Sunday 2 January 2011

Whisky Priest

(Note: This post is somewhat self-serving, in that I'm going to talk about a series of books I am publishing. Rest assured that, after this one post, I will not be using this blog to talk about or sell these books--all of that will be going on over on the Whisky Priest Books blog. However, I thought I'd post this here since I'll be talking about how the covers of these books were designed.)

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There are a number of books I want to read which are either completely out of print, or else only available in utterly hideous print-on-demand editions with vile typography and crappy covers. A number of these books are out of copyright, and so potentially open to anyone to make their own editions (hence the vile/crappy versions described above). Having experimented with print-on-demand technology, I thought I'd have a go at creating a couple of physical books myself. It was lots of fun, and I got hooked. The result is Whisky Priest Books: out-of-copyright books I want copies of, and which, with any luck, other people might want to read as well.

I started with Fitz-James O'Brien. An Irish-born poet and journalist who was killed fighting for the North in the American Civil War, he was also responsible for a notable series of early science-fiction and supernatural short stories. One or two of these occasionally crop up in themed anthologies, but there was no decent collection of his work available. So I made one. The title story, The Diamond Lens, is probably his best-known. In it, a man who has built a super-powerful microscope discovers an entire miniature world inside a water drop, including a beautiful (but microscopic) naked woman, with whom he falls in love. The cover pretty much suggested itself (click for bigger versions of all cover images).

My other starting book was as pretty much as odd as literary oddities get. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Melville's Moby-Dick, I was reading some essays about the book. In one, by David S. Reynolds, I came across this intriguing sentence: "The largest monster in antebellum literature was the kraken depicted in Eugene Batchelder’s Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or The Ichthyosaurus, a bizarre narrative poem about a sea serpent that terrorizes the coast of Massachusetts, destroys a huge ship in mid-ocean, repasts on human remains gruesomely with sharks and whales, attends a Harvard commencement (where he has been asked to speak), [and] shocks partygoers by appearing at a Newport ball...”

The audience for an 1850 book-length Monty Python-style doggerel poem about a socially aspirant sea serpent is probably just me, and it would be honestly impossible to press this on anyone as a great (or even good) work of literature, but I'm glad to have read it. Such an overblown book seemed to need a relatively minimalist cover, so I used a detail from one of the book's original illustrations.

Book three was a collection of the Edith Wharton novellas and stories I didn't already have in my numerous collections of her shorter works. A lush John White Alexander painting ('Repose', from 1895) seemed right for this.

At this point I became pretty bored with the blue rectangular author/title box, and decided to chuck it in. This was a good idea, as it gives a lot more flexibility in cover design.

Lord Dunsany (or Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) is still in print today, known for his remarkable fantasy stories. His other work is less well known, and Tales of War was particularly interesting. Drawing on his own WWI experiences, its protagonists include numerous soldiers, Kaiser Wilhelm II (the theory is advanced that he started the war to compensate for his ludicrous moustache) and a talking gorilla.

Two other WWI novels also caught my eye: Contemptible by 'Casualty' (Arnold Gyde), a straightforward, thinly fictionalised version of his own fighting experience in France, and A. P. Herbert's The Secret Battle, which was one of the first novels to look at shell-shock and the odiousness of capital punishment for desertion and cowardice in battle.

This cover makes use of 'Battle-Scarred Sentinels', one of the many frankly astonishing photos of Australian war photographer Frank Hurley

This cover features an adapted version of a pencil sketch by  Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers

Storm Jameson was once widely popular, but her work is now almost entirely (and unfairly) forgotten. My favourite of her novels is In the Second Year, first published in 1936, and describing a Britain where the Fascists had taken government. For this cover I lifted a frame from an old newsreel of a British Union of Fascists rally.

French novelist Henri Barbusse's early novel Inferno, from 1908, is a neglected classic of existentialism and voyeurism, if that's your cup of tea: a near stream-of-consciousness narrative from the point of view of a man peering through a gap in his boarding-house room wall at the goings-on in the neighbouring room. The oppressive ranting of the text and the peering eye suggested a design for this one (click for a better view--the text doesn't display well at the smaller size).

As you can see, it's hard to stop once you start down this self-publishing path. Who else do we have? How about Leonard Merrick, as championed at The Neglected Books page here and here?

This tale of a writer whose first book is hugely successful, but who then starts to bomb in a big way, needed a thoroughly fucked-up typewriter...

..while this book, much of which concerns an aspiring actress and her attempts to secure work, seemed to need this portrait from an old theatrical poster.

Or Grant Allen, a number of whose other books I've really loved, and whose Michael's Crag (about a man who, after a blow to the head, becomes convinced he's the archangel Michael) was discussed at The Dusty Bookcase?

Here you can see the whole cover, front and back. The image is one of the book's 200+ silhouette illustrations,  by Francis and Alec Carruthers Gold
Or the wonderful Stefan Zweig, whose work has been resurrected recently by the brilliant NYRB and Pushkin Press? This volume contains two of his novellas unavailable elsewhere, along with his monograph on poet Paul Verlaine.

I couldn't resist Egon Schiele for this: it's his hypnotic 'Sitzende Frau mit hochgezogenem Knie' (1917) 
Or French novelist Alphonse Daudet, whose cynically funny collection of stories about the sex war and the artistic temperament, Artists' Wives, deserves rediscovery?

The cover uses 'Model writing postcards' (1906) by Carl Larsson

Or Grete Lanier's diary of her schoolgirlhood in early 20th-Century Vienna, originally published by Sigmund Freud?

This cover uses a detail from ‘Profilbildnis eines Mädchens’ (1897) by Koloman Moser, a number of whose paintings capture Viennese adolescence rather intriguingly
There are other titles in preparation, and I'm thoroughly enjoying working on them. I can recommend this process to anyone who wants to read an old book and doesn't want to read it on a screen. The POD publisher I use is Lulu, mainly because they have an Australian press, and so getting copies of my own books doesn't cost me an arm and a leg in postage. Their price-setting system is a little irritating--once a book crosses 300-odd pages  in size, it seems to get dramatically more expensive--but I've set every book's price as low as I can (profit on one of these books bought from Amazon averages around 70-80 cents).

So, that's the start of Whisky Priest Books. See some of them at Amazon US, Amazon UK, or all of them at the Whisky Prist Lulu shop.


Ricky Lee Grove said...

Wonderful series of books. I'll blog and promote them as much as I can. May I recommend a novel? Strindberg's The Red Room is PD and would be a good candidate for your list.

I'll be ordering some of the books on your list. Best of luck to you!

JRSM said...

Thank you, Richard. I will take a look at 'The Red Room' this week. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

Sarah Norman said...

Very interesting! I love the ARTISTS WIVES cover, it's gorgeous. I've never heard of the Lanier diary, I shall have to put that on my list. I read Lenin's wife's diary some years ago, and it really set me off on a big diary binge for a while!

JRSM said...

Thank you,Sarah. I do love that painting myself--this is probably almost as much an exercise in plugging my favourite art as it is forgotten books, to be honest. I think you'll like Grete's diary--it's fascinating.

Matthew Adams said...

Great covers and some interesting sounding books. A Romance of the Sea-Serpent sounds terrific and so does The Fabulous Clipjoint, both of which I had never heard of till just now. Will certianly be buying some of these books.

Lola said...

Those covers are lovely! Did you use a specific program to design them? How did you get the fonts to match up so well with the colors and textures of the images (like for the Zweig book)?

(Sorry for all my questions. I love looking at well-designed covers, but know nothing about how to make one).

Martin said...

I came here via 'The Age of Uncertainty' blog. Boy, am I glad I did. Some interesting books to investigate. Thanks.

Blithe Spirit said...

Wow, what a fun and interesting project. And such a great ecclectic mix of books. Being a bit of WWI buff, I've read and enjoyed The Secret Battle and Barbusse's Under Fire, but not Inferno (love the design on this), and am intrigued by Tales of War and Contempt, neither of which I knew about. Good to see Storm Jameson on the list as well and the Daudet looks wonderful too.

Anonymous said...

Great initiative! Since you are also a skilled illustrator, have you thought about illustrating some future Whisky Priest books?

Chasch said...

Fantastic work! I particularly like "A Romance of the Sea-Serpent" (I'm also happy to learn about its existence, it sounds crazy!) and the Zweig, which is stunning (as mentioned by Lola, I love how the writing repeats the style of the artwork so well).

I'm happy you dropped the blue banner, it reminded me of the Wordsworth classics series... I look forward to seeing more great titles resurrected and given such nice covers!

JRSM said...

Matthew: Cheers! 'Romance of the Sea Serpent' is certainly an acquired taste, though from what I know, that might just be your taste.

Lola: I mainly use InDesign and Photoshop, which are fairly standard design programs. But if you're interested in trying it yourself, even Word would work for laying out the interiors, as long as you can download something that lets you create PDFs--PrimoPDF is a good free program if you don't have Acrobat. For the Zweig book, I used Photoshop to lift the texture from the painting and to fill the lettering.

Martin H: Thank you--and the Age of Uncertainty is a great site.

Blithe Spirit: They're both very interesting looks at WWI--Contemptible is quite journalistic and unsensational, while the Dunsany is full of odd flights of fancy and poetic shenanigans.

Anonymous: What an excellent idea! Many of the books have little design flourishes on the inside, but I haven't done a full set of illustrations for any of them. A project for the new year!

Chasch: Thank you--yes, the blue banner got dull very fast.

Ian Koviak said...

super super stuff. Great that this is going on and I will be sure to promote the hell out of it. More of this pls.

JRSM said...

:) Thanks, Ian--from someone with your design talents, that's really good to hear!

StuckInABook said...

Some really beautiful covers - and reminds me that I have some Storm Jameson novels on my shelf unread. Is she still in copyright? How do you go about those issues?

I went and looked at the Lulu website, and was a bit suspicious that I couldn't find prices listed anywhere...

Max Cairnduff said...

Some very interesting choices there. Curiously I have a print of that John White Alexander picture at work.

How are the books printed by Lulu looking in the flesh do you think?

And good luck! This is a great venture and some of these sound like really interesting books.

JRSM said...

StuckInABook: Storm Jameson is an odd case. Most of her work is in copyright in the US, and all of it in the UK. However, a few of her novels fell out of copyright and were never renewed in the US, during a slightly odd and confusing period of copyright renewal law. Because 'In the Second Year' is being produced from an American-based publisher (though it can be sent around the world), that particular book is republishable. I'd like to do more of her work, but the majority is still in copyright.

The lack of prices is a bit odd--at my end I can see them at there may well be something strange going on with the interface. I'll investigate.

Max: Thank you. The books come out looking pretty good. The paper used is very like standard 100gsm laser printer paper, and it is obviously something like a laser printer used to print the pages, but a very high-quality one. The covers are glossy and good-quality. No binding glitches or anything so far (though occasionally the proof copies have had slightly misaligned spines).

Steerforth said...


I'm really impressed and wish you every success. I particularly liked the Storm Jameson and Tales of War.

Sonya said...

I'm curious about how you find out the status of PD titles--is there a process or database where you can make sure you're working with a clear title? Love this project and also really enjoy this blog in general. Lots of hard work and thought, obviously.

JRSM said...

Thanks, Steerforth. Let's hope none of these titles end up cluttering your offices/bins in the near future.

Sonya, most books are only PD once the author has been dead for 70 years (so, for example, the fact that F Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 means that this year a lot of people are suddenly publishing his work when they couldn't before), though that 70-year-figure varies from one part of the world to another. But the 70-year rule is relatively recent, and so a number of books have fallen between the cracks of legislation changes over the years. And a lot of the rights to crime/pulp/genre stuff was bought in its entirety from the authors by publishers who later went out of business. A good place to look for the copyright status of a work in the US is here (, which has a searchable database.

Nancy Kalrez said...

Beautiful covers! Fantastic! I particularly enjoyed A Romance of the Sea Serpent, In the Second Year, and Inferno.


Nancy Kalrez
Looking for a free cover? is the place to go!

JRSM said...

Thank you, Nancy.

Neil said...

Hey James,

I love these. Especially the One Man's View and Transfiguration covers. One thing has been bothering me though. Are there not any copyright (or related) issues concerning the use of the different pieces of artwork for the covers? Despite having once studied copyright law (in Scotland) I have no idea what the general position on this would be.

Keep up the good work, I shall be making some purchases when my pay comes in this month!

JRSM said...

Hi, Neil: The images I use on the covers are either works in the public domain (usually contemporaneous with the book's publication), or else more recent images available under a Creative Commons Commercial license or the like. Or else they're images I create myself.

Neil said...

Aha! That all makes sense to me. Thanks for clearing that up!