It’s been a little more than a decade since Jason Sizemore went from being a consistently frustrated “software flunky” to being an only-occasionally frustrated publisher, editor, and writer. He’s used those years well. Since launching Apex Publications in 2004, Sizemore has turned the Lexington-based company into one of the most respected small presses in the world of genre publishing—no mean feat for the Big Creek, Ky. native, who’s the featured speaker at this month’s Knoxville Writers’ Guild program.
Sizemore isn’t particularly interested in run-of-the-mill genre fare. You’ll find the requisite zombie anthologies in the Apex catalog, but you’ll also find Chesya Burke’s African and African-American-themed short-story collection Let’s Play White, which earned accolades from the likes of Nikki Giovanni, and the Stoker Award-nominated Dark Faith, a compilation of stories and poems that examine issues of religion and belief through the often bloody prism of horror and dark fantasy.
The jewel in the company’s crown, though, is the Hugo Award-nominated Apex Magazine, a monthly digital zine that regularly feeds the pipelines of annual best-of-genre compilations. Though its first (print) incarnation, Apex Digest, fizzled after only a dozen issues, the reinvented publication has thrived as an online outlet; with stories and poems culled from nearly 1,000 submissions per month, a byline in Apex has become one of the most sought-after credits in the realm of genre fiction.
Sizemore, who’s also the author of the 2014 short story collection Irredeemable (Seventh Star Press) and the recently released memoir For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher (Apex), will take the podium at the Laurel Theater on Thursday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m. On Saturday, he’ll lead a workshop called “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: Liftoff!” at Central United Methodist Church. Learn more at jason-sizemore.com.
Are you a publisher who also happens to be a writer, or a writer who also happens to be a publisher?
Let’s add another layer of “What is Sizemore?” Am I publisher who happens to be a writer and editor? The answer used to be simple. Before Irredeemable and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher, I always labeled myself as a publisher/editor. Sure, I could crank out a decent short story, but my skills leaned toward the “make other people look better” side of matters.
Then a crazy thing happened. More and more of my friends and Apex fans kept insisting that I was a good writer. I went through various stages of imposter syndrome that I still battle.
Even with the recent writing successes, I still consider myself a publisher/editor.
What are some challenges that are unique to running a publishing endeavor based in Kentucky as opposed to, say, New York?
I’m based out of Lexington. Despite being centrally located to a lot of major cities, I still feel like we’re somewhat isolated. I’ve struggled to harness much local support for Apex simply because there isn’t a big genre literary scene in the city, despite the University of Kentucky being here. Because genre is considered “weird” here, obtaining media exposure is also a challenge.
What are the advantages?
The central location to Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Nashville, and Charleston. Expand out a couple more hours’ drive and I can include Chicago, Memphis, and St. Louis. Of late, there has been interest by the literary icons of Lexington to expand local reader interests to genre works. I’m sure this is fueled by Hollywood, the superhero explosion, and Lexington native Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series, but I’ll take an assist where I can get it.
What sets Apex Publications apart from other specialty presses?
Apex Publications isn’t unique in the world of specialty presses, but I do like to think we’re in that subset of publishers that is successful because we cater to our readers in a way that a New York publisher cannot.
People come to Apex Publications expecting fiction that will challenge them. They want work that escapes the clichés of so many plots and narratives. We also present a diverse set of authors, something that pleases me to no end.
You’ve got a knack for discovering and fostering new talent. What makes a writer stand out?
I feel like there are two key attributes that make a writer stand out. The first of these is point of view. Cherie Priest, an incredibly popular author from Nashville, was a writer I pursued before she broke big into the scene. I was drawn to her mix of Southern gothic, strong heroines, and her use of genre. It’s not something you see often, nor do you see it being used well.
The second attribute is voice. There are only so many variations on form, plot, and characterization an author can mix. But each other has something that makes his/her work unique and that is voice. Lavie Tidhar, one of my earliest authors, often writes from a world-weary, pulp-adventure viewpoint that I adore.
You find an author who can master point of view, voice, and placing sentences together, then you’ll find an author who has the ability to succeed.
What are you tired of seeing in the slush pile, and what would you like to see more of?
My slush pile is overflowing with well-meaning but poorly written “social justice”-type fiction. I love work that displays an awareness of diversity, work that wants to make a statement, but like anything we publish, it has to be entertaining and it has to be well written.
You publish a lot of new writers, but your catalog also includes big names such as Brian Keene and Tom Piccirilli. How do you attract those authors?
To get an accurate response you would need to ask the authors I sign. I’ve always striven to be fair and kind to the talented writers under my employ. Apex also produces professional looking books that are prepared with great attention toward copy and proof edits. A guy like Brian Keene can go anywhere with his books. As a publisher, you make the best books you can and hope that you’re noticed by writers and readers.
Self-publishing: boon or bane?
It is a boon. But like anything good for you, too much of a good thing will make you ill.
My primary concern is the growing monopoly Amazon has on self-publishing and the small press. Right now, our one master is treating us well. What happens when Amazon decides they want to drop its royalty payout from 70 percent to 35 percent? To 20 percent? It simply happens. There will be little that any of us can do to stop them from making such decisions.
Your short-story collection, Irredeemable, was published by Seventh Star Press rather than your own Apex Publications. Why was that?
Over the course of seven to eight years, I had around 30 stories published in various pro and semi-pro venues. Even so, I never thought of myself as a writer. Seventh Star Press queried me about publishing a collection of my fiction through them. My initial inclination was to say no.
I said no. They asked me to think about it for a couple of weeks before deciding for certain. During that time, I did reconsider. I’m glad I did.
As to why SSP rather than Apex? Because SSP wanted me. I didn’t have enough confidence in my writing to put a book of my fiction next to the likes of Tom Piccirilli, Jennifer Pelland, and Tim Waggoner via Apex.
Why did you decide to write For Exposure?
I love staking claims to brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, I cannot do so with this one. Patricia Murphy, the marketing maven for the Lexington, Ky., branch of Joseph-Beth Booksellers was quizzing me about my plans for the 10th anniversary of Apex Publications. Because I’m anything if never forward-thinking, I mumbled something along the lines “Um, not sure.”
Patricia suggested a “memoir” of my time as publisher. While I, personally, have done little of interest, I felt a memoir of Apex Publications would be much better.
Thank you Patricia Murphy. You are a true marketing maven!
For Exposure highlights the value of making connections at conventions. Got any networking tips for writers and editors who are cripplingly shy and awkward? It’s, um, for a friend.
While I’ve made plenty of positive connections face-to-face at professional conferences and conventions, you can accomplish a lot via social media and email. The best way, in my opinion, is to become an active presence on Twitter. Follow your favorite writers, editors, and publishers. Some of them might even follow you back. Engage with them an appropriate amount. A writer/publisher always loves to hear when you’ve enjoyed their work.
Don’t rush relationships. Writing is a long game. So is nurturing online friendships.
If you’re socially awkward, try attending a tiny fandom convention. I’ve found them to be safe, friendly places. And if you get overwhelmed, head back to your hotel room for a mental break.
Your book is impressively honest about the setbacks you experienced on the way to making Apex a success. Most people would have given up. Why didn’t you?
Because I enjoy the business too much. I’ve never given up, but I have transformed the company on two different occasions to better match up with my personal strengths and the direction of the publishing world. This is a business, and businesses fail for a multitude of reasons. You’re going to be knocked off your feet once in a while. You dust yourself off, reassess, and push forward. Also, because I’m stubborn.
CORRECTION: The date of Jason Sizemore’s appearance at the Knoxville Writers’ Guild has been corrected from an earlier version of this story.
April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
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