THE REASONERS’ WHY
JAMES AND LIVIA REASONER
ON WORDS AND PUBLISHING
In a career spanning more than thirty years, the list of books and short stories written by the prolific James Reasoner is three times as long as a career criminal’s rap sheet. He regularly burns up keyboards maintaining his million-words-per-year output spread over at least thirty-five pseudonyms—some of which are open secrets, while some are the stuff of deep dark secrets taken to the grave.
Having had a hand in plotting, editing, and occasionally co-writing novels with James, Livia Reasoner is also an award winning writer of more than 25 books. Under the names Livia J. Washburn and L.J. Washburn, she writes in many genres, including mystery, western, romance, and historical.
However, making a living as a writer takes more than putting words on paper. They have to be the right words to keep up with the constantly changing demands of the publishing marketplace and—more recently—publishing technology. The Reasoners have become experts in responding to these challenges.
They have actively converted many of their backlist novels into e-books for a new audience of readers. Taking advantage changing technologies, which have leveled the field of book distribution in both print and electronic formats, they also created two successful small press publishers—Rough Edges Press (REP) and Prairie Rose Publications (PRP)—with positive response from writers and readers.
Rough Edges Press published 48 books in its first 18 months, bringing out more original novels than reprints. Prairie Rose Publications quickly developed a devoted following for their long list of westerns and western romances written by women. In supporting Prairie Rose, Livia rolled up her sleeves and became involved in marketing and cover creation. Rough Edges became the home for the new Adult Western series Blaze! Written by both well-known and debut authors, the series is rapidly approaching its twentieth title.
This work load schedule, along with the often heavy demands and challenges of everyday personal and family life, would be overwhelming for the average mortal. However, James and Livia do it all while continuing to produce a steady output of highly entertaining novels and stories of their own for other publishers.
It would be no surprised to discover they wear flashy Lycra leotards and capes under their comfortable, unassuming writer ensembles. By any standards they are writing superheroes.
I appreciate them taking time to share some of their experiences in the writing world…
How did you come to the decision to found your small press imprints?
LIVIA: The first publishing I did was putting together e-book editions of some of the books James and I had written. Once I had an idea of what I was doing and knew I could format books and design covers, I decided I wanted to help some of the people who had helped us in various ways over the years. This led to the formation of the Western Fictioneers Library, the publishing arm of the writers' organization Western Fictioneers. We reprinted a number of books written by WF members and also did some original books. Then Cheryl Pierson, another WF member, and I decided to start Prairie Rose Publications because we believed there was a strong market for Western romances.
JAMES: I saw what Livia was doing and I had helped out some with the WF Library. For years I'd had the idea of doing some small press publishing in the back of my head and even had a name picked out: Rough Edges Press. The term ‘Rough Edges’ actually comes from my decades as a pulp fan and refers to the untrimmed edges of the pages in those magazines. So I started out thinking I would do a few pulp reprints and collections of stories by pulp authors I liked.
What where your initial expectations as small press publishers?
LIVIA: I thought we would publish six to eight books a year.
JAMES: Same here. I never considered doing more than a book every couple of months, if that many.
What was the reality of becoming small press publishers?
LIVIA: Prairie Rose grew faster than I ever expected. Other imprints branched off from it: Painted Pony Books (young western books), Tornado Alley Publications (young non-western books), Sundown Press (traditional Westerns and historical novels and non-fiction), Fire Star Press (mysteries and science fiction), Prayers and Promises Publications(inspirational fiction)...Between all the imprints, Cheryl and I have published more than 300 books in three years. That's a far cry from what I expected! That is a lot of covers to design, books to format and publish, new release announcements, authors to make sure get their quarterly payments, and 1099s at the end of the year.
JAMES: Rough Edges Press turned out to be a lot bigger than I anticipated, too. I reprinted quite a few books by friends of mine, but people began to approach me about doing originals, too, and they gradually replaced the reprints in my schedule. Then my long-time friend and occasional collaborator, Stephen Mertz, suggested we do a multi-author Western series, and that became Blaze! I've slowed down my publishing schedule in the past year or so, but REP is still going to be around for the foreseeable future.
Prairie Rose and Rough Edges clearly have different mandates. How much, if any, crossover is there between the two?
JAMES: I've done a little editing here and there for Prairie Rose and have suggested a few titles for anthologies, etc., but my contributions over there have really been pretty limited. REP, on the other hand, could not exist without Livia. She's formatted every trade paperback I've published and designed nearly all of the covers, in addition to scanning and OCRing the books I've reprinted. She's as much a part of REP as I am.
How have the responsibilities of Rough Edges and Prairie Rose impacted your writing schedules?
LIVIA: I've always been the type who writes here and there when I can find the time. Keeping up with the publishing has meant there are fewer of those moments, but hasn't really changed the way I work.
JAMES:I try to stick to the same sort of writing schedule I've had for the past 30 years. The publishing work gets done in what I'd laughingly refer to as my spare time. That's one reason I've slowed down as far as REP goes. As I get older, it's taking longer to get my writing done, so the publishing has suffered for it. I'd rather put out fewer books and maintain the quality, though.
You’ve faced life challenges over the years, as many of us do, of aging parents, health issues, and the demands of house repairs and maintenance. However, you have also experienced the devastation of a major house fire. How do you cope with all of it and still keep putting words on paper?
LIVIA: When we lost the house and everything in it in '08, we were also helping take care of both of my parents. It was hard to keep going. But we had an incredible amount of help from family and friends. We also had books under contract, so we didn't have much choice except to keep going.
JAMES:On the day of the fire, I was halfway through a book I was writing. I saved our old dog instead of my computer and have never regretted it for one second. That night, while we were staying with Livia's parents, I had trouble sleeping, so I got up, went in the kitchen, found a legal pad and a pen, and started making notes of everything I could remember about the half book I’d lost, so I could start over on it. Within a couple of days, we had new computers and I had set up a place at my in-laws' house where I could start turning out pages again. I think that continuity of effort really helped us get through the experience. We're writers. We write. The fire wasn't going to change that.
LIVIA: And keeping up with the day to day challenges of life is no different than it is for anyone else. We do what we have to and go on.
You’ve stayed close to your Texas roots your entire life. How do you feel this has helped or hindered your creative life?
LIVIA: I suppose there are a lot of places we haven't seen and things we haven't experienced, but family is very important to me and this is where our family is. I would like to do more traveling than we have, but we'll always come home.
JAMES: I'm a Texan, for better or worse. Can't really be anything else. And don't want to be.
Are there any other genres or non-fiction projects on your writing bucket list?
JAMES: I'd like to write more science fiction and horror. I've done a little of both. And I have at least one more crime novel I'd like to write. I have the outline done for it. One of these days...
Does a reputation for good writing, delivered to deadline, consistently bring more offers of writing work or do you have to proactively seek out new writing opportunities?
LIVIA: Right now I'm self-publishing my new novels, so I'm not really looking for more opportunities. What I'm seeking is more time to work on them! Since we both already work seven days a week, and haven’t had a non-working vacation in twenty years, I don’t see where I’ll find more time.
JAMES: My own stuff I publish through REP. But the vast majority of my writing is ghost work under some established names, and that's lined up for years in advance. Of course, if somebody asked me to write something and it was a project that interested me, I'd sure try to find the time to do it.
What has the e-book explosion, the many recent changes in attitudes toward self-publishing, and the challenges faced by traditional publishing in a world of shrinking bookstore chains, affected your writing process, opportunities, and decisions?
LIVIA: My process hasn't changed other than to get busier with all the publishing. The ability to self-publish has allowed me to write what I want to—for example, continuing my Fresh Baked Mystery series even though the traditional publisher that did the first ten books decided not to go on with it. I published the eleventh book myself and it was very successful, so that tells me the readership is still there.
JAMES: I'm one of those so-called hybrid authors. We've self-published a lot of my back-list, and anything new under my own name will come out from Rough Edges Press. But 90% or more of my current work still goes through one of the traditional publishers in New York. As long as this set-up is working for me, I don't see any reason to change it.
Changing gears slightly—what were the books you loved as a children (why)?
LIVIA: My parents didn't own many books, but my mother was a reader and took us to the library. I recall reading Hardy Boys books and some of the Mrs. Pollifax novels by Dorothy Gilman. Really, I read whatever I could get my hands on. When I was in sixth grade, my mom was in college getting her teaching degree, and for one of her classes she had to read Catch-22. Since a copy of the book was in the house, I read it, too. Not a typical childhood book, I know, but I've never been all that typical.
JAMES: When I was in elementary school, we didn't have a school library, but some of my teachers had shelves of books in their room you could check out. One of them also read novels to us, a chapter at a time after lunch, and that was how I discovered Treasure Island, one of my all-time favorite books. From the ‘library shelf’, I read an early science fiction novel called Space Hawk by ‘Anthony Gilmore’ (really Harry E. Bates and D.W. Hall) and thought it was the best thing ever. There was also a book by Eustace Adams called Doomed Demons, about a group of young pilots in World War I. It's probably the grimmest ‘juvenile’ novel I've ever read, with likeable young protagonists being riddled by bullets and going down in flaming crates. From the bookmobile that came out to our little town every Saturday, I read Clarence E. Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy books, Max Brand, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Brett Halliday. So if you look at all that, it's pretty much a blueprint for my reading and writing ever since.
What books did you read to your daughters (why)?
LIVIA: We loved the Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer—Jemima Puddle Duck, Jack Goes To The Beach, Emma Goes To The Playground. Berenstain Bears books. We read to the kids constantly. They enjoyed it, and so did we.
What book(s) made you want to become writers (why)?
JAMES: With me it wasn't a book, but rather a short story. I had always liked making up stories for my own entertainment, but when I was a kid, my cousin Richard Finley had a story published in his college literary magazine. I was so impressed to read it in an actual printed magazine, written by somebody I knew, that I decided I could do that, too.
LIVIA: James’ Texas Wind. A very intriguing book that made me want to be a part of this crazy writing world.
Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
JAMES: I try to read a little every morning while I eat breakfast, and I read some before I got to bed at night. Otherwise, it's just a matter of where and when I can catch a few extra minutes.
LIVIA: If I’m reading one of the books we’re publishing, or one of James’ ghosted books, I will typically spend all day doing it. Reading for fun has fallen into a few minutes at night, and occasionally at lunch.
Do you prefer series books or standalones?
JAMES: No real preference, although when I was younger I think I tended to read more series books.
LIVIA: I enjoy both.
What genre would you read if you were limited to one?
JAMES: I don't know if I could stand that! But just for the sake of discussion, probably mysteries.
LIVIA: It’s a good thing I don’t have to limit to just one. I don’t think I could pick just one.
Is there a specific book or author either of you find yourself recommending over and over?
JAMES: Robert E. Howard
LIVIA: James Reasoner
Is there a book either of you have returned to again and again?
JAMES: I've read Treasure Island and The Sun Also Rises probably more than any other novels, but that was when I was younger. I haven't read either of them in many years. I tend not to reread. Too many books, not enough time. I do read Irwin Shaw's short story Main Currents of American Thought every year or two, though. It captures the desperation of writing for a living better than anything else I've ever read.
LIVIA: I’ve never had time to read a book more than once, except one I was editing.
What is your favorite book to movie adaptation?
JAMES: It would be hard to beat The Maltese Falcon. The Searchers is awfully good, too. I think the movie is considerably better than the novel.
LIVIA: Shane. A good book, and a good movie.
What book would you like to see as a movie?
LIVIA: Texas Wind.
What fictional character(s) would you like to be friends with in real life?
LIVIA: Certainly NOT Ellery Queen! Hang around with him too long and you're bound to be murdered. But Perry Mason might be a good person to have as a friend. If you ever needed a lawyer, he'd be the guy to go to.
JAMES: Archie Goodwin. Sure, he can be a smart-aleck, but he always sticks up for his friends.
Writers, editors, publishers, marketers, artistic directors—what professional goals are part of your future?
JAMES: My goal is to keep writing and selling for as long as I can, although at this point I wouldn't mind slowing down a little. After publishing so many books for Rough Edges Press in a fairly short period of time, I intend to taper off and publish only a few books each year. I don't want to give it up entirely, though. And there are some days when I think, "Yeah, I'm done," and want to spend the rest of my life reading books, watching movies, and taking walks. I'm sure the reality will fall somewhere in between.
LIVIA: To get caught up enough or slow down enough for a non-working vacation.
Thx to Livia and James for a thoroughly entertaining interview. I’m glad to call you guys friends, but you are also inspirations—to me and many others...