Staccato Publishing and digital imprint, Darkest Night Publishing are the companies of author and publisher Heather (HK) Savage. Heather comes from a decade of editing and marketing experience as well as a stint in insurance working with contracts and negotiating settlements with attorneys. “Staccato Publishing officially opened its doors March of 2011 with two authors. We now have six authors with an epidemic of 4 and 5 star reviews from large and small industry reviewers and several titles now on the shelf at local indie bookstores and large retail chains such as Barnes & Noble,” she says.
Last year she put out eight books (three digitally, five traditionally) in the Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, and Mystery genres. “Some titles are YA and some adult. We are due to release between six and eight in 2013 in those same categories. Digital releases require less lead time and therefore can be prepared more quickly. We have several titles that will be fall 2013 or spring 2014 that fall into that category.”
Heather, what common characteristics do you see in the books that move the best for you?
In sales, our best sellers tend to be deep character books. Action is great and mystery is wonderful, but people need to feel they connect with a book and the best way to do that is to draw your readers in to a character they can relate to. I know I will read just about anything even full of errors and in a genre I don’t enjoy if the characters are compelling and I think that’s true for most readers.
What trends do you see happening now in the popularity of the various genres?
Well, like a certain popular vampire movie that was out a few years back, we’re seeing a lot of folks jockeying for position to be the next 50 Shades. Erotica is a huge genre that’s growing in leaps and bounds fueled in part by the anonymity of ereaders. Unless you start sweating on the bus no one knows you’re EL James versus Malcolm Gladwell. The problem with erotica (yep, including 50) is that a lot of it isn’t very well written. The hard part for those books isn’t writing the adult scenes, it’s the rest of the book. Make it believable and draw your character into a crisis. As with all other books we want the characters to go somewhere. Even a snapshot of life kind of book needs to take us on some sort of emotional journey.
Also, we’re seeing a rise in YA Fantasy. It’s no secret that YA is a huge market and even the big boys are shifting over to do some crossover (ie: James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, John Grisham’s Kid Lawyer series, etc). The one issue is that YA is getting a little adult for some of the readers and few authors and publishers are being honest about the heat level and content. At a conference last year I heard a new term, NA. It’s not non-alcoholic, no, it’s New Adult. It’s aimed at those mature readers 16 or 17 and up who are reading characters not yet out of college ages. A very helpful designation for keeping the 13 year olds from buying the more adult YA, I can only assume why the distinction hasn’t been used more often. The cynical part of me wants to say it’s a money grab, that no one wants to cut into their market by saying it’s off limits to any cross-section. Me, I’d rather know that I marketed the work to the right crowd and they’re happy. The last thing I want is an angry parent calling me saying I sold her kid a dirty book. Maintaining the honorable reputation we’ve worked so hard for is absolutely critical to our success and my peace of mind. If we conduct ourselves poorly in a shameless money grab, then that wonderful grassroots community who has been supporting us and growing in leaps and bounds will dry up and for good reason.
What do you think the future holds for print publishing?
There will always be a market for print publishing, but it is shrinking. It’s expensive and limiting. Technology is wonderful and has given us ereaders, immediate downloads, items always in stock, and… tighter deadlines. As readers it’s great. Waiting over a year for a book in a series is getting less and less frequent. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to budget (our cost to launch a paperback book versus digital is 3x more in hard costs alone) financially as well as in people power.
Our digital imprint, Darkest Night Publishing, was launched July 2012 in order to allow us the freedom to take chances on more authors and help grow audiences before making a leap into paperback. Making that commitment to an author is hard for even one of the big six (maybe five now that we’ve seen this latest merger between Penguin and Random House) which is why they’re going with proven authors and not gambling on fresh names.
We are a small boutique publisher meaning we release a few books per year but we’re choosy what we put out. So we are small, but our quality is on par with any of the big ones. Closing out our second year of business here in the spring, we will have put out 11 titles either traditionally or in digital format. But our big indicator is the reviewers and bloggers we’ve established relationships with. They are bombarded by publishers and self-published authors alike to read their books. Many are turned away because there just isn’t enough time to read them all. Honestly, nor is there the desire. We contact reviewers at least every week to two weeks to ask if they are interested in a review. At first it was hard to get them to take a chance on yet another indie publisher. Now, we rarely hear “I’d love to but I’m swamped.” Instead we’re hearing, “I’d love to,” or “could I get an interview with the author or a do a guest spot too?” And our authors, all wonderful people interested in building lasting careers as writers, always oblige. Gladly.
I know it seems like this goes a little off topic but in my opinion it’s all related. The trends toward indie authors and publishers is a reflection of the societal push away from big business and moving back toward shopping local and encouraging a community feeling. Small authors are reachable. Readers can friend them on Facebook, get their Tweets; they feel like they know them. It inspires loyalty and fans for life, not just a quick sale and a disappointed reader the publisher and author can afford to write off. Nope, every sale, every fan counts when you are a little guy with 1/10 the budget of one of the big six.
If the Big Six fail, what kinds of opportunities does that present for Indie Publishers?
I started to go into this in an earlier question because I think that this is an important point to make when discussing trends in publishing. The big publishing houses are really struggling which leaves the indies and self-publishers. Small budgets and a glut of books to compete with make every sale important to us little houses. I mentioned it earlier, but we have about 1/10 the budget of Random House. Each success and each not such a success is felt and reflected in our bottom line.
The relationships we continue to build with our readers, reviewers, even the networking we encourage amongst our fabulous authors, make for a more successful book launch and ensuing sales. Social media and the personal connections it allows between reader and author present a unique opportunity we haven’t seen in a long time. Authors are no longer mysterious figures who come out every year or two for a few big city book signings then go back into seclusion to write their next bestseller. Nope, now we expect to hear from them. We want to know their favorite thing to eat for breakfast and what little anecdote they want to share from this morning’s trip to the dentist.
As a publisher this complicates things. Our authors have direct contact with reviewers and their fans. And with the immediacy of social media sometimes that can lead to some difficult situations which puts a greater duty on us as publishers to make sure our authors are conducting themselves in a way that portrays our company and the other authors in the stable in a positive way. I’ll say a little more about this in a minute. I see the question coming up here.
What are three things an author can do during the submissions process that get you interested?
It’s been argued that every plot has been done, every trope, every possible scenario has been written and re-written. So how do we decide what’s fresh or at least what do we want to see again? Compelling characters, tight writing, less passive voice, a story written in a way that I pick it up and forget I’m supposed to be reading this, not reading it because I want to. We all do this because we love books. We are no different than any other reader.
We’ve had some editing staff changes already in our two years and we are so happy. Both Sara Johnson and Karen Reckard have the ability to help craft a story and make it better without losing the author’s voice. Editing isn’t just about typos and grammar. It’s a much bigger picture and is very hard as you shift from one voice to another and fight to keep them distinct. Those editors have gained my trust and as such, they sometimes choose manuscripts as well. We each have a favorite genre, though we read them all, and that is helping us to build up our variety in titles. Currently we are heavy in paranormal and urban fantasy but that is because I love those. Karen wants to see some contemporary romance. Sara, she’s a lover of the quirky so she is less tied to the genre and more interested in different sorts of characters and plots.
If you’re not sure about your book’s ability to stand, test it out on people. Not your mother or your best friend who are going to sugar coat things. Find someone harsh- not maliciously so, but someone who will tell you your butt looks big in those pants. That’s the one you want to read your manuscript and tell you, “this is a good start,” “can you afford an editor,” “you sent someone up to wax his skis in chapter 1 and he never came down.” If your book holds those test readers’ interest and leaves them asking to see something else you’ve written, chances are someone else will too.
What are three things an author does during the submissions process that guarantees their rejection?
I said I saw this point coming and here it is. Attitude. With us, attitude is key. If you want to write your book, shove it over to us and start making demands you’re out. If you’re looking to elevate yourself by getting published only to lord it over those who haven’t gotten their break yet, you’re out. I’m not using any sort of power here, as a matter of fact I encourage others to do what I’m doing and help authors get their books out there to give them the chance they deserve. However, as long as my name is associated with this publishing house I will make decisions on staff and authors based not purely on talent but also on conduct.
As far as talent goes, that’s more of a personal preference thing. Personally I don’t like books written in the present tense. It’s hard to do and even Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games with her bevy of awesome editors slips a lot. It’s distracting. Also, something offensive just to be offensive or graphic for the sake of pure “ick factor” is not okay with me. If your character is a bigot, he/she has to have a reason to be. If your plot involves murdering a vulnerable member of society, it can’t be done in a way that makes me as a reader put the book down. And there are a few words in our vocabulary that make my skin crawl just hearing them. I read the classics often so I know that our culture is always evolving. There are ugly bits of our past and present that need to be written about but even if the characters aren’t being sensitive, the author needs to be. The plot has to be true to the characters and the characters to their story. Does that make sense? A fairy tale about unicorns and maidens shouldn’t have a chainsaw wielding psychopath who goes after small children and screams insulting racial slurs. I’m sure there’s someone out there who might want to publish it but it’s not for me.
What are the benefits of being with a publisher as opposed to being self-published?
Well, for one, there’s the fact that you’ve made it past a gatekeeper. Granted, some of those gatekeepers are asleep at their posts (we’ve all read a stinker or two in our time) but there is still that human tendency to trust someone else’s opinion of “what is good” over our own.
Also, as a publisher I spend a lot of time building inroads with bookstores (paid member of the American Booksellers Association, paid member of Midwest Independent Publishers Association, etc). We’ve networked with other small presses and gained a front row seat now with Barnes & Noble so each title is now being considered on a case by case basis for shelf space in their stores. That is very hard to do and, of course, pinnacle to the success of a book’s paperback life. We also have two graphic designers who do fabulous work putting a beautiful face on a book before it even goes out to reviewers. Our current editing staff is wonderful. We go back and forth without authors making sure everything has been caught (every book will have a few oopsies, but we strive to make them minimal or non-existent). That said, if our editors send changes to the authors and the authors don’t go through or have someone whose eyes don’t glaze at the mere mention of the book look at it, then we can’t guarantee we’ve gotten it all. It’s a back and forth process of checks and balances. We are only as good as the efforts everyone puts in.
A self-published author can have a work that is just as good as a traditionally published work but if the editing is sub-par or the cover looks like you did it in Photoshop with a stock photo then it’s just not going to get the same opportunities. No, I’m not knocking Photoshop or stock photos, but we have to look at our work objectively. Does this cover say pick me up? Does this editing say put me down and run screaming? Yes, the big boys can put out bad covers and poor editing, but they’ve got credit with the big bookstores and audiences. They’ve got that gatekeeper’s stamp of approval. “Yeah, but Kirkus said it was good.” Um, Kirkus provides reviews for a fee. A high fee ($300-$500). What self-pubbed author can afford that? Even those book awards that jump up sales are costly. Although we have been lucky enough lately to have readers/fans/reviewers nominate our works, which is the highest compliment in my opinion. The publisher ends up footing that bill and investing in the author in most cases. For traditionally published authors there is just a certain advantage. Compare the girl next door with a model. Are they both pretty? Sure, but which one has a staff who arranges to have her makeup and hair done, clothing designed just for her, and someone to airbrush every picture that goes to the magazines? It’s not the content necessarily, it’s the staff who puts the lipstick on that makes the difference a lot of times.
Do you scout for talent? If so, how?
I scout for talent, sure. We receive a ton of books to review and I get requests all the time from people on Facebook and in my local writers’ community asking me to take a look at something. Also, I have done workshops and spoken at local high schools as well as meeting people at book signings. Now they aren’t all asking me to publish. Some want an opinion and I am lucky enough to have mine mean something to them. I give them all some constructive criticism as well as point out their strong points as authors. Once in a while I see something pretty amazing. Our local bookstore asked me to moderate an authors’ critique group with serious writers intending to publish. It’s a little more intense than your usual “read a chapter and discuss” kind of group. We emphasize positive feedback to foster trust so that writers are willing to share something as personal as their writing when it’s still pretty raw. In that group I met an author who had already published a YA Fantasy series, CS Yelle. Yelle published his Protector of Ter Chadain series through another publisher and wasn’t bowled over by their service but wasn’t actively shopping around. When I saw the work he brought to the group to work on I asked to see more. It was PNR (paranormal romance) which of course is right in my wheelhouse, and it was good. Fresh, exciting, action, romance, all the stuff the YA market is screaming for and here it was in my lap! Yes, I talked to him, flattered him, asked him nicely, and he said yes. Taking Angels, the first in his Angel Crusades series is due out March 26, 2013 and ARCs are already getting hugely positive responses. Barnes & Noble has already called about shelf space.
Short answer? My eyes and ears are always open to something, I am always looking for something to grab me.
Name something that sets your publishing company apart.
What I keep hearing from my authors and people at conferences is that our customer service is unequalled. I’m not saying we’re super special, I just do what I think is right. If an author is trusting me with their career, then I am going to champion them. It’s a simple mission statement but one that we are all behind and I consider every day I wake up and start my eighteen hour day of editing, orchestrating all the details that go into a book’s creation, marketing, and, if time allows, a few hours here and there to write.
Why should an author sign with you?
An author should only sign with us if they’re comfortable. We have better terms than any I’m familiar with in the industry because we believe it’s the author’s work too and they should receive a fair piece of the tiny pie that is profit in the publishing world. They should sign with us if they are willing to talk to interviewers, pursue an online persona that others can connect to, and work at least half as hard as we do to build their career.