Here I’m going to briefly explore the collector’s book market of the 1980s through the (mis)fortunes of what I feel was the top such publisher: Scream/Press.
Headed by Jeff Connor, the Southern California based Scream/Press (the slash is not a typo) specialized in quality horror fiction by Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Richard Matheson, Michael McDowell and others. Scream/Press began in 1982, with the publication of Dennis Etchison’s THE DARK COUNTRY, and closed its doors around a decade later. In this way and many others Scream was a prototypical example of small press horror publishing in the eighties, even though it evinced several crucial differences from its fellows.
Independent publishers catering to the so-called collector’s market do so by offering gaudily designed hardcovers at outrageous prices. Reviews of these books often begin by apologizing for the high cover prices (“Thirty bucks might seem like an awfully high price to pay, but…”) and no wonder: the average Scream/Press publication went for around $25, a pretty substantial sum back in the eighties, and that only covers the “Trade” editions. As with most specialty presses, Scream also offered “Limited” editions of its books that commanded much higher prices because they were slipcased (meaning the book is nearly identical to the Trade edition but comes in a box).
Generally speaking, such books, with their high quality paper, copious illustrations, limited print runs and eye-catching design, exist solely as collector’s items. This means they’ll be put in bags and placed on shelves until eternity passes. Reading them is out of the question.
The small press is generally thought to offer an alternative to risk-averse major publishers, yet most collector’s market publishers–which in the eighties included Dark Harvest, Whispers, Footsteps and Donald M. Grant–make the majors look downright adventurous by comparison. Specialty publishers generally will not take a chance on a little or unknown author, or even in many cases an unknown book. Note the many new editions of bestsellers put out by these publishers in the eighties: examples include Whispers’ expensive version of F. Paul Wilson’s THE TOMB, Dark Harvest’s hardcover reprinting of Robert McCammon’s SWAN SONG and Scream/Press’ tricked-out edition of Stephen King’s SKELETON CREW, to name but a few.
The whole situation recalls the so-called Collector Bubble that nearly brought down the comic book industry in the 1990s. During that time comic publishers began catering more to collectors than readers, resulting in short term gains followed by a crash that shook the industry to its core. Obviously there’s no danger of any sort of similar upheaval occurring in the book world, but pandering to collectors is never a good idea. After all, when book buyers are more concerned with the quality of the paper a book is printed on than the words on that paper, what is the point in writing (or reading) anything?
This is one area in which Scream/Press differed from its competitors. Its books contained inviting, eye-pleasing typeface, suggesting they were intended to be read. For that matter, Scream was virtually alone among the small press publishers of the 1980s in that it actually took chances on little-known authors.
Fact: Scream/Press published some of the earliest books by important genre scribes like Richard Christian Matheson (SCARS AND OTHER DISTINGUISHING MARKS) and Michael Blumlein (THE BRAINS OF RATS), and gave us the first-ever American edition of Clive Barker’s seminal BOOKS OF BLOOD in 1985. Scream also boasted a remarkably strong ratio of quality books (with their editions of Ramsey Campbell’s THE FACE THAT MUST DIE, John Shirley’s HEATSEEKER and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF RICHARD MATHESON being the arguable highlights). I haven’t read all of Scream’s titles, but of those I have perused I can say in all honesty that there’s nary a dud among them (although there are a couple of self-indulgent trifles in the form of Michael McDowell’s TOPLIN and Jere Cunningham’s LOVE OBJECT). Plus, Scream had fun multi-page catalogues they periodically updated, and a catchy tagline–“Screaming is Believing!”–printed on their invoices.
This isn’t to say that Scream/Press was in any way immune to the problems afflicting other eighties-era independent publishers. Like most of them, Scream had a bad habit of overextending itself, with constantly shifting publication dates and several promised books that never appeared (such as an illustrated edition of INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and the Richard Matheson compendium DARKER, for which I sent a check that was returned).
Whether this overextension was a factor in Scream/Press’s demise I’m not sure. All I know is that Scream went away in the early 1990s, and innumerable other small press publishers took its place (before, in most cases, going under themselves).
Now, nearly two decades after Scream/Press’s demise, we’re left with one pivotal question: just how much are its books worth? The main reason people shell out for small press hardcovers, after all, is the hope that they’ll increase in value. With Scream’s editions of THE BOOKS OF BLOOD and SKELETON CREW that has indeed occurred, judging by the inflated prices those books command on bookfinder sights…but what about the rest of Scream’s catalogue?
In answer to that quarry, at a recent L.A. book sale I came across a shrink-wrapped mint edition copy of Scream/Press’s never-reprinted 1988 publication THE BLOOD KISS by Dennis Etchison. The price? A whopping one dollar.