Transcript: From Pulp to Pixels

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Interview with Benjamin LeRoy, Prologue Books

For podcast release, Tuesday, March 27, 2012

KENNEALLY: It sounds like a roster of bands playing at the local rock club this weekend. Park Avenue Tramp. Killing Cousins. Lovely Executioner. But instead, those are titles from a new e-book publishing house that aims to give a second literary life to pulp fiction authors and their works. Hello, and welcome to Beyond the Book, the podcast series on the world of publishing from the nonprofit Copyright Clearance Center. My name is Christopher Kenneally.

On March 1, F+W Media announced creation of a new imprint, Prologue Books, that will make more than 250 out-of-print novels available for the first time as e-books. These hard-boiled crime novels, written from the 1940s to the 1970s by legends like Peter Rabe and William Campbell Gault, have long served as an inspiration for contemporary crime fiction. Joining me to tell us how Prologue Books made the leap from pulp to pixels is Benjamin LeRoy, publisher of F+W’s Tyrus Books, who is spearheading the project. Benjamin, welcome to Beyond the Book.

LEROY: Thank you for having me, Christopher.

KENNEALLY: Well it’s really a pleasure to have you join us, a subject of really wonderful interest both from the business side of things and from the literary side of things, so we look forward to chatting with you about it. We should tell people that Ben LeRoy is the publisher of Tyrus Books, a division of F+W Media known for its crime and dark literary fiction. Before starting Tyrus Books in the summer of 2009, Bejamin LeRoy helped to run Bleak House Books. Novels from both houses have been nominated for and/or won most of the major awards in crime fiction, including the Edgar, the Shamus, the Anthony, and the Barry. And Ben LeRoy, let’s get started with telling us about the history of this project. What was the genesis of the idea, and what are you trying to do with Prologue Books?

LEROY: I came up with the idea about two years ago or three years ago, when I started thinking about how writers who are working in the contemporary marketplace were influenced, obviously, by authors who had come before them. And I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of fun to trace the genealogy of the genre, and see how perhaps authors who were – and I use the term relevant not in a disparaging way, but were relevant 60, 50 years ago, how they’ve influenced what is understood to be crime fiction today, in the tropes, the conventions, and also in the way that the authors are presenting it.

And I thought, with technology being what it is and e-books being a sort of easy process, this would be a chance to get a lot of books, put them out into the general conversation, the general marketplace, and to be able to do it in a way that wasn’t cost-prohibitive, and giving a second chance to authors who had been around before. Giving them a second chance at sort of prominence. And a sort of side part of that is that I wanted to track down authors, best-selling authors, big-name authors who are writing today, and ask them, were there any books that are now currently out of print that were very influential to you as a reader and as a writer and a fan of crime fiction? And it’s been really interesting to just see, from a historical perspective, the responses that we’re getting.

KENNEALLY: Well you know, Ben, the fans of this genre, they consume books the way some of us eat potato chips, you know, one after another after another. And of course, some of the names that really rise to the top, the Raymond Chandlers and Dashiell Hammetts and so forth, are well-known to everyone. But I guess the point you’re making is that, in its heyday, this kind of fiction gave work to hundreds of various authors who were really appreciated for what they did as well.

LEROY: It’s amazing to see the output that some of these authors had. They were writing under two or three pseudonyms, they were writing multiple books a year, they were writing across genres. They were writing because they were storytellers, and they were efficient with their wordsmithery. And if we were able to hop in a time machine and go back, these are the people that would’ve been on dime store racks. And I think it’s important to note that in 60 or 70 years, people might say, oh, well Dan Brown was such a big selling person. And I don’t mean to make any equation between Dan Brown and the writings of a Chandler or a Hammett, but to the same point that you were having, there’s a prominent name that’s never going to be lost to history.

But there are a lot of authors who are working today who are writing excellent books that over time are just going to sort of be lost to history. And we’re trying to catch up with that older generation and bring them forward. And you’re right that these people were prodigious in their output, and fans of the genre couldn’t get enough of it. And that’s why they were writing so much, and that’s why they were writing so often.

KENNEALLY: Right. And we are talking to Benjamin LeRoy, who is publisher of F+W’s Tyrus books, which has started a new project, a new e-imprint called Prologue Books, that’s bringing back 250 out-of-print novels from the 1940s to the 1970s as e-books, most of them hard-boiled crime novels. And you know, we do come across these books now, it’s usually at garage sales or library book sales and that kind of thing.

You see them all the time, and there are collectors of these books, because they appreciate the cover art, they just of course are fans of the particular novelist. But if you find a particularly valuable one, you don’t want to break the spine, you don’t want to rip the pages. So this is a way to be able to appreciate not only the book as object, but the book as literary work.

LEROY: Right. And I should very quickly point out that the people that you’re talking about – the type of people that you’re talking about, have been instrumental in curating the program for the titles that we’ve got. We have relied heavily on the expertise of a gentleman named Ed Gorman, who is widely considered one of the crime fiction genre’s most well-informed historians, and who has met a lot of these older authors and is just sort of encyclopedic in his knowledge of it. And a huge debt of gratitude goes to a gentleman named Greg Shepard, who has actually been doing some of the reaching out and collecting these books and finding them.

And you’re right that these things are artifacts and they are, in their own special way, antiques. And at the same time, to get them digitized, it requires breaking the spine. It requires actually destroying a paper copy of the book so that the pages can be scanned. And that is something that I think we all have wrestled with as this project has gone forward. It’s like, oh, this is a treasured thing. And it’s like, yes. But to get it ready for this day and age, we’re going to have to, you know, break the back of it, get rid of the spine, and scan all of the pages.

I should also point out that we launched with this 250 in crime, but we are moving across sci-fi, fantasy, Western, YA, romance, and crime, and doing the same thing, and that if everything goes well by the end of the year, we should have upwards of 500 titles added to the program. And we’ll continue to keep bringing in new books as time goes by.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s quite an ambitious effort. And you mentioned the word curation. A particularly notable point here is that this isn’t just a grab bag. You are working with people who are real aficionados, who really understand the genres that are involved and are making choices for your readers that are probably going to be seen as very worthwhile.

LEROY: Yeah, there’s a respect for the genre, and that’s why we’ve brought in people to help with the curation of it. Because I would be lying to myself if I thought, oh, well I’m the most qualified person to go and grab – a lot of these authors were unfamiliar to me until they were brought aboard this program. And now I’m seeing all of the stories and being fascinated by what we’re seeing. But you’re right, that this is selected and this is careful, and this is using people who are very respectful and educated in the history of the genres.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well we’re here at Copyright Clearance Center, of course, and what we worry about on a daily basis are the rights to various kinds of works. And clearly, acquiring rights here is critical. You constantly go out and buy yourself a box of books at the local antique shop and then start to publish them online. You’ve got to reach out to the authors, to their heirs, to their executors, to their attorneys, whoever they might be, and find out whether or not the publishing rights are available in the first place, and what it takes to acquire them. Tell us about what you know about that process.

LEROY: Well, we’ve had good luck reaching out. And again, it’s through the network of people that we’ve selected to be involved. We have agents who have been in the business a long time who are connected either to other agents or to the estates or to the heirs of a lot of these authors. And for people who have seen maybe a grandfather’s work or a father’s work that has sort of toiled in relative obscurity for a while, and people who are seeing what the widespread availability of e-books is doing to the publishing landscape, I’m sure there have been a lot of people who have been interested in getting their father’s or their grandfather’s work out.

And so for someone to come in and sort of do it as part of a larger program, we’ve had a lot of very receptive conversations. There haven’t been too many people who have been skeptical or have been worried or fought it or said no, even for that matter. And we’ve also, when involving the heirs, we’ve gotten these really beautiful human sides to these stories, where in my head I’m like, oh, OK, this author wrote 20 books from 1945 to 1965. And that’s all that person is to me on the face of it is, oh, it’s an author who wrote these books.

But it’s so wonderful to have the children or grandchildren of these people say yes, but these are some other things that you should know about this person, and then go on and sort of give a family history and bring the warmth of like, here was a real actual living human being who did all of these things. And we’ve approached them in a respectful way, and we’ve been met with a lot of respect. And I think that a lot of people are glad to hand publishing rights over – well, they’re getting compensated, obviously. There’s a financial side to it. But also the chance to have a rebirth of these literary careers, and to get these names back out in the public square, I think means a lot to people.

KENNEALLY: Well, there’s something almost magical about words on the page. Of course, there’s nothing quite as sad as a book that lies unread. To be able to return it to readers seems to me to be a really wonderful endeavor.

LEROY: I was originally, before switching majors to English, I was a history major. So I’m just fascinated by the history of it. And I agree with you that an unread book is a sad and lonely thing, and especially if it’s unread because of technological limitations that we can now easily clear them. It wouldn’t have made sense 15 years ago to do a full paperback run of all of these books. But if we can make it easily accessible, cost-efficient, and cheap for the end user on a relative scale, that we can get some of those unread books reread, and give people an appreciation for what’s come before.

KENNEALLY: Well, I have a funny question. I mean, one of the attractions of the books, as we mentioned earlier, is of course the look and feel of them. The cover art was always really critical, particularly in the crime genre, and there was some sort of salaciousness that was usually there. It helped you pick it up off the rack, of course. I’m presuming, but you can correct me if I’m wrong, that you’re not able to acquire the rights to that artwork. So are you creating new pulp fiction covers?

LEROY: Yes. You’re right that we did a couple of exploratory looks into what it would take to get those rights to the artwork, and it was going to hold up the processing time considerably, trying to track everything down. And you’re also very right that those covers were salacious, and the book descriptions have, on more than one occasion, made me blush. I mean, there was some fairly racy content, and I understand why people were putting them in brown paper bags when they were transporting them home.

We’ve done what we can to bring back that hard-boil, to bring back that pulpy feel of those covers. And I’ve been blessed to work with a boss and a design team that has really taken the project to heart and had fun with it. And we’ve seen all of the original covers, so there was always this basis for, OK, well this is what the original cover designer was going for. And there are some really beautiful works of art on those old covers. I mean, they were edgy and they were racy and they were salacious, all of that is true. But it’s just as impressive that those covers were being cranked out as fast as the books were.

Since digging into all of this and reading more about the history of it, it wasn’t uncommon for the same cover to be used on more than one book, swapping out titles and author name and all of that. And I guess people knew when they hit a salacious gold mine, what was going to move books off the rack, and they would go back to it.

KENNEALLY: I can imagine that the blonde became a redhead, became a brunette over time.

LEROY: Exactly, exactly. Exactly.

KENNEALLY: Well, what’s the competition for these titles? I mean, as you’ve mentioned, in the past it wouldn’t have been economically prudent to go and publish a paperback run. But now you can have an infinite inventory with a single digital file. Are you finding that there’s a race going on to find the really finest examples of these kinds of titles?

LEROY: Yes. And this goes back to an earlier point that you made. The standout and most prominent titles, and the Chandlers, the Hammetts, those I’ve sort of assumed were going to be picked up by larger publishing houses or people who have been in the publishing side of things for a longer period of time. So I’ve made peace with the fact that we probably won’t get those gems that get held up as like, you know, this is something that should be on the top three list of every crime fiction aficionado of this time period. I’m assuming that we’re going to miss out on some of those.

So it’s important to get a roster of very solid, very indicative of what the marketplace was like at those times. And because a lot of those names and those titles have been lost to history, it’s easier going finding those now, finding those that are available, and where people are interested in working together.

KENNEALLY: Well, the story you have just heard, ladies and gentlemen, is true, to use the phrase not quite out of pulp fiction, but out of the same sort of genre, the hard-boiled detective in crime. And we have enjoyed hearing it from Benjamin LeRoy, who is publisher of F+W’s Tyrus books, and has just announced the creation of a new imprint, Prologue Books. It’s going to make available more than 250 out-of-print novels for the first time as e-books. Ben LeRoy, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

LEROY: Thank you for having me, sir.

KENNEALLY: And we should tell everybody that Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies, and now television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at our Web site, copyright.com/beyondthebook. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.