Necronomicon Ex Mortis: An Interview with Books of the Dead Press’s founder, James Roy Daley

The titles at Books of the Dead Press may not be bound in human flesh and inked in human blood—but nevertheless, the genre press founded by author James Roy Daley has racked up blood-curdlingly good sales figures among horror fans in its first full year of existence.

“Fourteen months ago I came up a simple idea: to create an anthology called Best New Zombie Tales,” he says. “A week later I decided to publish the book myself, instead of selling it to a publisher. That first book was released on April 24th, 2010—ten months ago. Since that day I’ve been lucky enough to have sold thousands of books; I’ve also released six more titles.”

Those titles include Matt Hults’s serial killer novel Husk, the anthology Best New Zombies Tales and its sequel, Best New Zombie Tales 2—and also Daley’s own Terror Town and Thirteen Drops of Blood.

Daley has said in previous interviews that when he first began the press, the temptation to publish his own work was fairly strong, although he knew that other publishers were more than willing to take it on. When he began Books of the Dead, three of his books were tied up in five different publishing contracts—but he quickly realized that he would rather publish his work himself.  “Controlling my work is very appealing to me,” he says. “Allowing someone else to control it—not so much. At least, not now.”

But he has been able to negotiate contracts for his own work that allow him more control over the publishing process. “My Thirteen Drops of Blood collection I released on a whim, and two days after I released it, Necon Books sent me an unexpected email, asking me if they could publish my work,” he says.  “Since they were publishing guys like Ramsey Campbell, Charles Grant, and Christopher Golden, I had to say yes—not so much because I thought they would sell a million copies, but because I wanted to work with them. I ended up negotiating a contract that allowed me to publish the book as well.”

Daley’s passion for books and horror started at a young age. “When I was a little kid I had a pop-up book that I read and re-read a million times,” he says. “It was about a boy and a girl that go into a spooky old haunted house. Every page had something cool—you’d pull a lever and a door would open showing a skeleton hiding in the dark; you’d turn a dial and a ghost would float across the cracked window; you’d push a tab and a vampire would pop out from behind a rickety staircase. The pages were just loaded with every horror cliché, in a good way . . . spiders and cobwebs, eyes in the shadows, monsters under the bed. The story ended with a Wizard of Oz/Scooby-Doo ending: the children discovered an old scientist creating the illusions and scaring people from his home because he was afraid of society. The amazing imagery, the simplicity of the story’s moral, and the fact that the book was just so fun, all of it was fantastic.”

Perhaps as a consequence of having been immersed in the genre for so long, Daley is also very clear about the qualities he looks for in the work submitted to Books of the Dead. In an essay called “What Does a Publisher Want?” he emphasizes not only the importance of good presentation—focus on mechanics, spelling, formatting and the like—but also the need to keep things simple and avoid overwriting. “The most common thing that forces me to plunk a submission into the ‘NO’ pile, is what I like to call, painting a story with a wide brush,” he writes. “If you’ve decided to write a story that is as complex as the entire Star Trek universe, and you plan on doing it inside of 4,000 words, you have failed.” Daley goes on to underscore that, “Story is character. Story is plot. Don’t try to force a universe of ideas into a few convoluted paragraphs. Know what your story is about, and explain what happens to your character. Once you’re done, make it pretty.”

The production of the two Best New Zombie Tales anthologies certainly gave Daley a crash course in negotiating the submissions pile and figuring out what stories worked. “From a publisher’s point of view, one of the smartest things that I’ve done so far is start my company off with a few anthologies,” he observes. “After 1,000+ submissions I’ve gained a better understanding of the size, and skill, of my talent pool. The anthologies have allowed me to build relationships with people I had never talked with before. Also, had I released a novel first, it would have been me, and the author, versus the world. Thank god I didn’t go that route.”

Shuffling—or swinging—out of Books of the Dead later this year is another zombie anthology, but one with a twist: it’s called Zombie Kong and will comprise a collection of short stories about a zombie version of cinema’s legendary great ape. But Daley says he’s doesn’t plan to focus on anthologies. “I’m about to change gears and focus on novels,” he says. For a start, he’s re-releasing books one, two, and three of Gary Brandner’s The Howling series within the next two months. “Over the next few weeks two more titles will find their way out the door. By the end of the year I’m hoping to have released a total of 20 titles, and to have reached a sales total of 30,000+ copies.”

Those are pretty impressive numbers in a world where the trade publishing industry is currently as twitchy as a vampire in a tanning salon. But Daley remains modest. “Books of the Dead is doing well, certainly better than I expected,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s a little business that’s heading in the right direction.”

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