Friday, August 20, 2010

Sassy Gal Interview: Karen Syed, Author & Echelon Press CEO

She wears several hats - author, publisher, business person - and uses more than one name. Her real name is Karen Syed, CEO of Echelon Press and its numerous imprints. To others she is known as Alexis Hart, author of several novels and stories. For some of us who’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to share our own stories with the world, she’s also known as “boss.”

Karen is constantly busy running the business and working with her large stable of authors from many genres, so it was fortunate she was able to find some time to talk with me about herself, her writing and how she made the move to publishing.

How long have you been writing, and what first inspired you to first pick up a pen?

KS: It's funny how that happened. Actually, I'm not sure. I've always been a word girl. Started reading at four and have never stopped. I used to have books, even before I could actually write or read and if after someone read it to me I didn't like the story I would get a pencil or something and scribble between the lines, writing my own story, in my own language. Some might call it destruction of books, I call it the creative spark.

What was your first sale? Was it a short story or a book? When and where did it first appear?

KS: Now this is funny. When I met my first husband, Butthead, I was deeply in love…with the idea of being in love. I was totally smitten to being married, just not so much to him. In an effort to mold my life into something else, I wrote a piece called "The Value of Human Life." At the time I thought it was a piece about how my life was, but looking back now, I have come to expect that it was a piece about what I prayed my life could be. I actually sang the praises of the man who ultimately abused me. Go figure. It was published in a little magazine called, crap, I can't remember. At any rate. I got the notification and the check for $15.00 two days after I filed for divorce from Butthead. How's that for irony?

What made you decide to write under the pseudonym of Alexis Hart?

KS: At the time it seemed like a good idea. I was trying to get established in the book business and I thought I needed to keep that separate from my writing. Turns out nobody really cares. Writers come in all shapes and sizes and now I am just paying the price by trying to get everything into my real name so someone has a clue who the heck I am.

I must admit I’m not too well-read in the romance genre. What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

KS: When I first started writing for publication I was in the midst of marital hell and romance novels were my escape. I could read about other women's lives and how beautiful it could all be. I would stay up all night reading to avoid going to bed. I would escape into the worlds of authors like Jill Barnett and Caroline Bourne (who is actually responsible for me wanting to be a writer.) In romance novels things might get bad, but they ALWAYS end happily and that gives readers hope. Some say, but it's all fiction. But think about it, those thoughts and emotions come from real people and they must at some point have experienced them or be experiencing them, and that is hope!

Most authors have a daily routine. What is yours?

KS: My routine is pretty screwed up now that I am a publisher. I spend most of my time working to sell other people's work, but generally I wake up, brush the toofers, boot up the laptop, check my e-mail, check on my Farmville crops and livestock, then eat breakfast, maybe go work out, then plunk down in a chair to edit, format, market, what have you. Writing is very sporadic for me. I tend to write longhand, in notebooks, in restaurants or coffee shops. Ideas come to me all willy nilly and I just kina roll with it. I love to write, it is very peaceful for me.

When you’re approaching a new idea for a story, how much of it do you have outlined in advance?

KS: Outlining? Psshaw! I don't need no steenking outline. Actually, I can't outline. I am ADD and have the attention span of a gnat. If I outline and plot out the story and how it ends, I cannot write it. I know how it will end and my mind will not let me write the book out. It's almost like a mental block. Once I know the end, what's the point?

I almost always have a character's name first, or sometimes the title. I will see or hear something that triggers and idea, then I instantly have to come up with my main character's name, then I worry about writing the rest of the story and I write by the seat of my pants. I have a mystery that I have been sitting on for almost three years. I have it written almost to the end. I have five suspects, and for the life of me cannot figure out who dunnit. Seriously. I'm not kidding.

We all get writer’s block from time to time. What’s your way of dealing with it?

KS: I start a new story (I have the first three chapter of about 70 books and short stories. Sigh…) or I eat something. Neither one is really all that effective.

Of all your stories and books, which is your personal favorite and why?

KS: Of my books, DARK SHINES MY LOVE is my favorite. My hero is blind. Writing a blind character was really hard, but everyone says I nailed it. It was supposed to be a contemporary Gothic story, with the brooding recluse who falls in love with his nurse. But my damn hero fell in love with her kid first and then got a personality and the whole gothic thing went straight down the tubes. Gothic heroes don't smile and play with kittens.

Of my short stories, I think TOO FAST FOR LOVE is my favorite. It was written as an ultra-sensual story and my hero is a race car driver who is pretty full of himself-who would have think it? The banter between the two main characters and the sexual tension was really cool for me. I don't write sex scene well at all, but I can do sensual pretty good I guess.

Could you describe your latest story?

KS: Oh Good Lord. I guess I'll just pick one. I'll tell you a little about the mystery. I call it a Retro-Futuristic (I coined that phrase about six years ago, and I just discovered that someone else came up with it and took all the credit.). It is actually set in the 2030s but everything has reverted back to what it was like in the 1930s except we have all the computer technology of the present/future. The story is called DRESSED TO KILL and my main character is Gloria Gumshoe. She's a detective, despite the fact that her mother wanted her to be a nurse. Gloria's first big case is to shadow a Fashionista who is bucking to be the queen of the fashion world. She gets killed at her big universal premier. It's all very gruesome and flashy. I love this story, if only I could figure out the murderer. Hmmph!

Based on everything I’ve seen, the romance genre is really booming right now, particularly with the growing popularity of ebooks. What’s your take on the current state of the genre, quality-wise?

KS: Romance has been the top dog in the industry for decades. More than ten years ago they passed the point of contributing more than 50% of mass market sales to the industry and they have not let those sales drop. In fact, they have increased. I do think that the mystery genre is and will continue to give them a run for the title though.

I think the quality of the stories out there has actually diminished a bit over the last decade. There don't seem to be any fresh ideas. Like any industry, the authors have glommed on to the "next big thing" and are refusing to let go or move on. I mean how many stinking ways can you fall in love with a vampire? No disrespect intended, but this is one of the reasons I have moved away from romance. I have been raving about this since I owned my bookstore ten years ago. There is so little originality. They recycle the same stories over and over with new character names and a new city. But little else changes. I call it the Harlequin syndrome. Used to be babies, cowboys, and amnesia, now it's vampires and shapeshifters.

I wish authors would go back to thinking for themselves. With that said, I think the eBook industry will continue to grow because it is the one part of the industry that does allow and encourage free thinking and adventure. The big dogs used to ridicule those of us praising eBooks. They complained about how they were ruining the industry and letting just any old person get published. Now they are jumping on the bandwagon and claiming all the kudos for having discovered the format. Bull hockey!! eHarlequin did not put eBook on the map, they just happen to be the ones who could afford to give it a big flashy sign. I have been publishing eBooks at Echelon Press for TEN years. Consistently. I have never stopped, and I have never waivered, and yet, eHarlequin gets all the glory for making it happen. Pphhllbbttt!

In addition to being a writer, you also run Echelon Press. What made you decide to venture into publishing?

KS: I had been published by small presses and had been raked over the coals several times. I had been rejected by the major houses because my stories did not fit into their molds. Seriously I have rejection letters that say almost that very thing. Quite a few editors loved my writing, but couldn't figure out which line to put it in, so they would pass. It was heartbreaking. So I decided there needed to be a place for writers like me to get published. A place where they could tell the stories they wanted to without having to fit into a mold.

It must be difficult to run Echelon and still find time for your own writing. How do you juggle the two hats you are wearing? Do you have as much time as you’d like for your own work?

KS: I hardly have any time for my own writing. I am a good writer, I have complete faith in my ability, but I feel like I am much stronger as a publisher. As for hats, I look really good in them, but they make my head sweat so I tend to avoid them if I can help it.

Between writing and publishing, which do you find the most rewarding?

KS: Definitely the publishing. I absolutely LOVE making other people's dream come true. I love the rush I get when someone sends an e-mail or tells me they loved a book I published. Or the joy of watching one of my authors, who has been rejected by major houses, accept an award for the work that I published. I admit to loving that neener-neener moment of knowing they screwed up by missing that opportunity.

Echelon and its imprints (Quake and Explorations) publish a wide variety of genres. Aside from genre, what are some of the things you look for when reading a manuscript?

KS: Originality is key. I don't want the same old stories. I don't want anything that has already been done to death, or even done. I also look for heart. I hate when authors write stories because they think they can capitalize on a "trend." Trends don't work, they really are kinda dumb. You don't know it's a trend until it has already happened. Hel-lo! Write what you love and write it wonderfully and that is what I want.

Are their particular genres Echelon has been more successful with than others?

KS: Mystery has been the very best for us. Mystery is an incredible genre and the authors are some of the most committed writers I have ever met. They love what they write and they write what they love. Better yet, the mystery genre has some of the most loyal readers out there. Mystery readers LOVE to spend money on books.

Are there any genres you would absolutely never publish?

KS: Nope. Well, maybe literary fiction. I just don't get it. Oh, and I don't do poetry.

Based on your experience as both an author and publisher, what’s the single most important piece of advice would you give a beginning writer?

KS: For the love of Pete and Mike, PAY ATTENTION. Submission guidelines are developed for a reason, don't ignore them. And remember, while your relationship with a publisher is a partnership, you are going into THEIR business. Don't assume you now more than everyone else, and DON'T expect everyone else to sell your books. Some people hate it when I say this, but it is YOUR book and it is really nobody's job to sell it but yours.

Could you describe your ultimate goals, as both a writer and publisher?

KS: As an author, I would like to write a book that sells enough copies to get on a major bestseller list. Hey, my publisher goal is the same. I want to publish a book that sells enough copies to get on a major bestseller list.

Anything else you’d like people to know about you, personally or professionally?

KS: I guess I would really like for everyone to understand why I do this. I love words, I love books, and I love helping people better themselves. I am a reader first and always, which makes it even more important to me that our books be the most interesting stories and the most entertaining they can be. Readers deserve that. I also do this to make money. I have dreams. There are places I want to see, like Greece, Italy, Aruba, and so many others. In order to make my dreams come true, I have to have good solid partners who want their dreams to come true.

Thanks to Karen for taking the time for this interview. You can check out more of her thoughts, musings and advice to writers at her website:

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! Thank you for sharing some wonderful insights.