I first met Dave Mattingly at the 2010 Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort, an amazing event that consistently makes the lists of many industry insiders as one of the top twenty book events in the entire country. As luck would have it, I was placed on the right side of Michael Williams, a great author (who is well-known for his DragonLance novels) who just had a new novel come out. This book, Trajan's Arch, had been released by Blackwyrm Publishing, which kept Dave in close proximity to where I was much of the day.
As I learned more about Blackwyrm, which is based out of Louisville, Kentucky, I became more and more impressed with what Dave and his group have going on. They are a very dedicated small press publisher that not only releases fiction, but also is active in the gaming market, in terms of releasing gaming-related books.
Dave is clearly the kind of publisher that is very supportive of his authors, as you can tell from his very active list of events and appearances. He is going to be attending FandomFest next summer on the Literary Track that I am doing programming for, and I wanted for everyone to have a chance to learn a little about Blackwyrm Publishing. In the course of the interview, Dave also offers some really good insights into the strange state of publishing at the current time. Very informative, and interesting, and I encourage readers to pick up a couple Blackwyrm titles in the near future...maybe download one on your Kindle or Nook after reading this! (and you can't go wrong with a Michael Williams book!)
So, without further adieu, we begin our visit with Dave Mattingly, of Blackwyrm Publishing!
-Stephen Zimmer, for the Seventh Star Press Blog, January 1, 2011
(Dave Mattingly of Blackwyrm Publishing)
SZ: When did you found BlackWyrm, and what were your goals for the company at the beginning? DM: BlackWyrm started in 2003, founded with a group of five gaming friends. We saw all these other companies writing and publishing gaming material, and believed that we could do the same. Most of us had some industry experience, having written or illustrated for other companies, having produced some of our own material, or having published electronically.
Our initial goal was to split the creative duties somewhat evenly, so that we'd all have a chance to turn our gaming ideas into reality. But we soon fell into roles, and although we all contributed at least some idea to each project, the writing wasn't as evenly distributed as we'd imagined.
SZ: I'm really curious. What's behind the name of the company? DM: It took us a while to decide on a name. We all had our own ideas of what we wanted to be called. Eventually, we all settled on Black Dragon. Unfortunately, it was taken. So we changed dragon to wyrm, an archaic word for dragon, and we've been BlackWyrm ever since.
SZ: Tell us a little about the types of authors that you have brought aboard Blackwyrm. What types of writers have you tended to gravitate towards,and wanted to publish, as your catalog features quite a range genre-wise? DM On the game side, we made a name for ourselves by publishing supplements (character books, settings, and adventures) for other game companies, notably Hero Games and Green Ronin. When our audience saw our commitment to quality, other published game authors came to us about publishing some of their new material. Once we figured out how we would deal with outside authors, and we'd seen that we could make enough money for our company and for the author to be happy with the arrangement, we extended it to other game authors.
Previously, it had been taking us almost a year for each book, doing it all ourselves, since we had the research, writing, editing, proofreading, layout, artwork, production, marketing, and other aspects to work with. By opening up our publishing services to others, we were able to produce much more material. And that meant more product on shelf space, a new book at each major convention, and more presence in the eye of the customer.
After publishing game books for a while, for a variety of systems and genres, we felt that we sill wanted to diversify further. Our slice of the roleplaying audience is gradually shrinking, and although we might gain a bigger market over time, it would be sliced from a smaller pie. And while not everyone plays the types of games we support, nearly everyone reads fiction of some type.
We started off our fiction line with science fiction and fantasy, two genres that we knew well. Our theory was that our gaming audience was a great built-in market for selling this type of fiction, and for the most part, that has worked out well enough. By advertising our fiction books in roleplaying magazines and web sites, and carrying the titles at gaming conventions, we had a nice head start on breaking into the fiction market.
After establishing BlackWyrm as a small press speculative fiction company, we were able to expand into other genres. First into horror, which is not so different a market from the sci-fi and fantasy that we started with, but then into historical fiction, and soon into thrillers, biographies, and others.
SZ: In general, what types of titles have been your strongest, sales-wise, as a small press publisher? Regardless of genre, the best selling titles are the ones in which the author takes an active role, by going to conventions, festivals, and other events.
SZ: What has surprised you the most about the publishing business, once you got deeper into it? DM: The most surprising part for us was probably the chain stores. It wasn't the huge discount that the chain stores want, since we were used to that on the game publishing side already. But that it's so hard to get the chain stores to pay attention to one more small publisher among thousands.
SZ:Any mistakes that you've learned during your time in the business that you would care to share, which might serve as good lessons that can be of help to other small presses? DM: We've found that it's a lot easier for us to promote local and regional authors. We certainly don't mind publishing authors from far away, but since we don't know the area book stores and events, it's harder for us to know where and how to focus our marketing efforts to best make use of our most successful marketing resource -- the author. By keeping our authors relatively close to home, it makes it a lot easier for us to arrange signings, readings, panels, and other events. Once we've established a working relationship with a book store within a hundred or two hundred miles, we can send other authors to the same spot later.
My primary advice is to work with others. Learn from those who have done what you want to do. In our case, we already knew several best-selling fantasy and science fiction authors, such as Michael Stackpole, Aaron Allston, Jim Lowder, and Margaret Weis. By getting advice from them, and from general publishing experts like Aaron Shepherd, Dan Poynter, and Brian Jud, we made sure we were well-educated about the road ahead of us before we jumped in.
SZ: Do you see more opportunities in the future for bringing aboard writers like Michael Williams, who are also published by major presses? Tell us a little about small presses can provide a compelling outlet for works by such well-known authors, perhaps using Trajan's Arch as an example. DM: Michael Williams is best known for his Dragonlance work, and in fact his first novel sold 750,000 copies and has been translated into ten languages. Trajan's Arch, his first novel with us, is his eleventh book. After a very successful writing career in the '80s and '90s, he took a break from writing to become a university professor. Trajan's Arch is his first book in nearly fifteen years.
In the case of Trajan's Arch, it's a departure from his standard "otherworld fantasy" books, so I'm not sure the major labels knew what to do with it. Michael was shopping it around, and approached us, since he'd seen us at conventions and knew that we promoted our authors well.
The book was a bit of a stretch for us, as well. We'd been previously focusing on novellas in the 50 - 70,000 word range. We felt that novellas were underrepresented in the book stores, and the ability to read an entire book on a long flight or during a week of lunch hours was something that the reading public wanted, but could not easily get. Trajan's Arch was more than twice that big, which meant a bigger investment risk from us, and a larger marketing effort to back it up.
What BlackWyrm has been able to offer a best-selling author like Michael Williams that some of the big publishing houses cannot is the personal touch. I've chauffeured Michael to out-of-town signings myself. I can drive by his university office to drop off books, marketing materials, or just to have lunch.
We've also been able to leverage our efforts with larger publishers. Some of Michael's earlier books are just now becoming available as ebooks. That publisher is promoting Trajan's Arch along with their own efforts, and we're likewise promoting those ebooks.
SZ: Tell us a little about the game book side of Blackwyrm, and whether you have found it to be very separate from your literary publishing, or whether it has been of help to the literary publishing in some manner. DM: Since we started off on the game side, and still do quite well there, it acts as our "base" for fiction. We already had experience, money, a presence, and an audience. By having a stable fund to start from, we launched our fiction line as an "experiment" for a year. The results from that first year were borderline, but strong enough that we continued into a second year. Now that our second year is coming to an end, we've learned enough about the fiction market that our prospects are on the rise.
Each fiction book has built on the success of those before, and although the final numbers are not in, it looks as though our most recent quarter will come close to equaling the previous three quarters combined.
SZ: Give us a few of your thoughts on the state of publishing in general, at the present moment. DM: Chaos! Chaos, I say! The big book chains are closing stores. The independent book stores are feeling the crunch. With the adoption of ebooks, the industry in general is trying to find the best way to cope with change.
SZ: Do you see both print and eBook formats reaching a certain market share and co-existing, or do you think it will be all eBooks in the future? DM: Last quarter, Amazon reported that ebooks outsold printed books for the first time. On Christmas day along, Barnes & Noble sold one million ebooks. They would have sold even more, but their servers were struggling to keep up with all the activity, and their website was spotty.
The publishing industry is facing the same kinds of challenges that the music industry is still recovering from. Content has been separated from delivery (physical albums and books are no longer necessary), and the channels are opening up so that authors can reach their readers directly.
My preacher recently started using an ebook reader from the pulpit. Now, instead of six differently colored ribbons to mark the places he wants to preach from, he just has his ereader programmed with the passages he wants. He can adjust the font size to whatever he wants, and he can carry as many translations, reference books, and supporting material as he wants to.
BlackWyrm offers all of our books in ebook format as well, and we're seeing a slow but steady rise in our percentage of electronic sales.
SZ: In your view, what are some areas where a publisher like Blackwyrm can make solid progress in terms of developing competitive advantages in this new age of publishing? DM: That's a question that we're always trying to answer. And we've learned that today's answer will not be tomorrow's answer; we need to constantly adapt.
In fact, that's probably one of our strongest points -- the ability to adapt quickly. With our small operation, technical savvy (I've written computer programs for aerospace, video games, medical, financial, and several other industries), industry feelers, and guerilla marketing techniques, we reevaluate our approaches and experiment with new ways to get our product to our market.
SZ: Tell us a little about some of the new titles coming out in 2011 on Blackwyrm. Give us the scoop! DM: In 2011, we also have several novels in the works: a cyberpunk anthology, a medical thriller, a political thriller, adult fairie tales, a young adult fantasy, a viking fantasy series, a vampire thriller, a post-apocalyptic drama, and more. Plus, we're expecting some sequels: to Branwen's Garden (young adult fantasy), Gran's Secret (werewolf fantasy), Left in the Dark (psychic thriller), and The Starcrossed (science fiction action romance).
We also have several game books planned: a Gestalt sequel, an Elvis-themed superhero adventure, a middle eastern superhero adventure, an American folklore sourcebook, an imaginary friend superhero adventure, and Project WyrmStar -- a slew of science fiction settings, likely to include ideas such as musketeers in space, space opera noir, escape from utopia, space pulpy retro history, and more.
I have to say that I'm always excited about a visit with Elizabeth Donald. A very talented and successful writer (be sure to check out Abbadon, Nocturne, The Dreadmire Chronicles: Knight of the Demon Tree, The Cold Ones, and her other work), Elizabeth is also one of the most engaging and entertaining personalities that you will encounter on the Con circuit. Any convention's programming track is strengthened by having her on it. Yet it is another aspect about Elizabeth that puts her in a very special class; those that help other authors get a boost on their roads.
In this area, Elizabeth instigated The Literary Underworld, an operation that helps quality small press authors through booth exhibits at conventions, as well as maintaining an online store. The catalog has grown rapidly, and the exhibits at conventions look very impressive, with an array of very established small press and self-published authors.
I wanted to bring a spotlight to the Literary Underworld in this interview, in the hopes that a little awareness can be raised, and perhaps a few more folks will be encouraged to order some titles online, or purchase a few books when they come across a Literary Underworld booth at a convention.
So let's visit with the vivacious, gifted, entrepreneurial visonary otherwise known as Elizabeth Donald, and venture into The Literary Underworld!
-Stephen Zimmer for the Seventh Star Press Blog, December 28, 2010
(Elizabeth Donald, Author and Founder of The Literary Underworld)
SZ: How did Literary Underworld come about? Elizabeth:The Literary Underworld began with a couple of friends. I’ve been doing the convention circuit since 2004, and at one point I looked around the dealer’s room and saw at least half a dozen authors like me, each of us with our own boring table and one book in front of us. It was a waste of space for the show, it looked pathetic and it was expensive for the author. If the table cost you $75 and your profit per book is only $5, you have to sell a lot of books to make back your cost, not to mention your hotel room and travel expenses.
The alternative, of course, is to sell out of your bag. The problem is, that’s not really a viable plan these days. In the past, or even five years ago, an author could carry a boxful of books around the convention and people would come up at the end of a panel or during your signing and buy books from you. For some reason, they don’t do that anymore. I don’t know if the cons told people not to do that anymore, or if readers thought they were annoying us – and I can assure them they are not, authors are always willing to take your money.
The problem is that small-press authors really have to sell books at the shows to make our expenses. Most cons can’t afford to pay authors’ expenses, and so we’re on our own ticket for most or all of our hotel bill and travel. If we don’t sell books, we can’t afford to go, especially in this economy. That means being in the dealer’s room.
So I started splitting a table with a couple of friends. We shared the cost, and we shared the responsibilities at the table. When one of us had a panel, the other two could cover. It made the conventions a lot easier to survive and more financially viable.
Then a funny thing happened. Other authors who were buried under the cost of their own tables or trying to sell out of their bags asked if they could join us. In return for sharing the cost of the table and helping man the booth, we were able to help each other and help the cons save valuable space in overcrowded dealers’ rooms.
After a while, it got to be a little cumbersome to split the costs. For one thing, some authors had seven books and some had two. Some were present at nearly every show and some were only there once in a while. So to be fair, we switched to a commission method – 20 percent off the sale, which the authors themselves set. I take their books with me so I can offer books at shows they can’t attend, and that’s pretty much when the Literary Underworld stopped being a few friends and became a business, the only authors’ cooperative of which I’m aware that acts as bookseller, coordinating our efforts with other authors’ cooperatives such as the Illinois-Missouri Authors and the immensely successful Imagicopter.
Consider that when an author sells a book through a bookstore or the publisher or Amazon.com, they get on average about 7 percent of what you pay. If they sell the book themselves, they can keep as much as 40 percent of the cost. Even with our commission, authors make nearly three times as much per book as they do through bookstores – and sometimes the actual cost of the book is far less because of it.
We launched a web store late 2009 to allow the authors to sell their books in between conventions. As of now the Literary Underworld represents more than 25 authors and a few small presses that sell their titles through us. When we travel around to conventions, the authors who are present run the booth themselves. I have an assistant who loves books and helps track the inventory, so the fact that we can find the books when we’re looking for them is entirely due to her. I do the online portion myself, so any typos on the site are entirely my fault.
SZ: What is the process for selecting titles, in terms of a quality control, as we all know that the small press and self-publishing world runs the gamut from things that can stand right alongside a major press title to things that aren't so able to do so. Elizabeth: Authors pitch books to me all the time, and while I know the industry is changing, I very rarely take self-published titles. It really has to be an exceptional book, and the author has truly impressed me with his or her passion and willingness to work for the book. Most of them are small-press books I’ve read and feel would be a good match, or from authors and presses I know and respect. On occasion, when I see an author or a book on the tour that I feel would be a good match, I’ll ask them if they’d like me to take a handful of copies with me.
Up until now, I’ve mostly done the selection myself. But to tell the truth, our backlog of authors and/or titles that have been pitched to us is getting very long. In the new year, I plan to ask my existing authors if they’re willing to occasionally read a submitted title and recommend whether or not we should carry it. Surprisingly enough, I can’t do everything myself. I don’t want authors to have to wait months to hear from us.
I’ll say this: as an author with my fair share of them, it absolutely kills me to send rejection letters.
SZ: How many conventions do you attend now with Literary Underworld? Elizabeth: We average about one convention or book fair a month, taking December off for sanity. I don’t want to do too many more than that, because at some point I’d like to have a life.
SZ: Do you see any differences between attending a large convention like a DragonCon, and smaller conventions? Elizabeth: In terms of sales, there is no real pattern to where we will sell. I’ve had my best and worst takes both at Dragoncon. I try to think of it in terms of our sales-to-customer ratio – how many books we sell compared to how many feet go past the booth. Sometimes we sell a ton of one book and everyone else goes begging; other times we sell a handful of copies of several titles. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s 300 or 30,000 in attendance.
It’s certainly very different attending a mega-convention than a small con, but I think in both cases you tend to see friends and colleagues that you’ve seen in years past, making each con like a family reunion. There are people I only see in Atlanta, or in Nashville, or Kansas City, or Memphis. Whether we’re among a cast of thousands or only a few hundred, we always seem to find each other. If you have a problem with crowds and long lines, I wouldn’t generally recommend a mega-con – and the elevators in Atlanta are definitely not for the claustrophobic.
But at nearly every convention, there is a certain continuity. They are run by fans, volunteers who love genre fiction and are doing their best to give everyone a good time and diverse, intelligent programming. They’re populated by fans, readers who love genre fiction and can talk about it with some degree of understanding, and they’re looking for something new and different. That’s what we try to offer: something unusual, something you won’t find at a chain bookstore. And our authors are always willing to help develop and present unique panels at the shows.
SZ: What have been the biggest challenges or adjustments in running Literary Underworld? Elizabeth: I had no idea how much of my time it would take. It takes a lot of effort to keep the ball rolling, to run the web store and haul the booth out to so many conventions. It has also been quite a challenge to get the word out about us. I always thought it was egregious that bookstores charged 40 percent; now I know why. We have absolutely no money for advertising and rely almost completely on word of mouth and free social networking for our business. Strangely enough, it’s been hard even to get the authors to promote us – you’d think it would be natural for them to guide their readers to buy from a seller that gives them back 80 percent instead of 60 or 40 percent, but so many just say, “Oh, I’m available on Amazon.”
But the biggest challenge is fitting three racks, containers of drapes and décor, signage, boxes of 85 titles and my 11-year-old son in a Toyota Camry.
SZ: What are your goals with Literary Underworld in 2011?
Elizabeth: I want a van. Okay, that’s not likely, but a girl can dream. I’d settle for the web store taking off to the point where it covers our expenses. I didn’t start Literary Underworld to make money for myself, but that 20 percent doesn’t cover enough, not with cons raising the price of dealer tables each year and hotel rooms getting more expensive by the hour. The web store costs us much less overhead, and more web sales would offset those cons that have not exactly been overly profitable.
I want to expand our offerings into independent comics and young-adult fiction. Last year, Diamond declared it would not carry comics that could not meet $2,500 in wholesale orders, which knocked out a lot of independents and niche comics. I hear they’ve had to back off that some, but in the meantime, I want to help get independent comics out into the cons. I’m proud to say Dandelion Studios and its imprint, Quarterstaff Comics, distribute through us and we had the sneak preview of its new title, “Stone,” at Archon – a week before it was available to the public. I’d like to see more comics on our shelves.
And anyone who pays attention to bookselling knows that YA genre fiction is the fastest-growing market, but far too much of it is simply a Harry Potter or Twilight knockoff. I’m looking for stuff that’s a little different, adventures in science fiction and fantasy that will draw in young readers. There’s something about a book you read as a child or teenager that stays with you all your life, and I want to help those young people find our fantastical worlds.
I’m hoping to get more steampunk and horror comedy, because that’s what people are asking about at the booth. I want to find more authors, so that we have new faces and new titles for our fans each year. I’m taking us to a few new conventions in 2011, trying to get out of the rut of going to the same cons every year.
And, of course, it’d be nice not to go bankrupt.
SZ: What is the climate like out there right now for small press authors, in your view? Things seem so chaotic at the major retail level with so many chains closing stores. Elizabeth: The real change happened a few years ago, when chain stores stopped buying small press. I had a book published by a mid-size press in 2005 that was in every Borders in America, and I had the big-box signings and my name in the paper. Two years later the sequel came out, and suddenly I couldn’t find my book on a single shelf. When the bottom fell out of the world, big box ran to the safe stuff: to the New York Times bestsellers, to Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts and the Twilight series. They stopped buying us long before they got in trouble, thinking the American public only wanted to read the same stuff over and over again. It turned out they were wrong, and I think that’s a good thing for us.
Meanwhile, the collapsing big-box stores mean less competition for independent booksellers. I can’t say that new bookstores are opening up, but it seems like the slow death of the mom-and-pop bookshop has stopped, or even reversed. And those independents seem far more willing to work with small-press authors than they were a few years ago, realizing perhaps that the way they can truly compete with big box retailers is to offer the diversity and high quality available in the small press. If you’re looking for vampires that don’t sparkle, you probably want Main Street Books, not Barnes and Noble.
SZ: What kind of titles are your most popular at the moment? Can you give us a few examples of best sellers? Elizabeth: I don’t think my authors would necessarily appreciate publicizing our sales records, so I’ll refrain from the actual titles. I will say that steampunk steampunk steampunk … yeah, and some steampunk. Maybe it’s just a trend, but it’s sure holding on. Horror sells more than fantasy or science fiction two to one, and erotica written in any genre sells like mad, especially paranormal and/or GLBT romance.
I can say that I personally tend to be our biggest seller, but I think that’s simply because I am the only author who is present at every show. Regardless of genre, the books that sell the most are those of authors who are there, and actively promoting their own work. I think that’s something a lot of beginning authors don’t know: you are your own best salesperson, your own best publicist. If you just sit at home and wait for the checks, they’re going to be pretty small. And if you just sit there and be quiet, or heaven-forbid rude to the readers, you’re not going to sell.
SZ: Time for web links and social media links for Literary Underworld. I'd also like to ask you to put links in for yourself, so people can discover what an amazing author you are!
Our web store can be found at literaryunderworld.com, and we have awesome holiday specials that will continue through to Dec. 31!
It’s really not all the spammy – I can’t afford to email people more than once or twice a month. But it seems more people read their email coupons than use the coupons we post on Facebook, so it’s really y’all’s fault.
We are happy to report that Kindle users can now get Thrall and Dream of Legends, the new books from Steven Shrewsbury and Stephen Zimmer. All artwork is included in both editions, and they are both priced at the low rate of $3.99. If you've got a Kindle, take a minute and support small press fantasy now by picking up one or both!