Simon Marshall-Jones is founding publisher and editor at Spectral Press, the small but already highly regarded British producer of horror and dark fiction chapbooks and anthologies. I spoke to him about what prompted him to publish in this genre and about how viable an operation of this kind is in the modern publishing environment.
TeleRead: What prompted you to found an independent press focused on the horror/dark fiction genre?
Simon Marshall-Jones: At my first convention in 2010, Fantasy Con in Nottingham UK, I was handed a pair of Nightjar Press chapbooks by Nicholas Royle to review for the website I was then working for. After reading them, the realisation hit me that the chapbook was a perfect and compact platform the format for showcasing writers’ works. Additionally I was reading quite a lot of the old masters (M.R. James, E.F. Benson, E.A. Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, et al) at the time, being heavily interested in the classic ghost story rather than horror. In one of those rare moments when it appears that the stars are right and the planets are aligned, it occurred to me that I should set up my own small press (although I prefer the term independent press). I mentioned the idea on social media, and received a fantastic response in return. So, a mere matter of months later, Spectral Press was born with the first chapbook, What They Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon, being released in January 2011, and the press has been growing in stature ever since.
TeleRead: What kind of appetite and audience is there for horror and dark fiction in the UK these days? How does this compare to the resurgence of dark fiction in North America?
Simon Marshall-Jones: Certainly from my own experience there has been quite a marked demand for such literature in this country – people, I think, are very much looking for quality, both in terms of the fiction itself and its presentation. There will always be those for whom a physical book is absolutely necessary – they can be desirable objects in themselves and the emphasis of quality in all aspects is at the heart of Spectral’s publishing ethos. It is extremely gratifying that customers recognise our efforts: the press was nominated for awards in 2012 and 2013, and has been again this year. The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert won Best Novella at last year’s British Fantasy Awards.
As for the US side of things, the darkness in genre literature is very different. I’ve often wondered why, because for a time British and American genre material shared a common basis. I’ve often mused on the idea that the shock of the seismic shift in perception caused by the tragedy of 9/11 resulted in a new social paradigm, which has often come out through genre media as a form of exorcism (just like I believe that Japan’s kaiju films were a result of coming to terms with the atomic bomb). Certainly I think US genre literature is much darker and more visceral, while the UK instantiations are more geared toward the psychological effects of horrific situations. Perhaps, these differences are manifestations of national collective psyches.
TeleRead: What kind of demand is there for chapbooks and limited run/special edition formats? How does this dovetail with the new opportunities afforded by ebooks and POD?
Simon Marshall-Jones: Here, this is where people recognise the care and attention to detail which goes into a small press production. Although, just like the major publishing houses, there’s a bottom line to it all, an independent press can publish material very much geared to readers actually want to read. There are less commercial restraints in that sense at least.
Saying that, there is still the impetus to produce professional-looking books – well-edited and professionally laid-out, wrapped in high-quality artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves of a high street bookstore, allied to good customer service as well as being ensconced in the beating heart of the genre. There are some exceptional writers out who deserve having their work published – and this is where Spectral comes in.
Having said the above, the commercial reality dictates that the books should be made available on all platforms – Spectral also publishes its output on eBook and POD.
TeleRead: What are the economics like for a small press in the post-Amazon/digital disruption era?
Simon Marshall-Jones: This is the most difficult aspect for any small press: finance. One is necessarily restricted by budgetary considerations when it comes to the release of physical books – there just isn’t the money to print thousands or to embark on a massive advertising campaign. Most of the success of the press is entirely due to word of mouth, plus reviews and interview in genre venues.
With a small press such as Spectral, all of the finance for printing books is entirely dependent on pre-orders from customers. Luckily, every book so far has done extremely well, reviews have been exceptional, and Spectral is recognised as a brand synonymous with quality. Like any brand, Spectral has its core supporters and a solid customer base, plus has garnered an enormous amount of respect and goodwill from well-known authors and others. From this perspective, I happen to think that Spectral has a very bright future.