Small press publishers: they come and they go. Most produce a title or two before disappearing, some publish multiple titles in an impressive flurry…before disappearing…and a handful, a mere fraction, are in it for the long haul. They weather the storms of the marketplace, learn from their mistakes, fill voids with books by creators covering subjects that large publishing houses tend to ignore, and continue to produce beautiful volumes year after year after year. They push the envelope and ultimately help to preserve the legacy of (in this instance) our field while expanding the audience and appreciation for it.
John Fleskes (pronounced “FLES-kiss) is one of that handful.
Cathy and I first met John at the San Diego Comic Con; we were at once impressed and took an immediate liking to him. The more we got to know him—the more we talked, the more we learned—the more impressed we became: not only was he producing books we really admired with artists we respected, but his entire approach to publishing was a refreshing breath of fresh air. Honest, ethical, and determined we recognized that John wasn’t chasing a buck with his projects, he was embracing a dream. I think Cathy and I quickly came to the conclusion simultaneously that John was the person who could not only carry Spectrum forward but also grow its potential to better serve the creative community—and he has surpassed all our expectations.
2017 marks the 15th anniversary of Flesk Publications: what better opportunity to ask a few questions and find out a little bit more of what makes John run?
By way of introduction, what were you up to before forming Flesk Publication? Did you have the typical sorts of “normal” jobs before the publishing bug bit?
I made my first dollar when I was 8 years old. I went door to door in the neighborhood and offered to wash cars, mow lawns, or do basic yard work. I made Christmas wreaths and sold them to the neighbors, I painted street numbers on curbs. I never thought of it as unusual to be 8 and 9 years old doing this. I’ve been working ever since. I can remember being 23 and talking with a buddy who just graduated from college and who was looking for his first job. At that time I was looking back at my working career of 14 years thinking how odd it was for someone to be in their twenties and not having had a job before!
For the most part, I’ve been on my own and fully independent since I was 14 years old. I’ve never quite thought about it until now, but yeah, I suppose my life hasn’t been anything that you would consider “normal” by any means. I was always painfully shy and introverted, but for whatever reasons I always had the ability to take care of myself and get along with people. It wasn’t me being an entrepreneur, it was me doing what I had to do to survive. I didn’t have a safe nurturing home life surrounded by people who supported and nurtured my growth, I spent more time out in the streets than anywhere else, which felt safer to me than being at home. Working was a necessity, and independence was freedom, it was never about making money. I couldn’t afford to fail. I had no one and nowhere to fall back on.
I started Flesk Publications at a time that I consider to be late in life. I was 29 when my first book, Franklin Booth: Painter With A Pen was released in April of 2002. Before publishing I would probably best define myself by my sports. I was very active in skateboarding, rock-climbing, surfing, skimboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking, and the traveling involved to do these things, but what a lot of people don’t know about are my years spent working for a close-knit company called Bungee Adventures. I started working there when I was 17, just a month before graduating high school, and spent 5 years traveling, doing stunts, and living a life that by all accounts was very different than most would experience, to say the least.
I’ve done hundreds of bungee jumps. One stunt that I did was during the halftime entertainment at a monster truck show at the Spartan Stadium in San Jose. Using a crane, I jumped out of a man basket at 100 feet and came straight down to the ground and grabbed a soda can out of my friends hand in front of a crowd of 30,000 people. Any miscalculation would have resulted in serious injury or death if I hit the ground too hard. [laughing] Luckily I only had one injury during those years. I jumped off of a remote 200-foot bridge with the cords strapped to my ankles and ended up hitting the water too hard when I hit head first. I came back up with two black eyes. I looked like a raccoon for the week! It was pretty funny. [more laughter]
I could tell stories for hours about these days. I’ll just quickly wrap this up by saying that I worked with a highly skilled team of great guys. The owners were all positive role-models, with brilliant minds. They instilled many core positive values that I still use to this day when working with others and when running my own business. They treated us like family. It was nice.
People don’t normally equate daredevils with art books: how does doing death-defying stunts segue into becoming a publisher?
Well, the risk of doing a stunt and that of running a business is very similar, really. So, people have the tendency to call us “extreme” or “daredevils” but in reality each stunt is very calculated and planned far in advance. It’s not like we would just hook up a random bungee cord to anything and just jump off. I worked for a pair of brilliant engineers who would include us in the planning stages and I really learned to appreciate the analytical process of working for those who set up highly complicated stunts where peoples lives were on the line. By the time the actual stunt would happen, sure, if you went off script you could die, but there really wasn’t anything to seriously worry about. Oh, man, jumping out of a hot air balloon at 500 feet and falling 300 feet, now that is a feeling of absolute freedom to fly like that!
But, my real point is that it is a calculated risk when doing a stunt. Days, or weeks, or months of planning can go into what we did. It’s exactly the same with Flesk. Everything that I do is a risk. Instead of risking my life, I’m risking all of my finances, my company, and my livelihood. A new book, if you invest a lot of time and money into it and it fails, it can play a huge negative impact if you miscalculate. A few wrong moves can wipe out your business, regardless of how well you’ve done previously. It’s much easier to go out of business than to stay in it, that’s for sure. It takes constant effort to stay afloat, and constant changing with the times. Running a business takes a certain amount of discipline, an awareness, and focus to keep running. If you get complacent, you’re done.
Didn’t you also work for Sun Microsystems for awhile?I sure did. For 10 years. When I was 24, I was working at a friend’s comic book shop and one of our customers and I got along pretty well. We were both big Adam Hughes fans, and shared similar tastes in the artists who we enjoyed. One day he called me up and invited me to come into his workplace and to work with his team. He simply thought I’d be a good fit there. Well, it turned out to be at Sun Microsystems and he managed the newly formed JDK sustaining team. To start, and over the years, I went from doing QA testing on the Java Development Kit and Java Runtime Environment patches, to joining the systems administration team that supported and managed what grew from a single computer lab, to over 20 labs where we handled and supported all of the operating systems, hardware, networking, and the lab environments for the Java engineers. When I started I had little experience with computers, but I dug in, proved myself and it turned out I had a knack for tech. No college, no experience, but just one person picked me out and believed in me and opened the door for me. I’ll never forget his generosity. Here was this street kid who was selling door to door at 8 years old to sitting in corporate meetings and working with the original team of Java engineers.
For 5 years I enjoyed it since it gave me the chance to help people. But, then everything changed when I published my first book. I realized that the corporate environment, it’s lack of empathy for its employees, it’s high stress environment, it’s utter uncaring attitude for its people, was increasingly weighing on me. Most of those who I worked with were brilliant, good people—great managers. But the corporate environment was something, for my temperament, that just was not working for me. It was cold and unfeeling. At that 5 year mark I stopped letting that machine take from me, and started to take from it. I had a plan to learn whatever I could from these absolutely smart high-quality managers and engineers, then save and invest all of the money I was making, and applying it all to myself and building Flesk in the evenings and on the weekends. I worked tirelessly for 5 years with this goal of freedom and running my own business to keep me motivated. The last year there was brutal. It was 2008 and dozens of people all around me were being laid off. People were losing their houses. They couldn’t find work. Everyone felt like a walking target. The moral was pretty low. Our team went from 15 to 5 people. I was done by this point. I wanted no more part of it. I wanted to go and made it clear to management. On January 25, 2009 I was laid off with 6 months of pay. The very next day was my first day of working for myself full time. One of the best days of my life. But I also realized how lucky I was, since so many were struggling at that time.
So when you decided to make the leap to become a publisher had you taken classes or had any editorial or design training?
No, none. I’ll add writing to that. None whatsoever. I’m the type of person that if I am interested in doing something I figure it out. I’ve never had the patience for school, or for “how-to” books, I just get interested and dive head first into a subject until I’ve learned what I want to know. When I decided that I wanted to make the Franklin Booth book, I picked up InDesign and Photoshop, learned how to use them, and made the book. This was roughly a 3-4 month process that I tackled in the evenings and weekends while I had a full-time job. You know, I’ve never looked at that book since it was published? I’ll probably only see problems or mistakes if I did. I’m always looking forward to the next thing.
The late creator of Locus Magazine, Charles Brown, used to tall a joke: Q Do you want to know how to make a small fortune in publishing? A You start out with a large one. It’s a difficult business, with a lot more noble failures than successes, particularly for small presses. Did you begin publishing more as a hobby or did you have a long-term plan?
I’d say it was less of a hobby and more of a desire. I felt a strong urge to make a book on Franklin Booth. No one else was doing it, so I decided to make my own. After that was done, I made the two-volume set on Joseph Clement Coll, and it just continued from there. The idea that book publishing could become a full-time business didn’t develop until a few years in. Once I began to spend more time with living artists, and my confidence grew, I thought it may be something that could be turned into a full-time gig. It was also at a time when I wanted to settle into my own dreams, passions, and interests, and make a modest living at it. I was tired of working for others, I needed to make or break my future based on my own decisions. If I failed, I could live with that. But, I had to try.
I have never sought to be rich, just successful in having my freedom and truly and absolutely enjoying what I was doing. All along, it has been about the relationships with those who I work with and those around me. And my wanting to create an environment where artists could work and grow. That’s the main reason why I eventually lost interest in doing books on artists from the early days of illustration. I feel better knowing that I can participate in their lives while they are here, or when it can help their families.
And were your first books successful?
They were extremely successful, not necessarily financially, but in so many better ways. Because of these books I went from being a fan, to crossing over into the professional world. I got to meet Frank Cho, Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz, and Steve Rude at first, and these books showed them that I was not only passionate, but serious about what I wanted to accomplish. I sat down, put in the time, and did the work between 2001 and 2004 to make the Franklin Booth and Joseph Clement Coll books from scratch, and showed up at shows and met people to show them who I am. It was all honest, I never had any agendas, there was no forced attempts at being relevant, I just wanted to show the work of these artists to those who might appreciate them. In truth, I had to really put myself out there to show people the books since I don’t like the spotlight on myself—not then and not now, but instead I prefer it on the artists and their works. So, to get back to the question, the first books were extremely successful in that they opened the doors to the community and when I began to ask living artists if we could work together I had the previous books to show them what I could do.
Above:John has used Kickstarter to successfully launch various books through the years.
He currently has a campaign going on for an oversized Artist Edition of Gary Gianni’s
You seem to have a “core” group of people you work with again and again: is that deliberate or a case of evolution?
It just feels natural to me. You work with people, get along, and keep working with them. Many of us know each other’s families, we’ve spent considerable non-working time together and developed friendships. I learn from them, they are positive role models to me, and it’s nice to have long-term working relationships with this core group. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have had the support from these artists when I was starting. Gary Gianni gave me so much support in 2001 when I was just getting going on the Franklin Booth book. Even Frank Cho was gracious with his time, then Jim Keegan who was involved with Wandering Star at the time, and Mark Schultz has also been a tremendous influence and joy to work with. Steve Rude believed in me and saw what I was capable of long before I did. From day one I wanted to run Flesk based on relationships first, then would let everything else fall into place.
I’m lucky, I have no college degree and barely got out of High School, but my time on my own from a young age totally prepared me to run a business this way. I can guarantee that no business school would teach my method. I wanted to prove that I could start and run a business for the long term my way, in a completely unique way. Still, to this day, I’ve never seen anyone else do things like I do. It all comes natural to me. It’s a part of me. But, it’s still a lot of hard work. I don’t want to make any part of building a business as sounding like any of it was easy, because it’s not. But, tap into your gifts and what you are good at, see the opportunities, then combine them with what you are passionate with, and there is no way that you can fail. Relationships, bringing people together, the art world, and books, plus I genuinely doing for others—those are things I love and can focus on and make work. And it’s an example of how you can take whatever life throws at you and recognizing it as an opportunity.
What would you consider your “hardest lesson” as a publisher so far?
Hmmm, well, the first thing that comes to mind is that despite your best intentions that there will be people who will perceive you as being something that you are not and attack you. It’s completely out of your control. In these rare cases, it’s an opportunity to show people who you are and I think is a blessing in disguise. It affords you an opportunity to stay positive, and continue to move forward in your beliefs. Sure, I’ll see it, I’ll feel it, but what it really does is give me fuel to persist.
What would you consider the most positive aspects of being a publisher? And along the same lines, what are the books you’ve produced that you’re proudest of?
The most positive aspect is to be in a position where it can do some people some good. Whether it is in the art community, or here in my local area with our youth, I enjoy that this position that I am in now can be used to put a spotlight on certain issues that are important to me. Hopefully, what we do today will impact the future generations in a positive way long after we are gone.
It goes without saying that I’m proud of all of the books that I’ve published. When I look at each title I am reminded of the time that I spent with the artists while making it. Again, it boils down to the relationships. These are good people, who do extraordinary things, and I get to share what they do with their fans. Not just for today, but hopefully way down the line for future generations to see. And even more exciting is that now as I am getting older I can work with a whole new young generation who are just becoming known for this youthful new fan base. The future is something that I am super passionate about. These young artists are incredible! 2017 is officially marking a big shift in my attention that will become clearly evident in the coming years. Such great new art out there!
Each and every book that I’ve published I was involved with. This isn’t a big company with dozens of employees. It’s just me and Kathy–who I call my VP–here in the office together. So, each project is personal and feels close to me. I treasure them all.
You’ve said that you don’t like people pitching projects to you at conventions: could you elaborate?
Oh boy, OK, I don’t want to discourage anyone when I say this, but to be direct, I don’t look at or accept any book submissions at shows, or in the mail. I have such a clear vision of where I am going and what I want to do, and it’s just me and Kathy. I only have time to make a handful of books each year. This includes Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art which I am unbelievably grateful to for being its current caretaker. So, in actuality, that leaves me with 3-5 other books that I can do each year. I’m not looking for work, or starving for projects—fortunately! I know how lucky I am. I don’t take this for granted. Every day I am grateful for being in this position. But, that does not allow any room for book pitches or to take on any unsolicited projects. I only have so much time in this world, and I want to focus on what I want to as long as I can. In many cases, I’m usually booked solid for 3 years, and I have people in my mind who I want to approach when I am able. Believe me, I have 20 artists in my head who I am dying to approach and work with one day—if only I had the time. The funny thing is, they have no idea!
Above:Covers by (clockwise from top left) Rebecca Guay,
Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme, and Android Jones.
Were you surprised when you were asked to become director of Spectrum?
Not surprised, I was utterly shocked! When Cathy and you broached the topic I wasn’t expecting it. Beforehand, I could tell that you had something big to share with me. I had guessed that Tim Underwood, who was the publisher at the time, might be retiring and that you would ask me to take on Spectrum as the publisher. But to take on Spectrum as the director, writer, designer, publisher—everything! Totally unexpected. I took a year to give my answer, by the way. This was a big decision. One that I would not take lightly. It’s a 20-year commitment, and it would take up a lot of my time during each year. But more than anything else, I understood that I would be the caretaker of the Spectrum community. I eventually said yes, understanding just how daunting this position would be, and how much work would be involved. And then it turned out to be three times the amount of work. It’s truly half a year of time devoted to each annual.
Above: Spectrum 24 will be in stores in late October. Iain McCaig is the cover artist.
The Call For Entries for Spectrum 25 will go out in a few weeks: can you share some of your perspective after having led the competition, judging, and annual for the past 4-going-on-5 years?
The greatest part of Spectrum, without a doubt, has been its community. It’s the people that make it worthwhile year after year. We’re all in it together, it’s here because of the generosity, the support and the downright goodwill of everyone involved. It’s so much bigger than me, it’s not about me whatsoever, but like I’ve mentioned before, it lets me play a role in doing for others. If I do things right, my name never comes to the front or is in the spotlight. I want it to be about the artists. That’s the part at the end of the day that satisfies me the most. That’s my drive. I prefer to work in the background as much as possible, only coming out when absolutely necessary and only when it is to serve others. This community, these artists, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of. That you and Cathy would tap me on the shoulder, that they would see something in me, I’m forever grateful. You’ve treated me like family. I’m truly blessed to know you both and be a part of Spectrum. You know, I’m still a bit shocked by where I am today? I never would have expected any of this.
You’ve also packaged books for museums and artists: how did that come about and are there any differences between those titles and your own?
Let me start by saying that if I were to hire 5 employees and expand the business, and take on a few dozen books each year, I know I could do it and make it work. But at the moment I don’t want to. At some point expansion may happen, but for now as long as I am raising my son I’m very happy with how things are going. I feel it is important to have time for him. I can always grow the business at a later date when he is older, and if I feel so inclined.
I bring this up since if I had a bigger team and more time I would take on more projects for a few select museums. The few that I’ve done were because I had a great working relationship with the museum directors, and was passionate about the artists, and because the working process was smooth and easy. It’s never been about the money—ever. I’ve never done a book just for the money. I would work with Michael Zakian at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at the Pepperdine University again in a heartbeat. A true class act. Lynn Verschoor at the South Dakota Art Museum is also such a pleasure to work with. But, at the moment I’m not taking on any outside work, but that may change at some point in the future. But I’m very proud of the few titles such as on Harvey Dunn and Wayne Thiebaud books that I’ve been involved with. The first Harvey Dunn book I had the opportunity to work with a major influence and inspiration of mine, Walt Reed.
How do you balance work and your personal life?
Well, I’m in a situation that is extremely fortunate. I do not have a 9 to 5 job, so I can work at anytime during the day. So, when I want to hike or surf or exercise, I can. When I want to spend time with my son, I can. My work is not work to me, I truly love it, so much of each day is doing what I want to do. From the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep I’m doing something that satisfies me. I never get bored and stay very active. I think I might be the wrong person to ask this question to, since work and pleasure is all organically infused that the balance is naturally there. There are moments of stress and imbalance, don’t get me wrong, but I’d guess far fewer than for most people. I surround myself with good positive people who keep me balanced, too. You know, it takes work to keep the nonsense out of your life, and I make sure it stays away from me. I don’t put up with it. [laughter] Kathy calls it my “thug” face when I am visibly annoyed with someone who tries to bring drama into my life. She does a pretty good imitation, which is hilarious. [more laughter] She’s the best.
Above:Coming in the Fall are a trio of books by gallery artist J.A.W. Cooper,
the result of another successful Kickstarter campaign.
Are there some books you’re particularly looking forward to doing?
Oh yeah, for sure, there is an artist who I recently contacted about possibly working with. We’ll be meeting up soon, and I can’t wait to work with her. At least, I’m hoping we get to work together! I’ve been watching her growth for the last 3 years, and told myself that I have got to reach out to her, which I did. Amazing, amazing artist! I look forward to all of the future books that I’ll be working on. Mark Schultz and the new Xenozoic story! Heck yeah! Man, I can’t wait for that one! More books from Gary Gianni, Arthur Adams, Frank Cho. You know, Frank gets a bad rap online by people who have never met him. He is an absolute professional and delight to work with. He is one of the most considerate people I know.
Since 2017 marks Flesk Publications’ 15th anniversary, what would you as a veteran publisher advise the you as novice?
Just do your thing. You’ll be fine.
If any Muddy Colors readers have questions of their own, post them and I’ll see about twisting John’s arm to get answers.
Arnie Fenner has worn a number of hats in his career, sometimes several at once. He was a Senior Artist for Hallmark Cards for 19 years, and for the last 14 has been the Senior Art Director for Andrews McMeel Publishing (part of Universal Press Syndicate).
While working in the corporate world, he has also (as time permitted) been a junior partner in the Jankus/Tiber advertising agency, served as art director for Mark Ziesing Books, been a small press publisher (of both books and magazines), and worked as a freelance illustrator and designer.
Fenner has produced many CD and book covers over the years for titles by everyone from Stephen King to Harlan Ellison to Bob Dylan to R.E.M.; he's received medals from the Society of Illustrators, certificates from Communication Arts, and two World Fantasy Awards. He collaborates with his wife, Cathy Fenner, on a wide variety of art books (including retrospectives devoted to Frank Frazetta, Dave Stevens, and Robert McGinnis among others) and the annual SPECTRUM: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art.