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Minds of the Press, Vol. 15

Updated: Jan 23

Alex Berman of Phantasia Press


We are extremely excited to have the opportunity to speak with one of the legends of small press publishing, Alex Berman of Phantasia Press. A pioneer of the modern small press movement, he also was one of the first to start producing editions that were both limited and first editions for top-tier science fiction authors of his time. Though the press closed their doors in the late 80s after a run of forty-nine wonderful productions, they recently opened back up again with their fiftieth release, Mickey7 and Alex has resumed his position at the helm of the press he started more than forty years ago. We are thrilled at the prospect of more Phantasia Press books for years to come and honored that Alex is willing to give us some of his valuable time to reflect on the history of the press and insight into where they may be headed in the future.


Q: It seems that for many of us who truly love science fiction, we can trace back this love to a certain person or original work that opened our eyes to the genre and all it entails. For me, it was my grandfather and his love for Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and others. Was there anyone in your life that inspired and pointed you toward the expansive and unlimited potential of science fiction literature? Any specific works that you remember inspiring you?

 

When I was young, we didn’t have a lot of books in my household, but I would go to the library almost every day beginning in junior high. It was then that I became hooked on science fiction.   I had a book report due in the 7th grade and chose This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones. My teacher was also a science fiction fan and was supportive even though science fiction was not considered “literature” at that time.


As a young teen, I would go to a particular mall, the first indoor mall in the country actually, and there was a store with an all-glass front there. I remember seeing all of these bright and colorful paperbacks that turned out to be Ace Doubles, costing only 35 cents at that time. I convinced my mom to let me buy one, I can’t remember the title exactly, but it was by John Brunner. I thought wow, this is fantastic, and continued to buy them when I could scrape together 35 cents (this was the late 1950s, remember.)


This continued, reading science fiction voraciously for a couple of years, but stopped abruptly when I went to college and then further on to law school, because I really didn’t have time to read for pleasure. Right after I took the bar exam, finally having some leisure time, I read Lord of the Rings for the first time. I had never read any fantasy before, but obviously it was amazing, and this eventually led me to become interested in more than just reading, but also collecting.

 

In my early twenties, I got married and at about that same time started seriously collecting. What fascinated me the most was the smaller press publishers: Gnome Press, Shasta and Fantasy Press, but I mostly ignored the big publishers like Doubleday, Putnam and others even though they published Asimov, Heinlein and many other greats (which was a big mistake, as those turned out to be quite valuable). Then I started going to science fiction conventions and discovered the Donald Grant books as well and branched out into reading authors outside of science fiction like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, which was totally different than what I grew up on. The whole world of collecting was fascinating to me.

 

Q: It is so interesting to hear your back story and let me say that it is an honor to get to pick the brain of someone so important to the history of the modern small press movement. You started Phantasia Press in the 70s with your partner, the late Sidney Altus. Can you give us a little history lesson on how the press developed and how you chose your first publication with him?

 

There was one book we were always looking for at conventions, it was a hardcover edition of L. Sprague de Camp’s Wall of Serpents. It was just hard to find whatever the reason. So, we saw de Camp at one of these conventions and asked him why this book had never been reprinted in paperback or hardcover. He told us that he had just gotten the rights back from Thomas Bouregy of Avalon Books, after a lengthy back and forth and just so happened to be looking for a publisher. So, I looked at my friend Sid and said, “maybe we should publish this” and we asked him if he would allow us to do that. He said he would like to sell the paperback rights, but we were more than welcome to do a hardcover publication.



I had known Sid Altus for a long time at that point. My parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland and his were as well. Our parents knew each other before the war in Poland and stayed friends through the years. I would run into him at a book convention in Ann Arbor, MI every year beginning in the early 70s and struck up a friendship. He was fairly established at that point and owned a successful business and had the money to be able to publish on the side.

 

At first, we planned to do this one book, but it was successful, so we looked for more titles worthy of publishing.  We did all our own research to make sure it was done well since we were doing this from scratch. I talked to Donald Grant and Tim Underwood asking who did their printing and how they did what they did. It seemed like so many of the book printers were in Ann Arbor, which worked out for us being fairly close. Sid was an art collector, so he was in charge of finding and dealing with the artists. I was involved in more of the technical aspects, dealing with the authors and major publishers writing up the contracts.


I am an attorney by trade and around the same time, I met Jack Williamson who I had read and admired for a long time. We started up a friendship and at the time, he was the president of a fairly new organization, Science Fiction Writers of America. He asked me to help them become established as a 501(c)3 and officially become their attorney, which also opened up a lot of new doors. George R.R. Martin was the treasurer at the time, I believe, and a lot of great authors were active in the organization. The publishers had all the power at that time and basically, if they wanted to break contract, they would just do it and the authors didn’t really have the power to do anything in response. They didn’t have the wherewithal to sue a publisher, because they didn’t know how and feared they would get blackballed by publishers in the future. I started changing this which encouraged authors to enforce their contracts and fight for the money they were owed. All the while I got to meet with a lot of interesting science fiction writers.

 

Q: I know it was very common for you to actually predate the release of a major title, making the Phantasia Press production the true first edition of some brilliant stories. Was this an initial goal of the press or did that idea evolve over time?

 

At the beginning, we were doing mostly older science fiction and basically turning pulps into hardcover limited editions. We would do a signed limited edition and a trade hardcover edition of many of these books and would use a different cloth and a slipcase for the signed-limited edition. This was generally in line with what others like Underwood and Miller were doing at the time. But then I had a new idea that started changing our approach. 


I first came up with this idea with Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven because I was a huge fan of Ringworld and heard there was a sequel coming out. So, I contacted the publisher and told them we had the idea to do a limited signed and numbered edition of their book.  We would only do a few thousand copies of a hardcover, or if they were doing a trade hardcover, then we would only do a small run of a signed limited edition. We told them that it would be really important and special for collectors if ours was the actual first edition and they said they didn’t really care if a small batch of ours came out first. They agreed to get us the manuscript in time for us to be able to publish before the major publisher. This was really the first time that a small press like ours was able to do a true first edition, signed and limited-edition new books by major authors.


Q: I also noticed from looking through your publications that you would often produce later books in an established series such as Ringworld Engineers, Robots of Dawn, and 2010: Odyssey Two. What was the thought process behind this decision, and did you ever think of going back and trying to publish the original books that kicked off those series?

 

You know, it really wasn’t of interest to me at that time, but it probably should have been. After we did the first few books, I thought it was such a benefit for collectors and we would usually only do limited editions of 400-750 copies, but I didn’t see the potential at that time for doing previous published books in a series. We figured that we found our niche and we wanted to continue doing that. In fact, when I did Neuromancer by William Gibson, there were many people that told me not to do it because they said collectors wouldn’t be interested since there was already a hardcover (printed in the UK) and it wouldn’t be the true first edition, or first hardcover printing.


Neuromancer Cover Art

One author, who was one of my favorites of all time was Robert Heinlein and I was just dying to do one of his books. Judy-Lynn Del Rey was running Del Rey books at the time and had the rights to Heinlein’s books. She was a total firecracker and a great businessperson. She made the deal with George Lucas to publish the first Star Wars novel, even before the movie came out and that put Del Rey on the map. Alan Dean Foster (who we have published) actually wrote the first book under George Lucas’ name and wasn’t able to disclose it for five years. I knew, but I had to keep it quiet! I reached out to her about doing our normal deal of publishing a first edition of the next Heinlein book and she agreed. We had already published 2010: Odyssey Two, working with her. This was 1988 and I was so excited to do this book.

 

I always took advantage of this as an opportunity to meet the authors. I spent time with Isaac Asimov and visited him at his apartment in New York. I met with Arthur C. Clarke when he was in the country and got to spend a weekend hanging out with Harlan Ellison and became friends with him. Truthfully, we never made much of a profit and were happy to break even. But meeting and working with these authors was a wonderful side benefit of running Phantasia Press. It also helped Sid acquire a great art collection. I would work all day at my law practice and then go home and turn into a publisher.

 

I was so excited to do this Heinlein book, I hadn’t even read the book, but really didn’t care.  So, I prepared our standard contract and sent it to Judy.  After several weeks, I reached out to Judy and asked what was going on.  At first, she said she had been busy but would sign it soon. A few weeks later, I received a Western Union telegram stating the Del Rey would publish their own signed-limited edition and she didn’t see any reason why they should give up the additional profit. This was one of the first blows that actually brought me closer to ending Phantasia Press.

 

Q: One of the biggest and most well-known projects you published was a version of Firestarter by Stephen King that now goes for extremely high prices in the secondary market, particularly the lettered “Asbestos” version. Can you tell us about how you got involved with Stephen King and collaborated with him on this project? What made you feel like this was a good project for Phantasia Press at the time?


Firestarter Lettered Edition "Asbestos" Version

I really enjoyed Stephen King ever since I read his first book, Carrie. His early books contained elements of both science fiction and horror.  I had read his first three novels and was interested in doing a limited edition of one of his books. This was when he was transitioning from Doubleday to Viking.  I contacted his editor who had the sub-rights and asked her to contact me.  She sent a letter about Firestarter which was due to be published the following year.  Of course, I was interested.  Although he was already a best-selling author, I wasn’t sure he was a “collectable” author.  They had to get King’s approval, however.  He thought a limited-signed edition was a great idea so approved the deal.

 

We were also fortunate to bring Michael Whelan on board, who ended up winning the Hugo Award for Best Artist practically every year in the 1980s. Sid also bought the original cover art. I also had a deal with him that if he ever sold them then he would give me first right of refusal.  But this didn’t quite work out.

 

Q: After producing forty-nine published projects with Phantasia Press over eleven years you decided to stop working on new productions. What were the different factors that convinced you to call it a day? Was it a slow burn or did the realization that you were done come on suddenly?

 

As I mentioned before, the Heinlein deal was definitely something that made me question whether I was still enjoying being a publisher. Other publishers I had dealt with began doing their own limited editions. Then, the last book I was looking at was by William Shatner, it was my 49th book. I knew he didn’t write it, in fact I knew who the ghostwriter was, but I really wanted to meet William Shatner since I was a Trekkie from day one.  My wife and I went to Hollywood for the signing of the books.  We met Shatner at this riding club in Burbank and the boxes were all there with the books to be signed. He was a little aloof at first and seemed to be sick of talking about Star Trek, but he calmed down after a little while and it was all good from there. We got to go out to lunch and dinner with him and it was a great day. At the same time, we were staying at this small hotel on Rodeo Drive. It was close to Ray Bradbury’s office, and I called him up and he came over to sign some of my personal books, so it ended up being a really amazing trip. I say this all to illustrate the biggest benefit of running Phantasia Press for me. However, this started to change over time.


 After the Shatner book, I reached out to Putnam about doing something for Frank Herbert and they said they were doing their own limited editions. All of these were done by the big publisher. They were ugly and not well made, so it really just killed the excitement for me as I realized they were going to start doing these themselves.


Tekwar by William Shatner Dust Jacket

There was also one more reason for ending Phantasia. When I was already discouraged about what to do next, I got a call from Marty Greenberg. He had this idea for an anthology called “October’s Friends” and he was bringing in a bunch of authors writing stories in honor of Ray Bradbury. I talked to him about getting the hardcover rights to it, since the paperback rights were already secured by someone else. I paid an advance and already began the artwork, and it seemed to be shaping up to be a really nice book. Several months later, Marty called me and said that the publisher who bought the rights to the paperback now wants to do a hardcover. He offered to pay me more than the advance I had given him.  I didn’t feel I really had a choice.

 

In addition to that, I was working more hours at my law practice and doing Phantasia work most nights until 2am. At that time, I really had to make a decision between continuing in my law practice or work full-time publishing.  Having three young boys and a mortgage I decided to end Phantasia Press.

 

Q: So over 30 years go by and a few years ago there started to be rumblings that you were going to reopen the press and start producing books again. What were the primary factors that caused you to relaunch Phantasia Press and why this particular moment in history?

 

During this entire hiatus of over 30 years, I was out of the science fiction field completely. It was the dark age for me in terms of my involvement in the science fiction and publishing community. I really didn’t even think about it too much.  Then in 2020, COVID hit. I’m running my own firm, and we were pretty much shut down which meant I was working from home and surrounded by all the books I once collected from the floor to the ceiling. Being in that environment day after day, I began to formulate this idea when reflecting on Phantasia Press and appreciating the 80s and that time period.


2010: Odyssey Two Frontispiece

At the same time, my wife started showing early signs of dementia and chronic pain issues and instead of going to dinner or getting out of the house, we were staying home more and more. I started going a little crazy being home so much. I started thinking, what if I started Phantasia Press again? In my online searching, I came across the Small Press Limited Book Collectors group on Facebook and I really didn’t realize there were so many small presses. I knew Subterranean Press because I knew Bill from long before, and they were publishing popular works in beautiful editions. I saw that they weren’t even publishing first editions. They were doing reprints of older titles as well as newer books, and I thought, “Is there a market for these editions?”

 

I posted a comment on one of the collectors’ groups, “Does anybody remember Phantasia Press?” Then comments came flooding in like, “My father used to collect your books,” or “You’re a legend” or “Oh, you’re still alive?” Even some of my older customers were still around and engaged and I found out that many Phantasia books were still collectible, I really had no idea, especially about how collectible Stephen King had become. I guess I just assumed younger people would not be interested in small presses but I discovered that wasn’t the case!

 

There were a lot of positive responses from collectors; I was really surprised. It’s now a digital world and a lot easier for marketing, whereas we used to mail flyers and people would mail in checks and we sold books at conventions. At that point I thought it might be possible to start publishing again. Some people I knew in publishing tried to discourage me from starting again and said that the competition was too stiff now. But I had so many positive responses I decided to move forward.

 

Q: From everything I have been following about the re-opening of Phantasia Press, it seems that you are still involved in many high-level ways, but probably not engaged with the day-to-day as heavily as you were in the first iteration. In what ways are you still engaged with Phantasia Press? Tell us about how you found your new team and what their individual roles are in the organization.


Mickey7 Numbered Edition Cover

Shortly after I committed to getting Phantasia Press up and running, I realized that I needed some help. I ran into a couple people early on, one of them was local Steve Showfer. I saw that he was involved with many of the online groups, and he was one of my customers back in the early day. He even bought a copy of Firestarter at a convention from me.  I gave him a call and he was interested. He was very helpful in getting Phantasia Press going again. He then introduced me to Diana Petroff.  She was also interested in working with us. Diana has many managerial and marketing skills. Her expertise in those areas would allow me to get set up in the new digital world. She was also an avid collector and knew many individuals in the field.


Steve and Diana helped select our first title for the relaunch which was Mickey7. I gave it a read and thought it was a really fast-paced, fun story and decided to go forward with it. Although it would not be a “First Edition”, we were confident it would be an excellent choice for our first (actually 50th) book.

 

Diana’s involvement has only grown. She has created our website and has a ton of connections within the small press collector world. She is my number one associate. Without her, it would have been very difficult for me to get everything started back up.

 

I am still very actively involved, originally starting it back by myself, and am frequently posting on the Fans of Phantasia Press group on Facebook, often with memories and pictures with famous authors from our first run as a press. Meeting authors and working with them was an amazing dividend.

 

Q: So you now have got things back up and running with a new Robots of Dawn edition using the original text blocks and then the recent release of the 50th production of Phantasia Press. Obviously, Mickey7 is a very modern science fiction book that you paired with a classic artist from the early days of Phantasia, do you plan on continuing to issue limited editions of contemporary authors or do you think you might revisit some of the classics? How will you go about artist selection?

 

Mickey7 Interior Art by Barclay Shaw

For Mickey7, we decided to use an artist from the first stage of Phantasia Press. I called up Barclay Shaw, who did several of our earlier editions. I asked him if he was still painting, and he said that he really wasn’t very active anymore. He had developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and it was limiting his painting activities. He told me he was mainly doing some digital art.


He read the book and then started sending me some sketches. I was really excited with what he was coming up with. I was mildly disappointed that there was no original painting as that was an important part of what I used to do with Phantasia Press, but I loved how colorful his work was. It hit me that using him was actually kind of retro at this point and I didn’t want it to deviate too far from the Phantasia Press “look”.

 

Overall, I do want artists that will do something traditional, so although we will use different artists, I do want the painting to have that more classic feel.

 

Q: During your hiatus, there have been some small press players that have come in and somewhat filled the vacuum that you left throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Small presses like Subterranean Press, Centipede Press, Tachyon, and PS Publishing all helped fill this space, but none of them as specifically devoted to science fiction as Phantasia Press was. Does it excite you with this revamp that science fiction continues to attract new readers and that now you are releasing books as a contemporary of many presses that found inspiration in what you were doing in the 70s and 80s?

 

To be honest, I really wasn’t aware of a lot of what small presses were doing. Being in Michigan, I did know Bill Schafer (of Subterranean Press) and he was really helpful when I was starting things up looking for new printers, etc. Initially, I attempted to contact the printers I had used decades ago.  They had been in Ann Arbor and were either out of business or had been bought out.  As a result, we had to had really start fresh. Bill Schafer went out of his way to be helpful and gave me several book printers which were good and those to stay away from. Bill was the most helpful, which was pretty amazing, knowing that I would probably be a more direct competitor with him than other presses.


It was really exciting for me when I realized that a new generation was still into small press collecting. To be honest, I thought that all collectors from my day were either gone or no longer collecting. The most shocking thing for me was when I started researching pricing. You have to understand that I sold the signed/numbered Firestarter for $35 back in 1980.  But taking inflation into account, that would equal about $110 if it was sold today. When I started researching prices, I realized we would have to charge more than that for the press to be solvent. I had a lot of trouble just finding someone to produce slipcases at the quantity that we wanted and there were so many other aspects I had to rethink. I really didn’t want to take pre-orders too soon before the book was coming out either. I had heard there were some presses that took several years to deliver a book which had already paid for, and I did not wish to take pre-orders until we were very close to being done with a book. Even the idea of “rights” was foreign to me. Maybe it’s my old-fashioned way of thinking, but I thought the whole idea was strange. Also, no one really cared, in my time, about what number they got, so I had to re-evaluate a lot of what I had known.


 

Q: You released some incredible productions during the first iteration of Phantasia Press. What was one of the most memorable books that you worked on?

 

One of the most interesting productions, particularly seeing what the edition is selling for now, is the “Asbestos” Firestarter edition. Truthfully, the last one I saw sold went for $35,000 and wish I would have kept more! I have my own copy which is Copy A.  I do have a typed letter from Stephen King complimenting the “Asbestos” and that’s stored someplace really safe. The fact that Firestarter was his first limited edition (even though the story wasn’t one of his best) makes it really special and we know the King collectors are nuts, haha! Selling some extra numbered copies of Firestarter that I had saved, actually helped with the cost to start Phantasia Press back up.

 

Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Phantasia Press, what would you hope that it would be?

 

I just want my books to make collectors happy.

 

Q: We know you have acquired rights to Sundiver by David Brin, but what else should we be looking forward to next from Phantasia? Is there anything you can share about what you may be most excited about in 2024?


As you know, I don’t announce books until we are much closer to a release date, but we have announced Sundiver by David Brin and it is currently in line for publication at the printer. We have a couple books under contract, but art is taking longer than I expected.


I actually do have a contract to do an Asimov book and it’s going to be a small, signed project. Generally, in the past, we would send pages to the author to be signed and tipped in later when the book was being put together. One of the two Asimov books we did, I think it was Robots of Dawn, the printer sent him a hundred or so extra signature pages. Isaac Asimov hadn’t realized this until he had signed all the pages.  He sent me a postcard and was pretty angry because he was very protective of his time (he had to be with his two-finger typing method) and he felt like he had wasted time signing more than he needed to. I reached out to him, and he was actually fine, but we ended up with quite a few extra signed pages. I’m thinking of using those in the next book. We are doing something unique with this standalone novel that hasn’t had a signed limited edition before. It was previously released as a novella and then built on and changed into a full novel. Our publication will include BOTH of them and show the evolution of the story. I’m working with the publisher and Robin Asimov from the estate, who is very busy working on the show right now, but it is finally under contract now. We will likely have a signed and an unsigned version. I have someone special in mind as the artist, but I need to figure out if they are available for this project before I announce it.


Going forward I’m going to try and do some newer works with living authors, but then I will be competing with presses like Subterranean Press, Suntup Editions, and others who do the same sort of thing now. It’s difficult to find popular books that haven’t already had the limited treatment at this point, and I’ve historically never done a book that isn’t signed, so I am definitely still evaluating exactly what we will focus on moving forward.


Mickey7 Numbered Edition

Originally, Stephen King had said that he wanted to do another book with us, after we did Firestarter.  But his next book was horror so he went with another publisher for that, but still indicated he would want to do something in the future with Phantasia Press. I’ve gone back and forth with him in those early years, and we haven't been able to do another one since, but we will never give up.


At the end of the day, publishing isn’t my “career”.  I just want to share this experience with collectors and make books that they can enjoy. There is a sense of immortality in creating a product that will still be around after you are gone. I’m not a young guy anymore, believe it or not, and we will likely only do 2 or 3 books a year. This is about the gratification of making the books at this point. My motto is, “Those who can, write, but those who can’t, publish.” Since I never had the talent or time to write, I decided to make beautiful books with great authors. That’s what it’s all about for me and I hope collectors are excited about what we publish moving forward.


This interview was done over the phone and we want to thank Alex for his generosity to be a part of this series and his willingness to share his story. If you want to keep up with what is coming from the press in the future then you can check them out at https://phantasiapress.com/. You can also follow him in the Phantasia fan group on Facebook to stay up with all of the incredible things coming from this press and join the community.


Interview by: Zach Harney of the Collectible Book Vault






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