Selina Rosen is the dynamic personality behind the fearless Yard Dog Press, the creative force behind such works as Strange Robby and the side splitting Bubba Chronicles, and the formidable singer/actress/comedienne at the center of many science-fiction conventions. Somehow I found time to interview Ms. Rosen when we were both deep in the heart of Texas.
Dotar Sojat : Okay, you write, and you run Yard Dog Press. Which came first?
Selina Rosen: The writing. I started writing when I was twelve years old. I started submitting when I was twenty-one. I sold my first story to Marion Zimmer Bradley at twenty-eight. That's a lot of rejection from twenty-one to twenty-eight!
But I got spoiled though, because when that first story sold I got $250. That story sold to a Best of MZB Anthology in Germany. It was one of six stories, so I was only splitting royalties with five other writers. By the time I got done getting royalty checks I had made almost $3,000 on that one story. So it kind of spoiled me.
DS: What time period was that first sale?
SR: Eighteen years ago or so. You do the math.
DS: Eighty-something. Eighty-eight. [ 1 ] Do you think it's gotten harder to be a writer since then?
SR: Yes. I've heard several of my colleagues—my older colleagues who have been in the business for a bazillion years—talking to these groups of new writers and a lot of the information they're giving them is too old to be any good. Those things don't work anymore.
It's a lot harder market. For one thing, when I started submitting, there were a dozen more magazines than there are now. Magazines come and they go, but very few of the old ones are still there. Analog and Asimov's are still around. Twilight Zone was huge. They did hundreds of stories and when they went out of business you could hardly sell a short story. Because it glutted the market. Everything that had been sent to Twilight Zone—they were getting about 800 submissions a month—was going to all the other markets and it was almost impossible to sell anything.
DS: What made you want to write?
SR: I think most people, and I may be generalizing because of most of the people I know, start writing because they have some problem that they are dealing with. I think for a lot of writers it's therapy. It's therapy or they have a very strong fantasy life and the writing becomes a part of their fantasy life. There are a few want-to-be writers that you run into that should be talked out of writing because they aren't actually writers—a real writer you're not going to talk them out of it. They want to do it because they think there is money and respect, they think they're going to get rich and famous in this business. Of course you don't have to talk them out of it—all they have to do is get a fist full of rejection letters, or get their first check for a story and say, "There is no way I can live on this," and they'll be gone.
And that's another thing that has changed. There used to be fairly good money in it, and there's not anymore.
I think people who are creative are usually damaged in some way. I'm serious, I know that sounds awful and negative, but it's not necessarily negative. I don't think people become crazy because they are creative. I think people are crazy and they become creative because that's how they deal with how they look at the world. People who are a little damaged don't see the world the way normal people do.
DS: They use writing to deal with their problems?
SR: I think most writers do. I think they're damaged and there is some reason they've crawled into that fantasy world. I think that it's people who have very little control of their real world, their real situation. It's escapism. Reading is escapism, but that's not enough for people who create. People who create need the absolute. When I'm writing, I don't like to deal with the real world when I come out of that room. When I'm really on the jazz and am working on a piece and I have to walk out and deal with a problem in the house—I hate that. When I'm writing I'm god. If I want it to rain it's rainin', if I want someone to fall down, they fall down. If I want them to get back up, they're fine.
But when you walk into the real world...no, no control. Maybe writers are all control freaks. I'm sure that everybody has a different story. My story is that I'm damaged and that's why I write.
DS: Is there a particular moment that you remember when you said, "I want to be a writer"?
SR: When I was twelve years old. I started writing when I was twelve. Again, escapism. Just writing things. I always wanted to be a writer. I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. That's why reality's so harsh and I'm so bitter. But bitter in a happy way!
DS: There's a world of difference between wanting to do something and knowing that you're capable of doing it. Was there a time when you felt that you could actually be a writer?
SR: I actually felt more like it was going to happen when I was younger than I do now. When I was younger I was like every young person: nine foot tall and bullet-proof. "I want to be a writer and I will be. I won't have to go through these obstacles because when they see my work they're going to be blown away, they're not going to give a fuck about the others. The rest of the slush pile is going to magically disappear and Selina Rosen's stuff will float to the top because I'm that much better than everybody else."
And then reality knocked and I realized that I had a lot to learn. And what I found out, though, talk about going full circle, is that when you really do want to last in this business and make it, you have to get back to that point that "I'm so much better than everybody else." You have to feel like your work is as good or better than everything else out there. Because if you don't, first off why are you doing it? And second off, the rejection and the realities of this business are such that if you're not that cocky about your work you will never make it. You'll just blow up.
DS: It sounds like it's easy to get pushed aside.
SR: It's easy to get discouraged, it's easy to get pushed aside, it's easy to get lost in this business. In this business right now you almost have to be very outgoing. If you're very quiet and very reserved you're not going to make it right now. You have to talk to people, and talk your work up. And it's a catch-22 because you also have to have money. You almost have to have the money to go to New York and get an agent. You almost have to start off in a better position than most people are in now. That doesn't mean you can't do it, that just means it's going to be slow. You're going to be like me—46 and not making a living in the business. Still living off the old lady. At least I'm honest.
DS: You talked about older writers giving bad information. It seems like the people who got in before '89-'92—their stories are different than the people who got in after that time. For the people after that time it all seems to come down to one thing: I knew somebody. By hook or crook it all comes down to that one thing. People before that will say that they submitted stuff and got back critiques that said put in a faster plot and they'd speed up the plot and re-submit and back and forth and then they'd make it.
SR: Almost anymore you have to make the human connections and hope that something pans out. I have friends who are some of the biggest writers in the business and who are 100% behind me and try to be helpful and everything else. I'm still not making a living after twenty years, in spite of all that. I'm doing better as a publisher than as a writer.
Now, a lot of that's due to some bad decisions. I think every writer makes bad decisions because they just want to be in print so bad. So you make some decisions and you don't think things through and some things just don't happen and 90% of it is luck. Maybe that's just me talking and trying to rationalize why I'm not filthy rich, but I think a big share of who makes it and who doesn't is luck. And if you look at a lot of the crap making millions that's gotta be what it is. But I'm not bitter or anything.
DS: You don't have to answer this if you don't want to. You talked about making a living as a writer. How close are you to making a living as a writer? Is it 20% of your income?
SR: The average writer in this country, if you put them all together, Stephen King and all the rest, they make an average of $7,000 a year. I don't make $7,000 a year at my writing. I work my ass off and I still don't. Take that as you will.
DS: I've heard that most SF/F writers are lucky to be published, and almost impossibly lucky to make a living at it.
SR: Exactly. I have friends who make a damn good living at it, but it took them many, many years to get into that position. Lots of titles, and being at the right place at the right time. And they started younger—something I didn't do because I didn't have the money and the wherewithal to get to the places I needed to be to make a lot of the connections. I had a farm to take care of and a kid to raise.
DS: Life intrudes.
SR: Poverty intrudes. I've lived in abject poverty most of my life. I'm doing better now than I have in the past. I've done every crap job you can think of.
DS: Have you hauled medical waste?
SR: No, but I've done home health care and dug out impactions.
DS: You got me beat. Why sci-fi fantasy? You might write in a dozen different genres, but I know you as an SF/F writer.
SR: I do write in a lot of different genres, but SF has always been my passion. That's where I like to write. I like SF and horror, a little bit of fantasy. I've written some mainstream stuff but I just haven't marketed it; I'm going to.
I say mainstream, but everything I write is really weird. That's who I am, that's my life. Everything I write is like nothing else you're going to read. There may be elements that are like something else, but as the whole package—no.
DS: And Yard Dog Press, how did that get started?
SR: I don't know how many years ago, my friend Brad and I would sit around talking about doing a comic book. We'd include short stories and comics and all this shit. About the time we got ready to do something about it some friends of ours started a press called the Iguana Informer. Brad and I just worked for them for a while, and that went pretty well for a couple of years, actually. They did it for the love of doing it, not as a business. The gal who was mainly in charge had some other things come up and she just couldn't do it anymore. When they went out of business we started our comics. We didn't really mean to start a whole press! We started with a comic called Yard Dog Comics. We usually put one or two short stories in it and several comic strips. Reoccurring characters. I did an editorial for it, which is where the bitches started. And more people read those or heard them on the radio.
The press grew out of that. We were running around selling the comic books and people kept telling us that we could do chapbooks. And they did pretty good. It gave us more to put on our table when we went to shows and that was good. We got to thinking we could do comb-bound novels. We could do them at home and sell them cheap.
DS: And what time period was this?
SR: The last ten years. Yard Dog Press turned ten in March of 2007. And it just grew. People asked that we do perfect-bound novels and I thought "No, no no, we couldn't possibly do that." And then technology came that we could, and we thought what the hell. And so we just kept building and building and we have a nice stable of really good authors and artists that work with us. The house is doing really, really well. Nobody is getting rich, but everybody is making a little money and we're doing well.
We've had some artists and authors go on to bigger things because they've had the publicity. We're very much a family. We talk all the time together, we work on projects together. If one person knows about a market that's open they tell the whole group. When Small-Bites came up, which wasn't a paid-for project but it was a good project, a lot of people saw it. One of our authors was an editor for that and he spread the word and half of our authors got in, because they all submitted because they all knew about it.
They support each other, they support us, we support them, and it's doing really well. Much better than I thought it would at this point. It pays its debt, and pays out its royalties on time.
DS: That leads to the next question: How long did it take Yard Dog to pay for itself?
SR: It's been paying for itself since the beginning because I insisted on it. We put very little seed money in and I insisted from the beginning that it at least paid its own debt. We've worked very hard to do it, but it does it.
For the first several years we had to pay for our own travel expenses and tables and stuff- but I was already going because I was promoting myself as a writer. So this was just a way to promote the company at the same time. Now the company pays for all our travel expenses, too. That's one way that I've really profited from it as a writer because it's gotten me a lot more exposure, and hasn't cost us anything personally.
DS: One less thing to worry about! Now, tell me about Strange Robby. [In the time since this interview was conducted, Strange Robby has been on the preliminary ballot for the Nebula Award.—Ed.]
SR: Strange Robby is funny. Most of the times I'm a very quick writer and I'm very prolific. Every once in a while I'll have an idea for a story and I had an idea for a character I wanted to use: the Spider Webb character, and Robby. Robby is actually based on a real-life person. Most people would probably think he was the most unrealistic character I've ever created, but he's based on a real person.
So I had these two characters I wanted to use and one day it just clicked and I started writing it. In some ways it's very different from my other work, in other ways it's not-I've done the sci-fi detective things before. I did it in Fire and Ice and Hammer Town. It's got a definite whole paranormal-type feel to it, and it's got a mystery element, so it's really a bastard. It is the cross-genre of cross-genre books.
To me when I was writing it, it was just a science-fiction novel. I didn't think all this other crap—"Oh it's a criminal detective horror procedural mystery novel." To me it's just a science-fiction novel.
DS: A science-fiction novel that happens to involve some mystery-solving.
SR: Exactly. To me it's a science-fiction novel. It's a near-future novel, which makes it a little harder to work because you constantly have to be aware that when you're trying to predict cutting edge technology the technology can actually catch up so your technology is no longer new. Esther Friesner said that it's a cross between X-Files and NYPD Blue.
I didn't think that when I was writing it either, but it sounds good now. I'm really proud of it, it's one of my better books. Elizabeth Moon said she enjoyed it and that made me happy. I've got a lot of good press on it.
DS: What are your current projects?
SR: I'm working on a sequel to Strange Robby called On Jacob's Ladder. I can't tell you too much about it because I give away the end of Strange Robby. But for background I used the Lost Boys from the Mormon camps.
DS: That's some scary stuff.
SR: Yeah, I use those boys and camps for background for my main antagonist. I think it's going to be really good, as good or better than the first one.
And I'm working on short stories all the time. In fact, when I'm frustrated on my big writing projects I'll take a break and write a short story. I get short story ideas from about anything. Dreams.
Mostly what I'm doing is editing. Editing and editing and editing. I edited a short story collection that came out in 2007 from Robin Bailey. I edited Linda Donahue's chapbook. I've been wading through slush. I just waded through the latest Bubbas of the Apocalypse slush pile, and of course, working on the farm.
DS: The Bubbas of the Apocalypse have been pretty popular, right?
SR: Those are the most popular books we have at Yard Dog Press. It's sold more than anything else we've had, more than our Stoker award winning novel, more than anything period.
DS: For people who may not be familiar with it, what is the premise?
SR: It's a shared universe anthology. The premise is that a plague gets loose from a secret government laboratory and it basically wipes out 90% of the population. They find out early on that certain people of a certain class are immune. Shortly before there are too many people dead for it to do any good, they figure out that it's because of an enzyme in barbeque sauce that changes when it's grilled. And so this saves your bubba population. And there are some yuppies who spent too much time in front of their personal computers and because of the radiation from their screens the virus mutated in their system and they live on as crazed deranged yumbies. They're zombies, but they're yuppies, so we call them yumbies. That's the entire premise of that.
People love to write for these. We've got two Daryl award-winning stories in two different anthologies. Keith Berdak, the cover artist for the entire collection, who had never written a short story, won a Daryl award for the very first short stories he ever wrote for his story in BotA. Then Robert Brown won one for Four Bubbas of the Apocalypse. Then Maggie Bonham won a Canine award for her story in Four Bubbas. The Canine award is given for a story from the dog's point of view.
International House of Bubbas hasn't been out long enough to get any awards yet.
DS: Do you have any short-term, next-five-year kind of goals for YDP?
SR: Make more money for ourselves and our writers. Period. I don't plan to do more titles than we currently do per year. I don't plan to get bigger, or a warehouse, or get mass distribution. My big goal with the company has been, from day one, to be totally mail order except what we do at conventions. No dealer, no distributor gets the money, it all gets split between us and the authors. That's where the money for books should go.
The major amount of money for books should be in the author's hand and the publisher's hand. It shouldn't be in the hands of a distributor or the dealers. 45% of the cover cost of a book, when you buy it at Amazon or at a store, goes to the distributor and the dealer. The rest of it gets split to buy the book and between the publisher and the authors. That's ridiculous. And Amazon gets 55% because they are both the distributor and the dealer.
Now I don't mind dealing directly with small independent book dealers at all. I want to make that clear.
When you buy a book directly from us we knock two dollars off the cost of the book. We get to split up to six dollars between ourselves and the authors for that book. If you buy it from Amazon we get to split eighty cents. Do the math.
So my big goal has been to do direct sales and be mail-order. We'll do the conventions and get the word out and all that stuff, but our big thing is to be a mail order company. In the next five years I'd like to triple my online sales.
My big goal is to have good books that people like to read by good authors who are nice people. I don't like to support assholes. I don't care how talented you are or how many readers you can bring to my company if you're a fucking asshole. There are too many really nice people who are talented to deal with an asshole. DBAA.
DS: Don't. Be. An. Asshole. I got it. Okay, a very common question. As a writer, where do you get your ideas?
SR: I wrote a bitch about this once. I don't know how "normal" people don't have ideas. In the last few months, not talking about years, I rode cross country with my publisher who listened to disco the entire time. We drove all the way to Anaheim and then drove all the way to Atlanta. Big conventions, 6,000 people in Anaheim, 35,000 in Atlanta. I met Denise Crosby, I met Traci Lords. I met all these people, sold books. I also did hospice for my friend while she died in my house. How can you not have ideas?
How can you live in the world and not just bust from keeping this stuff in? That's how I get rid of it, I write. My Flush Fiction piece is about my friend dying of cancer. It's a humorous piece because that's how I dealt with that situation.
DS: So any and everything.
SR: Everything. My son's a great source of bubba stories. The other day my son says, "I can't get another girlfriend until after hunting season." What a bubba thing to say! It's ridiculous.
DS: Well, I can remember being a young man and I can remember thinking, "I'll deal with a girlfriend after X." It was never hunting.
SR: He doesn't really like to hunt, he just likes to go to the woods and drink beer.
DS: As I understand, that's a big part of it. Wearing the editor hat again, what do you look for for Yard Dog?
SR: I will tell any author to send it to the bigger guys first. Don't send your work to a small press first. If you can't get into a big house with a piece you think is really good, that's what I want. The only way that I can compete and have any market at all is to print something the bigger houses are not printing. So consistently we are printing stuff that is not like anything they are doing in New York.
The entire country is not in a New York state of mind. Why do New York publishers seem to think that everybody lives in Manhattan? I don't know. They put out the same shit and not everyone wants to read it. So what I'm looking for is stuff that's different.
And different doesn't mean "bad." Different should be the kind of thing that New York doesn't/won't publish. It's the really good "different" stuff I'm looking for.
A lot of people think that small presses print crap, well, that's true for the ones that don't pay for product and don't have to work at it. When you're working your ass off and you're paying for product and all you're doing is paying off the company's debt, I have to believe in that book.
When we first opened I took three or four novels that I really didn't like and I thought, "You know what, I'm not going to be one of those editors, I'm not going to just take books that I like. I want to take stuff that's good and well-written and it wouldn't matter if I liked them or not. I couldn't sell those books.
So that's what I buy, what I like, and that's what I sell.
I have very broad-ranging taste. I hate unhappy endings. I think they suck. To me reading is an escapist thing. If its got an unhappy ending and its conclusive and makes sense for the book I may take it. Usually no, I don't want it. I want a story, a whole story, beginning middle and an end, that is conclusive. I don't want part of a series. I don't want one book that forces you to buy the next book to know what's going on. I hate that, why would I take them on?
I prefer short novels for a lot of reason, but mainly because we sell more of the cheaper novels. Less pages in our book the cheaper the novel can go out the door for. Our doubles do really well. Those are little 40,000 word novels. A novel on one side, a novel on the other side. People really enjoy them. Ace started it, it's not an original idea, but it works for us.
DS: Not to make you choose among your children, but what are the three or four titles from Yard Dog that you can name that are just awesome and different and people aren't going to see anywhere else?
And that shows my taste because they are an oddball bunch of books. Oh, and Almost Human. Hard science fiction, lost colony in space, like an old pulp novel, but smart. The guy who wrote it is an emergency room doctor. Oddly enough, he works at the hospital that my grandfather died building.
SR: Yeah. He's the head of the emergency medical section for Long Beach General. He's a really sharp guy.
Almost Human is a hard sci-fi novel. Leopard's Daughter is an African fantasy novel, set when the Sahara was a jungle. Lee Killough used all African folk-lore. She does something that more writers should be able to do. She can teach you about an entire culture, an entire mythos of that culture and make it all story, no info dumps.
It had been printed before, twenty years ago. I don't like to do reprints, but it never saw the circulation that it should have seen. They stuck a white woman on the cover. There are no white people in this novel.
DS: Thank god. It's about time.
SR: We put a black woman on the cover and added a novella that she had done that had never been printed before. It's a mystery novella with all alien characters. And you realize pretty quick that they are alien. They have tentacles and legs in the wrong place. The detective has to solve this murder and in this culture, in this alien race, when someone dies they skin them. It's part of their culture, they make clothing and stuff out of them. So the crime scene is already messed up because someone has skinned the body. And the detective isn't human either. It's really awesome. It's called "Aftershock." There's an earthquake and they don't know what's going on. All these dead bodies and all of this skinning and in the middle of this a murder.
Tranquility is an Ozarks Twilight Zone episode. It's half of a double-dog. It's very whimsical, funnier than shit. Oddball little town in the middle of nowhere where everyone is a weirdo. This doctor from out of town comes there because he's lost his big job and he has to come there and work and he soon realizes that everybody in town is a weirdo. I like the way it's written. Traci Morris did that one.
I love Ken Rand's work. We've got four pieces with him and I love all of them. My favorite one is Golems of Laramie County. Ken is the only person I know doing the weird westerns like that, and when he's gone nobody will be doing it. Golems is sad, it's poignant, and it's funny.
DS: The cover art really kicks ass, too.
SR: It's a David Deen cover.
Tick Hill is one of our new releases. I like Bill Eakien's work. The main thing I like about it is that I'm very anti-Bush, very anti-Homeland Security. The entire premise of the story is Homeland Security taken to the utmost badness. It's set quite a bit in the future and apparently Homeland Security went to all this trouble to build these little metallic nano-ticks, which have escaped and are terrorizing this hilltop in Arkansas. It's really darkly funny.
Very few people can do dark humor and pull it off. They go for the gross stuff and that's not really funny. Eakien has some gross stuff, but it's really funny. It's very much something that people need to read. It's good to know how far things can go and how quick they can get out of hand.
 I did the math at home, not in my head, kids. [ back ]