Specialty Publishers: Volumes for the ‘permanent bookshelf’

Since New York trade publishers don’t like to bring out collections — faithful fans of the Reading Room will recall we once discussed this topic on an earlier thread — writers who specialize in short stories, essays and poems must often find other ways to bring their work to the attention of readers. While there are various forms of self-publishing available, this route still seems to me slightly tacky, too much like resorting to a vanity press. Hence, today’s university presses look more and more like trade houses of 50 years ago, as they offer a wide range of non-academic titles, while specialty publishers have grown into a needed bastion for serious readers and writers.

I’m a fan of popular fiction published between 1880 and 1935, a time when the supernatural tale and classic detective story flourished. Think of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, May Sinclair, Vernon Lee, Oliver Onions, E.F. Benson, Walter de la Mare, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, Ernest Bramah, Henry S.Whitehead and many others. All these writers have, during the past 10 to 20 years, been reissued in handsome editions from such presses as Ash-Tree, Tartarus, Centipede, Night Shade, Sarob, Wessex, Temporary Culture and a half dozen others.

But these days there is also a new generation of writers who work in these classic traditions, sometimes paying deliberate homage to older masters, more often refreshing the old forms by updating them to the present. They too have been published by these same presses. For instance, I recently received a gorgeous oversized book titled Secret Europe, a collection by Mark Valentine and John Howard, brought out by a press in Bucharest called Exposition Universelle. Cream colored paper, red chapter titles, wide margins, and excellent stories (spooky, Borgesian, redolent of central European learning and culture), this is a book that once seen is immediately coveted.

Similarly, the volumes published by Tartarus all come in soft yellow jackets, and maintain comparably high production values. The other publishers are just as distinctive and admirable, offering elegant design and superb craftsmanship. These books, I should emphasize, are definitely not print-on-demand titles. They are beautiful books, a pleasure to handle, treasures that one might pass along to heirs or, if need be, sell to other eager collectors. Each title is produced in runs of under a thousand, often just 250 or 300 copies. As a result, they do tend to be priced about twice what a trade publisher might ask, and most will cost $45 to $150. For an impecunious student, that’s certainly pricey but for people who love books and bookmaking, or a particular author, these are volumes for what used to be called the “permanent bookshelf.”

They are also the last refuge of the writer of short stories, slightly experimental fictions, and other uncommercial forms — at least for those who don’t simply want to surrender to some kind of strictly e-book publication. In such cases, you possess not a book but merely its text — and sometimes that may be enough. But not for me. Certainly if you like a particular genre, you owe it to yourself and to that field to seek out the smaller publishers who reprint the rarities and publish the new authors.

But I still can’t understand why New York publishers can’t be bringing out more collections. I’d be eager to hear the reflections and thoughts of other members of the Reading Room. Do you purchase books from small presses and publishers? What kind of books? Have you been happy with the “product”? Do you have favorite publishers or titles? Please share your thoughts.

— Michael Dirda

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