Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Leah Hultenschmidt & Don D'Auria of Leisure Books


I have been reading Leisure Books—everything from Western to Thriller to Horror—for more years than I would like to admit and when I talked Leah Hultenschmidt and Don D’Auria into an interview I was more than excited.

Leisure is one of the shining examples of a New York publisher that is successfully producing and marketing Westerns. Leisure’s Western line includes a broad array of reprints—writers like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Max Brand, Lauran Paine, Wayne D. Overholser—as well as a good mixture of new writers—Robert J. Randisi, John D. Nesbitt, Tim Champlin, Cotton Smith, Johnny D. Boggs. The Lesiure line can be found in most major bookstores, grocery stores, department stores, and online--its website is one of the better publisher websites around with a simple and easy to use navigation system that not only features recent and new titles, but also previews coming titles.

Don D’Auria is Executive Editor at Leisure Books, where he acquires and edits Horror and Thrillers, and oversees the Western line. Prior to working at Leisure, Don was an editor at Bantam, where he edited Westerns and Action/Adventure, and at Doubleday, where he edited the hardcover Double D Western line. His authors include Cotton Smith, John D. Nesbitt, Kent Conwell, Paul Bagdon, Andrew J. Fenady, Robert J. Randisi, Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Will Henry, among others.

Leah Hultenschmidt has been with Leisure for seven years. Before she began editing Westerns, she headed the company’s publicity department. Leah also acquires and edits in the Romance genre. Her authors include Max Brand, Wayne D. and Stephen Overholser, David Thompson, Johnny D. Boggs, Loren Zane Grey, Fred Grove, Lauran Paine, Mike Kearby and many others.

Dorchester Publishing is the parent company of Leisure Books and the oldest independent mass-market publisher in North America. More information on the book club can be found at http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/BookClub.cfm. Their submission guidelines are posted at http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/SubmissionGuidlines.cfm. To sign up for a newsletter announcing their latest releases, visit http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/Promo.cfm.

This is a unique interview for me—to speak to the decision makers, at least editorially, of a New York publishing house—and I would like to start with a few business-type questions as related to the Western genre. Leisure Books publishes four western novels each month, and I’m curious how the acquisition process works?

Don D’Auria (DD): I handle mostly original manuscripts, as opposed to reprints, so for me the process usually begins with a query letter, in which an author or agent briefly describes the ms and asks if they can send it in. The next step is simply me reading the manuscript and deciding if I want to make an offer for it. For authors I’ve worked with before, I can often base my decision on just a proposal or synopsis, since I’ll already know their writing style and I can trust them to write a good novel.

Leah Hultenschmidt (LH): With the exception of David Thompson’s Wilderness series, my acquisitions are all reprints. It’s a pretty simple process, really. The author (or agent) sends me a copy of the book, and if I think it fits well with our line and have room in the schedule for it, I’ll call up and make an offer.

“For authors who have a history with us, the decision to buy more titles is primarily based on previous sales—if the author continues to sell, we’ll keep publishing his books. For authors we’ve never published before, it mostly comes down to whether I like the story and the writing.”

How do you decide which older titles to bring back as reprints, and which original novels to publish? Do you always publish the same ratio of reprints to original novels, or does it change from month to month?

DD: There are a number of different factors that help me decide whether or not I want to publish an original manuscript, but the primary one, of course, is the quality of the writing and the storytelling. Also, I’d prefer to buy a book from an author who I think will continue to write excellent westerns in the future. This way I can work to help build a track record for the author and help establish a career, instead of just buying the one book then having to start all over again with another author.

LH: We prefer to reprint books that have never before been in paperback, although we have done some titles that originally came out as paperbacks but have been out of print for more than 10-15 years. For authors who have a history with us, the decision to buy more titles is primarily based on previous sales—if the author continues to sell, we’ll keep publishing his books. For authors we’ve never published before, it mostly comes down to whether I like the story and the writing. It also helps to have quotes or awards to help readers decide to take a chance on an author they might not have heard of.

The ratio of originals to reprints does vary month to month, depending on whether we have a Wilderness book scheduled or high-profile classic reprints by authors like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, or Will Henry.

Many readers, myself included, are in the dark as to how the editorial process works. What is the typical path of a novel from the time you purchase it, to when it is actually distributed to bookstores and dealers?

LH: It typically takes about 9-12 months to get a manuscript turned into a book. Work on the cover starts about 9-10 months before the pub date so our sales reps can get out there and sell the book to stores about 5 months prior to its release. All the editorial work needs to be done about 7 months before pub, which allows time for copyediting, typsetting, proofreading and printing. The schedule can vary a bit from book to book, but that’s the general timeline. Right now, I’m editing for April 2008, writing cover copy for June 2008, planning covers for July 2008 and buying books for Fall 2008.

Every Western published by Leisure has an insert that can be torn out and returned by readers to join a “book club”—the reader will then receive every new Western novel published by Leisure at a discount. My question, as a route of distribution, what portion of total sales do these direct sales represent?

LH: The book club is definitely a nice boon for sales. And for readers—especially when you can get 4 books a month for $16.00. The total percentage of sales, though, really varies by book. The number of book club members stays pretty steady, but the print runs for each title differ quite a bit. The book club can account for as much as 30% of sales, sometimes as little as 2%. Sometimes it can be the difference between a book making a profit and losing money, but again, it really depends on the individual book.

“What may be a successful number for one title could be a disappointment for another. We don’t hold Louis L’Amour and a first-time author to the same standards.”

How many copies does a Western novel need to sell before it can be considered a success? How many copies does the average western novel sell? Is there a significant difference in sales between the reprints and the original titles you publish?

LH: Again, this varies by book. What may be a successful number for one title could be a disappointment for another. We don’t hold Louis L’Amour and a first-time author to the same standards. The most important number for us is how many copies sold in relation to how many were shipped out to bookstores.

What are some of your best-selling authors and titles?

DD: I don’t think it will surprise anyone that Louis L’Amour is our best-selling author, since he’s one of the best-selling authors in the world. Not far behind him, though, is another all-time classic author, Zane Grey. I think these two authors, along with Max Brand, have a popularity that transcends the Western genre. Our restored edition of Grey’s Riders of Purple Sage is one of our best-selling titles, partly because it’s read by people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a Western.

“It’s certainly harder to get our titles into stores in the same numbers that we used to. As you say, the chains, like B&N and Borders, are cutting back on a number of their less profitable genres, and sadly one of those genres is the western.”

The Western sections in most large bookstores have been shrinking over the past decade or so, how difficult is it to get your books on the shelves in places likes Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other retailers?

DD: It’s certainly harder to get our titles into stores in the same numbers that we used to. As you say, the chains, like B&N and Borders, are cutting back on a number of their less profitable genres, and sadly one of those genres is the western. But wholesalers and distributors too are ordering lower numbers of the western titles that they carry, simply because they don’t feel they can turn around and sell them to stores. In our case, though, we’re working very hard to get our books out there into the marketplace, including alternative outlets like drug stores and supermarkets, to pick up some of the slack.

There has been a significant amount of talk on the Internet about the decline of the Western genre, and many place a significant portion of the blame on mainstream publishing houses for this decline. Proponents of this idea claim that publishers have failed to properly distribute their Westerns, put unattractive and unreflective artwork—of the actual story contained in the book—and basically have given up on a genre not because it is unprofitable, but not profitable enough. What do you think of these arguments? Is there some truth in them, or—from the perspective of an editor—are there other more driving reasons for the decline of the genre?

DD: Well, Leisure has definitely not given up on the Western genre or cut back in any way. We still publish as many titles every month as we ever did, and it’s still one of our more profitable lines. But in defense of the other houses that have cut back, it’s a simple fact that the readership for Westerns isn’t as large as it once was, and the bookstores and distributors aren’t buying as many as they once did. So Westerns may not sell as many books as other genres, and they may not make the publisher as much money as other genres. Even the largest publisher only has a fixed number of books they can publish every year, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that the publisher will choose to publish the books that will earn them the most money. From a purely business perspective, if you can choose between two books to publish, I think you can see the logic behind choosing the one that will sell better. But I think what’s at the bottom of the decline isn’t that publishers are publishing fewer Westerns, it’s that fewer readers seem to be buying the Westerns that are published. As I say, we still publish as many Westerns as we ever did, so we’re putting the books out there. Unfortunately, they just aren’t selling as many copies as they did even ten years ago. And those lower numbers are enough to convince some publishers to switch to more profitable lines. For us, though, even though the numbers are down a little, we’re still doing fine.

As a follow-up to the previous question, many writers and readers point to your Western line as proof that a New York publishing house can operate in the genre successfully. How has Leisure been able to gain and maintain its measurable success with its Western line? Why have you succeeded where so many others have failed in recent years?

LH: I think we have a number of advantages. As mentioned above, our book club is one. Also, in addition to the chain bookstores, a lot of our books are distributed in places like Wal-Mart, grocery stores and drug stores, which have been very supportive of the genre. Plus, other houses are publishing fewer Westerns, which gives us more of a marketshare. In certain stores, Leisure has accounted for up to 75% of the Westerns on the shelf.

“The impact is there, but it’s not huge. It’s a question of translating success in one medium to another. Not all the people who watch a Western movie will go out and buy a Western book.”

Every few years the Western is reborn on the screen—both big and small. A few examples are: HBO’s Deadwood, and Kevin Costner’s big screen adaptation of Lauran Paine’s novel The Open Range Men. Do these big-budget wide-audience happenings have a significant affect on Western novel sales?

DD: The impact is there, but it’s not huge. It’s a question of translating success in one medium to another. Not all the people who watch a Western movie will go out and buy a Western book. But whenever there’s a high-profile Western movie or TV show, it helps broaden awareness of the genre as a whole. And the effect is cumulative. One movie won’t do it, but once audiences have seen enough Western movies or TV shows that they enjoy, that’s when they decide that the like Westerns in general and start looking around for books.

LH: As Don said, one movie probably won’t have an impact on an entire genre. But it can have a dramatic effect on an individual title if there’s a tie-in involved, like with Open Range.

Now I want to ask you a few questions about the genre itself. Do you have one, or a few, favorite western writers?

DD: I love the current breed of western authors who are bringing a new approach to the western, or writing traditional westerns with a slightly different twist. That would be most of the current authors on the Leisure list, I suppose. But one of my all-time favorites has always been Will Henry. He’s hard to beat.

LH: I obviously like all of the authors I work with. But in addition to those, I’ve always enjoyed Larry McMurtry’s storytelling and characterization.

I have one last question, and I must warn it is a little vague. If you could choose any project to work on—as an editor or writer—what would it be?

DD: A couple years ago I would have said publishing Riders of Purple Sage in its original, uncut version, but now we’ve done that. So now I’d have to say publishing Jesse James’ autobiography. Imagine the stories he could have told.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have long had a special interest in the publishing side of the book industry. This interview was most informative. I have corresponded in the past with Leah through Dorchester forums and at David Thompson's (David Robbins) Fan Egroup. It was nice putting a face with the name. Dorchester has provided lots of wonderful books for readers over the years and I wish you both and Dorchester continued success.

Speaking as a representative fan of the WILDERNESS series, a special thanks to you Leah for providing fans with continued quality books. Dorchester/Leisure has published approximately 125 of David's books over the last quarter of a century, 60 of those WILDERNESS books.

Thanks again to both Don and Leah and Dorchester!

Katt

Brian Keene said...

Excellent interview!

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