A Conversation With Don D'Auria
edited: Friday, April 20, 2001
By Garrett Peck
Posted: Friday, April 20, 2001
Become a Fan
An interview with Leisure Books senior editor Don D'Auria, in charge of the horror and Western Lines. Appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine issue #33.
A Conversation with Don D’Auria
By Garrett Peck
For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Don D’Auria is a senior editor at Leisure Books, in charge of the horror and Western lines. Don has taken Leisure from being the “Harlequin Romance” of horror publishers to being the leading voice in mass-market paperbacks for the genre. This interview illustrates how he’s done it and what he intends to do in the future.
Cemetery Dance: When did you start working with Leisure Books and what prompted you to revise the horror line?
Don D’Auria: I began at Leisure just about four years ago. At that point the horror line was very much under-appreciated. We did only about eight books a year and the books we did were aimed at a younger audience, largely teenagers. About three years ago we decided, if we were going to have a horror line, we ought to really take it seriously and go for the best authors and the best books we could find. Also, we wanted to aim the books at an older readership. The teenagers who used to read Goosebumps have grown up now and they want quality horror that says something to them.
CD: Has your new upscale approach resulted in better sales for your horror titles?
DD: Definitely. The reaction to our new, improved horror line was very strong and very fast. It really seemed there was a hunger out there for good horror and the hunger wasn’t being satisfied by the few horror books being published. Almost as soon as word got out about the new horror line, our sales began to increase and they’ve been increasing slowly but steadily ever since. Soon after we renovated the line we increased the number of titles eight a year to twelve, then we increased it again to eighteen. If sales continue to increase and we think the market can support it, we may increase the number again in the future. We want to do it slowly, though. The last thing we want to do is to over-saturate the market.
CD: One of the biggest changes I’ve seen with the new line is the classy cover art. You never have any kids with skull faces anymore. What are your criteria for cover art these days?
DD: We want the covers to be classy, to convey the importance of the books. These aren’t aimed at just kids anymore, though certainly kids could still enjoy them. We want adults to be able to pick up the books and know that there’s real fiction in there by real authors. We don’t want adults to be embarrassed to be seen reading these books in public. Some of the old horror covers, by many different publishers in the eighties, had nothing to do with the content of the books. As long as they said “horror” to buyers, that was all that counted. Often they just went for the cheap gross-out to lure the kids whom they saw as most of the market. It was a bit condescending, really.
CD: Your Horror Book Club is one of the best deals for horror fans going. Currently subscribers get three books shipped to their door every other month at 40% off the already reasonable prices with no extra charge for shipping and handling. The first shipment is even free of charge. How successful has the club been so far? What percentage of your total sales does the book club represent?
DD: The book club took off much faster than we expected. We anticipated a gradual growth, but it really shot up very quickly and it’s still growing. The percentage of total sales varies from book to book, depending on the retail sale, but the book club provides us with a constant sale for each title. The horror club also has the lowest drop out rate of any of our book clubs.
CD: What titles and authors have been your best sellers thus far?
DD: It’s hard to compare individual authors and books strictly in terms of numbers, since there are so many different factors involved, so I tend to look at the readers’ responses in general. Everyone at Leisure has been extremely pleased with the reactions to a number of our books. Doug Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Mary Ann Mitchell, Elizabeth Massie and Ed Gorman, just to name a few, have had books that were especially well received. Personally, I’m thrilled at the response to Richard Laymon’s Bite. I’m glad we can finally do right by Dick after the way he’s been treated by other publishers in the past.
CD: Since the majority of New York publishers have abandoned the horror lines they had in the heyday of the 1980s, you have been able to pick up some of the finest mid-list authors who lost their publishers. What do you think prompted other publishers to turn their backs on horror and claim it doesn’t sell, when major bestseller lists often have three or four genre related titles on them?
DD: I think a lot of it has to do with large publishers overreacting to the inevitable decline in horror sales following the “boom” years. Just as they were very quick to flood the market with horror when they saw sales taking off, they were just as quick to pull out when they saw the sales begin to drop. Horror was still popular, just not as popular as it had been. But to the large houses, it was dead, so they killed their lines and switched to other genres.
CD: Do you think Leisure’s success with horror is catching the eye of other publishers who might jump on the bandwagon?
DD: I think we’re already seeing that happen. Some houses are actually beginning to label their books as “horror” again, and others are testing the water with some new books and some reissues. Nobody wanted to take the chance before, but now that we’ve shown it can work they’re more than happy to jump on board.
CD: This year at the movies we have seen quite a number of horror films perform well beyond expectations, such as The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Stigmata and Deep Blue Sea. These films are all very different in terms of style and content, yet all have done well. This would indicate the American public is indeed hungry for horror stories. Do you feel this up-tick of interest in horror films will spread to the book industry?
DD: I think it will. As people watch those movies and enjoy them, they realize they like being scared, they like the feeling they get and they’ll look for that feeling in books as well. But I also think the success of these movies is an indication of a large horror audience, for both movies and books that’s already out there waiting to be scared. These folks have been waiting for good horror films and good horror books, and now that they’re available, they’re doing well.
CD: I have noticed that Leisure has been publishing many different types of books under the label “horror.” What is your personal and professional definition of horror? What are the limits of the genre, if any?
DD: We’ve tried consciously to publish a broad spectrum of books under the horror label. We’ve done supernatural horror, psychological suspense, even some “fun” type horror. There’s room for a lot of different styles in the genre. I know I like different kinds of books and I think other horror readers do as well. I don’t want the Leisure line to be pigeonholed as just one specific, narrow type of books. For me, a book is horror as long as it provides that cold chill when you read it, and that can come from a lot of different sources.
CD: What are you looking for with submissions? What advice would you give an aspiring writer who wants to place a book with you?
DD: The two things I look for most in a submission area a good story and good writing. And both should be different from things I’ve seen before. I guess it’s only natural that a lot of beginning writers try to write like Stephen King, since he’s a hero to almost everyone in the genre, but I’d rather see someone trying to write in their own, individual voice. Stephen King is fantastic, but he already exists. Try to write like yourself, not someone else.
CD: You have published several first novels, such as Barry Hoffman’s Hungry Eyes and Mary Ann Mitchell’s Drawn to the Grave, which won the International Horror Guild award. Does an unknown author with a strong manuscript stand as good a chance of getting published by you as a name author?
DD: We’ve been trying to achieve a nice mix of “name” authors, up-and-comers and beginning writers. Certainly the more established authors will have an easier time selling in the bookstores, but I really feel that we need new talent to keep the genre going. So we’re going to continue bringing out some talented folks who may not be well known yet, but whose work stands out.
CD: Douglas Clegg’s The Nightmare Chronicles is the first story collection you’ve published with the new line. Is there any truth to the rumor that collections don’t sell as well as novels? Do you have any other collections in the works?
DD: Collections by well-known authors can sell as well as novels. It is harder to get readers to pick up a collection by someone they don’t know. For some reason readers are more likely to take a chance with a novel. But if it’s a writer they know and like, collections are fine. We’re very pleased so far with the success of The Nightmare Chronicles, and we have other collections coming down the road from authors like J. N. Williamson, John Shirley, Bill Pronzini and Ed Gorman.
CD: You have yet to publish any multi-author anthologies. Do you have any plans to do so?
DD: Not at this point, though it’s conceivable that might change in the future. Right now it’s just too hard to sell an anthology in mass-market paperback unless it has original fiction by one of the established superstars of the genre. The only exception has been anthologies of erotic horror, but that’s already covered by the Hot Blood series and a few others.
CD: Would you like to give Cemetery Dance readers a preview of some of the authors and titles they can look forward to in the coming year?
DD: There are some great things coming up. I’m very excited about what we’ll be doing in 2000. Early in the year we’ll be releasing One Rainy Night by Richard Laymon, and in the fall we’ll bring out his Among the Missing. In March we’ll publish Doug Clegg’s You Come When I Call You, the masterpiece he’s been working on for ten years. Then we’ll have Quenched, the sequel to Mary Ann Mitchell’s Sips of Blood. And we’re really looking forward to introducing Simon Clark to American readers with Nailed by the Heart, and later in the year Blood Crazy. Simon is a brilliant British author and anyone who hasn’t read him yet will be blown away. We have a new novel by Graham Masterton that hasn’t been published in paperback in the States before, The House That Jack Built. We have an original by Hugh B. Cave, a true grand master, called The Dawning. And the book that scared off all the other paperback houses, Robert Devereaux’s Santa Steps Out. Plus there’s Ed Gorman, J. N. Williamson, John Shirley, Robert J. Randisi, Barry Hoffman and a few other surprises. An amazing year anyway you look at it.
CD: What other horror authors—ones you haven’t published, that is—do you most enjoy?
DD: Oh, there are so many, where do I begin? In no particular order, and depending on my mood, I love Peter Straub, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lucy Taylor, Jack Ketchum, Clark Ashton Smith, Richard Matheson, Ray Garton, Thomas Tessier, James Herbert, Stephen Laws, Poppy Z. Brite, Lord Dunsany… I’m sure I’m forgetting some of my favorites. I’ll probably look at my shelves and kick myself for not mentioning someone.
CD: You are also the senior editor for Leisure’s Western line. How has that line been performing for you?
DD: That’s been doing very well, too. That’s another genre that most of the large New York publishers have written off as dead, but which is still quietly thriving. In fact, I’d say just as horror is beginning to come back, the Western is bouncing back as well.
CD: Many authors known primarily for their work in other genres have worked in Westerns as well, such as Richard Matheson, Elmore Leonard and your own Ed Gorman. If someone sent you a “weird Western,” like Nancy A. Collins’ Lynch for instance, how would you categorize it?
DD: I think I’d have to put it in the horror genre if it was especially weird. Western readers tend to be just a bit more conservative, especially when it comes to supernatural elements. I think it would be harder for a Western reader to accept explicit horror elements than it would for a horror reader to accept Western elements. Ed Gorman is probably the best example, but take a look at some of the more traditional Western writers and I think you’ll be surprised. T. V. Olsen was very dark and Will Cade’s books have a chilling mood to them that many horror writers would envy. There’s a lot of crossover among the genres and it’s a mistake to see them as all one thing or another.
CD: Many big bookstores have begun eliminating their horror sections and are now mixing horror titles in with fiction and literature. Do you think this is a good thing for the genre, as these books might attract the attention of readers who don’t normally peruse the horror section? Does consigning a book to the horror section “ghettoize” it and make it less respectable in readers’ eyes?
DD: What it does from a publisher’s standpoint is make it more difficult to sell the books in stores. A book faces a whole lot more competition if it’s battling it out with all of the authors in the general fiction section. If a store has a horror section the buyer will be looking for books to fill that section, and those books will be more likely to be prominently displayed. A general fiction section is a much, much larger section with more authors fighting for attention. Stores will be less likely to buy as many copies of a horror author if he or she is going up against Tom Wolfe, Danielle Steele and John Grisham.
CD: Recently the specialty press has been booming. Is this likely to have an effect on how large mainstream publisher view the genre?
DD: I think they’ll see it as another example of the readership that exists out there for horror. Anything in the genre that succeeds will be more likely to convince large publishers that horror works and can make money.
CD: Do you think such literary awards as the Bram Stoker and the International Horror Guild awards are effective sales tools for a publisher? What do you think these organizations can do to make their awards more prominent and useful to publishers?
DD: The awards are very helpful as a marketing tool. We can use the awards as a way of letting buyers know which books have gotten special attention from folks in the genre. Anything that increases the awareness of the awards in the public’s mind would make it even more effective. Possibly the best-known genre award is the Edgar in mysteries. Even people who don’t read a lot of mysteries know what an Edgar award is and they’re likely to be impressed if they see a book has won one. The HWA and the IHG have begun publicizing the awards a bit more these days and I hope they continue to do so. Awareness is the key.
CD: Have you noticed any new trend in recent horror fiction, or is it remaining wide open?
DD: I’d say it’s still wide open. There are always trends, but by definition they come and go. I see a lot of X-Files-type plots these days, and there was a huge influx of millennium books for a while. But one of the best things about horror is that the only real limit is the authors’ imaginations. Personally I’d rather see something that bucks the trend than follows it.
CD: Audio books have become the fastest-growing segment of the sound industry. Does Leisure have any plans to get involved with this market?
DD: That’s actually something we have been looking into. We’re looking at a number of different ways to do it and our research continues. We hope we’ll be able to announce something in the future, but we’re not quite ready to yet.
CD: Are there any closing remarks you’d like to share?
DD: Just that I think we’re entering a very exciting time for horror fans. If you’re a reader, there are terrific authors out there, some great new ones coming, and it’s getting easier to find their work. If you’re a writer, things are starting to ease up and there’s more hope of getting published. These are things I wouldn’t have been able to say just a few years ago. We’re headed in the right direction for a change.