Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Interview: Peter Crowther

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Peter Crowther is the publisher of PS Publishing. He's the author of the Forever Twilight series, co-author (with James Lovegrove) of Escardy Gap, and author of the 'Luddersedge', 'Land at the End of the Working Day' and 'Koko Tate' short story series. Several of his 100-plus stories have been optioned or adapted for both big and small screen.

What made you decide to set up your own publishing company?

I’d always hankered to do a magazine – something along the lines of F&SF, which I’ve bought ever since I was barely in my teens. I made a couple of early attempts – and I’m talking way back here . . . around the early 1970s – at producing a template and getting costings, but I wasn’t convinced that anyone would buy it. Plus I was also trying to break into writing myself and I was holding down a demanding day-job and, in 1977, helping my wife raise our family.

Then, when I’d had a measure of success as a reviewer and an interviewer – plus I’d gotten a few stories under my belt which had been pretty well received – and I was thinking again about doing my own magazine, But as I started investigating the possibilities, I spotted a gap in the marketplace: novellas done as regular standalone books.

I pitched the idea to my good friend Simon Conway – for whose Editorial Services company I was working at the time as a consultant – because Simon had the necessary equipment. Thus PS – Peter and Simon – was born. When Simon moved to the US in 2001, I took over the company completely. The rest, as they say, is history.

What's the biggest challenge in running PS Publishing?

Oh . . . the fact that there’s just not enough time, I suppose. It intrudes massively on any attempts I make to keep up with my own writing. But we’re now slowly getting out from under – thanks to a lot of hard work put in by my wife Nicky, Nick Gevers and Robert Wexler – and I’m now being able to write a little almost every day.

You've certainly proved that publishing novellas can be profitable. In your opinion, why do you think the mainstream publishers aren't so keen on publishing novellas? Is there a special business model that you employ to make it a successful endeavor?

I think it would be very difficult for mainstream publishers to make a profit on standalone novellas because they couldn’t put a price on the books that would persuade high street and mall shoppers to part with their money. We make it work because (a) we do them in limited runs – always fewer than one thousand copies, split into two editions – so there’s a “collectable” element; and (b) we sell them only through specialist bookstores and dealers or through our website. Obviously, we prefer it when people buy our books through the website – ie. direct from us – because we don’t have to discount. But the fact is that the specialist dealers and bookstores have helped us immensely over our first decade and it’s fair to say that, without them and their support, we wouldn’t be where we are now. That’s why we make sure we maintain our support of them, particularly in these fairly turbulent times. By that I mean we don’t hold off from letting them have supplies of what promises to be a ‘big’ book – and I mean ‘big’ in terms of ‘financial gain’ – even though we could shift all the copies ourselves . . . because we rely on the specialist outlets to take copies of less-lucrative titles, albeit in smaller quantities, of course. What pisses me off royally is when some outlet that has never carried any of our books suddenly gets in touch asking for large quantities of a new title by a Big name.

What are some of your favorite novellas, whether it's published by PS Publishing or not?

I’m not going to single out any PS novella because I love them all – after all, I put money behind them and that should speak volumes. Outside of PS, I loved Connie Willis’s ‘The Winds From Marble Arch’, Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Needing Ghosts’, Stephen King’s ‘Hearts In Atlantis’ (not the whole book, just that one novella . . . for which he should have received the Pulitzer), Ed Gorman’s ‘Moonchasers’, Peter Straub’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and so on.

Now that we’re safely over into a new year, what product that you released during 2008 are you most proud of or excited to see?

Crikey, that’s a tough one. They’re all special to us . . . but I guess I was particularly pleased with our Bradbury books – the two-book The Day It Rained Forever set and the three-book gift set.

What can we expect from PS Publishing in 2009? Are there any new authors we should be expecting?

Check the website! We’ve got stacks of stuff coming along.

Of the new authors, well . . . I just have to mention Rio Youers. Rio wrote to me out of the blue with a novella titled Old Man Scratch. We were not considering unsolicited material at that time but there was something about his letter that made me give it a look. I loved it and I sent it to Nick Gevers for a second opinion. He loved it too. So I bought it.

Then Rio happened to mention that he had finished a novel so, against my better judgement, I asked him to send it along. I loved it and I sent it to Nick Gevers for a second opinion. He loved it too. So I bought it.

At that stage, I figured we should really have a story from him . . . something we could put into Postscripts that would segue into the novella which, in turn, would then segue into the novel. He said he had two and I asked him to send them. One was fine but the other was wonderful. I sent it to Nick Gevers for a second opinion. He felt the same way about it. So I bought it.

Since then, we’ve bought a second story from Rio, ‘Alice Bleeding’. Believe me, he’s one to watch.

As publisher, what exactly is it that you do or how involved are you with each project?

I pick the full-length projects and short stories we accept and I pick the authors we approach . . . on both counts with Nick Gevers. I’m fully involved with everything we do. In addition, I try to maintain a balance across all of our genres – Fantasy, Horror and SF. With Nicky (and Nick again), I give input to choosing a cover artist (or, occasionally, an existing artwork piece); and with our senior designer (Robert Wexler) I give input to the way each book looks, with that input often being disseminated to other designers. With our advertising and PR guy (Paul Raven) I help to prepare newsletters and send out review materials; and with Mike Smith, our new webguy, I give input and comments on our website. Meanwhile, again with Nicky and Nick, I liase with authors and agents, and other publishers with regard to new materials, and with dealers, bookstores and reviewers on sending out books. Nicky handles invoice-chasing and, with some involvement from me, dealing with customers on orders and queries. The two of us also deal with our storage depot – maintaining a working supply of all titles here at the office – and with our packers, our packing materials suppliers and with the post office and other freight carriers.

What made you decide to create Postscripts?

As I said, I always wanted to do a magazine so the only real surprise is it took me more than four years of full-blown PS operations to fulfil my dream.

What's the biggest challenge in editing the magazine?

I think that has to be the signing sheets. We’ve not managed to lose any yet but we’ve come close.

What were the qualities of Nick Gevers that finally made you decide he was going to be your editor for Postscripts?

Nick has a wealth of knowledge not only of our own field – particularly SF – but also of literature in general, plus he is a first-rate reviewer/critic (as anyone who ever read any of his columns in Locus magazine will surely confirm) and a top-notch line- and content-editor –cum-proofreader, sympathetic to an author’s style while equally keen to ensure consistency and accuracy. I first worked with him when we did the two anthology volumes of material originally published on Keith Brooke’s infinity plus website and, shortly afterwards, I asked him to join the team. Thank goodness he said yes.

What's the division of labor between you two when it comes to producing the magazine?

We both pick stories we like from what comes in and then we send those on to the other. So long as the other agrees then the story gets picked. In other words, both of us like every single story and book that we put out. Sure, we may have our favorites, but we like them all.

Based on your own experiences, how does one become an editor of anthologies?

Here’s how it happened for me. (Long answer warning: now might be a good time to put the kettle on or take a bathroom break. Pete)

I was at a FantasyCon – it was 1988, I think – and Andy Richards (of Cold Tonnage Books) called me over. At the time, I was one of Andy’s biggest customers, with a monthly payment that would make your eyes pop . . . and that’s now, so imagine what it was like 20 years ago.

It had been suggested to Andy by a US small press publisher, that he (Andy) might like to have a crack at editing an anthology of new horror stories for the small press imprint. Andy said he’d give it some thought but, in the end, decided I would be a better choice. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate. I charged around the convention collaring all the authors – most of whom I’d interviewed for one mag or another – and, bless ‘em all, they agreed without exception to do me a story.

On the way home, I chatted with Nicky in the car about a possible theme. When we pulled in on the motorway, Nicky noticed a big coffee-table-type book for sale in the convenience store . . . on superstitions. She bought it and presented it to me when we were back in the car. “How about this as a theme?” she said. What a girl, eh?

When we got home, I went through the book trying to find a focal point – sure, we had the basic theme, but I wanted a title. I turned a page and saw an entry about coffins being considered narrow houses for the dead . . . and that was it: Narrow Houses was born.

I got in touch with all of the potential contributors to let them know the theme – and now the title as well – and got in touch with the small press concerned. Alas, they were a little hesitant about the whole thing and so, perfectly amicably, I was left without a publisher. But, undaunted, I soldiered on, shlepping the idea around Publishers’ Row all the while writing to authors whose work I admired to get a new story from them. Bear in mind, that I had absolutely no spare money to pay for these stories: I had talked this through with Nicky and she was fully supportive of our getting out some kind of loan (heh . . . loans: remember them?) and so I cracked on.

I had some nice rejection letters but nobody was interested. Don’t forget that nobody knew who the heck I was in those days: I’d had a few interviews and lots of book reviews published, plus a few stories in obscure small-press mags in the 1970s, so I wasn’t a household name by any stretch of the imagination. But then Rob Holdstock suggested I try John Jarrold at Macdonald . . . and I did.

After seeing the pitch document, John called me and asked me down to London for a meeting and at the end of it, he said he intended to put the project forward for consideration. To cut a long story short, it got the green light. . . . and not just one volume but two – Narrow Houses and Touch Wood.

There followed a fairly angst-ridden time when Robert Maxwell, owner of Macdonald, died in suspicious circumstances and Macdonald’s future – as well as that of my superstitions anthology project! – was doubtful but, thankfully, Little, Brown stepped in and bought the company and the powers that be re-affirmed interest in my books.

There’s a little postscript to all this that you may find interesting.

My commissioning letter to possible contributors outlined various ideas for stories, one of which (which I’d entitled ‘Break A Leg’) was aimed at Ray Bradbury. One author – James Lovegrove, whom I’d met at a party at Mark Morris’s house and whose novel The Hope I had thoroughly enjoyed, dropped me a line to say he’d try me with something . . . and then commented on ‘Break A Leg’: “Sounds very Bradbury-esque,” James said. I explained that I had written it expressly to entice Ray and, when he heard that Ray was not going to do the story, James expressed disappointment. “What a shame – just think . . . he’d have done such and such,” he said. I responded equally enthusiastically with, “Yeah, and this and that,” and the conversation carried on like that for a few minutes until one of us – no idea whom – said, “You know . . . we should write this, together.” And so we did, with me kicking it off with a couple thousand words and then James adding a couple thou more and so on. About one year – and some 170,000 words – later, Escardy Gap crossed the finishing line.

So there you go.

Three further postscripts: (1) John Jarrold, a giant amongst men, is now my agent; (2) John, then recently decamped from Macdonald/Little, Brown [UK] to Simon & Schuster, bought the UK rights to Escardy Gap for his new Earthlight imprint; and (3) Escardy Gap was voted # 35 in SFX magazine’s reader poll for the 50 best books of all time (issue # 63 April 2000) . . . above Shelley’s Frankenstein, Asimov’s I, Robot, Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Bester’s Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, Miller’s A Canticle For Liebowitz . . . Hey, don’t blame me, okay! I didn’t vote for it!

That’s a good point to talk some more about your own fiction. How did Subterranean end up publishing your short story collection The Spaces Between the Lines? When did you know it was time for you to release a short story collection?

Spaces was my fourth collection – the first was The Longest Single Note, then came Lonesome Roads, and then Cold Comforts (a CDRom-only collection). My fifth collection, published last year, was The Land at the End of the Working Day.

It was originally down to be published by Rich Chizmar’s CD Books, which published Single Note, but Rich was so up-to-his-ears with stuff – the books, the mag, the comic and his TV/movie work – that I suggested I move it to Bill Schafer’s press, for whom I’ve got a lot of time. Rich and Bill are two of the best guys in the business and their imprints have been and continue to be a huge inspiration to me and PS. He was fine with that – relieved, probably – and so we went ahead and Bill put it out. We’ve done the same thing with the second and third volumes in my Forever Twilight SF/horror cycle which Bill will be doing over the next couple of years (and yes, they’re both written!). And considering the length of time that Tim Lebbon and I have been taking with Into The Wild Green Yonder – all my fault, I have to point out here . . . nothing to do with Tim – Rich suggested we remove that as well. Thus Yonder is now back with me and standing at around 40,000 words.

As for when did I know it was time to put out a collection, well . . . I like to try have a book of my own out every year: simple as that. Bill has taken my next collection as well – Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew . . . a very Bradbury-esque collection, to use James Lovegrove’s word. That should come out in 2010, along with Twilight book 3. Twilight book 2 should be later this year.

Between running PS Publishing and Postscripts, how do you manage to find the time to write and do everything else that you do? What's your writing process like?

Not as good as it should be. As I said earlier, PS takes up a lot of time but it isn’t just the time element. It’s the fact that there are so many things to be thinking about. There’s all too often just no space in my brain to start layering and planning a story or, even worse, a novel. But things are improving.

How has your previous journalism experience aided you, whether running PS Publishing or honing your craft as an editor and writer?

I guess it hasn’t done it any harm . . . but I don’t really feel it’s helped significantly. It helped with the interviews, of course. Talking to Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury or Robert B. Parker about their fiction is a long way from talking to the boss of British Airways or British Telecom but it is akin to talking with Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa and Cliff Richard about their music. It’s the actual process and the technique, both of which I guess I pretty much mastered during my journalist days. We should always try to transfer experiences from one area to another.

Is there any chance that we'll see PS Publishing books outside of the UK in the future?

I’m not really sure how to answer that. The world is a small place these days and I feel that PS is already a global player. Sure, we don’t have a US distributor as such but people can order direct from our website, and orders are sent on a weekly basis. Plus all pre-orders are now post-free. And in addition to our eight British Fantasy Awards, we’ve picked up two World Fantasy Awards, a Horror Writers Association Award and a Locus Award – not to mention all the international Awards that our various titles and authors have picked up – so we’re already fairly well known across the Atlantic.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

Read every day and write every day. And master your craft on short stories before you tackle a novel.

Advice for aspiring publishers?

Move your offices from expensive rent-areas and spend the resulting savings on buying more projects and re-building the mid-list with advertising and promotions.

Anything else you want to plug?

Just books. Buy more. Doesn’t matter whether they’re PS books – though it helps! – so long as you’re buying books!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the best interviews I've read in a long time. Peter's passion for the book business is wonderful and what he does at PS Publishing is nothing short of amazing. They consistently month after month put out great speculative fiction titles.

Great interview, I'm going to have to reread it again when I have a little more time.

Loved his line:

(heh . . . loans: remember them?)