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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

The First Case Notes Blog Interview

31st May, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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I plan to run interviews on this blog, but with a difference. On the one hand I hope to put the spotlight on some of the unsung heroes of the literary scene, people who you don’t normally see getting interviewed, and on the other I want to take on all the usual suspects, but asking them the sort of things they don’t usually get asked.

Anyway, our inaugural interview is with Derek Wright, one of the leading lights of Wordsworth Editions, whose line of Mystery and Supernatural titles will be a cause for joy to any fan of the genre looking to complete gaps in their collection without breaking the bank.

PT: Hi Derek. For openers, could you tell us a bit about the history of Wordsworth Editions and what your aims are with the Mystery and Supernatural line of titles?

DW: Wordsworth Editions was formed in 1987, and at the outset was involved in completely different parts of the book trade to where we are now. It took on its present form in 1992, when Managing Director Michael Trayler came up with the idea of the £1 Classic paperback. This was at a time when book prices were fixed, and it undercut massively all the existing editions of Classic fiction. Other publishers have since followed our lead, but Classic fiction remains our bread and butter – 60% of our sales are to the export market, and we do sell, literally, all over the world. Although we lost Michael to Leukaemia in 2005, his vision lives on.

Successful though the Classics are, there are limitations to the choice of material we can use. We know that authors like Jane Austen, the Brontës, Dickens and Hardy will always sell, and our trade customers, particularly on the export side, always will look for familiar names. We found in the past that it was very easy to start publishing books that interested us, but nobody else!

Within the Classics series, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James were always big sellers for us, as were the Sherlock Holmes books, and Wilkie Collins. The ‘Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural’ series was conceived in 2006 with the aim of enabling us to attract a wider range of readers. The underlying concept was that the series could combine acknowledged classics of the two genres, with the less familiar, or largely forgotten, gems of Victorian supernatural fiction. It was an ambitious project, in the sense that its success was dependent on making the reading public aware of the series, which is not an easy thing for a small publisher like us. Three years down the line, the series is attracting a lot of praise, and is starting to repay the effort we have put into it.         

PT: You’re predominantly focused on out of copyright material, which must give you a lot of material to pick and choose from. How do you make decisions as to which projects to go with?

DW: The pricing of the series at £2.99 doesn’t leave us much scope for the payment of royalties, and there is such a wealth of material that is out of copyright, and by definition a steady supply of new titles becoming available each year, that we are not going run out. That said, we do venture into copyrighted material – we’ve reached agreement to do a complete collection of Oliver Onions’ stories next year, and we recently agreed a deal with IPC Media, which enabled us to do some Sexton Blake stories.

As far as the selection process is concerned, this has a number of elements to it. One of the advantages of being a small publisher (Wordsworth has just three full time staff now) is that we can be quite flexible in our approach. We have David Stuart Davies as the editor of the series, who gives his recommendations. One of the nice things about the series is that it has given us a much closer connection with our readers. We don’t profess to be experts in the genre, so we take a lot of interest in the suggestions we receive for new titles, and we even ran an online poll on a website that takes a close interest in our titles to see what the most popular suggestions were. All this information goes into the melting pot, and eventually is formulated into a final list. At the moment we are in the process of coming up with 20 titles that will form the basis of our publishing plans for the next year or so.  

PT: Can you just talk us through the process of publishing out of copyright work? Is there anyone who has to be informed, or can you just pick a work and go for it?

DW: It’s as simple as picking a book and doing it. We usually source a very old edition from Abebooks, the text is created by OCR software, proofread and printed. Surprisingly easy!

PT: I’ve been very impressed by the Wordsworth covers that I’ve seen. On the books in my collection they’re classic artwork, I believe. How do you go about matching up titles with cover illustrations, what sort of selection process is involved? And are there ever occasions on which you commission original artwork?

DW: In the whole process of publishing a new title, the selection of the cover image is probably the most time consuming part. With our main Classics series, we are largely limited to using paintings that relate to the book, but the Mystery & Supernatural series has enabled us to go for a completely different look. A lot of the cover images are now specially commissioned. About a year ago, we were contacted by a professional photographer, Des Knock. Des had an existing portfolio containing many images that we could use ‘off the peg’, but in a lot of cases, he will work on images to get them to exactly what we are looking for. Helen Trayler, our M.D., does all of the cover selections, and each one has to be just right. Des has to earn his money, but I think you’ll agree that the effort is worth it.      

PT: A couple of recent titles, The Werewolf Pack* and Black Veil, both edited by Mark Valentine, have mixed classic stories with newer work by still living writers. Is this something that you will be looking to do more of?

DW: David Stuart Davies, being a well known writer himself, has many useful connections with contemporary writers. Both of the collections you mention sell well for us, so there is every chance that we will do more in this format.

PT: How do you see the recession hitting your corner of the market? Do you anticipate any downturn in sales, or do you think that, with their lower prices, Wordsworth titles are ideally placed to hold their own in a difficult market?

DW: We were slightly cautious with our publishing plans for 2009 until we could gauge the effect on our market, but I’m pleased to say that we are doing well at the moment. The original £1 Classics were launched in the middle of the last big recession, so there is a certain logic in thinking we have the ideal product for these times. The main concern is to avoid incurring any major bad debts, but you have to balance this against being ultra-cautious, and missing out on sales. If we can tread the right path, we’ll be fine.

PT: What books do you have in the pipeline for the remainder of 2009?

DW: This month we’ve replaced our current edition of Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories with a new edition that includes the original Dracula story, previously only available in our main Classics range. We do try to cram in as much as possible for £2.99! We’ve also done Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, and a collection of W.F. Harvey’s stories The Beast with Five Fingers. Later in the year, we are bringing out some of the original Gothic horror stories – Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, first published in 1796, and a book that combines three titles, The Castle of Otranto, Nightmare Abbey and Vathek.

Confirmed titles for 2010 so far include Varney the Vampyre, the Oliver Onions collection, a collection of Australian supernatural tales, and some of the writings of Aleister Crowley. At the moment we only do Frankenstein in our main Classics series, but we’ll probably do a Mystery and Supernatural edition, and include The Last Man.

We’ll be making some further selections in the next week or so, and we’ll spread the word once these are finalised. We’re already eying some new material that goes out of copyright in 2011 and 2012, so we hope to be keeping Mystery and Supernatural fans entertained for many years to come.

 

*Stories by Steve Duffy and R. B. Russell from The Werewolf Pack have made the cut for Ellen Datlow’s new anthology The Best Horror of the Year #1, alongside a couple of tales from our own Black Static.     

 

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