Contrappasso Extra: Print-On-Demand and the Future of Independent Publishing 2

[The following interview feature by Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey was originally published at www.PopMatters.com. This is Part 2, published on 14 July 2011. Be sure to visit the Altus Press website.]

A Conversation with Matthew Moring

Matthew Moring is the founder of Altus Press, active since 2006. Altus focuses on dazzling reprints of vintage pulp and ‘Lost Race’ stories, pulp histories, and contemporary pulp writing. Moring has presided over the publication of more than sixty titles including The Strange Adventures of the Purple Scar by John S. Endicott, The Man in Purple by Johnston McNully, and William Bogart’s Hell On Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy.

I began by asking Matthew Moring about his experience in publishing and design …

* * *

I’ve been a designer my entire professional career. Although I have a degree in studio art, I’ve concentrated on web design and development since college. On occasion I’ve had the chance to draw and illustrate for companies such as Marvel, DC, Disney and Pearson. Still, I’ve always had the publishing drive and I enjoy any opportunity that gives me the chance to create something, like a solid-looking book. Print-on-Demand makes this possible.

How did Altus Press begin? And why take the print-on-demand approach?

Once POD technology was affordable, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the technology. I’d considered publishing material prior, but one thing I didn’t want was a basement full of unsold books. This was certainly the prospect which faced me had I resigned myself to printing up, say, 500 copies of an esoteric pulp reprint.

Lulu.com was the first POD house that made the process easy. However, just having access to an online printer wasn’t all that was needed. A quality website, a marketing plan and a plan of steady releases were a must.

What kind of writing does Altus republish?

We concentrate on material which appeared in pulp magazines, generally from 1915-50. It’s fiction from a variety of genres, the best-remembered being adventure, detective, and hero (Doc Savage, The Shadow) titles.

Is the material reprinted by Altus Press commercially viable for a traditional publishing house?

I’ve always said that I publish the books I’d like to have on my own bookshelf. Happily, most titles do well, but I also try to publish a handful of pet projects that, while they might not sell hundreds of units, simply need to exist due to their perceived importance.

Can you tell me how you became interested in pulp fiction?

Certainly it’s an extension of being a comic book fan. I think it’s a natural extension to learn and read about what the early comic pioneers were reading at the time. I believe I encountered Bantam’s Doc Savage paperbacks in used book stores, and that’s where the interest grew from.

What is the contemporary audience for these stories?

It’s a good question. I wish I had a definite answer, as it would assist greatly with marketing. I think many people are collectors, and they like the idea of having all of a certain series collected between two covers. Others I think have “grown up” from comics … $3.99 for the five-minute read of today’s comics pales in comparison to the entertainment found in the prose we reprint. And, of course, there are fans who have collected pulps from the 1950s and up and want to support the hobby. I’m grateful to all types of customers.

What is your approach to finding, compiling, and editing the material? I’m interested in how you use public domain material as well as your approach to licensing material from authors’ estates.

There are many series which I’ve planned out for reprinting, and I typically include several installments of a series in a single book of about 300-400 pages. These are all in their original order and uncut from the original pulps. Many series are tougher to find than others, and thus some collections have been in limbo for years as I search for that one elusive story here or there.

Working with public domain material is great, as I generally can do what I want with the packages. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to work from surviving manuscripts, which allows us to restore cut material that’s never seen the light of day. Yes, manuscripts of this material occasionally do survive! We did this with Harold Ward’s Doctor Death series and Lester Dent’s The Weird Adventures of The Blond Adder; for the Dent material, we utilized elements from three different drafts of one story to comprise a single “final” version!

One thing we do that other reprint publishers typically don’t do is pay the estates—when they can be located—a royalty, even though we don’t need to. It’s still a nice thing to do, and it generates goodwill.

We do a fair share of material that’s copyright-controlled. Sometimes agreements come together very quickly, while others take months. No matter what, I try to make sure to really put out a top-notch product for these, as I want make the property owners happy that they allowed me handling their stories.

Why has so much mid-century pulp writing fallen into the public domain?

There’s a lot in the public domain since many companies saw little value in the material at the time. After all, it was just throwaway literature for many.

Which pulp authors are most deserving of a critical re-assessment?

There are several authors who’ve seen their more popular works reprinted many times over, such as Norvell Page and Lester Dent. But in some cases, there are many lesser-known works by these authors that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, or never at all. So we’ve tried to create some interesting collections by both of these writers that haven’t seen publication (or republication) before.

Lately, I’ve been exploring the works of popular writers of the genre that haven’t been reprinted much—or at all—before. Among them are Frederick C. Davis, who today is best-known for his stories of Operator #5. But he wrote scores of high-quality detective stories which have been out of print for 70-80 years. Ted Tinsley, one of the alternate writers of The Shadow in the 1930s wrote several other well-respected series. We’re collecting a few of them, complete. And the one I’m looking forward to the most is Frederick Nebel, one of the best hard-boiled writers of his time. Very little of his material has been reprinted, and we’ll be putting out a complete collection of his best series, Cardigan, hopefully by the end of the year. It’s a 44-story series about a P.I. and they’re a great read, even though it totals about half a million words! There was a paperback collection of six of the stories in the 80s, but there haven’t been any other significant reprints of the series. It should be a must-own for fans of Chandler and Hammett.

How did the writer and pulp scholar Will Murray get involved?

While I wanted to make my releases look good, I wanted to make sure they were a solid purchase for the price. As great as POD is, it’s still more expensive for customers than traditional books. So while I can’t control basic printing costs, the least I can do is offer as much value for their dollar as possible.

Enter Will, who’s supplied introductions for many of my books. Before I started my reprints, I don’t believe any POD reprint publishers were consistently including intros or new material to augment their collections. Now, I think it’s expected.

Not only has Will written intros, but he’s also been a great asset in terms of pitching ideas to him for collections. He’s made the books much stronger products. And Will’s not the only one; Tom Johnson, the long-time editor of the fanzine Echoes, has been completely generous with his time and knowledge. And he’s even written several new stories for my publications as well.

Altus Press titles are possibly the best-looking POD titles out there—beautiful covers, outstanding digital typesetting and interior design. Your books really show what is possible with POD. Can you tell me what software and techniques you use to design a new book?

Thanks very much for the compliment. Many times the design depends of the quality of the source material I have to work with … very often, art is of too poor quality to utilize. But in these cases, I generally find a way to come through with a presentable design, many times through the graciousness of other pulp collectors who supply scans, etc., to work with.

I use the industry standards—Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign—to cobble the books together. I appreciate the notice of the typography; it’s one of those things you don’t notice until you see it done poorly—so poorly that it’s to the detriment of your reading

enjoyment. I’ve had to put books back that have suffered from this. I’ll try reading those books, only to become distracted by the poor layouts.

Typography is the basic building block of good design. I’m really amazed at how often it’s overlooked, as it’ll really make or break a design. I try to be conservative when it comes to type, and to only use typefaces which were used by pulp publishers at the time, or of the flavor of those original fonts, and I generally avoid any popular fonts which didn’t exist at the time these stories were originally published. It makes for a more authentic-looking design.

Can you tell I like typography? If I could throw out a tip when working on an interior and exterior design, it’s to consider your type choices carefully. Once you do that, a lot of the rest of the design will fall into place.

Our biggest challenge is catching typos; we’ll never get them all, but we strive to make the books as error-free as possible. And we have been going back and revisiting my older titles … re-proofreading some, cleaning up a design here and there. So we’re always trying to improve the quality of the books, both old and new.

Tell me about your experience with CreateSpace and Lulu. Are there frustrating aspects of publishing with these POD services? What could be improved? How do you feel about the quality of their books? And how do you think the technology is going to change or improve?

I’m really pleased with both overall. Their printing quality has increased year after year to the point where it’s a rare occurrence where I notice something in their printing that disappoints. What could improve is also what I think will change with the services: I’d like to see a wider variety in trim sizes and bindings, and increased page counts. I generally work at 6″x9” since both CreateSpace and Lulu deal with this size, but at times I’d like the option of doing an 8.5″x11” book in hard- and softcover. Same with paperback size. Currently this isn’t possible.

Also, I think there’s room to grow with the path to e-books. Eventually, it would be nice to have a push-button service to create e-book files from the book files. It’s a little too involved right now, with too many file formats to deal with.

How can you price these titles to make them profitable and competitive?

I think making them bigger and better is the way to go, as there’s no avoiding their production costs, so give customers a better bang for their buck. I strive to do this and as a result, I think my books are the cheapest around, on a per-page cost basis.

Are Altus titles available in any bookstores? Or is it all strictly online?

They are available at bookstores if they’re inclined to order; I saw one in a store a few months ago … a very surreal feeling! Getting a wider audience is any publisher’s challenge. Recently, I’ve been listing them for order in the leading comic book-store product catalog for wider exposure.

And how do you promote your titles?

We do a lot to promote our books; I think our books are recognizable by the traditional pulp reprint-buying audience. We appear regularly on podcasts when we have major products to announce. As a niche presents itself, I push books to those audiences; I’ve a few in mind that I’ll be doing this with soon.

The trick is to getting the word out to new people. I try to do most of my marketing online now. I’ve scaled back on print advertising; it’s difficult to put metrics on it and when I’ve purposefully done tests with print to test conversion rates, it’s never worked. Soon, I plan on advertising almost exclusively with Google Adwords.

Will Altus titles appear as e-books?

I like the opportunity e-books offer. We’re fervently working towards offering e-book versions of all of our titles in all the major e-book channels. The biggest challenge for e-books for us has been to retain our creative book layouts. It won’t always be possible, so we’ll have to make some compromises. I think we’ve got things worked out enough so that, starting this summer, we’ll be putting out our new & old titles out as e-books as well.

Is POD the future of physical books?

With each year, I think POD comes closer and closer to the same respectability as traditional publishing. It’s telling that so many mainstream authors are going this route, as are some of the old-school publishers.

POD allow for the most esoteric books to see the light of day. Are we selling a million units a year? No, but there’s a long tail here… lots of things to publish for the same dollar that otherwise would be spent on a traditional publisher’s product.

Copyright © 2011 Matthew Asprey & Matthew Moring

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