Anyone who frequents the shady corners of the Web where books are discussed is probably familiar with the Caustic Cover Critic blog. Proprietor James Morrison writes about book design–and, let’s be honest, is far too generous with his praise and judicious with his criticism to truly be called caustic–deploying a sharp eye, a ready wit, and lots of illustrations. For those of us in the States, his Antipodean perspective (he’s Australian) is particularly interesting: the blog often compares differing UK and US covers for the same book.
Read enough of his posts and you’ll begin to realize that not only does James have an understanding of design, but he’s also impressively well read and has interesting and unusual tastes. So when he announced earlier this month that he was starting a new publishing venture, Whisky Priest Books, I was excited–and, because this one-man, literary-minded publishing shop seemed like exactly the sort of thing to interest Quarterly Conversation readers, I fired off some interview questions, which he was kind enough to answer.
LTS The primary focus of your blog is book design. Do you work in or have a background in book design?
JRSM Sadly, no. I do work as a writer, editor and designer, but for a non-governmental health organisation in Australia, with sporadic freelance stuff on the side. Though my job did recently involve creating a children’s book about hepatitis C (for which there is a limited audience, as you might imagine). My interest in book design is that of a fanatical reader and visual arts fan. I’m the sort of person whose knowledge of Western art started with paying attention to the old paintings used on Penguin Classics covers.
LTS What prompted you to launch a publishing venture? And why now, as all the pop-talk is about ebooks, ebooks, ebooks?
JRSM Bloody-mindedness and lack of financial wisdom, I suspect. The thing is that technological developments which have made ebooks more available and popular have happened at much the same time as the rise in availability of both print-on-demand book publishing and of public-domain texts.
Also, I’ve never read an ebook in my life—I spend too much time looking at a screen as it is, and I love the physical nature of books, and the look of a well-designed book (both the cover and the innards). Digital book pages that have to be able to be automatically resized for different machines and have to use the standard available-everywhere fonts are not book pages that are particularly lovely to look at.
The books Whisky Priest releases are public domain books I want to read, but which I either can’t find in a physical form, or can only find in hideous or expensive physical form. That means it’s mostly odd and obscure things, but odd and obscure things I like.
LTS Did you have any particular press or presses in mind as models when you started this project?
JRSM Though I read a lot of new literature, I always go back to older stuff. NYRB, Penguin Classics, the old Virago Modern Classics list (now, sadly, gutted), Capuchin Classics, the rediscoveries by Melville House—these are the publishers whose books I really love. There’s so much good stuff that has fallen out of the cultural memory which is just waiting for someone to rediscover it and revive it. You could read nothing but Austro-Hungarian Empire writers and never run out of great books. But my most specific inspiration for Whisky Priest was Myna Classics, which is one man doing a sterling job of bringing back old, neglected books, and doing all of the design and cover art himself. He is also much more professional than me, having a proper distributor and everything.
LTS You’re starting with books that are all out of copyright. How did you determine that status–did you just pick pre-1927 books, or did you research the titles somewhere? And did you have to adapt to different copyright situations in different countries?
JRSM It’s a bit of a mix: some of the books are safely pre-1927, while others are more recent, but have fallen into the public domain because of various legislative confusions. Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year, for example, is in copyright in the UK but not in the US. For this reason it’s available from the Lulu site, which is US-based, but not on Amazon, because with Lulu you can’t have a book only appear on Amazon US and not on Amazon UK. And then there are the crime and other genre books, all the rights to which were bought by their publishers, who then let them lapse or who went out of business, which means that some great stuff by people like Norbert Davis or Fredric Brown is now in the public domain.
There are several books I’d like to do which are out of copyright in Australia, but not elsewhere. I’ll have to wait until they lapse in the US before republishing them.
For anyone who wants to do something like Whisky Priest themselves, a great resource is the database at the US Copyright Office, which can tell you what is and isn’t in the public domain in the States. It’s not 100% complete, but it’s a good starting point.
LTS You’re publishing these books through Lulu, which means that even though you’re based in Australia, people can order and receive books from the States and elsewhere, without waiting for (or paying for) international shipping. That’s a real breakthrough–something that wouldn’t have been possible for a small publisher a few years ago. And it also means that your books are available from Amazon–only, some of them seem to not be. Is there a reason that your whole list isn’t available there?
JRSM Sometimes a book is not on Amazon because of the copyright issues I talked about before—you can only have a book appear at both Amazons UK and US, or else neither, and a couple of the books I’ve done are still in copyright in the UK. But a number of the other books will appear at Amazon at an indeterminate future date—it’s just that with all of the people self-publishing and POD-ing these days, it seems to take weeks or months for a title from a printer like Lulu to appear in Amazon’s database.
LTS Right now the books are available only from Lulu or Amazon. Any plans–or way–to make them available to independent stores, on a special-order basis if no other way? Does Lulu have that capability? Or could it possibly work through Google books, at least for the handful of stores that have Espresso book machines?
JRSM I’d like to get the books into physical bookshops, but that involves a financial investment that’s beyond me for the moment. You not only need to pay to have a whole bunch of books printed in the hopes that you can sell them, but you also need a decent distributor to get them to the shops, and advertising to make people buy them. At the moment I’ve spent more printing proof copies for myself than I have earned on sales, so it might take a while. The Google books/Espresso thing would be an interesting avenue to explore, though.
LTS Where did you get the text files for the books? And how did you handle the interior design? Does Lulu have templates, or did you design the books through-and-through, like ordinary offset-printed books?
JRSM The texts come from various places—there are circumstances in which you can use a Project Gutenberg text, or a Manybooks.net text, for example. (And I would encourage anyone who doesn’t have my ebook-dislike to use sources like these, since there’s no reason to pay someone like me money unless you want my specific version of a book. Or you could design your own edition, and only pay the printing costs.). But even though these sites do an amazing job preparing the texts, there are always glitches that get through that need to be edited.
For most of the books I do all of the interior design and layout, as well as the cover, though in a few cases, such as heavily illustrated books like Michael’s Crag or Artists’ Wives, I’ll use clean scans of an existing (out of copyright) edition of a book rather than resetting everything.
To my knowledge, Lulu makes all sorts of templates available—pretty much anyone could have a book printed by them or one of the other POD firms. The results would probably be fairly plain, but that’s all most people would want, anyway. But since I’ve got the background in design anyway, I prefer to do my own thing—it’s part of the fun to lay out the books to look just the way I want them. This whole thing is really a selfish exercise—I’m making the books I want in a form I like, and if I can persuade anyone else that they would like a copy too, that’s even better.
LTS If a reader were to pick just one title from your list to start–as a way of trying to figure out your taste in literature, and whether it was congenial, what would you suggest? And, the flip side: what’s the most idiosyncratic book on your list–the one least likely to appeal to the masses?
JRSM The second part of that question is the easiest one to answer: Eugene Batchelder’s A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or the Icthyosaurus. This is a book I came across a reference to while reading about Moby-Dick, and it’s quite mad—a novel-length poem from 1850 about a sea monster that attacks ships and swimmers off Massachusetts, attends a fancy ball, and gives the commencement address at Harvard. You could never argue that it’s actually a good book, but the whole enterprise is so daft and ill-conceived that it charmed me.
As for actual good books, Stefan Zweig’s Transfiguration (a pair of novellas) is particularly my cup of tea, and I would hope other people’s, too. Leonard Merrick’s Cynthia, which I discovered via the great Neglected Books page, is a great lost late-Victorian novel about a writer whose first book is a bestseller, and who then turns out to be a one-hit wonder—a missing link between George Gissing and Henry James. And if you like crime fiction, the Doan and Carstairs books of Norbert Davis from the 1940s are hard to beat: Doan is an overweight private eye, while Carstairs is a gigantic and snobbish Great Dane, who may well be the brains of the outfit. I’ve released the four novellas and novels in this series as a pair of omnibuses.
LTS Any ideas of what’s coming next? And any plans to develop this list on a seasonal basis, like traditional publishing?
JRSM It’s all whims! Publishing like this means that you’ll never really make much money (especially if you encourage people to design their own books rather than buying yours), but it doesn’t really cost the publisher anything either, except for time. So the new books appear whenever I’ve finished designing them, rather than to any timetable.
There’s some great Scandinavian, Austrian and Hungarian fiction I want to do. The main problem here is that you not only need the writer’s work to be in the public domain, but you need the English translation to be as well. And then there’s the problem that a lot of the stuff I’d most like to publish was by the sort of then-daring writers who tended to have their work bowdlerised at the same time as it was translated, so finding a good and complete translation is even trickier.
I also have a few Australian classics in the pipeline: a country of 21 million people has a reading market too small to sustain a program like the Library of America, so there are quite a few excellent Australian books that are impossible to find in print.