The Interview: R. Blake Stevens
By Chuck Madurski
Collector Grade Publications has been publishing high quality, high-value books on the world’s most important small arms for over 25 years. Beginning with their initial title North American FALs, published in 1979, they have provided advanced collectors, researchers, military historians and other arms enthusiasts with an ever-increasing catalog of in-depth historical studies. From the very beginning, R. Blake Stevens, the man behind Collector Grade Publications, has ensured that his books were printed using the best materials with sewn binding, full-color laminated dust jackets, and an attention to detail that has set the standard for the genre. Profusely illustrated with excellent and often rare photographs, Collector Grade books never fail to impress. However, it is the subject matter that truly sets Collector Grade Publications apart.
Today, Collector Grade books are the best-known sources of detailed, accurate information on various military small arms, and the good news is that a large percentage of them are about machine guns. From the esoteric WWII German FG42 Death From Above; now sadly out of print, to the politically controversial but now near-ubiquitous M16 (in two classic studies The Black Rifle and Black Rifle II), over half of the thirty-three Collector Grade titles currently in print are about machine guns or other automatic arms. When one considers the consistent quality of the books, the wealth of information and the subjects covered, it is obvious that the Class 3 community owes quite a debt to R. Blake Stevens and Collector Grade Publications.
With all of this in mind, and recognizing the important niche Blake has created for Collector Grade in the gun world, especially regarding machine guns, SAR paid a visit to his office in the charming country east of Toronto, Ontario to talk about gun books and the publishing business.
SAR: How did you get started writing and publishing gun books?
Blake: Like a lot of writers in the gun business, I started out as an avid gun collector. In fact, at one time I had my own small mail-order gun parts business called Collector Grade Parts & Accessories, which is where the name of the publishing company came from. My ads always included the phrase “Description Guaranteed,” and I’m proud to say that I never had anything come back.
The gun parts business wasn’t my “day job” though - I had a regular career going. But after a number of years of beavering away in the corporate environment, I found I had had enough. Unless you are working for yourself, there is always someone above you to make sure you know who is really in charge. I got to the point where I didn’t want to do that anymore. This was much tougher than I had thought, however. I had to learn a new way to think: instead of looking outside for my paycheck, I had to look inside and ask myself, “What do I know enough about so that people will pay me to do it?” No one teaches Entrepreneurship 101, at least not in the schools I went to. When I was younger I knew I wanted a job where I couldn’t wait for Monday morning to get back to work, and lo and behold, I found it. Due to my interest in the C1, the Canadian service rifle of those days, I already had a lot of research at hand, so I thought I’d write a book about the “North American FAL”!
SAR: That explains how you became an author, but what about creating the publishing company at virtually the same time?
Blake: I wrote that first manuscript by hand. Computers weren’t nearly as common or affordable then, and I found it easier to just write. It was a learning curve in a number of respects. So I’m going to write a book, well that’s great; lots to learn. Then I get it written and think “Oh thank God, the end!”, you know? It’s finally over. But no, that’s just the first step. Next thing was I had to get it published and printed, and that’s a big job. Not to mention distribution, otherwise you end up with a garage full of books forever. I tried to find a publisher who would take my project on and pay me a royalty, but I soon found that all the “general-interest” publishers viewed a large, in-depth gun book as obscure and off-the-wall, and nobody really wanted to touch it. The only other approach was for me to do it myself, which is quite an undertaking. Had I understood just how large it really was, I might have not attempted it. However, it was publish or perish at that point, and I didn’t want to waste all the work I had done, so I did it.
SAR: What did you do before the book writing and publishing business?
Blake: Well, I played trumpet in a dance band in high school, and considered music as a path. However, I got a job in a trust company in the financial sector in downtown Toronto and worked there for some years, advancing into systems analysis and computer programming. Then I went to General Motors for a short time, working as a programmer on early IBM mainframe computers. Then out of the blue I got a call from an IBM salesman who had made a sale to another trust company whose first concern was, “We don’t have anybody who knows how to program a computer.” He put them in touch with me as someone who could head it all up. So, not for the first time or the last, I took a leap. It brought me back to my home town of Toronto and it was a much better arrangement financially, but after a few more years, when the system was up and running well, that’s when I decided to go out on my own.
SAR: Why did you start with the North American FAL?
Blake: I guess it was mainly because the research material was comparatively close at hand, but it sure stood me in good stead when I had to fly to England and Belgium to dig up the information to do the second and third FAL books.
SAR: Did you plan from the start for your books to be the large format, high-quality reference tools they are?
Blake: Back when I started there were very few gun books which focused on a specific gun or system. The type of guns I was interested in were expensive even then, and I wanted to create the kind of books that would do them justice, in a quality format that would complement the guns in my own collection.
A large specialist book dealer told me that he has lots of gun show customers who want a book dealing with some gun or another they like to collect. The dealer will point out the several choices usually available, from a copy of an old military manual for a few dollars up through a series of books designed to sell at various price points, and then conclude by explaining that if they want the best, here is the Collector Grade book that will provide complete and authoritative coverage of the subject. Often the customer will buy one of the cheaper books, and come back a few gun shows later to tell the dealer he was right - they need the Collector Grade book.
Some of the better books out there have a lot of good information in them, but the text seems to jump around and can be hard to follow. I lay mine out chronologically, so the reader can see what happened, and why, throughout the entire history of the firearm. And right from the start with the original paperback edition of North American FALs, which by the way is a bit of a collectors item itself these days, all our books have had sewn-in pages. I wanted these books to be read and studied, and to last without falling apart.
SAR: Why don’t you include an index in your books?
Blake: Frankly, the reason why my books are not indexed is simply that I find myself genetically unequipped to produce such a thing. Every time I try (and I have), I get the same frustrated feeling: “Browning, John: page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...”. With my original premise in mind, that “Collector Grade” books are designed with the needs of an advanced collector in mind (myself, originally), I have consciously tailored the layout and content to be not something just to pick off the shelf for a quick check of a model number or caliber, ala Small Arms of the World, but as an enduring reference which will bear repeated readings, so that the greater the reader’s knowledge and familiarity with the text, the greater the dividends it will pay him. Added to this is my deliberate editorial arrangement of the material in a logical, chronological fashion, and the expanded Table of Contents, including up to five levels of subheadings, so that anyone even remotely familiar with the subject can reference any particular portion of the text quickly and easily.
SAR: Have you considered going offshore for printing, to cut costs and lower prices?
Blake: I could go offshore, and God knows they are doing excellent work these days in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and places like that. But if you send your money overseas it never comes back. When I spend my money in Canada or the USA, it stays here, you know? Every few books I get a comparative quote from some printer I haven’t dealt with before but in the end, well, the longer I stay with the company I’m with, the better the relationship we have. They have come to know my needs and will do some little extra “custom” things for me. I am very happy having my books printed by the Book Division of Friesen Printers in Altona, Manitoba. Friesen’s specialize in high-quality image reproduction and are generally recognized as the finest coffee-table book producers in Canada. The extra touch of quality they bring to everything they do is much appreciated, certainly by me. They are also among the very few printers in North America who are equipped to print and bind right in their own facility. That does away completely with the problems one can (and often does) encounter when dealing with separate printers and binders, who both try to point the blame for wrinkled pages or worse at one another, to the ultimate dissatisfaction of me and my customers.
Also, today’s hi-res scanners, ultra-fast computers and photo imaging programs have allowed me to greatly improve the appearance of my books without increasing outside costs. The manuscripts for some of my early books were typeset in galleys on equipment which had no memory, and consequently every alteration required a laborious paste-up of a few new lines of galley type. Now with word processing programs and layout software, setup doesn’t take nearly as much time and the end result is a much better product.
SAR: Why are some of your books done in the landscape format as opposed to the usual portrait format?
Blake: I was following the content of the book. I chose the landscape (horizontal) format for books on large, long guns like the Lewis, the Bren, and even the Thompson. In a “vertical” layout the biggest image I can place on a page is eight inches wide, as the paper itself measures only eight and a half inches wide. In the horizontal or landscape format, I can make the same image nine and a half inches wide, which is 20% bigger. I got the idea from a publisher who specialized in commemorative books about famous warships - destroyers and so on - where the landscape format showed off the long ships in the water to their best advantage. I thought that was a really good idea, so I used it for some of my books where the format made sense. However some customers complained that landscape books don’t fit on their shelf properly and, due to these complaints, I discontinued the use of this format. After all, this is a business, and the clients should certainly have a say in what they are willing to pay good money for.
Conversely, I have had nothing but praise and approval for our continued use of upgraded matte coated paper and library-quality hardcover binding. This “reader acceptance” factor applies especially to the sewn-in pages I mentioned earlier. I feel that this is really an essential element for a reference work to which repeated returns are invited. Nothing is more annoying than to pick up an interesting book and find yourself holding a folio of loose pages!
SAR: What books do you have coming up?
Blake: We recently published Volume I of The Browning Machine Gun series by ex-US Army armorer Dolf L. Goldsmith, wherein Dolf covers all the rifle-caliber Brownings in US service. Volume II, subtitled Rifle Caliber Brownings Abroad, will be our next title. Our latest published book is called Desperate Measures - The Last-Ditch Weapons of the Nazi Volkssturm, a really fascinating look into the last desperate days of WWII in Hitler’s Germany. There is also a big Luger book in the cards. I don’t want to give too much away, but as you know there are already a lot of Luger books out there. So why is Collector Grade doing a Luger book? Wait and see...
Some people have asked me if I will be doing more Mauser books, for example, assuming that our Swedish Mauser title was a natural “follow-on” to Backbone of the Wehrmacht. The answer is that there is no master plan. I’ll get a call out of the blue from someone who will say something like, “Hi, my name is so-and-so and I’ve been collecting such-and-such for the last xx years. I like the way you do your gun books, but I can’t find anybody interested in doing mine with that degree of quality. Would you be interested?” I’ve had to turn down a few projects, such as a book on the Gyrojet, which would doubtless be very interesting, but I have to remember what happened to our SPIW book. This was one of the most fascinating projects I ever did, but sales were very slow. They’re all gone now, but basically the only guys who bought that title were cartridge collectors. The flechette-firing guns themselves were all experimental, and there just aren’t any in private hands, you know?
SAR: I am surprised at how small the Collector Grade operation really is. Do you have any assistants?
Blake: My wife, Susan, is our financial person, and also my proofreader.
SAR: How did she become your proofreader?
Blake: Because she’s really good at it. She hasn’t got a clue what many of the technical terms mean, but she knows if the words are spelled correctly or not, and she also knows her grammar. She was educated in private schools in Scotland and Switzerland, and she’s very quick and sharp. I can read the text over and over and miss some of the typos she finds right away, but of course I’m reading it for sense, which is different. Don’t forget, we do books in British English (calibre; armour; defence) as well as American English.
SAR: Which is your favorite Collector Grade book?
Blake: The Black Rifle has probably been reprinted the most times, though US Rifle M14 and The Browning High Power Automatic Pistol are also very popular titles, which we’ve reprinted several times over the years. But I think perhaps the best example of our work is Hans-Dieter Handrich’s Sturmgewehr!, the complete story of the WWII German MP43/MP44, which we published in 2004. This was written by a prizewinning military historian working directly from German archival material, and I consider this to be the most important book we have ever done.
SAR: Do you find it difficult to edit or change the painstaking work of others? I mean with how strong personalities can be in this business.
Blake: It can be a problem at times, but since it’s my money on the line and our customers, who deserve the best for their money, it’s my job to keep things on the straight and narrow. Personalities can come into it. Rarely does the author’s manuscript come into my hands ready to go. I’ll just get a big box full of all sorts of great information, and start sorting through it. The first thing I do is to prepare a chronology. I go through a whole text putting everything in order based on the date on which each event occurred. This shows up a lot of discrepancies right away. For example I’ll see an important point which the author has placed in say, chapter three, followed by something that really belongs in chapter two.
SAR: How did the change from writer/publisher to editor/publisher happen?
Blake: I had completed most of the FAL Series when a very good friend of mine who’s unfortunately no longer with us, Tom Dugelby, said to me, “Gee Blake, you’re doing a great job here, how about doing a book for me on the EM-2?” That was the first book I did for anyone else, and it worked out rather well. He was really pleased with it.
SAR: You currently have 33 titles in print, several of which are now revised editions. How many others are now out of print?
Blake: The EM-2, The SPIW, Modern Military Bullpup Rifles and Death From Above, the book about the FG42. That’s about it, at least on automatic weapons.
SAR: Who was your greatest influence, or was there possibly a mentor of sorts?
Blake: That’s easy. Ed Ezell - the late Ph.D. military historian, Dr Edward C. Ezell. Ed was just a super guy. He was a real mentor to me. He was the most, not driven, but just on-the-go-all-the-time guy I think I’ve ever known. I got tired just watching him. We met at one or other of those great old Houston gun shows, when he was the historian at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. At the time I was doing the M14 book, and he became one of the major contributors to that project. Then he moved back East and was appointed Curator of Military History at the Smithsonian in Washington, and we collaborated on the SPIW and the M16 projects. Ed just said to me one day, “I’ve got all this material on the M16 and I don’t really have time, and you’ve already done the M14 book, so...”. And he gave me this mass of absolutely incredible archival documents and photographs on the M16 controversy.
So Ed was certainly the greatest influence and help that I had. Everybody has to have somebody, you know - this doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Thinking about this, I feel somewhat obligated too. If there is anything that I could do to help anybody coming along in this business, I’d be more than happy to do it. It’s a tough row to hoe alone.
SAR: How much longer do you plan to continue?
Blake: I’m 67 now and one of these days I’ll have had enough. But for now, certainly in these last few years, I have had more work in front of me than I’ve ever had before. The “specter” of completing one job and having nothing else to do is over, long gone. If I decide to stop it will be a decision, not a necessity.
SAR: After you retire, will Collector Grade carry on as a name? If so, do you think (or demand) that this future Collector Grade publisher maintain your high standards?
Blake: The most likely (so far) successor with whom I have talked feels, as I do, that it would make all the sense in the world to carry on with the Collector Grade name. This is still a year or two down the road, God willing and the creek don’t rise - but I think it’s just good economics to keep the same format and name. Content will be a different story. I will probably be available to act as a consultant for the first one or two projects, but after that, of course, I can make no guarantees. However, I’m sure the purchaser, whoever he might be, will recognize and appreciate that the niche we have created, or at least inhabited, is built solidly on quality presentation and reliable, in-depth content.
SAR: What was the most difficult project you ever tackled?
Blake: Every project is a challenge, both in the “learning curve” which is necessary right off the bat in order to be able to critique someone else’s manuscript intelligently, and the sheer amount of work involved in producing and editing that much text, scanning and enhancing all the images, and then putting it all together. But since I mentioned at the beginning of the interview that I wanted to make this article an inspiration for younger people who might consider such a writing and/or publishing career as their life’s work, I have to say frankly that for me, the greatest challenge lay in the early days, when I had to confront and overcome some serious doubts and hesitations from within myself.
I well remember contemplating the first copy of the little pamphlet I showed you, which I did for another publisher back in 1974, on the Canadian Inglis “Hi-Power” pistol. It was my first published book and an accomplishment, to be sure; but I immediately found myself playing my own devil’s advocate with the thought that it was as nothing compared to a comprehensive book on ALL the Browning High Power pistols. But that was such a daunting thought! How would I be able to travel to Belgium and convince the busy engineers and department heads at Fabrique Nationale to co-operate? The whole idea seemed so impossibly beyond my reach! But, a few years later, that’s just what I did, numerous times, and, if I do say so, the results were even better than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.
And don’t even get me started on the “window of opportunity” - suffice it to say that those early books, especially The Metric FAL, simply could not be done today, as all the people who so kindly did assist me have died or retired. Most of the early documentation has long since been thrown away, and no one is left who remembers the events of those days.
SAR: Thanks Blake!
Blake: You’re welcome.
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