Stark House started with an idea from my dad. He had been in the publishing business most of his adult life—as a newspaper reporter and photographer, selling ads for the paper, writing his own column, editing and writing for various outdoor magazines; and finally editing and publishing his own magazines. He knew something about the world of publishing.
He came to me in 1998 and suggested the family pool its efforts and create our own publishing company. I forget how he phrased it. Knowing my dad, it was probably a gentle suggestion, just something he had been thinking about and wanted to get some feedback on. I thought it was a great idea.
And being the person that I am, I immediately set about suggesting all sorts of stuff we could publish, and possible names for the company. Which is how we arrived at Stark House Press, and our first book, a collection of stories by Storm Constantine. My ex-wife and I ran an import company called Firebird Distributing LLC during the 1990s, specializing in importing British books and selling them to U.S. dealers and collectors. One of the authors we imported—and quite successfully—was Storm Constantine.
I fell in love with Constantine’s baroque fantasies which mixed sex, religion and adventure with a dash of stylish pop culture to create a world all her own. My favorite book at the time was Burying the Shadow, a subtle vampire tale that never once mentions the word “vampire.” I felt that Storm was the Goth Queen, and I campaigned heavily for her with the Stark House family.
I contacted Storm, and she was agreeable. More than agreeable, she was a pleasure to work with. She hadn’t had any of her standalone books published in the U.S. at the time, and was only known for the Wraeththu Trilogy, a gender-bending science fiction series that started her career. Rather than reprinting one of her novels, I wanted to start with something totally original in a signed, numbered hardback edition. The result was The Oracle Lips: A Collection.
We discovered right away that we had to print quite a lot of them to get a decent price break, so we pooled our monies and jumped in with a thousand-copy print run … all gamely signed by Storm and numbered by us. If we had any idea of what we were doing, we would have published about five hundred copies. The book got a few tentatively good reviews (as I recalled, the Locus critic felt it was a bit uneven, and perhaps it was considering that none of us novices wanted to reject any of Storm’s submissions), and it sold fairly well initially.
But I still have several boxes of the book. Until his death in 2012, my dad always kept five boxes in his garage as well. I never knew whether he kept the boxes a reminder of our hubris, or in pride of accomplishment. He was too tactful to say.
However, after The Oracle Lips was published and didn’t sell like the hotcakes we expected—ie, after we all failed to make our investment back—my parents backed off the project. I suggested more books, but my dad could always think of a reason why he didn’t feel that investing more money in a project that wasn’t likely to make any money was a good idea. A noble endeavor, but no thank you, my son.
The Oracle Lips was published in early 1999. It took me two years to publish another book. I suggested to the family that if they didn’t mind I would simply borrow the company for a quick side project, and I went back to Storm to reprint two of her standalone novels, and another collection of stories. You can’t keep a good man down. Or perhaps you simply can’t stop stubborn. At any rate, I continued Stark House as a side project, adding some Algernon Blackwood books to my list. As long as I wanted to invest my own money in the project, the family didn’t mind.
My brother, the art director, took another approach. He stayed on board, but he asked to be paid for each book. Smart man. I couldn’t have continued the company without him.
Once I decided to start reprinting older books, I initially hired someone to scan those Blackwood books for me—until I realized that I had to learn how to do that myself if I was going to make this company work. The family finally decided to give me their share of Stark House, and off I went, looking for more new projects.
Which is how I came to publish mysteries. Just as I had done with Storm Constantine, I simply went with what I enjoyed. I don’t tend to read a lot of new fiction, so reprinting older books suits me fine. You will notice that each year, more new authors appear on the list. This isn’t a carefully considered plan on my part to gradually change the face of Stark House back to its humble origins. No, I simply publish the books I enjoy reading. It’s just as simple as that. And I owe it all to my dad: Bill Shepard, the man with the plan, and editor supreme.