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Small Maryland publisher nabs Stephen King deal

Stephen King is what got Richard Chizmar, owner of Cemetery Dance Publications, into the business of publishing horror and suspense books.

Now King is his business.

Chizmar read one of King's short stories in high school — "The Monkey," about a cymbal-banging toy possessed by an evil spirit — and became an instant fan. When he started his company in 1988, Chizmar would send the author copies of magazines and books he published and slowly developed a professional and personal relationship with him.

That connection led King to choose Chizmar's firm of five employees to publish his latest book, "Blockade Billy." Though not the first book by King that Chizmar has published, the deal is being described in the book world as major coup for such a small company.

"It's a wonderful piece of news for an independent publisher to get a deal with a very high-profile author," said Tina Jordan, a spokesman with the Association of American Publishers.

Chizmar said the deal is opening new doors for the company. Employees of the small publishing house in Forest Hill, received word it was chosen last year, but they had to keep the news to themselves until recently. "It was a hard feat, given how passionate King's fans are," Chizmar said.

The book, about a 1950s major league baseball player with a deep secret, is expected to be shipped this week to those who ordered copies. It was initially intended to be a limited edition but was so popular that King's New York publishing house will print copies in addition to the 20,000 that Cemetery Dance was commissioned to do.

"To be publishing Stephen King, to be a friend to Stephen, when he is absolutely what got me into this business, is a really neat thing and something I don't take for granted," Chizmar said.

The Baltimore Sun sat down with Chizmar recently to get the back story.

Question: How did the deal with Stephen King come about?

Answer: Well, we were actually negotiating for a completely different project last summer. His agent, Chuck Verrill, e-mailed me late one day, and he just said, "Look, Steve has this baseball novella." And he thought it would be a good fit for Cemetery Dance because he knows how much of a baseball fan I am.

Q: You knew King?

A: Yeah, I sent him all of our publications right from the very beginning. I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for King's work. … So when I started publishing the magazine and started publishing hardcover books, it was natural for me to send them up to Maine just to kind of get me on his radar.

Q: What's Stephen King like?

A: He is as smart as can be. ... He's very gracious. And the biggest compliment I can give him beyond that is that he still does his work for all the right reasons. He loves it. He's passionate about it. He is the last person in the world you could say it's all about the paycheck. He could have taken a book like this and made a whole lot more money from someone other than us. But that's not what he's about.

Q: So this wasn't the first time you worked with him?

A: He has been very supportive of us literally for 20 years. He sent us a promotional blurb for the magazine, like, back in 1990. In 1991, he sent us a new short story for the magazine. And then over the years, he has allowed us to reprint stories, allowed us to use stories in anthologies and that kind of thing. And then probably five or six years ago, we published a limited edition of "From a Buick 8." A couple of years after that, he allowed us to do a book called "The Secretary of Dreams."

Q: Is this his way of supporting small publishers?

A: There are other small publishers he has supported, but he's been very, very generous to us. This is our third book project, but what makes this significant is unlike "Buick 8," where there were copies in all the bookstores from the New York publishers and we just published a limited edition; for "Blockade Billy," it was all ours.

So when the press release hit, you know everyone immediately asked, No. 1: "How did they keep this book a secret?" And No. 2: "How was it that this very small publisher in the middle of Maryland — not New York, you know, they're not in a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue — how is it that they are able to promote and package this book the way they did?" … The whole world kind of sat up and noticed.

Q: So how did you celebrate when you found out?

A: Just got to work. That is pretty much what it's always been. I told everyone here in the office — there's only five of us and a lot of freelancers. I just essentially forwarded everyone the manuscript and said, "Hey, guess what? This is going to be a big secret until next baseball season."

Q: Was there anything different about this deal?

A: We did baseball cards for the book. We did a card for Blockade Billy, which comes with all the trade editions. And then for the signed edition, we did a Stephen King card with him in a Titans jersey and a Titans hat. That was the first time we've done that. And those are modeled after authentic 1950s-style baseball cards.

Q: So what made this deal so big for you?

A: I've been corresponding with Steve for almost 20 years about both baseball and books. For me, I was a lacrosse player, but I am a big baseball fan, so it really is the equivalent of putting on an Orioles jersey and running out on Opening Day and being a starting pitcher. This is as good as it gets — baseball, Stephen King, a secret book that originates with us.

Q: How do you think this will affect future business?

A: We are known as kind of the world's leading independent, non-New York, noncorporate-owned publisher of horror, suspense, mystery, that kind of thing. But this takes us to another level. We've been talked about in places like Entertainment Weekly and Publishers Weekly in the past, but never like this.

In a two-week period, we've received more attention collectively than we have in 20 years. And it also put us in a different position with literary agents in New York. We've been approached about projects in the last two weeks that I know we've been approached about because they see this book on our list.

Q: What is your biggest challenge in running a small business?

A: The publishing world in general is not a real healthy business. It's in New York right now, and it's all geared toward the best-sellers. The cliche right now is that the midlist has disappeared. They are all trying to sell big books. There used to be something called the midlist, which was the largest percentage of the market, which were middle-of-the-road authors who could make a decent living and sold a real solid number of books.

But it's like the movie industry, now they want everything to be very big. For bigger products and merchandising and all that stuff.

Q: What advice would you give other small businesses looking for their big break?

A: I am not a great businessman. That's not what I went to school for. That's not what I trained for. I think I'm pretty good at promotion and those kinds of things. But it's really just to have passion with what you're doing. That's my key. There was never a question of whether I'd have a successful company; it was just a matter of when it would happen.

It's the biggest secret everyone is kind of looking for — that you love what you're doing and you're willing to do the work. The secret part is simply don't give up, and you'll still be there when a whole lot of other talented people have given up.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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