Interview conducted by: Glenn Rolfe
Samhain Publishing editor and lead dog on the company’s horror line, Don D’Auria, has been in the business since the eighties. Driven by love of horror and the passion to bring this fictional evil to a world in dire need of great distractions, Don has brought the literary world of terror (not manned by a King or Koontz) back from the dead (in the mid-nineties with authors like Ramsey Campbell, Richard Laymon, and Jack Ketchum), only to watch his work sink in the great Dorchester Publishing debacle of 2010. He remerged in 2011 with Samhain and a boat load of amazing authors to once again conquer the horror world.
In 2011 Smahain author Frazer Lee’s debut novel, The Lamplighters, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. John Everson followed in 2012 with a nomination for Superior Achievement in a Novel with his 2012 Samhain novel, NightWhere.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Mr. D’Auria, the man responsible for my path and passion into the horror genre, and hope the following conversation inspires all of you young authors out there to read, write, and persevere on your way to accomplishing all of your ghoulish goals.
HORROR NOVEL REVIEWS:
How long were you at Dorchester? And what were a few of the pressures and challenges of heading your position as chief editor and acquisitionist?
Just about fifteen years. November 1995 to August 2010.
When I started at Dorchester, people were convinced that horror as a genre was dead. This was in the years following the collapse of the huge horror boom in the eighties. Bookstores were reluctant to buy the books. Agents were not representing horror because they didn’t think any publisher wanted to buy it. But I felt sure that if we started publishing quality horror, and did it smartly, there were still plenty of authors and readers out there.
Many agents and authors were extremely wary of Dorchester. In the eighties and early nineties, Dorchester/Leisure had developed a very bad reputation for doing cheap, mediocre fiction, for not being concerned about quality. But about a year before I was hired, the company was sold to new owners. Only two employees remained from the “bad old days,” and all of the management was new. We all had to work very hard to convince agents and authors that we were now a publisher who wanted to actually publish good books. It was an uphill battle at first. But we changed the cover designs to reflect a more serious, less silly, attitude, and we acquired quality authors and books. Gradually people began to see we had “real” authors on our list and the reputation changed.
HNR: After breaking authors like Brian Keene, Wrath James White, and Nate Kenyon, Dorchester Publishing to a knock-out shot from the E-Book explosion of the late 2000’s, eventually collapsing under the monetary hit left in the wake of the mass market paperback’s going the way of the buffalo. After you were let go in August of 2010, did you feel like you needed a break or were you ready to dive right back in?
DON: Actually, the last few months at Dorchester were extremely stressful. We were all trying very hard to stretch whatever money we had and to pay whatever royalties we could. Add to that the stress of watching friends and co-workers laid off on a fairly regular basis. What had been my dream job for almost fifteen years was suddenly no longer fun. We were all wrecks. I spent more time dealing with payment and money issues than I did editing books. Which is a very long-winded way of saying that I was very relieved when the ax finally fell. I was ready to go.
This also meant that I was ready to get back into a job that I enjoyed again, to have fun doing the work I liked for so long.
I did take a short break, just to unwind a bit from all the stress. By September I was in talks with Samhain to start a horror line for them.
HNR: When you stepped into the Samhain world, did your Dorchester experience scare you? Did you fear it could happen again? Or were you confident from the get-go?
DON: Aside from the anxiety of having to work for a new company for the first time in fifteen years, I can’t really say I was scared. I knew Dorchester’s problems all stemmed from the mass market crash. Samhain, on the other hand, had started as a trade and e-book publisher about five years before I came on board. They were extremely well-positioned when the e-book market took off, and they were doing very well indeed financially. So I had no fears that they would undergo the same financial collapse as Dorchester.
As for launching a new horror line, I knew it would be a daunting task, but I also knew I’d done it before. And this time I had some things in my favor that I hadn’t had at Dorchester;
I’d done it before, so I knew how to do it, what would be involved. I’d learned some strategies about launching a line over the years. This time, authors and agents weren’t as frightened of horror as they’d been fifteen years earlier. Plus, I had a reputation in the horror genre, which I hadn’t had when I started at Dorchester. Agents and authors knew my name, and they knew I’d been lucky enough to work with some of the best horror writers out there. And they’d seen that I could successfully run a horror line.
What did worry me was a fear that I would no longer have the autonomy I’d enjoyed at Dorchester. For fifteen years I’d been able to buy the books I wanted with no one looking over my shoulder. I didn’t have to run acquisitions past anyone else. There was no editorial board that needed to approve what I did. So when I started my negotiations with Samhain I was very clear that I wanted to be given that same autonomy and level of trust. Happily, the owner felt that my experience at Dorchester proved that I’d earned that trust, so everything has been terrific.
HNR: Let’s switch gears, and talk a little bit about what you actually do in your position, specifically, breaking in new talent. As an editor, what do you consider your role in a new author’s world?
DON: I’d say I have many roles. First, and probably the role most authors focus on, is my role of gatekeeper, in a way. I choose which books Samhain will publish in the horror line. In short, I have to pick the best books I can. Then, of course, I have to polish that book up and make it as good as it can be, put it in the best possible light for readers. So I’ll ask the author for revision if I think it’s needed, and I’ll do a line edit to clean up the writing.
Also, and this is especially true for new writers, I’ll be helping them through the entire publishing process. There’s a heck of a lot that goes into publishing a book, not just editing. I’ll walk them through the cover art process and explain how the book will be marketed and sold. I’m the author’s primary point man for any questions he or she may have, regarding virtually anything.
And the author might not be aware of it, but behind the scenes I’m also looking at the big picture. I’m scheduling the book in the best possible month, I’m avoiding other books that are too similar, I’m acquiring the best and most varied authors I can. I’m promoting the line as a whole. In a way, I’m like the manager of a baseball team. I try to get the best players I can for my team, but then I have to make sure each player is playing at his peak and able to contribute to the performance of the team as a whole
HNR: Are you guys willing to take more of a chance with a new writer with the e-book avenue being a cheaper option?
DON: We face less of a financial risk with new authors, thanks to lower production costs of e-books. This means it’s much easier for small presses to start up and sign up new authors. But you have to remember, even though each individual book might be less of a financial risk, the goal of any publisher is to make the most money they can from the books they publish. And each publisher can only publish so many books in any given year. So publishers aren’t asking (or shouldn’t be asking), “How much could this book cost us if it fails?” but rather, “How much can we hope to make from this book if it succeeds?” If you can only publish X-number of books per year, you want to choose the books that have the highest potential for making money. It sounds crass, but publishing is a business, after all.
Now, having said all that, I want to make clear that different publishers (and editors) react differently to that potential loss. Some publishers play it extremely safe and refuse to take any chances. When I was at Bantam, their announced policy was, “Only bestsellers and potential bestsellers.” They were not interested in growing new authors. When I was at Farrar Straus & Giroux, on the other hand, they really weren’t interested in making much of a profit. They were perfectly happy publishing obscure Eastern European poets as long as they felt they were good. As for me, I fall squarely in the middle. Obviously I want the Samhain horror line to make money. I want wide distribution and high sales, which will only serve to help the line as a whole and all the authors in it.
But I believe very strongly indeed that we need to introduce readers to new talent, to inject fresh blood into the genre. I felt the same way at Dorchester and was able to introduce folks like Brian Keene into mass market. This is something I’m committed to doing and continue to do at Samhain. I love growing new authors. It’s honestly one of the best parts of the job. So every year I make a point of acquiring a number of first-time authors who I think are excellent. I’m willing and downright eager to make room on the list for newcomers, in addition to the more established authors, of course. Back to my baseball manager analogy, if I don’t sign up promising rookies, I run the greater risk in the long run of missing out on incredible talent that can be part of the team for a long time to come. Maybe I’m just more patient, and willing to let new authors grow.
HNR: What would you say are the challenges now (Samhain) as opposed to then (Dorchester) with breaking a new author?
DON: Interesting question. In the old days (pre-e-book) the biggest challenge with a new author was convincing the buyers at the various accounts to order the books for their stores. With mass market you were always competing for shelf space. Why should the buyer take a chance on this new author when he can put more Stephen King books on his shelves instead? So you have to try to show that this new author has potential and if the buyer would only give you shelf space and exposure, readers would certainly want to buy the book.
Now the big concern is getting the book noticed on the internet. Browsing for books at Amazon, for example, is like walking into a bookstore the size of Colorado. The chances of someone idly browsing and happening to come upon your book is virtually nil. You need to find a way to catch that reader’s eye, to make them want to find your book. So marketing is paramount. Thankfully, Samhain understands that and they spend quite a lot of money on advertising and promotions to generate visibility.
HNR: Lastly, What are your thoughts about self-publishing? Just whatever comes to mind.
DON: Well, that’s a huge topic, but here are my thoughts on just one part of it.
Book publishing is one of the very few media that, thanks to technology, is now open to almost anyone with the desire, time and money to do it. Virtually anyone can self-publish his or her own book and sell it, or try to. That sounds great to everyone who feels they have a book in them, or has a story they’d like to write. And of course, everyone who thinks writing a book is an easy way to make big money.
But I worry about some aspects of it. The biggest concern for me is that there is no vetting process involved in self-publishing. There’s no one to tell you that, honestly, this book of yours isn’t very well written, that perhaps you’re the only one who will want to read it. There’s also no one to point out that major plot hole, those inconsistencies, that purple prose. Of course, writers who self-publish can pay to hire a professional editor, as well as a professional cover designer and marketer. But the editor who’s been hired isn’t likely to say, “Save your money, this book won’t really appeal to readers.” So there are a lot of poorly written books out there now, books that haven’t really been edited and that maybe really shouldn’t have been published. Which is not to say by any means that every self-published book is bad. My issue is the floodgates have opened, and readers can no longer assume that someone somewhere saw something good in this book, aside from the author.
With the increased percentage of poorly written books in the marketplace, and with it being very hard for readers to differentiate between a commercially published book and a self-published one, there’s a greater chance of readers buying books that aren’t so great. This worries me too. If we limit the discussion to the horror genre, a horror fan may not be aware when he or she tries a new author that the book was self-published and may be one of those that had been rejected by every publishing house, possibly with good reason. So maybe the book isn’t that great. How many self-published, not-great books will that horror reader try before he or she thinks, “Maybe I don’t like this horror stuff after all”?
Now, I’m the last one to suggest that every book published by every publisher is terrific, and every self-published book isn’t. My point is that with a professional publisher there’s at least one more objective person involved to try to filter out the poor books, to increase the odds of a book being good.