Losing Balance – a Dark Day for Horror

Samhain HorrorIT WAS SUPPOSED to be the launch of a celebration, but instead, this has turned out to be a black week in horror. And a crossroads point for many up-and-coming horror authors. For many of us, it’s a week of deja vu.  If you follow a lot of horror authors on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, you’ve already heard various versions of the Samhain Horror story. And you’ve seen many different emotional responses to the news. I have had my own, but haven’t posted publicly about it before now. For anyone who hasn’t been tapped in to the outcry, here’s the story.

Samhain Stumbles:
Last month, Samhain Publishing, the publisher of my most recent four books – NightWhere, Violet Eyes, The Family Tree, and Sacrificing Virgins (which will be out in a couple weeks) – began to set up for a celebration of the company’s 10-year anniversary. The marketing staff came up with a number of social media campaigns to highlight book sales, and called for authors to celebrate their editors, with posts directed on Twitter to #Samhain10. So horror authors were encouraged to shout-out to their editor, Don D’Auria, who launched the horror imprint of Samhain just over four years ago (Samhain began strictly as a romance publisher, and the horror line debuted in October of 2011.)

Then, just as authors were beginning to write and post their celebrations of Samhain and D’Auria, we all received a note from Don on Tuesday saying that due to the declining sales of the Samhain horror line, he had been let go, and would be leaving Samhain on Friday (yesterday).

Regardless of the reasons or necessity, from a pure public image standpoint, it was probably the most poorly-timed firing you could imagine. You are all geared up to do a month of celebration and promotion of your company… and then right at the start of it, you fire one of your most beloved figures, completely subverting your PR campaign. It was announced as a necessary business decision, which may be true… but from a purely calculated business perspective, there are five words to describe it: foolishly timed, guaranteed black eye. If I was a member of the Samhain marketing staff, I would have spent this week cursing my bosses’ name repeatedly with every breath I took for torpedoing all of my work of the past month.

The fact that Samhain horror sales have not been stellar was no surprise. Authors talk, and royalties for many authors on the horror side of Samhain have been very low for a long time. My own e-book sales have been steady, but paperback sales to actual bookstores have dropped with each release. When I spoke with the publisher in person just over a year ago, she had planned to bring on a dedicated sales staff to try to get the paperback versions of the books into stores in more volume. As far as I know… that hasn’t panned out. It has been clear to me for awhile that the line was not really “taking off” in the way I’m sure the publisher hoped, and I had a conversation with Don about that at the World Horror Convention this past spring. Volume of releases per month has increased, but seemingly the volume of sales has not.

Earlier this year, the publisher implemented some cost-cutting measures which, in my mind, only hurt their chances of increasing sales further — they upped the price on their books beyond comparable releases on other presses, while at the same time diminishing the font size of the print versions — to decrease the overall pages printed and save money.  (Sacrificing Virgins will be the same exact page count as NightWhere… yet there are 15,000 more words in the book!) So you’ll pay more and get less paper (and probably squint a little). Obviously, Samhain is losing or close to losing money on their paperback line, and is struggling to find a way to balance the ledgers.

And then, apparently, they got to the point where every struggling company gets to when they sit down at budget time. They looked at whose salary they could cut to balance the budget.


Don D’Auria and John Everson at World Horror Convention 2013.

 

Don D’Auria, probably the most celebrated editor in the horror genre, turned up on the wrong side of the balance sheet.

Editors come and go at publishers, just as people come and go at any job. But Don D’Auria is a special case. He’s not just “an editor”… he’s the guy who built the celebrated and oft-bemoaned Leisure Horror line over his 15-year tenure with that New York publisher before they imploded in 2010. He has spent most of the past five years building the Samhain horror line that essentially replaced the Leisure output in the horror marketplace. There is no other editor out there who has discovered as much new talent, or published as much horror, as Don D’Auria. And I owe a lot of my career in horror to him. He has published all eight of my novels and brought my work a visibility I would never have otherwise achieved.

So the news about his “departure” from Samhain  didn’t come out in horror circles as a simple footnote news announcement about the changing of the guard. It provoked a shitstorm of reaction amid the horror community.  The irony there, of course, is that if that same community had been as supportive of the Samhain Horror line as they were angered at the firing of a beloved figure… he probably wouldn’t have been let go.  So I look at the outcry with a certain cynicism.

My Days with Don:
I first met Don at the World Horror Convention in Denver in 2000 — the first WHC I attended. I signed up to do a “pitch” to him on my just-completed novel, The Cliff (later to be retitled Covenant). As many other writers will attest, he was down-to-earth, easy to talk to, funny, and put a young, nervous writer at ease… at least as much ease as I could have in pitching to a “real editor” for the first time in my career. I would spend the next several WHCs pitching to Don — Covenant, Sacrifice, other novel ideas — because Leisure Books was the place to be if you were a horror author in the 2000s. I remember at the WHC in Kansas City in 2003 seeing Don in the hotel bar. I pointed him out and explained who he was with whispered reverence to my wife, who said, “well why don’t you go talk to him?” My eyes widened – I couldn’t just walk up and bother someone like him like that! He was Don D’Auria for crying out loud!

An audience with Don was like that for a lot of writers. It was like meeting with the Pope. Or a Movie Star. You wanted to… but were afraid to. Certainly not because of his demeanor — he’s about the nicest, most mild-mannered guy you’re likely to meet. And I did meet with him year after year after year at WHCs, trying to sell him on publishing my novels. I really had just about given up hope of ever getting him to buy my books when I sat down with him in 2007, at the World Horror Con in Toronto. We had a long conversation about my first two novels (which at that point had been released by a small press) and possible future projects. But while he told me he wanted to buy my stuff, he said he didn’t have slots available yet… but he thought something was going to open up soon. Hang tight, he urged.

I had just about run out of the patience to hang tight by then. I’d been trying to break through for years… and nothing was happening. I hadn’t been able to land an agent, hadn’t been able to land a novel at Leisure. Later during the con, I was sitting at a table, signing copies of my small press books during the “mass autograph session” the con always holds, and wondering “is this it? is this the farthest I’m going to get?” when Don came up to me and asked if he could talk to me for a minute privately.

I instantly abandoned my table of books (Don sought me out?), and walked out into a coat closet hallway with him… where he offered me a two-book deal to reprint my novels Covenant and Sacrifice.

The world changed for me that day.

I had been writing for over a dozen years at that point, and even had a Bram Stoker Award under my belt for the small press edition of Covenant, but until that mass market paperback deal, I don’t think I ever saw myself as a real writer. I was a dabbler, knocking at the door, and being politely but firmly turned away.  And then just like that… the door had finally opened.

It’s totally “grade school,” but I remember being so excited the next night at that convention when I saw the Leisure Authors all sitting at the Leisure-sponsored tables during the Bram Stoker Awards ceremony, because the next year… it would be me who got to sit with the “big kids.” We literally called them that, back then. The Leisure authors were the “big kids” in the room.


John Everson, Don D’Auria and W. D. Gagliani at World Horror Convention 2008

 

I remember the next year, in Salt Lake City, meeting Don for dinner to talk about my 3rd novel, The 13th, which I had been writing but hadn’t contracted. I was nervous then to meet with him too – what if he didn’t like the idea / didn’t take my next book? What if Covenant and Sacrifice were a fluke? But as always, Don smiled and joked and made me feel like he couldn’t wait to see the book when I finished it.  Over the next couple years I enjoyed sending Don various book outlines and discussing the weak points he saw in various plot twists. I sent him outlines of Siren, The Pumpkin Man, NightWhere, Violet Eyes and a couple other as-yet unwritten novels during that period. I ran around the country doing book signings whereever I could, and could be found almost every weekend at a table in a Borders or Barnes & Noble somewhere, hawking horror.

It was a really crazy, really cool time in my life.

But like all such things, that time did not last. Leisure Books had its own business problems, and a changing book marketplace exposed and aggravated them. By the time Siren, my fourth novel was released, the company was months behind on paying both author royalties and rent to its warehouse — and a week or two after Siren hit bookstores, the company announced that it was abandoning its 40+ year old mass market paperback line. They were going to take six months off to reconfigure things, and would relaunch with trade paperbacks, which seemed to sell better in bookstores.

I crossed my fingers and hoped that the change would be successful.

And then a couple weeks later, in August 2010, as I sat in a bar in Santa Fe just starting work on what was to be the sequel to my novel Sacrifice, I got the news that Leisure Books had let Don D’Auria and other editorial staff go. They couldn’t afford to maintain the staff during the six months of transition.

That was a crushing, horrible night. I stopped work on that book, and actually didn’t write any fiction afterwards for weeks. It seemed like everything I’d worked so hard for was washed away in that gut-punching month.

There was a shitstorm of attention to Don’s firing back then, too… and writers frantically tried to divest themselves from Leisure Books over the next few months, like rats from the sinking ship it was.  In my typical contrary fashion, I opted to stick with the publisher and try to weather the storm. They had another book of mine contracted and I figured the only way I was going to see my royalties owed was to buckle in and hold on… and I wanted The Pumpkin Man to be released. If it didn’t come out on Leisure, I had very little hope that it would reach more than a couple hundred people on any other small press horror line. It turned out to be the right decision for me — after a tumultuous year, my books were all sold in 2011 to 47North, an Amazon imprint, and I not only received all of my owed royalties, but got some nice promotion from Amazon.com over the following couple of years. In fact, the best thing that’s happened to me in my writing career was probably Leisure Books’ auction to 47North.

I stayed in touch with Don via email during over the winter of 2010/11, as I worked with the staff remaining at Leisure who were desperately trying to find a way to right the ship. I missed Don, but really enjoyed working with the people who were left behind at Leisure as well. I was in touch with the marketing staff there every week as they tried new sales tactics to try to save the unsaveable.  Chris Keeslar, a Dorchester Romance editor, did the final line edit on The Pumpkin Man, which Don had bought, but hadn’t had the chance to edit. And Chris really helped me hone that novel to a level that it never would have reached without him. So I still have good memories of that “post-Don” Leisure year, when the Leisure imprint was actually mothballed, and Siren and The Pumpkin Man were issued as Dorchester trade paperbacks. Unfortunately, that’s also the year that Borders Books failed, and that was the final nail in the Dorchester/Leisure coffin. The Pumpkin Man was just about the last original horror novel they issued.

At the same time, early in 2011, Don D’Auria had found a new home. He emailed me to let me know that he was signing on with Samhain, a Cincinnati-based romance/erotica publisher, to found a new horror imprint. The label had hit some NY Times and USA Today Bestseller lists with its romance titles and was looking to expand. He was going to try to do the same thing there that he had at Leisure… build a vibrant line that released a couple horror titles every month.

I didn’t like the contract terms — Samhain refused to issue advances for books, which I’d received typically even from small, niche presses. But out of loyalty to Don, I signed on with him to write NightWhere. The book was not one of Samhain’s first horror releases, since I hadn’t written it yet when Don contracted it. But I was one of the label’s first authors contracted, and I remain proud of that fact. After its release in 2012,  NightWhere went on to be a Bram Stoker Award finalist, and I got to sit at the Samhain-sponsored “big kids” table the night in New Orleans when those awards were announced. I didn’t win, but it was a heady night anyway. I would never have been there, if not for Don’s support and belief in my writing.


Don with the Samhain staff and authors at Horrorfind 2012.

 

Over the years, I’ve met Don for lunches, dinners or drinks  at World Horror Conventions and at Horrorfind and in New York when I’ve been there on business.  I’ve talked with him on the phone about book plots and covers and have a folder of dozens and dozens of email conversations. It’s been a rewarding and enjoyable partnership for the past eight years.

But this week,  as Don once again has to find a new path, I find myself at the same point I was at in 2010. Ironically, the novel that I stopped writing that night five years ago in Santa Fe when Don was let go from Leisure, is now finally almost completed. Where will it be published? I’m not sure. I’ve hoped that it will be accepted at 47North, actually, where Covenant and Sacrifice are currently licensed. But I need to finish it over the next few weeks before I can find out!

Samhain Horror hasn’t ascended the way many hoped, and now the driving force behind it is gone.  But my next book is still coming out from Samhain in just a couple weeks. So I do have hope that the horror line there will continue and whatever business changes the publisher is putting in place to improve sales are successful. Just as it was five years ago with Leisure, there remain staff at Samhain who I enjoy working with. And the editor who will be taking on the horror line, Tera Cuskaden, is a big fan of NightWhere — she made a point to write to me a couple years ago because she loved the novel so much. So if I finally do pen the sequel, which I’ve been planning to work on next year… I will likely try to work with her on it.

What happens after that?

Who knows? I sincerely hope that Don finds a great new gig, and selfishly, of course, I hope that I get the opportunity to work with him again. But I also hope — for a lot of reasons — that the Samhain line he founded manages to find its legs. And I hope that all those Samhain authors who are feeling lost and confused right now, in the same place we Leisure authors were at just about this same time and similar circumstances five years ago, are able to find their balance again, and make the right choices, whatever those may be, for their careers.  Lots of people have opinions on what other people should do, but those choices are never black and white. They are always grey.

Kind of like the feeling of this uncelebratory week.

It’s not a bright and happy 10th anniversary for Samhain Publishing or its authors, or, particularly, for its former horror editor. This is not the #Samhain10 kind of post that the marketing team was looking for a week ago. But it is the reality.

Ultimately, the financial reasons behind Don’s departure from Samhain are none of my business, and I can’t speak about them since I have no real knowledge there. I can say that the move was poorly executed, but in the end… it is what it is. Whether it was done well or poorly, the end result was going to be the same.

And the result is a dark day for horror.

Not to be a Polyanna, but I do hope that from this week’s dark cloud, a silver lining of new opportunities will evolve for everyone involved. That’s really all you can hope for and work towards at a time like this. I do know for sure that the world has changed for a lot of people, and what they do next year may be very different now than what they were planning to do last week.

But for the authors and readers, at the end of the day, as Samhain likes to say on their taglines… It’s all about the story.

I suppose all of us will keep telling and selling them… no matter whose name appears as editor on the copyright page or what logo appears on the spine… I personally hope that one day soon, the editor name on my copyright page will again say Don D’Auria.

In the meantime, all I can say is thank you, Don. Your support has meant the world to me. And you will always have mine.


Don D’Auria and John Everson at World Horror Convention 2013.

About John Everson

John Everson is a Bram Stoker Award-winning horror author with more than 100 published short stories and 13 novels of horror and dark fantasy currently in print. His first novel, Covenant, won the Bram Stoker Award for a First Novel in 2005. His sixth novel, NightWhere, was a Bram Stoker Finalist in 2013. His latest novel, Five Deaths for Seven Songbirds, releases on March 22, 2022.

2 Comments

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