Scary Business

These days small publishers have plenty of horror stories to share, but Thomas Strauch actually sells them. For more than a decade Strauch has been building a successful design and marketing communications firm, DesignImage Group, Inc., in suburban Burr Ridge, but in his spare time he’s written horror fiction, published horror zines, and volunteered his time to the Horror Writers Association. Two years ago he decided to join the commercial undead and established a line of quality paperbacks focusing on what he calls “traditional supernatural horror.” DesignImage’s first three titles, unveiled last month, include two vampire novels–Night Prayers by P.D. Cacek and Carmilla: The Return by Kyle Marffin–and a story anthology, The Darkest Thirst.

Given Strauch’s lack of publishing experience, he seems to have made a respectable debut. Alice Bentley, whose Lakeview store The Stars Our Destination specializes in horror and sci-fi, called the three titles “very nicely produced paperbacks” and the writing “much better than serviceable.” Chicago writer Rick R. Reed, who has published two horror novels with Dell, contributed a story to The Darkest Thirst and was also impressed by the design. “I was surprised by how attractive the books are,” he says, “something you don’t always see in small independent publishing houses.” Better yet, Strauch seems to have taken his own experience as a writer to heart and avoided draining his authors’ blood; Reed reports that he’s been paid a royalty on each book as soon as it has sold. “A lot of publishing companies I’ve worked with don’t do that.”

Yet Strauch admits that the new imprint is far from turning a profit. The venture was funded with nearly $60,000 in cash flow and profits from DesignImage. His business plan calls for the first three titles to edge into the black after selling a total of 10,000 units, and so far he’s shipped about 1,200. Strauch is trying to raise DesignImage’s profile among booksellers and to expand distribution; already two of the nation’s largest wholesalers, Ingram Book Company and Baker & Taylor, are handling the books. He’s sent thousands of flyers to independent bookstores around the country and cut deals with two of the largest booksellers on the Internet, and Amazon, he reports, has been a particularly good merchant for DesignImage: “They’re our best customer.” Borders and Barnes & Noble have been much more difficult. “They have a very specific process that has to be gone through before you get into their stores, and it can take months,” he says. But Bentley thinks that Strauch may have more luck now than he would have had a few years ago, because the widespread popularity of quality paperbacks now guarantees them more display space and shelf life than ever before.

Strauch plans to publish three more books in the fall and another three in spring 1999. He’s engaged four DesignImage staffers and two people outside the firm in the publishing effort; to select the first three titles the editorial board sifted through about 1,200 novel and short story manuscripts, narrowing the field to 30 serious contenders. “It was pretty clear to all of us which two of the six novels were the best,” says Strauch, “but there was lots of discussion about the short stories.” Strauch’s story “The Alberscine Vigil” was one of 16 that made the cut for The Darkest Thirst. As his wry contributor’s note reports, “No one on the editorial committee volunteered to issue him a rejection slip.”

After the spring 1999 batch Strauch will assess the future of the imprint. “It may very well be that we find it just isn’t economically viable,” he admits. Aside from all the other challenges, horror is not a growth genre in the industry. “The New York publishers just don’t seem interested in it at the moment,” says Bentley. Only about 10 percent of the 10,000 titles at The Stars Our Destination fall into the horror category. Strauch notes, “Horror now is only about 20 percent of the size of science fiction.” But he felt it was critical to zero in on one subject and establish a clear identity for the imprint. Jordan Miller, vice president of Academy Chicago Publishers, endorses the strategy. “Niche is the operative word when you’re a small publisher,” he says. “You can only really succeed by publishing books that have a limited but loyal audience.”

Size Does Matter

Small theater companies come and go, and those that survive learn to roll with the punches. Take, for example, the Directors Theatre of Chicago. When their debut production, Play-Action, opened in January, the Tribune called the company “a young troupe worth watching.” Comprised of recent graduates from Northwestern University, DTC was launched to produce new works by local playwrights, according to managing director Marko Iglendza. But the company’s growing pains show why so many young theater groups bite the dust.

The group raised $17,000 in start-up funds, primarily from family, friends, and one benefit. Unfortunately Play-Action drew minuscule audiences. This spring DTC premiered the Brian Ness play Kiss Mess in one of the Athenaeum Theatre studios, and the results were even more disappointing. Reader critic Justin Hayford wrote that the company had “lassoed a playwright with precious little to say.” Sunday performances had to be canceled because attendance was so poor; Thursday shows were eliminated in favor of two on Saturday nights, but those two were then reduced to one. The company popped for only one newspaper ad, preferring instead to send 4,000 postcards to a mailing list dominated by theater folk. Iglendza thinks the group had targeted the wrong audience. “Theater people don’t go to the theater that often,” he observes. The play closes this weekend.

DTC hasn’t depleted its funds yet, but it’s decided to shelve a third production planned for August and rethink its strategy. In the meantime it will have to find a new artistic director to replace Amanda Weier, who has resigned. “They’re thinking more about doing instant-hit status stuff now, while I want to continue to do more experimental work,” she explains. Phil Kohlmetz is managing director of Roadworks Productions, a young theater that’s broken through the ranks of start-up companies; he thinks the Directors Theatre saga is fairly typical. “They all may have gotten a great education in the theater,” he says, “but they usually haven’t gotten an education in the marketplace, where it’s much tougher.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Thomas Strauch photo by Eugene Zakusilo.