Part Two-Interview with Author Keith Chapman
As Keith Chapman, Chap O'Keefe was an editor and contributor to various fiction publications in London in the 1960s before shifting to New Zealand and spending nearly 35 years in newspaper and magazine journalism. He returned to fiction writing in earnest in 1992 with the O'Keefe westerns and edited the Black Horse Extra online magazine. As well as standalone titles, the O'Keefe westerns include the adventures of the ex-Pinkerton detective, Joshua Dillard, and the exploits of the engaging Miss Lilian Goodnight, a scallywag heroine better known as Misfit Lil. O'Keefe's books have been published in the series Black Horse Westerns, the Linford Western Library, and Dales Westerns, and they are now being reissued as ebooks. His latest ebook release is Peace at Any Price which I reviewed on this blog in February.
TM: How did you come to write your first Black Horse Western?
KC: Having been in the industry from the age of 18, I knew that step one in fiction writing professionally was always to identify a potential, paying market, research it – that is, do a lot of reading! – and only then start writing. By the time the 1990s rolled around, this routine had become close to impossible. Magazines buying fiction had all but disappeared; publishers of original, genre fiction novels had dwindled to a couple of dominant players, usually specializing in romance; most remaining comics were scripted on a staff-writer basis. What I did find was that the Cleveland Publishing Co. of Sydney, Australia, was still issuing monthly its western booklets in 96-page digest format and they circulated widely in New Zealand. I'd produced western scripts in my Micron and Odhams days, and as a kid I'd avidly read more than a few numbers of the Amalgamated Press's Western Library, which had been a companion series to the Sexton Blake Library with the same editor and some of the same writers. But when I submitted an inquiry to Cleveland, I was knocked back. I was told by Jennette McNair, “We currently have drawers full of unedited Western manuscripts submitted by our regular writers who have been writing our novels profusely for the past 10 years, so we are not interested in obtaining any more stories for years to come. We will keep your letter on file – maybe you might be interested in doing some editing some time?” Not quite ready to abandon the idea of doing a few westerns, I remembered the attractive hardcover Black Horse Westerns. These had been launched in their present format in 1986 and had started to gain shelf space in several local public libraries. I posted off my opening chapters and a synopsis to publishers Robert Hale Ltd in London and gained immediate acceptance. Thus came about Chap O'Keefe and a series of 25 novels in a genre that many had already written off. Interestingly, two of the top Cleveland writers, Paul Wheelahan and Keith Hetherington, were soon writing westerns for Hale, too.
TM: I enjoyed Peace at Any Price, which you have re-released this year as an ebook. I’m interested in your view on electronic books and the future of print titles. Would you care to comment?
KC: Not so long ago, self-published ebook originals and reissues were being welcomed as the possible rescuer of genre-fiction publishing. Most traditional publishers of print books had turned away from shorter genre fiction, preferring to concentrate on padded, mainstream blockbusters by a handful of celebrity authors or their ghost writers. Personally, although I've read 70 or so ebooks this year on my Kindle, I would rather have the more complete experience of a paper book. Every paper book has its own character. There is variation in typeface, design, a color cover, and much, much more. An e-reader is a somewhat sterile gadget even when held in a simulated-leather case. Flipping back and forth to check on what has already been read is also far easier with a “real” book. My view on print titles is that they are being defeated mainly by cost. For a reader in a faraway place like New Zealand, a major component of cost is shipping charges which can double the price of a purchase, whether from a local bookshop or an international online supplier. That said, the seller dominating the ebook scene, Amazon – annoyingly and inexplicably even to Kindle Direct Publishing support staff – imposes its own surcharges on overseas customers for Kindle editions. Delivery of an ebook to a New Zealander, for example, should cost no more than delivery to someone in the US. But when I go to Amazon's US website from an Internet address in New Zealand, I find the price of the $2.99 Chap O'Keefe Kindle ebooks has been automatically marked up 20% to around $3.60. This is still in US dollars and has nothing to do with exchange rates. If as a self-publishing author I were to try to correct the anomaly, by setting my own Australasian region price comparable to the US one, Amazon would slash my royalty rate by half.
TM: Westerns are experiencing a revival in my view, thanks primarily to print-on-demand technology and the increasing popularity of Robert Hale’s Black Horse Western imprint. But there’s still a long way to go to make these titles as accessible as other genres found in mainstream booksellers. Can you share your view on the eternal appeal of westerns?
KC: No, I'm sorry I can't. Back in 1972, Dean Koontz could open his chapter on Westerns in Writing Popular Fiction by saying, “As long as the American public looks upon the history of the Old West as a romantic and nostalgic era, there will be a market for the Western novel, and this means the market place should be open for a good many decades to come.” Koontz mentioned Dell, Bantam, Fawcett, Avon, Lancer, Signet, Ballantine, and “most other paperback houses” releasing monthly Western lists. Alas, those days, or decades, are now gone. Likewise, so have the once ubiquitous TV western series and movies. Yes, we do have the BHW imprint, but when I started writing for Hale they could publish ten westerns a month, which is no longer the case. Hale has always depended heavily on the UK library market. I fear that once the public suspects its tax money is being spent to buy minority interest entertainment, like western novels, vote-chasing politicians are likely to crack down further on the libraries' budgets. Regardless of inflation and the rising price of BHWs over the years, Hale have also never raised the advance paid its western authors. I don't like to sound mercenary, but when it comes to writing I am a mercenary. Writing and editing are the only jobs I've ever felt qualified to fill. They produced the income to buy a home and raise a family, and now they are the only way to supplement a basic, state-pension income. I would rather not work at all and make do with what I have than work for unrealistic rates.
TM: What are you working on now?
KC: First and foremost, recovery from major open surgery to remove a tumor and part of my left kidney. The problem was, in medical terms, a cystic “papillary renal cell carcinoma.” It was found unexpectedly, as kidney cancer often is, by an unrelated ultrasound examination followed up with a CT scan. A further CT scan is scheduled for February which I hope will tell me what the future holds. My only original fiction writing this year has been a pseudonymous novel accepted by a UK ebook publisher and released in July. The book was unrelated to westerns, crime, horror ... indeed any genre likely to impress or appeal to the readers of Dispatches from the Last Outlaw. Sales of this ebook have not yet reached a level I would consider encouraging , although it has to be admitted the sales of western ebook Peace at Any Price have not given reason for congratulation either, despite a couple of grand reviews, one of which was yours, Tom. Writing westerns, or any ebook genre fiction, could soon become a field of endeavor for only the enthusiastic hobbyist. Last year, Witchery: A Duo of Weird Tales, released for the Kindle under my own name, didn't set the fantasy fiction world clamoring for more either. In the ebook world, what Lee Goldberg called “the tsunami of swill” continues unabated. You have to wonder how much effort some of the new, self-publishing authors put into learning their craft; also whether it would pay them to make that effort anyway. I'm almost convinced the majority of downloads of genre fiction are based on low price or giveaway schemes alone. A poorly written piece of short story length frequently rates on Amazon as highly as a carefully prepared novel buried among the thousands of online offerings at the same price. Perhaps the successful ebook author has to cultivate a flock of what I believe social media call “friends,” which is not a game I want to play. I will try to put out another of the Chap O'Keefe titles as an ebook before Christmas, all being well.
TM: Many thanks Keith, for taking the time to answer these questions!
KC: Thank you, Tom, for the opportunity.