Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Feature: Interview with Jeremy Lassen

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Jeremy Lassen is the editor-in-chief of
Night Shade Books.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get involved with Night Shade Books?

I met Jason Williams while he was just forming Night Shade and working on his first book. I was doing my own publishing company, called freak press. We became very good friends, and when he needed someone to partner up with, we joined forces... this was around the third or fourth book that Night Shade put out that I formally became a partner/owner of the business, but I did some production work on the early books.

As publisher of Night Shade Books, what is it exactly that you do? How different is your role from that of Jason Williams?

My technical title at Night Shade is Editor in Chief, and Jason's title is "Publisher." Originally, we split the editorial work 50/50, but I've moved into a more active role in the last couple of years. We still go back and forth, and pitch projects to each other... If one of us isn't feeling strongly about something, thats enough to stop the project, but at the same time, we've been working together for 10 years now, so we trust each others judgment.

Jason handles most of the financial side of the business, and I keep up with most the production side of the business, working with printers, and the wrangling of freelancers, be they copy editors or designers, or artists.

We've recently added two new people to the Night Shade team. John Joseph Adams is the Director of Marketing and Publicity, while Ross Lockhart is the "VP of Production & Shit" (I gave him that title as a joke, and he put it on his business card, so now it has stuck). There's really no way we could get by without Ross and John, at this point, given how many titles we do, and how much we have to do to promote them. 7 or 8 years ago, it was just Jason and I, doing it in the spare time, after our 40 hour a week day jobs. But that seems like a lifetime ago now.

Lately, when I look at blogs and listen to the various podcasts, Night Shade Books tends to be associated with you. Is it fair to say that you're the face of Night Shade Books?

Thats a fair assessment. Jason and I both were very active in the community when Night Shade started up, but Jason has been full time with Night Shade for about 4 years longer then I have... There was a conscious decision on his part to pull back. To not do so many conventions, and interviews. He doesn't like traveling, and doesn't like pictures taken of himself, for example, while I'm a total ham, and travel around to every convention I can, hoping people will take pictures of me. That's why MY face is on the night shade "Posse" shirts. It also allows him to focus on the business side of things. Its really tough when both of us are traveling -- Things just shut down completely, and thats not really good when you are wrangling 35 books a year.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far as a publisher?

Doing everything right, and having it still not work out, financially or otherwise. That's the tough part about publishing. There are so many variables that you can't control, and sometimes things just don't work out. For example, one of hour darkest hours happened in the wake of our first big success. We released The Ancient Track by H. P. Lovecraft, and pre-orders were great. We shipped everything out, and had 70K in receivables... that is, money owed to us. So we sent 50K worth of projects to the printer... the printer printed them, but before we got paid, September 11th happened, and none of our dealers or bookstores could pay us... we lost our credit with our printer... it took us 6 months to get them paid off, and another couple of months to get enough money together to print the next book, which had to be paid in advance.

We had done everything right... published the right book, promoted it right, sold it... our dealers and bookstores were selling strongly, but because of the shutdown of the economy that happened in September and October, nobody could pay us. We almost went broke.

On a non-financial side, publishing books that fail to find their audience is heart breaking. You fall in love with each of the books... its like they are your kids. And when readers just kind of ignore them, or never find them, its a real downer.

What's your criteria in choosing the authors that you publish? What's your selection process like, are you open to submissions or is it mostly determined by you and your editors?

#1 thing is it's gotta keep me interested from the first sentence to the last page. I read a lot of manuscripts while commuting on the train, or in coffee shops, or public spaces... just because I need to see how it reads when there's a lot of distractions going on. That's the first big test, because that's how books are read by readers.

After that, I've got to have an idea of who I'm going to sell it to. Sometimes being really good isn't enough.

Finally, right now, its got to fit comfortably on the sf/fantasy, or horror section of the bookstore. If it's mainstream, or mystery, or "unclassifiable" I have a much tougher time. I've spent a lot of time and effort getting to know the bookstore buyers of the genre sections of stores. I have personal relationships there, and they know they can trust me. But I don't have those kinds of relationships outside of the genre, so its a real limitation. It's frustrating sometimes, to say "this is really good but it doesn't have rocket ships or dragons in it so I can't publish it" but it's true. I've had to turn down mainstream books because Night Shade just couldn't reach the audience.

Which is frustrating. Enough so that eventually, we might open up a mainstream imprint someday. But we've got to get a lot better and a lot more stable before that happens.

Night Shade Books currently has a strong Internet presence, everything from your active forums to having some of your books and stories freely available for download. How has your company adapted to this technology and how different do you think Night Shade Books would have been without the Internet?

Modern communications make Night Shade possible. First and foremost, the kind of Internet presence and ability to let the genre community learn about your books, with a minimal amount of time and money, is invaluable. And the kind of marketing and branding that we've done, to make Night Shade itself known in the community is a lot easier with the Internet.

But also, on the production side of things, there's no way I could wrangle all the artist, and editors and other freelancers, without the kind of instantaneous communications that I take for granted. Passing around huge files, around the world... I have editors in Australia, and authors in England, and artists everywhere in between. And to top it off, I'm not based in New York, I'm in San Francisco. So having close contact with agents is also facilitated by the net. The Internet allows us to do as many books per year as we do.

What are your current plans for Night Shade Books? Will the company be branching out more in the future?

In the near future, we are going to stabilize at about 35 books a year, and try and maximize those books... get them to reach their largest audience possible.

As I said earlier, we'd love to open up a mainstream imprint, and have some very strong ideas about that, but we need to get our core business in order and working efficiently, before we branch out like that.

What are some of the titles that you will be publishing that you're looking forward to? How about books outside of your company?

We've got a new novel by Tim Lebbon coming out this fall, called Bar None. It's a sort of post apocalyptic rumination on loss and memory. Aside from it being a really incredible book, this one is really special, because we were Tim's first publisher in the US and I'm very happy to be working with him again.

We just published A new novel by Walter Jon Williams (Implied Spaces), and he's an author who is so influential on me, as a reader of SF, that to be working with him is like a dream come true. The fact that the book kicks ass is a bonus.

Other stuff I'm currently looking forward to reading, that I'm not publishing is Steven Erikson's next Malazan novel, Toll of Hounds. Another one is Ysabeau S. Wilce's second novel Flora's Dare. Her First one, Flora Segunda was wonderful.

Also, I just finished up Whit's End by Karen Joy Fowler, and loved it.

Let's talk more about yourself. How did you initially get into science fiction/fantasy?

I was a ravenous reader as a child, and somewhere around third or fourth grade, I found the science fiction section of the library. From Robert E. Howard to Ursula Le Guin, to H.P. Lovecraft. All of it. By the time I hit High school I was reading pretty broadly in most of the fantastic genres, and was interested in the culture of science fiction... I read all the author's notes, and introductions and forewords and conventions reports and magazines and fanzines I could get my hand on. It was like looking at a world that existed somewhere else... and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Who were some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

It always changes... depending on what and who I'm currently obsessing over. I can point to our entire classics line of fiction, and say "Those guys were the most influential" William Hope Hodgson, H. P. L, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Manly Wade Wellman, Karl Edward Wagner. I feel really lucky to have been able to publish the writers that were so influential and important to me.

Did you ever imagine yourself becoming a publisher? An editor? A bookseller?

I've been a bookseller since college, working in some of the best independent bookstores in the country. And that experience led to my hobby of publishing stuff. Sometime early in 2003 or so, it all started becoming real. The model was finally working. It took another three years or so for me to go full time with the business. But right around 2003, we realized that the light at the end of the tunnel didn't HAVE to be an onrushing train.

But yeah. I've been imagining it every day for the last 10 years, and wanting it more then anything else. I worked two jobs, and then came home and put in another 20-30 hours a week into Night Shade... because we didn't have money, or investors or anything, except our sweat and labor and our ability to imagine that we could be successful. And I did that for about 6 years... because I could imagine it. I sold off all my DVD's and my first edition collection, to fund Night Shade, because I could imagine it. I just wanted to do this more then anything else.

How did you first get involved in the industry as a professional?

I got a part time job working at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, while going to college. That was pretty much the start of all of it.

Have you ever considered pursuing a career in writing a fantasy/science fiction/horror novel?

When I was in college, I was a creative writing major, and I did some writing... some genre stuff, but it was never very good. I drifted into book selling, and got to know a lot of writers who did do it, and did it well... And during college I published a couple different zines, and found that I enjoyed the production end of publishing, as well as the editing side, and that was pretty much the end of my "writing" career.

Have you thought of returning to simply editing and creating an anthology like After Shocks?

Nope. Aftershocks was my first book. My first project. It was a business card, so to speak. Back before POD publishing, having an honest-to-goodness hard cover anthology published was a relatively big deal. I worked hard to pull the best that I could out of the slush pile and make a good book. Because I wanted to be taken seriously, by authors and bookstores and agents, etc. But it was never a very commercial project, and now, when I want do do an anthology, I can call up some of the best editors in the field, and they can put one together for me. My time and energy probably isn't going to be spent like that again. I have to tend to a 35 book a year schedule. Keeping 35 different balls in the air prevents me from focusing on one book, like I did then.

You're someone who's been through a wide variety of experiences when it comes to the publishing industry. What's been the most rewarding experience so far? The weirdest?

Publishing authors who otherwise wouldn't have been published. Frankly, its a no-brainer to publish Iain M. Banks, or Greg Egan. But I'm the first guy who published Tim Lebbon, or Alex Bledsoe, or Paolo Bacigalupi, or Laird Barron. That's the best. Another high is taken forgotten writers, and making them available to a new generation. The Wellman books were very rewarding for that reason.

The weirdest thing is getting up in the morning, every morning. I've been a full time publisher for a while now, and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. Being that blessed is pretty weird. There's plenty of genuinely weird stuff that goes on during the sleep deprivation sessions known as conventions. But... well... thats not the kind of weirdness I can share with a general audience. You have to be there.

What in your opinion is one of the biggest changes happening right now? Is it politics? The policies of Amazon.com? eBooks? Distribution?

The big changes are the ones that have been ongoing for a long time. The conglomeratization... the industry focus on best sellers, at the expense of the rest of the list. THIS is what makes businesses like Night Shade Possible. Even 10 years ago, there's no way I would have been able to be Walter Jon Williams publisher, or Greg Egan's or Iain M. Bank's for example. Smaller more focused publishers and publishing houses are going to change the face of publishing. It may be Night Shade, or it may be someone else. Back in the 20's and thirties, revolutionaries Like Alfred Knopf, and Cerf, and a host of other young turks re-invented they way publishing books happened. Similar changes are afoot. E-books, amazon, all these things are changes to the eco-system that make evolution and growth possible. Night shade is a small furry mammal, and the media conglomerates are the dinosaurs.

What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

Write a novel... Finish it. Put it in a trunk. Write another. Repeat process about five times. GO back and read your first book. If your fifth book isn't better then your first, stop writing or figure out why it isn't any better. If its better, repeat the process. You need to master the craftsmanship of writing first, and you can only do that by writing.

The selling part of it is pure dumb luck. Right manuscript at the right place at the right time, on the right agent or editors desk. You have no control over that. The only thing you can control is the quality of your writing. Focus on that. Figure out why things work, and how. Deconstruct other popular, successful writers, and figure out why people keep coming back. Saying "Dean Koontz isn't a very good writer" is just sour grapes. People like his work. Figure out why. You don't have to write like him, but you're a better writer if can add his tools to your toolchest.

How about advice to aspiring publishers?

Don't. And if you do, start out small. You will always make mistakes. Better to make a mistake and learn your lesson on a project that costs 5K, instead of 20K. Ask questions with everyone. Me, and everyone else out there. We're all happy to help. You will still make mistakes, but hopefully you can avoid the obvious ones, if you talk to enough people. Never do it as a "hobby." It's a business. Have a working business plan. If you lose money every time you sell a book, you will NOT make it up in volume. If you treat it as a hobby, you will eventually fail and when you do so, you will end up screwing customers, and screwing writers who trusted you with their work. Do it right, or don't bother.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Snake Agent, LIz Williams

Light Breaker by Mark Teppo - http://nightshadebooks.com/cart.php?m=search_results&search=teppo

Majestrum by Matt Hughes


Eraserhead Press said...

Great interview. I love Night Shade Books and Jeremy Lassen is a rock star.

Rose O'Keefe
Eraserhead Press

Charles said...

Thanks! Credit goes to Jeremy who's a great interviewee. I also love the Night Shade Books.

banzai cat said...

Great interview indeed. Gotta ask, do you interview him by email or by chat? If by email, I like how natural the questions segue into each other.