Writer John Gregory Betancourt has an especially demanding day job: He’s the publisher of Wildside Press. Among Wildside’s many fine recent releases is The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, an anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches and parodies, edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews (available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book formats). Bringing back or keeping alive the work of past authors in the fields of mystery and science fiction has become a mission for John and his press. He is himself an award-winning author of both mystery and science fiction and will be known to many readers of this blog as a past winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, cosponsored by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack. John has very little time for writing these days, however, and this post about his work at Wildside reveals why.—Janet Hutchings
When Janet Hutchings asked me to be a guest blogger and write about Wildside Press (following a conversation at our dealer’s table at the Malice Domestic mystery convention), she wanted me to talk a bit about what we are doing with the estates of mystery writers. I think the background subject—what happens to authors’ works after their passing—is the place to begin.
Most authors are not best sellers with legions of fans who keep their work in print for generations. For every Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Rex Stout, there is a Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora—a counterpart who immediately vanishes into the mists of obscurity the moment they stop writing. A well-known literary agent in the science fiction field put it, “Nothing kills a career like death.” Too true. For authors who specialized in short stories (or mostly short stories) and published in ephemeral places such as magazines or anthologies, their fate is pretty much sealed: gone and forgotten. Despite long and distinguished careers, the most these authors’ estates can hope for now is the occasional anthology reprint.
If the anthologist can find them.
Believe it or not, the largest barrier to any old author being reprinted is often finding his or her heirs. I tracked down one mystery author’s family, who promptly referred me to an agent—who had died 15 years before. (His agency had gone out of business without them realizing it.) Another author’s son argued that he didn’t have the rights to anything, since nothing about writing had been mentioned in his mother’s will. (Definitely wrong: Copyright inheres in the creator. Unless the rights to a given work are specifically signed away, copyrights—like any other property—are inherited.) One Western author died childless and intestate, and none of his seven nephews or nieces wanted to take the responsibility of claiming the estate and accepting money. (At least they did discuss it among themselves. Not worth their time, I guess. I moved on; so did they—and this particular author will remain in publishing limbo until his work enters the public domain, somewhere around the year 2055.)
Let’s assume the best-case scenario. A hobbyist author of 100 mystery short stories died in 1990, and his daughter is still alive. She knows all about his work, has a website online that mentions him prominently, and she has paperwork to prove she is sole heir and owner, so she is confident in her position. She has been available to sign reprint contracts for decades. She goes to mystery conventions. She’s easy to find and familiar enough with publishing contracts that she feels comfortable signing them without a lawyer or agent.
Unfortunately, the anthology reprint market had pretty much disappeared by the year 2000. Television and movies? Highly unlikely. New collections by authors who are (essentially) unknown today? Impossible from any major publishing company. So this daughter has effectively held the rights to 100 short stories with one reprint sale in the last fifteen years.
Enter Wildside Press and the burgeoning e-book market. In 2011, I put together a 99-cent reprint anthology of science-fiction stories called The Science Fiction MEGAPACK. It consisted of twenty-five short science-fiction stories, mostly public-domain works written in the 1950s and 1960s, plus a few modern stories from estates I had inherited. (A pair of authors appreciated my sometimes decades-long interest in their work and careers enough to leave me their copyrights when they died, since they had no immediate family.) To date, The Science Fiction MEGAPACK® has sold more than a million copies. I trademarked the MEGAPACK® name in 2013 and began publishing more reprint volumes—a lot more—and not just science fiction, but mysteries, romance, Westerns, pulp fiction, etc.
Most volumes in the MEGAPACK® series contain between fifteen and forty short stories. Wildside Press is, I believe, one of the largest publishers of old short stories in the world right now—I haven’t bothered to count the number, but it’s certainly over 6,000 stories and probably closer to 7,000, spread over about 400 collections.
When our e-book sales dropped as a dozen other e-book publishers copied the MEGAPACK® publishing strategy and flooded the market, I began looking for cost-effective ways to replace or supplement the public-domain content we had been using with unique (to us), in-copyright material. I asked friends who are writers for old stories to reprint. I tracked down the authors of stories I remembered reading years ago and purchased reprint rights. But it still wasn’t enough. (Remember, the MEGAPACK® line uses thousands of stories, not dozens.)
I had to broaden my search. In the mystery field, the best sources of mystery short stories have always been Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, so their back issues seemed the place to start when I wanted a lot of mysteries. I began going through indexes, looking for authors and stories I recognized.
What a treasure trove those old magazines turned out to be! So many great, forgotten authors. So many series characters (who often only appeared only in the magazines).
Unfortunately, with my very slender budget (about $10 per story), spending hours tracking down estates and offering a tiny fee to reprint one story at a time by Aunt Clarissa or Grandpa Joe wasn’t going to be cost-effective. Instead, I began adding up the number of short stories and novels an author had published, then purchasing exclusive reprint rights to all of them. It seemed like a winning strategy for everyone: I could offer larger payments while getting access to a huge quantity of high-quality fiction. Some authors whose families I tracked down, such as Talmage Powell, had published upwards of 500 short stories. Writers learned to write fast in the days of the pulps.
But then something happened along the way: I became a fan of many of these old writers. Instead of putting everything into MEGAPACK® anthologies, I began looking for the best way to resurrect these authors’ works for the largest possible audience. Sometimes it’s single-author collections from Wildside Press. Sometimes it’s from other publishers. Every time I put a new book together, I stop and ask myself, “What’s the best way to present this particular author to new readers?”
Remember the three names I mentioned at the start (Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora)? I purchased their copyrights from their families. (Talmage Powell’s, too, for that matter. He was another great who is now sadly forgotten.)
Jacob Hay was an excellent writer who published a handful of mainstream novels, plus forty-nine short stories—fifteen of them mysteries in EQMM, but spread over a fourteen-year period (1962-1976). He published most of his stories, many mystery or suspense, in big-budget magazines like The Saturday Evening Post (twenty-five there alone!), Playboy, Argosy, and Collier’s. He didn’t have a series character, and he published so infrequently in any given market that he made no lasting impression on readers, despite consistently high-quality work. I have been sprinkling his stories into themed e-book anthologies. There doesn’t seem to be a specific hook to use to market his work—or if there is, I haven’t found it yet.
In addition to a dozen children’s books, James Holding published 207 short stories, primarily in EQMM and AHMM. He loved series characters, and it turns out long-time magazine readers still remember some of them quite favorably . . . the Photographer, the Library Fuzz, and most especially the “Leroy King” series of Ellery Queen tribute stories. I was fortunate enough to secure a reprint collection of his complete “Leroy King” series (The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories) with Crippen & Landru (publisher Doug Greene was also a big “Leroy King” fan) as part of their “Lost Classics” series, and I persuaded Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, to run the first story as a classic reprint. I even wrote a new “Leroy King” story, “The Jamaican Ice Mystery,” for the Malice Domestic convention book. I’m planning e-book collections of James Holding’s other series characters to publish myself—and continuing to sprinkle nonseries stories into other e-book anthologies. I’m delighted to say Holding is well off to a mini-revival!
Fletcher Flora was a staple in mysteries magazines from the early 1950s until his death in 1968. He published about 130 mystery stories and twenty novels (three pseudonymously under the “Ellery Queen” byline, plus he completed Stuart Palmer’s final Hildegarde Withers novel after Palmer’s death). Some of his novels are trashy pulp fiction; others are traditional mysteries. We licensed his mystery novels to Prologue Books (now Simon & Schuster) as part of their classic crime e-book program, and have been releasing Fletcher Flora MEGAPACK®s containing the others. Eventually we will have everything he wrote in print again. Not bad, for a forgotten author!
Sometimes families have an emotional attachment to the work and don’t want to sell the rights to everythings, but still want to have stories by their famous relative available in print. I often offer to manage these literary estates, bringing as much as possible back into print and sharing the revenues. It doesn’t always make financial sense, but I really enjoy it—and I’ve made a lot of new friends this way. I hear regularly from author Richard Deming’s granddaughter, who sold her home and is now traveling the American highways with her husband in an RV, working on a documentary movie on RV life to be called RV Nomads. I’ve helped the family of science-fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. recover $30,000 in royalties from an agent who had licensed editions of his books without telling (or paying) them. Now I’m writing a sequel to Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” (filmed by John Carpenter as The Thing) while helping them with stuff like game and movie licensing. Campbell’s grandson just sent me one of the “Who Goes There?” medallions a gaming company sent him.
Cool stuff, all.