Bending the Rules of Publishing:
An Interview with Stephe Pagel
of Meisha Merlin Publishing
©2003, Lazette Gifford
Meisha Merlin's Website
tephen Pagel is the co-founder (along with
award winning artist Kevin Murphy) and Senior Editor for Meisha Merlin
Publishing, Inc., one of the hottest new independent printing houses in the US.
At a time when most publishing houses seem to be ignoring mid-list writers in
hopes of the big strike, Meisha Merlin blazed a trail in trade paper sales with
a combination of new stars and old favorites.
Stephe has been involved in publishing on
both sides of the line -- as the editor of an award wining anthology series, as
the genre buyer for Barnes and Noble, and now as the senior editor for an entire
Stephen Pagel has proven in each case that he
understands the market and what readers are looking for in genre stories. He's
taken the chances that the big print houses no longer consider worth the risk.
Start by telling us about yourself and your background in the world of
publishing, and how that affected what you do now.
Stephe: I loved
reading as a kid and was very lucky to have parents who supported it. Each year
while I was in grade school my parents would meet with the school librarian and
give them a note saying I could check out any book in the school library,
regardless of age restrictions, as long as I could read a majority of the words
on the first page. It was in grade school that I discovered Asimov, Bradbury,
and Heinlein. In High school I made a deal with my English teacher each
semester, to read two books for each book they had listed on their required
reading list and do the required book report, as long as I could choose my own
books. Since almost all the books I wanted to read were at least twice as long
as the books on their list, they agreed to let me do it.
I attended my first convention in 1974. I started as a
part-time employee in a book store in 1981 and in 1988 became a manager. From
1991 through 1995 I worked at B&N’s corporate office in NY as the National Buyer
for SF/F/Role Playing, controlling those sections in roughly one-thousand stores
nation-wide and about thirty-seven percent of the market. In 1995 I moved to
work for White Wolf as their Sales and Marketing Director for the chain stores.
In 1998 I left White Wolf to devote my full time to running Meisha Merlin.
In 1996 Nicola Griffith and I created The
Bending the Landscape anthology series. Our contract was for three volumes:
Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror. We won the Lambda Literary Award for best
Science Fiction / Fantasy work published in 1997 and received the World Fantasy
Award for Best Fantasy Anthology of 1997 for the Fantasy edition. For the
Science Fiction edition we won another Lambda and the Spectrum Award and the
following year won our second Spectrum Award for the Horror edition.
So as you can see I have been involved in
almost every aspect of publishing, except for writing. In 1993 I met the artist
Kevin Murphy at a convention and was invited to attend an art exhibit he was
doing. Over the next several years we talked about publishing and the need for
an independent publishing house. It was through those talks, especially at the
bar at different conventions with writers and other artists, that the concept
for Meisha Merlin was born.
Locus once called you 'The most powerful man in Science Fiction.' Have you used
that power for good?
Stephe: That is
not a question I can truthfully answer. I feel so, but of course, I’m ‘slightly’
swayed by my own opinion. That is a question for others to answer.
What inspired you and your partner to create Meisha Merlin Publishing?
Stephe: First I
need to clear up a misconception. I have always referred to Kevin as my partner
in reference to Meisha Merlin. Since I am gay, many people have assumed that we
are also a couple and we are not—Mia, his wife, thankfully has a great sense of
Kevin and I felt there was a section of the genre
readers that were not finding the type of books they wanted to read. The major
York houses, due to very realistic financial reasons, must reach a wide reading
audience. To do that, certain styles, sub-genres, and types of books are not
reasonable for them to publish. We decided that an independent publishing house,
located outside of
with a small staff could publish those types of books profitably.
You have created a viable publishing house outside of New York. How has location
affected your business?
Stephe: Being in
Atlanta, things are less expensive: our rent, utilities, shipping, and as the
hub for Delta, airfare. You also get a different perspective of the field being
outside New York. In readers’ minds we are more approachable. Traveling to
conventions is a lot easier. We have a van and load it up two to three times a
month to attend cons.
Tell us about your co-founder, Kevin Murphy, and how his vision of the art
department is different from what is normally found at publishing houses.
Besides being an award-winning artist in the
genre, Kevin has also worked for major companies outside the field of
publishing. He has done work for Lucasfilms, National Geographic, Viacom, Virgin
Records, and MTV. In 1996 he was commissioned to do the cover for Bridges to
Babylon, the next Rolling Stones CD. It was released in 1997 and Virgin
Records draped a forty-five by sixty-five foot banner of his cover off the
Brooklyn Bridge. (Needless to say Kevin was quite impossible to deal with for a
As an artist, one of the things Kevin
considered important is that artists also have the right to earn royalties on
their work, so Meisha Merlin pays artists as well as authors an advance against
royalties. Since Kevin knew a lot of the artists in the field, he was able to
match up artists to projects better. He knows which artists want to read the
full manuscript, or want to discuss cover concept with the authors. Another
decision he made as art director is that Meisha Merlin would NOT create a Meisha
Merlin look for their covers. Each title would get the type of cover that best
represents the book and not have to fit into a scheme or style that all Meisha
Merlin titles adhered to.
What does the position of Senior Editor entail? What's a normal working day
like for you?
Stephe: A senior
editor is the person responsible for buying the titles for a publishing house.
Right now all submissions by a known author I read. Alan, Meisha Merlin’s
marketing guru, reads the general submissions forwarding on to me any he thinks
I would like to see.
As for normal…? Since Meisha Merlin is an
independent publishing house we all do several jobs at once. Until two years ago
I did it all, except for art direction and cover layout. Still today during the
days I do more administrative jobs. It is not until everyone goes home around
five that I start being an editor and reading submissions or correcting
manuscripts. I’m usually up around ten in the morning and crash out around four
or five the next morning. Luckily getting about five hours of sleep is enough for
Meisha Merlin Publishing has brought back to print some very popular writers and
series (Lee and Miller's Liaden Universe® Books, Robert Asprin's Myth series) as
well as great books from new writers like Selina Rosen and Mark Tiedemann. You
are about to release the very popular Sime~Gen novels by Jean Lorrah and
Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Is this a pattern that will be repeated, or have you
already recruited all the backlist/OOP authors that you want? Do you think there
are many more 'older' books you are likely to reprint, or do you think you'll
spend more time with new works?
Merlin will always be a mixture of revitalizing series, new authors, and stand
alone novels. At any given point I am talking to five or six authors about
reprinting an older series along with new titles in that series. Sometimes it
works out and sometimes, due to various reasons, we do not come to an agreement
and are able to sign contracts. Finding new authors is a treat for me. To be
reading a submission and have it hit just right with me is always fun. One such
CITY, the first novel by Daniel Abraham, a young writer with a number of short
stories to his credit. It’s a fantastic book that we’ll be releasing in January
2004. The hardest part is keeping quiet about it between the time I read the
work and we sign contracts so I can talk about it publicly.
There are more titles I want to print than I have time
for. To add more titles to our line-up without adding in the marketing and
promotional time and money creates lost books. If we do not let readers know
about a great book, they are unaware of it and it gets lost on the shelves. It
is a constant balancing act between what I CAN do and what I WANT to do. Being a
Gemini I always want to do more!
Beyond your work as an extraordinary
publisher, you've personally won awards for anthologies you've edited. (Notably
the 1998 World Fantasy Award Winner, Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, ed. With
Nicola Griffith.) Tell us about them. Do you have plans to do any more of this
type of work?
Right now both Nicola and I are very busy
with our current projects. Putting together an anthology is very time consuming.
I was the initial reader for the Bending the Landscape books. We knew we
had space for around twenty to twenty-five stories, depending on the lengths. I
read about six to seven-hundred stories for each volume. Once we decided on the
stories we wanted, we had to write up contracts, discuss rewrites with authors,
decide on the order of the stories, and do the final editing.
As always if the right project comes by,
along with the right amount of advance to get the types of stories we want, we
MIGHT be persuaded to do another anthology…MIGHT.
What do you think has made Meisha Merlin Publishing successful in a market where
trade paperbacks usually don't do as well as mass market?
Stephe: This is
tough! Of course I would like to say that I am a brilliant editor who only buys
perfect manuscripts. Since I can’t say that and keep from cracking up, I don’t
expect others to believe it. (If there are those who do, please contact me I
have some swampland to sell you.) There are a lot of factors: Meisha Merlin’s
presence at conventions, my choice of titles, Kevin’s working with the artists
to create dynamic covers, some grass roots marketing, and some luck.
A major factor for Meisha Merlin’s success is that
both Kevin and I had ‘paid our dues’ in publishing. Both of us had been in the
business end of publishing. When we started Meisha Merlin we knew a lot of the
pitfalls and problems in starting a new publishing house. Also we both knew a
lot of people in the business. I was able to talk to major authors and get
quotes, blurbs for our earlier titles. Quite a few of the author’s agents knew
me and were willing to take a risk on a brand new company. Kevin knew some of
the largest names in the illustration business. They were willing to work for us
because they knew him.
Also I think the fact we do not create
disposable books is a major factor. All out books are printed on an acid-free
paper with solid permanent black ink. Our covers are laminated, to help stop
curling, and UV coated to help stop fading. We use a type of glue on the binding
that does not go brittle, thus holding the book together a lot longer. Our hard
covers are smith sewn, instead of just glued. Our books are to be reread over
and over without falling apart.
Meisha Merlin Publishing is a huge presence at many conventions, and I see that
you and your associates are almost always on the road to somewhere. Is that
simply supporting the conventions, or is it good business?
Stephe: As I said
we usually do several cons a month, about twenty-five to thirty a year. Since we
are doing titles that we think the genre readers and convention attendees want
to read it is only reasonable that we attend as many cons as we can. Is it
always ‘good business’? That depends on your definition of ‘good business’. If
you mean ‘profitable, dollar-wise,’ no, not always. It takes a lot of time,
money, and energy to attend that many cons each year. We do not always make
money or even break even at each con. When we get back we do a lot a scrambling
to get caught up on e-mails, orders, and a million other things that happened
while we were away.
On the other hand if you mean ‘keeping up
with what your target audience is reading, getting suggestions from them on what
they want to read and can not find, what series is out-of-print and they want
back in print, learning of new trends, meeting and talking to new authors, and,
most importantly, reminding ourselves why we are doing this,’ then YES it is
Tell us about your new agreement with Embiid books to release Ebook versions of
Meisha Merlin Publishing publications. Do you see ebooks as a major portion of
the future for Meisha Merlin Publishing?
Merlin E-books is being distributed by Embiid. E-books is an area that I have
been asked to get into, both by authors and readers. Several factors were looked
at that made Embiid the perfect match for us. Unfortunately I did not have the
time to research and create a totally separate company for our e-books as I
wanted to do them, without giving up the control of our titles. With Embiid,
Meisha Merlin chooses the titles that we want to publish and they then
distribute them for us. We will be doing two titles per month starting in
September or October. We will release some of our new titles three months in
advance on e-books. Our program will be a mixture of old and new titles.
We are working with Embiid on new ways of selling and
marketing e-books. We plan to start some of these new programs sometime in 2004.
Forward Motion is an ezine primarily for writers, so if you don't mind, could
you give us some insights to help readers understand the 'other side of the
Stephe: There is a
whole world going on behind that curtain called publishing. Sales, marketing,
returns, contracts, chain stores, independent stores, online selling, shipping,
printing… To go into what all it takes to get that book onto a shelf, solid or
virtual, so you can buy it would be an entire interview in itself.
One thing I would like to mention that I quit
doing after I got into the business of publishing: I always used to lend out my
books to others, some times the same book to four or five times. Often at cons I
hear fans tell an author that they lent their book out tons of times. I know
this is meant as a compliment and it is taken as so. Yet to the author, and to
the publisher, it means lost sales. For an author at a New York house where sale
numbers are so very important in getting another contract, to an author at an
independent publisher who really needs every sale to compete against the larger
houses for attention in the genre magazines and bestseller lists, the lending of
books cuts into their sales. So, strictly from a business prospective, instead
of lending please ask them to buy a copy or buy it for them for a birthday,
holiday, or other gift. I know that, especially in these tight times, how much
each dollar counts. That also goes for authors, especially new authors who are
trying to make it in a very tough business.
As a publisher, what do you look for from new writers? Are there common
mistakes you see new writers making?
Again this could be a whole interview in
itself. A few basic points…
In publishing the money ALWAYS flows one
way…from the publisher to the author. (Except for print-on-demand and vanity
presses, which I caution against.) If a publisher is looking at your submission
and asks for any money from you for anything—except if you want to buy copies of
your own books—please go to the SFWA website (www.sfwa.org)
and report them by clicking on ‘Writers Beware’. I am sorry to say there are
those out there who will try and cheat a new author. The SFWA website is also a
great place to go to look at publishers, people under investigation.
Do your research and follow submissions
guidelines! On average most publishers toss out fifteen percent or more of their
submissions just because the person did not follow the guidelines. Following
guidelines gets you past that first culling.
Do not do anything to draw attention to your
submission. Nonwhite paper, funny fonts, presents with your submission, fancy
boxes all draw attention to your submission in a negative way. Let your writing
speak for itself.
What would you suggest to writers who are looking to make sales in the
Stephe: Write what
you know or want to! It can take at least two years from you sitting down to
write your novel and it being published. Writing for today’s trends will be old
hat by the time you submit it. While editors do look for something like what has
gone before, remember there are thousands of writers writing that way. If you
are unique, you can standout and create your own trend. This does not mean to
ignore what has gone before, just personalize it.
What is the wrong way to approach an editor or publisher?
There are a lot of them! Here are a few
examples of wrong ways that have happened to me or other editors I know.
Yes I love chocolate. Sending me, in Atlanta,
unwrapped chocolate bars with your submission in the middle of summer by media
mail—ten to fourteen days—is not the thing to do. I get it from the post office
in a plastic bag as the chocolate separated and turned the paper into mush.
Do not follow an editor into the restroom and
as they sit there slide your submission under the stall door and run out.
Please do not send threatening letters to the
editors with your submission. (If you have met some of the editors, you would
see why this is harmful for your health.)
Interrupting a panel at a convention, to walk
up and hand an editor your submission, guarantees the only thing that will
happen to your submission is that parts of it will be read aloud at the bar at
Anything else you would like to share with the readers?
feel free to catch up with me at conventions. Most of the time I have some free
time to get together with fans or new writers. If I’m behind our dealer’s table
please check with me as to the best time for us to get together.
As much as I would like to say I’m going to
make a mint in publishing, have three or four homes—one for each season—and my
own private jet to fly to cons all over the world, anyone who knows anything
about publishing knows that just isn’t always so. So why do I do this? There are
I am a voracious reader myself with a
personal library of just over four thousand titles. I was taught that if you
really enjoy something, you find a way to pay back or return something to it
that will allow others to have the chance to find that same joy and happiness.
Meisha Merlin is my way of saying thank you to every author, artist, agent and
publishing house that helped create the science fiction/fantasy/horror genres.
Being a Gemini I always want something new or always
want to do something different. Working in publishing fulfills both of those. No
single day at work is ever like any other. Finding new authors and working with
them to create that first book is really fun.
Lastly, being at a con and watching both a
fan’s and an author’s face when a fan discovers a new title by an author they
thought was not writing any more is priceless!
Meisha Merlin's Website for more information
on their wonderful line up of books!