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Black Static


Gray Friar Press in Focus

3rd Apr, 2013

Author: Peter Tennant

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Back in Black Static #32 I reviewed four titles from publisher Gray Friar Press. By way of following up on that I put some questions to Gray Friar's head honcho Gary Fry.

PT: What do you find to be the most difficult aspects of running a small press? What advice would you give to anyone thinking of following in your footsteps?

GF: For me, it's finding enough time to commit to it. I work full-time and at a distance - I live in Whitby, and the office is in Leeds. And although I get to work at home part of the week, I'm always running around trying to catch up. Add to this my own writing and I have pretty full weeks. I suspect a lot of small presses are run similarly, with somebody like me earning a daily crust to cover the bills, and then investing what's left in publishing. It's too addictive to quit, but there are times when that's tempting. But in truth I have an alternative ambition. I hope to quit full-time work quite soon - maybe in three or four years. Then I'll be more committed to doing this well. At present I put out three or four books a year. That could easily increase if I had the time to handle distribution, which is the real killer in this game. It takes aaaaaaages. Many a time and oft I'm found stumbling down the road to the Post Office, boxes clamped under each arm. Then there's the stress of not knowing whether Royal Mail employees are up for a game of football. Jeez... So, my advice to other wannabe publishers? By all means, have a go; it's really rewarding in many ways. But don't expect to have too much time to watch telly. (I still have several thousand episodes of The West Wing to catch up on.)

PT: And what aspects are the most fun/gratifying?

GF: Oh, just the sheer pleasure of being able to publish writers I've admired for years. Conrad Williams, Nicholas Royle, Ramsey Campbell, et al. Oh, and that Paul Finch geezer I've published several books by is quite a big deal now, you know. So it's that, really. Just working with good people who have a shared passion for the genre, who value craft and entertainment in the same way I do. It's a communal experience.

PT: How hands on are you as an editor? What kind of input from you can an author expect once his/her submission has been accepted?

GF: It depends on the project. For some I interfere quite a lot and make significant suggestions. But these are just suggestions and not deal breakers. On the whole, however, authors I've worked with tend to agree with my points and we work together to improve the piece. These pieces tend to excellent already, but would, in my opinion, benefit from a tweak or addition. It tends to be stuff added rather than things removed. With other authors, I make hardly any changes. For instance, I often publish collections of tales that have already been edited by others, so further work is unnecessary. As I say, it depends on the project.

PT: There may be some overlap with the previous questions here. Obviously running a small press must take up a significant amount of time and energy that you might otherwise devote to your own writing. Do you find that there are any benefits for you as a writer from taking on the publisher role?

GF: Look, I'll be honest here and maybe even a little controversial. As a publisher myself, I realise that time is at a premium and that it's almost impossible to read everything that's submitted. As a publisher without oceans of time, you have to be selective and operate according to gut instinct about which good writers would do well for you. So when certain writers approach you with a collection or whatever, as a publisher you're more likely to pay good attention to those about whom you have that good feeling, that sense of them being marketable. And the cruel truth is that those folk are more likely to get published. It's how it has to be. If I open my doors to unsolicited manuscripts from so many authors I've never heard of, I'd be sacked from the day job, left by my partner, arrested by the RSPCA (for not feeding my dogs) and half-starved... So I guess what I'm saying is this: when I, as a writer, approach a publisher, I kind of know what reception I'm going to get. Have they heard of me? That's my first question. How can I spin my introductory email in a way that grabs their interest, makes me look marketable? That's often my second. You see, I generalise from my own experience of being a publisher. I get emails from many writers, possible very good ones, but if they haven't sold a good wedge of tales to decent markets - served an apprenticeship, I call it - what can I do for them? Gray Friar Press is hardly a big player. And so it goes with publishers I approach as a writer. I'm already working out the psychology of the situation. And - here's the controversial bit - I've had many rejections from publishers whom I'm convinced have never even bothered opening the file. And in fairness, why should they? They know their market, and if I'm not likely to sell, no amount of effusive bigging-up on their part will make a bit of difference. The sad truth is that a small press has to sell; otherwise it goes the way of all flesh. None of us folk doing this is in a position to bank-roll the business. This doesn't preclude selecting quality material, but that has to be married to marketability. And anyway, this often works in favour of authors, you know. For instance, I once turned down for Gray Friar Press a novel that, months later, got a mass market book deal. My advice to the author was simple: I won't be able to sell it; hold on to it and try and sell it to a stronger publisher, who can get a relative newcomer off the ground. I believe this particular author treasures that advice, one based on years of experience. And, as an author myself, I wouldn't expect anything different from any other publisher. They know their market; and I, as an author, try and second-guess their reception of a submission from me. If it looks to have potential, I submit; if it doesn't, I go nowhere near them. It would be a waste of time. So, in answer to your question, being a publisher has given me insight into the decision-making processes of publishers, from the point of view of a writer trying to sell his work.

PT: You've firmly identified Gray Friar as a horror publisher, when most other publishers have a somewhat wider remit. Why is that? What do you feel is gained by nailing your colours to the mast in such a conspicuous way?

GF: It's simple. Among the "fantastical" genres, I've only ever read horror myself. I know little SF or fantasy and so couldn't judge what was good or bad in those fields. And I have little interest in them. By nature (and that's a concept that needs some unpacking), I love horror. It appeals to me psychologically and emotionally. Of course I realise that from a marketing point of view, I'm missing a trick. By publishing SF and fantasy, I could potentially draw in readers my horror stuff doesn't reach. But the truth is that most of my pals in the field - Gary McMahon, Simon Bestwick, Joel Lane, Paul Finch, et al - are all horror-heads, too, so I don't know what dialogue could exist between me and readers with other literary tastes. I'm not sure I know any serious SF or fantasy folk. So I guess I've just evolved into the horror community; it's what I know well. If I stepped outside this remit, I'd have to blag a bit. It wouldn't feel comfortable.

PT: Do you prefer the label small press or independent press? Is the distinction, if there is one, important to you?

GF: Independent sounds sexier, I guess. Small has Freudian connotations... But I jest. To be honest, I don't think about it much. I quite like the term "indie". It sounds edgy and real. I like to view myself as being true to myself in a homogenous world. Sometimes. But most of the time, I'm not too bothered about such matters.

PT: At the moment your books in the main appear as hardbacks and trade paperbacks, though I believe you have dabbled in signed, limited editions. For the future, what are your feelings about such things as ebooks and PoD? Do they have any part in your publishing strategy? Do you have any plans for more titles aimed primarily at the collector market?

GF: I have a very modest business plan. 100 signed limited hardbacks at a non-ridiculous / non-greedy price and a trade paperback for folk who just want to read the gear. The paperbacks are print-on-demand because that offers me several perks, like not filling up my seaside flat with stock and listing the books on Amazon without that hegemonic giant swallowing all my profit. I make no apologies for that; I've seen many small presses go under because of such practical issues. As for ebooks, well, I'm afraid I currently lack the technological nous to produce them. Maybe that's why I've never bothered through Gray Friar Press. Then again, the Luddite in me doesn't always see an ebook as a book at all, just an ephemeral ghost passing onscreen. I suspect that attitude will change (for instance, DarkFuse has just published a novella by me as an ebook only), but at present, I'm happy doing what I do: the small-run hardcovers and trade PBs. They seem popular, and anyone can get hold of a copy: the collectors receive a nice, no-frills, affordable edition, and the readers get a dog-ear-able copy they can shove in their bags for the train. Nice.

PT: What led you to launch the New Blood series, showcasing the work of new writers? How did you come to select Stephen Bacon and Thana Niveau for your first two titles? What criteria must be met before you will consider a writer for New Blood?

GF: Well, the writers came first, and the idea for the series emerged from that. Basically I admired the work of both Stephen and Thana, and then realised that if I published collections by them, these would the authors' first books. So why not make an issue out of that. It was that simple. So now Gray Friar Press has three ongoing series: the Gray Matter novellas (numbers 6 and 7 due out this year), the Terror Tales anthologies edited by Paul Finch, and the New Blood collections. That's a nice range for the imprint. And going back to what I was saying above about approaching publishers with marketable proposals, I guess New Blood authors must have made some waves in the independent press, getting tales in good anthologies and generally having a presence in the community - in short, being visible.

PT: What level of involvement, if any, do you expect of writers when it comes to promotion? What strategies do you find work best for you in getting the work out there to readers?

GF: I expect authors to be active in promoting the gear, but - here's another publishing insight, folks - there's only so much you can do. I've tried many things, like adverts, interviews, distributing review copies, etc. But the simple truth is that readers either want the book or they don't. And by one click of an email to my massive mailing list, built up over years, and by pasting announcements across the Web, I can reach everybody who is likely to buy the latest book. If they buy, great; if they don't, no amount of cajoling, of expensive persuasion, is going to make a bit of difference. The rest is down to the authors' marketability, their popularity, their charm in the field. Believe me; I've been doing this for ten years. And that's how it works.  

PT: What can we expect to see from Gray Friar in the future? Do you have plans to publish any more novels (Lisa Morton's The Castle of Los Angeles won a Stoker, but is I believe your only novel release), or will you continue to concentrate on work in the short form?

GF: I don't know. Here's another publishing insight, I think. The best way to do this, to maintain your enthusiasm, is not to know what the hell you're going to do even a few months in advance. It keeps the whole laborious enterprise exciting. Otherwise, it's just tiresome work. And I have enough of that to deal with at the office. However, in addition to Shadows Edge edited by Simon Strantzas, I have - unusually - five new books in the pipeline this year. I may as well tell you what they are: The Bright Day is Done by Carole Johnstone (New Blood 3), Terror Tales of London, The Condemned by Simon Bestwick (Gray Matter novella 6), Differently There by John L Probert (Gray Matter novella 7), and Terror Tales of Wales. After that, who knows? I'm not sure I'll do more novels. Lisa's Castle did very well and won a Stoker Award, but I'm not sure I can shift many novels when Asda are selling them for £3. No, the independent / small / indie press is where folk buy stuff they can't get from the mass market, so I guess I'll concentrate on that kind of thing.

PT: Finally, if money was no object, what would be your dream project?

GF: A new novella by Ramsey Campbell in Needing Ghosts mode, I think. Yeah, that would secure my place in horror publishing history.


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