The Word Nerds are excited to bring an interview today, not from an author, but from the other side of the desk — a publisher.
If you haven’t heard of Tyrus Books and Benjamin LeRoy, you’re missing out. Ben graciously agreed to answer some questions about what the life of a publisher is really like. Also, keep an eye on @TyrusBooks on Twitter. He tends to give things away.
Word Nerd: Tyrus has a specific publishing focus. How did you decide what its niche was going to be?
LeRoy: I started what would ultimately become my first publishing company (Bleak House Books) in the late 90s while I was in my early 20s. The vague, yet entirely ambitious goal of the day was to find and publish the vaunted Great American Novel. I wasn’t sure what form that would take or what it would be about. I knew it had to have serious literary heft, but still be accessible to a wide audience.
At some point, I noticed a lot of the books that resonated with me on an emotional level had to do with every day people who were forced to survive. I was then, and continue to be fascinated by survivors. I desperately want to understand what it is that gets us out of bed in the morning. Many of the books I was drawing inspiration from were centered around a crime of some sort. That’s how I ended up with a line of crime/mystery novels that aren’t typically about the whodunit or forensic scientists or Vin Diesel archetypes who can kick and explode through any problem. They are books about regular people who have a choice to make every day—do I give up or do I keep going?
I sold Bleak House to Big Earth Publishing in 2005 and continued to work there until 2009. After some differences of opinion on the direction the company was going, I decided it would be better to start anew. Alison Janssen, my colleague from Bleak House, and I started Tyrus Books in 2009. I was ten years older, but still fascinated by the same existential question. About a year ago Tyrus was acquired by F+W Media, and they’ve allowed me to continue on the same path.
Whatever differences there are between the Bleak House line and the Tyrus line, I would argue, are the product of personal evolution, but fundamentally the same question informed both lines.
Word Nerd: You’ve done some “crazy” things like giving away books at the holidays and first books in series this winter/spring. What’s been the response to things like that, especially when it seems like publishers are often looked at as the “bad guys” these days?
LeRoy: I think people dig getting free books, and that’s cool, because I really dig giving them away.
Is publishing a business? Sure. Is there always some line of tension between artists and businessmen, between “art” and “product?” Yup. I like to think I’ve been able to walk the line and be understanding of both sides.
But if I had to pick a side, it’d be the artists, in this case writers. I love words, I admire the hell out of people who capture what it means to be human in undeniable ways, in ways that trump class, race, religion, and all of the other boundaries, both real and manufactured, that keep us apart as people.
If I see an opportunity as a businessman to do good for the world, even if it means not making a million bucks, I’m going to take it. What I care about the most is that people read and feel connected, and writers who opened themselves up to say something, have the satisfaction of knowing they’ve been heard.
That genuine connection, when made, is worth more than any amount of money you could put in front of me. As such, it is more important than the bottom line of any spreadsheet. If that makes me crazy, I guess that’s the risk I take.
Word Nerd: What does a typical work day look like for you? Do you ever get tired of reading?
LeRoy: Typical days consist of a lot of business. I talk with my boss about big picture issues, work with our production department on things like cover art, get on the phone with authors and a publicists, try to negotiate deals with agents, etc. It’s less glamorous and less reading intensive than you might expect. But it’s all necessary to keep things oiled enough to be able to put out new books.
Unfortunately, one of the serious side effects of my job is that I don’t get to read nearly enough. So much of the work day is spent on books that are already in-house and scheduled for release (or already out). I know a lot of people get disappointed with my reading turnaround time, and I feel bad about that. I get tired of not being able to read. Lately I’ve taken to listening to audio books while I work just so I can get my fill of stories.
Word Nerd: So much has been made of ebooks and you deal in both print and electronic books. How from your perspective do the two work together to benefit readers and publishers?
LeRoy: The practical answer is that multiple formats provide options for people. In most cases, that’s a good thing. I’m somebody who likely has an overly romanticized idea of what a book is—it’s not just the page between my fingers, or the smell, it’s the memory of learning to read on my father’s lap, it’s looking at my bookcase and seeing these things that are as close to me as any person in my life. For me, for a long time, the idea of that all being digital—a bunch of 1s and 0s—couldn’t have felt any colder if it tried. It’s like, I don’t know, falling in love with Tupperware.
But as far as convenience goes, it sure is nice to consolidate, and I had no problems adopting music in a digital format (also a very important part of my life). I definitely like being able to get on a plane with half a library on a two-pound device. I like being able to impulse buy books from anywhere.
Though I’m not sure where it will all shake out, the pricing of ebooks allows readers to take low risk chances on authors they might not know, and I think that’s a good thing for building an audience. I’m a fan of anything that gets people reading.
I just launched an ebook imprint for F+W called Prologue Books. It’s given me a chance to put back in print (digitally) books that have long been out of print. Making those books available to a wide audience would have been cost prohibitive if they were print, but ebooks make it possible. What I think is cool about that, is there is the possibility for today’s readers to “discover” authors that might otherwise have been lost to history. From a personal geek standpoint, I’m fascinated to trace the genealogy of genres, to understand how writers working fifty years ago influenced current authors. Ebooks make it possible.
Word Nerd: What book(s) made you want to be a publisher? What books do you go back to regularly?
LeRoy: I’ve read and re-read J.D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction about a bajillion times. I wasn’t a fan of Catcher in the Rye. It didn’t resonate with me. But in those four novellas, I think Salinger is dialed into something holy.
The use of language, the playful nature of these really heavy questions, and such detailed characters that I still see certain people on a street corner or on a plane or wherever and I wonder, before the analytical part of my brain catches up—Is that Seymour?—all of those things come together so perfectly for me. When I was done with those books, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t find a phonebook in the world that would actually have a listing for any member of the Glass family. It’s genuinely accepted that Buddy Glass and Salinger were maybe one person, but even then, it’s not like you could call Salinger.
On the non-fiction side of things, Mikal Gilmore’s staggering family biography, Shot in the Heart, has been profoundly influential on me as a publisher, reader, and writer. It’s gutsy, brutally honest, and, I can only imagine, must have been exceedingly painful to write. I think I’m on a perpetual mission to find a novel that resonates in the same way.
I could see myself getting into publishing non-fiction if I could find the right projects. There’s an urgency to non-fiction that gets me fired up. A few years ago I read Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus and, not to put too dramatic of a spin on it, I saw answers articulated to problems I’d been wrestling with for a long time. Problems I know other people wrestle with on a daily basis. I immediately wanted to buy a million copies and pass it out to everybody I ran into. Hell, I still want to do that, but I can also imagine another as yet unpublished book hitting me the same way.
All of that said—as a publisher there is no greater thrill than reading something for the first time, knowing it’s going to be a part of your line, and then getting it out to readers. You have to be passionate. You have to care. If I die tomorrow, I take comfort in knowing that some of the books I’ve published will be around long after anybody remembers I ever was.
Word Nerd: What’s your favorite word?
LeRoy: I don’t know. I love a lot of them. But I suppose it’s no fun to hedge my answer like that.