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One of Us is Wrong, by Donald Westlake

August 27, 2015

Behind the Music: Felony & Mayhem’s First 10 Years (part 2)

Second part of an interview with Felony & Mayhem publisher Maggie Topkis (you can read the first part here). And, if you’re curious about some of the books mentioned below, you can read the Donald Westlake “Sam Holt” books at a discount this week.

Tell me more about the early covers.

So much of what we did in the early days was defined by having no money and no contacts, and needing to make something work. For the Ganja Coast cover, Margaret, our cover designer, found a great image online. She emailed the photographer, and he sent back this snooty email, saying he only licensed his work to non-profits. So I emailed him and said, look, I promise, we have never made a profit. He agreed to let us use the image.

One of my favorite stories: We published a book by William Marshall called Yellowthread Street. The book is set in Hong Kong, while it was still under British control, and it’s about cops. I knew I wanted a police badge on the cover, but it had to be a badge from the British days, a pre-handover police badge. Margaret found this guy in Norway who was obsessed with police forces. He had a collection of police ephemera from around the world, including several Hong Kong badges from the right period. And yes, he’d be happy to send us a high-resolution image for our cover. What did he want in exchange? Well, it seems there is a book that lists the address of every police station in the United States, a book that is not allowed to be sold outside the U.S. This frustrated him enormously. So we bought a copy of the book, and sent it to him, and he sent us our badge.

Quite a few of our books have covers that feature illustrations, rather than photographs. Donald Westlake’s books, the four he wrote under the name Sam Holt, were among the earliest titles we illustrated. And I know there’s a good story there.

Actually, there are a couple stories about those books. I really wanted Don’s “Dortmunder” series, but Don’s agent, Larry Kirshbaum, wanted to go with a bigger publisher (that was understandable; Felony & Mayhem was roughly the size of a lemonade stand). In the hope that we might begin a relationship (that would go on to embrace the Dortmunders), I wrote to Don, asking if we could publish the Sam Holt books. He said yes. And then I asked if we could publish them under the name Donald Westlake, and he said absolutely not. Hunh? Don explained that he had essentially written the books to win a bet with himself. He had become very successful, as a writer, getting wonderful reviews, and he wanted to know if he could sell books and get good reviews without trading on his name. So he brought the books out as written by “Samuel Holt,” swearing his agent and his initial publisher to secrecy. Ultimately he decided that enough time had gone by that he could allow the secret to come out.

Anthony Kosner had by that point become our art director, and I told him that I wanted pictures of a guy who looked like Magnum P.I. These were 1970s books, the guy should be sexy and happy; he’s got a convertible and a gun and a couple of babes, life is good. Remember, we had no money. So Anthony found an illustrator in Poland who worked cheap. Unfortunately, he kept sending us images of this guy with really hollowed-out cheeks, deep-set eyes, and a pencil mustache. He looked like a Latvian pimp who hadn’t eaten in a long time. I kept sending back emails saying “No, no, happy, happy,” and enclosing images of a grinning Tom Selleck. But we kept getting the guy who looked like he was saying “I will not smile again until my people are free.”

Were you still tiny at this point?

Yes, but tiny is relative. We launched in June 1995, and in October I went to Bouchercon, in Chicago. By the time we registered, all the publishers’ tables were gone, but I was told that a company called Ramble House might be willing to share its table with me. At the time, Ramble House published the work of only one writer, Harry Stephen Keeler, who wrote sort of wacky, hard-boiled stuff in the 30s and 40s, and apparently has a small but passionately devoted audience. We were brand new, we had a grand total of six books to sell, but Ramble House made us look like Simon & Schuster. The publisher, Fender, and I had a lot of time to talk, sitting at this table doing nothing. So I asked him, Who’s your printer? (This is classic publisher small-talk, the equivalent of “What’s your sign?”)

Well, Fender didn’t use a printer. He had a copy machine at home, and a paper cutter, and he wound run off copies of the books on the copy machine, use the paper cutter to trim them, and then (he was very proud of this), he had developed his own recipe for glue, which he would boil up in one of his wife’s saucepans. His wife had gotten very annoyed at this, so he had finally bought his own saucepan. Anyway, he would glue the pages together, and iron on the cover, using his wife’s iron, but she got tired of this, too, since glue always got on the iron, so she made him buy his own book-ironing iron.

We were not exactly boiling up our own glue. We did in fact have an actual printer – Sterling Pierce, which I had found through the small-press book fair. But the pre-print process was not exactly high-tech. Xerox had come out with a new machine, a souped-up copier that had a footprint the size of two shoeboxes. That was good, because my office was the size of four shoeboxes. With just a click of a button, you could scan a page and copy it, and turn it into a Word or PDF document. This was revolutionary. I would pull apart an old edition of a book, turn it into a badly OCR’d Word document. Someone would proofread that document, we would typeset the proofread copy, someone else would proofread the typeset version, and then we would send that proof to a fellow named Dan Smullyan, an old friend of Donna Miller’s who has for years acted as our final set of eyes.

Astonishingly, the process has remained similar to this day, except that we don’t do our own scanning anymore, and we’ve switched from Quark to InDesign. But still, because we are dealing with reprints of, often, fairly old books, OCR is the only method we’ve come up with for extracting the text. As a technique, it’s clunky and almost comically old-school, but…it’s what we’ve got. And as dopey as it may be, it’s a technique we’ve used to put out more than 300 books.

To be continued

 

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