Interview with Author and Publisher Karen Syed

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Karen Syed, bookseller, author, publisher, and all around awesome gal. There are so many things floating around about Karen, but the only truth is that she is really cool. She recently (four days before the date of her doing this interview) moved to Orlando. Having been raised in Florida (and swearing she would never move back), she spent ten years in Texas, two years in Tennessee, and then five years in Maryland, she headed back to the sunshine state with her totally awesome husband. When asked why she decided to move back to Florida, she will simply tell you it is to be closer to Mickey, Pooh, and Tinkerbell. Her favorite food is dill pickles (especially Kosher deli dills) and fried chicken, which her husband won’t let her eat very often since she got the Pacemaker/defibrillator. Heart failure and an enlarged heart sucks. (Disclaimer: Karen might have written this intro herself … but who really knows…)

You come from an interesting background in that you expanded your bookstore into a publishing company. This sounds like a fascinating story; please share it with us!

KAREN SYED: I knew at a very early age that I would be a writer. I would write on anything. I also knew I loved books. I have been reading (well) since I was four. I read everything from shampoo bottles and air freshener cans to books. So when I met my (now husband of 15 years) and he offered to buy me a bookstore, I knew I had hit the motherload of love … books and a great man. Boy howdy!

At the end of my first year as a bookseller, I was nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year. I still have no idea who nominated me, but some store in Indiana won. Oh well. So after about four years in the store, a friend and I started Echelon Press. Within eighteen months, I knew I wanted to do the publishing full time. So, I sold the store and forged ahead. During my bookstore days I managed to get a couple books published very badly.

I was so desperate to be a published author that I signed my rights away to my work for seventy years past my natural life … not once, but twice — two different companies. Oy!

So the reason for Echelon Press was to give new writers a place to break into the business. Ten years later, we’ve done okay.

VENTRELLA: How does your fiction writing fit in?

SYED: I’ve been writing for so long I don’t even know when it actually started. It wasn’t until 1987 that I considered writing as a career. My grandmother and mother were great at encouraging me and my Gramma event bought me a brand new Brother electric typewriter. It was such a vote of confidence, I knew I couldn’t let her down.

I wrote a lot for several years and even after I had the store. But once the publishing house started to take off, I had to make the tough choice; my own writing or discovering potential bestsellers. Finding awesome writers to publish is way cooler than revising my own work. But I do miss the writing. So much in fact that I did NaNoWriMo in 2010 and write a Steampunk novel that I have yet to revise. But I loved it, and I am a winner.

VENTRELLA: The future of publishing certainly is heading in the direction of e-books; however, there is still a stigma attached to books that are either not available in a hard copy or only available as a POD. Do you see that changing in the future?

SYED: Oooh, I just wanna smack people who feel the need to feed the distinction. A book is a book is a book. I say this in almost every interview I have done for the last ten years. There doesn’t need to be one or the other. I love my Kindle, but I also love my paperbacks. I just moved and cursed all twenty or so boxes of books I had to lug on and off the moving truck.

The sooner people realize it is a personal choice, the happier we will all be. I don’t see print becoming obsolete until we run out of trees, which means that it is perfectly safe for people to stop beating a dead horse and give eBooks the credit they have earned.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a (relatively) easy path for printing these days in that just about anyone can claim to be a “publisher” by getting software for distributing e-books and using someone else to do some PODs. Is this a good or a bad thing?

SYED: I admit to being torn on this issue. Educating people on the value of POD printing has been a tough road, but the growth of the self-publishing industry has helped with that. Of course, with one solution comes another problem. Sadly, anyone can become a publisher or an author, but not many actually become “good” publishers or authors. There is a lot of laziness in the self-publishing industry. Ugly covers, lack of effective editing, and low quality materials. This does not have to be the case. It all boils down to pride in product.

This is kinda like “Made in the USA” merchandise. A lot of times we buy stuff from other countries because the quality is better. Same thing with books. Most of us (readers) will try anything, but if you screw us once, we will move on. I read very few NYT best-selling authors because their work simply isn’t as good as most of the midlist authors I like. Why? Because the big authors know their books will sell whether they are good or not. Okay, this is not the case with all and that was a very general statement, but I think everyone knows what I mean.

Just because someone says he is a publisher doesn’t mean he is any good at it. Good publishing is not easy and if anyone says it is, he is lying like an old Oriental rug.

VENTRELLA: How can readers and writers know they are dealing with a publisher that is legitimate — where there is a standard for acceptance and books are edited before they are published?

SYED: Do your homework. Don’t assume that because they have a website they are good at what they do. As you said, anyone can say it. Talk to authors who have been with them, current and previous. If you only get awesome answers and high praise, dig a little deeper. We all have some issues and if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

I’ll be honest; there are people out there who will tell you I am a horrible publisher. They lie! No, honestly, there are a few cases where authors previously with Echelon have legitimate gripes, but pay careful attention to what is fact and what are sour grapes. I’d like to think that our successes far exceed our failures and we can’t be everything to everyone. But I will probably die trying.

Make sure that when you are considering a publisher that they share your vision. If you are not on the same page, neither the author, nor the publisher will be happy.

VENTRELLA: We met at a writer’s conference earlier this year. Have you found these to be a successful way for authors to find publishers?

SYED: Conferences have been outstanding for Echelon. I have literally found 50% of our authors at conferences, conventions, festivals, and even one at a craft sale. I need to connect with people and the only way to do that is to be out in the industry. I am a people person and I need that interaction. I also need to see a person’s face when they tell me what they are willing to do. I have learned (the hard way) who the liars are, and they are out there.

VENTRELLA: I still remember your expression when I mentioned I had written a vampire book; admittedly, it improved when you discovered the plot was not just another typical copycat. So here’s my question: What types of stories are you tired of receiving?

SYED: Pretty much vampire stuff. Heehee! Just kidding … sorta. I am truly sick to death of terrorist stories. I am of the mind that if the media and the entertainment industry continues to glamorize the horrific nature of terrorism, it will only continue to feed the fear and misunderstanding. I love thrillers as much as the next guy/gal, but there needs to be a limit and I simply don’t want to be the one to publish it. Reality sucks, why keep that fire burning so brightly.

VENTRELLA: How much of a story do you need to read before you can tell you’re going to reject it?

SYED: Totally depends on the story. I have read as few as two pages and knew I would rather gouge my eyes out than read any more, but I have also made it all the way to the end of some books and still couldn’t justify publishing it. It’s sad really when I find a book that I love, but I know I can’t make it sell. For example. I recently experienced the opposite. I got a submission (MARCEL’S GIFT) from an author named Marie Colligan. Her book is women’s fiction and involves a marriage, a tryst, a priest, the Pope, and a lot of love, understanding, and acceptance. I was shocked at the concept, but intrigued enough to keep reading. I kept telling my husband I didn’t have any idea how I could sell this book, but by the time I got to the end, I was so swept away, I am confident people will either love this book or hate it, but I know it will sell.

VENTRELLA: Have you rejected a book because you didn’t think you could work with an author, or thought the author wouldn’t promote their own material sufficiently? (Looking for anecdotes here but not names!)

SYED: Hey, I’ll give you names. This was not an immediate rejection, but … I contracted an author named Martin Bartloff. He wrote a book called TORN FROM NORMAL. It is a YA story that is very dark and very emotional. It deals with teen suicide. I was intrigued with the idea, but it was the recommendation of one of my editors that led me to contract it. We got to work and I soon discovered that Martin’s personality was far too powerful for me to tolerate in a working relationship. I know that sounds horrible, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t doubt his enthusiasm, or his desire to sell; it was specifically our personalities. I reverted his rights and suggested he self-publish. Martin needed to be in the driver’s seat. He did what I suggested.

Now, I admit that I have been a bit of a mentor to him through it all, but it was on his terms and I knew I could walk away any time. Martin is doing very well with his book and we have become very good friends. I enjoy him as a person so much more than I did as an author — don’t get me wrong, he is a great author — I just knew that if I had not made that decision, a very hard one, things would have ended very badly. As it were, things went better than either of us could have considered.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice you could give a starting author that isn’t obvious and hasn’t been stated many times before?

SYED: Don’t be stupid and don’t be conceited. You are not all that and a bag of chips. We are all just people and we all need help and guidance in all that we do. We are not born brilliant; it’s very hard work. In order to find great success, you must be willing to admit when you are wrong. Know when to ask for help. More than anything, do not assume you know more than everyone else just because you wrote the book. I don’t care what anyone says, writing the book is the easy part. I can say that I’ve done it all. I know.

If you think you can be a successful author just by writing book after book, think again. You can write a hundred books, but if you don’t get anyone to read them, you are just a writer, not an author. Whether you go with a traditional publisher or self-publish, you better be willing to learn how to market and sell or you better be satisfied with selling a few dozen books to your family.

VENTRELLA: We discussed some of your success stories concerning authors who submitted short stories for download. I’ve had short stories published in anthologies, but have never gone to the “download just the story” route. Do you think that is the way of the future, given that anthology sales keep dropping?

SYED: I am not a fan of anthologies. I sincerely hope that more writers will learn the value of electronically publishing short stories. eBooks could seriously revive the short story industry.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

SYED: Think about it. A writer who has spent years writing shorts, but never finding the “right” anthology to accept them. How sad is that? Short stories are a great way to develop your writing skills and to increase you readership. There is no downside to eBook shorts.

VENTRELLA: How important are agents for publishers like yourself?

SYED: Disclaimer: I have met quite a few agents that I personally liked. However, I have only found one agent that has been worth anything with regard to working with me. More times than not, agents turn out to be more trouble for me than good. Being a smaller (or boutique) publisher, we don’t have the perks to offer than a NY house does. We often don’t pay as much as a larger house (for obvious reasons) so why would an author want to give 15% to an agent when there is little to nothing an agent can do to help them with me?

The few times I have tried to work with agents, it has meant me giving up every bit of legal protection for my company so the author could have every little thing they wanted, with no compromise.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about your books. You originally started out writing primarily romance. Tell us about those!

SYED: They are brilliant. No, really. Okay, they are damn good. I have a tendency to write what I want and that made it impossible for me to find a traditional publisher. I wrote between the cracks as a very nice editor at Mills & Boon told me one Christmas Eve as she was rejecting me. Nice, huh? I worked in daycare for fifteen years so almost all my books have some strong young characters to compliment the lead couples.

I also tend to write flawed characters. DARK SHINES MY LOVE has a blind hero. LOST AND FOUND has an orphaned teen with an emotionally devastated uncle as her guardian. THE WINGS OF LOVE deals with a man’s issues with his family and his belief in himself and things in general.

I have always been a fixer, so I write people who I can fix. Romance is about happily ever after and redemption. I do both pretty well. If I do say so myself.

I am currently toying with a mystery and a Steampunk novel. I met an author named Nick Valentino at a conference in San Diego and he introduced me to the Steampunk genre. His novel, THOMAS RILEY, was our first Steampunk novel and has been one of our most successful to date. It totally rocks. I-was-blown-away! Have become a wee bit obsessed with it — both reading and writing it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written under a pseudonym. Why did you decide to do that?

SYED: Well, in the beginning I felt like I needed to keep my writing separate from the bookstore/bookseller. How goofy was I? (Rhetorical) It was nearly impossible to explain my resonating to people and now that I just wanna be me, it is a huge pain in the butt trying to switch things back over. If you decide to write under a pseudonym, please know that it is NOT as easy as Nora Roberts makes it look.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your new Steampunk books.

SYED: Dude, Steampunk is just the coolest thing ever, almost as cool as faeries. I knew after meeting Nick that I was hooked. So when NaNoWriMo came up last year, it was my chance to do a couple things. I spent a solid month writing, and it was bliss. I also got to delve into this totally awesome and explosive genre. My series (I never come up with book ideas, I always come up with series ideas) is called Petticoat Junction and is about four girls from very different lifestyles who join together to make a very formidable band of vigilantes. Each one has a special trait and together they are incredible. Toss in the automatons, alchemy, and big flying things, and it is bliss. Isn’t that a cool word? Bliss .. ahh.

VENTRELLA: Who do you enjoy reading?

SYED: Oy, good thing you are okay with long answers. I have three favorites, oh hey, stories.

My favorite is Caroline Bourne who writes the most incredible historical romances (the best being RIVERBOAT SEDUCTION). Many years ago, I belonged to the Prodigy Romance Writers Group and I ran across a very nice lady named Carol. She became a friend and a mentor of sorts. She was incredibly supportive of me and my writing. After a bit of time, I found out she was actually Caroline Bourne (I had been reading her books for some years and she was already my favorite.) It was like fate had brought her into my life and we have been friends since. We did lose touch for a while, but thanks to Facebook, she found me and I am so freaking pleased to say that within the next couple months we will begin a new journey together. Echelon will be reissuing her previously published romances, as well as new stories (Talon’s Heart) from her. This is as cool as when Robert Goldsborough (who wrote several Nero Wolfe books after the passing of Rex Stout) called me and said he wanted to submit his mystery to Echelon. We published THREE STRIKES YOU’RE DEAD which turned out to be the first in his original Snap Malek mystery series. We have published five in the series so far, along with a couple shorts.

I also adore Jill Barnett. Her paranormal romance, BEWITCHING, was a light in the darkness for me when my first marriage was falling apart. I have never read a book by her that I did not love. And she is a wonderfully nice lady.

Julia Spencer Fleming opened a new genre for me with her IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER (A Claire Fergguson Novel). Her writing is some of the best I have ever read and her characters are just so real, you really feel like you know them.

I mentioned thrillers up a bit and once of my favorite thriller writers is James Rollins. I discovered his Sigma books a few years back and wow! I have been going back to his earlier books and love them just as much. I highly recommend THE DEVIL COLONY, his latest. Mesmerizing.

And this is not the end of the list, but I cannot ignore James Lee Burke. Have been rading his Dave Robicheaux series for years and it is one of the best.

I did recently read my first books from Jacquelyn Winspear and Seanan McGuire and they may just get added to my favorite list.

2 Responses

  1. Michael, what a fun and interesting interview into Karen and her life as a publisher! I am proud to be one of the 50% Karen met at a conference and signed with. As you know my debut novel comes out in March, 2012 with Echelon Press.

    Karen, says it right when in looking for a publisher they must share your vision. Its true. Karen believed in my story and worked with me over months on my book before we signed with edits and recommendations for developmental changes. That is a publisher who is willing to go above and beyond. As an author, I want to learn from a Publisher. She is right, we cant come in “knowing it all” and once we write our books, there is still a ton of hard work to do.

    I havent read Steampunk, but now willing to see what it’s all about. And i think I would marry anyone who bought me a bookstore. That is true love! :)

    Thanks for an indepth and insightful interview.

  2. Great interview, Mike and Karen :)

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