Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my own involvement with the fifth annual anthology from Wolfmont Press to benefit a deserving charity: Murder to Mil-Spec, a collection of new crime stories on military themes. Today, Wolfmont publisher Tony Burton talks with us about his press, its mission, and Murder to Mil-Spec.
Q. How did you come to establish a small press?
A: Well, I was running a short crime fiction ezine, Crime and Suspense (now defunct), and as a result of discussions with authors who were sending stories to me there, I became interested in having a print publishing business, not simply online. The first result of that was Seven By Seven, an anthology of seven authors’ flash fiction pieces on each of the seven deadly sins, for a total of 49 stories. It was a fun and challenging project that is still in print.
Q. Was publishing charitable anthologies part of your plan from the start? What prompted you to do this?
A. Honestly, it wasn’t in the business plan, but as I developed the business I saw it as a way I could use the business to help those who are (in that hackneyed expression) less fortunate than I. The first four charitable anthologies were for Toys for Tots, and that came, at least partially, from my own history of having parents who were hard-working but poor, and who could not always give the kind of Christmas they would have wanted. I have a lot of respect for the USMC and the work they do for this endeavor.
Q. How have the charitable anthologies affected Wolfmont’s reputation and success as a business enterprise?
A. You know, I haven’t thought much about that, but I hope they have had a positive impact! I actually had one author once (whom I will not name) to tell me that I was wasting time and effort with a charitable anthology that didn’t make any money for Wolfmont. I don’t agree. I don’t care if you call it “what goes around, comes around” or karma or something else, but I believe doing good ultimately does good for the person who does it.
Q. How have the stories been received? What kind of impact have they had on the contributors’ careers?
A. I think the anthologies and the individual stories have been very well received. Of course, in every anthology you will have some stories that are generally more popular than others—that goes without saying. And I have made it a point to mix levels of experience in all the anthologies, insofar as I could do that without hurting the integrity of the anthology, and I think it has turned out well. In 2008 we had the ONLY small-press book on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s yearly list of bestsellers, in either hardcover or softcover. We have also had stories from the anthologies to be nominated for awards, and to win, so that is very pleasing. It has become generally a fairly competitive thing, to get into one of these anthologies, and that’s both good and bad. It makes it very hard to choose the stories because so many are so good, and we simply can’t put them all in.
Q. The first four anthologies had a surefire formula: holiday crime stories—making the book a perfect Christmas or Chanukah gift for readers—and a charity that gives toys to needy children, a mission that everyone can support without reservation. What made you decide to change the theme and recipient this time?
A. First of all, let me say that I still value Toys for Tots. But they get an awful lot of press, and are a very big charity. So, I decided that this year, I would try to find something that is just as important, but perhaps more obscure. That’s when I found Homes for Our Troops. They have a very, very high rating on the Charity Navigator web site, and in my mind are one of the better military-oriented charities.
Q. How did you arrive at the decision to make Homes for Our Troops the recipient of this year’s proceeds?
A. I was in the military for over twelve years, and if you add in National Guard time, over fourteen years. I was Navy for the largest part of that time, so I never was in a field combat situation, but I still saw a lot of terrible injuries, even in peacetime… including death. One thing that has really struck home to me was the high number of military persons coming back from our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq with missing limbs, paralyzing spinal cord injuries, head trauma, and other devastating injuries that keep them from functioning normally in everyday environments. My mother is disabled and gets around in a wheelchair, and I know how hard it can be for even the simplest of tasks to get done when you are confined to one.
Q. What exactly does Homes for Our Troops do?
A. Homes for Our Troops is a 501.c(3) charitable organization that builds new homes for returning veterans with debilitating injuries such as loss of limb, paraplegia or quadriplegia, and so forth. They do this without any cost to the military member. At one time they were retrofitting the old homes, but they found that it was harder and more expensive than simply building a new home for the veteran. You can get a great idea of what they do by simply visiting their website, www.homesforourtroops.org .
Q. How did soliciting and selecting stories involving military personnel and veterans compare with your experience gathering stories with a holiday theme?
A. I think it was harder for a couple of reasons. One, and I’ll get it out of the way at first, is that there is a lot of ambivalence about the present conflicts in which the USA is involved. People seem to want to avoid talking about the loss of life and catastrophic injuries—witness out own government’s efforts to downplay the arrival of soldiers’ remains from the battlefields. The other thing, and this surprised me, is that it seems not many writers have first-hand experience with the military, so they had a hard time putting themselves into a “military frame of mind.” (How this applies to those who write about serial killers, I don’t want to contemplate!) But, even though there were not as many submissions for this anthology, there was still a good field to select from, and it pained me to have to reject some stories. One criticism from a reviewer (and it was a mild one) was that this anthology didn’t really have any humorous or lighthearted stories in it as the previous ones had. I didn’t filter out any funny stories: there simply were none submitted. Maybe people are so focused on the death and destruction aspect of the military that they forget that humor is one of the biggest ways all human beings deal with being in a stressful, dangerous situation. Whatever the reason, no really funny stories were submitted.
Q. Did you have any concern that a military charity, even one focusing on the severely disabled, might be seen as political? Have there been any surprises in people’s response to the anthology?
A. In spite of the potential political aspects of the anthology, I have yet to see any negative connotations directly pointed at the anthology, or at Wolfmont, because of the theme of the anthology. And that doesn’t surprise me. I believe people, even those who don’t agree with what is going on over in Afghanistan and Iraq, understand that military personnel are not over there for fun, and are simply serving their country—as they must, since they took the oath and signed up with the services.
Q. Putting together a charitable anthology like Murder to Mil-Spec involves a great deal of work for you with no financial reward. What makes it worthwhile for you? What do you like best about the process?
A. I get to work with some awesome people, first of all. I get to meet both experienced and novice authors who are talented and eager to do something good. I enjoy the warm glow that comes from doing something really positive.
Q. What would you like to tell readers about Murder to Mil-Spec to encourage them to buy it for themselves and as gifts for other readers?
A. First of all, your primary reason to buy Murder to Mil-Spec should NOT be the charity. It should be the fine collection of military-themed short crime fiction that will entertain you or the person to whom you give the book. These are not puff pieces, but meaty, satisfying stories that run the gamut from jewelry theft to murder to kidnapping, and that slide up the timeline from World War II all the way to our present involvement in Afghanistan. The added benefit is that you will help wounded warriors to be able to function when they return home, to be able to rebuild a life that they left as physically complete and whole, but now are challenged to live from day to day. And this challenge is because they did what they swore to do when they joined the military: they went in harm’s way in service to our country.
Q. What will you do for an encore? Do you have plans for next year’s charitable anthology?
A. I’ll be blunt here: last year’s anthology did not do as well as we had hoped it would. Perhaps it was the depressed economy; at least that’s what I think caused the problem, because the stories were all of high caliber. My continuation of this annual project is greatly dependent upon this year’s anthology doing well. If it is a success, then yes, I’ll probably do another one next year. I do have a theme and title in mind, but I won’t let that feline out of the sack until I know more about whether or not I’ll actually publish another anthology. If I don’t, it won’t be because the cause is not worthwhile—far from it—but rather because, after all the numbers are tallied, I could have simply donated the money to Homes for Our Troops and not had the trouble of getting out an anthology. That sounds pretty blunt and harsh, I guess, but it’s the truth. Just as you said, it’s a lot of work, and if it ends up being little more than a wash, then I’d rather just donate a lump sum and devote my time to a different project.