Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Interview: Victoria Blake (Underland Press)

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Victoria Blake is the founder of Underland Press. She used to be the fiction editor for Dark Horse.

Hi! Thanks for giving me this opportunity to interview you. Let's start with Underland Press. Why "Underland" Press?

I needed something sufficiently dark, without using the word “dark.” I had left a job at Dark Horse to start Underland, and, well, I didn’t want the apple falling that close to the tree.

What made you decide to start your own publication?

I love books: reading them, writing them, editing them, producing them. I’d spent my professional life in different parts of the publishing world—magazines, newspapers, books, as a reporter, an editor, an author, a slush pile reader, a copy editor, etc. At some point, I looked around and said, yeah, I can do this.

Why genre books? Are you interested in publishing literary novels in the future?

I can answer that question in a variety of ways. The snob in me is interested in developing this type of writing that some people call new wave fabulism and some people call slipstream and some people call the new weird. This kind of writing falls more under the genre banner than it does under the literary banner. I’m interested in taking the lessons of genre—which have to do with plot and story arc—and combining them with the lessons of literature, which are lessons about character and language. It’s a fascinating area to be in right now.

But the business woman in me knew I needed to do something that had a central vision and a central plan. My mission is to publish “weird, scary, odd, and unsettling fiction.” That mission statement doubles as a marketing plan.

Then there’s the fan boy. That’s the part of me that spent all of Monday reading an old Landsdale book. I loved it. Couldn’t put it down. Loved it! It gave me nightmares. I want to publish what I love.

What are the core values of the company?

To do good work and to do it well. To treat everybody with respect. To learn from everybody I come into contact with. To ask stupid questions. To listen to what the market is telling me, not what I believe the market should say. To say yes before I say no. And to know that I’m going to make mistakes along the way.

What are your current goals? Long term goals?

My current goal is to market and sell Brian Evenson’s remarkable book “Last Days,” and Will Elliott’s incredible debut “The Pilo Family Circus. I’d like to sell out of the first print run and go into a second, making enough of a profit to continue into the next year.

My long term goal is to develop the Underland model into different areas of publishing. I’m hoping to make a life in publishing.

What were some of the difficulties you've run into so far?

Oh, there’s been a lot of them. Just today, my email server decided to go out, leaving me in the dark for five hours. I spent those five hours on the phone to tech support, which was time I would have rather spent doing the 100 other things on my list. Difficulties? Most days have some sort of challenge. Most days, I figure out a way around or over the challenge, while wondering what’s going to happen next.

How long did it take from deciding to set-up Underland Press to finally making its debut?

I left Dark Horse in September. I flew to Germany for the Frankfurt book fair in October. I signed a contract with a distributor in November. December and January are, I discovered, slow months in publishing, so I twiddled my thumbs and felt like a failure during those months. In the spring I started production work on the books, and I began ramping up the marketing materials and the web site. The site launched on June 1, in time for BEA. Once the site launched, it’s been a non-stop sprint. The first two titles come out in February and March. So, that’s a little more than a year from first step to first title.

One problem of independent presses is acquiring a distributor. How did you find a distributor and why did you go with them?

First, I gotta say I love my distributor PGW. I had worked with them while at Dark Horse, but then there was the bankruptcy problem and Dark Horse went back to Diamond and PGW was bought by Perseus. So I already knew them, and knew how good they were. And they knew me enough to want to take a bet on me and on Underland. It was a huge mark of faith, I think, that they signed me on. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be with them, and to be getting the advice, attention, and guidance they so generously give.

What's your current business plan?

My business plan is a 20 page document, with appendices.

How are you planning to integrate the Internet and books?

They’re already integrated. You can buy a physical book online, you can download a digital book online, you can listen to authors read their books, you can write a book, you can comment on a book. Just the fact that you are running this blog, that you’ve sent me questions via email to answer, that I’m answering them on my computer at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and that you’ll post them sometime in the future, all that proves how integrated we all are. I view the internet as a different delivery device for the same drug: fiction.

Can you tell us more about the "wovel"?

A wovel is a web novel. The central idea is that, unlike straight serialized fiction, the readers get to vote on the plot as the book unfolds in real time. It’s like a choose your own adventure story in which the possibilities are infinite.

Every week the author posts an installment with a binary plot branch point at the end. Readers read and vote on what they think should happen. Should the heroine kill her lover? Should the man save himself, or save his child? Voting is open until Thursday, the author writes over the weekend, and a new installment is posted on Monday, just in time for work. The installments are short enough to read in the cubicle. We all want this to be something that’s easily read and easily enjoyed, fiction in which the readers have an actual stake.

The first wovel, by Kealan Patrick Burke, did very, very well. It lasted from June 1 to November 1, with an estimated 4,000 votes cast all told. Not bad for the first time out of the gates. Kealan did an amazing job, and he’s a trooper for taking part in the experiment with me. Jemiah Jefferson’s wovel Firstworld started in November. It’s all a big experiment, and I’m excited to see what happens next.

Could you share with us some of the difficulties you experienced in acquiring and publishing a translated work?

I really didn’t experience any difficulties. There were challenges I had to figure out—like finding a translator, deciding to buy a book I hadn’t read, and negotiating a contract in a different country—but none of these were insurmountable. The companies I’ve worked with have all been spectacular, and the individuals have all been super professional, in addition to being just plain nice.

I’ve got to say, though, that I was a little nervous about receiving the translation. I hadn’t read the book, and I took a chance on what my Dutch-reading friends said and went with it on faith. Then the book arrived, I read it, and I was blown away. It’s called “Chaos,” it’s by a husband-and-wife team called Escober, and if enough copies sell I’ll try to buy the rights for their next three books. It’s not as scary as the Landsdale book, but the pages just fly.

Will you be using offset printing or print-on-demand to print the books? Can I ask what the print run of the books will be?

I’ll be printing my books offset, and I’m not sure what the runs will be yet. The actual run depends on the numbers that come back from my distributor. But, regardless, I know for every book what my break even point is, and I’ve calculated what my print runs need to be from that.

Could you give us a quick run-down of the books that will be coming out?

This is the best part…

First up, we have Brian Evenson’s “Last Days,” a book which started it’s life as an Earthling limited called “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.” It’s a detective story, but it’s also an exploration of what it means to be human. And Brian Evenson is a master storyteller. Really, he’s the best. Peter Straub is writing the intro for this book, which is so so so cool.

A month after “Last Days” hits the shelves, Will Elliott’s “The Pilo Family Circus” comes out. Pilo is a true genre hopper. It won all sorts of awards when it was printed in Australia, both horror awards and literary awards. The book begins with the main character Jamie being kidnapped by a trio of clowns and taken into an otherworldly circus run by a giant of a man who likes to snack on nails. It just gets weirder, and more wonderful, from there. Katherine Dunn is writing the intro for Pilo, which is a perfect match up because of her wonderful book “Geek Love.”

Next up, just in time for summer reading, is the page-turner thriller I wrote about earlier—“Chaos” by a husband and wife duo called Escober. They’re bestselling authors in the Europe, but this is their first time in print in the US, and their first time in American English. I finished editing the translator’s proof of this just last month, and it was incredible. A very fast read, with Escober’s signature blend of action and psychology.

Rounding out the year is Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finch,” the third book set in his Ambergris universe. Finch is a detective story at heart, in which the protagonist is charged with solving an impossible double murder in a time of revolution. The world of Ambergris is very odd and very cool. If you’ve read any of his other Ambergris books, you’ll know what I’m talking about—everything is covered with a living, breathing mold. It’s quite a vision.

Moving on to you, what is it about genre books that appeal to you?

Oh, I love them. I love when something really creeps me out, when something really gets under my skin. I’m not hard to scare, once I buy into a story. The trick with me is to get me to believe in the narrative, and then I’m hooked.

You know, though, I do find my love of the horrific detail sometimes disturbing. I’m not alone in this, I think, but sometimes, when I’m really gunning for a character to get eaten alive, say, I wonder what’s wrong with me.

How did you get your start as a journalist?

People my age came to journalism one of two ways: either they went to school for it, or they hustled. I hustled, and it was very frustrating, and very under paid, and I loved every single story I wrote because I really had to work for it. But you asked how I got started. When I was twenty, I took a year off of school and moved to Bangkok with some romantic idea about writing and sweating and eating great Thai food. What actually happened was that I got very lonely, met a lot of journalists, and ended up writing for tourists magazines. Those clips were enough to get me in the door back at home, once I had my degree. And I just kept hustling.

How did you get hired by Dark Horse?

I copyedited their Star Wars Companion book, which was basically the encyclopedia of all things Star Wars. That was under an editor named Scott Allie. Scott passed me over to Rob Simpson, the prose editor, who needed help with his Vampire Hunter D books. I copyedited those, and, when Rob needed somebody on staff, he hired me. I was, and am, honored by the fact that he chose me. He was a great boss, and he taught me most of what I know about books.

What exactly is it that a prose editor does?

I tend to say “prose editor” instead of just “editor” when talking about Dark Horse because I could have been editing graphic material. But I wasn’t. It was just the prose work—novels, mainly, plus the Playboy interview books. Editing is basically project management. We oversee a book from the time it comes in as a manuscript through the editing and proofing stages into the design and production stages, making sure the distributor has everything they need and the marketing department has everything they need. Different editors have different degrees of decision making when it comes to the titles they choose. So, for instance, I didn’t actually pick any of the books I edited at Dark Horse. I was able, however, to bring authors on to write specific projects—like Jeff VanderMeer’s Predator novel, and Brian Evenson’s Aliens novel. I’m super happy they got to write those.

What are some lessons you've learned during your stay with Dark Horse that's proved to be invaluable in running Underland Press?

I learned that sometimes all you have to do is ask.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I’ve heard prose writing compared to ditch digging, and I believe that comparison to a certain extent. The art and the craft of writing requires some long hours trying to solve a problem that can’t ever be solved. There is a huge amount of joy to be had, if you love the process. So my main piece of advice is to find joy in the process, because that’s all you have.

Other than that, learn your craft lessons. Read books as road maps for what you want to do.

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Be nice. Don’t be afraid. And treat others well.

Anything else you want to plug?

I’ve been really wowed by the community response—how open and warm everybody in the genre community is. So yeah, I want to plug you guys, all of you who have paid attention to what I hope becomes something really, really cool. Thanks, and thanks for asking me on for this interview. This was fun.

1 comment:

Head Noodler said...

We really like what Victoria had to say in this interview. That's why we're looking forward to her presentation at the Arizona Book Publishing Association's annual conference on February 28th in Phoenix. If you want to join us, you can register at http://www.azbookpub.com