Publisher Ben LeRoy calls himself a “traditionalist,” insisting he'll never read an e-book, and that he's committed to acquiring mysteries and literary fiction for Bleak House Books that will last though they may not become bestsellers. “Say I have 10 books that stand the test of time. If two fail [in terms of sales], I still feel I've succeeded,” LeRoy explains. “I want to put out books I can be proud of.”
But in the next breath, LeRoy also calls himself a realist and maintains that technology can be used to both enhance the reader's experience and, at the same time, effectively promote new releases in a “choked” marketplace. “It's a matter of combining emerging technologies and traditional methods,” LeRoy says, describing Bleak House's multimedia initiatives to market their authors and books. Following up on the success last year of including a DVD inside limited copies of Bleak House's Chicago Blues anthology of short fiction—containing author interviews and footage of the Chicago landmarks that figured in their stories—Bleak House has begun producing blogs, podcasts and vlogs (video blogs).
While the blogs announce book launches, author events and other news, podcasts and vlogs featuring interviews with Bleak House authors are posted on the press's Web site (bleakhousebooks.com). Vlogs are also posted on YouTube and reproduced on DVDs that are inserted in limited numbers of books.
“When you have an author with a great book, the reader would like more information,” LeRoy says. Bleak House's documentaries are neither slick nor polished, but are as gritty as the character-driven noir fiction and hard-boiled mysteries for which the small press is becoming known, books with titles like Dead Madonna and Head Games that LeRoy depicts as “sometimes rough-around-the-edges,” containing “real characters who are flawed.”
“A lot of people want the real thing—what's coming straight from the artist's gut,” LeRoy insists. “But some editorial decision makers take on the role of parents protecting their child; they don't go for the gritty stuff. Our publishing credo is, if a book were to be made into a movie that required a large special-effects budget with explosions and car crashes, that's probably not a book we'll be doing.”
LeRoy's approach to publishing also includes getting involved with what his authors experience. So far, LeRoy has sailed off of Cape Cod with Randall Peffer (author of the upcoming Southern Seahawk) discussing how the sea and sailing affect his writing; driven around Chicagoland with Libby Fischer Hellmann, where a rash of college hazing incidents inspired her to write Easy Innocence, due out next month; and visited rural Minnesota in the dead of winter with Anthony Neil Smith, whose novel Yellow Medicine, set for May, features crooked cops and meth labs in the most desolate reaches of that state.
LeRoy attributes his DIY attitude to his teen years in Madison, Wis., when he “grew up on a steady diet of punk rock” and cofounded a philosophy club in high school that evolved into a multimedia arts company in 1995, which became Bleak House Books six years later.
Bleak House's debut release in 2001 was Red Sky, Red Dragonfly by John Galligan, with a 500-copy initial print run. After receiving a glowing review in a Japanese English-language newspaper, praising the novel for its “most authentic evocations” of Japan and the Japanese, LeRoy was hooked. “It was a big pat on the back that you could do a 500-copy print run, and you could still reach people,” he recalls. “It made the decision easier to continue publishing.” Further affirmation of his publishing style came early this year when three Bleak House books were nominated for Edgar awards.
Seeking an infusion of capital that would give him a larger presence in the marketplace and allow him to release more than the four titles per year he was able to publish at the time, LeRoy sold Bleak House to Big Earth Publishing in 2005. Freed of the financial burdens that almost always plague small presses—and now releasing 20—25 titles annually—LeRoy exults in his role as publisher/investigative journalist/ producer: “I get to do all the things I love and combine them in putting out the best product possible—without compromising my integrity.”