me read Doug's manuscript at a time when we were beating ourselves up, saying "no more collections by first time authors ... focus on novels ... focus on more commercial things." But despite this, when I got done with Doug's book, I told Jason "this is too good to turn down. We may lose money on it, or we may only break even, but we have to do it, because it's that good." And really, that's the reason to publish books. If we wanted to make money, we'd be manufacturing things people actually want, like toilet seats. Once we decide to do a collection, commercial or not, then we spend our time brainstorming over the best way, the most cost-effective way to get the book out there to its audience. What kinds of promotion works? What formats? What markets? It's different for every book, because every book is different.
JW: Everything Jeremy said is true, but I should mention the other reason for doing collections, which is a matter of availability. If you're an independent, and you're trying to outbid a major house for a hot new author, you're going to lose (unless something weird happens, like authorial preference, or you get lucky). Independent presses continue to do collections in large part because we can get them. The major houses don't want to do collections, because they don't sell. Which is generally true, to a point. The difference is that if we do a collection and sell 2,000 copies of it, we've made a profit. If Bantam does a collection and sells 2,000 copies, they've lost a lot of money. Economy of scale, and low overhead makes it possible.
MRM: Night Shade completely revitalized the career of M. John Harrison, one of the writers out of the 60s British New Wave, with Things That Never Happen and a reprint of his novel, Course of the Heart. Which authors deserve to be read, but aren't? Why do you feel they are neglected? Would using a smart marketing blitz make a difference?
JW: When you have someone like Harrison, who has been around for decades, writing superior books, and he's not being published, there's really only ever one reason. [He doesn't] sell. At least, [not in quantities] enough to justify a major house publishing him. There was never any intent to revitalize his career, because it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong with it. It never crossed our minds that people might not line up to buy a copy of the book. We were na´ve, I will admit. It wasn't until after we'd announced the book that people started telling us that he was a great writer, but he wouldn't sell. We got lucky, and hit the NY Times summer recommended reading list. We were able to tap the fact that while he may not have had much success in the way of sales, [but] he was deeply revered by a lot of writers who were successful, and who were willing to let us use their names to promote the book.
Some authors will never appeal to the mass audience, so you have to find a new audience for them. We knew we weren't going to be selling copies to Heinlein or Greg Bear fans, so we went after the audience who we thought would be interested, and it worked. That's an advantage that a indie press has over the big houses. They do so many books that it's difficult to come up with a new marketing scheme for every book. They all tend to get promoted to the same outlets. Economy of scale in action. We're already seeing that changing at a number of NY publishers. Bantam was able to buy Harrison's new novel, Light, based on the positive buzz we started with Things That Never Happen. And they've done very well with it, because they have a smaller list than a lot of other imprints. Three or four titles per month, with one of those titles getting heavy promotion. Rather than a house doing 10 to 15 titles per month, with a standard promo scheme applied to each of them.
MRM: What has your relationship with distributors like Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Diamond been like?
JL: A little background. Most books bought by retailers in this country go through wholesalers — middlemen who warehouse thousands of different publishers, and make individual copies available to bookstores in very short time frames. This allows a bookstore to buy one copy of a book, and if it sells, reorder it and have it back on the shelf within 2 days. Just-in-time inventory is critical for bookstores. It also means that a bookstore doesn't have to maintain accounts with two thousand publishers, they can order from one central source.
Ingram is one of these wholesalers, and Baker and Taylor (B&T) is another. If your book is not stocked by one or both of these, you're just not going to sell very many books. I've worked in bookstores, and know how it goes. If I can add an obscure small press title to my weekly B&T order, I'll probably get it if someone brings it to my attention as being good. But if I have to contact the publisher directly, and set up an individual account, and then order enough books so that the shipping costs don't eat up any profit I make on the sales, a book that requires that is a book that probably won't be purchased. And even if it is purchased, and even if it sells, since I can't reorder it automatically as part of my weekly reorders, I might not ever get around to reordering it.
So these wholesalers are critical to getting your books before a wider audience. Night Shade's second title received a lot of critical attention when it came out, such that B&T came to us and began to offer all of our titles. So with this national wholesaler, we were able to ensure that our books were two days away from any bookstore or library in the country, who might stumble across a review, or get a special order request. That helped a lot. We were able to get into Ingram a couple years later, because we were able to demonstrate a strong sales history and demand for our titles. So we got those two wholesaler accounts on our own, and did pretty well with doing things on our own for a while.
But while we were selling more books than ever, there was a downside. B&T has never paid us on time, not in seven years. We routinely went six months without getting a check from them, and even when we did get a check, it took three months of phone calls and faxes, and the check was only thirty percent of what we were actually owed. Plus there were inventory fun and games. Right before a check was due to be cut, they would return every book in the warehouse, even titles that were hot sellers. They'd deduct the returns from our check, and then reorder everything. Ingram actually always paid on time, but they also played the returns game. For example, in March, B&T owed us about $20,000 dollars. Strangely, once I started pushing them to send a check, we got about five cases of books a day for three weeks, until the amount due was reduced to $2000. Then they cut us a check for $1000 of that, and promptly reordered $14,000 worth of books on new net 90 terms. Three months later, when that $14,000 was due, they returned every single book in the warehouse, and I've been chasing them for a month to get a check cut for what they still owe us. Oh, and they introduced an "audit process" so that even after your check has finally been cut, they don't send it out for three weeks so it can be "audited." Fun and games.
People say "Well, just stop dealing with them" but it's not that easy. Ingram, B&T and Amazon combined to about 60 percent of our sales. Lose any or all of them, and we're out of business. But the constant cash flow problems really have hurt us. Because we don't get paid, books don't come out on time, so sales are weak, and cash flow is bad, and next thing you know you haven't released a title in four months and your receivables are drying up, and what cash you have been able to muster has been eaten, because overhead has to be paid every month whether you're shipping books or not. It is a vicious cycle, and it's enough to drive you to tears.
Now most small press publishers get around this problem by signing up with an exclusive distributor. Someone who warehouses your books, handles fulfillment, and has an active sales force. They still sell books to the wholesalers. And since they are in fact, a large account to the wholesalers, they generally get paid on time, and by contract, pay the publishers on time, even if the wholesalers are late.
So in effect, they become a second middleman. The wholesalers take 15 percent of the cover price; the author gets 10 percent. And depending on the contract, a distributor can take up to 15 percent for the privilege, which leaves a pretty small pot left for the publisher. In fact Night Shade had always shied away from this solution, because it would mean we would have to give up the smaller projects that would only sell 1000 or so copies, because they simply wouldn't make any money if they went through a second middle man like this.
Diamond came to us at the beginning of the year, and offered us a very competitive distribution contract. And this was at a time when we simply could not get paid by the wholesalers. So, the good terms, combined with the consistency of getting paid on time every month made us finally go over to an exclusive distribution deal. Our first full month of solicited titles with Diamond was [in September, 2005]. We don't know if it's going to work out exactly as we expected, things are looking good. For the first time in five years, we can maintain a solid production schedule, and not be scrabbling for cash all the time.
MRM: How has your relationship been with large chain bookstores such as Borders and online booksellers like Amazon.com? How would you describe your relationship with independent bookstores?
JL: Independent bookstores are where and how I got into this business, and I love them. Sadly, since this company began, the number of direct accounts with indie bookstores and dealers have been cut by close to seventy-five percent. They are simply going out of business, or not seeing the volume that they used to see. There are still a few strong exceptions to this, but we have seen the sales move away from them. Which is very frustrating. We have always promoted and supported our independent dealers. We feature links to their stores on our site from day one. But they simply are not moving the freight that they used to. And, unfortunately, a good percentage of them are not any more reliable, payment wise, then are the wholesalers. We've had more then one store go out of business, and we've had to write off bad debt, sometimes to the tune of four figures.
We still strongly support the independents, and I still work at an indie specialty store, but we have to be pragmatic and recognize that our customers are choosing where and how they want to buy the books. Amazon has become our third largest account, behind the wholesalers. And additionally, we have received strong and enthusiastic support from the science fiction buyer at Borders, and they have moved significant quantities of our books. That kind of thing support is not something we can turn down, because otherwise we would be doing a disservice to our authors, and to the readers who, quite frankly wouldn't have picked up the book otherwise. We have to make our books available to the widest possible audience. We have to ensure that somebody who would be interested in a title has the opportunity to learn about it, and buy it. The chains, and Amazon help us do that. I'll never give up on my independent bookstores, and I will always support them, because I think they do play an important role in the publishing community. The presence of one of our titles on the "Book Sense 76" list attests to their importance and relevance, and I'll keep supporting them however I can.
MRM: What are your thoughts on other small press publishers?
JL: As I said before, Night Shade is an "independent publisher." It's a silly semantic thing, but its important. There are some small press publishers out there doing some incredible things. But the ones that really catch my eyes are the ones that are trying to reach the widest possible audience. Small Beer Press is a great press, because they only do a few titles a year, but they promote the hell out of their titles, and sell a very large number of copies. Tachyon Publications is really ramping up and turning in some really good projects, and doing a good job of getting them out there. Golden Gryphon has always been someone that we have looked up to, although it's kind of frustrating to see them slowing down, as I always look forward to their titles.
MRM: What makes Night Shade different from Prime Books or Small Beer Press?
JL: Prime is an example of very aggressive editorial taste, and very conservative publishing practices. Prime's bread and butter is recognizing the up-and-coming talent, and spending a marginal amount of money and effort selling their work. Basically, the author sells the book, and gets a bit of prestige for having been chosen by Prime. But the POD model ensures that the profit per title sold is low, and that, because they don't pay advances, there is never any impetus to sell more then enough copies of any given title. Because they have very low up-front costs, they can publish huge numbers of books and hope they get lucky on a few of them. If you do 50 titles in a year, and 40 of them sell 100 copies, and the other 10 sell 500, 1,000, 1,500 copies, with POD that's a decent profit. We love Prime's editorial taste. We just think that, just as the NY publishing model is not right for everything, neither is Prime's POD model.
Small Beer I like a lot, because they do a small number of titles but promote the hell out of them, and get lots of top shelf publicity and critical attention for them. I wish Night Shade could be more successful along these lines, and we are trying. Next year should be very interesting, with a couple of trade paper original collections, from the lit-fantastic/Small Beer school.
MRM: Night Shade has received mentions in prestigious mainstream places like The New Yorker (for the Lord Dunsany Jorkens collection) and both of you (with Benjamin Cossel) won a 2003 World Fantasy Award. Has this attention and recognition made any difference to you, or heightened your visibility in any way?
JL: It has heightened our visibility, so that when we talk to agents or authors, they occasionally know who we are. But it's still just as hard to reach the readers. Outside of a small core audience (predominately writers and editors), nobody pays attention to who the publisher is. We have to work just as hard to get the projects out there and picked up by readers. The awards and the coverage are very positive for the individual works, and there is a spill over effect. If the NY Times has covered us in the past, they are more likely to cover us in the future. Likewise all the key reviewing places.
And of course, the World Fantasy Award was very meaningful, because we had no idea we were going to get it, and so it meant a lot, on a personal level. At first that's all it was, because while the award is great, it doesn't make the UPS bill go away. It wasn't until a few months afterward that we realized it had a very positive effect on us with regards to agents and authors. We were treated with a lot more legitimacy after that, which has been very nice.
MRM: What do you love about the genres you publish?
JL: The sense of wonder. [David] Hartwell was on to something, in his essay "The Golden Age of SF is 12." We love getting that "little kid" rush of adrenaline, of being taken to places that you didn't even know could exist. Now, obviously, that sense of transportation is possible in all genres, but it is, to my mind, intrinsic to SF/fantasy and horror. Many readers and genres are cynical and jaded, but I think the fantastic circumvents that jaded feeling.
JW: I'm not really sure. I just always connected to the genre more than I did things outside of it. I was a horror junkie for about twenty years, and other things just didn't seem as interesting. I read predominantly fantasy and science fiction these days, but I've always love the things that the genre made possible. Existential angst is pretty cool, but nihilistic self-loathing with hovertanks is even better!
MRM: Is the SFF genre (or literature) meant only for escapism? Are art and politics mutually exclusive?
JL: No, it is not only escapism. It's a way for coming to terms with the world you live in. I definitely fall into the camp that suggests all art is political. Even apolitical art movements of the mid-twentieth century received massive amounts of funding, and critical attention for political reasons. Even apolitical people make and have political assumptions that are a part of any creative process, be it the creation, or consumption of that creative work.
JW: Don't look at me. When people start going on about the relationship between art and politics, I'm overcome with the urge to start spritzing people with seltzer water. I'll leave the navel-gazing to our authors. I don't go for escapism. My life is pretty cool, and I've nothing really to escape from. I like well-written books that make me see things from different angles, or to rethink things I thought I already had nailed down. [If] I want escapism, I'll watch a movie.
MRM: What do you feel the role of Night Shade (and publishing) is within society as a whole? Does Night Shade exist just to solely put out great books, or do you have other concurrent goals for the company? (Aside from world domination.)
JL: No. World Domination pretty much covers it. Seriously though, we feel very strongly that books are important. They still play a key role in shaping the world we live in. In our own small way, we want to contribute to that dialog. Finding the right book for the right person, and the right person for the right book is very important. Maybe not as important as curing cancer, or ending racism. But the right book for the right person, at the right time could very well be an important step along the road towards achieving important goals. For example, all the NASA scientists who worked on the Apollo machines, a bunch of those scientists who at one point read science fiction ... they were inspired by the right book, at the right time, and helped achieve something important in the "real" world. They got people to the moon. Inspiration comes from strange places, even inspiration for real world "important" things. Nobody can tell me that Joe Haldeman's forthcoming collection War Stories is not an important book. It's an absolutely critical part of the dialog that's going on in this country today, and I'm honored to be able to publish it, because it is an important contribution to the national/social/political dialogue.
MRM: The larger genre publishers and especially digest magazines are seeing decreasing readerships. There's also the NEA report that highlighted a ten percent decrease in leisure reading over a 20 year period (from 1982 to 2002). Is there any way to turn this trend around, or is worrying about this just useless navel-gazing?
JL: You are seeing the twin effects of technology, and of population growth. That NEA report, and other studies that show a decline in overall readership are showing a percentage decrease, compared to the overall population. which, given historical trends, and technological advances makes sense. What is the most cost effective way to deliver entertainment to a mass audience. In Shakespeare's time, it was through plays (due to the rate of literacy, etc). After the invention of the printing press, and the rise of literacy rates, plays declined, and written forms of entertainment ascended. The novel, the short story.... They stayed at the top until radio came along, and eventually movies and television displaced radio as the most cost effective way to distribute entertainment.
But at the same time, we still have theater, even though its time as a dominant form of entertainment was over 300 years ago. And with population growth rates, even though only 3 percent of the population reads more than 3 books a year, that 3 percent still represents the largest literate population, and the largest market for books that the world has ever seen. So, while written forms of entertainment might become niche markets compared to the size of the overall population, it's still a very healthy market, with plenty of profit incentive.
Digest magazines and paperbacks are a more a victim of archaic and inefficient distribution methods. There used to be a lot of non-bookstore rack space that carried these magazines, and mass market paperbacks, and that shelf space doesn't exist anymore. Add in destructive and inefficient returns mechanisms, and of course there are problems. It's frustrating now, but it is still a viable market, given that there still are enough people that consume short SF/fantasy/horror. The market will eventually settle on a more efficient distribution methodology (or several, for that matter) that will eventually take the place of digest magazines. I'm not putting any money on this horse, but the fact that anybody around the world can subscribe to electronic edition of all 3 of the major digest magazines, and the magazines can get paid for those electronic editions suggests a whole new paradigm. Because of postal inefficiencies, I've seen anecdotal evidence suggesting that the international market for these magazines has already moved to the electronic editions.
So bemoaning the written words' decline is pointless. It's like complaining about gravity.
MRM: Doesn't it scare you at all, as a publisher? As a reader?
JL: It does scare me. Reading and writing is my preferred form of artistic expression and entertainment, so yes, there is a certain amount of trepidation.... Sometimes I get angry about it (see my rant about this very issue here: http://www.nightshadebooks.com/edit9.aspx). But it is a simple fact that people still go to theater... people still make their living, and their careers at another form of creative expression who's peak popularity (percentage wise) was 400 years ago.
And from a purely mercenary standpoint, this decline in cultural dominance has lead to my opportunities in the marketplace. The big boys would have never given me the opportunities I've had if the marketplace had not been in flux. And it's not just me as a publisher. Writers have a similar set of new opportunities. Today, savvy writers who know how to work the system can do TV/movie/videogame/comic script work, or media tie-ins. Put in minimal amounts of effort, and receive financial rewards that are much greater then any writer could have hoped for during the heyday of pulp/short fiction writing. And they can still pursue written, original fiction alongside their better paying media writing,
It's a transition period. Things are in flux. Traditional roles are changing... and the changing demographic of readers is just part of the reason for this. To get back to the gravity metaphor. I can worry about falling down the side of the mountain, or I can learn to hang glide. In 400 years, the written word will still be a valid form of creative and artistic expression.... And there is the (slight) possibility that something I published. Something that I nurtured and brought forth to the public will still be available, and/or important to somebody. That gives me hope.
MRM: What are your long-term goals for Night Shade? Where do you see the company in ten years?
JL: We want to have built something that has the infrastructure that will outlive our direct involvement in the day-to-day operations. If in 10 years, We're still hustling to try to layout a book on our laptops the day before its supposed to be at the printer, then something has gone very wrong. We won't be young forever, and the burnout factor plays a huge role in the failure/ending of most small businesses. We've got to be at a point where the company can survive without one or the other of us, and quite possibly, perhaps without both of us.
We've got our eye on the bigger companies ... Thunder Mouth, Baen, DAW, Tor, folks like that. Night Shade will never be a mass market house, because the margins are too thin for the kinds of titles we do (and we think its a dying form, to be frank), but 24 original titles a year would make us just as large of an imprint as Bantam Spectra. Add a mix of trade paper reprints, and the ability to sell mass market rights, and we think you would see something very significant in the science fiction and fantasy genre. You would see options and opportunities for authors outside of the Big 5 NY houses. And the thing is, that's what we want other "small press" publishers to do. I want to see other people succeed alongside of us. The more indie publishers and the more success they have, and the more we all become a more legitimate market, and the more our books become legitimate to the buyers. It is something that feeds on itself. I don't want to see a small press publisher do a $50 limited edition title. I don't want to see them do a $20 POD trade paperback that only sells 50 copies. I want to seem them doing what Night Shade is doing, because I think the time is ripe for a revolution in the publishing industry. And if we can do it with absolutely no startup money and no clue what we're doing, then there is no reason that people smarter and better financed then us can't do it better and quicker then we have.
MRM: Great answer. Okay, for a change of pace ... what is the greatest rock band that has ever lived?
JL: Given that we are publishing Ray Manzarek's new novel, Snake Moon next year, this is easy. The Doors!
JW: Ignore him. Everybody knows Zeppelin is the One True Way.