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DarkTales: An Interview With David Nordhaus/ Victor Heck
By Scott Nicholson

David Nordhaus is part of the next generation of book publishers, those who are taking advantage of new technologies to circumvent the traditional New York-based publishing empires. Nordhaus was co-founder of DarkTales Publications, a now-defunct small press focusing on horror titles.

Nordhaus is also an author, writing under the name Victor Heck, and DarkTales released his novel A DARKNESS INBRED. He has been a highly-successful corporate salesman, graphic and web designer, a movie extra, and worked in a cemetery in addition to other, more extreme undertakings

Scott Nicholson: First off, how long do think about starting an independent press and why did you eventually make the move, even though it creates an obvious financial burden?

David Nordhaus: Originally DarkTales was started as a horror fan community in 1996 by myself and Butch Miller, who now does Sinister Element Magazine, with links for authors, magazines, and with the original listserver. We actually still have many of the original members of the first listserver among our present members. Back in like 1994 I had this concept for an anthology series I had been marketing to other publishers called The Asylum. And when DarkTales the community was formed we thought The Asylum would be a cool way to maintain a strong sense of "community" by publishing an anthology with stories written by our members. So we looked for pricing information from printers etc. Right about that time Keith Herber joined our list and voiced an interest in helping us out with design work.

The expense was more than we'd anticipated so it took us until 1999 to actually publish the thing, and by then we had also opened the anthology up to HWA members. The first Asylum book cost around $4500 to print via traditional offset methods, and was funded by my 1998 tax refund. We wanted to continue with the Asylum series with its other three volumes, but at that price we knew it wasn't possible. So for the next three months I scoured the web for printing alternatives.

This was when Print On Demand technology was just starting to appear, but it was still shunned mostly because back then the quality was lower than offset provides and the per unit prices were higher. But I knew there had to be something we could use Print On Demand for, and it would take more studying before we made a move. But to more specifically answer your question above, I would say that first we had our ideas of what we "wanted" to do in a small press, then we had to think about what we could pull off with what resources we had to work with, but the most important thing was knowing you've got an angle no one else has done or fully exploited yet that you might be able to do better.

In our case it was the complete lack of larger small press venues for a good mix of new name authors and established authors. There were plenty of small presses in horror, but I simply didn't see any new names to speak of breaking into anything anywhere. Other editors told me that new names don't sell and you have to be very picky about what new names you go with if they have a solid voice and story to tell. Well, this IS true, but the word "picky" never became an issue. As soon as we opened our doors and told the world we were
planning on publishing 12 new titles a year we were SWAMPED with interested new authors. Many of which are incredibly talented. And our perfect mix of 50/50 new names to established names shows we still do things the same way we did when we started.

Q: Obviously DarkTales is focusing on horror titles. Is this genre particularly ripe for a new publisher, given that a handful of small presses are already established?

DN: Oh, it was definitely ripe when we appeared on the scene. But it also depends on the angle you take when you start a press. All told I can count perhaps ten small presses out there, even today, that are still coming out with new books every year. There really are way more than that, but I'm talking about those companies producing something at least "fairly regularly", showing up at conventions, etc. Also note I'm only talking about US-based companies too. I don't know enough about the UK markets to comment there, other than to say I love the stuff I've seen.

Of those ten, maybe five were turning a profit making it worthwhile to continue shelling out the effort, and of those five I only saw four that were really making a major appearance in horror. Cemetery Dance, Subterranean, Meisha Merlin and Design Image. At least those are the four that made an impression on me when DarkTales' mission was being 'conceived'. Don't get me wrong, the stuff coming out by a bunch of the small presses is good quality stuff, I just meant that, to answer your question properly, that I felt there really was an opening for a new, energetic press in this genre. I felt this because CD and Subterranean both put out hardcovers and cater almost to a different market than we do, Design Image was a new company back then only doing Vampire or "traditional" monster horror themes, and Meisha Merlin, while also doing trade paperbacks, seemed to go more for established names and did both horror and scifi.

We instead went for all new titles, no reprints, all in trade paperback, of any theme as long as it was horror. In fact we've sort of silently avoided traditional monster themes like vampires and werewolves although DeadTimes has a vampiric aspect to it that we really liked, and it was something we as customers would really want to buy and read, and at least 50% of our titles are written by first-time or very new novelists that had written incredible works deserving publication.

Plus Horror is what I love. Damn near exclusively. Granted, the horror market is small compared to other genres. But despite the whining going on in the background about horror's impending doom, I've always loved horror and just KNOW there are others out there who think like I do and are always looking for great new stuff they can't find in the mass market. We just need to find and reach them is all, which we're working diligently to do.

Q: What are the advantages of print-on-demand publishing and what are the pitfalls, for both writers and publishers?

DN: The advantages are that we don't have to invest thousands per title to send it to press. We print small quantities as needed, so there is minimal warehousing and no tax on piles of unsold books. We don't suffer from overstocks/undersales, and since our investment per title is so low we are able to expand our line faster.

I don't know that there are any 'pitfalls' per se, other than the perception of some that POD is still low quality when it isn't. Some is, yes. But not the printers we use for our product. We make sure of that. Beyond that, the only other downside to POD I can see is the per unit price for printing is higher than traditional printing. Which translates to us having smaller profits than other publishers for each book sold if we price our books competitively. Which we are doing. In January 2001 we are revealing our all new, lower pricing schedule. So, while we receive lower profits, we don't suffer the risk other presses do if their stuff doesn't sell.

So, okay, that can be considered a pitfall: overprinting a POD book in anticipation of greater sales numbers and they don't come. Then you're stuck with books just like an offset printed book, but yours cost you more to print in the first place.

Q: Many people are surprised by the quality of the books themselves, especially the graphic design. Is the product close to how you envisioned it?

DN: No, it's actually way better. Keith Herber, Natalie Niebur and Kim Thornton are the artists that have done the majority of our covers, and their incredible design skills are certainly what give DarkTales books the look and image appeal they have. And Keith is responsible for the beautiful interior layout our books have as well. Other covers have been designed by Chad Savage (Filthy Death), Mark Evans (In Memoriam) and Alan Clark (Cold Comfort - coming in April, 2001).

Q: What should writers do to submit? What are the common manuscript flaws in general, and what are you looking for?

DN: Our submission guidelines are at . It explains what we're looking for at any given time and how to get it to us. Presently we're not taking on too many new books because our production schedule is pretty full until end of 2002, but we're always looking. I'd say the most common manuscript flaws are the standard punctuation, use of cliché statements, misspellings and changing perspective.

My pet peeve is spelling errors. I have this firm belief that writers should know how to spell. But despite these things, I'm primarily looking for a cool story I think we can sell that would fit our line. I overlook a lot of simple errors that editing can fix if there is a good, solid, original story in there we like.

Q: How does all this activity affect your personal writing time?

DN: I don't write much anymore except the rare review for Cinescape Online. DarkTales is a full-time job for me so I don't get much time for writing my own stuff anymore. Working in publishing is what I've always wanted, though, so there's certainly no regrets. I have, however, written six novels, and I do still occasionally write short stories.

Q: At what level do you think DarkTales Publications will reach its plateau, if ever? Two new titles a month, expansion into hardcover, that sort of thing?

DN: I don't know really. With two of us doing everything I think we've pretty much reached our physical limit of how many books a year we can produce, but things can always change. We actually wanted to get into hardcovers, but even though we can do them print on demand like paperbacks, we can't do them cheap enough to make them sensible for us.

I think if anything is going to change it's going to be the direction DarkTales takes with its publications. We're continually evolving and trying new stuff.

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-copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson


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