Ginger Nuts of Horror
Spectral Press has been one of the most consistently high performing small presses in recent memory. Recently, Editor In Chief Simon Marshall-Jones kindly agreed to be interviewed by Gingernuts Of Horror. Read on to find out more about what makes SMJ tick – his editorial turn ons and turn offs, how he sees the current state of the industry, and of course, what the future holds for Spectral press...
GNOH: When we’ve spoken previously, you’ve described how you consider that your past experience has led you to finding the role of editor. Could you talk a bit about the path that led you to create Spectral Press?
SMJ: Indeed, from the moment I learnt to read I constantly had my face buried in a book. I read voraciously – everything from JRR Tolkien to Robert Sheckley, Michael Moorcock to Arthur C. Clarke, The Three Investigators to the Pan Books of Horror. Even at the age of six I was reading books meant for adults – not for any other reason than I just loved reading and there weren’t enough books for my age bracket around in the house.
Additionally, I also loved writing – the number of books I started penning was innumerable, and from the very start I wanted to get one published. It never happened, of course: it would take me until I was in my late forties before I had a story accepted for an anthology. But that was how I got my start in the industry in 2010 – writing stories that didn’t quite hit the mark but which gave pleasure in the writing of. Gradually I drifted into editing, and I found that I enjoyed it immensely and that I had a certain talent for it. I still write, and have found that the editing side of things has subconsciously improved my writing – in fact, my debut short story collection, Biblia Longcrofta, is due to be published soon.
GNOH: At what point did you realise editing was a job you could do? Was it a light bulb moment or more of a dawning realisation?
SMJ: I was asked by a writer friend, Stephanie Schmitz, to edit one of her books (Let it Bleed), just prior to me launching Spectral and I just took to it immediately. Innate understanding of how narrative works, its rhythms, the peaks and troughs, what to leave in and what to omit: it was all just intuitive. From that point on it became self-evident that this was something I should exploit, plus it isn’t a bad way of making a living. You could say it was a species of epiphany.
GNOH: How has it been working with an editor on your own stories? Did that experience teach you anything new about either editing or writing?
It’s been helpful – no author should self-edit a work. As has repeatedly been said by others, a writer is far too close to his own work. A fresh pair of eyes is essential. Plus, editing is one of the most, if not THE most, important processes in publishing. After all, what gets printed represents the author, as well as the publisher.
It’s strange to be looking in on the process this time, as it gives one an insight into the methodology of editing. Every editor takes a different approach – there’s isn’t a single correct system, there’s only the end result: an irreproachable and accurate manuscript. Plus, a good editor is a stealthy visitor, unnoticed but unconsciously acknowledged.
GNOH: How would you describe your collection? When is it due out?
SMJ: Well, bizarrely perhaps, it isn’t horror – there are elements of it yes, but there’s also the fantastique, mythology, science fiction, magical realism, philosophy, even a bit of romance, and semi-autobiography. It’s a series of interconnected stories set in a fictional town called Longcroft – it has no physical connection to our reality but is interwoven within and between it. It’s the kind of place where gods coming to stay for their holidays is considered normal.
As for when it’s due out, I reckon within the next month.
GNOH: Spectral has a deserved reputation for quality, in both authorial content but also presentation. Was that foremost in your mind from the start with Spectral? What are the things you do as an editor to ensure that level of quality is maintained?
SMJ: I would say that a greater part of my ‘obsession’ over quality is a reaction to a lot of what I’ve seen in the self-publishing and ‘indie’ end of the spectrum. That, mixed with both my art and design background and my father encouraging me to read some of the science fiction and fantasy greats from a very early age, has significantly moulded my responses to badly-written and –produced stories and books. I think it behoves all writers (and publishers) to think carefully about how their work is presented – it’s what the customer first encounters and those initial impressions determine whether a sale is made or not.
This is what I wanted from the very start when I mooted the idea of Spectral Press. I’ve attempted to approach it from a holistic angle – every element has to work in symbiosis: the story, the editing, the artwork, and the finished product. It’s especially true now that we live in such a technologically-democratic age, where access to the means of disseminating information and literature is practically universal. With so many people online, getting noticed is hard, but this is one way to go about it.
GNOH: Which other small/indie presses are doing work you admire?
SMJ: Chizine is one press in particular I admire – their aesthetic sensibilities very much jibe with where I see Spectral going in the future. Another press is Tartarus, whose hardback publications are things to behold. Also, Horrific Tales Press – just because they’re so passionate about what they do. Ditto Grey Matter Press in the US.
When all is said and done however, one cannot help but admire anyone who chooses to set up a small press and achieves what they set out to do. It’s a lot of hard work (and fun too) but it does take up a great deal of time and effort. That passion is often the one thing fuelling publishers’ visions and work.
GNOH: What was the first title that Spectral published? Can you talk a bit about how that came about?
SMJ: The first title, What They Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon, was the first chapbook I published, all the way back in January 2011. Spectral was, and still is, an invite-only press for the most part (the exceptions are the anthologies), and I had sent out a couple of emails to potential contributors – Gary McMahon was one of them and by return he sent me a short story he’d been working on, which I immediately read and loved. If I was going to make a splash then Gary was the right author to launch with, and make an impression it certainly did.
Spectral will be five years old in January 2016, and to celebrate Gary is returning with a novella, The Grieving Stones, to mark the occasion. This is one of his most affecting pieces to date, in my naturally biased opinion...
GNOH: Were you nervous about making those initial approaches to authors? How much time did you spend working on your ‘pitch’ for Spectral?
SMJ: Surprisingly, it didn’t take as long as you might imagine – I started from a definite platform (the traditional ghost story [referencing late Victorian/Edwardian writers] but updated for modern sensibilities) and wrote a pitch around that. The response was gratifyingly positive, and there’s been a constant stream of interest ever since.
GNOH: Spectral Press is also particularly well known for its novellas and chapbooks. What is it about shorter works and serialised works that appeals to you, as an editor?
SMJ: Shorter works are snapshots of a writer’s preoccupations and style – which is why chapbooks work so well as introductions to an author you’re not familiar with. It’s how I got to discover several writers myself, like Tom Fletcher and Alison Moore. Plus, I am very much enamoured of the short story, and I think they can be strong enough to stand on their own. Chapbooks, to me, are showcases, which is why I like the idea of publishing them.
Novellas pitch themselves somewhere between a short story and a novel, allowing a writer to expand an idea but avoiding the pitfall of it outstaying its welcome. It was a popular format at one time I believe but, like many things subject to the vicissitudes of popular taste, fell out of favour. I am glad to say that novellas are making a comeback in the mainstream: I don’t think they ever disappeared from the small press.
As an editor, it’s their compactness which attracts me to both these artforms, because artforms they assuredly are. They need to be concise in their execution – there’s no room for waffle or extraneous verbiage. The writer has to be aware of what he/she is doing, in terms of the writing and story, and how best to tell it. And, having worked with some of the best, it’s a delight to see how a writer manages to achieve so much in so short a space.
GNOH: Publishing as an industry has been in a state of almost constant upheaval in the last five years. What do you consider to have been the most important changes in the industry, and what further shifts can you see on the horizon?
SMJ: E-books have been the most noticeable change within the industry, breaking the stranglehold of the major publishing houses, which is no bad thing. If looked at in perspective, it should provide a wake-up call to those same publishers to look at their own demesnes and slot themselves into the new landscape. Plus, it’s encouraged people to have a go at writing a book for themselves.
But, like all good things, there is a downside: self- and e-publishing lack gatekeepers, those entities who filter out the gems from the dross. And believe you me, there’s a LOT of rubbish out there that should never have seen the light of day (although the same could be said of traditional publishing to a lesser degree). Commercial platforms offering self-publishing services aren’t bothered about quality – they’re just after your money. That, to me, just feels like the prostitution of the hallowed written word.
A measure of equilibrium will be found between traditional and electronic publishing, in fact it’s already begun. Each side will find their natural levels, and after all the fuss about the technology, we’ll find the same thing happening to the ‘real’ book as is currently happening with the vinyl record.
GNOH: The vinyl comparison is a really interesting one – one thing that occurs to me is that the changes in the music industry kind of crept up, what with the LP/MC/CD/MP3 journey, whereas for publishing, it’s kind of happened all at once – book to e-book. Accepting your earlier point regarding the analogous relation between physical books and vinyl, do you think that step change helps explains why e-books have been so disruptive?
SMJ: I think what we’re talking about here is twofold: one, the disruption itself, and its cause – novelty and the hunger for new things. That’s all part of the dream and the philosophy underpinning it: the belief that we must have all the goods that society deems we need in order to be up-to-date and current, and that without them our lives somehow possess lesser meaning. Novelty certainly fed the initial surge in demand, but it’s now worn off plus some of the drawbacks have become apparent – even if you have 5000 books stored on your device when the battery drains they’re lost to you. You keep having to recharge the battery to carry on using it – without access to a charger or electricity access is denied. The paperback, bulkier perhaps and not without its own limitations, is not subject to problems of demand or access.
As noted above, however, that novelty has lost some of its shine, and e-reader sales are down while physical book purchases are up. I may appear old-fashioned to some, but for me there’s nothing to replace the smell and feel of an actual book in one’s hands.
GNOH: Looking back over the last 18 months, what do you consider to have been the highlights of 2014 for Spectral?
SMJ: They would probably have to be the publication of Angela Slatter’s chapbook Home and Hearth which recently won an Aurealis Award for Short Fiction and The Spectral Book of Horror Stories edited by Mark Morris, which has picked up three Shirley Jackson nominations. It’s been a long road to get to where Spectral currently finds itself, so it’s a gratifying acknowledgement that the hard work which goes into producing them has resonated with readers out there. The genre market is a hard one – so many publishers and writers vying for the same pot of gold so it’s a testament to what I originally set out to do five years ago.
GNOH: Which book or novella have you read that you most wished you’d been able to edit?
SMJ: That’s a difficult one – there are just so many good writers out there to choose from. Nothing springs to mind immediately: however, having said that, I have had the privilege of editing and publishing two spectacularly brilliant and beautifully-written books by Stephen Volk, Whitstable and Leytonstone, the former about Peter Cushing and the latter Alfred Hitchcock. Neither are supernatural in any way, shape, or form – but, simply put, they are both superb literature of the highest order, and are also extremely human. Both offer precise character portraits of their respective protagonists, getting under their skins and delving into the hearts of what made them tick. I may be biased, but I recommend them both highly.
GNOH: Having read both, I enthusiastically second that! As an editor, what qualities represent the ideal manuscript, to you? What are the things you are looking for, that make you want to publish something? Similarly, which are your biggest turn offs, editorially speaking?
SMJ: Often, the ideal qualities are inexpressible intangibles, that are more akin to an intuitive knowing and response. Flowing prose, solid ideas concisely expressed, characters which are rounded and real, and seamless integration of any supernatural elements, combined with an indefinable poesy that sparks off trains of imagination. But, the most important thing is originality. Yes, it’s difficult to achieve – but there are still ways of looking at things in new ways, even if the central conceit has been used a thousand times. The human mind has an infinite capacity for invention and creation. Luckily, all the authors I’ve worked with so far have these aspects in abundance in their work.
As for turn-offs – things like clunky exposition, wooden characters and dialogue, constant repetition of particular words within the same sentence or paragraph, the rehashing of old ideas, using explicit gore in place of plot, weak prose, bad grammar and spelling, and zombies and vampires.
GNOH: I understand that you also undertake freelance editing work. Do you find there are any differences in your approach to freelance editing vs. Spectral editing? Is the relationships with the clients/authors any different, and if so, in what way?
SMJ: Yes, I also offer editorial services as well as the publishing – editing and proofreading. I’m not the cheapest, but what you get in return is a professional polish and a thorough assessment.
There are no differences between how I approach a freelance project and one of my own press’. Both require the same sets of analytical skills and grammatical and verbal knowledge. The same relationships exist between author and editor in both cases. The end product will be the same.
GNOH: Looking ahead to the rest of 2015 and beyond, I understand Spectral is introducing some new imprints to tackle some other genre material. Can you talk a bit about how those projects came to be?
SMJ: This year I introduced a new line of books under the overarching name of Theatrum Mundi (‘Theatre of the Universe’). Its purpose is be a home for those books which don’t fit into the remit of Spectral Press, but which are nevertheless great stories which deserve to be published and read. Here you will find experimental, fantastical, philosophical, gritty, magical realist, occultic, and boundary-stretching works, as well items such as radical reinterpretations of traditional fiction tropes, or psychedelic explorations of word and form. Some works will be more traditional in execution and intent, but others will be quite out there. At least those are the stated aims.
Science fiction was my first love, getting into it way back when my father used to hand me books he thought I’d find interesting. So, naturally, a sci-fi imprint was always on the books. No umbrella name for the imprint yet, but I am currently running a competition to name it. My aim for it is to publish
cutting edge, adventurous, arcane, challenging, boundary-pushing, and genre-busting material, as well as speculative literature which explores unexpected areas and themes, and to delve into places not traditionally associated with the genre. SF has the power to give shape to the future, as well as helping us to free ourselves of prosaic everyday constraints – as has been averred elsewhere, imagination is a powerful tool.
Spectral will also be setting up a crime fiction offshoot, Spectral Stiletto (reminding people simultaneously of stiletto knives and femmes fatale) – it’s an incredibly popular area of fiction. I suppose one could even say that crime fiction is a natural bedfellow of horror, indeed there’s been a great deal of crossover between the two genres for a while now. More than that, however, it won’t just be limited to the ‘traditional’ parameters of what we think of as crime fiction: there’s a huge potential for crossover between all kinds of genres and storytelling techniques, and we intend to have a lot of creative fun playing with conceptions.
I think that last part sums up what I intend to do continue doing with Spectral: an imprint that plays with conceptions in whatever genre. It may sound highbrow, but in all honesty that interpretation is only superficial – what I want is for the imprint to also be playful with it as well, to emphasise that there’s a joy to creation as well as a serious purpose. Reading is what people do to relax, and we want our customers to be entertained as well as affected on some primal level.
GNOH: That all sounds pretty exciting. How do you find managing that kind of workload on a day-to-day basis? What would you say are the biggest challenges of running a small press in 2015?
SMJ: Effectively running two businesses on my own, my biggest hassle is time. Also, marketing – social media is all well and good, but if you don’t have a substantial advertising and promotional budget like the big boys do, then you have to get a little creative. Of course, word of mouth plays its part enormously, and most of Spectral’s customer base has resulted from both social and traditional media as well as people telling others about what the imprint has to offer. More often than not, though, the books sell themselves.
GNOH: Lastly, what else can we expect from Spectral over the next 12 – 18 months?
SMJ: A LOT of good stuff – Darker Terrors, a Best of Dark Terrors featuring stories from Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Dennis Etchison, and others, The 2nd Spectral Book of Horrors edited by Mark Morris, The 13 Ghosts of Christmas Volume 2, novellas from Cate Gardner, Mark Morris, Kathe Koja, Conrad Williams, Gary McMahon, Simon Bestwick, and Angela Slatter. Collections from Johnny Mains (paperback edition of his Back from the Dead, celebrating the Pan Book of Horror Stories) and David Tallerman’s The Sign in the Moonlight & Other Stories, the latter a tribute to the Golden Age of the Pulp magazines. Then, from Spectral Screen, a definitive volume on the influence of author and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale). Plus plenty more in the offing…
Sounds great! Thanks so much to Simon Marshall-Jones for his time and insight – we look forward to reading the next Spectral release.