The Origins of a (Very) Small Press: Publishing Strange Words in Strange Worlds
The story of how Bizarro Pulp Press came to be and where it's going next.
Running a small publishing company is easy because the money flows like water. It’s so easy, everyone should be doing it. Printing a book is like printing money, and if you write a novel, you’re clearly a creative genius—the world is lucky that you are giving a gift to the world, and even luckier if you want to start your own small publishing company
Except most of that probably isn’t true, and if any of it is true, I have been doing things wrong.
Why would you want to start a small publishing company? Do you want to deliver a specific aesthetic to the publishing industry? Are you a crusader who believes that there are good writers out there who have created courageous art, and you wish to share it with readers everywhere to inspire them, or to change the way someone perceives an idea? Do you dream of working from home and making Wall Street cash while sitting in front of a computer in your underwear?
Clearly, it’s the money.
Bizarro Pulp Press is a press founded on the idea that it would never make money.
The original founder of Bizarro Pulp Press, Pat Douglas, was a good friend of mine from the “for the love” days, where we both wrote bad short stories and novels for a press that paid “exposure” rates. I had worked for the press in question as an editor, and I made several mistakes along the way, nearly burying my “career” by screwing up terribly. A lot of hard lessons were learned in those lean years.
I had edited a story of Pat’s in the past, and he asked if I was available to do some freelance editing. We struck up a friendship as he talked about his idea of a publishing company that was supposed to exist just for the sake of existing; Pat’s idea was to simply publish fun books and have fun doing it. Pat really enjoyed making cover art, and was a huge fan of books like Space Walrus by Kevin Donihe (something he constantly mentioned, though I had zero context for it and had no idea what he was talking about). Thus, the idea of Bizarro Pulp Press was born. I was shown a website before the press launched. I agreed to help Pat edit for his press.
The first wave of books included: Skinners by Adam Millard, The After-Life Story of Pork Knuckles Malone by MP Johnson, and Notes from the Guts of a Hippo by Grant Wamack. I had a general idea of Pat’s vision for the press because I had a chance to edit Skinners. I had a lot of fun editing the book, and considered it to be a pulp, Grindhouse-style book that reminded me of ten-cent horror films. I asked Pat if I could write a book for BPP, and he agreed to it, though my book needed to be a “fun”, pulpy novella, something I had not yet done. Thus, Gravity Comics Massacre was born.
I had very little personal investment in the press, until Pat gave me an editing assignment that changed my life.
WHAT IN TARNATION IS A BIZARRO BOOK?
I did not know that “bizarro” was a genre. I had no clue. I was an English major with a snobbish background in Russian and contemporary literature. Having worked in a bookstore during my wild days, I thought genres were categorized rather simply, with a few sub-genres. Stephen King belongs under the Horror category, James Patterson belongs in Erotica, etc.
I thought Pat had made up a cool name for a press, because I used to think the word “bizarro” meant “weird, twisted reflection” of something else that actually existed. I had no idea that Eraserhead Press was a real thing, a press that apparently founded the genre that I was supposedly working in.
By the spring of our first year, I had edited Skinners and had worked on a fun book called Fecal Terror by David Bernstein. Clearly, Pat wasn’t taking anything too seriously. The books were short, fun, and inexpensive (the first paperbacks were 6.99). These weren’t books that I would be looking for, or go out of my way to buy. Pat was, simply put, having fun, as was I. The press had released a few other books that I did not edit (those duties were handled by a close friend of Pat’s, who also edited Gravity Comics Massacre).
And then my whole world flipped upside-down when Pat showed me an interesting title: All Art is Junk by R. A. Harris. It was a far cry from the other books we had published, and it marked a turning point for Bizarro Pulp Press. The book is beautifully written, imaginative, violent, and extremely vivid, with language that bordered on the poetic. I began to wonder if there were other books like this one. After all, my introduction to small press publishing had begun approximately two years before, and I had no idea who most of the “big names” were.
For me, small-press world represented an opportunity: why can’t we create something “different”, considering the sales for most “independent” fiction are modest to begin with? What is the risk? Surely, the types of books I had always wanted to read were out there if R. A. Harris could publish All Art is Junk.
Right after going through All Art is Junk, I had an opportunity to read another book that was submitted to Pat; Moosejaw Frontier by Chris Kelso. If you’ve read Kelso’s work, your first experience probably involved several WTF moments, until you settled into the strange headspace of Kelso’s meta-science fiction blender. When I looked over Moosejaw, my first thought was: will people even read this kind of book? Is there an audience for it? I decided that anyone who would like All Art is Junk and/or Moosejaw Frontier would surely love what I wanted to do, in the future. I felt like a sudden rush of literary freedom had filled my own creative impulses. All the things that I had wanted to do were suddenly possible.
But where did Harris and Kelso get the idea that they could find a place to publish this kind of work? It must exist, somewhere.
After about seven months, I learned that the original “bizarro” press was called Eraserhead Press. I had seen Carlton Mellick III’s covers once a long time ago on a website that had very many negative things to say about the oversexualized art and titles that seemed a tad on the juvenile side. I was convinced this author would throw a half-naked dwarf on the cover of his next book and call it “Space Sex Dwarf F****** a Goat on Pluto”. After considering Eraserhead Press (and Mellick’s books) with a fresh perspective, I realized that my original snobbishness conflicted with the fact that I had thought a book like Fecal Terror was fun and worth publishing. If a book about a space sex dwarf with a goat could be published (it hasn’t, yet, or at least, I haven’t seen it, which means someone should be writing it), why would that be worse than a book about a demonic, talking turd that possesses people?
I had grown up on ten-cent, cheap horror films. What the hell was my problem?
If I was going to edit bizarro books, I had to know what they were supposed to be. Fecal Terror had as much in common with Moosejaw Frontier as much as Ass Goblins of Auschwitz (a real book by Cameron Pierce) is similar to Naked Lunch.
Clearly, there was a huge gap between the concepts of Fecal Terror and Moosejaw Frontier. Those same gaps seemed to exist between books in Eraserhead’s lineup. What, then, was a bizarro book? What was it supposed to be? The best idea I could come up with was that it was supposed to include personification or an over-extended metaphor to tell a familiar story. I delved into Bizarro Pulp Press’s lineup and checked out the books I had not read: Wamack’s Notes from the Guts of a Hippo and Johnson’s The After-Life Story of Pork Knuckles Malone seemed to better encapsulate the range of bizarro fiction that I had explored. Surrealism, weird shit, personification, and body horror were very common themes through most of the stuff that I discovered.
That is, until I discovered the work of Jordan Krall. I had learned about him while perusing a website that claimed Krall was part of a “wave” or “generation” of bizarro writers. Krall’s work seemed to embrace a vivid brand of nightmare fiction that explored the individual psychosis through the lens of traumatic experiences. While that barely scrapes the surface of Krall’s body of work, his False Magic Kingdom Cycle was the final piece of the bizarro puzzle for me. There are a few readers out there who crave the type of material Krall is writing, and I wanted to bring that vivid, surreal sense of a personal mythos—in conjunction with original writing styles—to the literary world.
I began to take a more active interest in Bizarro Pulp Press, as Pat learned that publishing books wasn’t just a fun activity, because the authors, it turned out, wanted their books to sell, and selling books is a lot like having a second job. An avid reader like myself had completely missed the idea of bizarro fiction, so I had to wonder how anyone could possibly pick up this type of genre fiction without being turned off by the diversity of the fiction itself; we know that categorizing things into genre makes it easier for readers to make purchases, and it makes it easier for genre writers to include specific tropes or writing styles that would cater to the audience.
Pat eventually wanted out of the publishing game, and I wanted to present my own take on genre fiction with a press of my own. I had already formed a relationship with Journalstone Publishing, and it was easy to ask Pat if he would be willing to sell the rights to Bizarro Pulp Press to Journalstone. BPP already had several great books, and I did not want to see them abandoned.
So what does Bizarro Pulp Press look like now? I wanted to keep the fun, pulpy books that were a personal guilty pleasure, so we continue to publish those grindhouse-style books with a specific look to the cover art to distinguish it from some of the “high-concept” stuff we have going on. Bizarro Pulp Press is really focused on publishing work that is courageous; whether the book is written with the craftsmanship of a masterful author who could just as easily write the same story at the fifth-grade, mass-market level, or we have a concept that dares to envision worldviews that are difficult to accept, Bizarro Pulp Press is going to publish genre fiction that does not adhere to any conventions.
While I personally agree that a good story—a “page-turner”—is essential for a bestselling novel, I would argue that good art can also tell a story, and good art that distorts our perception of the written language and what it is capable of achieving has a place in the literary world. Contemporary literary giants like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and James Joyce took liberties with language, and while a collective groan among my readers would suggest that a lot of books by those authors are nigh unreadable (arguably, and depending on your tastes, and whether or not you have imbibed illegal substances, etc.), those authors had the courage to accomplish something that could live long after them.
ONE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND AN EXTREMELY LONG AND AMBIGUOUS MISSION STATEMENT
I have encountered a lot of authors over the years who have self-published work or have started up their own presses. Editing is almost always short-changed, because it’s a relatively huge expense to pay for high-quality editing, and a lot of editors who work in publishing have zero qualifications besides the fact that they have published stuff. Createspace and other publishing platforms only seem to encourage the publication of unedited (or poorly-edited) books; because there is a glutton of books that are so bad and selling so well, it makes the idea of editing seem like it’s an expendable cost. Poor editing is rampant in the indie presses, and it isn’t all about typos; there are typos in Stephen King novels.
How do you start a small press and actually make money doing it? Why not just self-publish and control all the expenditures/flow of profits yourself? Why start a press? Are you going to do something differently, something another publisher isn’t already doing? I don’t know if that’s a criteria for creating a press, and I don’t know what the right answer is, but I do believe that we have an opportunity to create amazing art that can challenge the conventions and expectations of storytelling.
I believe we need more small presses. When I was a young’n in the publishing world, there seemed to be new presses every day. Sadly, many of them did not last, and those presses that were considered the gold standard of the indie world have faded (Permuted Press being the most notable). There was almost no difference between what a lot of these presses offered audiences, and what seemed like an easy cash-grab clearly became a small business operation that included the management of people and their diverse needs, something a lot of publishers were not ready to handle.
Trendy genre fiction also fanned the flames that burned some presses down. Once your trendy books are no longer relevant, your back catalog begins to die, and unless you are lucky enough to catch the next trendy wave, your press will be doomed. More presses need to open their doors, but all of us suffer if the bad editing trends continue. If you can take the time to learn how to format books effectively and design attractive covers, the money saved should be invested in editing. The back catalog matters, and the risk of a poorly-edited piece of literature is not worth it.
When a self-published author writes a book that becomes popular regardless of its quality, there is little to no damage. When a press publishes a poorly-edited book, it’s a reflection of that entire press, and is not worth the risk. A self-published author has already made their money, and because their book moved units, they might attract good offers from publishers who would jump at the chance to invest in a good editor for that author; a poorly-edited book published by a small press damages future readership and harms potential sales.
Bizarro Pulp Press strives for longevity and legitimacy. A lot of self-published authors are finding success, and every day, there is a terribly-edited novel that outsells my entire press’s annual volume. However, I’m an idealist, and I believe there are plenty of readers who are waiting for the same experience I had when I discovered bizarro fiction; some of the more prominent bizarro authors were fans first, because they discovered that the fiction they had always wanted to read truly does exist. This, more than any specific trope or expectation, defines what bizarro fiction should be for readers.