Surreal Magazine Interview

Harris Bloom interviews John Edward Lawson for Surreal Magazine, 7/05

I met John Edward Lawson at the recent World Horror Convention in New York City. At a rail thin six feet eight inches tall, with long dark brown corkscrew hair, John cuts a figure both imposing, and slightly “geeky” (Sorry John). What isn’t geeky has been his imprint upon the horror fiction scene during the past ten years. As a writer, editor in chief (of the online magazine The Dream People), and now as publisher (of Raw Dog Screaming Press (RDSP)), it’s a wonder John had time to answer interview questions, much less be so damn informative and entertaining. And yet, he did…

Harris Bloom: You started as a writer, and then started your own small publishing company, RDSP. How did that come about?

John Edward Lawson: Well, I was doing these weird screenplays that drew a lot of interest from producers and directors, but they were too “out there” to justify the investment in a writer with no track record. So, I started writing articles and short fiction to build up my credentials. What I learned is that fiction was much more rewarding than screenplays, because you can actually get it published, though the dark surrealism I was peddling still had some trouble finding a home. The only company I could find dedicated to publishing such books was Eraserhead Press, so I contacted them to find out how I could help out. Within a week I had agreed to run their webzine, The Dream People, with the assistance of my wife Jennifer—who had plenty of web design under her belt. Me? I had no clue what I was doing, but something incredible happened straight away: I learned about this whole independent publishing scene. While getting to know authors through the webzine I said to myself, “There’s too much talent here to just give it away on the web.” So we started publishing chapbooks and organizing full-length anthologies. Meanwhile, I’d also become the head of promotion for Eraserhead and became familiar with marketing, the convention circuit, etc. Eventually, Carlton Mellick III, head of EHP, contacted me and suggested that I was ready to run my own company. He even gave me a book they were going to release, by an author with ten titles under his belt, which was hard to turn down. And, all the connections we made through the webzine, chapbooks, and anthologies gave us an advantage in terms of finding great manuscripts.

HB: Wow, Mr. Mellick  – or should I say “Mr. Mellick the Third?” – sounds like a really nice guy. Do you have pictures of him in compromising positions?

JEL: I can’t tell you how many compromising photos of Carl I have, but the truth is they didn’t play a part in his decisions. Forget about all the pics and audio recordings and videos and…ahem…anyway, it’s like this: there are so many deserving manuscripts floating around in the fringe lit scene that no one publisher could publish them all. If you can find another publisher who will do it justice, you turn the author on to them, or have the other company solicit them directly. I’ve done that a number of times myself. Carl’s plan all along was to help other publishers start up to invigorate the scene again, and it’s working, first with us and now with Afterbirth Books. We’ve been doing our part to help out others starting up their companies, and they’ll help others, and so on.

HB: When did all this occur? In other words, how long has Raw Dog Screaming Press been in business? And how many books have you published?

JEL: Well, Carlton convinced me to branch out on my own in June of 2003. By August we had the business set up, and by late October our first book was released. The end of December saw the Sick anthology come into print. In 2004 we did eight different editions; you have to count hard covers and special editions separately from the trade paperbacks because they’re individual products that each take a lot of work. This year, between RDSP and our new imprint for bizarre erotica, Two Backed Books, we’ll do eighteen editions. Of course, in publishing everything takes so long that you can be working years ahead, and we’ve already got five editions in the works for early next year, for a grand total of thirty-three books in three years. The more you do it the better you get at streamlining the process, allowing for more projects.

HB: How did the name, Raw Dog Screaming Press, come about?

JEL: I was exhibiting some of my photography at this art fair in Alexandra, Virginia. While sitting at the table I overheard two conversations as people walked by, catching the words “raw” and “dog” and “screaming.” That really struck me for some reason, and the words kept playing in my mind to the tune of the old Rice-A-Roni commercials: “Raw dog screaming…that sounds good to me!” My friends thought I was nuts, as usual, but I held onto the words and turned it into a prose poem that, six months later, was accepted for inclusion in Volume 4 of the In Our Own Words anthology series. A year later when it was time to bust out with a company name, one that was different and conveyed a sense of what were about It was actually my wife who suggested using it.

HB: How small does one have to be to be considered “small press?” And how big or small is Raw Dog considered in the small press arena?

JEL: We’re the jackals in the arena overwhelming famous gladiators with sheer numbers. Well, sort of. Any publishing venture generating less than two million dollars in gross sales counts as a “small press”…at least, according to the corporate conglomerates. As we well know, there are varying degrees of “small” in the small press. Night Shade Books, for instance, pays crazy advances, is sold everywhere, works with the big authors. Then you have publishers who sign titles and, via print-on-demand publishing, crank ‘em out without any advances, without any promo, with limited availability, etc. Our goal was to start off somewhere in-between, doing a few titles at a time with heavy promotion, while keeping author payment from overwhelming us. We began doing royalties only, although we do decent royalty amounts and pay on time. Right now we’re small-fry, puppies running with wolves, but most people can’t tell because we howl so loud. Even though our sales figures quadruple every year it’s going to take a little while before hitting two million.

HB: What is your ultimate goal in regards to Raw Dog?

JEL: Our creative goal at the company’s conception was to start off with dark literature, then branch out into more fantastic and/or science-based fiction, all the while escalating the bizarre nature of our works. By bizarre I mean experimental or surreal. Originally it was the “genre” fiction that pushed borders, and I think it still can. As a business, our goal was to keep expanding retailers, keep increasing the amount of money given to authors, keep innovating ways to promote our titles, improve our book design with each release. On the creative and business ends we’re meeting our goals, ahead of schedule even. Since the business has proven it can succeed I’m letting myself dream of bigger things, like branching out even further into other areas of underground culture, such as art books and music, indie comics, our own shops selling merchandise from RDSP and the other companies at college campuses. All that would mean business loans, and so far we’ve been able to avoid dealing with creditors. The time is coming, though, if we want to grow our business as aggressively as possible.

HB: How much money did it take to start RDSP?

JEL: A lot less than you’d think. For our first title, 15 Serial Killers, we printed an initial run of two hundred fifty copies—that included twenty-five for the author and sixty to reviewers – lots of postage. Setting up the business didn’t cost too much and we already had a computer and layout software, because my wife is a graphic designer. Ten ISBN numbers—the barcode number used for tracking sales, routing money, etc.—cost $225. We spent money on some ads for 15 Serial Killers and our upcoming title, the Sick anthology. We looked up office supply wholesalers online and got stuff like mailers in bulk. Stuff like registering your trade name in your state, filing for copyright on each book, that stuff is all in the $30-50 range, and the cover art for our first title was $100. The  autumn 2003 Chiller Theatre convention plus the promo materials we distributed there, add another $200. We spent a little more than $2,000 in our first few months. The upper level of our house functions as the business, so we save on renting office space and have an extra tax deduction. The problem isn’t starting up, though; you need to have enough money saved up to weather the long months before money starts coming in. Wholesalers like Ingram don’t pay for 90 days.

HB: Is it profitable?

JEL: One thing you have to realize is that when you have very few titles out, like in 2003 when we just had two, things seem somewhat grim. The cost of those books, plus the startup money, it seems overwhelming compared to the amount of money coming in. You have to stay in the trenches. We’re reaching the point where we’re pretty much breaking even, and soon we’ll be seeing some real profit. Another consideration I haven’t mentioned is, unlike a lot of indie genre publishers, we deal primarily in trade paperbacks. Per unit profit on a paperback is pretty low compared to special edition hard covers—and even those don’t make as much as you’d think from seeing their incredible retail price. Thus far we’ve done print-on-demand, which means you pay as you go—books are printed in small quantities at a slightly higher price per unit. What we’re looking at now is the traditional method of offset printing, basically paying for a thousand or so books up front, which is cheaper in the long run but means a more substantial investment up front. And, we’re starting to offer advances to the authors. What that translates into is: now that we have money we’re kissing it good-bye! But, as I said, it’s more profitable in the long run.

HB: Do you make the majority of your own income from writing or publishing?

JEL: In the past my writing projects were more profitable. The first short story I wrote took second place in the Fiction International Emerging Writers Competition, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and snagged me five cents per word. After the previous two years of beating my head against the Hollywood wall I figured it was a sign and threw myself into the short fiction with a vengeance. Of course, that first story was just crazy luck and on the average I don’t even make it up to the poverty line as an author. Lately the publishing has done better for me, financially, but now that my own books are starting to sell it seems like I might make it as an author after all. My second poetry collection (The Horrible), my debut novel (Last Burn in Hell), and the third antho I edited (Tempting Disaster) have all been released in the last month and are selling like crazy. Pocket Full of Loose Razorblades, a collection, is forthcoming from Afterbirth Books this summer and my second novel, Sin Conductor, will be out in late ‘05/early ‘06. As you can see everything comes to a head at once.

HB: I see. Which do you spend more time doing?

JEL: Something I didn’t mention earlier in the money-related questions is that everything you can do for the business yourself saves money. Therefore you learn to become proficient as a book designer, editor, cover designer, marketer, web designer, accountant, etc. This means time, and time, so far as we’re concerned, is the most precious resource a small business owner has. Now, I don’t have a ‘real” job. Jennifer has a good corporate job that keeps food on the table, gives us both good health coverage and such, so I stay home doing the company and my own writing. Typically I’ll get up at 4 a.m., write until 8, maintain e-correspondence (usually about 2-3 hours of e-mail to go through), spend two hours on promo, an hour or two filling orders, go to UPS and the post office, work on book or cover design until it’s time to make dinner. Nights are spent reading submissions, line-editing titles we’ve signed, or editing my own manuscripts. We don’t watch television, don’t spend much time hanging out. When you work at home there is no time clock to punch out at the end of the day. We do make room to watch about three movies a week, plus maybe Arrested Development, Lost, and Medium—up to two-and–a-half hours of TV. If I’ve got a deadline coming up for my own writing I’ll spend a week working only on the publishing company to get affairs in order, then I spend the following week writing. The mindset of writing, where you’re tapping into the subconscious, doesn’t mix well with trying to manage all the details of running a company. In the end I work seventy-five hours a week, plus whatever I can fit in on the weekends. And Jennifer, bless her heart, spends her nights working away on Raw Dog Screaming. She’s a real trooper, a shock trooper.

HB: How many books of a title do you have to sell for it to be profitable?

JEL: We try to price our books competitively, in terms of the general trade. As a consumer, I feel too many indie books are priced too high. We try to have a profit margin, after printing costs and royalties, of $2-3 per copy. That translates into needing to sell three hundred to five hundred copies, depending on the project—and in the small press that’s a good amount, but all of our older titles have done just that. We’re in this for the long haul—our intention from the beginning has been to push each title for three years. Our research indicated that’s how long it takes many indie titles to “make it” (yes, we did research for months before launching the press). Then, when you release another title by the same author, you have all of that prior promo to build on, creating massive momentum. Another thing we’ve discovered is that hardcovers are more likely to get reviewed by the “big” places like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, so investing in a hardcover is really just a way to sell more paperbacks via the major reviews. Libraries will order enough hardcovers for you to pretty much break even on that investment anyway. Special and limited editions always make a profit for us, but that’s because we always try to have an “angle” and make something that hasn’t been made before. Our 3-D sculpted Grimoire Bloodline, created by the artisans of Z-Malice, Inc., is a prime example of that. Now we’re expanding into coffee-table books, which are also generating pre-release interest. The key to making money with special editions is to sell a lot of preorders.

HB: Good to know. Where do you find most of your authors?

JEL: We find most in the gutter, face-down. The next morning when the screams start emanating from the basement we know we have another Hemmingway. Seriously, while I do pick up a few manuscripts for perusal at events like the World Horror Convention we rely mostly on the Internet, simply because those with bizarre tastes are so few and far between. Then the people we find through the Internet and work with usually recommend like-minded authors they know. You can never underestimate word of mouth, which is why it pays to behave in a professional manner at all times, even when you’re just out running errands. You never know who it was you just flipped off on the road…until it’s too late.

HB: Good advice. And how are your authors paid?

JEL: Authors are paid with an advance that counts against future royalties, or paid by royalty only. There are “professional” rates established by the Horror Writers Association and other organizations, but at the established five cents a word you’d have to sell three novels a year to break the poverty line. Being a person all-too-familiar with Ramen noodles I won’t sneeze at five cents a word, I’m just telling it like it is. Now, a lot of companies offer advances of roughly $500-$2,000, including some of the mass market publishers. There are others in the scene offering $3,000, $4,000. The thing is, no matter what your advance is, the royalty is really the thing. If you can snag between eight and ten percent on the cover price you’re doing well, and if you get paid on a regular basis twice a year you’re doing even better. When you find a publisher who pays what they agree to when they’re supposed to stick with them. The more I do this the harder they are to find. Now, if you sell a screenplay to a WGA signatory company (the Writers Guild of America, a full-fledged union) you get a minimum of $56,000 up front. I still haven’t given up on that.

HB: Who’s your favorite writer, genre or non?

JEL: Well, my favorites include Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, old Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Creighton, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs. Guess I’d have to say Palahniuk has been the most influential on me. Of course, there are plenty of people I think of as friends and colleagues and business partners—the authors I work with, either through RDSP or other projects—and I have trouble remembering them as authors because I read them for “work.” But I can honestly say that I only publish writing I enjoy as much as Barker, Vonnegut, et al. I think a lot of people in publishing, whatever genre they’re in, tend to make the mistake of not reading outside the circles they travel in. I especially recommend poetry and non-fiction, for simple study of word economy if nothing else. When it comes to poetry I’m more into the contemporary stuff found in literary journals like Washington Square and Fence. To be honest, now that I’ve said all that, let me add I’m a terrible reader. Everybody knows I love books, so they’re always sending me free ones—things they’ve read, their own books—and there are three piles of books in my office waiting for the right moment to pounce on me. The problem is I rarely get to read for pleasure anymore.

HB: Why “old” Stephen King? Does the “new” Stephen King suck?

JEL: I haven’t actually read his newer material (and by newer, I mean anything after Misery), so I can’t speak about what the books are like. Then again, I suppose the themes aren’t compelling enough for me to crack the pages. I saw Dream Catcher and, compared to a lot of his older material, thought it was weak. But hey, maybe it’s just me and getting older and each molecule in our bodies being replaced every seven years, maybe Michael Arnzen slipped some anti-King molecules in when I wasn’t looking (not that Mike is, to my knowledge, anti-King!). I should go back and reread It and The Stand to see if they’re as good as I remember.

HB: If someone read this interview that wasn’t familiar with Raw Dog, which two or three titles would you recommend picking up? In other words, which are your favorites?

JEL: Wow, that’s like picking a favorite child! I guess, in terms of our prior releases, I’d recommend people start with the Sick/ Tempting Disaster anthologies, because they were designed to be our “gateway drugs” in that they are samplers of our authors and their various styles. If short stories aren’t your thing, pick up The Fall of Never by Ronald Damien Malfi. It’s an old-school white-knuckle novel that you can’t put down–corny as it sounds it’s the truth. In terms of our future releases, Westermead by Scott Thomas. That one’s going to be big. It’s a collection that reads like a novel, in that all the stories work together to convey the life of a strange world called Westermead, a world that, as far as I know, hasn’t been seen much by readers despite the fact Thomas has been developing it for over a decade. The book is rich with folklore and anecdotes from every corner of the land, blending elements of literary fantasy, horror, and even humor in ways that haven’t been presented before, crossing genres without “feeling” like a genre book.

HB: What’s your take on the state of the horror fiction these days?

JEL: Well, there are a number of things happening, some obvious and others harder to grasp. A lot of people in the scene complain about the “boom years” of the 1980’s and how they slipped away from us, but I see a strong resurgence ahead. For one thing, during bad economies the public needs a release for their pent-up fears. More importantly, though, we need to learn to be more inclusive. There’s plenty of great dark fiction out there that isn’t in the vein of Stoker or Poe, yet evokes a strong sense of dread, repulsion, etc. This trend toward categorizing and pigeon-holing everything fragments the scene too much. Also, it’s too easy to only give breaks to the people we’re already familiar with, either through the conventions or associations we’re a part of or whatever. Hey, I’m guilty of this too, because as I mentioned most of the authors on RDSP or in my anthologies I got to know through The Dream People. The point is we always need to be open to new voices. We’re all working toward the same goal, it seems, we just have differing opinions of how to get there. Seeing the mind-crushing array of talent in the indie dark press I can’t imagine there won’t be a horror renaissance. It’s just a matter of when, meaning there are plenty of reasons to stand apart, but the scene won’t grow until we all decide to stand together.

HB: But just like movie producers rely on sequels and remakes to make easy money, no matter how lousy they turn out, aren’t publishers always going to give the “breaks” to people we’re already familiar with?

JEL: Absolutely. You have to be conscious of name recognition. At the same time, you have to be observant enough to see who’s a “go-getter” and who’s like an anchor tied to your shoe. Some of the authors in the small press scene won’t lift a finger to help sell their books, even though they’ve got multiple titles to their names and people are receptive to them. Other authors are so vigorous they’ll go out and sell fifty books a month on their own. We’ve been lucky to snag many self-motivated writers, from first-time authors to the award-winners. Even with “name” authors the large New York companies have research indicative of the fact that marketing is key. People typically won’t purchase a book until they’ve seen it an average of seven times—either at the store, in ads, reviews, whatever. We treat all of our authors like “big shots” in terms of advertising, and people are starting to recognize them, but at the same time our more financially astute peers can sell ten times the preorders because they have established authors. I guess the key to your question is the “no matter how lousy” part; other companies make money in the short term doing that, but in the long term the readership dwindles, because fans of great fiction stop crossing over into the horror section.

HB: If you weren’t a writer/publisher, what do you think you’d be doing? And don’t tell me “Five to ten.”

JEL: More like “twenty-five to life.” In all seriousness, I was quite a talented child when it came to visual arts. Had some stuff on TV and whatnot, but never applied myself because it came too easily. Plus, do you know how long it takes to draw a comic or do an oil painting, compared to writing a screenplay in a week, a short story in three days, a comic book script in a morning, five or ten poems in an afternoon? During my teen years I shifted to music, taking up the bass guitar and drums and keyboards. Had a band called Dead Letter Office, and industrial/goth/noise project heavily influenced by stuff like Skinny Puppy, Godflesh, Foetus, death metal and 80’s thrash, punk, etc. Got on a bunch of compilation CDs and had several demo tapes, played a lot in the mid-Atlantic area. I even trained at a huge audio engineering school and became certified in music business and artist management, along with audio engineering, and combined the two fields to start my own recording studio. The problem was that we were only popular overseas; requests to perform always came in from places like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, the former Yugoslavian states during the wars there (which speaks to how dark our music was). We simply didn’t have money to tour other countries though, and we disbanded in August, 1999. Since music was too expensive for me to pursue on a solo basis I assessed things…it only takes a pen and paper to be a writer. While the recording projects paid a lot they were too few and far between to justify my time, compared to what seemed like promising Hollywood interest (ha ha). The ironic thing is that in the years since closing the studio the number of bands wanting to record with me has increased! Argh. One thing I’m working on is getting the several albums’ worth of unreleased tracks up on my site as free downloads for fans of my writing.

HB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as it relates to writing?

JEL: “Butt in seat.” Actual writing makes you a writer. Keep working at it, no matter how many things you have going on in your life. Keep a note pad in your pocket to write while waiting at the doctor’s office, or the bus stop, or before class begins, or to jot down notes while shopping. One thing Chuck Palahniuk and I discussed at a conference back in 2001 was how our crappy mindless jobs actually helped our writing careers, because they forced us to think up scenarios all day to keep our minds active.

HB: Well, if “crappy mindless careers” are the key to being a successful writer, then I, wasting away as a regulatory accountant by day, may just be the next Doestoevsky.

JEL: In that case I look forward to your own Notes From Underground! Whatever situation you’re in now, you can do it. To work toward this goal I developed some guidelines for myself: “Neither victory nor defeat shall affect me.” It’s easy to get knocked off track by nasty rejections or acceptances in big markets. The writing itself is the important thing. “Thoughts determine what you want.  Actions determine what you get.” Writers tend to live in their heads and fail to follow up on all the ideas they have. “Every battle has a plan; every victory is merely a plan that was adhered to.” This one is especially important for me, because I feel a need to do ten billion things at once and change plans every day, in the end accomplishing none of my goals.

HB: Well said. And on that note, that’s all the space they’ve given me. Thanks for the interview…and by the way, I’ve got this manuscript….

JEL: Hey, great, I need some more paper to recycle for printing my own manuscripts! No, wait, seriously, if you do have a manuscript don’t hesitate to approach me—or any other publisher with it. The worst they can say is, “Didn’t you see we’re closed to submissions?” Query, be polite, and include unmarked bills. On that note, thanks for chatting with me. It’s been a pleasure.

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