Jason Williams isn't the first person to face a crossroads in life and choose publishing—James Laughlin, for example, could've settled on being a playboy instead of founding New Directions. But Williams might be the first to pass up the romance of a career in the French Foreign Legion in favor of a book-publishing fantasy. Fittingly enough, some SF/fantasy authors have been prime beneficiaries of the road taken—which led to Night Shade Books.
In 1994, newly discharged from the Marines, Williams briefly considered the mercenary life. He did a brief stint in IT in Silicon Valley instead (where science fiction reading is a recreational sport) and there met Daniel Harms, an H.P. Lovecraft aficionado and wannabe author. When Harms couldn't find a publisher, Williams decided to be that publisher. "How hard could it be?" Without even a barcode on the book, Night Shade published Harms's The Necronomicon Files, which quickly sold out its 1,000 first printing.
The next year, Williams attended a reading by John Shirley at the specialty Borderlands Books in San Francisco and met bookseller Jeremy Lassen. That night, Williams signed Shirley's Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories. And the following year, Lassen joined the press as editor-in-chief.
A decade later, Night Shade is a two-man outfit with 32 titles scheduled for this year—all in the science fiction and fantasy genre—and has steadily built a name for itself with writers, agents and booksellers.
"They started out doing reprints and collections of odd things—which were cool," said Jim Killen, a buyer at Barnes & Noble. "They've moved on to being a very interesting trade publisher of the literary side of sci-fi and fantasy."
When agent Christopher Schelling of Ralph M. Vicinenza Ltd. was shopping a new novel by Walter Jon Williams, he actually went with the offer from Night Shade over Tor. Night Shade offered Williams (no relation to the publisher) its biggest advance to date, $15,000, and a commitment to bring his 20-plus backlist back into print.
"When Jason and I first met, we bonded over Walter's Hardwired and we'd say, Wouldn't it be great if we could publish that, and in December we did," said Lassen.
"Walter is a star on their list," said Schelling. "They have a whole program for him."
Recently, Night Shade acquired another Williams of no relation—Liz Williams. Her agent, Shawna McCarthy, told PW that Williams's previous SF books, published by Bantam, were critically acclaimed but did not meet Bantam's sales expectations. Night Shade is not the first indie publisher to step up and boost a midlist author's career, as consolidation among the big publishers has caused them to all but abandon the midlist, but she thinks Night Shade is doing it better than most.
"I've been very impressed with how Night Shade has performed—they get the review attention and they get the sales," said McCarthy.
Josh Hayes, associate director of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distribution (which has been distributing Night Shade to the trade for two years), said Night Shade was not only creating a home for midlist authors but distinguishing itself as the best home for these authors. Realistic sales expectations are part of what they have to offer.
"That's a breath of fresh air when dealing with small publishers," said Hayes. "They know what they can—and can't—do."
"We're two guys in San Francisco and we can make something very solid and very successful with 7,000 copies," said Jason Williams.
Now that Night Shade is confident about its SF and fantasy titles, Williams and Lassen are looking to start a general imprint next year.
"That doesn't surprise me," said B&N's Killen. "Some of their sci-fi is already crossing over."
Hayes said he thought Night Shade would do well with whatever Williams and Lassen decided to publish. "They give us the tools to sell their books as effectively as we can," he said. "They're smart and really well liked."
And Night Shade's sales growth over the past five years has kept pace with its title expansion (see chart).
"In the 10 years we've been running Night Shade, everything had to be learned from scratch," Williams told PW. He doesn't expect their planned diversification to be any different. "Jer's got the English degree and I know how to blow things up," added the former Marine, whose only regret about dissing the French Foreign Legion is missing out on "the really neat hat."