Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brash Talking

What happens when you turn a couple of friendly but ambitious crime-fiction writers loose to create their own publishing company? Something like Brash Books, the independent enterprise developed over the last year by author-screenwriter Lee Goldberg and trial attorney-turned-novelist Joel Goldman. As I explain in my new column for Kirkus Reviews, Brash will make a big splash in September, when it rolls out its first 30 titles (in paperback and e-book versions). Those include private-eye yarns, espionage adventures, Old West justice tales, and even a couple of vigilante-for-hire thrillers. Tom Kakonis, Maxine O’Callaghan, Gar Anthony Haywood, Bob Forward, Jack Lynch, Barbara Neely, and Dallas Murphy are among those represented by the company’s initial offerings, but other familiar names, such as Geoffrey Miller, Mark Smith, and Robin Burcell, will join them on Brash’s release roster over the next 12 months.

Not long ago, I contacted Goldberg and Goldman, via e-mail, with a long list of questions about their new publishing endeavor. They responded quickly--and in more than 4,300 words. I was able to use part of what they told me in Kirkus, but certainly not all of it. So below, I am presenting most of the rest of our exchange. (The covers featured in this post, by the way, all come from soon-forthcoming Brash releases.)

J. Kingston Pierce: How do the two of you know each other?

Joel Goldman: I met Lee at some long-ago mystery conference, probably Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon, not long after my first book was published in 2002. We kept running into each other and people kept mistaking us for brothers.

Lee Goldberg: We met at a mystery conference somewhere 10 or 12 years ago. We became fast friends and ended up working closely together on the Mystery Writers of America’s board of directors for many years. During that time, I developed enormous respect for his intelligence, business savvy, and his ability to negotiate complex disputes (I guess that comes from his background as a lawyer). So, in some ways, it feels like we’ve been in business together for a very long time. When we’re together, people constantly mistake him for my brother, Tod, who is a crime writer, too.

JKP: Why did you decide to republish only books that have originally seen print since 1970? Is it simply a way of distinguishing Brash from other companies that are also bringing back out-of-print crime fiction?

JG: As a startup, we knew we couldn’t do it all. We had to stake out our ground without taking on too much. 1970 seemed like a good jumping-off point, but that’s not how we’re distinguishing ourselves. We’re doing that by publishing the best crime novels in existence, a carefully curated list of award-winning and critically acclaimed novels plus a select list of new titles. Sorry, I know that sounds really corporate but it’s the best way of saying who we are.

LG: I don’t want to give the impression that all of our republished books are from the 1970s. That’s definitely not the case. Our reprints go as far back as the mid-1970s, but are also as recent as the early 2000s. Most probably fall in the late ’80s, early ’90s. But the pub date of the books or time period that the books are set in aren’t what’s important to us. It’s the storytelling. A great crime story that is well-told is timeless, regardless of when it was published or what year the stories take place.

JKP: Is it correct that you’re launching your first 30 books, all in early September? How many authors do those 30 represent?

JG: Yep. Thirty books from 12 fantastic authors.

JKP: Do you worry that with such a huge single-month rollout, some of the individual works you’re publishing might get lost?

JG: We’d be crazy if we didn’t worry about that, because we don’t want to publish more books than we can support.

LG: But we also wanted to make a big splash, to launch with a list of books that truly announces who we are, that represents the range of work that we’re publishing, and that demonstrates the high quality that sets us apart from our competitors.

JG: Our marketing plan is a solid mix of old-school and new-school promotion, including magazine and convention ads, online ads, social media, and our killer Web site. We’ve hired an ad agency and a PR firm to help us, and we’re going to as many conventions as we can to get the word out.

LG: The best advertisements we have are our books and our authors. People are blown away by how gorgeous our books are and are very enthusiastic about the authors we’re publishing. Those readers are spreading the word for us better than any tweet or Google ad can.

JKP: Who was the first author who signed with Brash Books?

JG: The first author Dick Lochte. He was at Bouchercon. We told him what we’re thinking about doing and asked him if he was interested, and he said yes. We knew that if someone as well-respected as Dick would join us, that we were really on to something.

LG: Dick Lochte was the first author to say he’d sign on with us, and that gave us the boost we needed to know we were on to something. But I think the first author who actually signed a contract with us was Tom Kakonis. I’d been a fan of his for years. Back in the early ’90s, I nervously approached him at a conference to ask if he’d blurb for my book My Gun Has Bullets [1995]. I was stunned and enormously flattered when he actually gave me one. Over the years that followed, it broke my heart to see his books gradually fall out of print. So when Joel and I decided to launch Brash, he was at the top of my list of authors we had to republish. Not only did we get his backlist, but he offered us a brand-new novel, too [Treasure Hunt]. That was an unexpected gift, one I took as a positive omen of our success.

JKP: How do the two of you split your responsibilities with Brash? Do you both acquire and edit the works, or is the company structure more complicated than that?

JG: It’s hard to have a complicated structure when it’s just the two of us--plus someone who coordinates the preparation of the books. One of the great things about working together is how easily and naturally we’ve divided things up. I take the lead on the business side, finances, legal, things like that. Lee takes the lead on the Web site, social media, and scouting for authors and books. We’re both involved in acquisitions. We give notes to authors on new manuscripts but we also work with a freelance developmental editor to do the heavy lifting.

LG: It’s amazing how naturally we’ve fallen into our roles. We do almost everything together, but Joel ultimately handles the nitty-gritty business side of things. I have complete faith in Joel’s sound judgment. He’s an amazing negotiator and has a great head for business and numbers. Me? I need a calculator to count my fingers and toes. I tend to be the book scout and the person who makes the initial contact with authors and estates. We’re basically mining my collection of mysteries and thrillers for the backlist titles that we’re publishing. I also solicit recommendations from writers and readers that I know who have a deep appreciation and knowledge of the field. People like you, Bill Crider, Dick Lochte, Johnny Shaw, Paul Bishop, and Jan Burke.

JKP: Which authors are you most excited to see back in print?

LG: I’m equally excited about all of them, and I’m not just saying that. It goes to the core of our business model. Each and every book has to excite us. It’s what sets us apart from most of our competitors, who are vacuuming up backlists just to build their content libraries. We are publishing the books that we love, books that our fellow authors love, and books that have earned incredible praise. Keep in mind, we’re paying for all of this out of our own pockets, so every book we publish is personal for us.

JG: This is a little bit like asking which of my kids do I like best. The answer can depend on the day! But I love all my kids and I’m thrilled to introduce all of our authors to a new audience. That’s why we’re doing this.

JKP: So far, who have been the authors you’ve had the hardest time convincing to join the Brash “family”? Have there been many who have turned down your offers? And what reasons did those holdouts give for their refusal?

LG: We’ve been lucky. I’d say 95 percent of the people or estates that we’ve approached have enthusiastically jumped on board. They can tell how much we love the books, that we are genuinely enthusiastic, and they can see we are the real deal, not a couple of hucksters. It really helps, I think, that we are successful authors ourselves. We’ve lost a couple of authors because they couldn’t get the reversions of rights back from their publishers on their out-of-print books. And there have been a few estates where there are a number of heirs or parties who have to agree in order to make the deal … and we haven’t always succeeded in making that happen.

JKP: Are there other living authors you simply can’t find? Or authors whose descendents have proved elusive so far? Please name names.

JG: Some people are hard to find. We’ve even hired a P.I. from Boston to help us, and she’s done a great job. I’d love to name names but we don’t want to give the competition any ideas.

LG: Hunting down some of these authors or their heirs has been a challenge … but it’s also been fascinating, too. We lucked into this terrific, tenacious P.I. who is really enjoying these cases and has taught us a lot.

JKP: In addition to republishing existing novels, you’re commissioning new works from authors who are still alive. Can you tell me the names of some authors you have convinced to deliver fresh books to Brash?

JG: Discovering great new books has been one of the real perks. Tom Kakonis had one sitting in his drawer called Treasure Coast. It’s one of the best crime novels I’ve read in a long time and we’re releasing it in September.

LG: We’re also publishing a thriller from Philip Reed, a new “Wyatt Storme” novel from W.L Ripley, a kick-ass action-adventure from debut authors James Bruner and Elizabeth Stevens, and a crime novel from Robin Burcell, based on the novels by Carolyn Weston that inspired the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. All those books, still yet-to-be-titled, will be out in 2015. We’ve also got a couple of other original novels we’re currently negotiating to acquire that came in as unsolicited submissions.

JKP: How many Brash Books releases would you like to put out every year? And how many of those would you like to be new books, rather than reprints?

LG: We’re publishing at least one original novel per quarter, and eight or nine reprints of previously published work. So, at this point, we’re planning on publishing 35 to 40 books a year. That’s not counting the two or three collections we’ll be releasing between quarters. For instance, we’ll be releasing all four of Michael Stone’s Streeter books in one volume and all four of Barbara Neely’s Blanche White books in one volume, after we’ve released them all individually.

JKP: I saw, in the front of Treasure Coast, that author Kakonis credits Lee with “rescuing” him. Is he referring there to Brash having extended his writing career?

LG: The last thing Tom ever expected was for me to call him up out of the blue and ask if we could republish his out-of-print thrillers. I was surprised that he remembered who I was, but he hadn’t forgotten me any more than I had forgotten him. When I told him how much I wanted to bring his books back, he was touched and excited. He figured that he had had his time in the publishing limelight and that it had passed. I asked him if he’d stopped writing novels. He mentioned that he had a novel that he wrote some years ago, but had stuck in a drawer because he’d been so badly burned by the publishing business. I asked if I could read it … and he sent it to me. I was blown away by it. I couldn’t believe that a book this good, that was every bit as great as his most-acclaimed work, had gone unpublished. It was a gift for us to be able to publish it.

I can’t speak for Tom, but I think what he means by his kind dedication is that Brash Books has saved his past work from being forgotten … and reinvigorated his desire to write books. We may have rescued him, but he launched Brash Books with Treasure Coast.

video
Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman discuss the line-up of private-eye novels Brash will release in September.

video
Goldman and Goldberg talk about some of the unconventional heroes featured in their Brash Books line.

JKP: One of the more interesting moves you’re making--and which you mentioned briefly before--is to, first, pick up the late Carolyn Weston’s three Sergeant Al Krug/Detective Casey Kellog novels, including 1972’s Poor, Poor Ophelia, which inspired The Streets of San Francisco; and then you’re planning to continue that series with a new author. What’s the status of those negotiations? And have you decided to keep the story setting in 1970s Santa Monica, or move it to San Francisco, perhaps in the present day?

JG: We’re really fortunate that the fabulous Robin Burcell, who’s won a shelf-full of awards, has agreed to continue Carolyn’s series. We’re bringing it into the present-day and moving it to San Francisco.

LG: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and my father was an anchorman on KPIX [TV]. So, naturally, as a kid, I was a big fan of The Streets of San Francisco. And when I saw that the TV series was based on three books by Carolyn Weston, I snapped those up and devoured them. They’ve been on my shelf ever since. They are great police procedurals that won acclaim in the 1970s--a time when there weren’t a lot of female crime writers out there, certainly not many getting the kind of attention that she was or inspiring a hit TV series. And yet, even though everybody knows about The Streets of San Francisco, nobody remembers Carolyn Weston’s books, perhaps because she never wrote any more books after those three procedurals. They fell out of print and into oblivion. Not with me. They were at the top of my list when we launched Brash. We acquired all the rights to Carolyn’s books from her heirs and decided to continue the series. Joel and I both knew the perfect writer for the job: our old friend Robin Burcell. We had no one else in mind (which also shows how much Joel and I think alike). Not only is Robin an acclaimed crime novelist, but she’s a cop in Northern California, too. Who could possibly be a better choice? We can’t wait to read her book.

JKP: Brash Books seems to put a great deal of emphasis on handsome book covers. How important is it to put out novels that look good in addition to reading well?

JG: We know from self-publishing our backlists that a dynamite cover is essential to a book’s success, because that’s how a reader first encounters a book. The cover has to grab the reader and tell her enough about the book to make her want to buy it. Just as important, the production quality of the print books--from the cover, to the binding, to the interior layout--has to be indistinguishable from any book put out by the Big Five [publishers], and ours meet and exceed those standards. We’re proud to say that CreateSpace is responsible for producing these beautiful books. They’ve amazed us with their incredible work.

LG: Joel and I are very, very involved in the design of each and every cover, working very closely with CreateSpace’s excellent team of artists. We know exactly what we want and aren’t satisfied until our expectations are met … though these artists exceed them on a daily basis. I’m sure they would tell you that we’ve been very tough on them and, as a result, have brought out their A-game. They are as proud of these covers as we are. Perhaps even more so. We also felt strongly that our trade paperbacks had to look indistinguishable from those from the Big Five … not just to wow customers, but to show brick-and-mortar booksellers and the mystery-writing community at large that we are serious about putting out quality work. And I think our books do that.

JKP: Joel mentioned before that you guys are fronting the money for Brash yourselves. Is that correct? This venture can’t be cheap.

LG: It hasn’t been cheap, and I think that shows in the books themselves and in our Web site. I was a TV producer for many years, and I made sure that you could see every penny we spent on-screen. Well, every penny we’re spending [here] is on the page. We’ve invested a considerable amount of our own money in this … which goes back to one of your earlier questions. We wouldn’t be investing this much of our money into Brash if we didn’t love each and every book we are publishing. This publishing company is a reflection of our shared passion for crime fiction--as authors and readers.

JKP: You say you want to treat authors the way you would prefer to be treated. The upside of that seems obvious: You presumably go out of your way to help writers bring the finest products they can to market, and compensate them as best you can. But is there a downside to that, too? Can you be sympathetic and also profitable?

JG: We’re publishers but because we’re also authors, we know what kind of relationship authors want to have with their publishers. That’s not about having sympathy. It’s about having respect. Authors understand that writing and publishing are separate businesses and that neither can be successful unless both are successful, and if we aren’t profitable, no one will have any sympathy for us.

JKP: Speaking of your both being authors, how do you balance your Brash responsibilities against your own interests as writers? Have you had to take a step back from composing and publishing your own books, in order to get Brash Books up and running?

JG: I’m pretty certain that Lee has found a way to make his days last around 27 hours. I’m still scrounging for the elusive extra time to keep up with writing my own books. It’s a daily challenge.

JKP: That said, what book(s) are you writing at the moment?

JG: I’m working on two new co-authored series, one with Lisa Klink and one with James Daniels. And, I’m working on the next book in my Alex Stone thriller series--at least in my head.

LG: I’m writing the fourth “Fox & O’Hare” novel with Janet Evanovich, which will be out next year. But at this moment, Janet and I are signing a few thousand copies of The Job, the third novel in the series, which will be out in November.

2 comments:

Clinton Greaves said...

Great interview. As a lover of crime fiction, I'm wishing Brash Books much success. I will definitely support their authors.

John said...

This was a great article, Jeff! I wish them lots of luck. I do some literary detective work myself tracking down heirs and literary executors for Raven's Head Press and our sporadic crime fiction reprint line. It can be fascinating work, but it's time consuming, sometimes exhausting and often frustrating and disappointing when you finally find someone and they say, "Thanks but no thanks." Wish we had the money to hire a private eye to help us out. What an asset that must be!