Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Interview: Jason Sizemore

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

A young writer and editor from Appalachia Kentucky, Jason Sizemore has seen his fiction appear in nearly two dozen books and magazines. He’s a prolific non-fiction writer, having dozens of essays, reviews, and editorials published in print and on the web on varied subjects such as gaming, geek culture, and politics. He earned his college degree from Transylvania University, making him an ideal candidate to head a horror magazine. He was a 2006 Stoker Award nominee for his work on the Aegri Somnia anthology.

In 2007, he published his first chapbook (under the newly formed APEX BOOKS division of Apex Publications) titled Webs of Discord. He has a second anthology titled Gratia Placenti that he is producing with co-editor Gill Ainsworth.

Hi Jason! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get into science fiction and horror?

It’s all my pleasure, Charles.

I blame my mommy for making me into a genre (especially horror) geek. My dad was a coal miner and often worked 18 hour days. This meant a lot of mother/son time and movies—especially on Friday nights. So one Friday evening she puts The Exorcist into the VCR and proceeds to scare the hell out of me. Right around the crucifix-masturbation scene, she tells me solemnly to be a good boy, or something like that could happen to me. I was raised as a ‘The Rapture Can Happen Any Day’ Baptists, so you can imagine how this freaked me out.

Weird thing, I liked the feeling.

We went on to have many lovely Friday nights with Carpenter’s The Thing, Return of the Living Dead (they nuke Louisville!), Day of the Dead, and so on.

When did you know you wanted to be a publisher?

Reflecting back on the decision, I think I’ve finally gotten a real answer to this question. Let’s say I had an early mid-life crisis. I’d just turned 30, working in a dead-end software development job for city government, and I thought “Damn, there’s got to be something more interesting than this.”

Out of that sorry line of thought sprung Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest.

And here we are five years later and I still am working in a dead-end software development job (for the state), but the publishing is fun, dynamic, and constantly interesting so it keeps me sane.

As a publisher, how involved are you with the day-to-day workings of Apex Book Company and what does that entail?

I’m sad to report that Apex Book Company has not grown to the point to where I can sit back at a desk with one of those big, fat Cuban cigars and say “Paeans make it happen.” My hands are in every aspect at this stage—from start to finish.

Sometimes I make a unilateral decision to publish a book, and other times it is the decision of my senior editor, Deb Taber. The next step is my least favorite part: the negotiation song-and-dance with the author. I like to make my offer and say “This is it, take it or leave it,” but, of course, that’s not polite and rather unprofessional, so there are always a lot of tweaks to contracts and such. One of my imperatives during the publication process is to make it a pleasant experience for the author since so many small press experiences are terrible.

After that, I work with Deb and the author to decide on cover art. Deb oversees the manuscript edits with the author. Digital proofs are produced to give our copyeditor and the author a last chance to make corrections (I do the book layout and design).

Review copies are sent out. I print the book. A check is cut to the author for the advance.

Then people buy the book and I sit back at my desk with a big, fat Cuban cigar and count my money.

Rinse and repeat. It’s all the stuff I didn’t describe that makes it fun. Sorry about that.

What made you decide to transition from running a magazine to setting up an entire publishing company?

Frankly, I became disgruntled with the magazine business model, in particular, the distribution model. The distribution companies (and to some degree, the wholesalers) have a wonderful racket going on. I think the magazine publishers (finally) standing up to Media Solutions recently attest to the one-sidedness of the business. That was a bold move because the distributors can break your back by simply not shipping your product.

The other side of the coin had to do with the sense of impending doom of most print magazines. I didn’t want to be left for dead when the market collapses.

Other things happened… an author buddy convinced me to do a couple of books. I found I really enjoyed producing and selling them. We use Lightning Source (a POD company) to print our books and since Ingram owns Lightning Source, we get Ingram distribution. I found this to be an appealing business model for a small press.

Let me tell you, it is much easier to make a profit this way than trying to produce magazines and have them distributed.

How did running a magazine prepare you for running the Apex Book Company? What are the similarities and differences?

I’m almost afraid to admit this, but one thing I wasn’t prepared for was dealing with the distribution/wholesale side of publishing. Book distribution is much the same as magazine distribution, so it allowed me to make informed decisions in terms of what I wanted to do with the books.

Also, the magazine was my first small business. I learned much about running a business, as far as that goes.

What's the biggest challenge in running the business so far?

Finding the time is always a struggle. My mind is always thinking of grandiose schemes that make me snap my fingers and say “Man, if I only had the time!”

I’m also not a social butterfly. At times, it is a challenge for me to find the energy to get over my shy nature. I’m doing my first Guest of Honor stint at Context 22 this year and I am scared to death about it.

What sets you apart from the other presses out there?

We make no secret about our plans for Global Domination.

Beyond that, I have a great sense of pride in the Apex editor team. Deb Taber, our book publishing senior editor, is one of the best editors I’ve worked with, if not the best. Gill Ainsworth, our digital magazine editor has an amazing eye for new talent. Mari Adkins dedication is something I’m grateful for every day. All our editors love Apex and their enthusiasm for the company transfers to me and our authors. This leads to great product.

Can I ask how you're currently faring as a business? What's the average print-run of one of your books? How many books are you planning to release in a year?

The slow economy has really made things tough these past few months. I can only give so much plasma for money, ya know?

We plan to release twelve books a year.

Since we use a POD, we don’t have a traditional print run model. We sign an author for two years and sell the hell out of their book during that time.

Can I ask what's been the most profitable endeavor so far: the magazine, the books, or the miscellaneous merchandise?

The magazine always just broke even. The books started out strong, but the last few months have seen a sharp decline in sales. The merchandise only makes up about .5% of our sales, so that’s essentially a non-factor.

How do you decide which books to publish?

Asides from the usual things, such as book marketability, quality of the work and the state of the business, there are a couple of extra factors that influence me to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’

I want to work with professionals.

I want to work with writers who are upstanding individuals. If you’re the type that likes to go on message boards and run your mouth at people for lame reasons, then don’t bother me.

I like to work with people who have an understanding of what it takes to succeed in the small press. For example, if you’re an author who believes they’re above marketing their own materials, then don’t bother me.

What are some of the books that you'll be releasing this year?

2009 is shaping up to be an amazing year in terms of quality for Apex. I don’t just say that because I’m the publisher, but because I’m truly impressed with the books I’ve been given the opportunity to publish.

In April, we release books two and three in our novella series (The Convent of the Pure by Sara M. Harvey and Open Your Eyes by Paul Jessup). July, we’re publishing book four in our novella series (Prime by Nate Kenyon). In August, we have a collection from horror legend Gene O’Neill called A Taste of the Tenderloin. In September, we’re releasing the Apex World SF collection (edited by Lavie Tidhar). In October is our horror anthology Harlan County Horror (edited by Mari Adkins). In November, we are re-issuing Elizabeth Engstrom’s fabulous double-novella book When Darkness Loves Us/Beauty Is. Finally, we’ll be printing our first yearly Apex Magazine antho (edited by Jason Sizemore and Gill Ainsworth) that will include all the original fiction we publish in our digital zine (Apex Magazine) from June 08-June 09.

What I like about Apex is that you're savvy when it comes to technology: the magazine is online and you have eBooks of your titles. What makes you open to such adaptability?

We have a strong eBook presence. It makes up nearly 10% of our revenues. I’m a geek by nature (software developer, remember?), so I like having an iPod, a personal laptop, and such. This means I have no problems reading off a screen, and as we progress deeper into the digital age, the stigma of reading off a screen should wear off. It would be FOOLISH for a publisher to not reach out to this niche market of digital reading fans, because sooner than you might expect, they’ll be in the majority.

Do you have plans of expanding Apex in the future?

I want Apex to be my bread and butter--for the company to put food on my table, gambling money in my pockets. So, yeah, I have big plans. I realize this is five…ten years in the future, but I’m going to make it happen.

How has running the company helped/hindered your writing?

To quote an obsessive-compulsive fictional detective: It’s a blessing…and a curse. Reading so much slush gives you an idea of what NOT TO DO when writing. Dealing with highly skilled authors teaches you some of the tricks of the writing trade. Working with editors like Deb Taber and Gill Ainsworth shows you what an editor expects of a writer.

In short, my writing has improved…a lot.

But remember way back at the beginning of the interview, where I mentioned a little thing called ‘time?’ Well, there is a severe lack of it, so I only write when it’s something for Apex or when I’m invited into a project.

Any other projects you're currently working on?

I have a collection of hillbilly horror stories I’ve had published over the years that I’ve been marketing off and on. Anybody interested?

If you could travel back in time five years ago, what advice would you give yourself?

“Mr. Sizemore, when a giant of a man approaches you at Context 21 with a jug of blue fluid in a cooler, do not, I REPEAT, do not accept any. You’ll save yourself much shame.”

Any advice for aspiring publishers?

Please, I implore you, have a business plan. If you’re not serious about the gig, then don’t bother, otherwise, you’re just going to sully the reputation of the small press even further.

Advice for aspiring writers?

Don’t be a jerk. When people like Tom Piccirilli/Gary Braunbeck/Nick Mamatas gives out career advice, listen to them. Don’t listen to your overgrown and unwarranted confidence.

Oh…and lay off the passive voice in your short stories.

Anything else you want to plug?

Phew. I feel like I could use a cigarette at this point.

Well, I encourage everyone to visit our website (http://www.apexbookcompany.com) and check out the amazing amount of free content available: an active blog, a professional paying short fiction e-zine (Apex Magazine), fun links, and more!

Thank you, Charles, for the opportunity. And if there’s anybody left reading this far down, thank you as well!

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