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Ben Leroy and Alison Dasho interviewed

The actual Bleak House house

The actual Bleak House house

Back in 2003 I did a signing in Madison with Sean Doolittle who was touring for BURN. I had put out a book of author interviews and we did a joint event. As Ruth and I tend to do we shopped for books afterward and picked up a nice stack of things to read. Two of the books were from Bleak House Books. While waiting to check out Terri Bishoff who was running the store introduced us to Ben LeRoy and we hit it off. We already had two of their books in our stack and we talked about us covering some up coming books. Not much later we were in Madison for the 5th anniversary party (during which Ben turned me on to a nice blend of Gatorade and Red Bull). Ben and Alison are both dear friends and we love them in huge amounts. This article which is the cover story of our current issue has been a long time coming and we’re thrilled for all their success. – Jon Jordan

Ben at 5th anniversary party

Ben at 5th anniversary party

Back in 2003, Ben LeRoy and Alison Janssen (now Dasho) met at a Barnes and Noble in Madison, WI. Not long after that meeting, Alison went to work as an intern at Bleak House Books, a then little known indie publishing house. Ten years later they continue to help shape the crime fiction community now as the Publisher of Tyrus Books, a division of F+W Media (LeRoy) and the Acquisitions Editor at Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon (Dasho).

They sat down, cyberly speaking, with Steve Weddle, news hound and author of COUNTRY HARDBALL, to talk about how an idea changed lives and threw off a ripple in the publishing pound that has yet to still. – Jennifer Jordan

Steve: Today, with self-publishing and distribution so different than it was in 2000, understanding where Bleak House Books fit is difficult. Today, a writer can upload her books online, sell through print-on-demand sites, and reach an audience completely inaccessible 15 years ago.

Can you describe the landscape in general for small presses when you started and especially what it was like for a small publisher of “crime fiction”?

Ben: I don’t know what the landscape was really like. I only know what I thought it was like. Digital printing was emerging. POD was becoming a thing. Ebooks, for the most part, still sounded like science fiction. It was like jumping into the fringes of hurricane, recognizing some things passing by at a million miles an hour, and assuming that to be the landscape. Between the ongoing shifts and an ignorance of the historical reality of the industry (coupled with the fact that I was in my mid-20s), it was hard to walk a straight line, even when we set our course on a destination.

Back then, we didn’t have a good handle on the existing crime fiction community. The Internet was finding its legs, but there wasn’t a Facebook or a Twitter to put everybody together, to breed that sense of familiarity one gets these days from interacting with total strangers in a digitally personal way.
Before connecting with organizations like MWA or the people putting on regional conferences, we interacted more with small presses of scattered niches at shows like Book Expo America. It was overwhelming to understand what our place was in the larger industry. One day you’d get a piece of good news that you’d interpret to be a sure thing big break. The next day you’d find out nobody has ever heard of you and won’t buy your books. The yo-yoing of it all was stressful and we almost threw the towel in on more than one occasion.

Some of the crime fiction people who adopted us in those early years—the entire Jordan family, Reed Farrel Coleman, and even Laura Lippman—kept us believing in what we were doing and our ability to succeed. I can’t ever overstate their importance to how things played out then and where we all are now. It was easier to believe that we could be an upstart with a mixture of punk/DYI ethics and our own Midwestern sensibilities (in contrast to Big Houses in NYC) when others nodded along.

But even that had its limitations. In the spring of 2005 we were running on fumes. Cash was gone. Debt was amassed. No paychecks. No health insurance. I’d somehow convinced Alison to quit her paying jobs. In the parlance of the poker world, we were all in. If it hadn’t been for the late Dave Oskin approaching us about being acquired by Big Earth Publishing in the spring of 2005, we wouldn’t be here right now.

Alison at 5th anniversary party

Alison at 5th anniversary party

Alison: I don’t have a lot to add to Ben’s response – he was much more focused on landscape, and my focus was much more internal: the specific books on our list, the submissions coming in, etc. I think, had I been thinking more about landscape, I might have given up. Knowing how difficult it would be to gain traction, get reviews, catch readers’ eyes and build trust (that a Bleak House/Tyrus book would be quality fiction worth time and dollars) would have probably discouraged me. Instead, I had the luxury of keeping my attention on our titles, working with our authors, and sort of incubating this deep, wide passion for our projects so that when I finally did look up to realize that we were a tiny indie press island in a vast, tumultuous publishing sea (or, if you prefer, a tiny moon in the unfathomable expanse of space), I was buoyed by my belief in our work, and sure that there was intelligent life that would appreciate our books as much as I did, and we could find them somehow.

Steve: Let’s talk about those “punk” ethics for a second. At Bleak House, you did a number of things that the Big Houses in NYC weren’t doing. For example, you released books in hardback and paperback at the same time. You had a good subscription plan, too, which I used those many years ago. And you had something wonderful called The Evidence Collection, which were limited edition books containing book sheets and fingerprints of authors. What were you trying to accomplish?

Alison: We wanted to please everyone – I think that’s where many of our “innovations” came from.
Indie mystery bookstores wanted to sell hardcovers, and libraries wanted to shelve hardcovers, so we produced hardcovers. Chain stores wanted trade paperbacks, so we saw no reason not to produce those, too, and at the same time as the hardcovers.

The Evidence Collection was so cool – still one of my favorite programs to have worked on. That was geared toward collectors, those who wanted a special edition, something extra. And let me tell you, choosing the specific endpapers and textures and little features was so satisfying and fun. But more than being a neat program for collectors, the Evidence Collection was a way for us to make our authors happy, to let them know how special they were to us, and how valuable we believed their work to be.
Speaking just for myself here, I think our punk aesthetic was less about us being actual rebels who were raging against the machine and more about us thinking about what readers and authors wanted, then doing our best to deliver, not constrained by how things “should” be done, or how things always worked before. So we were punks in that we dismissed the rules – not out of contempt, but because we didn’t feel beholden to them.

Steve: Though it has to be a commercial enterprise to continue for more than a book or two, publishing isn’t exactly a widget-making factory. Tax forms and contracts and other annoyances demand attention, but you have to really care about the thing you’re doing, really become invested in getting this piece of brilliance into the hands of readers. What was it about the work that you did, about the books that you loved, that gave you this “deep, wide passion”?

Alison: We were making dreams come true!

I started working with Ben when I was twenty-three years old. Officially I was an intern, but because Bleak House didn’t operate in a strictly traditional sense, I had a lot of power – more than the intern job title would suggest. I was able to recommend which submissions we should pursue, which cover directions were best, etc., and Ben took my input seriously, he trusted me. That kind of confidence and belief in my judgment was incredible for me, as a young person just starting out. In contrast, my day job at Barnes and Noble, which paid my bills, didn’t give me half the sense of accomplishment or pride — and I really liked that job, too. I was surrounded by books, day and night! But interactions with customers were sometimes fulfilling (“Can you suggest a book for my twelve year old niece who loves outer space?”) but more often frustrating (“Where do you keep your books written by women?”).

So in part, it was the sense of ownership and the sense of being valued that I felt at Bleak House that helped develop my passion.

But a larger part was the authors and their work.

I loved the books we were publishing, and I loved the editorial process – I still distinctly remember sitting with John Galligan in our old offices, which were the first floor of a Victorian house, in the kitchen, talking about his series character, the Dog, and the shunned Amish woman Eve, and the possibly rabid beaver. Or conferring with Libby Fischer Hellmann about Georgia Davis during a Love is Murder conference. Or pacing my dining room, on the phone with Craig McDonald, sussing out motivations for Hector Lassiter. It was easy to be passionate about my work because my job was, essentially, to ignite my authors’ passions, to get them excited about revisions. Revisions can be daunting and exhausting and painful and just plain dull at times, but revision is what makes a book better, what moves it from potential energy to kinetic energy. My authors invested so much in their characters, plots, and language – I would have been doing them a disservice if I wasn’t passionate about doing my job.

Plus, I’m a Leo, so I like to get! excited! about! things!

061Ben: I definitely shared Alison’s enthusiasm during that time. Looking back now, I don’t think there’s any chance the operation survives if we didn’t have such a highly combustible mixture of enthusiasm and naiveté. Taken at face value—there’s absolutely no reason why it should have worked out the way it did. So many things broke in our favor.

Which isn’t to say that it was all rosy.

There were a few projects, some of which either predated Alison or, at the very least, were very early in Alison’s tenure that were decidedly unsuccessful. I look at some of those choices now, even knowing everything worked out in the end, and I ask myself what the hell were you thinking?

It was also to be on the ground floor as dreams were starting to be realized for others outside of Bleak House. Crimespree was taking off. I remember Jon Jordan introducing me to Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey at a Love is Murder conference in Chicago before either of them had a book out. We were a loosely affiliated and highly supportive gang of people figuring it out all at once as best we could.

When you’re drunk on the good feeling of I can make dreams come true, sometimes it clouds your better judgment. I can say, without reservation, in the very early days we published books that were never going to make the kind of money required to sustain a business. Why do it, then? Part of it was because it made me feel cool to help others realize publishing dreams. There’s definitely a high that comes with it in the initial stages.

I don’t know if it’s possible to truly understand all of the components and pressures of doing something that is inherently an art, but having to look at it through a business microscope. Even today I get people handing me manuscripts or suggesting I publish certain authors and I feel that twinge of it’d be the cool thing to do and then I fast-forward eighteen months and the phone call that would come from my boss wondering why there were so many returns in the warehouse. That’s a real consideration. So when I hear people fantasy booking what they’d do if they ran a business (any industry) and I hear something that would be an awesome party at first, I ask what the cleanup will be like.

All of that said—I lived on the adrenaline of those early days when we found our niche as a team, started getting validation from readers outside of our immediate social circles, and sold enough books to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Just standing in that tunnel is a game of chicken. One day it’s heaven on the other side. The next day it’s an oncoming train.

If that doesn’t get the blood flowing, I don’t know what will.

It was Book Expo America 2004 in Chicago when I first heard a voice in the back of my head telling me, this is real and it can happen. We were there with Galligan, my guy Nathan Singer whose debut novel A PRAYER FOR DAWN was a month away from debuting, and a few other authors having dinner at a restaurant by the hotel and I remember looking around the table and thinking you will never be this happy again and that’s ok.

It was a milestone.

Steve: Speaking of those early days — Galligan and Singer and others — what made a Bleak House book? Was it tone? Subject matter? Voice? What was it that drew you both to the books you chose?

Ben: I don’t know, exactly. I just knew it when I saw it.

Definitely tone. Literary quality. Grabs you by the collar and shakes you, but not just for the sake of shaking.

I remember when Nathan showed up with A PRAYER FOR DAWN, another one of our interns read the first 20 pages and said, “Here, I can’t read any more of this because it’s too disturbing, but I think you’ll like it.”

I read the whole partial right then, called Nathan and left a message for him to send me the rest. He sent it, I read it, and called him back—all on that first day. We talked for an hour and I realized I’d found a long lost partner in crime and that it was essential that we published the book. So many things went into that book landing on my desk and my enthusiasm being maxed out that day. It was magnetic. The best of what I’ve done at both Bleak House and Tyrus was like that. Craig McDonald’s HEAD GAMES was another book I knew I wanted to publish after reading a few pages. Scott O’Connor’s UNTOUCHABLE (would later win Barnes & Noble’s Discover Award for Fiction) was another.

Steve: For historical purposes, would you explain the transition from Bleak House to Tyrus?

Ben: We were very grateful in 2005 when Big Earth Publishing offered to acquire Bleak House Books. To be very clear, without Big Earth coming in during the summer of 2005, it’s likely we aren’t having this conversation right now. We’d hit the end of our resources. In the years from 2005 until 2009 we had the good fortune of developing the Bleak House Brand with strong support from the late Dave Oskin, Jr. (the President of Big Earth).

But by 2009 it was clear that we were an anomaly in the Big Earth family of publishers. The other divisions were focused primarily on regional non-fiction. Alison and I decided it’d be best if we broke off. We tried to find the funding to purchase Bleak House from Big Earth, but ultimately couldn’t come to an agreement on the value of the company. So we left and decided to start a new company from scratch.
In many ways I’m glad we did—it was nice to reshape who we were and what we did. Often in the Bleak House days we were living beholden to our early days and/or the erroneous assumptions people would make, “Oh they really love bleak stuff, here’s a semi-load of violence!”

A new name gave us a chance to start building a new legacy within the existing community. We were also fortunate that so many of the authors with whom we’d been working like Reed, Victoria Houston, Bill Cameron, and the readers and the reviewers who had been such strong supporters, and the bookstores that made it all possible stuck by our side during the transition.

So many turns of life happen that don’t make sense at the time, but when you get some distance between you and the moment, you understand why things happen. I’ve zenned out in my old age. If the split from Bleak House hadn’t happened the same way, it’s possible that we don’t ever get into a family relationship with Eric Campbell who helped get Tyrus off the ground. After Tyrus went to F+W, Eric started his own mystery publishing company that he continues to run to this day, Down and Out Books.

On top of that, Alison and I had a spell of unpleasantness between the two of us for a few years. It was terrible, because for a decade she was such an important part of my day-to-day life. But when I think about the way it played out—even the bad times—if it hadn’t been the way it was, maybe she doesn’t end up at as an Editor at Thomas & Mercer, where, as it turns out, she works with Sean and Marcus. Things like that? Who booked that?

In 2010, the three of us—Alison, Eric, and myself—were three people at one company. Now the reach has expanded to three different imprints spread clear across the country (Florida, Washington, Wisconsin). When you trace that all back to the old Bleak House office in 2002, when you take into consideration the interns we nurtured who went onto work for Big Five publishing houses and agencies, and the interns who have ended up working with us in our current positions, it’s all so unbelievable.

Steve: Bleak House and Tyrus have been considered “small” press or “indie” press or whatever term people use to designate a publisher from the Big Five. Stereotypically, smaller businesses seem to have a certain agility that larger publishers might not. Is this true for Tyrus? Has this been helpful?

Ben: It was certainly true in the Bleak House days. We came up with new initiatives all the time. Want a podcast? Cool, it’s day one, here are three episodes! Want to include thumbprints and booking sheets in the front of the book? No problem. There wasn’t any asking for permission, we were only left to ask, “How do we make this happen?”

Of course not every idea is golden. Things go wrong in the theoretical and the implementing stages. But I’m somebody who believes in taking enthusiasm for a project and running with it. Passion draws interest. It has definitely been helpful in carving out a reputation to be able to act on passion, no matter how crazy it all seems in the moment or in retrospect.

Steve: In 2008, three Bleak House books were named finalists for Edgars. And, as you mentioned, Scott O’Connor’s Untouchable snagged the B&N Discover Award. New from Tyrus, THE LAST TIME I DIED is getting stacks of praise, including a starred review in Booklist. Does each title have its own goal? How can you tell when a book you’ve published is a “success”?

Ben: I might be vaguely aware (and hopefully optimistic) about the goals for each title. But I’ve had my heart broken more than a few times when I was sure a book would garner a nomination for an award and then it never showed up. The Scott O’Connor thing with B&N was so out of the blue I had to have it explained to me multiple times just to make sure I understood what was going on.

The question of success is a hard one. There’s the divide between “art” and “business.” The first time a reader tells me how much a particular book meant to them, how much it made them think or laugh or cry, that is a success to me. Sharing a knowing look and a high five with somebody who has been moved like I was moved is great. Knowing that I could die today and there’s a legacy to leave behind is a nice feeling.

From a business standpoint, it’s harder for me to grasp what makes a “success.” In raw numbers and percentages I know what a book has to sell to satisfy its P/L. But even then, even when it does hit that threshold, I fret about what more could have been done to make it even more successful. It’s hard sitting back as a publisher, asking yourself honestly has everything that could be done, been done? and knowing the limitations of resources. It’s a perpetual game of What If…

Alison: The answer to this has changed for me over the years, and I think there are specific short-term metrics that are different for each book and each author. Selling foreign rights is a success. Hitting a bestseller list is a success. Getting a starred review is a success. And of course award nominations – and wins – are huge successes.

But really, I think it’s less about achieving goals like that and more about thinking in the long term: Are we making this book the best it can be with thoughtful editing and packaging (cover design and copy, proofreading and copy editing) and are we making it available to as many readers as we can? Are we connecting an author with his/her potential readership, and are we helping turn those potential readers into lifelong fans? Are we contributing to the universe of crime fiction with titles and authors we believe in?

What drew me to manuscripts was a confident voice and a focus on character. I can cite Evan Kilgore’s WHO IS SHAYLA HACKER and Lynn Kostoff’s LATE RAIN as manuscripts I knew I wanted right away. It’s so hard to answer this question more specifically than, “I knew it when I saw it.”

Steve: Where is everybody now and what are they publishing?

Ben: I’m still doing the Tyrus thing with Ashley Myers, who, in a former life had been an intern at both Bleak House and Tyrus. Big on our 2014 list is Reed Farrel Coleman’s final Moe Prager mystery, THE HOLLOW GIRL, and debuts from Jim Ruland (FOREST OF FORTUNE) and Jon Keller (OF SEA AND CLOUD). Victoria Houston and Mary Logue, who have been with us since the Bleak House days have new books coming out. And, I’m also working on getting Nathan Singer’s sequel to A PRAYER FOR DAWN called BLACKCHURCH FURNACE out. Full circle. I’m also trying to leverage whatever megaphone I’ve got right now to help build community outside of the publishing world with a project called Be Local Everywhere.

Alison: As of April 2013, I’ve been part of the Thomas & Mercer team (which is the mystery and thriller imprint of Amazon Publishing), and I am incredibly happy. Joining the team here has been amazing. Not only am I working with authors who I’ve known and loved for years, I’m also working with a few who we used to publish at Bleak House/Tyrus (Seth Harwood and Joe Konrath, holla!)!

On top of that, I’m in a position where I can keep an eye open for new and emerging talent, and for authors who I’ve long admired and who may have something new up their sleeve. Settling in here at Thomas & Mercer, I feel a little bit like someone who’s been shouting into a taped-together posterboard megaphone for a number of years, and all of a sudden I’ve been handed a live mic attached to an arena sound system. Now, when I fall in love with a book, I can help amplify the author’s signal in a much bigger way than I’d ever been able to before.

Being a part of the T&M team, with all the brains and muscle that that entails, is actually pretty humbling. I take acquisitions seriously, and I want to not only publish the kinds of books that readers already love, but also the kinds of books that they don’t know they will love yet. It’s a huge responsibility, not just to my authors, but to the mystery-reading community. I don’t want anyone to feel that a book was a waste of money, or worse, a waste of time. I want to readers to be thrilled, stumped, outraged, gutted, delighted, and all manner of other strong feelings. I want to connect the right readers with the right authors.

So of course this is where I can segue into talking about a book we have coming out this summer. It’s a debut. I could go on and on about how many outstanding authors who have books coming out this year that the Crimespree readership is already hep to, like Marcus Sakey and Harry Hunsicker and William Lashner and John Enright and Anne Frasier and G.M. Ford and, and, and (my list really is superlative, you guys…)! But I want to a talk about Ted Oswald’s novel BECAUSE WE ARE, because holy cow, wait until you get your hands on his book. This is another example of a book I knew I wanted right from the start. Two children investigating the murder of a mother and baby in Haiti, just before the 2008 earthquake – and it’s beautifully written. It’s a book I can’t stop talking about, and at the end of the day, that’s why I pursued this line of work. From the earliest days at Bleak House – working until the wee hours with Ben to polish the end of one more chapter, snag one more review, power through one more submission – to now, it’s all been in service of books, authors, and readers. And I couldn’t be happier.

Eric: Down & Out Books strives to publish gritty, tough as nails tales of crime. We look for fresh, new voices along with established but hidden away talents. The remainder of 2014 will see the release of new titles by Les Edgerton, J.L. Abramo, Vincent Zandri, Frank De Blase, Jack Getze, David Housewright, Rob Brunet, Tom Crowley, Robert J. Randisi, Trey R. Barker, Richard Barre and Gary Phillips. Yep, it’s gonna be another busy year!

Author Reminisces

2004 is when it all started. I had just given an author presentation at the Toronto Bouchercon when I was approached by two young men who stated up front (and I’m paraphrasing), “We like your books and we want to publish you.” Taken aback, I countered with “that’s great but I’m well published in mass market by Berkley Prime Crime – but thanks for your interest.” Undeterred, they persuaded me to have coffee with them – the “them” being Ben LeRoy and his first partner, Blake Stewart.
We chatted and they told me they were a start-up book publishing effort based in Madison, Wisconsin. I nodded, asked a lot of questions to see if they understood the business and came away impressed.
Context is important: I was very experienced with a publishing start-up. I had just spent fifteen years with Universal Press Syndicate (since re-named Universal UClick) and their sister company, Andrews & McMeel. Today that newspaper feature syndicate is one of the largest in the country and A&M is a successful humor publisher – but when I started the few of us who worked there had modest “offices,” no computers – and our main (almost only) products were DOONESBURY and ZIGGY. I was the head of promotion and publicity for both the syndicate and the book company, which was in the red at that time.
So it was that I saw first-hand the hard work it took to build a company from the ground up with sales reps and the owners on the road selling 24/7 – not to mention struggling to convince columnists and authors to take a chance on us. I saw how we managed with skeleton staff to be able to edit, print, produce and make a profit on a 5,000-copy print run of a trade paperback book. Most important, I saw how difficult it is to build a publishing house from the ground up. And that is why I asked the kind of questions that I did over coffee that day in 2004.
Ben and Blake answered in such a way that I knew they had a good idea of what lay ahead. So about two years later, when Berkley decided drop any titles not selling 300,000 copies annually (so I was told anyway) and to go significantly “more cozy,” that they started to drop titles in my series. Remembering the enthusiasm I had heard in Ben’s voice when we spoke in Toronto, I called him. “Are you still interested in Loon Lake?” Having worked in publishing, I knew better than to hide the facts: “I can’t sell the hundred thousand-plus books that Berkley demands but I may be able to sell ten, twenty or thirty thousand – can you make money on that?”
“I can,” said Ben. With that Bleak House took over my Loon Lake Mystery Series and I met Alison, my new editor. I could not have been happier. While my series was first acquired by a wonderful editor at Berkley who really enjoyed the books, she had moved on and I was assigned to an editorial assistant who tried hard but wasn’t the same (likely because she had dozens of manuscripts dumped on her). So now I had the attention of a gifted editor whose editing I respected – a gifted editor who made me look great!
Another curious thing happened early on, too. Ben held a “pub party” in his Madison office and I decided to show up with a friend in tow. Standing there with a drink in my hand, I saw copies of my early paperbacks on a shelf – and they were dog-eared. He had actually read the books. I have loved the man ever since!
Several books into publishing my series, Ben decided to leave the Bleak House parent company of Big Earth and go out on his own with Alison. I was concerned. Not because he wasn’t an excellent publisher but to take on running all aspects of a publishing enterprise – just the two of you — can be daunting if not exhausting. So I asked a close friend who has started several successful companies to sit down with Ben and see if he thought Ben had the skills, the talent and the determination to pull off initiating a “start-up.” Guess what? Two hours into that meeting Ben had his first investor!!
And the rest is history.

Ben and Craig

Ben and Craig

Looking back from the perspective of working with publishing houses of various scale—Bleak House and Tyrus, vs. St. Martin’s and some foreign presses—I’m most struck at how collaborative the process was and how much you could really shape your finished book. Words like “product” and “units” are not in Ben’s vocabulary. It was clear story came first and Ben and Alison love books as artifacts.
Alison was wonderful to work with and zeroed in on story holes or weak points in an uncanny yet charming way. Ben was very supportive of packaging and cover ideas—something that probably reached its zenith when he green-lighted me actually pursuing the rights to use a surrealist master’s art for the cover of TOROS & TORSOS, a novel about serial murder and surrealist art. Ben patiently waited and wrote the check when I finally managed (through series of globetrotting translation efforts) to get the Bank of Mexico, which controls rights for all of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s works, to clear use of Rivera’s painting, “In the Studio of the Master.”
In all, we published three novels and a book of nonfiction together. My most vivid memory of that time remains the early morning I checked my email before heading into the newspaper. There was the general email sent out by the MWA of Edgar nominees. I stared at my name and the title of my debut novel for a long time, trying to convince myself it wasn’t some wicked hoax. Then, forgetting time zones, I called Ben—woke him up actually—and gave him the news. Reading on, I saw that fellow Bleak House residents Reed Farrel Coleman and Stuart M. Kaminsky were also Edgar finalists. Ben and I were stunned. I think it still constitutes some kind of Edgar nomination record for an indy press. It still feels a little unreal, all these years later—like some slick caper this band of upstarts pulled off against overwhelming odds. I eagerly await Alison and Ben’s call to sin again somewhere, sometime down the road.

It was very exciting to be a part of Bleak House in the early days of its existence as it is always exciting to be a part of something fresh and new. And it’s been even more exciting and rewarding to have been a part of the evolution from Bleak House as an indie publisher to its purchase by Big Earth to the founding of Tyrus Books to its purchase by F&W. Only a very few of us have been a part of the long journey. I’ve been there all the way from the Blake days, the Dave Oskin days, to now. I’ve been there through all—the crazy investors, the attempt to purchase Busted Flush, highs and the heartaches. The thing about Ben and Alison were that they were so different than the people I had come in contact with in the “traditional” publishing world. They were really young, but had a vision and a passion for what they wanted and wanted to achieve. Their goals were never strictly about the money end of things. They also considered art an important component of their choices. A conversation with Ben and Alison, even about mundane things, was never like a conversation with the folks I had dealt with at big houses. And the fact is that Ben, along with the late David Thompson, helped rescue my career. They had faith in me when I didn’t even have faith in myself. Now Ben is more friend and family than publisher. One of the things I have enjoyed over the years has been teaching Ben a little Yiddish. Who would have thought this long strange trip that started with an uncomfortable lunch at a midtown Manhattan restaurant would evolve into phone conversations where Ben Leroy and I speak Yiddish to one another. But that’s so Ben because Ben is all about the unexpected.
It was incredibly rewarding to have Soul Patch win the Shamus Award and get an Edgar nomination for Bleak House. Beyond the personal satisfaction I felt, it seemed to give Ben and Alison such a lift, like it gave legitimacy to their vision.

I have many good memories and a feel very lucky to have broken into publishing the way I did. Perhaps I sacrificed some fame and riches — maybe, maybe not — but I would not trade for anything the closeness and authenticity of my relationships with Ben and Alison, nor would I want have missed the experience we shared of building something out nothing.

I was one of their earliest authors, and we were all taking a tremendous risk that required equal parts naivete, courage, and faith in one another. I remember, still with gritting teeth, the put-downs we weathered, early on. Ben was told bluntly by a book reviewer at the Capital Times that he and Bleak House would never succeed; a reviewer for the other large Madison newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal, reviewed my first book, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly with open derision. Both assessments turned out to be so far out of line that they were obviously made out of some un-examined bias that these people carried about who we were and what we were doing. At events like UMBA, the reps for the “real” publishers were often uncomfortable and dismissive. You just didn’t do what we were doing. Somehow were going around the gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers didn’t like it.

Sure, it sounds like “look at us now,” but . . . look at us now! I think in some ways we were at the head of a wave of independent publishing that was sweeping in on the heels of the digital technology that was beginning to democratize communication all over society. There was a feeling of “why not our voice too?” What’s in our way, really, aside from the old way of doing things?

It could have been a disaster, obviously. It has been my tremendous good fortune that these two turned out to be the real deal, and then some. Ben is a terrific finder and champion of good writing, and I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from losing Alison as my editor when she moved on to freelancing and then Amazon. I’m extremely proud of their accomplishments (I get to say that because I’m older) and know that they both still have many great things ahead in publishing.


I had been buying Bleak House books online for a couple of years when they came up the the Evidence Collection. I am a huge reader and collector so I had to have the EC books given the authors being published. I recall sending Ben an email asking to have the same number for each of the books and he said sure. We traded emails and talked on the phone time to time. When he left to start Tyrus, I discovered he was looking for some investors. I ended up joining the Tyrus Team as an owner and CFO. We sold Tyrus to F+W Media and I subsequently started Down & Out Books.