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Writing Excuses 8.40: Publishing with Bill Schafer

 Writing Excuses 8.40: Publishing with Bill Schafer


[Howard] Howard here. Brandon is on his Steelheart tour right now. Based on his communiqués, I think he wishes his epic power was teleportation. has given us three copies of the Steelheart audiobook to give away. We had so much fun with Twitter last week, we decided to do it this way again. But don't tell us your epic weakness, we already know those and we have them all on file. Tell us what your power is and why it will help you in this contest. For instance, you might tweet, "My invulnerability to kitten mews means I alone will be left standing to collect the Steelheart audiobook from @writingexcuses. That leaves you 94 characters to play with. 95 if you omit the trailing period, which you should not do because many in our community share the epic weakness of cringing at bad punctuation. Your tweeting may begin now. We'll draw an arbitrary line in the sand on the wording on Wednesday, October 9th, and select three winners. Follow Writing Excuses on Twitter to learn the results.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, publishing with Bill Schafer.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Brandon] And this is Bill Schafer.
[Bill] Howdy.
[Brandon] Bill, you are the publisher at Subterranean Press.
[Bill] Actually, I am the co-publisher at Subterranean...
[Brandon] Co-publisher. Okay.
[Bill] I have a business partner, Tim Holt, and I have a partner in everything but name, Yanni Kuznia. So I deserve the blame for anything that goes wrong. And for anything that goes right, there's a really good chance that there is someone who is following along behind me.

[Brandon] So tell us about Subterranean, just briefly.
[Bill] We started in 95. Did two chapbooks. Moved into hardcover the next year. Did one that year. By the end of the 90s, we were doing 8 or 12 books a year, and starting to realize things like... There were certain leap points. Like my wife has told me that her friends, having a second child is traumatic and scatters their brains. Add the third child, it really doesn't matter. It's no harder to keep track of three than it is two. We'd find points where... Doing four books was a lot. All of a sudden, jumping to doing eight wasn't a whole lot harder than doing four. Then... I kept this sort of spreadsheet in my head for many years. Then we reached the point where we were doing 55 books a year and the spreadsheet collapsed.
[Brandon] So now there's you doing... How many books a year are you doing?
[Bill] Usually about 55.
[Brandon] Wow. That's awesome. So you're still considered, I'd say, a small press? Do you consider... Is that how you look at yourselves or...
[Bill] Very much so.
[Brandon] I mean, 55 books a year doesn't sound that small to me.
[Bill] But the print runs range anywhere from... We've done limited editions with Ray Bradbury where the print runs 250 copies signed by Ray. The largest print run we've done to date was 20,000 copies. The interesting thing is we do it all without any traditional distribution. We're not with IPG, were not with Diamond, we're not with anyone. So bookstores who want to stock us have to actually go to wholesalers, such as Ingerman, Baker & Taylor, to pick us up, which has a couple of things going on there. A, it limits our exposure. So we are a very good place for projects that New York's not interested in this necessarily, but they're happy to see us pick up a project because we know... They know we're not going to step on their toes.

[Brandon] That's why I went to you. I published a book with you guys, Legion, because it was too small for New York. It was 17,000 words, it was a novella, and New York, the big publishers, were just like, "We can't convince our distribution channels to care about something this small. The price point will be too high for something this small." But I was able to go to you guys with the small press to do a really nice deluxe limited edition.
[Bill] The deal is we try to strike a balance because we can't survive 40, 50, 60% returns on a regular basis. Which sometimes do flood in for titles we do. So we keep a very careful eye on print runs. I'd rather slightly underprint a book. Especially now that a lot of titles have further life as e-books. So that there's an option out there for people who see something climbing into the hundreds of dollars on the collectible market. Like we did some stuff with Pete Brett. The first book we did with him had a print run I think of maybe 1000 copies plus a couple hundred signed. I actually saw copies of the unsigned edition going for $500. While we're happy to have collectors, it's never our intention to see it reach a point where you have to choose between rent and buying a book.
[Brandon] Now, you weren't ever tempted to be like, "Hey, we found another hundred copies. 500 bucks each, guys."
[Bill] No. In fact, the only... We've done that a few times.
[Bill] What we do is... For a long time, the warehouse was in a state of... Organization... And we had a collectors' room into which things would be put and we would offer things on our website. It was almost senseless to offer a Peter Brett book at 20 bucks. I don't remember if we ever did this with any of Pete's books, because it was gonna be snapped up by someone who was going to turn the book for a massive profit immediately. So what we would do is, we would look at what the market price for the book was, and we would let the author know what we were going to do, and then we would jack the price up. Somewhere below market price but high enough so that it wasn't going to be attractive to someone who was looking to flip it. Then we would just donate all the money to charity.
[Brandon] Well, that's very admirable of you, actually.
[Bill] It's never a ton of copies of a book, and we make a good living the way we do things.

[Brandon] Now, we have never had a publisher on the podcast before, which is why we wanted to ask you on. You offer a unique perspective. For those out there who are not where, publishing and editing is actually... Those are very different jobs. Sometimes publishers will wear the editing hat. It does happen. But the publishing is more the business side of it. Of creating... Selling the book, I guess. Well, just tell me, what does the publisher do? In your perspective? What's your job?
[Bill] I'm the one who chooses primarily which projects we're going to do. I negotiate the contracts, set the print runs, decide on our publication schedule. We try to space things out so, for example, we're not going to hit the trades... Publishers Weekly, The Book List, Library Journal, etc. with eight books in a month that they might review because they're going to pick two of those to review and then ignore the other six. So we try to do things like... Say we're doing a limited of the new Joe Abercrombie book. We'll publish that in a month because it's not going to require any reviews. It's going to be sold to Joe Abercrombie collectors. Then we'll pick a couple of other books that we actually actively want reviewed, so we're very aware of price points, print run sizes, in setting our schedule so that we don't want to overwhelm... We have... I think it's the last time we checked, over 60% of our income came directly through our website. We're very aware and very grateful to these people who support us in this way, so we try hard to set things up so that we're not taking money from them... Hundreds of dollars on a monthly basis.

[Brandon] You guys listening may be wondering, okay, why aren't you talking about how to write books? Why are we talking to a publisher? Well, we have said many times, and I repeatedly say this, that your business as a writer, part of it is to be a small business owner. Being a small business owner, you need to learn the business that you're trying to be part of. You need to know what the difference between an editor and a publisher is. Knowing what the publishing bus... Industry does, and the aspects of it, I guarantee is going to be helpful to you in approaching this business of yours, that you want to do. So this is one of the reasons why we invited Bill on. Now, after...
[Bill] Actually, I thought it was because I was in the neighborhood.
[Brandon] You are in the neighborhood. Yes, but... We forced Sherry to drag you along... Or Mary forced...
[Mary] I asked nicely, and batted my eyelashes through email.
[Brandon] We promised you fudge, I believe.

[Brandon] So let's go ahead and do our book of the week. The book of the week is actually going to be a book that I published with Bill, that we do have an audio edition of. It's Legion.
[Bill] Yes.
[Brandon] Go ahead. Are you going to talk about it, or should I talk about how awesome I am?
[Bill] The book doesn't suck. It is a wonderful, clever, funny novella that does not outstay its welcome. I think those were your main goals in writing it.
[Brandon] Yup.
[Bill] I have not heard the narration yet, but I suspect there's a lot of room for playing there.
[Brandon] It is. It's a good narration, I believe. You don't have to feel bad about taking money away from Bill, because his edition all sold out. Which is what we like to see.
[Bill] Which was... I think, if you don't mind me saying, we did what 3000 copies plus a signed edition, which compared to your New York editions is miniscule. However, your... It helps you build a relationship with your most ardent fans, and it also helps us maintain a relationship with our customer base while also bringing in fans of yours to our company and showing them what we do.
[Brandon] I originally was going to do only an e-book edition of Legion. My agent came to me and said, "No. Let's give it to Bill. I think that he will do a nice edition. Your fans will really love it. You will have print edition. I was just want to get the usual or the audio book which we have on audible cans go do that, and those who want a collectors edition... Sorry, guys, you can't get it anymore, it's all gone. But keep your eyes open, I will do more like this.
[Bill] I loved the email from your agent when he sent me that novella, because he ended it with, "Please let me... Please tell me you don't need me to include Brandon's resume."
[Brandon] Well, if you guys want to give Legion a listen, you can go to and you can start a 30-day free trial and download Legion free as your free audiobook when you sign up.

[Brandon] So, Bill, I have kind of a hard question for you next, and I'm not sure where you'll go with it. You may just want to say, "No answer." But my question for you is, being a publisher, what is your take on how the publishing industry is changing, and where it's going, and is this... What opportunities are there for authors and for small publishers in the future years?
[Bill] Plastics are our future.
[Brandon] Plastics?... Invest in gold!
[Bill] I do think e-books are going to continue to grow. I think they are ultimately going to be the death knell for mass-market paperbacks. I think...
[Brandon] That happened in the UK already.
[Bill] Yes.
[Brandon] So it's not far off to make that projection, happening here, too.

[Bill] I think we're reaching a maximum price point in New York for hardcovers. We're seeing some massive bestsellers... By massive, I mean size, and also books that sell a lot of copies, like Stephen King's Under the Dome, and they're $35. Or something that's 1100 pages, that's actually a really good, reasonable price, as far as I'm concerned. It also works well for us, because our base hardcover price tends to be in the $40 range. For that, we offer things like colored endsheets, a sewn book instead of a glued one. So that has been good for us, but I can't see New York's prices, as a rule, with the exception of bestsellers climbing much higher than an average of around $25.
[Mary] I want to jump in here because one of the things that I've seen Bill doing that I think other people should really be paying attention to is that he looks at the book as an artifact, that the books are beautiful, beautiful books and they're meant to last. That's something that I suspect going forward is... I think that's one of the reasons that his books, he's one of the small presses who's doing well. I think that's because when people buy e-books, they buy something because they want to read it.
[Bill] It's consumable.
[Mary] But when you're buying a Subterranean Press book or any hardback at this point, but particularly something that is put together with care and thought, you're buying it because you want it... The thing! You want the tactile experience.
[Bill] There are a couple of books I should point out that have been done that way. Felix Palma's two novels, The Map of Time and The Map of the Sky are gorgeous. The second volume actually comes with 3-D glasses so that you can... The end sheets are in full color, which as you know is rare coming from New York, and you can actually see the invaders from Mars coming in the end sheets in 3-D. When we got copies of that book in the warehouse, and I'm a huge fan of Felix's work, Yanni and I were looking at it and we decided and there's nothing we can do to improve this book, with the exception of we could print it in two colors and we could bind... We could have a sewn binding rather than a glued binding. But in terms of design, in terms of care they showed in taking elements from the story and using them in the design and in the end sheets and in the cover, they really knocked that one out of the park. I also think that Carlos Ruiz Zafon has had some really nice books done. The best-selling one is The Shadow of the Wind which is one of the best novels I've ever read. A lot of care has gone into the crafting of each of those books. The... Not the most recent one, but the one before that, The Angels Game, had one of those dust jackets that actually was cut along the top so it exposed part of the boards to the book, and they had actually gone to the trouble of printing on the boards of the book the library. So you saw the tops of these books running along the top of the dust jacket.
[Mary] Beautiful.

[Brandon] Wow. I think this is actually a really elusive point. I think the e-book revolution actually offers a lot of opportunities for things like Subterranean Press. I don't know if you can see this, but I can easily foresee a day where some one of these self published authors, publishing only on e-books, comes and says, "Let's do a 5000 copy limited-edition with Subterranean Press."
[Bill] It's already happened.
[Brandon] This is of real use to you guys listening.
[Bill] You did it.
[Brandon] I did it.
[Bill] Yes.
[Brandon] Yes, I did it. But I need somebody who's already... That's published their e-book. You guys listening, some of you like to self publish, you publish, you start selling 10, 20,000 copies, and you say, "Wow. I'd like to have a printed edition. But that's a real headache. I don't want to warehouse, I don't want to deal with all this. But I don't know that I want to go to New York, because New York is going to take too many of my rights." You could go to Bill and say, "Hey, should we do a limited-edition?"
[Mary] Well, if you have a fan base...
[Brandon] If you're selling 20 or 30,000 copies.
[Mary] Fair enough. That's true.
[Brandon] Then a 1000 copy limited-edition... I mean, I see a world where publishing me transition... That all hardcover publishers will be more like what Bill is doing. Potentially.
[Bill] It could be.
[Brandon] It could.
[Bill] I think if it goes that way in New York, then they need to increase the attention to certain details and certain qualities. I actually think you're going to see an awful lot more trade paperbacks than you see hardcovers. The other thing that has interested me in watching is that we've seen a complete change in the price of hardcovers because that Stephen King hardcover I mentioned earlier is not $35 anymore. It used to be a $35 book that you walked into a Barnes & Noble or a Borders for your independent to pick up. It's now a $19 book that you pick up on Amazon.

[Brandon] Now before we are done here, I do want to mention, our listeners probably shouldn't be submitting to you. I would assume. You don't want to get a foot... Like you are...
[Bill] We prefer to solicit everything we publish.
[Brandon] Right. So if someone is publishing hundreds of thousands of e-books and they want a print edition, at that point they could probably contact you. But otherwise... You don't have a slush pile, people aren't going to be submitting to you?
[Bill] With the size staff we have, and the duties I have, there's simply no time to read slush. We do read things that... To find out if they're going to be of interest to us to publish and pass on them and say yes or no. We do get a decent number of agent's submissions, but no, we're...
[Brandon] I just wanted to say that, because I didn't want to get done with this and have all of our listeners say, "Oh, a new publisher to submit to." That's not the point of this podcast.
[Bill] Thank you.
[Brandon] The point of this podcast was to inform you guys about the industry and make you aware of things like Bill is doing that hopefully will help you as writers and a small business people do better in this industry. But we really want to thank Bill for coming on. Thank you so much.

[Brandon] We're going to end with a writing prompt. Dan?
[Dan] Oh, man.
[Brandon] You haven't talked the whole time.
[Dan] I know. It's because I've been listening raptly. This has been fascinating.
[Bill] He's been snoring.
[Dan] I have been... Was it audible? Dang it. Okay. Writing prompt.
[Mary] Your main character is a small press publisher...
[Dan] Thank you.
[Mary] And his store has been flooded.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] But not by a liquid.
[Bill] Unsold stock!
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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