Specialty Publishing

More and more, it seems, the new books that really attract me don’t come from the major trade publishers. That doesn’t mean that New York isn’t bringing out good books or that I don’t read plenty of titles from trade houses. But I think that as people grow more sure of their tastes, they often gravitate to those specialized subgenres that particularly appeal to them, or to the more unusual or even minor work from writers they especially care about, and that usually means specialty presses. Let me give some examples.

I enjoy, for instance, the charming little booklets from a Chestertown, Maryland couple who run Idiots Press. He does the words; she does the pictures. Their chapbooks are witty, winsome and original. I suppose their most famous single title is “The Baby is Disappointing.” It’s a delightful treat.

Then there’s Quill and Brush, which has just brought out the fourth edition of “Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values.” In this hefty volume Allen and Pat Ahearn, experts on modern literature, describe the various kinds of collecting, give advice on identifying publishers’ first editions, and offer much to interest anyone who cares about books. But the heart of this reference classic lies in its hundreds of pages listing and describing those modern firsts that are worth $100 or more. I paid $50 for my first of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” and knew it was a bargain 25 years ago. The book now retails for $5000. Just browsing through “Collected Books” over the past several evenings makes me realize: I’ve got to take better care of what’s on my shelves--or, all too often, in a box in my basement. Of course, most of the works in my “library” are worth less than what I paid for them, but then I’ve always been more a passionate reader than a serious collector. Be that as it may, the Ahearns provide a terrific overview of the current book collecting market.

I’ve regularly sung the praises of Ash-Tree Books and Tartarus Books--two of the leading purveyors of classic and modern supernatural fiction. But I just ordered an expensive tome from Centipede Press: “Conversations with the Weird Tales Circle.” This is a huge volume collecting material by and about H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long and all the other greats associated with the classic pulp magazine. The book also reproduces 50 covers of WT. It should be another real treat.

Speaking of Clark Ashton Smith: “The Golden State Phantasticks” (Phosphor Lantern Press) collects the essays and reviews of poet and critic Donald Sidney-Fryer on “the California Romantics and Related Subjects.” Here are pieces on Smith, Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling and other somewhat neglected West Coast writers by a man who is himself something of a living legend.

Speaking of California poets, I can’t recommend too strongly the astonishing two-volume work from Jack Foley: “Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time LIne: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005.” Published by Pantograph Press, this chronological mosaic history lists and briefly describes the books, events and scandals in the often intersecting lives of scores of California writers--year by year. It reminds me a bit of my late mentor Robert Phelps’s “The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene, 1900-1950.” I’m not a Californian, but Foley’s packed and fascinating pages are really hard to stop reading.

I am, however, a Jules Verne reader and collector. As such, I deeply appreciate the new editions of Verne being published by BearManor Fiction in its Palik Series (named after an eminent Vernean). The most recent volume “The Marriage of a Marquis” features a wealth of extras, starting with essays by three of the leading Verne scholars of our time: Brian Taves, the late Walter James Miller, and Jean-Michel Margot, followed by commentary by translator Edward Baxter and an additional Verne fragment translated by Kieran M. O’Driscoll. The paperback’s gorgeous cover resembles one of the classic French Hetzel editions. Jules Verne was more than just a writer of boys’ adventures and his oeuvre extends way beyond the four or five classics that everyone knows about. He’s a writer well worth exploring and rediscovering.

Did I mention Crippen and Landru, which specializes in collecting the short stories of past and present crime writers? Or Wessex Press, which focuses on books about Sherlock Holmes? Or Tachyon Press, Small Beer Press, Old Earth Books, and Prime--all committed publishers of wonderful works of fantasy and science ficiton? There’s really no end.

Let me stress that these are not Print on Demand publishers. These pubishers bring out real books by living authors, with a sprinkling of classic reprints. Still, do other members of the Reading Room share my enthusiasm for small presses? Do you have a favorite specialty publisher? What small press books have you been particularly pleased with? How do you keep up with publications dealing with your own specialized reading interests? Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

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