Press celebrates its 10th year of publishing in 2008. Time being an
irreplacable commodity, instead of the usual history you might see on a
page like this, let's instead present a 2003 interview with Stephen
Haffner conducted by Ed Gorman and originally printed in issue #47 of Cemetery Dance magazine. It had
been edited for length and to correct some now out-of-date information.
Ed Gorman:Tell us about
your background as a publisher. I'm assuming you've had a lifelong
interest in pulp fiction?
Haffner: For the record, I’d like to blame David A. Kyle for
making me think that I had any connection with book publishing--genre
or otherwise. At a 1995 convention in an Illinois suburb of St. Louis,
Kyle was on a panel to discuss his co-founding of Gnome Press--one of
the pioneering genre publishers of the late 40s to the early 60s.
Gnome lasted longer than most similar small presses and finished with a
longer pedigree of classic titles by giants such as Heinlein, Asimov,
Clarke, etc. Anyway, Kyle shared anecdotes of post-WWII publishing, as
well as announcing a first hardcover edition of Raymond Z. Gallun’s
1973 paperback original, Skyclimber--the
first release from, get this--Gnu Gnome Press! Kyle had a whole
line-up layed out, including an unpublished Andre Norton novel as well
as ambitions to see his latter-day Lensmen sequels between boards.
Kyle’s now-prophetic (to me, anyways) statement was that “with today’s
technology, a small press can knock off a 300-copy hardcover print run,
charge $50, and come out ahead.”
Now, as any genre publisher will tell you (as they pull themselves up
from the floor half-dead with laughter and/or incredulity), this is
totally bogus. But I believed it. I believed it bad. And it ultimately
got the Haffner Press ball rolling.
Backtracking a bit, I’ve always been exposed to fantastic concepts.
Growing up in the 70s in rural Indiana, television was a great escape
from teachers with their times-tables and from playground fights with
bigger kids. In addition to wanting to fly like Superman or be bionic
(who wouldn’t want to be an astronaut/secret agent and have super
strength and see for miles--insert
bionic sound-effect), I wanted to be Captain Kirk--or G.I. Joe
(with the Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb!), it was a toss-up. When Star Wars came out, I immediately
needed . . . more! At first
it was the Alan Dean Foster novelization and then his original piece Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I don’t
know who did it, but the marketing folks at Ballantine/Del Rey did one
hell of a job packaging those media tie-ins alongside other books with
similar-looking space opera covers and adverts in the back for works by
Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven and the “Best ofs....” In addition to Star Wars books by Brian Daley, I
was reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Thomas Covenant” series, Foster’s
“Humanx Commonwealth” novels, and “Known Space” stories by Larry Niven.
These gave me an appreciation of the “Future History” concept and I
began devouring H. Beam Piper and Robert A. Heinlein. Somehow, I never
found time to crack into Gordon Dickson and Poul Anderson. Someday.
Flash forward to 1992 (I went through my Lovecraft/Arkham House bit in
1986) and I begin to foster an ambition to build a library of first
edition sf classics. Pretty easy to do--all it takes is money. Most sf
worth reading is readily available. Note I said, “most.” Anyway, I
found myself picking up copies of Easton Press’ leather-bound
“Masterpieces of Science Fiction” for those titles that were
unaffordable to me at the time. A sister operation of Easton Press is
the First Edition Library (FEL). They produce facsimiles of first
editions of works like Fleming’s Bond novels, or Hemingway, James M.
Cain and Raymond Chandler. In 1993, they brought out a 13 volume set of
books from outfits including Gnome Press (I, Robot, Shambleau and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy
Chessmen), and Fantasy Press (Dreadful
Sanctuary, Beyond This Horizon, and The Legion of Space).The Legion of Space was one of
those books I’d known about, but never read. I read it on a business
trip in 1995 and again, I needed . . . more! In researching Jack
Williamson’s other "Legion" stories, I discovered pulp sf as a thing
unto itself--not packaged as slick, modern-looking paperbacks or
bookclub editions. This was the real deal--ancient pulp-paper smell and
Now, I not only had to collect first editions of sf classics, but I
needed every small press title of the late 40s and early 50s! A
financially daunting task. Finally, in tracking down Fantasy Press
titles, I discovered that both E.E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson had
written latter-day sequels to their vintage series: Smith extended the
"Skylark" saga in 1965 with Skylark
DuQuesne, and Williamson with 1983’s The Queen of the Legion.
Having now been completely absorbed with Fantasy Press--from the
selection of titles, to cover art, to page design and spine
stamping--it struck me that 1997 would be the 50th Anniversary of that
pioneering company. Recall that by now, my head is full of David Kyle’s
wisdom that a $50 300-copy hardcover can be profitable. So I resolve to
secure the rights to Skylark
DuQuesne and The Queen of
the Legion and, with Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s (Fantasy Press’
owner) permission, release them as short-run, latter-day Fantasy Press
books. The ambition is to fulfill Kyle’s wisdom (and thereby not throw
money away), and complete my "Legion" and "Skylark" first edition
collections with matching uniform volumes.
An utter surprise to me was finding out that Lloyd Eshbach felt that
Fantasy Press belonged to history. Aside from facsimiles, no new
Fantasy Press books were forthcoming--from anybody. Well, that put a
damper on things. By this time, I had already approached an agreeable
Jack Williamson at a convention in Louisville--boy, was he ever
surprised to hear anyone ask for permission to do a hardcover Queen of the Legion!
For about a week I bandied names around--what is the coolest-sounding
name for a science fiction publisher? Science fiction in book form had
been around for over 60 years--all the great names were taken!
Ultimately, if I was to do these books to suite my tastes (and my
wallet!), Haffner Press was as good a name as any.
EG:So far, you've produced books by Leigh
Brackett, Edmond Hamilton and not least Jack Williamson. Why these
three writers in particular?
While reading up on pulp sf and the contemporaries of Jack Williamson,
you can’t help but run across folks like Edmond Hamilton, Henry
Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett. Among the many works I researched, I
consider Williamson’s autobiography Wonder’s
Child: My Life in Science Fiction one of the great underrated
books--not only as a history of early sf, but also as a document of
what I’ll call “determined Americanism”--the journey of a man
expressing himself through his work, and attempting to better himself
by acquiring knowledge and experience through his own means.
In reading up on Edmond Hamilton, I discovered how much of
media-related sf was derived from Hamilton or--at the very
least--crudely pioneered by him. Having been in a mood to seek
additional “Legion of Space”-esque stories, I turned to Hamilton’s Captain Future stories. Repetitive
after a while, the CF stories still have much to admire as well as
wonderfully reflecting their era. Also being in a mood for “series
fiction” it seemed that Hamilton’s heretofore uncollected “Kaldar”
stories looked appealing as a commercial product. Pretty decent Edgar
Rice Burroughs “John Carter” pastiches for the most part, these three
stories made for an ideal package. Add in a loving introduction by Ray
Bradbury, artwork by one of the few working original Weird Tales artists, bound in
arguably the last known bits of Holliston Black Novelex, and I had a
killer book. It was HP’s first sell-out.
By this time, I noted how much of Jack Williamson’s work was not only
out-of-print, but how much of it had never, ever been reprinted! This
is in mid-1998 and the genre had already seen The Selected Stories of Robert Bloch
and The Collected Stories of Philip
K. Dick, as well as the just-beginning The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.
The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson? Why? Aside from an
aborted fannish effort in the early 80s, no one said this is something
that must be done. So why The
Collected Stories of Jack Williamson? Because I wanted to.
Simple as that. It just seems noble and important enough to do this
series while the arguably last living link to American sf’s roots is
still with us and actively producing new works.
With some successes under the belt, I wanted to broaden the selection
of authors from HP, but not stray too far from vintage sf. So much of
it is unavailable outside the original pulps that this was a
comfortable place to be. Hamilton’s The
Vampire Master and Other Tales of Horror followed the second
Williamson story collection and was a bit of a crossover hit. We scored
with fans of Weird Tales and
Hamilton & Williamson as well as the vampire-fiction
audience--which was considerable.
Leigh Brackett’s Martian Quest: The
Early Brackett was an obvious outgrowth of the work done by HP
to date. Oddly enough, and perhaps due to having a backlist, Martian Quest has been the
fastest-selling HP title. Granted, it was first announced as a 2000
book (finally seeing print in late 2002), but it mutated into the first
of three planned collections that will reprint all of Brackett’s
shorter genre output. Reader feedback seems to indicate that the delay
was worth the wait.
EG:Are you interested in today's science
fiction and fantasy?
Preparing manuscripts for publication pretty much eats up what
recreational reading time I may have. Most of what I read is published
by friends of mine. Doug Ellis’ recent expose on the girlie pulps, Uncovered is a guilty pleasure, and
the recent book from Feral House on the post WWII adventure magazines, It’s a Man’s World is a ton of
fun. I still pick up the annual award-winners and books from favorites
such as Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman. Publishing something
original--that is, something not originally buried in the pulps--would
be nice, but with The Collected
Stories of Jack Williamson currently projected at eight volumes
(and growing), there’s enough on the plate for the next few years.
EG:You've obviously spent a lot of money and
effort on producing beautifully made books. Do you think you can
sustain the quality of your production in a stagnant book market? Your
website notes that some of your customers have a difficult time finding
your books in bookstores? Do you plan to be in more bookstores in the
Recently, an editor from Tor remarked that, thanks to the internet,
literacy is at an all time high. I personally think this guy was high.
The internet may have forced more people to read, but the level of literacy continues to
decline. What may be termed as a stagnant book market is more
accurately described as a declining literacy market. More and more
books are being produced (especially in this Print-On-Demand age), but
fewer and fewer of them are selling--at least enough for an author to
earn out his/her advance. Unless something fundamental changes in re:
teaching reading skills at an early age, the market for books will not
only continue to stagnate, but it will erode to a point where one of
those media tie-ins I cut my teeth on is considered high art.
I produce these books for me first. Therein may lay the path of
economical suicide, but there it is. Haffner Press’ books are produced
with the best quality materials, and the prices reflect this. Given
that, it’s unlikely that the chain bookstores will carry these titles.
The prices are such that the casual browser is unlikely pick one up.
Additionally, the age of the independent bookseller is coming to an
end. I know there will always be someone to carry the torch, but across
the board, sole-proprietorship brick-and-mortar stores are already
dinosaurs. They just can’t cut it when they’re up against the Borders
and B&N’s of the world. That said, there is a place for Haffner
Press books in the stores that remain (and those that come along) and
their mail-order descendants. For better or for worse, the future of
sales of genre small presses is direct sales, niche stores &
mail-order firms, and online e-tailers like Amazon.
EG:Michael Moorcock's introduction to the
Leigh Brackett is one of the most definitive (and beautifully written)
pieces on genre fiction I've ever read. Did you give him any special
suggestions or did he just sort of wail and riff?
Mike was readily agreeable to play in the Haffner Press sandbox on Martian Quest. It wasn’t a question
of money or editorial guidance. I just had his promise to have fun.
Mike has written at length elsewhere of his love for both Ed and Leigh,
so he was an ideal choice. As the intro came together, Mike would send
e-mails on how he had tied Eric John Stark to James Fenimore Cooper’s
Natty Bumpo and how all of Brackett’s heroes would have to sound like
Humphrey Bogart. Great stuff. He pulled out all the stops to re-read
much of Leigh’s canon and research the background from which she
created her stories. I’m honored to have been able to present it along
side Leigh’s early stories.
EG:What's in the future? Ever plan to do any
trade pb reprints of the hardcovers? Ever plan to try and find a mass
know a number of folks would appreciate more affordable versions of
HP’s titles as trade paperbacks or bookclub editions, but it cuts too
deeply into operating capital in the case of trade pbs, and takes a too
much of a bite out of sales in the case of bookclub editions.
In addition to the subsequent volumes of Jack Williamson’s collected
stories and the two subsequent Leigh Brackett collections, there is Stark and the Star Kings by Edmond
Hamilton and Leigh Brackett. This collects Hamilton’s two “Star Kings”
novels and Brackett’s “Eric John Stark” novelettes from Planet Stories--all capped off with
an original 10,000 word novella, “Stark and the Star Kings.” This was
their only formal collaboration and was originally commissioned for Last Dangerous Visions. John Jakes
wrote the introduction and the eight original illustrations by Alex
Ebel are fantastic.
Since 2003 is the 75th Anniversary of Jack Williamson’s career as a
professional sf writer, Jack’s bibliographer, Richard A. Hauptmann, and
I have been working for the better part of three years assembling Seventy-Five: The Diamond Anniversary of a
Science Fiction Pioneer--Jack Williamson. It’s an oversized
600-page hardcover with excerpts from Jack’s key novels, classic short
stories and essays, plus 4 never before published stories from across
his amazing (no pun intended) career. It includes sidebars with over
300 illustrations and an 18-page full color reprint of his Beyond Mars Sunday comic strip.
Arthur C. Clarke and Connie Willis provide introductory material. If I
never do anything else, this is the book I’m most singularly proud of.
At least until the next one.
FEATURED ITEMS Stark and the
Star Kings by Edmond Hamilton & Leigh Brackett Seventy-Five: The Diamond Anniversary of a
Science FIction Pioneer--Jack Williamson Edited by
Richard A. Hauptmann
Design by Dr. Allamagordo and the Nebulon Skydancers.