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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

STARK REALITIES


STARK REALITIES
STARK HOUSE PRESS
PUBLISHER
GREG SHEPARD

Stark House Press is renowned for breathing new life into great books by great writers—writers who have slipped out of the mainstream into the murky depths of the noir and hardboiled underworld. United by their mesmerizing plotting, scorching prose, and flawed characters, every reprint from Stark House is beautifully packaged with incisive and informed introductions from some of the most knowledgeable noirmeisters and hardboiled mavens in the genre.

Books by writing giants such as Harry Whittington, Frank Kane, Carter Brown, Cleve Adams, Peter Rabe, Fletcher Flora, Malcolm Braly, W. R. Burnett, Arnold Hano, Dan J. Marlowe, and too many others to name, have been brought back from the edge of obscurity by the guiding hand of Stark House Press’ unassuming editor, Greg Shepard.

Operating in the shadows, Greg has been quietly feeding the desperate needs of mainlining noir, hardboiled, and even Western junkies for far too long without due recognition. Having been a regular reader of Stark House Press’ fantastic output, I’m  delighted Greg agreed to be interviewed and share his thoughts about the books and authors Stark House continues to feature.
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If a scheming femme fatale falsely accused you of murder and you were on the run, what information would the police’s APB contain?

Born in 1952 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Grew up in Northern California. Spent childhood in the Sacramento area, Marin County and Pacifica. At various times, I’ve been a painter, graphic designer, rock music critic, clerk, book buyer, publisher’s sales rep, book distributor, tenant relations coordinator. Currently, publisher of Stark House Press in Eureka, California. I married Cindy Brown in 2013, have two sons—Justin and Cole— by previous marriages, and a house full of books, movies, music, animals and art.

What are your first memories of reading?

I was a sucker for Dr. Seuss when I was a kid—still am. Once a week, my mom would take us to the library so we could stock up. From Seuss, I graduated to animal stories in grade school, and then to science fiction, horror, and mysteries. In my very early teens, my grandmother (bless her) gave me a pile of Edgar Rice Burroughs books—the old Ace editions—and I was off and running into adventure-fantasy land. You might say I trace my reading arc from Cubby in Wonderland to Mysterious Island to Pellucidar to The Big Sleep. Something like that.

When did you first begin to read widely in the noir and hardboiled fields?

I read a lot of Phyllis A. Whitney’s young adult mysteries when I was entering my teens, but didn’t start reading Chandler, Hammett, or Cain until I was in my late teens and early 20s. Mostly, I read a lot of science fiction. Then in the mid-1980s, I discovered Maxim Jakubowski’s UK Black Box Thrillers, and read them all from beginning to end. From there, it was a just a matter of time before I started tracking down every single Gold Medal book I could find. Around this time Black Lizard started up, and I was able to read the Jim Thompson books I hadn’t been able to find. It was a good time to discover noir.

Can you tell us a little about the history of Stark House Press?

The publishing company came from a suggestion made by my dad, Bill Shepard. He had been a newspaper writer and magazine editor most of his life. He thought it would be interesting to start a publishing company. My brother Mark is a graphic design artist, my mom, Joanne, a proofreader, and my ex-wife handled the cover art. I was in charge of acquisitions. I started with Storm Constantine, but quickly moved to mysteries when the rest of the family dropped out.

Why did you decided to start Stark House Press?

I had always wanted to be a publisher myself, even as far back as high school. My fantasy then was to reprint everything by all my favorite authors. Which is sort of what I’m doing today. I can’t speak for my dad, who is no longer with us, but I imagine he wanted to start a new business just to see if we could succeed with it. He had quite the entrepreneurial spirit, no doubt about it. For me, it’s an outgrowth of being a book collector, and wanting to spread the gospel, one reprint at a time.

Is there a story behind the Stark House name?

I originally suggested Dark House, but when I looked into it, there were just too many publishers at the time with the word dark in their name. I thought stark sounded cool without being specific to any one genre, and suggested it to the group. It stuck. Many California book buyers knew me from the time when I was a sales rep for a fellow named J. Ben Stark, who imported British paperbacks. They thought I had named the business after him. But it was one of those weird coincidences. The family liked Stark House, and it became the name we settled on.

What do you look for when deciding on a new Stark House Press title?

I started by tracking down the rights to all my favorite authors, like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, W. R. Burnett and Harry Whittington. At this point, I keep myself open to new authors who submit something I get caught up in myself; or classics on my fantasy wish list; or authors who are offered to me, like Carter Brown.

Are there any authors who you would like to publish, but for haven’t been able to pin down?

I’d love to reprint David Goodis’ Somebody’s Done For. The lawyers who control the estate shot down my offer. I tried to work a deal to reprint Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, but the family wanted more than I could spend. There are some books for which I haven’t been able to track down the estate, such as A. H. Z. Carr’s Finding Maubee, and other authors, like Davis Karp, I simply haven’t succeeded in tracking down yet. Ed Gorman tried to put me together with the Robert Bloch estate, but they never got back to us. It was a pet project of Ed’s, and I’m sorry we couldn’t make it happen before he passed away. 

Do you have any personal favorites among your Stark House Press titles?

The Box by Peter Rabe prompted me to read the rest of his books, so it was the first book of his I reprinted. I love that book! Such a treasure. Same with Pure Sweet Hell by Douglas Sanderson, and Something in the Shadows by Vin Packer. I love A. S. Fleischman’s Far East thrillers, and almost anything by Holding and Brewer—even the weird late-period books.

Any particular acquisition coups among the books you have published?

Considering the netherworld of small press publishing—and the even more confining world of retro noir reprinting—my coups have been small, personal ones. Like finding Peter Rabe’s agent via Ed Gorman; or tracking down Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s grandson, who controls her estate. Probably the trickiest two estates to locate, though, turned out to be James McKimmey’s and Lionel White’s. A lot of online investigative work went into those two.

How do you match the writer of an introduction to a particular book?

For awhile, it seemed like Rick Ollerman and David Wilson were writing most of our introductions. They have their favorites, and I would always go to them first when the author was someone like Peter Rabe, W. R. Burnett, Harry Whittington or Charles Williams. But lately, I have been searching out new voices, or authors I know to be fans. For example, Bill Crider was generous enough to provide the intro for the upcoming Richard Wormser book. The suggestion to approach Bill actually came from the owner of the literary agency that controls the Wormser estate. He knew Bill was a fan. When I was trying to find someone to introduce our recent Basil Heatter book, I was up against it. No one I knew had read him. Finally, Steve Lewis, the man behind Mystery*File, was kind enough to provide some thoughts after I sent him the books to read. There really isn’t a formula for matching introduction to book. Sometimes it’s a case of finding out a modern author is a fan of someone we’re reprinting, then asking them if they’d like to contribute.

Why do you feel it is important to keep these writers and their books available?

Good question. I could come up with all sorts of intellectualized reasons, but the fact is, I think books by these authors are as readable today as they were when they were written. The trappings of a story may have changed—in the 50s, everyone, it seemed, drank a lot, smoked a lot, and only paid two bits for a decent diner meal—but the essential conflicts remain the same. Particularly as regards characters who chase after money and sex and come to a bad end. That story is timeless. And when you think of authors like Rabe or Brewer, you ask yourself, why shouldn’t they still be in print? They’re so damn good.

How have advances in the technical side of publishing been advantageous to Stark House Press?

Personal computers made desktop publishing possible in the first place. The Internet made it possible to connect easily with the rest of the world. Print on demand certainly made it a whole lot cheaper to keep books in print, to reprint them cheaply and quickly. Honestly, if I had wanted to get into the publishing industry even 30 years ago, I probably would have had to move to New York. Now, I get to live on the California coast in the redwoods, and publish books as well. Practically any technical advance you can think of in the world of publishing has been advantageous to Stark House.

How has Stark House adjusted to the ebook market and is there an average split between the ebook sales and the sales of a trade paperback for individual titles?

I’m retro enough I still prefer printed books, so was very late to get into the ebook game. And I still don’t have all our books available in electronic format. Most of our books sell more than twice as much in paperback as a result. There are occasional titles like Red Hot Typewriter, our John D. MacDonald bio, which sells a lot better in ebook, and some of the new authors we’ve published have also done very well in the medium. Getting more ebooks out is a work in progress for me.

How important is your website and mailing list to the success of Stark House Press?

I get very little feedback on the website. We don’t get a lot of orders directly from it. However, I like to think the hits we get are from customers who then look for the book elsewhere. The folks on the mailing list get a physical catalog, but it’s not the best way of scaring up business—not anymore. I’m just a holdover to the good-old-days when publishers put out paper catalogs to promote their books. I still have a stack of old Ace Books catalogs I kept from the 60s and 70s, more for the sake of nostalgia than anything else. But lately, since making all our books available through Ingram [*a book distribution service], we have started to reach more bookstores, which has made a far bigger difference than the website. Also the Stark House Crime Club, which guarantees its members will receive each new book we publish. That’s worked very well.

How important are Amazon reviews for Stark House Press titles?

I tend to think they’re very important. I know I buy stuff based on Amazon reviews. I’ve even started quoting Amazon and GoodReads reviews on the back of our books. There are a lot of intelligent and articulate readers out there writing some very discerning comments on the books they read and the music they listen to. I don’t have any numbers to justify my view that Amazon reviews sell books, but I figure if it works for me, it probably works for a lot of other readers. And, for better or worse, Amazon still accounts for a big chunk of our sales.

Black Gat Books is a relatively new imprint for Stark House Press. What makes a book qualify for the Black Gat imprint as opposed to a traditional Stark House publication?

Sometimes you have a single book by an author you love and want to reprint. Or you want to try out an author to see if there is any interest. Or you want to single out a book on its own because it deserves it. I happen to love the 4.25” x 7” mass market book size. I’m also a big fan of standalone novels—not much of a series reader—so I like to find books that stand on their own. I’m reminded again of the Black Lizard books. Cool little books that speak for themselves. There should be more of them on the market today. Black Gat fills that need.

What can we look for in the next few months from Stark House Press and Black Gat Books?

Some authors new to the list like Floyd Mahannah, Richard Wormser and Bill S. Ballinger. Some old favorites like Holding, Rabe and Brewer. Rick and I are working on a Stark House Anthology, which may see the light of day next year. We’ve got another collection of classic supernatural stories edited by Jonathan E. Lewis called Strange Island Stories coming in the Spring. Another Carter Brown 3-fer, the next three Al Wheeler novels. A new mystery by Michael Scott Cain called Damon Runyon’s Boys. Another new thriller from Rick Ollerman, which has yet to be titled. Lots of stuff.

What are your future goals for Stark House Press and Black Gat books?

Personally, I would love to add classic science fiction reprints to Stark House, and diversify a bit more. We’ve started adding some noir westerns to the list. I’d like to add more adventure, fantasy and turn-of-the-century material as well. There’s only one of me, so it remains to be seen what I can accomplish. The noir and hardboiled books are the main focus, though, and will remain so for the time being. There’s still plenty of great material crying out for reprint. 
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Thx to Greg Shepard for taking time to answer so many questions. CLICK HERE to check out the latest Stark House Press publications, and both upcoming and backlist titles...