Shadow Play: Shining a Light on the Emerging World of ePublishingInterview by Joshua Jabcuga
Cemetery Dance Publications is the world’s leading specialty press publisher of horror and dark suspense, with names on its roster ranging from Stephen King to Justin Cronin. Recently, with The Painted Darkness, the company tried its hand at ePublishing, and the results offer more evidence that old school publishing methods are, well, quickly becoming a thing of the past. Usher in the future as Joshua Jabcuga interviews Cemetery Dance publisher and executive editor Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman, Cemetery Dance’s managing editor and author of The Painted Darkness.
Brian James Freeman's new novella, The Painted Darkness, is currently the WOWIO Free eBook of the month: http://www.wowio.com/book-of-the-month
Joshua Jabcuga: Richard, as I was prepping for this interview, news broke that Leisure Books, the horror imprint for Dorchester Publishing, which is responsible for the mass market releases of such fan favorites as Jack Ketchum and Brian Keene, among others, was dropping its paperback line and moving into trade paperbacks and eBooks. Your company has been around for 22 years now. Although you target the collectors market and don’t produce “mass market paperbacks”, you’ve published many of the same authors as Leisure. Is there a lesson to be learned from Leisure Books?
Richard Chizmar: Well, it's too early to see how Leisure's restructuring of their business model will play out, but every publisher is looking at new technology and the changing marketplace right now, trying to figure out the best way to navigate these uncharted waters. It's an exciting time to be in the publishing business, and there will be big changes for everyone.
Joshua Jabcuga: You’re in an interesting position because Cemetery Dance tends to cater to the more hardcore audience of book buyers and collectors, those that tend to love a tangible product, such as a hardcover book. The editions you publish are the equivalent of DVDs from the Criterion Collection. They’re definitive, often packed with bonus material. Can that type of deluxe “Cemetery Dance” experience be reproduced with a downloadable eBook?
Richard Chizmar: eBooks are becoming more and more like DVDs every day, with special features that you could never have in a printed book. For Cemetery Dance, nothing will ever replace a finely crafted collectible hardcover sitting in your special bookcase, but eBooks are becoming more and more interactive, and if that keeps people reading, that's a great thing.
With the eBook giveaway of The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman, our goal was to give readers the chance to read the book for free because we felt the publicity and feedback from doing so would attract more than enough readers to the print edition, too.
This was Brian's idea, and he had suggested this experiment to several other authors first who all said "no way" because they thought he was crazy and they'd never sell any copies of their book if they gave it away for free.
But Brian's reasoning for the experiment was twofold: to get the author's writing in front of a lot of readers to try to attract them to the author's body of work in general (since the eBook was free and easy to try), and then hopefully also sell a lot more copies of the hardcover because readers had the chance to try the book for free and because the free giveaway would generate discussions on blogs and message boards, introducing even more readers to the book.
So finally Brian said, "Okay, everyone thinks I'm crazy, so let's use MY book and see what happens. If I'm crazy and the book tanks, it's all my fault." Of course, the sales of the hardcover have proven he wasn't crazy at all.
To get people's attention, we felt just giving away the book for free wasn't enough to break through the noise in the marketplace, so we came up with some great "bonus features" that won't appear in the hardcover such as: an exclusive new interview with Ray Bradbury; comments from bestselling authors such as Stephen King, William Peter Blatty, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Clegg, J.A. Konrath, Seth Godin, and many others about eBooks and the future of publishing; and a $5.00 off discount coupon valid on an order for the trade hardcover edition of The Painted Darkness for a limited time. A LOT of people used that coupon.
Joshua Jabcuga: Brian, what types of results have you noticed with your writing career, directly and indirectly, as a result of this experiment?
Brian James Freeman: Well, the immediate result has been a ton of great feedback from readers, which is awesome. It's nice to know your work is actually being read, you know? When Leisure published my first novel, Black Fire, I think I received a few dozen emails from readers. With The Painted Darkness, I've received hundreds of emails and they just keep coming. I'm still working on responding to all of them because it's been a bit overwhelming.
One of the very cool things to come out of the giveaway was an introduction to the fantastic people who work at WOWIO.com. I was blown away by what they're doing there, the different ways they're distributing eBooks and getting free reads out to the masses. When they asked if they could use The Painted Darkness as their Free eBook of the Month for October, I didn't hesitate to say yes. Brian Altounian, Kristin Ellison, Kelly Lind, Gerry Manacsa, and the whole team at WOWIO have been awesome to work with and I think they're going to give away a ton of copies of the eBook this month. That can only help me since my primary goal with this experiment was to reach new readers in any way possible to let them sample my work.
The long-term results of the experiment are still playing out, but I've received invitations to work with some great publications, and there has been some strong subsidiary rights (foreign, film) interest in The Painted Darkness. Of course, nothing might come from any of that. All you can do is keep working and see what happens.
Joshua Jabcuga: Richard, earlier you mentioned author J.A. Konrath. He has studied the publishing industry from the trenches, writing about it extensively on his blog (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing http://jakonrath.blogspot.com), taking on the heavyweights and household names who often get hefty Co-Op dollars and massive marketing campaigns to hype their books. He’s decided to cut out the middleman in favor of eBooks, where many say the playing field is equal. Konrath also blogged about setting a pricing model for eBooks, saying authors can get more downloads, increase their fanbase, and ultimately make more money by charging less for an eBook than they would for the price of a paperback. As a publisher, where do you stand on eBook pricing? Was The Painted Darkness just a one-off?
Richard Chizmar: J.A. Konrath is a great author and very savvy about the publishing business. He's also terrific to work with. We've only experimented a little with eBooks because we're a different kind of publisher than, say, a New York publisher that wants to move as many units as they can. Most of our books have limited print runs and we're very aware that some collectors feel other editions, such as inexpensive eBooks, hurt the value of their collectible. That said, we think books are meant to be read and it's important that stories be accessible to as many readers as possible, even if that goes against our business model. We're looking at ways to make the books available so that the collectors still have a beautiful special edition in their personal library while general readers can have access to the story itself at an affordable price.
The Painted Darkness was more of an experiment to see if giving something away for free would actually result in more paid sales. When we announced the free giveaway, several other publishers privately emailed us to say we were nuts and we had killed any chance of really selling the hardcover. Basically, echoing the comments of those other authors Brian had offered the idea to first. Luckily, the readers proved them wrong and ordered far more copies of the book than we had expected.
Joshua Jabcuga: Many authors are seeing ePublishing as a gold rush of sorts. I’ve read about authors like David Morrell giving exclusive rights to out of print books to Amazon, and others who are proactive, like F. Paul Wilson, following Konrath’s lead, or at least testing the waters. Do you think the New York publishers are a day late and a dollar short? For the sake of their own survival, will it become a seller’s market, where publishers will be forced to offer more favorable deals to their authors to keep them on board?
Brian James Freeman: Certain authors are their own "brand" and could set-up their own publishing house, print or electronic, and do just fine selling their own books. For those authors, today it's even easier than ever to sell electronic editions all on their own and do really well. Other new authors, who haven't found a home with a traditional publisher for whatever reason, including the fact that a lot of publishers are just plain scared of books that are different than what they "know" will sell, have also gone the electronic self-publishing route with different levels of success. It's hard to say if the traditional publishers will ever completely go away. Some people feel there's something to be said for a gatekeeper of sorts, the idea that someone liked the book enough to risk spending money to publish it, but we all know that doesn't always mean you're actually getting a good book. Eventually, the way readers are connected on the Internet could become its own gatekeeper system for bringing attention to great works and pushing bad works down to the bottom of the pile.
Joshua Jabcuga: Brand names are powerful tools for consumers because it puts a stamp of approval on a product. Assuming New York publishers can navigate the feeding frenzy that is happening right now with ePublishing, will this be their one saving grace? Do you think a reputable and/or major publisher’s stamp of approval still holds value for an author?
Richard Chizmar: I think when it comes to eBooks, people don't care who the publisher is. They just want a compelling story, and they want the book to be easy to download and read. That's the beauty of some of the eBook stores that exist now. Impulse buys are easier than ever, which is terrific for authors and publishers. And readers are finding authors they never would have tried if their only option was a $25 hardcover.
Brian James Freeman: The big advantage for established New York publishers right now is that they still have access to a huge stable of authors who don't want to self-publish or don't know how. It's certainly "easier" to have someone do all of the heavy lifting: production and promotion, etc. But even that will change with time as younger writers grow their followings...writers who are more at home with the new technology, etc. Plus, technology is making it easier and easier to produce and sell your writing on the web. Soon anyone and everyone could be selling their writing from the comfort of their couch with no technological know-how. You write it, you click "sell it," and boom, there it is in the marketplace.
Joshua Jabcuga: Brian, you’ve been honing your craft for years, selling to major markets, and gradually building an audience. Now you’re breaking through to another level because of this synergy going on with the quality of your work and the technology at hand. With that being said, I can see where a lot of writers will interpret ePublishing as simply another form of print on demand, cluttering the marketplace with not-ready-for-prime-time material. For an aspiring writer, submitting their work to editors, trying to claw their way out of a slush pile, doing rewrites, logging hundreds of thousands of words only to file them away like an embarrassing yearbook photo, serves a purpose. It is a vital process in the maturation of a writer. Richard, what advice would you give to up-and-coming writers who may regard ePublishing as a shortcut?
Richard Chizmar: Well, with the growing ease of publishing your own eBooks, it certainly does make it seem attractive to just throw your work at the marketplace on your own. And if you have a good title, a good (professional looking) cover, and good sales copy, you're ahead of the game in terms of being able to sell your eBook, but that's just the start. You also have to have written a great story and put together a professional presentation, otherwise the customer reviews will tell the world pretty quickly to avoid your eBook, which is kind of what Brian was saying about the readers on the Internet becoming their own gatekeepers.
Joshua Jabcuga: The distribution model has certainly shifted. There have been rumors for years that Cemetery Dance was looking at starting a mass market paperback line, but I’d think an eBook division would be much more viable at this point. To meet the demand of new content and to capitalize on the expanding market, will you be increasing your acquisitions?
Richard Chizmar: Right now, we have our hands full with our current workload, so we don't plan on increasing our acquisitions. Quality over quantity will always be our approach. We publish the books we like and those are not necessarily always the "smart" books to be publishing, from a purely business perspective, but that's the nice thing about being a small business with only four employees. We can publish the books we want to publish without having to get approval from accountants and marketing "experts" and sales managers. If I like it, I can publish it.
Joshua Jabcuga: Cemetery Dance has published nearly every top genre name I can think of, and you’ve also introduced the world to fresh talent. When it comes to accepting submissions from less established authors, what are some of the criteria that you look for? And is there any advice you can pass on to members of The Cult, who might have a goal of being published by Cemetery Dance?
Richard Chizmar: Right now, we're closed to submissions while we catch-up on a bit of a backlog, but when we open again next year, my advice would be simple: write the story you want to write, not what the market is supposedly telling you to write. Write the story YOU would want to read, and good things can happen. Copying what everyone else is doing might work in some cases, but an original voice with an original story will always find a home eventually.
Brian James Freeman: When the magazine was open to submissions, we were receiving 500 or so stories each and every month for the 40 to 50 slots we have each year. But here's the thing: when I started submitting to publications when I was 14, I saw numbers like that and thought, "Wow, those are bad odds!" But it's not about odds. Stories aren't picked at random to be published. This isn't a lottery. Editors respond to stories that are professionally written (no typos, etc) and fit the needs of their publication. It's that simple. You write a great story that's perfect for a publication, and you present it professionally, and there's a much better chance an editor will buy it.
Of course, editors pass on GREAT stories all of the time simply because there's so much material to consider. All you can do is keep plugging away, sending the story to other markets, writing new stories, and trying again. The writing new stories part is the most important thing to remember, I think. Don't get discouraged and don't let anyone tell you you're making a mistake by "wasting your time" on your work. Screw 'em. You're a writer if you sit down and write. You don't need a publication to run your story for you to consider yourself an author.
Ultimately, writing is about practice, learning the language in a way most people don't know, and finding your voice. It's not easy. I think it's one of the hardest of the "arts." Not everything you write, especially the early stuff when you're getting your feet wet, needs to be shown to the world, in my opinion. Others will disagree. Ultimately, what you write and why you write it is your own business, and the writing has to come first. Everything after that is gravy.
Joshua Jabcuga: Brian, I know you have quite the story as far as getting your foot into the door at Cemetery Dance.
Brian James Freeman: A friend introduced me to Richard via email when I was a Junior in college. This would have been the summer of 2001 because my (future) wife and I were living in Baltimore due to her internship at Johns Hopkins University. I was a journalism major, but Richard was looking for someone to draw up some marketing and publicity plans for Cemetery Dance. Luckily, I had been doing freelance Internet book marketing and publicity since high school, and I had been collecting small press special editions for a few years, so I had a great set of skills for the job he wanted done.
I spent a few weeks working up ideas for different marketing approaches Cemetery Dance hadn't tried before. I never actually met Richard in person, but he was very receptive to the ideas and we definitely saw eye-to-eye on a lot of matters facing any small press. Then summer ended, I moved back to college for my senior year, and that was that...
Until eight months later, when my (still future) wife was accepted to Johns Hopkins' graduate program and I realized I had to find a job in the Baltimore area. I was about to graduate college with a degree in journalism, and I had no interest in working for a newspaper. But I did love the publishing business and I had always wanted to work in the business, so I came to the logical conclusion: I'd send a 17 page proposal to Richard explaining why he needed to hire me and how Cemetery Dance would benefit from him doing so.
Considering Cemetery Dance was still being run out of his house, and the company's full-time employees consisted of just him and Mindy, this should have been the longest of long shots, but I never doubted my plan for a second. I'm rarely that optimistic, you can be sure of that, but I just had a good feeling for some reason.
A few weeks later, Richard and I were talking on the phone and by the end of the call I had the job. We met in person for the first time a few weeks after that at an Aberdeen Ironbirds game, and the rest is history.
Joshua Jabcuga: Brian, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned by having a front row seat at Cemetery Dance, working with some of the most respected names in the business, and how have you applied that to your writing?
Brian James Freeman: This one's easy: be professional and don't have an ego. The biggest names we've ever published have always been professional to work with and are really some of the nicest people I've ever met. These are authors who are "big" enough that they could be jerks if they wanted and get away with it, but they never have been. They've always been very, very cool.
Joshua Jabcuga: Richard, The Painted Darkness appears to be another milestone in Cemetery Dance’s history. Besides that, and the formation of the company, of course, what would you rank as some of Cemetery Dance’s most defining moments?
Richard Chizmar: There's been a lot of them. Receiving "Chattery Teeth" by Stephen King in the mail for the magazine, completely unsolicited, was a big moment. Publishing Limited Editions for Dean Koontz in the 90s introduced us to a lot of readers. Moving from the basement and garage of my house to our real offices in 2002 ranks up there near the top of the list. Being invited to publish a Limited Edition of From A Buick 8 for Stephen King was huge. Publishing the only volumes in Stephen King's The Secretary of Dreams illustrated collection set, or publishing the World's First Edition of King's Blockade Billy, were big moments because they really caught the attention of the rest of the publishing business and pointed a bright spotlight on our little company. Landing the rights to publish Justin Cronin's The Passage trilogy, which is one of the hottest horror properties of the last decade, was pretty big, too. There have been so many big moments, I couldn't list them all. We've been very lucky to work with so many great authors over the years.
Joshua Jabcuga: It’ll be difficult to top everything you guys have done this year with Cemetery Dance. Can you give us a sneak peek into what readers might see in 2011?
Richard Chizmar: We have some great books lined up for the spring including some wonderful new projects that haven't been announced yet. There are at least a couple of huge surprises that are going to blow collectors away, but I can't say more just yet. 2011 is going to be a terrific year for our readers and collectors.
For more information about Cemetery Dance Publications, visit: www.CemeteryDance.com
For more information about The Painted Darkness and Brian James Freeman, visit: www.ThePaintedDarkness.com
This is technically Joshua Jabcuga’s (www.JoshuaJabcuga.com) seventh and eighth interview for The Cult. His first interview was with his mentor, Jack Ketchum (which can be found here). He wrote Scarface: The Devil in Disguise, and has worked with IDW Publishing and Universal Studios on other projects such as a graphic novel tie-in to The Mummy, and the Eisner-nominated Doomed magazine. He also writes for Bookgasm.com and FlickAttack.com, and is hard at work on a novella.