Got to Have a Major Plan

When I started reprinting mysteries at Stark House, I really didn’t have a big plan. Most people, they come up with an idea for a business, create a business plan, work the details out on paper, chart their potential cash flow, and work from there. I say, to hell with that. Way too many details getting in the way of the action. If I had worked out the cash flow in the beginning, I never would have started this reprint thing anyway.

The original idea for Stark House Press was that it be a family run business. But most of the family dropped out after the first book. We had all put up some seed money, printed 1,000 copies of a nicely designed hardback, and found out real quickly that we had printed about 700 copies too many. The enthusiasm for another expensive hardback wasn’t there. So I jumped in and suggested we put out some trade paperbacks while we regrouped—short run printings with a limited amount of investment.

This proved a bit more successful, though still not the gangbuster sales the family had hoped for. So, as I say, the family quietly backed off the project. That left brother Mark and I to carry the torch (well, me mostly, since Mark works strictly as art director.) I had started with Storm Constantine, who graciously allowed Stark House to reprint some of her fantasy and science fiction novels here in the States. Barnes & Noble Bookstores bought a big batch of them, then returned them all in unsaleable condition about four months later. I had been introduced to one of the harsh realities of publishing—even at this small level, returns are a bitch.

After that, I tried a couple Algernon Blackwood reprints. Then I tried some Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels, followed by Peter Rabe, Vin Packer and Douglas Sanderson. I decided that if it was going to be my project, then I would bring back all my favorite authors, and see what happened. It was a challenge. Most bookstores didn’t want to try fifty-year-old crime books. They just didn’t. And those that did found sales slow to non-existent at first.

Probably my biggest support came from Mysterious Bookshop in New York. They were willing to carry every book I published, bless them. Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor followed, as did old friends, Ziesing Books in Northern California. Pretty soon other stores were giving our books a try: Murder by the Book in Houston, Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis, Seattle Mystery Bookstore, City Lights and Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. Some dropped out. More came aboard.

The list of customers continues to grow. But I still don’t have a grand plan, except to keep it manageable. I had a large book distribution business back in the 1990s. Careful what you wish for. A blast at the beginning, that business became one pain in the ass after another—my sales rep, in order to earn a living wage, oversold our books; our suppliers, none of whom were being charged for warehouse storage, wanted to get paid on time even though we weren’t getting paid on time by our customers; and the customers themselves began going out of business. Finally, our biggest customer closed its collective doors, shipped everything back, and we crashed and burned.

Stark House Press operates at a more reasonable level, a level I’m comfortable with. We’ve built up a reputation by staying true to my first inclination, to bring back into print all my favorite crime authors. If the science fiction community weren’t so well represented by reprint houses, I’d probably get involved in that side of genre publishing, too. But Stark House has its niche, and I pursue it whether a favorite author makes any money or not. Some books just need to be back in print. And that’s the real plan, keeping it fun.

–Greg Shepard


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