I come to you today, a bit conflicted, but generally optimistic. I can’t promise anything meaningful will show up in the following paragraphs—not from a how to standpoint at least—but it’s from the heart, and sometimes that’s the best we can do. Please forgive.
Remember 1999? That’s when this all started.
I got involved in the publishing world during the tail end of my college years, running a company that would, a few years later, be renamed Bleak House Books. The first project that I ever saw from layout to cover design to printer to bookshelf was a collection of short stories I wrote. Pretty much everything except the printing was done on my computer in my room in my house.
And it looked like it.
A few short story and poetry collections from others would follow. Another B. LeRoy work after them. Though we may have been getting the hang of it on some level, the overall quality of things was of a dubious nature.
Somehow I got in touch with a reporter for one of the two daily newspapers in Madison who was in charge of the Books/Literary section. She mentioned the possibility of doing an article on the company. The two of us had a long conversation and she told me a story would be forthcoming.
Needless to say, we were pretty excited.
However, the article would never materialize, and after a few months of hounding the reporter, I was told, “Listen, no publishing company started in Madison by people with no experience in the publishing world has a chance of lasting long.”
I guess you could say (and I have said repeatedly over the years) those words put something of a chip on my shoulder.
But this is not a story about a chip on my shoulder.
It can’t be. Not anymore. The time for that kind of thing has come and gone, and though it may, on rare occasion flare up, I have to bury it deep in the earth.
I’d much rather hand you a story of what happens when you surround yourself with good people who are capable of great things.
In late 2001 we published our first novel, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly by John Galligan. As expected, it was hard to get noticed. The book got reviewed in the local paper, was stocked on shelves at local bookstores, but was otherwise not covered, except for English speaking newspapers in Japan who raved about the book (the novel is about an American teaching English in Japan).
Around this time I met Jon and Ruth Jordan for the first time. They came to town for an event we had at Booked for Murder, a mystery bookstore run by Terri Bischoff. We were celebrating the release of Marshall Cook’s, Murder Over Easy. I remember talking to Jon about what we were doing and hoped to do, but also remember him telling me about an idea he had for a magazine devoted to crime fiction and the people who love it. Jon, Ruth, and I bonded for life that night. We all knew there was a long road ahead of us, but that it was worth the journey.
Towards the beginning of 2003 Bleak House got our first interns. Two of the earliest interns were a guy named Alex Carr and a young lady named Alison Janssen. Both of them were, at the time, Barnes & Noble employees who I’d run into during events we did at the store.
Alex would work with me for a few months before moving to the Twin Cities to work for Consortium—a book distributor for many really awesome presses including, at that time, Soho and Akashic, two companies that I greatly admired. To know Alex had gone from our fledgling operation to a legitimate piece of the publishing industry was a satisfying thing for a 27 year old who still wasn’t sure he really knew what he was doing.
Alison stuck around.
We spent countless hours reading submissions, editing books, talking to authors, listening to a lot of music, being snarky, going to conferences, etc. In the parlance of marketing people, we “built a brand.” During the years 2003-2005 we published a bunch of crime and literary fiction, including John Galligan’s fly fishing mystery, The Nail Knot. It was the first book we ever had reviewed in one of the Big Four of publishing industry magazines.
Times were good.
Times were also super lean. There were no paychecks. Questionable health insurance. I worked a lot of 80, 90, 100+ hour weeks because it had to be done. There was always something to do.
At one point I told Alison, “You should quit your job at Barnes & Noble and the nanny job you picked up. Work full-time, for free. If we focus all of our energy on making this happen, it will. I guarantee it.”
I believed it. I guess she did, too. Because she took out a loan and quit the other jobs.
Right when things were at their bleakest, sometime in the middle of 2005 when cash had dried up, and it looked inevitable that we were going to have to close the doors, we sat on the front porch of our office—an old Victorian house my business partner Blake had purchased—and, in desperate need of a “Win one for the Gipper” speech, I looked around for some bit of inspiration.
What I found was a stick. An ordinary, broke off the tree, stick. I said I wasn’t sure exactly how, but that stick was going to be the solution.
Whether or not that stick wielded magic powers, I can’t be sure, but I do know that a few weeks later a company emerged from out of the blue and asked if we’d be interested in selling Bleak House and getting full time jobs with salaries and insurance as part of the deal.
We took the opportunity, of course, and continued on with what we were doing. We were fortunate to have another stellar intern—Krystal—helping us keep on top of everything.
By then the Jordans had launched Crimespree Magazine.John Galligan’s second fly fishing mystery, The Blood Knot won the magazine’s Readers Choice award for books published in 2005. We were getting regular review coverage in all of the publishing trade magazines by that point.
We also got a string of interns courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, most of whom I gave nicknames that only made sense to me. That list includes people like: Pyro, Spy, Chuter, Stompermonster, Rhombonica, Narco Polo, the Happening, Shuffles, Ez Ray (we don't play, we fight!) and Killleroy. They were bright eyed and curious, not afraid to eat a lot of candy and pizza, determined on varying levels to understand how publishing works, and a great joy to be around.
In 2008 we received three Edgar Award nominations, one each in the category of Best Novel (Reed Coleman’s Soul Patch), Best First Novel (Craig McDonald’s Head Games), and Best Short Story (Stuart Kaminsky’s contribution to Chicago Blues). It was the first, and to my knowledge, the only time a small press has landed three nominations like that in one year.
Also, Publishers Weekly, once an intimidating tower in a foreign landscape named me, some dude from Madison, to their “40 Under 40” list of people to watch in the publishing industry.
By 2009 Alison and I decided to leave Bleak House, and strike out on our own with Tyrus Books. We were joined later by crime fiction fan Eric Campbell who had been a longtime supporter of Bleak House.
Time at Tyrus has been exciting. Not without its share of drama and stress. Alison left the company in 2010. F+W Media acquired most of Tyrus in 2011. The publishing industry itself is in a constant and accelerated state of change.
During all of that there were all sorts of highlights. A run of five out of six books Alison edited got starred reviews from the trade publications. Scott O’Connor’s debut novel, Untouchable, won Barnes & Noble’s Discover Award for Fiction. We launched a short story collection at Morgan Freeman’s blues club in Mississippi with Mr. Freeman in attendance. Exciting stuff.
As of 2013, here’s what I know.
A bunch of interns left Madison and went to work in the publishing world outside of Madison. Some of them went to work at agencies, some got involved in literacy efforts, others are MFA students, Spy is with Random House now, Pyro works with me at Tyrus, Jaime (who never got a nickname) is at Hal Leonard, Krystal is the editor of a publication, and Alex Carr went from Consortium to Amazon where he would ultimately end up on the editorial side of things.
Terri Bischoff who was a one time co-owner of Booked for Murder--a very early supporter of Bleak House Books--eventually left for the Twin Cities where she is now the Acquisitions Editor for Midnight Ink, one of the most popular mystery imprints working today. We continue to see each other on a regular basis at conferences all across the country.
Jon and Ruth, along with all of the wonderful people who make Crimespree Magazine tick just celebrated their 50th issue anniversary. The magazine is a beloved part of the community and a hub for so many author/fan interactions. They now work with Eric Campbell, who has started his own publishing company, Down & Out Books, to make all of the old and current issues of Crimespree Magazine electronically available to readers.
John Galligan, my former creative writing teacher and the author of the first novel I ever had a hand in publishing, is now a great friend and a weekly writing critique partner. On top of that, he just finished working as an editor with Peter Brown Hoffmeister on his forthcoming debut novel, Graphic the Valley (Tyrus, July 2013).
And Alison, the girl who leapt on faith, just announced she’s leaping again, this time towards Seattle where she has already landed an acquiring editor position for Thomas and Mercer, the crime fiction imprint of Amazon. I’m extremely proud of her and have all the confidence in the world that she’s going to do big things with her time in Seattle and wherever else she lands.
My thirteen years in publishing have allowed me to travel all over the country to meet writers and other publishing professionals, some of the most important people in my life. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet the President, hang out with Morgan Freeman, find myself at Mamie White’s birthday party, even attend a red carpet premier of a movie in Hollywood.
It’s been a trip. Even if I left it all today, it’s good to know the limbs of the family tree will continue to reach and spread. Maybe somewhere, that magic stick I found on the porch of the old Bleak House office has recycled itself into the earth and is now a growing tree. I can't be sure.
It's also impossible to forget how blessed I've been to be surrounded by such a wonderful collection of people. I'm sure it doesn't play out this way for everybody, but the fact that it did for me, should let everybody know it's possible.
The reporter said -- “Listen, no publishing company started in Madison by people with no experience in the publishing world has a chance of lasting long.”
I respectfully disagree.
For more insights on the publishing world visit - www.benjaminleroy.com For daily updates, follow me on Twitter @tyrusbooks