The Journey so Far:
Every now and then life forces us to stand still… and reflect. For most of us that time is when a new year stares you in the face.
So thanks to Erik Hoffstatter and Darkness Dwells for asking me to do this, since it’s high time I take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
2015 was one of those years where it felt like I was watching a train speed by inches from my face, while I’m on another train traveling in the opposite direction.
Not quite so unknown as you’d think.
I’m one of those extremely goal-orientated people who always have a plan, and my train is a small press dubbed Crystal Lake Publishing.
I should actually be taking stock a lot more, now that I think about it, just to make sure my goals are still where they need to be.
I started writing in 2008, and quickly realized my passion was not just for creating my own work, but the actual process of creating books. Working collaboratively with authors and artists, meeting new authors and promoting their careers were the best parts of my new ‘hobby.’ In 2012 I realized I knew enough (or so I thought) to start my own small press. I knew enough folks to get it off the ground, but… I had no idea how much work lay ahead. I wanted to help bring great fiction to the world, and I finally found a group of people who understood me. A place where I fit in.
Now when you talk about humble beginnings, picture a slightly off-center primary school teacher from South Africa, living in a small flat on the school premises. Just me, my wife, and our two dogs. I was 32 years old when I started Crystal Lake Publishing. Until recently, my day job funded everything the company put out.
I had dreams, plans, and most importantly, I knew what authors and readers were looking for. Being an author first gave me a great advantage as an editor, publisher, marketer, and a good old friend who understood the mind of an author – their angst, insecurities, worries etc.
Crystal Lake started out pretty small with an anthology name For the Night is Dark, edited by Ross Warren (not too small, since it had Gary McMahon, William Meikle, Jasper Bark, and Robert W. Walker in it), until a book called Horror 101: The Way Forward came along. The process of putting it together introduced me to a lot of big names in the industry, and most folks realized I was truly a fan of the genre, and that Crystal Lake wasn’t just another fly-by-night small press. The goal of the book was to help authors along their career paths. It ended up being nominated for a Bram Stoker award, and put Crystal Lake right on track.
Since that day I’ve worked with a lot of authors I read growing up, as well as film producers that had me hiding behind a pillow as a kid (for Horror 201 especially). All ‘inventors’ I grew up studying, whether I realized it or not. Such great memories. The highs I got from chatting with folks like Wes Craven (just before he passed away), Graham Masterton, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, and Mick Garris had its low points, though: everything else felt mundane. But I worked through those issues by keeping the final goal in mind. To publish great books people will love and remember.
It wasn’t long before I had to get more folks on board, since I just couldn’t do it all anymore. Not with another full time job as a primary school teacher in the mix. And you can only go along for so long. Eventually you’ll have to expand, or crack. Trust me, I came close in 2015. There’s just too much work involved, if you’re doing it right.
Now, one thing I’m very weary of is failed publishers, and the biggest thing that can sink a company is going too big too fast. Spending money they don’t have, believing the money will come flooding in with the next book. That is not the way this business works. My two bestsellers were slow-cookers at first, anyway. You have to set a very strong foundation (just like an author has to build a career through many books). So when I started hiring folks, I really did my homework, looking for the best quality at affordable fees. Some things I could outsource, the rest I just had to continue doing on my own. Sink or swim.
I decided to build Crystal Lake slowly, but strong. I wanted to treat it like an actual being – a life force. It had to grow up, face obstacles, evolve, and go through those tough teenage years (still there some days).
In an effort to make Crystal Lake unique, it needs to be an extension of me. Unique to me so that it can’t be like any other small press; in the same way that a story can be unique when written by different authors with strong individual voices. That’s exactly why I tend to work with folks I get along with really well. I want them to be a part of the foundation.
So I’m doing the footwork. Meeting the people. Being honest and sincere. Building lifelong relationships with folks I’ll probably never meet in person, but would love to hang out with at a horror convention someday.
It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but luckily I’m a lot easier to get along with online than in person. I’m a bit…shy. Yeah, let’s call it that. Thank goodness for emails and Facebook. I am not great with first impressions.
At times it felt like the company was growing too fast, and I just hung on for the ride, but in the end, I need to keep my finger on everything that happens. No matter how many people will end up working for Crystal Lake, or how many authors we sign, I need to know everything that happens, and when.
Another big step forward was when Crystal Lake opened for book submissions in 2014, paying authors advances. I believe it showed folks we’re here to stay, and drew the attention of authors and not just readers.
I’m a big believer of paying authors what they deserve, and every year I strive to pay them more. As a publisher, you need to make your authors feel like they’re more important than a book, because they are. My job isn’t to just sell books; it’s to help readers find their next favorite author. I strive to introduce these two groups to each other, so I spend a lot of time meeting folks on both sides, studying their styles and preferences.
In another effort to make Crystal Lake stand out (not just in quality, since most small presses I know have that), I needed to approach my authors’ existing readers in a unique way. I had to make them fans of Crystal Lake, while making existing Crystal Lake fans check out their work. Most readers don’t even know the publisher of their favorite authors, but I want to change that. I want to make Crystal Lake one of their favorite small presses. That way they’ll feel like part of the team, share our launches, and take a chance on a new author. Eventually I want them to trust my judgment and read what I publish. That’s why I’ll always have the first and final say in Crystal Lake’s books, until the day I die.
Once I’ve promoted the heck out of a book, and reached out to readers in every way I know how, I turn my attention to supporting my authors, guiding them to newer heights. I take their careers very seriously, not just the books I’m handling. I guide them where I can, or get someone with more experience to jump in. I give them every possible chance, because they deserve it. Motivate them. Keep them going. Whatever it takes. Ask any of my authors, I make them feel like they’re my bestselling author – at least I hope so.
During this process I’m also learning: constantly researching launch tactics, other companies, authors, books, How-To manuals, management and small-business guides, careers, and a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. Oh, and lots of reading. As much as I have time for, which of course is never enough. I really put in the time to study today’s authors. Looking for that undiscovered talent. There’s no bigger rush than finding new talent.
That’s pretty much how things started out, and my day-to-day thought process. In the end I’d love to leave something behind. Be remembered for my influence. Make a difference in the lives of every person I work with. Have them be better off for knowing me.
It’s not always easy, but that’s my goal. It keeps me on the right path. Helps me make the hard choices.
I tend to neglect myself at times, so I need to find the right balance. Life is all about finding the right balance in everything you do, even the things you don’t do.
What Lies Ahead:
I have lots of goals. Big plans. Short, medium, and of course long term goals. Be sure to always have all three types of goals, otherwise it’s easy to lose momentum.
I even have a couple of wishes. One thing to remember is you shouldn’t make goals that are out of your control. It’ll make you feel like a failure when you’re actually quite successful. That’s why I call them wishes.
For instance, I’d love to make a huge impact on the Horror genre over the course of my career. When I was a kid (and even now), I loved watching folks receive a lifetime achievement award. Now that’s an honor. Forget the Best Picture Oscar. I want the lifetime achievement award. I’ll continue to give this industry my all, contributing to careers and the written word as much as I can, achieving my goals by breaking them into steps, but those wishes will always be out of my control.
A goal for 2016 is to hit the bookstores hard. Our books are already available in bookstores, but the bookstores need to be more aware of them.
Another goal for 2016 was to finally make a couple of Best Books of the Year lists, but in the last few days I found out Crystal Lake titles made at least six lists that I know of, so hopefully we can build that.
Another wish is eventually work with Stephen King, Joe Hill, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, and other big names. I’ve already got Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker lined up for an anthology. What a treat it was to see my signature next to theirs on the contracts. A dream come true.
I’d also love to open for novel submissions again in 2016, perhaps novellas, as well. Perhaps even some Fantasy books. More Dark Poetry collections, as well. My mind is always racing, always working. Too bad there’s only so much time in a year. But, quality has to come first.
What We Look for in a Story/Author:
I’m a big fan of stories. I don’t care if it’s a novel, novella, short story, poem, song, movie, or comic book. If a story bores me, I’m gone! As a reader, if you have a great story, I’ll help you shape the characters and fix everything else.
I love unique and original stories that still have a touch of old-school horror. Who doesn’t?
But as a publisher, I need to look at the full package, since that’s what we need to sell in the end. I’m looking for talent, a submission that needs as little editing as possible, and a dedicated author whose image closely reflects ours.
I want to be sure that you’ll put your weight behind the book, and that you’re in it for the right reasons. That you’ll keep writing no matter how your next book fares, and that you won’t bite a reviewer’s head off on social media, or for real.
Careers are not built on one book. And successful careers are scarcely achieved on overnight success.
I want to leave you with this nugget: Always know where you are in your career, and where you’re headed. Figure out how you’ll get there and who you’ll meet on the way there. Reach out to them. Help them along the road and they’ll help you. It’s a lot like running a marathon where hundreds of gold medals are handed out at the end. The only time that it’s lonely at the top is when you didn’t bring anyone with you.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go find the next big writer. Plus we’ve got about twenty top notch books to prepare for 2016.
This blog post originally appeared on The Cimmerian Writings of Erik Hofstatter: http://erikhofstatter.net/news/