Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview with Ted Savas, Part 1: Business

Ted and I have had some nice chats over my last few days here at Savas Beatie. I decided to break up our talk into two separate interviews, one focusing on business and the other on personal info. Here is the first. I will post the second part on Monday.

PG: What sparked your interest in historical books?

TS: I’ve always loved history since I was a little kid. It’s something I was born with. When I was about 11 or so, my grandfather gave me a copy of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants. I read it cover to cover, found and read the next two volumes, and set off on the trail that has led me to where I am at this point in my life.

PG: What about writing?

TS: I’ve always loved reading and writing, too. I used to write little 3-page stapled “books” when I was a kid, pretending I had a publishing company. This was back in the mid and late 1960s, so I guess I was fated to do what I do. (laughing)

PG: You are professionally trained as a historian, but you are also an attorney.

TS: Yes. I have a BA in American history with a minor in European history, and I finished about one-half of my master’s in American history before jumping to law school.

PG: How long did you practice law before moving to publishing, and what made you switch?

TS: I practiced law for 12 and a half years. Four or five years after I began practicing, I started publishing on the side with my friend Dave Woodbury (see for more information). That triggered the launch of Savas Woodbury Publishers, a quarterly journal called Civil War Regiments, and a slew of good Civil War books. David and I parted about 1996. But the bottom line is that for about eight years I ran a publishing business and a law practice at the same time. It got to be too much, and in 1998 I realized I had to choose.—my wife demanded it. LOL I surprised nearly everyone and chose the smaller (and often no) paycheck.

PG: What made you decide to start your own company, rather than work at an existing one?

TS: Because if I worked for somebody else they’d fire me.

PG: Are you serious?

TS: Yes.

PG: What makes you say that?

TS: My wife bought me a t-shirt that says “Runs with scissors.” I like to work on my own time, with my own schedule, and I like to do things my way. I want to dress however I want. If I want to take Wednesday off and take my family somewhere, I’d rather work all night the day before. Most employees can’t do that in their chosen professions. I can, and I am fortunate.

PG: Why did you move the company to El Dorado Hills?

TS: We grew tired of Silicon Valley. My dad was very ill in 1998, so we moved back to Iowa for a short time so he could spend time with my kids and we could just unwind. When he died, we moved back to California—to El Dorado Hills—because it’s a better place to raise your kids, my brother and his family lived here, and it was a lovely area with wineries, a major airport close by, and Lake Tahoe just 70 miles away.

PG: How many of the submissions that you receive do you decide to publish, and how do you choose which to publish?

TS: Like all or most publishers, we select a small percentage of what we get in. We’re looking for original, well-thought-out concepts that are well researched and creatively presented. There’s got to be something new and fresh and unique about the book. If there isn’t, we aren’t interested.

PG: I read somewhere that you have also been a teacher. Could you comment on that?

TS: I taught government and history at a high school in Iowa for a semester while I was in and out of grad school. I’ve been teaching college classes since about 1991.

PG: In the evenings? Even now?

TS: Yes. Right now the class I teach most is U.S. history, post-World War II to the present, and legal classes. Usually, I scrap the “official plan” for the first night, and I talk about the founding of our country.

PG: Really, why?

TS: The vast majority of our country is clueless at best about any of this material. It’s amazing how many adults—30-40 years old, with kids and jobs—say they don’t know anything about the history of our country.

PG: And that’s why you’re publishing historical books.

TS: Yes. I started Savas Beatie in 2004 with my partner Russell Beatie because the independent book market was not producing the sort of books that I thought we could produce. I think we’ve been filling a need in the marketplace, or at least I hope we have been. Cap Beatie plucked me from my sedate consulting life and thrust me back into the publishing world, and I owe him a debt on that score forever.

PG: Is Mr. Beatie active in day-to-day operations?

TS: No, that’s my job. But we speak 2-3 times each week about manuscripts, the direction of the company, and so forth. He’s a great partner. I could never had done this without him.

PG: Were you ever afraid that the investment would not pay off? Were there ever times when you felt you made a mistake in leaving law?

TS: No. I’ve never felt I’ve made a mistake. My advice to everyone is do what you’re passionate about. Whether it’s stand-up comedy, cleaning stalls, or publishing books. Sometimes I miss the money in law, but I love the fact that we’re producing quality books that people love and learn from. I think we’re furthering the historical discussion and for that we’re thankful.

PG: Do you see Savas Beatie branching out into historical fiction, fiction, or other genres in the future?

TS: No.

PG: Why not?

TS: It’s really not our strength. It requires an entirely different marketing and distribution model. My theory of business is to stick with what you do best, and then do more of it, better than before.

PG: I’ve noticed that you’re publishing more current event titles recently, like Mollie Gross’s Confessions of a Military Wife, Joe Balzer’s Flying Drunk, Nick Popaditch’s Once a Marine, and so on, as well as the Sports by the Numbers Series. Is this a direction you intend to continue exploring?

TS: Yes. Current events for me are a reflection of what our country is, and a reflection of what will be one day our studied history. Current events, politics, etc., are a strong passion of mine.

PG: You have written/edited many books published in six languages. Do you have a favorite?

TS: That would be very hard to pick one. If I had to, I would say there are a related pair. I’ve edited two books that were a real joy to put together: Silent Hunters: German U-Boat Commanders of World War II and its follow-up companion Hunt and Kill: U-505 and the U-boat War in the Atlantic. Many of the contributors overlapped, and both books are selling very well in German and other languages. I’ve also ghost-written a couple dozen books for other publishers, authors, and agents. That was fun, but I can’t publicly talk about them much so I am not doing that any more.

PG: Are you writing anything now?

TS: Yes. I’m finishing a screenplay with a co-writer.

PG: Really? What’s it about?

TS: It’s called Faces. It’s a thriller in which history, religion, and science fiction intersect.

PG: That sounds interesting. Do you think you’ll be able to sell it?

TS: Well, who knows really? We have some real interest in Hollywood, and we’re working with a director/screenplay writer who has been reading it along the way and is excited by it, so we have our fingers crossed. We’re going to write the novel if we sell the screenplay.

PG: Are you working on anything else?

TS: Yes. We’ve just secured permission from Barbee Carleton, author of Mystery of the Witches’ Bridge to pen it as a screenplay.

PG: I’ve never heard of that book.

TS: It was a cult classic that was really big when I was a kid. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Ms. Carleton is 92, so I am not confident we can finish and get a movie made while she is alive, but we are sure going to try. I always thought the book should be a movie, and this fall we’re going to turn to writing the screenplay.

PG: Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

TS: Yes. I went into detail on this in my blog post Why do you write?.

PG: Thanks Ted!

TS: My pleasure, Parul.


  1. What a great interview! I love learning about what makes certain people and companies tick. Thank you!


  2. I will add that he is an excellent teacher who has an uncanny ability to elicit critical thought & ideas from his students. Thank you, TPS, in class years ago, you taught me a great deal, and now via your blog, website, and FB, you continue to teach and elicit thought.

    Stephanie Pill