Science Fiction and Mystery Novelist George C. Chesbro: A Q&A
I ran into George C. Chesbro?author of numerous science-fictional mystery novels starring the Manhattan-based dwarf detective Robert Frederickson (aka Mongo the Magnificent)?at last fall's annual Paperback Expo. It turned out he had a new array of books there, too: he and his wife Robin had formed Apache Beach Publishing, recovered the rights to his hefty backlist and were republishing his books using print-on-demand technology. An unusual move for a well-regarded genre writer who, if not exactly a mega-seller, still has a pretty good track record. I became curious as to how this came about, so I called him up.
I've been seeing your name attached to mystery stories and novels for at least 25 years. How did you get started?
I started when I was about 20, in college, and something just hit me that I wanted to be a writer. I was studying for a degree in special education. Then in my first teaching job, I worked with the developmentally disabled?educable mentally retarded. It worked out very well for me as a writer. I would work very hard during classes, but I didn't take homework home, or papers to correct. I was just 9 to 5. So I'd put in a couple hours of writing before I went in, then come home and work for a couple hours. But writing full-time was a long way down the road. I taught for 17 and a half years.
There are several academic writers I know who have gotten rights to their books and made them available through print-on-demand. But it's still a little unusual for someone who's had a pretty good run in the commercial houses to take this tack?your last hardcover came out just a few years ago [Dream of a Falling Eagle, Simon & Schuster]. How many titles does Apache Beach have out now?
Five more came out a few weeks ago, so we have 20 out. The Keeper will be my 25th book and Apache Beach's first original title and first hardcover; the others are all reissues in trade paperback.
How did you come to that decision to self-publish, and get your rights back?
After Dream of a Falling Eagle, there was really no interest, and I was kind of disgusted anyway. That was when I decided I was going to take time off and really not worry about it anymore. I was really tired of chasing after these people. The first time we heard of this print-on-demand idea, I was doing an impromptu book-signing at the Poisoned Pen, a bookstore in Arizona. And they had Poisoned Pen Press?they were buying the rights from other authors, and doing one or two a year. So we got hold of Lightning Source, the predominant print-on-demand company, and found out they don't do authors?you have to be a publishing company. So we said, "All right," and we became a publishing company, and then they talked to us. Robin went through all of that. I can't say enough about how this wouldn't have happened without her. So we were going to start off with one title, The Beasts of Valhalla [the fourth Mongo novel], probably my most cultish thing.
Why do you think that is? There are huge prices on collectors' copies of that title.
I don't know. Young people like it, and I guess because it marks a departure. With the first three Mongos, aside from the fact that you have a dwarf protagonist, you could argue that they're pretty standard detective fare and they stand alone?a little bizarre perhaps?but with Beasts of Valhalla, then I really start crossing lines, doing science fiction, fantasy, those kinds of things?although I did not plan to do that. I just wrote about what interested me.
So you were just going to start with that one.
Right. And most of these copyrights had long ago reverted to me. But you must also have typeset rights?that's if you want to use their text, and not scan the whole thing yourself and correct it. It turns out publishers would charge other publishers $2.50 a page, which would have been impossible for us?but they just gave the typeset rights to us. They were very gracious about it. Then Lightning Source came up with a deal?they'd give us half off and half deferred on the setup costs if we'd do 10. So we did. We published 10 when we were only going to do one the first year. We followed with what I call the "lost novels"?because the Chant series was only issued in paperback [under a pseudonym, "David Cross"] and Turn Loose the Dragons, which when it was published disappeared without a ripple, and King's Gambit, which was never published in this country before, only in the UK.
Can you tell me about The Keeper?
The Keeper has a strong heroine?ex-Navy, Palestinian-American in naval intelligence?who gets into difficulty during the Persian Gulf War and she's forced out. She becomes a river-keeper on the Hudson, who monitors pollution and so forth. But she has lots of secrets, classified information, and the deal was made with the Navy that she could never talk about it, either why she was discharged or anything she knows. Something occurs on the Hudson, where a fisherman dredges up something which she immediately recognizes as an obsolete weapon. It's a fish-bomb, a bomb strapped to a sea lion, and the question is, What is this thing doing in the Hudson, dead? She knows what it is but she can't say anything?she can't even disarm it, she can't give any indication she knows anything about it and tells the fisherman to call the Coast Guard. So she begins to uncover a conspiracy to sell certain types of weapons, and has many enemies who are out to kill her, and she ends up increasingly isolated because the old-boy network in the Navy won't help her.
Is this your first female protagonist?
Yeah. I'm going to put the prologue on the website [[www.dangerousdwarf.com](http://www.dangerousdwarf.com)], so people can read it.
I wanted to ask you about that. The site was preexisting, but you've worked out something now so people can order the books through it, right?
Yeah, I didn't have a computer 'til three years ago. I was talking to somebody and they said, Punch your name in. So I did, and there were all sorts of Chesbro sites?it came as a big surprise. And the Dangerous Dwarf site was the best and most elaborate. I found out that site was just run by a fan, so I got in touch with him and he was very excited, and since then we've been working together.
So how is it going? How are the sales?
It's hard to gauge exactly how many copies of all titles we sell, since they have come out at different times, but approximately 250 a month would be in the ballpark. They're all in trade paperback format and sell for $16.95. The Keeper will be our first original hardcover, and that will probably be priced at around $25.95.
Do you notice any titles in particular being your bestsellers?
The "lost novels" have been selling the most lately. We think the reason is that a lot of Mongo fans can never find these. You couldn't get these anywhere. Even if you knew about them, you couldn't get them.
Sounds like you're pretty glad you got into this.
Absolutely. Because it was always very frustrating to me, to have this huge backlist and nothing to do with it. I had always hoped someday some other publishing house would bring them out, but this just gives us the power to do it ourselves. And the Internet makes all the difference, because Ingram, which is one of the world's largest distributors, owns Lightning Source. Ingram distributes the books and part of them automatically go on Amazon, so you don't have to sell Amazon on a title. This is a tremendous foundation. Then we do our own promotion as well. Really, this is revolutionary for writers. It's not going to do a new writer much good because nobody knows who they are. But if you're a reasonably established writer with a backlist of books that have already been published and are now out of print, this is perfect. But for new writers it becomes a vanity publishing kind of thing. Not that it's not great for vanity publishing too?anybody can become a published writer. But I'm talking about selling books, not just getting them printed.
Now just watch out that publishers don't start jacking up the rates for typeset rights.
Well, they've been very good to me. But publishers have already discovered this?this is the big battle now, this and e-books. They want the rights to all this. It's a big struggle now between agents and publishers. If they get to keep all the rights to print-on-demand, copyrights will never revert to the authors. The way the contracts read now, when a book has been out of print for 18 months, you can ask for the copyright back and they must give it to you?they either must give it to you or they must reprint it. On an offset press, they'd normally do about 2000 to try and make it cost-effective, but with print-on-demand, they could just run off a couple and pretend it's in print.
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