Why Cling to the Past? Exclusive essay by Stephen King's publisher about Joyland
Charles Ardai looks to the past, and past angry internet message boards, to find something worth cherishing in a new novel.
Originally, we were only going to publish Joyland in paperback.
Steve grew up buying paperbacks for fifty cents from the wire spinner racks at his local drugstore in Lisbon Falls, Maine, the sort with sexy cover paintings and lurid cover copy and breathless storytelling that kept you glued to the page well past your bedtime. I did, too, though in my case it was in New York City rather than Lisbon Falls, and by the time I came around the wire spinner racks had vanished and the era that produced them was gone, too. When I found these paperbacks it was at flea markets and library sales, at used book stores and on my father’s bookshelves. (My grandmother’s too – this proper old lady had been a big fan of Mickey Spillane back in the day.) Like Steve, I fell in love with them, discovered they scratched a powerful itch I hadn’t even known I had. And when, years later, I found myself reminiscing about them with a friend over drinks, we decided the world needed more books like that, damn it. That’s how Hard Case Crime was born.
The idea from the start was to replicate a pleasure from the past – not just the type of stories told in those old books but the physical artifact itself. Painted covers, and not digitally painted ones either. (One of our painters offered to digitally clean up some schmutz on his canvas and I told him I’d break both his arms if he did.) Old typefaces that existed in the hot-metal-type days. Graphic design that isn’t arch or ironic or campy but rather duplicates in a proper and workmanlike fashion what books looked like back in the day. Our goal was to give the impression that Hard Case Crime had started publishing sometime around 1945 and just somehow never stopped. We didn’t want to look old-fashioned -- we wanted to look old. And if no one but us gave a damn about books like that, well, fine. We’d publish half a dozen of the things, sell no copies, and hang up our hats proud of a job well done.
But it turned out we weren’t the only ones who gave a damn. And here we are almost a decade later, still at. Part of the reason is that these things of the past, these yesterday-flavored objects, give pleasures that other presentations even of the same material do not. Salt is salt is salt, but spooning grains from a salt cellar feels different from grinding them out of a salt mill, which in turn feels different from upending a shaker. Presentation matters. Another part of the reason is that one of the people who gave a damn, and gave it early enough in our existence for it to make a big difference, was Stephen King. He decided he wanted in on the fun and when he wrote a book called The Colorado Kid – an unsettling little mystery about the nature of mystery – he invited us to be its publisher. It became our top-selling title ever (not surprisingly) and inspired a TV series called Haven that’s going into its fourth season on SyFy this fall. That book’s success enabled us to publish five dozen other books that didn’t sell nearly as many copies, by authors not yet known or long forgotten but in each case ferociously talented and with great stories to tell. And it allowed us to stick to our guns stylistically. We publish the books we want to publish, and we make them look the way we want them to look, and if some people think that’s dopey or quixotic or bad business, so be it. They can think what they want. We make what we make, and we’re proud of it. Buggy whips in the age of cars? Yeah, maybe. But they’re damn fine buggy whips and maybe there’s still some value in remembering a time before the Interstates turned the country into one giant strip mall.
Which brings us to Joyland, and the decision to tell readers they’re going to have to read it the old way, as ink on paper, not pixels on a screen. We did wind up expanding beyond just the paperback, though that will still be the book’s true first edition, more than a million copies strong. A bit later, we’ll also put out a tiny hardcover run for collectors, about two thousand copies, featuring special art and other catnip. But that’s it – you’ve got your paperback and you’ve got your hardcover, the same two choices you had for books when Steve was growing up and when I was. There may be an ebook edition down the road, but for now it’s paper or…paper.
And why? Part of it is the desire to support traditional booksellers, something Steve and I both care a great deal about – it’s frightening to see the decline in the fortunes of bookstores over the last handful of years. (Anecdotal example: New York used to have four or five mystery bookstores, now there’s only one left. And that’s New York.) But as some people have pointed out online, our print edition is available through online booksellers such as Amazon and BN.com, not to mention from bricks-and-mortar retailers that aren’t bookstores. So clearly the desire to support bookstores, though genuine, isn’t the only reason.
For me, at least, the other reason is that some stories just beg to be experienced in a certain way, and Joyland is one such. Joyland is framed as the reminiscence of a 61-year-old man about events he experienced four decades earlier, in the summer before his senior year of college. It’s about memory; it’s about the passage of time and its impact; it’s about ways of life that existed once and are gone now, ones that deserve not to be forgotten. It’s about all the things that led us to create Hard Case Crime in the first place.
There’s a reason that Michel Hazanavicius filmed The Artist, his Academy Award-winning Best Picture about the early days of Hollywood, in black-and-white and (largely) silent, and it’s not because he thought all movies should be filmed that way. That, too, was a story about a moment in the past, and it benefitted from making the audience experience the story the way audiences would have back in the silent-picture days. Hard Case Crime books are many things, and to the extent that you’re just looking for a good read, they can certainly be enjoyed on Kindles and Nooks. But one thing our books are is a shrine to a particular way of consuming stories and the particular object that for decades delivered that experience to millions of people. An object that has dimensions and heft and feels a certain way when you handle it, that looks a certain way when you thumb its pages back, creases a certain way when you jam it in a jacket pocket or a lunch bucket. Shape and form and texture matter. The past matters. Preserving things we love matters. And insofar as we want people to remember something we love, putting an example of it in their hands is a powerful way to do so.
So: Joyland. A book. A paperback book, by and large, and one I cherish and that I hope other readers will cherish as well. Not those who angrily proclaim on Internet message boards, “I’ll never read a paper book again!” – there isn’t any hope for those, their souls are too tattered for repair – but those who see our little bit of yesterday and feel their hearts beat faster, scent a bit of their own younger days on the backward-blowing breeze.
“1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died,” Steve writes. “It was Devin Jones’s lost year. I was a twenty-one year-old virgin with literary aspirations. I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.” And so it begins. For just one day, unkindle your Kindle and nook your Nook, lie back in the bath or on your sofa or beach chair or with your head on the grass, and read the way we used to.
Tomorrow will still be there when you’re done.
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