December 28, 2006
by JAY HERZOG
GREG SHEPARD (photo at right) IS AN AMIABLE MAN SPORTING A CLOSELY CROPPED WHITE BEARD AND EARRING, AND HIS ENTHUSIASM AND PASSION when talking about the books he publishes is palpable. As the editor and publisher of Stark House, his own publishing imprint based out of his home in Eureka, he's a man with a mission -- to rescue forgotten classics of genre fiction from neglect and present them in trade paperback editions to a new audience.
His taste runs the gamut from gothic fantasy to bleak crime fiction and all points in between, and the list of the fiction he publishes reflects this. Most of these books were originally published as disreputable paperback originals decades ago, many long out of print, often with campy lurid covers that belied the surprisingly high quality of the writing inside. Many of the writers that Shepard grew up reading, such as Philip K. Dick, are now generally recognized as worthy, but there's still many undiscovered books to be dusted off and revived, and that's what he sees as his job.
"It started as a family business in 1998," he says. "My job was to find the books."
Like many in the book business, Greg Shepard started out as a book collector. Years ago, he had many of the original copies of the books he now publishes in his own private collection.
Stark House was a logical extension of his previous jobs in the Bay Area. When he was still in his 20s, Shepard became the buyer for Rafael Book & News, a shop located in the building that housed Marin County's legendary Rafael Theatre. Later, he signed on with science fiction publisher J. Ben Stark, and worked as a traveling sales rep for Zebra Books, publishers of romance and historical fiction.
Eventually, he set out on his own, importing British books under the name Firebird Distribution. Among the books he imported were titles by British cult sci-fi writers like J.G. Ballard, but also hard-boiled American crime writers like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, whose work was only available at the time in British editions published by the English publisher Zomba Books.
In the early '90s, Barry Gifford's Black Lizard imprint was instrumental in bringing Thompson and Goodis (among others) back into print in America, giving the noir novel a higher profile here in its homeland. Still, larger economic forces made Firebird a losing proposition. With the rise of Amazon.com, readers interested in the fringe material being published in England could buy those books directly, online. In 2001, Shepard shut down Firebird to focus attention on his new business -- Stark House Press.
Zomba's publisher Maxim Jakubowski furnished Shepard with crucial connections with the authors he would subsequently publish, and their heirs. The noir revival of the '90s resurrected many forgotten writers, but many still languished in the shadows.
Shepard didn't initially begin his venture with the crime novels that are his current bread and butter, though -- instead, he set his sights on a British fantasy author who'd sold well through his import business.
"I simply went to an author that I knew about -- I sold a lot of books of hers in the United States, and almost nothing of hers was published here," he says "That's not true anymore, but at the time it was.
It was an August night. It had just stopped raining. Lew Brookbank turned off the ignition of his six-year-old Ford sedan and climbed out. He stood for a moment on the soggy shoulder of the road, sighed bitterly, reached in across the seat and drew out a wooden road-sign with a four foot stake, and tossed it into the grass. This was the last of them.
He had foolishly promised Jay Redmen he would have all the signs placed for his barbecue drive-in here on the Oolachi River road, so Jay could see how they looked when he came to work at seven a.m. It was one o'clock now, and a very lousy, wet morning, if anyone asked.
It was dark. There was very little traffic. Even the crickets, katydids and bull frogs seemed to have died.
"Her name was Storm Constantine. I managed to track her down and she said, `Oh, yes, that'd be lovely. Let's do it.' The first book was a hardback, there were 1,000 copies printed up. We got Storm to sign all 1,000 of them, bless her heart. I think I'll always have copies of that book in a box. It was a collection of short stories, which are always a hard sell. I was terrifically green at it, so it didn't really occur to me to turn away any of her short stories. I did two more stand-alone (non-series) novels of hers. Since then she has created her own small press in England."
He's learned a lot about the publishing business over the years. At one point he found out that the press that he'd printed his first few books with was sub-contracting the work out to another press. "I said, maybe you can put me in touch with the people you're farming this out to so I can get a slightly better deal," he remembers. "So, I went to the source."
Most of the crime novels Stark House later published were originally published in America, but they'd been out of print for decades. This sometimes makes it hard for Stark House titles to be reviewed in the major journals that many libraries make their selections from.
"I probably should have found more books that haven't been published here," he says. "One of the toughest things is to get reviewed in Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. They take kind of a dim view of just reviewing reprints. Never mind that the book's been out of print for 50 years, they don't seem to understand. I got a starred review in Booklist for Murder Me for Nickels by Peter Rabe, which is his only tongue-in-cheek, humorous mystery. I sold probably twice as much of that one as anything else."
Shepard tracked down the heirs to the estates of the writers he publishes through contacts he's developed over the years in the book business, but it's come to the point that his reputation is such that some of his authors (or, more commonly, their heirs) seek him out. Such was the case with one of his recent additions, noir writer Gil Brewer.
Shepard's operation is the very definition of a cottage industry, and started as a family affair as well. His father was an editor and his mother was a copy editor, so it was only natural that Shepard would go into the family business. When starting his own venture, he enlisted his brother Mark as the art director and designer, and his ex-wife Campbell painted some of the book covers. His friend Ed Gorman, a crime novelist, is an associate editor and advisor.
Eureka might seem like an odd place to publish from, seeing as its quite far removed from the supposed centers of the publishing industry, but for Shepard, it's ideal.
I said it again, and when she realized I'd asked her for a handout, she stared at me as if I were crazy.
We stood facing each other on the sun-struck main drag in this village that was a careless sowing of shacks and one-story buildings clustered around that phallic symbol of the Kansas plains, the district grain elevator.
"A quarter? For a cup of coffee?" she said, parroting me, and looking as if she was about to laugh in my face.
She'd paused when I spoke to her, all right. I'd figured she would stop because like every other woman she'd be curious to know what some man, even a stranger, mumbled at her as she passed him on the street. Anyway, this was rubesville where everybody spoke to everybody else, and she looked like the busty, leggy brand of chick that got spoken to by any man with energy enough to open his mouth, which was just about what I had left.
The look of controlled laughter and contempt angered me...
"I wouldn't live anywhere else," he says. `My ex-wife and I moved up here 11 years ago, and I just love the place. I just really don't have the desire to live someplace else."
He has several other part-time jobs, but publishing books is his true love, and he devotes much of his free time to his publishing concern.
"I just kind of dovetail all these things together," he says. "It's pretty much a one-man operation, though, with the exception of the art direction. Modern digital technology makes it possible. It would never have occurred for me to do it without scanning software. I'm a tolerably good typist, but I'm a lazy typist and the very notion of typing all this is beyond me. And then of course if you had to have somebody else type it would add to the unit cost. They're really not big money makers per unit. Ideally, the estate is probably making more than I am, and that's a good thing. This thing is to benefit the people who came before, and the people that might rediscover these people."
There's a long history in this country of specialty small presses, especially those devoted to genres like crime fiction, fantasy and science fiction, which have loyal fans who are voracious readers. Perhaps the best known of the early genre small presses was Arkham House, which was originally founded in the '30s by August Derleth to perpetuate and keep in print work by H. P. Lovecraft shortly after his demise. It's somewhat fitting. then, that Stark House brought back into print some of the work of dark fantasist Algernon Blackwood, who was published in the U.S. by Arkham House in the '40s . Pan's Garden, a collection of some of Blackwood's best stories, is a prime view into this writer's unique worldview. Blackwood's writing is strongly rooted in nature, the environment and a sense of place, a connection that Shepard notes might be of interest to many residents of Humboldt County -- in particular the story "The Man whom Trees Loved," in which the forest accepts and subsumes the soul of a man. Writing in a style quite unlike Lovecraft's overheated alienation, Blackwood drew strength and solace from the wild, and the worst rejections are delivered to those, like the character in his story "The Temptation of the Clay," who try to heartlessly profit from nature.
The Man Whom the Trees Loved
He painted trees as by some special divining instinct of their essential qualities. He understood them. He knew why in an oak forest, for instance, each individual was utterly distinct from its fellows, and why no two beeches in the whole world were alike. People asked him down to paint a favourite lime or silver birch, for he caught the individuality of a tree as some catch the individuality of a horse. How he managed it was something of a puzzle, for he never had painting lessons, his drawing was often wildly inaccurate, and, while his perception of a Tree Personality was true and vivid, his rendering of it might almost approach the ludicrous. Yet the character and personality of that particular tree stood there alive beneath his brush -- shining, frowning, dreaming, as the case might be, friendly or hostile, good or evil. It emerged.
There was nothing else in the wide world that he could paint; flowers and landscapes he only muddled away into a smudge; with people he was helpless and hopeless; also with animals. Skies he could sometimes manage, or effects of wind in foliage, but as a rule he left these all severely alone. He kept to trees, wisely following an instinct that was guided by love. It was quite arresting, this way he had of making a tree look almost like a being -- alive. It approached the uncanny.
"Yes, Sanderson knows what he's doing when he paints a tree!" thought old David Bittacy, C.B....
Shepard's also published out-of-print books by Vin Packer, a pseudonym for Marijane Meaker, who is perhaps best known for her later young adult novels under the name M. E. Kerr, but who wrote groundbreaking lesbian themed crime novels in the '50s and '60s. One of those books, The Evil Friendship, was based on the same New Zealand murder case that inspired Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures. Her book Intimate Victims, a story of an embezzler who trades places with a sleazy social climber, bears some similarity with Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, and in a new introduction to the book Meaker reflects on the fact that their subject matter was so obviously similar that a contempory reviewer at the time of the book's release compared the two without knowing they were a couple. Meaker recently published a memoir about her relationship with Highsmith that garnered her an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, but that visibility didn't have too much of an effect on sales of her Vin Packer novels. Shepard says that each of his books sells to a different audience, and Packer's books do quite well with libraries, which is one of his main markets. There's also a substantial gay and lesbian audience that he sells Packer's books to.
Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, who Raymond Chandler once called "the top suspense writer of them all," is a less well-known writer whose books Shepard publishes mainly because he enjoys her fiction so much.
"That was a personal thing -- I really wanted to get her back into print," he says. "To mixed results. She's no bestseller, but she just writes such wonderful books that I just feel that if I could keep them alive in the current marketplace situation then I'm doing some service. She died back in the '50s." Shepard shrugs off a suggestion that the women writers on his list reflect some attempt to address neglect of attention to women crime writers, but it's obvious that he wants to share with the world what he calls "absolute gems" in the genre, regardless of gender.
Another Stark House reprint, Shake Him Till He Rattles, was originally published in 1963 and is set in San Francisco's North Beach jazz scene. A sadistic cop and ex-con play a cat-and-mouse game in which no one is innocent. In the book, author Malcolm Braly created a singular hybrid of the beat hipster novel and crime fiction that anticipates similar work by James Ellroy 20 years later (though thankfully without the over the top posturing and self aggrandizement that mar Ellroy's later novels). Another Braly book, On the Yard, was an admitted influence on the prison sequences in Jonathan Lethem's recent novel Fortress of Solitude, and was called "the great American prison novel" by Kurt Vonnegut.
The life experience that Braly brings to the table sets him apart from many other hard-boiled writers who were romantics in disguise -- there's a life lived with no illusions that shines through his pages. Braly's familiarity with the world of crime was not merely an imaginative one -- he spent much of the first 40 years of his life in and out of prison (his first stint was in the Preston School of Industry near Redding) before editor Knox Burger offered him a book deal and a chance to make his living through writing. Knox Burger was a central figure to many of the writers Shepard has revived; as editor of Gold Medal Books, a '50s-era imprint that specialized in paperback originals, he published Vin Packer and gave Kurt Vonnegut his first publication. Burger is still alive, and he still gives advice to Shepard on his publishing ventures (he shrewdly advised Shepard to put a Vonnegut blurb on the front cover of Shake Him Till He Rattles).
Though a majority of Stark House's books are formerly out-of-print fiction, Shepard has published other material as well, most notably a collection of essays in tribute to the '50s cult sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, edited by Ed Gorman and that film's star, Kevin McCarthy, and featuring a piece by Stephen King. "That was published as a favor to Ed Gorman," Shepard says. "When it was published, it was almost instantly remaindered when the publisher went under -- it didn't have a long shelf life. I loved dealing with Kevin, he's a fun guy. He bought a bunch of the books and takes them to conventions. I should hope to be so lively at 92."
Shepard has his eye on the future, and would like to eventually build Stark House up to the point where he can pass it on to someone else.
"Right now I'm trying to keep the cost down, and I can do that by printing smaller quantities," he says. "Once I have to print a minimum of two or three thousand, all the sudden I have some pretty big bills that I have to contend with. To do one [book] a month, I'm doing it my way right now. When the year is over, I'll have done 10 or 11. I had a schedule I made in January, and I've kept to it throughout the year. Just the fact that you can publish something on schedule is considered impressive in the small press world. You announce it for October, and you cross your fingers that it'll be in bookstores by January. There are a few small press publishers that make a living at it and are able to quit their day jobs. A lot of them are just people like myself that do it out of love, and in every free moment that you have."
When I got there the man hadn't yet made up his mind about jumping. I tried to drive through to where the state police were unloading big floodlights from a truck, but a burly deputy stood in front of the car with his hands on his hips. I braked and he came around to stick a red face in through the window.
"End of the line, Mac,"
he said. He had peered through the dusk at my District of Columbia
plates, not liking them. "You can't park around here. Any
place around here. We got enough trouble with the college crowd."
I shook my head. "No, but he's involved in a case my agency's on."
"Besides, this ain't D.C."
I pointed to the small print at the bottom of the license, where it says I'm bonded in Virginia too. Before the deputy could make up his mind about that, one of the floodlights came on. The crowd buzzed and hummed with excitement as the beam swung and probed up through the gloomy twilight of the cold autumn sky.
"There he is!"
One upcoming project in the new year is the first book in a fantasy trilogy by his ex-wife, Campbell Shepard, which is also the first original novel published by Stark House. "I felt strongly about it -- she has new ideas all the time about this thing," he says. "I want to get the ideas out there."
"The Long Tail," a recent book by Chris Anderson, argues that catering to smaller niche markets can be more profitable than the outdated blockbuster, one-size-fits-all mentality. The theory is that cumulatively, less popular books (or movies, or CDs) can actually outsell the big-budget dinosaurs. Small publishers like Shepard have garnered an increasing share of book sales by focusing on under-served markets for fiction that isn't considered profitable enough in today's ruthlessly bottom-line financial climate, but still has a substantial audience. Because of the consolidation of corporate publishing, many current midlist authors find their books going out of print, never mind obscure classics from 40 years ago.
Economic woes aside, the only way some out-of-print novels see the light of day is through the auspices of someone like Greg Shepard, who publishes his books as a labor of love, but now has the ability, through desktop publishing, to bring forgotten hard-boiled classics out of the shadows.
Jay Herzog writes about art, literature and culture at mekonista.blogspot.com.
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