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 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. 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

Contrappasso Extra: Print-On-Demand and the Future of Independent Publishing 1

The following interview feature by Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey was originally published at This is Part 1, published on 6 July 2011. Be sure to visit the Publication Studio website.

A Conversation with Matthew Stadler

Print-on-demand technology (POD) is reshaping the economics of the book trade and redefining what constitutes a commercially viable book. In this two-part feature, I speak to a couple of the most interesting independent POD publishers and investigate how they get their books to readers.

I dabble in the POD game, too. I run an outfit called Sydney Samizdat Press which uses’s CreateSpace service to publish anthologies of classic writing (e.g. Jack London’s San Francisco Stories) as well as my own novellas as small chapbooks. Novellas—something like the literary equivalent of a rock band’s E.P.—are perfect for POD publishing. I like to write one every year. They let me cover pressing subjects I might otherwise store away for never-realized novels.

For my latest novella Sonny’s Guerrillas, I wanted to recreate the exciting milieu I encountered in Greece in 2008. I wanted to write about the political, artistic and erotic adventures of a multi-national twentysomething generation drifting through an unsettled globalized Europe. The story is about a young Australian composer hired to write the soundtrack for an ultra-low budget left-wing movie. The composer joins the cast and crew in a utopian filmmaking commune on the gorgeous Aegean island of Katastari. Their movie is a kind of Hellenic For Whom The Bell Tolls. But nearby Athens is aflame with the riots of 2008 and many in the crew are torn between their commitment to finishing the film and a desire to hit the streets with the protestors. The shoot goes to hell.

I feel about my novellas as Woody Allen does about his annual films—“not an event you make a big deal out of.” One terrific thing about POD technology (and e-books) is that a writer can make any kind of occasional work—novellas and stories, poetry, long-form interviews, diaries, journalism, collected blog posts—available for sale as soon as the work is done.

POD technology is creating entirely new models for quality—and profitable—independent publishing. Matthew Stadler is an author and the co-founder of Portland’s Publication Studio. This outfit produce their books on demand from a digital file using an Instabook POD machine (a device that combines digital printer, guillotine trimmer, and glue-binder). I decided to have a chat to Stadler to learn more about the Studio’s innovative approach to independent publication, distribution and, most importantly, the fostering of a readership.

* * *

Matthew, I was in Amsterdam recently and found a copy of Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha in a bookshop. The book was distinct among the other paperbacks—the cover was a recycled manila folder, the title and your name were stamped in ink. Tell me about this novel set in Mexico and how it wound up for sale in Amsterdam.

I lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, for a year and wrote the book because the place fascinated me. It’s actually a “cover version” of a John Le Carré book (an early George Smiley mystery called A Murder of Quality). For more on that read the book. I’m not sure where you found it in Amsterdam, but a couple dozen stores in Europe carry Publication Studio books. People see the books, are struck by them as you were, and then find us online and order. Most stores carrying us are art books stores, or have that as a special focus, and the others are just general book stores.

You published a number of novels in the 1990s via the traditional route with Harper Collins and Scribner’s. Your entire approach to publishing has obviously changed. Can you tell me how things developed and how your experiences led to the creation of Clear Cut Press and, more recently, Publication Studio?

Well, real readers matter to me, more so than do sales numbers. The bigger houses were good at selling books, but didn’t do much to hook me up with real readers. I’ve always wondered how publishers could do more to cultivate long-term readers and connect writers to them. Clear Cut Press and Publication Studio are both attempts to work out some of those possibilities. Both basically focus (or focused … Clear Cut is defunct) on the social life of the book, the rich conversations and encounters readers have and the way they share that in public. We host dinners, readings, puppet shows, symposia, bands, or all at once in many, many places, always putting our authors and their books at the center of the conversation. At PS we also print and bind the books ourselves, on-demand. So, every book we make has already been sold. And all of our money can go back in to social events and the conversations around books. Conventional publishers obliged to big (or even “small”) print-runs can’t do that. (1) Whatever they’ve got piles of they’d better sell fast; and (2) they spend so much money printing and shipping (and remaindering and pulping) their books, they can’t invest in the slow, meandering life of literature.

Can you define what kinds of writing Publication Studio publishes?

We publish books we think are great by writers and artists we admire. Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist, Luisa Valenzuela’s El gato eficaz, Sam Lohmann’s Stand on this picnic bench and look north, Shawn Records’s Owner of this World, Stacy Doris’s The Cake Part, and Lawrence Rinder and Colter Jacobsen’s Tuleyome are a few examples.

What is your approach to finding and editing the material you publish?

We read and keep in touch with friends. Sometimes strangers get in touch and it turns out they’re amazing. We’re open, and just try not to oblige ourselves to so much work it gets sketchy.

Publication Studio seems to be at the forefront of innovative marketing approaches for books; your methods are completely outside the traditional process. Perhaps “marketing” is the wrong expression to use. You say you “attend to the social life of the book. This is publication in the fullest sense—the creation of a public”. Where did these ideas come from?

The ideas are all pretty simple, literal, and self-interested. I’m a writer and I want a public. It seems clear to me other writers are after that, more so than they are after high sales numbers, per se. The two are not mutually exclusive, but to focus on making a public, making public space, making lasting relationships … that just makes sense. It is, literally, publication. The economy grows out of this primary focus; by making books one-at-a-time on demand, we can devote all our attention to cultivating the conversation and the interest around a writer, then provide books as they are wanted. Print-on-demand turns the business on its head. It puts readers, writers, and relationships first, completing a sale second.

Does Publication Studio do audiobooks, podcasts, video promotions, and so on?

Sure, if and when we can. We often call PS the “maker and destroyer of books” because we use any means possible to connect reader and writer. We also make e-books and let you read (and comment on or annotate) all our books online in our “free reading commons.”

Tell me the rationale behind the “free reading commons”.

We grow publics. The books we publish are great, so the more people who get to see/read them, the bigger the reading public will become. Our faith is that this growth stimulates sale of books rather than undermining it. So far we are right.

What kind of budget do you work with? Where does that money come from? Do you work with any public funding or grants? Is the project financially viable?

Glad you asked. This is the heart of the project and our greatest accomplishment. We did all of this nearly broke. We found cheap, widely-available machines. We paid for them by selling books. Now we pay the rent and our authors and our upkeep by selling books. There is no subsidy, just a commitment to sell books by cultivating these relationships and building up real, enduring publics for our authors. Many people are circulating books by applying for subsidies and then spending them. This is common in art book and literary publishing. Those publishers all too often don’t care if they sell their books or how the books are valued once they have been made. Selling the books is the last thing they think about. We care a lot; we have to. If the books aren’t bought we go broke. We’ve now launched more than 80 new titles and sold more than 10,000 books. So, yes, it is working.

Has Publication Studio cracked the corporate press, the traditional newspaper book review? Is this achievable with your publication approach and is it necessary?

An odd question. We regard anyone who reads and shares their thoughts on it pretty much equivalently. Some have bigger amplifiers (say, a columnist for the New York Times or an NPR host), but there’s no easy line between “corporate/traditional” and whatever is not those things. There are just book lovers and their means of amplifying what they have to say. We’re interested in them all. In fact, HTMLGiant or The Millions might reach scads more real readers than Fresh Air. I don’t know; it just depends on the book/writer and the potential public. So, our stance is always interested! If you or anyone is interested in a book we publish, we are interested in you. The flip-side of this is that we don’t push or pester where there is no interest. It’s not a priority to get the books mentioned in X newspaper or on X show. We respond to interest, like a flower to the sun.

Is POD the future of print books in general?

Yes. It is untenable to make large print runs and ship them around when books can be made to order when and where they are wanted. POD is as inevitable as digital-distribution of movies or music. It can be done well or poorly (the technologies are getting better by leaps and bounds even as they get cheaper) and it can be centrally controlled or widely-available. We like the latter, and that’s our business model.

What are your opinions on successful POD outfits such as CreateSpace and Lulu? Are there frustrating aspects of publishing with these services?

I can’t say how those services are. We’d prefer to see a hundred storefronts with printing and binding machinery. It could happen, and it would be great. I have much more interesting relationships with my local print-shops than I do with Lulu.

How does Publication Studio fit into the Portland scene?

We’re one of a few score great, small culture-making projects that rewrite the economics of culture-making. They’re almost all start-up businesses by DIY ex-punks. We don’t ask for subsidies or charity. Charity is not social change. We make a better economy and profit from it. I think Portland is a good place for this kind of project because there’s high unemployment and people live well here on less (a key part of the better economy we are making).

Anything you want to add?

I want to add one more thing about PS’s choice to make the books ourselves, one-at-a-time in the storefronts. There are a number of excellent new projects that attend to the social life of reading and writers, as I have described PS doing. Red Lemonade for one, and OR Books. But in those projects the material production of books, their availability and movement through the world, is left to remote, invisible systems. It’s a big omission. At PS material practice is an integrated part of the social life of the book. We make the books in response to “demand,” i.e. someone’s desire, right in front of you if you come buy at the storefront. I think this integration of material practice is essential for PS, and it certainly marks a radical difference between our project and other new socially-driven book economies.

Copyright © 2011 Matthew Asprey & Matthew Stadler

And here’s a speech Matthew Stadler gave at Richard Hugo House’s writer’s conference, “Finding Your Audience in the 21st Century,” on May 22, 2010:


What is Publication? A talk by Matthew Stadler from Publication Studio on Vimeo.