Interview: Don D’Auria on the fall of Leisure and a new beginning at Samhain

August 2010 proved to be a particularly tumultous month for publishing, at least as far as the horror genre was concerned. Early that month Dorchester Publishing, home of the Leisure Books imprint responsible for much of the paperback horror found on store shelves, announced its decision to cut the mass market paperback format entirely, switching in its place to a combination of trade paperback editions and digital releases. The, move, combined with the failure of the publisher to pay its authors in a timely manner, sent many of the genre’s bigger names scrambling for a new home.
A few short weeks after the announcement came another huge piece of fallout – the announcement that Don D’Auria, editor and architect of the Leisure horror line, had been let go. The man responsible for discovering and nurturing much of horror’s top literary talent was suddenly out of the business – but no one expected that to remain status quo for long.
It wasn’t. Just last month, Samhain Publishing announced they are bringing D’Auria onboard to create a new horror line, one which the editor promises will see a mix of authors from Leisure’s heyday alongside some talented new blood. D’Auria was kind enough to take time away from his first few whirlwind weeks at Samhain to speak with October Country, offering an insider’s perspective of the fall of Leisure, the challenges of today’s publishing industry, and what he’s got in store for horror fans.
OC: Take us through, as much as you can, what happened at Leisure/Dorchester. Was the line’s collapse a sudden event, or was it something that had been developing for a while?
DD: It’s something that had been developing for a while.  For about a year and a half sales had been steadily declining, mostly due to the collapse of the mass market and the shrinking of a lot of accounts.  Borders and B&N were closing stores and cutting back on their orders, and one of the major wholesalers went out of business all together.  In general customers were buying fewer mass market paperbacks. 
Several authors reported that payments were late in coming from the publisher (when they came at all) – how long had that been an issue? Why were payments delayed in getting to the authors?
Simply put, Dorchester had less money coming in because their sales and orders kept declining.  With less money coming in there just wasn’t enough to go out.  They’d wait to see how much money came in that month and that would tell them how much they could send out to authors.  Believe me, Dorchester would have loved to pay all their authors right away, but the money simply wasn’t there.  When money came in it went out to authors.
Shortly before you left, the announcement was made that Leisure would be dropping the mass market paperback format and switching entirely to trade paperbacks and digital editions. Was this a decision you supported? If the move had been made earlier, might it have prevented what happened?
It was a decision I supported because we could all see that mass market was on its way out and the numbers just couldn’t sustain the company anymore if they stayed in mass market.  I think if the transition had happened sooner it would have gone more smoothly without the gap where no books were being published.  But I think with the changes going on in the industry the transformation from mass market to trade and ebook would have been difficult no matter when it was done. 

On the other hand, the changes in the industry helped Samhain’s sales because they never published mass market paperbacks.  They did trade paper and ebooks from the start.  So when sales shifted from mass market to ebooks especially, Samhain’s sales took off.

What do you think could have been done to prevent the problems at Leisure?
The only thing that could have prevented the problems totally would have been if the mass market hadn’t collapsed.  Leisure was doing quite well until ebooks started eating away at mass market sales.  It wasn’t that Leisure was doing anything wrong, it was just that the industry itself completely changed.
In your opinion, can the mass market paperback format survive the current marketplace, or is it destined to go the way of vinyl records – a preferred format primarily sustained for hardcore collectors and enthusiasts?
Well, by definition mass market can only exist when published in large numbers.  That’s what makes it “mass” market.  And that’s why the mass market industry is going away; the large numbers aren’t there anymore and mass market can’t be profitable in small numbers.  Trade paperbacks, hardcovers and ebooks can, so they will survive.  I think, if anything, trade and hardcovers will continue to exist even after ebooks have taken control of everything.  Trade and hardcovers may become the vinyl of books, aimed at a niche market, but mass market can’t do that.

Clearly you see a future in the horror genre, as evidenced by your new role at Samhain. It’s a genre that has been able to thrive before thanks in part to the price and convenience of the mass market paperback format it’s so often found in. Can the price and convenience of digital publishing sustain the genre in the same way?

Definitely.  In publishing in general and in genre fiction in particular, we’re seeing print book sales declining and ebook sales taking off.  Some sources say that ebooks account for roughly 10% of all book sales in general.  But in genre fiction it’s 50% or more and growing.  People who used to buy mass market paperbacks are now buying ebooks instead.  I don’t think horror as a genre is in any danger, just mass market horror, and it’s being replaced by ebook horror.  That’s why I’m excited about the new line at Samhain.  Samhain has been a leader in ebook genre fiction for years now.  They were ahead of the curve and in a great position to launch a horror line in ebook as well as trade paper.  Many other publishers are switching to ebook and trying to play catch-up, but Samhain is expanding from a position of strength.

Price and convenience aside, what else is needed to help the horror genre thrive?

In any genre, either in print or ebook, you need talented authors and excited readers, and I believe that it’s the talented authors who create the excited readers.  That’s why I see my job as finding the most talented writers I can.  I believe if you provide excellent books, the readers will respond.  In any genre if you publish bad books readers will turn away.  So my goal is to make Samhain’s horror a line that readers can trust for good horror of many different kinds.  I think I did that at Leisure and I plan to do it again.  Will it be perfect?  Will every book I edit appeal to every reader?  Not a chance.  But I’ll be aiming for as high a batting average as I can get. That’s the best any editor can do. 
How exactly did you end up at Samhain?
It was perfect timing, really.  Clearly I saw mass market fading and ebooks and trade paper growing, especially ebooks.  So I wanted to work at a house that had experience and a proven track record in those formats and in genre fiction.  And obviously I wanted to stay in horror.  Just as I left Dorchester, Cris Brashear, the publisher of Samhain, was looking to expand.  They were doing very well and wanted to grow into another genre, and she thought horror would be perfect.  And because of my experience launching and running the horror line at Dorchester, Cris thought I’d be the best person to do it again at Samhain.

Will you be working with books or authors that were previously with Leisure?

Yes indeed.  A couple are already lined up, but I don’t want to release any names yet.  Since I want to find the best authors I can it isn’t surprising that I would look again at many of the authors I worked with at Dorchester.  I thought they were great then and I still do.  Some of the authors are still contractually tied to Dorchester and can’t leave, but readers will see some familiar names on the Samhain list, as well as a terrific bunch of new folks too.  Just as I did at Dorchester, I plan to introduce readers to some very talented newcomers too.  So if someone has a book they’d like to submit, they should check out the guidelines at the Samhain website.

What formats will the Samhain horror line utilize?

Samhain’s horror novels will be released in both ebook and trade paper.  I’m also looking for great novellas, as short as 13,000 words, but anything under 60,000 words would only be released as ebooks.  It’s nice to have that greater flexibility to consider novellas at Samhain, without the restrictions that mass market paper placed on us at Leisure.

At Leisure, you mixed up the types of horror, including quieter ghost stories with more extreme and violent works. Will you be taking the same approach at Samhain?

 I certainly will.  My tastes haven’t changed and I still believe that the horror genre contains a lot of subgenres, from ghosts to psycho killers to vampires to…whatever.  Some books will be subtle and creepy, some will be more extreme and gory.  I don’t like just one small section of horror and I think a lot of readers are like me.  Folks like different kinds of books depending on what mood they’re in, so it would be a bad idea to just limit the line to one specific type of horror. 

When will the first books in the horror line come out? Can you announce the titles yet?

We’ll be launching the new line in October of this year, in time for Halloween.  That’s when the first titles will go on sale.  But in the meantime I’m lining up the best books and making all the plans behind the scenes to get everything ready.  Samhain is doing this right and putting a lot of thought and planning into it.

Are you already taking submissions?

You’d better believe it.  Submissions started coming in literally the week before my starting at Samhain was offically announced.  The really encouraging thing is that I’ve already seen some great stuff.  And I’m definitely looking for more.  I have a whole line I have to build from scratch.  At Dorchester, once the line was established it was very hard for me to squeeze a new author into the list, but at Samhain I’m in the process of starting the line from the ground up.  And I don’t want the Samhain line to just be the same faces from Dorchester, as great as they are.  I want to mix in a lot of exciting new talent too.  So I encourage folks to check out those guidelines and let me see what they’ve written.

Because there are so few mass market outlets for horror right now, I’m guessing you will continue to be inundated with submissions. What advice can you give to authors who are going to try and catch your eye with their work?

 The best thing anyone can do is write well.  That’s the bottom line.  Samhain’s motto is “It’s all about the story,” and I agree 100%.  Every submission that comes in gets read, no matter how flashy or un-flashy it may be.  And it’s the writing that will catch my eye, none of the other stuff.

Are there any authors out there, from either the bigger publishing houses or the small presses, that fans should be keeping an eye on?

Well, I think readers should keep their eyes on the Samhain horror line, because I’ll be trying to publish the best writers I see, including the most talented up-and-comers.  So if you want to see the hot new authors, watch Samhain.  I’ll do the scouting for you.

6 thoughts on “Interview: Don D’Auria on the fall of Leisure and a new beginning at Samhain

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