Updated: Feb 17
Anthony Kaye of Curious King
In 2020, Anthony Kaye, a relative unknown in the small press community, posted a personal project he had been working on for months, a striking minimalist rebind of Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon. He continued on with a small batch rebind of Ready Player One, complete with a custom Atari case that truly captured the spirit of Ernest Cline's masterpiece and started to garner serious attention. Armed with these two rebinds, he set out to gain the rights to some of his favorite series. As of this date he has announced that the first three original projects under the name of Curious King will be The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. We are excited to share some of the conversation we had with him as he allowed us to pick his brain about how all of this got started and his journey in creating Curious King.
You have mentioned that the name Curious King was inspired by the idea that “curiosity is king." What does that concept mean to you personally and how does it connect to the spirit and mission of the imprint?
I mean curiosity is what led me down the route of publishing my own books. I suppose I’m a curious person, I like to know how things work and why, and I’m not afraid to continue down a new path due to curiosity. But also, I mean, alliteration, right?!
It does have a nice ring to it! I’m sure your journey with Curious King has been a whirlwind, because in two short years you went from a collector of books to releasing one of the most anticipated releases in the small press world in 2022. What has surprised you the most in this journey and when did you first start to believe that Curious King was going to be a reality?
The lack of information on the internet on publishing and how to publish books surprised me the most. There’s barely anything out there, so I ended up posting some questions on Reddit and somebody from the industry gave me a steer.
I was probably towards the end of my Gardens of the Moon project when I thought “I could do this.” It felt very real when I received the bound book back from Ludlow’s – I was excited to see how it turned out, but I was gobsmacked by the quality of their work.
That was the first view that anyone got of your design and your take on Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson turned out absolutely stunning. I know a few people (myself included) that would sell a kidney for a Curious King set of Malazan Book of the Fallen. What drove you to choose this as your first project and how were you able to make such an elegant and professional production on your first attempt?
Well, it’s no secret that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is my favourite series of all time. It may well be the best thing ever written (in my opinion). The other reason is that when I first started collecting books, it was Malazan hardcovers, and trawling the internet to find them I stumbled across Subterranean Press’ version and it blew my mind.
So, my plan was to buy the Sub Press versions, but unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the second-hand price of the first few books. Then some guy on Reddit said that he would probably just rebind first editions and commission his own art rather than pay second-hand prices…
And that’s pretty much how I ended up here. Gardens was always going to be my first choice, I think.
Well, you won’t hear me making any strong arguments against your take on Malazan. Would securing rights to producing all of Malazan Book of the Fallen be your holy grail as a press owner? What other series would you love to see under the Curious King imprint in the future?
Yeah absolutely. I think I spooked Steven Erikson a little bit when I produced the two copies of Gardens of the Moon (one for him, one for me), and then started a press shortly after doing that. I think he may have been worried I was going to start bootlegging his books.
He’s one of the best authors of all time, nobody has done anything of the scale and quality as Malazan Book of the Fallen, and I’d be honoured to publish it. The only issue though is the books are large, which causes problems in the fine press world.
Regarding other series, there’s loads (and I’m working away at securing some of them). I’ve always wanted to do A Song of Ice and Fire, but sadly it isn’t finished, and I know how frustrating for collectors it is to publish an unfinished series. Though I have no idea how I’d top the Sub Press version.
Of course, Lord of the Rings is right up there. I’d sell your kidney to secure that one, that’s for sure (maybe even both).
Well, that would be exciting, even if I wasn't around to see it! Your second project was a small-scale rebind of Ready Player One that most people in the small press community have probably seen at this point. The production was exciting and particularly unique and to me it never felt gimmicky. As you were envisioning this project, how did you seek to balance these concepts in the final presentation?
I’m sure some people will say it’s a gimmicky production and that’s fine. Balance came from the quality of binding and trying to keep the Atari case as stock as possible. I nearly went further with RPO and had different colour suede boards inside the case that matched the cover, as well as changing the text on the buttons to include title and author etc., but by keeping the colours dark and sleek it helped balance the production somewhat.
Well, however people felt about it, there was no denying that it certainly made a huge impression on the small press community. So, after finishing RPO, how did you decide what your first large-scale project would be? Was The First Law Trilogy at the top of your list or one of many that turned out to have the most potential?
The First Law was in my top three projects from the outset, and I’m still in disbelief I managed to convince Joe to let me do it. I had made some approaches about a couple of books and series before I did RPO but didn’t get very far.
After the success of the RPO reveal I doubled down on my attempts to secure The First Law, as it’s one of my favourite series, and I was able to get it over the line.
You went so quickly from a rebind of 26 copies of Ready Player One to a full-fledged small press announcing you had rights to The First Law Trilogy, The Broken Earth Trilogy and Hyperion most recently, all secured before your first full production was released. Those are some heavy hitters! How did you manage to secure such large and influential works with only two rebinds under your belt? What did those meetings look like with these authors and what was your strategy going in?
A good presentation helps. I’ve found that the publishing industry is a little antiquated in how things are done, and I discovered that things like a good slide deck and visuals go a long way in grabbing people’s attention and getting those meetings booked.
There was also an element of fake it until you make it. I didn’t make it explicitly clear that Gardens of the Moon was just a one-off production (but I didn’t say it was a published book either). Again, some really good visuals of both projects helped get my foot in the door, and then it was up to me convince them I was the right person to do it.
The meetings were fairly straightforward. I suppose what I wanted to get across was how passionate I was for the story and the work I wanted to do on it. I genuinely believe if you can convince somebody you’re passionate and also capable of carrying out the work, then it’s hard for them to say no.
I’d also like to mention the help I’ve had from other publishers like Rich (Lyra’s) and Bill (Sub Press). Rich gave me some very good early insight to how the industry largely worked (and is amazing to chat design with) and Bill has been just as generous with his knowledge and contacts and has supported CK every step.
That’s really amazing, the small press community seems to be much more collaborative than adversarial, even among presses that are sometimes competing for the same customers. What were some of the most important insights that Rich and Bill shared with you?
Largely about the mechanisms of licences and how they work and where they’ve had success securing titles. They were incredibly open about it, which is why I try and be so free with my process for others.
Absolute legends both of them! You have managed to produce an incredible Standard Edition of The Blade Itself including commissioned artwork from Tommy Arnold, Joe Abercrombie's signature, and around 500 pages printed letterpress, all at a very reasonable price considering. Though you get to really flex on the lettered editions, it seems like you put a lot of energy into all the editions down to the Standard. What does the Standard Edition mean to you as a press owner and as a former collector?
The Standard Edition is really important to me, as I struggled to pay for numbered and lettered editions as a collector. So, when I started the press, I wanted to make sure that there was an “affordable” letterpress edition for the collectors who struggled to pay numbered/lettered prices.
The issue comes with a cost. Whilst a large run helps things, the price of paper, labour, book board, ink, cloth, etc. pushes the price up considerably. Apart from Sub Press, I haven’t sold any copies to other sellers purely because they cost more to make than they are happy to pay – my margins are razor thin (even at £200 a book!).
So, whilst I will try and do Standards as often as possible, some productions will not have a Standard Edition due to popularity and cost. It would be a shame for a Standard to hit £300 as it would start to feel out of reach again.
Well, the art and design on the Standard came out really incredibly. Artist selection also seems to be a very high priority for you and you have already secured some high-caliber artists (Tommy Arnold, John Anthony di Giovanni) very early on in the life of the press. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with artists and what level of input do you like to have on a given project?
One of the things that drew me to the limited-run book scene is the art. There is such a lack of high-quality art for most fantasy and science fiction novels that it’s one of the most important parts of production for me.
Searching for (and finding) artists is one of my favourite jobs, and I take great pleasure in trying to pair the right artist with book. The issue with artists tends to be workload. It’s no surprise that the best artists around are usually booked up, sometimes years in advance, so early engagement is a must.
I’ve also realised I’d rather wait for the right artist than plow ahead with another, just because it doesn’t fit into production times. CK isn’t a publishing machine with books needing to go out every quarter, and as such I can be more flexible with artists.
Regarding input, I try and have some basic input, but then leave the rest to the experts. There are usually several scenes I’d like to see, and I’ll put my two cents in regarding composition, but I’m careful not to stifle an artist’s creativity. Ultimately, they are the creative and the expert, and the point of using them is you want their ideas.
There is more input once sketches for a scene/cover have been done. Because once it’s started to take shape it’s easier to make suggestions. For example, Logan had a bowl cut on the cover of The Blade Itself originally – me and Joe were quite certain that had to go…
Now I really want to see Logan with a bowl cut...maybe a limited release print? You just announced that you will be pairing the Hyperion release with the art of Jaime Jones. What are you most excited for in this release and how did you discover Jaime?
The art, as always. I discovered him through Tommy Arnold when he referenced him on his patreon as someone he looked up to. I found him and was blow away.
You have mentioned that you don’t do creative work for a living and sought inspiration in a lot of different places when first contemplating how to design a book up to your standards. What is your background and how has this helped prepare you for starting your own imprint?
I’ve actually done a few careers already. I started in finance and did that for five years. I then moved into headhunting/recruitment for seven years with four of those running my own consultancy. Currently, I buy land for my day job. I work for a housebuilder, and my job is to buy the land we build them on.
Setting up two previous businesses certainly helped me when starting CK. My finance background allows me to stay on top of the P&L, cost models, and cash flow. But I’d say my experience in recruitment and running my own consultancy taught me a lot on how to present, pitch and develop business relationships – a key part of publishing.
You have mentioned that the margins are fairly thin and we all know it is a ton of work to run a small press, including the twin nightmares of ordering and shipping. What drives you to take on such a task when you already have a full-time day job?
It’s largely down to my own experiences as a collector. As mentioned, I won’t always be able to do a Standard Edition, but I will always try to, even if it struggles to stack up. I also want to make sure they’re somewhat affordable too, but that also proves to be a struggle.
My press isn’t supposed to be a money spinner, it’s a passion project as well and I want to protect that as best as I can.
It seems that the overwhelming majority of collectors are really excited about the prospect of next-level editions of some of the most popular series in science fiction and fantasy. However, there are some who have expressed hope that Curious King might venture into areas not covered by other small presses before. As you think about future series you hope to secure, what are the overriding factors that will influence the direction you are going?
I would love to do some series that have yet to have the small press treatment, and there are a couple I have been pursuing. I think to begin with I want to work on some of the most loved and popular books as this will help with sales, then hopefully after I’ve delivered several editions, I’ll be ready to venture out into the lesser-known titles with smaller fanbases.
The issue is there are other publishers out there who are already established who are probably also securing these rights ferociously, so there may not be many left in a few years.
If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Curious King, what would you hope that it would be?
Pound shop Bill Schafer. (Or Dollar Tree Bill Schafer for the Americans)
Hah, I would give yourself more credit than that! So what should we expect next from Curious King? Obviously, you have a lot of work ahead of you just to produce the books that have already been announced, but is there anything coming further down the road that you can share or are excited about?
Books mostly. A bookmark too? In all seriousness, I will continue to hunt down the rights to my favourite book’s licenses and try and produce beautiful editions. I also have some other ideas that fit in quite nicely to my current offering, but they’re just ideas and research at the moment so I shan’t say anymore on that subject!
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Anthony for his time and patience putting this together. If you want to see more from Curious King you can check them out at https://www.curiousking.co.uk/ and sign up for the newsletter to get periodic updates. You can also follow Curious King on Facebook and Twitter.
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault
*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.