Thursday, August 10, 2006

Take Charge of Your LIfe: Energetic and Heartfelt Advice from Echelon CEO Karen Syed

Karen, let’s list all the things you’ve done here: you once owned an independent bookstore. You have published eight romance novels. You now are a publisher at Echelon Press, a frequent poster on DorothyL, and an apparently tireless woman who never stops promoting her authors. How do you do it all?
Do it all? You're joking, right? The bookstore was cool. I always wanted to own a bookstore and then when I had it, I realized I wanted to own it, not run it. Big difference. That is when I got into the publishing. I'd been published--badly, and I was tired of hearing my customers complain about reading the same stories over and over, so a friend and I came up with the idea to start a publishing company to spotlight new authors--fresh voices. As for doing it all…I don't. I make lists, do what I can, and then I get freaked out because I didn't do everything, and then I have a meltdown…at least once a week.

You were nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year in 2000. How did this come about? Did it help to validate your goals?
Not so much. I honestly have no idea how the process is handled for this award. I'd owned my store for a little over a year and one day I got a letter and then a phone call and I was one of five finalists for the award. I was floored…thrilled…cried for days. I still don't know who nominated me or how. But thanks!

What’s a day like in the life of Karen Syed (aka Alexis Hart)?
OY! I get up at 6ish. Every other day or so I go to Curves and workout. Come home and check the e-mail. After I download 300+ e-mails I delete the 150 that are spam and weed through the rest. Submissions, queries, author requests, review requests, Yahoo group notes. Oy! About 9ish I might edit for an hour or so…about now I remember I have to eat and take my medicine…high blood pressure…can you imagine? Then I pack up orders…consumer, distributor, retail. At this point, I have to eat again. After that, I go to UPS, FedEx, and USPS (almost daily). Throughout the day I am responding to more incoming e-mails, updating Blogs, designing fliers, brochures, post cards, I answer some phone calls, do some promo mailings. Call some stores and libraries to try and move books, then I eat again. At 5:00 I am back from errands and plunk down at my desk to edit some more. I turn on the TV and watch the Gilmore Girls (priorities, you know) while I respond to queries. About 7ish I make dinner (we cook once a week and eat leftovers all week). I eat and then hit the desk again to do a bit more editing. I try to make it to bed by 11 pm so I can get up and do it again.

PS: On Saturdays we grocery shop and on Sunday we pick up the other stuff from Sam's Club. I squeeze it in. Hey, you asked.

Sounds busy! What did publishing romance novels teach you as a writer and publisher?
Perseverance. I don't make friends when I say this, but Romance is the hardest industry. It is cut throat. The competition is higher than most other genres and the standards are so high because so many other genres look down on it. This is ridiculous because the romance genre is based on the one thing the world needs to survive. Love, compassion, understanding. Almost all other genres can survive without these things, but not romance. There is a stigma that romance carries; still compared to the bodice rippers of old, and often referred to as smut, romance gets a bum deal. It is a glorious genre and if a writer wants to learn how to build a solid professional foundation that is a great place to do it. It has made me stronger in my networking skills, and I have learned to look at writing with a much more objective eye. Writing and publishing taught me about passion--the foundation for everything I do.

You were once a teacher. What did you teach? Do you miss it?
Oh baby! I was a pre-school teacher. For the better part of fifteen years, I split my time between after-school programs and toddlers. The majority of my time was spent locked in a room with 11-17 one and two year olds. I was molding the minds of the future. Imagine the glamour…sitting in a chair all by themselves, putting their own shoes BACK on after removing them 800 times a day, putting one arm in one armhole and likewise with pants. Colors, numbers, asking for things and not grunting. And most often, "No, that does not go in her nose!" You know, important things. I loved working with the kids. I have none of my own and more than anything I miss the kisses and hugs. Can't remember being healthy for fifteen years, but I never lacked for affection….authors don't seem to hug much and I can honestly say I have never been hugged by an agent. I did have an author once tell me to kiss their…hmm, never mind.

I got this quote from an online article about you: “Follow your passion! For years I did what everyone wanted or told me to do. If you decide to do it, commit to it. OWN IT! No matter what, feed the passion.” I love the fact that you said this, but what’s a specific way I can feed my passion? And by the way, was that the title of one of your romance novels?
You are funny…title…snort. I'm a hyper gal. Was a hyper kid. I was never medicated so I had to find ways to focus, and passion helped me do that. I've always wanted to be good at everything I tried, and when I wasn't I tried something new. I have tried so many things that it's frightening. At one point my mother had a half a closet full of things I started and never finished. I am an idea gal. Then I found writing and I was good at it. I loved it. I've always written, but then I discovered I could get paid for it. Woo hoo! Then I decided to build on my love for reading and ended up in publishing. I adore discovering new talent. When I publish a story it is my decision. Nothing goes through Echelon that I don't believe in 100%. Period. I always fear that no one else will like the story, but I LOVE THEM ALL. Passion is a funny thing. Why would you do something you didn't enjoy? If you find something that makes your heart sing and your eyes tear up, then how could you not do it? On the other side of the coin, I have no patience for those authors who come into the industry just to make money. Hello? This is a disservice to the reader because readers are passionate about their books and to give them a book that your heart is not in is just WRONG!

When you feed your passion you simply focus on what you love. It's like marriage…there isn't anything you won't do for the person you love. In most cases you would even die for them. Now, this is extreme for a writer, but when you put words to paper let it flow from deep inside you and don't be swayed by the restrictions of society. I've heard people say you must write for the market. I say hooey; the market exists because of writers. Without writers there is nothing to be read, thereby eliminating the need for readers. We are the foundation of the industry, you are the writer, write what moves you and own it, and readers will share that passion. I honestly believe that. We can control society with our words, novelists, journalists, etc. We give people the words to live by and to educate them to make decisions. When those words ring false, we are doing a disservice to society. Holy cow, a gal could get a nosebleed way up here on this soapbox.

You are the CEO and Executive Director for Echelon Press. Well, that is certainly owning your dream! How did you come to found Echelon?
Echelon was not only my idea. I began with a partner, but we had different visions of what we wanted the company to be. Over the last five years, I have had two offers to sell the company and I just couldn't do it--they wanted to do things with Echelon that went against the integrity of the company. My husband/partner reminds me often that integrity won't pay the bills, but I believe that it will only take a few readers to get hooked on us and then word of mouth starts and soon I'll be shopping for that Radiance Jaguar. Being published by other independent publishers (and not well published) I wanted a place for people to find new authors. Fresh stories are everywhere, waiting to be told and I want to be able to make that happen. Have you read Luisa Buehler? Heaven help me when a big house picks her up…and one will. She started with THE ROSARY BRIDE and we are about to release book four in the series, THE SCOUT MASTER. Luisa is a brilliant writer. Once you read her work and then you meet her, you will easily see that her writing portrays her. Charming, elegant, sophisticated with a touch of humor and most of all her writing is real. She puts her all into it and readers love that. Luisa epitomizes Echelon. Unfailingly loyal and committed to success.

It's a starting point for authors breaking into the industry. People used to say we would publish anything. Not true. You ask my authors; I have very high standards. Ask around and I am certain you will find a HUGE number of people who have unfortunately been rejected by us…by me. I read everything and that usually means I am backlogged out the wazoo. But the story is only half the package. I only bring in authors who I believe feel the same passion for the industry as I do. I have been wrong a few times, but I still love the stories.

Who are some exciting new authors at Echelon?

I think that every author at Echelon is top of the line and deserves to be read, but a few truly stand out. I can give you a list that covers several genres.

Linda S. Prather is one of the most fascinating people I've met. Her story THE GIFTS has a paranormal element that is hypnotic.

Cathi LaMarche and I hooked up at a writer's conference and more than once I have described her writing as similar to a fine wine. Her style makes it seem natural to use your senses to experience the story. Such masterfully vivid imagery it is almost frightening. WHILE THE DAFFODILS DANCED is one of those books that once it gets in the right hands it will soar to the top. Stunning

Another author I am so very proud of is Mary Cunningham. Her Cynthia's Attic series are children's fantasy that take young readers on the most exhilarating adventures through time. Mary's enthusiasm for everything she does is so evident in the pages of her stories. We are about to release the second book in the series THE MAGIC MEDALLION. These stories are every bit as good as the Bobbsey Twin stories we grew up on.

I could go on and on, but I encourage readers to try all the books at Echelon. These are not recycled stories with new names and different cities; they are the best sellers of the future. I know many of my authors will be upset that I did not mention them, but it speaks enough that I published them. I believe in them and all of my authors are precious to me. I've invested everything in them. Literally.

You have given me plenty of good advice. What’s your number one piece of advice for new authors who might sometimes feel like giving up?
Get over it! We all have days that suck. You can't let them rule your life. True story: my first marriage was a bad one. Abusive husband, mostly emotionally and verbally, for most of our time together I believed I was worthless, that no one could possibly love me, and I would never amount to anything. I couldn't look in a mirror and not a day passed that I didn't consider dying. It sucked. My grandmother bought me my first computer so I could write. My husband tried repeatedly to destroy it and me. One night I decided he was right. I couldn't write, what was I thinking? So I gathered up all my disks, printouts, research notes, everything--stuffed it all into garbage bags and set it out on the curb. I went to bed and cried myself to sleep. Next morning, I woke up, realized he was an idiot and that I wanted to live and I wanted to write. I got outside in time to see the garbage truck drive out of sight. Holy Crap! What had I done? I'd lost my stinking mind. That's what.

YOU KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO and you are a big fat dodo head if you let anyone tell you otherwise. (Preschool flashback) NEVER let yourself be led astray by the insecurities of those who run you down and try to make you feel like less than you are. Something inside each of us determines what we can accomplish; it's called confidence…determination. Never rely on anyone except yourself. You are the ruler of your own kingdom and as a writer you have the supreme power to design that kingdom from the ground up. OWN IT!

Wow. That is a powerful story.

On a lighter note, what are you reading right now?

MUMS THE WORD by Kate Collins
PICK YOUR POISON by Leann Sweeney
101 WAYS TO PROMOTE YOURSELF by Raleigh Pinskey
SILENT KNIGHT by J.R. Turner which is the second book in the Knights Inc. series from Echelon. Book one is STARK KNIGHT…book two is due out in November.

Is mystery your favorite genre?

This month. Yup. I am such a versatile reader, I will read anything if it catches my interest. I think that cozy mysteries and what I call Man Thrillers are my current passions. I adore James Lee Burke and his daughter Alifair Burke. I wish Stephen Hunter could write faster, and I will currently read anything that has an amateur sleuth or a woman who kicks ass.

How does your family deal with your busy, busy life?

My husband is the most tolerant man alive. Being ADD has not been easy; I have health issues and wear out easily. He is a ROCK! He understands my mood swings, takes my tantrums in stride, and does not freak out when I cry…a lot. He is ruthless. He allows me only minimal time for self-pity before he rallies me and gets me back on a positive spin. We are growing together…we are learning how to better manage our time, how to be more secure in ourselves, and each other, and we laugh together…okay, mostly he laughs at me, but most people can't help that.

This business takes me on the road a lot and even when I'm across the country, we talk several times a day. He wants to experience everything with me and I adore having him to share it with. My authors tease me at events, because hubby and I check in so often. I make the first sale of the day and I call to tell him. He also calls often to remind me to eat.

How can people find out more about you and Echelon?
Call me. No! Just kidding. I try to keep the web site up to date and I change it frequently with fresh news. We put out one paperback per month and several e-books. Most people think we only do e-books, but that is a sideline. We recently set up a series of Blogs for Echelon. Different genre topics to please everyone. You can visit the web site at and the main Blog is Let's Talk About…at If you click on Echelon Press at the top of that Blog it will take you to the other Blog links. It’s just a friendly place to get to know our authors. To make friends to talk about whatever. No rules…just hangin' out.

Thanks for your input, Karen.


Serenity Now! said...

That's an awesome interview... very enlightening. I'll have to recommend others come to visit and read!

Terry Burns said...

Great interview, Karen, a lesson in motivation for us all.

Daily blog, bookstore and website

Sandra Ruttan said...

Julia, you have done such a fantastic job with these, giving us insights not only to writers but readers and publishers. You rock!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Sandra. Karen's an interesting person. Thanks, Terry and "Serenity," for dropping by to meet her.

21st Century Research said...
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21st Century Research said...
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Karen Syed said...

It's really cool that I get to go out and talk about myself. You know how everyone loves talking about themselves. LOL I love Julia's Blog.

Daun Ann said...

Karen, So glad I was able to find more out about you. When are you going to get a new book out? I love your work. Thanks for the insight on your 1st marriage. I was there also. Still fighting to became 'big' again.

I meet you at the '05 St. Louis RT Conv. I was the publisher/author 'time keeper' hehe.

I'm hoping to go to the '07 Conv.

Thanks for the 'heave oh' Karen.

Karen Syed said...

Daun Ann, aren't you sweet. I remember you very clearly. You had the daunting task of keeping my chatter down so I didn't keep running over on my time. As you can see I am not any better at it online than in person. LOL

As for my own writing, I have had so little time to do anything except promote my authors. I am considering re-issuing some of my older works tht are out of print, but not sure I want to take away the time and money from my authors. Who knows, maybe I'll do it just for you!

Ana said...

Very nice interview Julia, I learned a lot about Karen, the incredible and busy life she has. I like to hear about new authors and I visit Echelon to check them out. I like to read all kinds of books but my favorites are mystery and suspense.

Julia Buckley said...

I love mysteries, too, Ana! Thanks for visiting.