martin shepard

“Each Novel Can Be a Lifetime” – Seniors Reign at The Permanent Press

Martin & Judith Shepard—both 77-year-olds and co-publishers of The Permanent Press (founded in 1978 and considered by many to be America’s  premier independent literary press), are happy to announce that, among the nine novels being released between October 2012 and June, 2013 five are by fellow septuagenarians and two by octogenarians.

“Who would have expected this?” asked Martin Shepard. “Quality fiction often makes for unusual company. Last year eight of our 16 books were mysteries, one of which, Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos, was a finalist for the Edgar Award, Chautauqua Book Prize, Anthony Award, Macavity Award, and for ForeWord’s Literary Fiction Prize. But none were written by seniors. And now, more than half our recent fiction comes from much older writers. These seven seniors can still write the pants off most younger novelists. All have had distinguished careers and still have plenty of gas left in the tank. Judy and I are so pleased that they entrusted their newest writing to us.”

2012

  • October:     K.C. Frederick, 76, Looking for Przybylski
  • November: Anne Bernays, 81, The Man on the Third Floor
  • December:  Suzanne McNear, 77, Knock, Knock

2013

  • February:    William Eisner, 78, The Stone Lion
  • April:          Daniel Klein, 73,  Nothing Serious
  • May:           Christopher Davis, 84, The Conduct of Saints
  • June:           Marc Davis, 77, Bottom Line

Accounting for this trend, Bill Eisner, 78, whose novel The Stone Lion comes out in February, notes, “A writer’s life is his working capital: the people he has  known, the situations he has encountered, the places he has seen, the experiences  he has had. Older folks simply have more to draw from. Much of my own writing  was inspired by the lives of the people I have known, but once a person is transposed to fiction and given the roundness and completeness that fiction demands, he or she is so changed as to be unrecognizable even to the person who inspired the character. When you are older, you have seen and done enough to provide sufficient material for a lifetime of writing.”

Supporting Eisner’s assertion, Marc Davis, 77, whose novel Bottom Line will be available in June, adds, “I’ve got loads of stories from my days as a newspaper reporter, here [in Chicago] and on the Texas-Mexican border.  I also have tales of the commodity futures business, in which I made some bucks buying coffee options in the wake of the Big Brazilian Freeze of 1976, tales of my career as an art teacher, and painter, with a fistful of prizes, and then my work in advertising, winning two Tempo Awards and one Echo, for my direct mail campaigns for the art of Norman Rockwell, and others, on collectors plates.  And lots of others, including a story about my Dad, a Chicago newspaper man during the Front Page era, who ‘shot’ Dillinger exclusively, with a camera.”

All of this, Davis notes, “disproves again Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that there are no second acts in American lives.  Apparently, there are second, third and fourth acts, and curtain calls, with encores.”

Yet the writer’s life is no walk in the park, according to Christopher Davis, 84, whose The Conduct of Saints is due in May: “The work is difficult, both the reading and the writing. People will say they love to write. Even good writers say so, but I think they are talking about desire and expectation. They mean they love good art and, because they have sometimes made it happen and because they love their creation, they hope (it is a desperate and pessimistic hope) to do it again. Since this creative work involves instinct and thought in a contest that is resolved by means of the manipulation of words (instead of paint or clay or sound), and since the language we use as a medium in the art is derived from the language we use in our ordinary lives and gives a false appearance of being the same thing, writing is one of the hardest jobs men and women do.”

Seconding this opinion, KC Frederick, 76, whose Looking for Przybylski is due in October, adds,  “It’s always been a miracle, looking back at my earliest notes for a fiction, that already latent in those obscure scratchings was a  complex entity that would someday breathe and move.  To make it happen, though, meant using every tool in the tool box as well as every instrument in my little orchestra.  When the fiction’s done a sense of ending goes along with the feeling of achievement: this thing is finished, it doesn’t have to be done again, let’s try something new. But then there’s the blank page. Next time around you have to start as a baby, learning to speak all over.  Each novel can be a lifetime—doesn’t that complicate how writers calculate their ages?”

Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at www.kirschnercaroff.com.


Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.