A Chat With Dave Mattingly of Blackwyrm Publishing
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.