Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Interview with fantasy book publisher Jason M. Waltz

Demons: A Clash of Steel AnthologyFor a few years now publisher and editor Jason M. Waltz of Rogue Blades Entertainment has been bringing the best of heroic adventure fiction to fans of the fantastic. The most recent release from Rogue Blades Entertainment is Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, which contains numerous tales of sword-slinging action and demonic adversaries.

Recently editor Waltz agreed to an online interview, to answer a few questions about the past, present and future of Rogue Blades Entertainment.

What drove you to be a book editor? And why books instead of magazines?

‘Fell’ may be the better verb to use. ‘Drove’ implies that I had some choice in the matter. Rather, it seems each step that led me to being a book editor fell in place before me, sometimes as the result of my pursuit and sometimes just because I was running too hard to avoid it.

Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic AdventureThe idea that I would be editing any book at all, let alone continue to be editing them in 2010, was nonexistent pre-November 2005. As I wrote in the acknowledgements for Return of the Sword, my descent into this world of speculative fiction beyond just the reading of it and then my eventual rise within its very publishing can be directly traced to my joint discovery of’s forum and Pitch-Black Books’ writing contest. Expanding my contacts within the SF community, finding such havens as SFReader, learning of the — to me at the time — many writing outlets like Pitch-Black … all that was nirvana. I read every thread in the forum (and had something to say in most of them), wrote more short stories than I’d ever written or begun before, discussed craft, received feedback, gathered rejections.

Anyway, longer story cut shorter, all of this exposed the review blogging I’d begun earlier in the year to a few folks, folks who then asked me to review or slush read for them. That in turn led to actual selection editing — and assuming the burden of rejecting other people’s writings. Then tragedy struck. Pitch-Black Books hit difficult times and eventually closed. Part of their holdings was the Flashing Swords ezine — the very online reading material that had led me to authors I enjoyed reading AND met and regularly talked to on SFReader. Pitch-Black made an offer to turn the ezine over to the first person who wanted it. A day of self-examination and discussion with a few others later, and I made an inquiry as the head of a four-person team.

We’d been preempted by hours.

Another conversation later and I became part of the new management. And so my tenure at Flashing Swords — first ezine, then print zine, then zine and books — began with a steep learning curve. I moved from Assistant to Managing Editor, probably because there were only so many hats the new publisher could wear. As we grew together, so did our dreams and publication plans. We decided that we could do magazines and books, anthologies and collections of the same hard-hitting adventure that we already published.

And so I became the Managing Editor of Flashing Swords Press and was given almost free reign to pursue whatever I deemed met the mission of our new press. As you can witness, through no plan of my own, nor drive, the editing of books had fallen into my lap … and become my life.

Why books versus magazines? I sit here answering this surrounded by books on the shelves around me, and I cannot lie for they will certainly fall upon me and bury me beneath their thick spines and heavy titles.

First of all, I did not grow up reading magazines. Nor comics for that matter. I read them at the doctor’s office, at the library, at the store counter, but I don’t think I ever subscribed to one until my teens, talking my parents into subscribing to either The Writer or Writer’s Digest and Psychology Today or some such. There might have been a poetry one, too. My money and time went to books. I had a 2,000 title library as a teen, and my summers were spent setting records in the local library summer reading programs. My parents decided to cleanse our house of televisions when I was seven, so even though I partook in lots of sports and plenty of other activities from dawn to dusk, my youth was spent pre-computers and sans-television. Time to read abounded.

I consumed pretty much all the heroic action genres, beginning with all the adventures (from Tarzan to Westerns) and moving simultaneously into espionage thrillers and fantasy. I say all that to demonstrate that my lifelong relationship with books trumps that of any other reading material. I realize the times are a-changing, and Rogue Blades Entertainment will be a publisher of electronic texts, but I will always prefer a thick paper spine in my hand.

So that’s my first influence in the ‘Why books vs. zines’ question.

Next comes work-level appeal. No advertisements, no renewal/subscription cards, no columns, no monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, biannually deadlines. As a book editor/publisher I have more freedom, too. A magazine, a good magazine, must be consistent with its contents, with its cover, under its name and keep its subscribers' content. The publisher of books has a new lease on all of that with each release, a wider umbrella under which to work. As it is, with anthologies and collections I can deliver every appeal of any magazine and avoid most all its drawbacks.

I strongly feel that anthologies and collections are the reading wave of the (hopefully near) future, for they deliver the short reads (varying to taste from super short dribble to the short novels of novelettes and novellas) desired today without the distractions/inconveniences of advertisements, editorials, columns, and subscription pressures. Then there’s the more durable nature of books over magazines, the perceived permanence of the one over the other, which has appeal as well. If I were to work at another magazine though, I wouldn’t mind my name on, wouldn’t mind working at, Black Gate with John O’Neill.

What draws you to the fantasy genre? What about other genres?

The absolute freedom of it. I hate that quote that those overbearingly intellectual (at least in their own minds) fools who try to tell the rest of us what to read and how to enjoy our reading often use to justify their infuriatingly inane claim that reading for escapism is childish. Wake up! ALL entertainment is escapism. Escapism does not have to be childish — but it damn well can be if it wants to be. Who are they to render judgment? I dare say that such belittling attitudes over the years have delivered not one worthwhile contribution to reading or to literature. So long as it consists of quality writing that delivers both believability and appeal either emotional or intellectual, every genre has merit, every story has something to give someone.

As for me, fantasy is the final frontier of adventure. When one reads countless adventure tales — adventure from Wild West to wild Alaska to wild seas, from steaming jungles to steaming deserts to steaming boudoirs — watches dozens more and even manages to live a few, the thrill of that-which-cannot-be-experienced has immense appeal.

Fantasy conjures myth which in turn conjures epics, conjures heroes, conjures daring exploits based more upon a man (or woman)’s brawn of wrist and nimbleness of wit assisted by nothing more than comrades and steel and spell. What makes this any different than any other genre? The world apart, the independence of the people, a sufficiency based upon base necessities common to all, rather than unusual necessities specific to certain genres, such as all the science required simply to live found in science fiction.

I enjoy far more the exploration of what-cannot-be or what-once-was or what-might-have-been over the what-may-be or what-may-be-around-the-next-corner. The unexplainable rooted in past and current commonality over the extrapolated current and future potential. Talk to me of swords and chaos magic, of gods and battles fought so close by steel pressed to flesh in hands clenched within breath of gritted teeth yet real enough to have been my own experience in a past life or dual world — don’t speak to me of laser cannons and chaos science, of alien intelligence and impartial wars fought by push-button or thought, so cold as to be so factual that it itself becomes a science. There is romance in the thought I can no longer grab a sword and beat back a crazed horde intent upon sacrificing me and my beautiful sidekick to some heinous demonic deity … a romance that dances with an allure of could but … I find no romance in thoughts of the gun I can grab firing beams of light rather than projectiles of metal against a foe strange from outer space intent upon stealing me and my beautiful sidekick for some diabolic experimentation … a looming achievability, a very-well-could-be … That tarnish of possible-to-probable is hard for me to remove once it alights, once it removes the impossible. But I rant and prattle …

Other genres once held dear to my heart and on occasion I still read are Western, espionage, war-action-adventure-thriller wrapped and embroiled and spun as one into something golden. I enjoy them still, I just haven’t drunk my fill of fantasy yet.

What are some of your influences? Favorite writers? A favorite book?

I am an uninfluenced man — I walk alone. Ha! Tolkien and Lewis were my first, my earliest reads, read to me aloud by my mother, then reread by me, each more than once. They gave me quests, the journeying of a few from one point to another, in place and in life. Then came Brand and Burroughs, Tarzan and lone gunmen striving to do the right things — they gave me dignity and honor and loyalty. Hard on those heels came L’Amour, every one of his books, with the espionage of Ludlum and MacLean and von Lustbader, reinforcing loyalty, honor, courage, honesty — and the solitude of heroes. More Westerns, war (fact and fiction), thrillers, fantasy, the classic works of Dumas and London and Twain, science fiction (though never the hard science kind), adventures (those they often term “men’s adventures” as if women never explored or lived them, such as John Benteen’s Fargo or Gold Eagle’s Mack Bolan—though Able Team was my favorite), suspense, a dozen of the Alfred Hitchcock presents anthologies, historicals, and always biographies — Harold Lamb most predominate in both of these later categories. All viewed through the prism of upbringing in a home that valued intelligence and honesty and faithfulness and truth and doing the right thing. My influences? Pretty much all those of the classical Western culture.

My favorite authors? Alexandre Dumas. Jack London. Louis L’Amour. Anton Meyer. Robert Ludlum. Steven Erikson. David Gemmell.

Favorite books? The Seventh Man, Max Brand; A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin; Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain; Once an Eagle, Anton Meyer; Memories of Ice, Steven Erikson; The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas.

Favorite literary characters? Lestat, Anne Rice; Raistlin, Weis & Hickman; Edward, the Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas; Dan Barry, Max Brand; Nicholas Linnear, Eric van Lustbader. Several of Erikson’s, just not ready to commit to a single one yet.

Have any suggestions for writers trying to make it into one of your publications? What kind of stories are you looking for?

To ‘make it’ into one of my publications is a convoluted, complex, hurdle-filled labyrinthine of torment designed to separate an author from his/her cookies — seriously, to find acceptance in one of ‘my’ publications is no different than any other: deliver to me, all nicely packaged and presented, what I want.

What is it that I want? Ah, that is the question. I look for hard, fast-paced action with compelling characters and creative plots. It’s not an either-or, though it doesn’t always have to be both. Give me a serial character that I want to read again and the plots — while important — aren’t as important. On the other hand, regardless of a serial character (and it’s not necessary to have one), give me a sense of power, urgency, in your writing that makes the characters — while still capable of being addictive — not so much the compulsion of your tales, just the deliverers or completers of them. I know short story authors that deliver each of these, one who has a character that I will always read, period; another who has yet to repeat a character but is so consistent with his style of hard, dark, dangerous, power writing that I will read all of his tales because of that.

Here’s my key to strong writing, addiction-inspiring writing … good writing that I want to read: The story — no matter its length, its genre, its author — must appeal to me either emotionally or intellectually. Writing must stimulate a response in the reader, the easiest being emotional, the most difficult being both emotional and intellectual. If a reader can find an author that delivers both appeals, that author has found a life-long fan.

What have you found to be the hardest part, perhaps even the most discouraging part, of being a book editor/publisher?

Hmm, good question. The thing I’ve found to be the hardest, most difficult part of editing is learning as I’ve progressed in this industry that there isn’t time to clean up works that require a lot of editing, no matter how awesome a tale they may be. Especially for a one-man operation such as RBE.

From my first day reading slush and offering rejections, I have believed that every story deserved to be read in full and deserved an honest, if not thorough, reason for rejection. Writing is a difficult enough profession, finding publication even more so. Not every writer, wanna-be or not, garners the benefit of writing/critique groups, partners, feedback. While writing is a solitary endeavor, it benefits greatly from interaction and input from others. I truly cannot imagine a creative being, such as a musical artist playing an instrument in solitude, deprived of any sensory feedback even after soliciting it and thriving. Who am I to deny that being the chance at growth? Who am I to deny granting acceptance — no matter how narrow the chance to receive it exists — without reason?

What took me some time to learn through experience, though, is that I cannot ‘fix’ everything no matter what I think of the story, of the potential, of my skills. I am a fixer (even the name Jason means ‘healer’) of things — but there simply isn’t time. Not if I want RBE to become the profitable business and genre icon that I do. So while I can still read a story in its entirety, I no longer have to read all of it once I’ve realized that that particular tale does not work for me. I can still offer honest appraisal to that point of non-acceptance.

That is why RBE has moved to a new submission policy: with the announcement of my latest open submission (Assassins: A Clash of Steel Anthology), I will only be accepting the first 500 words of a submission and basing my interest for the remainder on how well I am ‘hooked.’ 500 words is two full manuscript pages, far more than an opening paragraph judgment and far more than enough to determine at least opening appeal. 500 words guarantees that I will turn the page, as it were, giving the author a fair chance. It does not guarantee acceptance nor acceptability as each is then determined by the whole. I anticipate this to effectively expedite the selection and response process.

So for me, learning how to let go has been the most difficult part of growing as an editor.

The most discouraging part of editing is devoting time — especially to people I know and in that case a lot of it — to carefully crafting tailored feedback in genuine effort to contribute to bettering their piece and having their response be less than desirable. Several times it has been drastic enough to discourage me from offering feedback again. Yet I’ve been an active member in several in-person critique groups for years, and have spent countless words encouraging and guiding and in turn being encouraged and guided, so I have decided to continue doing my best by each person … though I will definitely curtail my efforts on behalf of certain individuals. Again, it comes down to a matter of time, and I cannot afford to lose time on those unappreciative of it, especially at the cost of those who are: RBE’s readers.

As for publishing, right now perhaps most difficult and most discouraging are one and the same — I cannot abide a sense of floundering, feeling as if I am treading water in darkness and in an unimaginably deep pool. So whenever that sensation threatens, I am most discouraged. Having a one-head-though-multi-hatted role such as mine often places me in positions unfamiliar or unaccustomed to, so floundering has almost become a customary feeling I am sad to say. On the other hand, it no longer is as scary. Specific difficult tasks for me include things such as publicity and exposure, and e-technology. Both of those could be full-time positions that just consume time and energy, sucking both of those dearly required necessities from my reading, editing, layout and creating.

As a writer, I find I spend more time working on promotions than I do actually writing. Do you find the same on the publishing end of the business?

Most assuredly. Personally, my own writing has fallen close to nonexistent. I was not a prolific writer when I moved into editing and now publishing, and now I’m fortunate to pen a tale a year.

On the publishing end it is no different. Promoting is an entire industry in itself, but it is an absolute requirement today that any artist (and I consider myself as a publisher no less an artist than any author, musician, or graphic artist) must address, at the very least at the cost of his/her time. Rather than losing time for writing though, I lose time for other creations, such as designing RBE’s next title, pursuing ideas and inspirations, soliciting connections, actually working on reading and editing. Increased exposure increases recognition, and there’s nothing better to increase exposure than having more to expose. That’s just as true for a writer as it is for a publisher, and that’s the stance I’ve currently adopted, striving to get more titles out there, more quality reading entertainment before the public eye. The best defense is still a strong offense.

What does the future hold for Rogues Blade Entertainment? What are your hopes? Will RBE be stretching out into novels? What about other media? Ebooks? Audio books? Video games?

Lots. Many. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No.

By now you realize how inexhaustible my words are. I shan’t belabor any of these answers. Currently I do have a full-time job that has nothing to do with publishing or editing or even books or entertainment. RBE is my personal side job — and I plan for it to be my next full-time job. My career actually, with plans to fully transition into it during 2017. I’ve till then to make this a profitable gig … or at least life-sustainable. My hopes I’ve mentioned before. I desire the name of Rogue Blades Entertainment to become synonymous with high-quality and highly-entertaining heroic action adventure literature. I want RBE products to be addictive, to always deliver on a continuous promise of fulfillment. I want readers to want RBE titles. I want RBE to be recognized as a leading proponent of those that deliver heroism, from fictitious creation to living legends, from all cultures and backgrounds, from authors and artists, and in every genre. There is power in a reliable name, a consistent name, a name delivering what it promises; my goal is for RBE to be just such a powerful name.

Future RBE products will include novels. I do not have a set timetable for that yet, but soon RBE will begin publishing novellas and novelettes. The first RBE single-author collection will be out this fall. As for other media, e-books are a recognized must in today’s world; RBE will be producing them, hopefully better and more frequently than it currently does, though it requires technical skills and time I am deficient in. Audio? RBE would actually already have done that, as I’ve explored it and worked out preliminaries with an acquaintance and local group of actors; the cost, while I am told exceptional, was still beyond RBE’s budget. I would like to dabble in audio, provide some number of shorts at the very least. It will most likely have to wait for the time being. Video games? No, there is no intention of RBE being a publisher of video games. Now games, yes — card games, collectible and non, for certain. In addition, RBE will be publishing collections of heroic artwork, in coffee table book size and electronic formats, and taking a hard look at graphic novels. I would be thrilled to publish works like CrossGen’s Sigil and Sojourn.

Well now, that was an illuminating hour, eh? My thanks for asking questions that made me think, made me reply thoroughly and put RBE’s intentions out there, made me accountable. My thanks to you too, good reader, for riding along. I promise RBE’s titles are much more energetic.

Thanks Jason, for giving us a look into the mind and processes of a heroic fantasy fiction book publisher/editor.


Bryan said...

"I strongly feel that anthologies and collections are the reading wave of the (hopefully near) future, for they deliver the short reads (varying to taste from super short dribble to the short novels of novelettes and novellas) desired today without the distractions/inconveniences of advertisements, editorials, columns, and subscription pressures."

I've been thinking the same thing, and not sure if it's too slow in happening, or if it IS happening and I haven't seen it.

Good interview, and I've been interested in revisiting Twain and Dumas myself

Charles Gramlich said...

Love to see his wide range of influences. I think that's key. Just key. Good interview.

David J. West said...

Great interview-Ty/Jason.

I'm very excited about upcoming RBE projects and it was good to read a bit more on how Jason got his start.

Right there with you about preferring a thick paper spine myself-but I'm glad you are preparing for the e-movement too.

Paul R. McNamee said...

Aiming for the A.D.D. modern society with anthologies is probably a smart move.

Yet, at the same time, in the big publisher venues, the short story is a dying art form (see Stephen King's lament in 'Everything's Eventual'.)

The push continues for novels and trilogies - usually of the bloated kind.

Hopefully the small presses can turn around the trend.

Thorough interview there, folks. ;)