Guest Post: A Mass-Market Boy in a Small Press World

By Mark Allan Gunnells

I grew up in a family that was poor. No other way to put it. My mother struggled just to make ends meet and there wasn’t much left over for anything else. There were no luxury items in our home. Therefore, when I developed my love of reading at a young age, the public library was my primary source of books.

The library in my hometown was – and still is – a small affair without a great deal of selection. Even so, I devoured books by authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Thomas Harris, Clive Barker, John Saul, Anne Rice. My library card got a lot of use in those days.

As I got older and started scraping up the money to buy my own books, I primarily had to stick to paperbacks. The used bookstore the next town over was like a house of treasures to me. Buying a hardcover at twenty to twenty-five bucks felt like I was splurging with reckless abandon. In fact, I still remember the very first hardcover I ever bought at full price, that didn’t come out of a discount bin. It was Stephen King’s Needful Things and that book held a place of honour on my shelf, like it was precious.

Back then, I had no concept of the small press or the collector’s market. And I don’t mean I just didn’t pay much attention to that world; I had no idea such a world even existed. I went along, happily gathering up paperbacks, content with what I had, not realizing I was missing out on anything.

Joe R. Lansdale is to blame for exposing me to the small press world. I discovered him when I picked up a copy of his first two Drive-In novels, collected in a mass-market paperback edition. It was a whim, as I’d never even heard of him before that point. I read those and enjoyed them, and later found a trade paperback edition of his collection Electric Gumbo in a used bookstore. After devouring those stories, I was officially hooked on Lansdale and was determined to get as much of his stuff as I could lay my hands on.

In seeking out more works by Lansdale, I started finding books with exorbitant price tags. And keep in mind, at the time, paying even forty dollars for a single book seemed unfathomable to me. I kept wondering, “Why are these books so damn expensive?” I didn’t understand limited editions, numbered and lettered. I did not yet speak that language.

After that first glimpse into the small press world, I discovered that many of the mass-market authors I enjoyed also published in the small press. And there were even more authors who seemed to publish almost exclusively in the small press, and their works sounded interesting and exciting. However, most of those volumes were sadly out of my price range.

And so, I continued along, now aware of the small press, but not really dipping my toes in those waters, as it were. Every so often, I would save up my money and get something, like the third Drive-In book by Lansdale put out by Subterranean Press, but, for the most part, it was a world I looked at through a glass barrier. As a reader, it didn’t seem like a world I fit in and as a writer, I certainly never dreamed I would be a part of it. I just couldn’t imagine someone would want to pay fifty bucks for a book by me.

Then, through a twist of fate or chance, I made the acquaintance of Tom Moran. He had already established a reputation in the small press world as an artist and author, and he had just recently started his own horror magazine called ‘Black Ink Horror‘. He published my story “God Doesn’t Follow You into the Bathroom” and was very enthusiastic about it. This led to him offering me, quite out of the blue, a chance to publish a chapbook through his new venture, Sideshow Press.

So, there I was, little Mr. Mass-Market, with my very own limited chapbook being published through a small press. In the process of promoting the book, I really stepped fully into the small press world for the first time…and found that it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Yes, there were expensive editions, sometimes running hundreds of dollars for a single volume, but most of the publishers also offered affordable trade editions of many of their titles. And what really impressed me was the love and care that went into the creation of these books. No mass-produced product here, these publishers used the best materials, the best artwork, to put out top-quality volumes that were well worth the investment.

I also discovered the talent involved in the small press world. Writers like Brian Knight, James Newman, Gene O’Neill, Michael McBride. I got my hands on some of their trade editions and was blown away by their skill and storytelling power. In fact, I even saved up and, in some cases, utilized the layaway plan available through Horror Mall, to purchase some more expensive limited editions, as well.

And while I don’t consider myself in the same league as of the above-mentioned writers, I suppose I am now a small press writer, myself. My chapbook A Laymon Kind of Night was released through Sideshow, as was my book Whisonant and my upcoming collection Tales from the Midnight Shift Vol. I. My zombie novella Asylum found a home with the Apex imprint The Zombie Feed. The people I’ve worked with at these two publishers have proven to be passionate and intelligent folks, who have a real love of books and a determination to put out the best product possible.

I still buy a lot of paperbacks and mass-market novels, but now I like to think I have my foot in both worlds. Mass-market and small press. I am not suggesting one is better than the other, but I think they each have something to offer to book lovers like myself.

Bio: Gunnells is the author of Asylum (The Zombie Feed/Apex Publications, Dec. 2010), the story of Curtis, a young college student dragged to his first gay club by his best friend when the dead start to rise and attack the club. Trapped inside the Asylum are a small band of survivors, including a drag queen, a male stripper, a Vietnam vet bartender, a pretentious gay couple, and an unstable DJ. In addition to Asylum, Gunnells, a South Carolina-based horror writer, has Tales from the Midnight Shift, Volume 1 (Sideshow Press) and Whisonant (Sideshow Press) due out in 2011. You can purchase Asylum here, if you dare.