PULP NOW: A DIRTY DOZEN INTERVIEW WITH PICCADILLY PUBLISHING'S DAVE WHITEHEAD!
The novels of David Whitehead – aka: Ben Bridges – dominate Amazon’s western bestseller lists, but it’s not just his own novels keeping fans of fast action westerns on the edge of their seats. In the 1970s, numerous violent, pulpish, western series, concocted by a revered group of writers known collectively as the Piccadilly Cowboys, filled the paperback spinner racks of their day. These lost gems have now been given new covers, new formatting, and new life under the Piccadilly Publishing umbrella.
Piccadilly Publishing began as the brainchild of Dave’s saddle-pard, Mike Stotter (himself no slouch when it comes to writing successful westerns). Let loose to ride the publishing range again, Herne The Hunter, Crow, Caleb Thorn and many other rough, tough, six-shooting characters are thrilling fans around the world again.
Recently, Piccadilly Publishing has expanded their range to include two of the top western series of all time, Fargo and Sundance from John Benteen, as well as more contemporary pulp titles – such as the classic WWII series The Sergeant and spy series Butler from Len Levinson.
Taking time out from his busy schedule (which also includes installing the flooring in a new residential conservatory), David (“the good-looking half of the partnership”) answers some pointed questions about the current state of publishing ...
FIRST, PLEASE GIVE US THE LOWDOWN ON DAVID WHITEHEAD, AKA: BEN BRIDGES. HOW DOES AN ENGLISHMAN COME TO RIDE THE RANGE?
I grew up at a time when western movies were still big box-office, and western TV shows were still very popular. In addition, my dad was a big western fan. He took me to see all those movies, and we never missed a single episode of any of those TV shows. He worked a lot of graveyard shifts as a security guard, and when I was very young he sometimes spent his days (while I was at school) making up and recording his own western stories into our reel-to-reel tape recorder. That way he could still tell me a bedtime story, even though he was at work! He used to wiggle his fingers in a bowl of water to denote outlaws fording a stream, and burst balloons to simulate gunfire.
I myself was always a natural writer—it’s all I ever wanted to be. So I guess I was steeped in the Old West right from the word go.
Next year, I celebrate thirty years as Ben Bridges. My first book, The Silver Trail, was bought in 1984, but not published until 1986. What I hope to do is write a new story in all my old series, just as a thank you to the good folks who are still reading them all.
Sure. In the early 1970s, New English Library wanted a western series for its list, and they went to a writer named Terry Harknett because he had previously written novelizations of A Fistful of Dollars, A Town Called Bastard, Hannie Caulder and Red Sun. Initially, Terry had no special interest in the genre, but he was a professional writer and wrote what people were willing to pay him to write. He created Edge: The Loner and its success took everyone by surprise.
Pretty soon, every UK publisher wanted at least one Edge clone on its list. A small number of writers provided them. Among them were NEL editor Laurence James, who was the man who commissioned Edge in the first place; Angus Wells, who was an editor at Sphere Books, but wanted to make the leap to full-time writer; John B. Harvey, who was known to Laurence James for a series of biker novels, and to a lesser extent Ken Bulmer, a well-known writer who was responsible for a great amount of science fiction and naval fiction.
These five became the Piccadilly Cowboys, so-called because it was their proud boast that although they wrote westerns, they had never been further west than Piccadilly … in the heart of London’s West End.
Eventually I started an Edge fan club in the UK, and when Mike Stotter took it over, he widened the scope to include all the other authors. Between us, we also took the idea of a western magazine to one of the biggest magazine publishers in the UK, and to our great surprise they said yes and went on to publish WESTERN MAGAZINE, where Mike and I worked as consultants.
It was very, very simple. I was speaking with Mike Stotter one day and just before the conversation ended he said, “I know what I wanted to ask you. How do you fancy bringing back all the old PC books, this time as e-books?” It was a no-brainer—of course I fancied it!
WHAT OBSTACLES HAD TO BE OVERCOME TO MAKE PICCADILLY PUBLISHING VIABLE?
Well, it was a low-cost enterprise, and the market was more or less wide open. All we had to invest at the outset was our time, our energy and a dash of initiative. But Mike and I have known each other since we were kids—at least forty-five years now, by my calculation. We’ve been through an awful lot together and we work very well as a team, so we were always on the same page about what we wanted and how best to go get it.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT OBTAINING THE RIGHTS TO BOOK SERIES LONG OUT OF PRINT?
We started with nothing more than a large stock of goodwill. Mike had kept in touch with John Harvey and Elizabeth James, Laurence’s widow. So, he brought some of Laurence’s back catalog to the table and was able to bring John’s contributions to the Herne and Caleb Thorn series, as well as his own Hart the Regulator. I’ve known Mike Linaker for years, so I was able to add him to the roster, in the shape of his pseudonym ‘Neil Hunter’. Mike pitched in with another old chum, Fred Nolan, alias Frederick H. Christian. I came back with Keith Hetherington, who has written hundreds of westerns in his native Australia, but who is best known here for his Madigan westerns, as by Hank J. Kirby.
Little by little, we began to build up a backlog of material. From there we went after more series, such as Bar 10, Iron Eyes, Lou Prophet, the Storm Family, and so on. Somewhere along the way we were fortunate to renew acquaintance with the great Tony Masero, who has painted a stack of covers for us, as well as allowed us to issue his Belle Slaughter series.
Tony was a great unsung hero back in the PC days. He took over the Edge covers from the late Richard Clifton-Dey and very quickly made them his own. He’s probably the most prolific and best-loved paperback artist of that period. When our trails crossed again, and we asked him to become part of PP, he did so because, as he puts it, “I love doing it, and I have faith in what you guys are doing.”
I mention this because you have to remember that when we first started PP, we were a relatively unknown quantity. So, we were and remain always grateful to those authors who put their trust in us and allowed us to take on so many of their books. We wanted to do right by them and justify their trust in us, and as luck would have it, that’s exactly what we were able to do.
WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY/APPROACH TO PUBLISHING THESE BOOKS FOR A NEW MODERN AUDIENCE?
To bring back as much good stuff as we can, to give our books eye-catching, uniform covers and to make them affordable. I’ve seen too many good books fall by the wayside simply because the publisher has pitched the price prohibitively—sometimes ridiculously—high. To have fun doing it, and to create a brand that readers can follow loyally. In short, to bring back a little excitement and anticipation to publishing genre fiction.
PICCADILLY PUBLISHING HAS PRODUCED SOME STUNNING COVERS. HOW DO YOU MAKE COVER ART DECISIONS?
Thanks for the compliment, Paul. The look is largely in the hands of the individual artist. When we started, the look of the PP product was created by my good friend Cody Wells. As we’ve gone on, we’ve brought in artists like Ed Martin and of course, Tony Masero, and between us we’ve managed to give each series a distinct identity, at the same time maintaining a uniformity that says these are all from the PP stable. I guess, to an extent, we’ve tried to recreate those colorful paperback covers of yesterday.
FOREIGN LEGION STORIES, HARDBOILED COPS, WAR STORIES ... HOW DID PICCADILLY PUBLISHING COME TO EXPAND INTO PULP GENRES BEYOND THE WESTERN?
Pure selfishness! I’ve always had a soft spot for Foreign Legion stories, and I always loved war series like The Sergeant. Since no one else was issuing them, we thought we’d take them on and see how they performed. It’s too early to tell for sure, but I believe we’ve proved that readers still want this kind of escapist literature.
WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON E-PUBLISHING?
That it’s been a Godsend. The rise of e-publishing, which has given so many people a chance they might not otherwise have had to publish their own work or that of other writers, has coincided with what I see as a growing sense of writer- and reader-disillusion/frustration with traditional publishers. Publishers seem to have marginalized genre fiction writers in order to concentrate on the big bestsellers. In essence, they’ve started to give the reading public what it THINKS they should be reading, and not what it actually WANTS to read.
There’s also something increasingly formulaic about what’s being published nowadays. There doesn’t seem to be any desire for innovation or experimentation. E-publishers—and I count Fight Card as a glowing example—are more likely to take risks, push boundaries and issue books that are worth issuing and which so many readers want to spend their time reading.
WILL PICCADILLY PUBLISHING BE BRANCHING OUT TO INCLUDE NEW BOOKS ALONGSIDE ICONIC REPRINTS?
Well, Belle Slaughter was an original series, as is Chuck Tyrell’s Stryker. Tony Masero’s Deadly Manhunt was a PP original as were many of our crime books. I guess, in time, it would be nice to have a fairly even split between new and reprint titles.
HOW HAS BEING A PUBLISHER CHANGED THE WORLD OF DAVE WHITEHEAD?
It’s gotten a whole lot busier! And I have to say, a whole lot more satisfying. Every so often, Mike and I look at what we’ve already achieved and can’t help but slap each other on the back. We started PP with no great expectations, and its success has surprised no one more than us.
Well, right now we have 76 books scheduled to appear throughout 2014. Some series will be ending, and others will take their place. In May of 2014, we will publish the first of no less than 52 P.I. adventures in the Mike Faraday series, by Basil Copper. This will be the complete series, appearing one book a month, at a low, low price of 99c per title. We have a stack of ideas, of things we want to do—more anthologies, more westerns by American authors—but everything takes time. We can only publish so many books each month. And sometimes it proves to be close to impossible to track down authors, their representatives or their heirs. But just this morning, I believe we’ve clinched a deal that with give our readers a whole new and exciting batch of adventures to look forward to.
THANKS FOR TAKING TIME TO SIT AROUND THE VIRTUAL CAMPFIRE WITH US, DAVE ... AND BEST OF BRITISH LUCK TO YOU ON DOWN THE TRAIL ...
Right back atchya, pard!