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ARCHIVED  June 4, 1999

Publisher pursues horrifying business

FORT COLLINS — To reach the offices of Dark Highway Press, one must descend a creaky staircase into a dank, windowless space with stone floors. An eerie glow casts about a room devoid of life.

“We’re just getting started,” Jason Bovberg apologized, glancing around the narrow space that also houses a washing machine, an ironing board, and rows and rows of Dark Highway’s first literary effort, the devilishly clever “Santa Steps Out,” a novel from Robert Devereaux. We are in Bovberg’s basement, where everything started for this budding entrepreneur.

Stephen King’s “Cujo,” a book about a rabid dog, turned Bovberg into an avid collector of horror and dark fiction when he was 10 years old, growing up in California.

“I got really into horror because no other genre ever affected me in the same way,” Bovberg explained. “Fear electrifies you, arouses you in ways that no other emotion can.”

As a student at California State University-Fullerton, Bovberg studied creative writing, with every assignment delving ever more deeply into the dark side of human nature.

“I craved shock value from my classmates, writing unbelievably disgusting and gory scenes in my work that made people cringe,” he recalled. “But after awhile, I realized there was more to horror than grossing people out, more to it than vampires and masked men carrying chainsaws.”

The horror and dark fantasy genre is one that fascinates a highly devoted and enthusiastic audience yet has limited appeal outside of that demographic. And, in the past 10 years, even the aficionados’ interest has waned, because very little original or inspiring work has appeared on the market. That makes it difficult for fledgling writers to get their work published, a problem Bovberg encountered with his own writing.

“Then I started thinking, OK, there has got to be an easier way to get into this field, to be a part of the whole literary process for something that inspired me, that I was so passionate about,” he said.

Bovberg decided to get into publishing, catering to the enthusiastic devotees of the genre by creating books that were works of art inasmuch as they were works of fiction.

“I thought to myself, hey, all you need to be a publisher is a computer and some good taste,” he said. “And, of course, the right material.”

A friendship with local horror writer Robert Devereaux proved to be the impetus behind the first attempt by the then-called Dark Heart Publishers. Devereaux, who has had several books successfully published by Dell Abyss, gave Bovberg a collection of his short stories, and in 1995, they were published in a limited-edition run in a book called “Inside the Human Glue Factory: Renderings Light and Dark.” It was a very limited edition — only 10 copies.

Friend Darin Sanders, a graphic artist, designed the logo for Dark Heart Publishers, a stark and evocative rendering of the company’s initials in the shape of a heart.

“So we were in business, we were a real publishing house, with an excellent product and enthusiasm for our next project,” Bovberg recalled. What they weren’t aware of, however, was the financial commitment necessary to ensure successful distribution of their work.

Starting a publishing company with just a computer does not take into account hidden startup costs, including marketing, business plans and other financial headaches. Figuring quarterly sales tax, end-of-the-year small-business taxes and bookkeeping were not part of Bovberg’s original agenda, but he was undeterred and went back to Devereaux with a plan.

In the collection was an excerpt of “Santa Steps Out,” what Bovberg calls a “lurid, sensual, violent book about Santa Claus’ turbulent affair with a lascivious Tooth Fairy and a voyeur Easter Bunny.” It struck Bovberg as the perfect debut novel for his company, and Devereaux was equally enthusiastic.

“So we sat down, the four of us [Sanders, his wife, Cathy, and Bovberg’s wife, Barbara], and had a serious meeting, about how far we wanted to go with this. We decided to go for it, to make the investment and work as hard as we could to make the whole thing happen.”

Each couple contributed $4,000 to the project. Manuscript in hand, they began the arduous process of laying out and designing the book.

“I got even more interested in the project when I saw how committed they were to pulling it off,” Devereaux said. “They were as devoted to it as I was, and that made it even better, a true labor of love for all concerned.”

Devereaux also enlisted the help of one of his friends to help with the production of the book. Artist Alan Clark, a noted horror/fantasy illustrator, contributed seven drawings to the volume. Devereaux also had two well-respected editors, from houses that declined to publish the work, to write introductions for the Dark Highway edition.

“That gave us a huge boost. It showed us that we weren’t crazy in our objectives and that Robert was totally on board with what we were doing,” Bovberg said.

Finally the finished work was ready to print, complete with an antique-looking cover, modeled after a book Bovberg found at a flea market. The book was sent to a printer in Michigan, for a 1,000-copy print run in early January 1998.

While the book was at the printer, Cathy Sanders worked on marketing the finished product. The press took out ads in one of the largest horror-genre magazines — Denver-based LOCUS, and in other, smaller publications. For six months, they made an intensive marketing effort, sending advance copies to reviewers, tracking down sympathetic magazine publishers for breaks on advertising rates, and taking any free publicity they could get, including a listing in the Playboy Magazine “Potpourri” column.

“That was the most astonishing part of it all, just the cost of marketing and advertising,” Bovberg said. “I guess we were a little naive going into it, not thinking about having to sell the book– we thought it would sell itself.

The books arrived two months later, and Bovberg remembered the thrill of opening a carton of books and pulling out the first copy.

“It was tremendous, all I could say for the first couple of days was, ‘Wow,’ over and over again,” he said.

Each limited-edition copy was signed by Devereaux, and slowly, orders began trickling in. Amazon.com, the online bookseller, also became a distributor, and it is there that the book has enjoyed most of its success.

The book retailed for $39.95, which to some might seem expensive. But Bovberg hastened to point out that in genre fiction, there is a definite market for limited editions.

Edward Bryant, a reviewer for LOCUS magazine, explained further: “A limited edition plays a very important role in the development of small, genre presses like Dark Highway, because it can help to subsidize any lower-priced, readily acceptable editions of the book, or even the press’ next project,” he said.

By January 1999, after nine months and 400 copies sold, the Sanders and Bovbergs had recouped their initial investment, yet they were still astonished at the positive response and feedback they heard from everyone they came in contact with.

“We were at the World Horror Conference and all sorts of people, even other publishers, came up to us to compliment us on the book — to tell us how great it looked and how impressed they were with our first effort,” Bovberg said. “It was tremendous vindication for us.”

The future of Dark Highway Press cannot, however, rely only on the success of “Santa Steps Out,” as Bryant is quick to explain. A small publishing house is only as good as its last book, he said, something that stymies a vast majority of would-be publishers.

“The second effort is crucial, because it, more than even the first work, determines the future of the publishing company,” he said. “It is the only way to prove to people that you are not a fluke, that you are serious about the work you are putting out in your name, that people can put faith in the continuity of the press.”

Bryant estimated that there are between two and three dozen small presses that work in this particular genre of fiction, which fulfills a unique niche in the market.

“Because publishing in general is in the throes of a great deal of business change, and there is a great deal of centralization within the industry, larger publishers are paying attention to brand-name writers and marketing to huge audiences,” he said. “Small presses are taking up the slack, using direct marketing and the Web, and are more accessible. This can only help the genre, and those writers who are not John Grisham or Stephen King.”

For Robert Devereaux, a writer who has worked both with small and large presses, there are advantages to small presses, not the least of which is the personal contact with the publisher.

“With a large publisher, you don’t get that feeling sometimes that they are interested in your work, that it’s as important to them as it is to you,” he said.

Bovberg says that no matter how big Dark Highway Press becomes, there will always be a personal, mutually respectful relationship between the publishers and their authors. He belatedly admits that they still haven’t found a decent second manuscript worthy of publication, so getting big is the least of their worries. But, even if they remain small, publishing one to two books a year, he is confident that they will always produce high-quality work.

“For me, a well-written, beautifully illustrated book that is also a pleasure to look at and even feels good in your hand, is a work of art,” he said. “And in this genre, there will always be a market for something unique for people to cherish. I think that we have the opportunity to continue to produce those things.”

FORT COLLINS — To reach the offices of Dark Highway Press, one must descend a creaky staircase into a dank, windowless space with stone floors. An eerie glow casts about a room devoid of life.

“We’re just getting started,” Jason Bovberg apologized, glancing around the narrow space that also houses a washing machine, an ironing board, and rows and rows of Dark Highway’s first literary effort, the devilishly clever “Santa Steps Out,” a novel from Robert Devereaux. We are in Bovberg’s basement, where everything started for this budding entrepreneur.

Stephen King’s “Cujo,” a book about a rabid dog, turned Bovberg into…

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