THE AWFUL BOOKS INTERVIEW


This is the text of an interview conducted with Larry Roberts, head of Bloodletting Books, beginning April 15, 2007. This will be an ever-expanding section as more questions are asked (and answered). My deepest thanks to Larry for agreeing to this.

AWFUL BOOKS: What's your background and why did you form BLP?

LARRY ROBERTS: I've been a bookseller/bookscout for over twenty years. I've sold many different books over that time period, but the books that I always kept in my collection were small press horror.

My heroes were always publishers. I remember how I used to (and still do) go right to the "Spotlight on Publishing" section in Cemetery Dance magazine. I would be mesmerized by how these guys put out these fine books by some of today's greatest weird fiction authors.

As I got more and more into the business aspect of publishing, I quickly found out that it was a very expensive and risky business. After getting in contact with a few printers and binders, I found that a quality small press hardcover of 500 signed and limited copies would cost me between $8,000 to $12,000.

I didn't have this kind of extra cash sitting around to gamble on a new business, particularly on a business that I'd seen fail so many times with other small presses.

Another love of my life is investing and I had about $4,000 in my stock account prior to BLP, but knew it still wasn't enough for a project. Knowing that the stock market has crazy dips and climbs and knowing that the money I had in my brokerage account was earmarked for my first project, I sold all my stock and kept the cash in my brokerage account and started looking for other ways to raise capital. Then, about three weeks later, 9/11 happened and the stock market took a terrible drop, which, except for my 401(k), was completely in cash...this was nothing but luck. Knowing that the market overreacts to everything, I plunged all that money back into the market on the first day that trading was reopened after the terrorist attacks. The next day I sat on the couch and chewed my fingernails and watched the market continue to drop, so I bought more. I started buying all I could on margin, which means that you're buying stock on borrowed money. I bought until I didn't have another dime to buy with and no one else would loan me any money to buy with. There were some sleepless nights, but the market turned around and shot back up quickly and I ended up more than doubling my money, giving myself enough for my first project and Bloodletting Press was born.

What is your title/position and who else comprises BLP?

I'm the owner and operator. My wife, Debra Roberts, does all the data entry and shipping. We have a lot of other supporters, though, who donate their time to help the press by way of reading manuscripts, proofing, etc.

                                        

You said you've seen a lot of small presses fail over the years. Why did you think you'd succeed where they faltered?

The first thing we did was make sure that we had all the funds in the bank for our first production, Breeder by Douglas Clegg. What this allowed us to do was not have to rely on advance orders and get a name author that would sell because we could pay all the royalties in advance. This made it a lot easier for someone like a Douglas Clegg to take a chance on a brand new, never tested small press.

We also had some great mentors that guided us through the process. Richard Chizmar at Cemetery Dance was instrumental in our early success as was Dave Barnett of Necro Publications.

Some of the small presses out there go into the business thinking that they'll make enough on advance orders to publish the book and this rarely happens for a new press. As soon as they learn that they are going to have to put out thousands of dollars in order to get the book published with the likelihood of not seeing a return on that cash for a year or more it takes the wind out of their sails and they close shop.

Back in 2003 there was a press that started up called DARK VESTER that announced about eight titles and took advance order payments and even lifetime subscriptions and then just disappeared, taking a lot of small press collectors' cash with them. Many seasoned collectors are wiser due to losses like this with new presses. Now, most collectors go through someone like us at Bloodletting Books that doesn't require payment for a book until it actually ships. This way if the press goes under they are not out any money. As a new press, not getting many direct orders can really put a bite in the profits of your first few books. The new press will need to expect to break even at best just to get established.

                                        

As Breeder was your first production, how did that come about? Why did Douglas Clegg agree to be published through you and not another, already established small press?

We knew that we would have to get a high profile author for our first publication if we were going to make a splash in the genre. In order to get these caliber of authors to take a chance on us we made the whole royalty payment up front. In this way, the author didn't have to worry about us going out of business and them not getting paid for the book.

Douglas Clegg and I spent quite a bit of time on the phone and he gave me the opportunity to publish either Breeder or Neverland. As you know, we chose Breeder because it was a bit darker than Neverland. Breeder came out so well that Doug asked us if we would do Neverland, too. And we were more than happy to publish it as well.

In the beginning, I'm assuming you had to pursue authors. Now that BLP has been around for several years and you've proven yourself within the industry, do authors now seek you out? If so, how do you choose who you'll publish and who must be rejected?

When we first started out we were open to submissions. However, after a couple of years in the business, we had more manuscripts than five people could read in a year, so we had to close our press to open submissions. We are presently booked up through 2008 and into the first quarter of 2009. There is a lot of talent out there and I really wish that we could put out more books a year, but it's just not possible at this point without taking on staff and we're just not prepared to do that yet.

                                        

The vast majority of small presses produce traditional cloth slipcases and cloth and leather(ette) traycases. What led you to offer metal slip and traycases and why did you think they'd be appealing? Were you ever concerned metal might be rejected by the collecting public?

Dave Stucky contacted me and asked me to come down to his manufacturing facility in the Bay Area here in California. I drove down and he showed me some examples of what was possible with metal fabrication. After seeing his prototypes, we felt that the metal traycases would make a splash in the genre and happily it did.

Has BLP produced metal slip and traycases for other publishing houses? If so, how did that arrangement come about?

We've never made any metal traycases for other presses; this was all Dave Stucky, the owner of Imagination Metal. He chose Bloodletting Books first because he loved our books and we were in the area. He later expanded with other presses.

(Editor's note - I asked this question because other small presses are beginning to jump onto the metal traycase bandwagon. I wanted Larry to clarify if his company was being contracted to produce these traycases or if they were being commissioned in some other way.)

BLP's business is split into not one, but two operations - publishing and a resell point for other presses. This is very uncommon within the industry. Why did you choose to engage in both and not just one or the other?

I've sold books for many years and it was a natural progression for us. However, the main driving force for us to sell other small press books was to support the genre and bring more brand recognition to Bloodletting Press. Both the press and the bookstore has grown every year that we've been in business and for that we are very thankful to our customers because, without their support and friendship, it would never be possible for this business to stay afloat.

Matthew Schwartz, founder of Shocklines, arguably the web's biggest small press e-tailer, announced on June 7, 2007 that he was closing shop. Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Books, another large e-tailer, ceased ordering new stock as of March of 2007 and is in the process of fulfilling prior order commitments and clearing his existing inventory. Does this concern you, since a major portion of BLP is the bookstore?

As with all similar businesses there will be some consolidation over time. Both Shocklines and Clarkesworld Books were run by great folks who had a true love for the genre. We wish both Matt and Neil well in their new endeavors and hope that Bloodletting Books will be given the opportunity to service some of their customers in the future.

                                        

Does the current state of the horror market concern you? Do you see any troubles on the horizon?

As with all businesses they go through slowdowns and I believe that the small press horror genre is going to go through a slowdown, as well. I see trouble for some of the small and new presses, but the small presses that have been in the business for a while should do just fine. It really depends on how the small press owners are running their business. In most cases, the small presses with the deepest coffers will last the longest and begin to take more market share away from the others genre presses - in other words, we will be seeing a lot more consolidation within the genre. This will be good for some and a quick death for others.

If horror were to take a serious sales downturn, would you consider branching out into other genres, like science fiction, fantasy, and/or mystery?

If you're talking about the possibility of publishing in other genres, the answer is no. I just don't like reading much in many of the other genres, so I would have a hard time publishing and promoting them. If you're talking about the bookstore, then we may branch out into some other areas, but only those areas that our general small press horror customers want us to. We are never going to be a Borders. We are successful because we have a market niche. For example, if Barnes & Noble started carrying small press horror in their stores, we would likely be out of the bookselling business pretty quickly. Much like Home Depot did to the family run hardware stores.

If eBay is to be viewed as an accurate portrayal of the secondary market, collectible books, as whole, seem to be in jeopardy, with titles reselling for a small fraction of their original MSRPs. Do you think the primary market can survive at current retail levels?

I don’t see eBay as being a good indicator of the collectible book market because it’s way too sporadic and unpredictable of a yardstick. Just last week I had a book go for $42 that had a cover price of $25 and then a week later I put up the same book and it went for $22. eBay is impulse buying at its best. Just as a person wouldn't judge the cost of a DVD they buy at their local flea market as the new retail price for their future DVD purchases.

Another issue that you have with eBay is that you are dealing with many inexperienced booksellers. Many who do not know how to grade a book properly, ship a book, or even how to ensure that the books they are selling is a first edition. If you are going to purchase in this type of market, then you would expect a steep discount for your risk and they can often be found there. I've also read a recent report that stated that nearly 50% of the Stephen King signatures on eBay are forgeries. With eBay it's Caveat Emptor.

However, the one thing that eBay has done is expose the number of rare books that are truly out there in the marketplace and I believe that this, more than anything, has caused some prices to drop. Ten years ago you had to purchase most of your books out of catalogs sent in the mail by dealers. If you saw something come up for sale in these catalogs, you had to grab it because you may not see it again for years. Today on eBay, you'll likely only have to wait months and even then you may have a couple to choose from. For me as a bookseller and collector, I prefer to have a relationship with the genre booksellers that I do business with. I can honestly say that the amount of knowledge and deals that I've received through this type of networking has been far more profitable for me than any eBay auction.

From which publishers (if any) do you draw inspiration? Which books do you wish you had had a chance to publish, either in numbered or lettered form?

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Charnel House limited and lettered editions. In fact, I have every limited edition charnel has published with matching numbers; they are exotic beauties each and every one. For readability, Cemetery Dance's books are very well produced with large fonts and attractive layout. I’ve seen several presses that use too small a font in an effort to lower page count and printing costs, but at least for me, too small a font makes the book a chore to read. I also really like both Necessary Evil and Delirium's books. Both Don Koish and Shane Staley are excellent publishers and very good friends of mine and you can never go wrong purchasing one of their books.

As for books I wish I could have published, The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum would be at the top of my list, the limited edition of The Shining by Stephen King would have been really cool as well, and third The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.