Writing Excuses: notes on a podcast

Despite the fact that I’ve improved my tendency to procrastinate over the years, those tendencies can still lurk in the background and rear their ugly head. I recently discovered a Hugo Award-winning podcast relating to procrastination and writing. The podcast is titled, “Writing Excuses” (an instant attention grabber for me). It turns out that a group of four well-known writers (Brandon Sanderson, “Mistborn,” Mary Robinette Kowal, “Shades of Milk and Honest,” Howard Taylor, “Schlock Mercenary,” and Dan Wells, “I Am Not a Serial Killer,”) get together once a week to record their experiences in the publishing world. They also often respond to commonly asked questions from listeners. They begin each episode with the cheeky tagline, “15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” For a busy bee like myself, this is a definite bonus; not all podcasts need to be an hour long, thank you.
The last episode of “Writing Excuses” featured a guest appearance by Bill Schafer. He is the co-publisher of Subterranean Press, a Michigan-based small press. They publish around 55 horror, fantasy, and science-fiction books a year; both original trade paperback, and limited edition reprints of well-known authors. Subterranean Press has capitalized on a small niche of readers who want high quality books. They publish many different projects in a year, but keep the print run size small to minimize their costs.

Subterranean Press Grab-Bag

“The deal is we try to strike a balance because we can’t survive 40, 50, 60% returns on a regular basis…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.”

Bill spoke about creative approaches to the publishing industry and how his small press has actually benefited from some of the changes taking place. In his opinion, small presses are more agile and able to offer authors more creative ideas to get their work noticed. They are also able to satisfy fans more so than the larger houses can. Larger publishers are not able to adjust their business practices quickly enough to accommodate the digital age. Bill said, “One way Subterranean tries to make the physical book a more attractive purchase is to include ‘bonus’ features that wouldn’t be available in the digital form, or highlight that the book is sewn, not glued.” This reminded me of Penguin and both their Couture and Clothbound Classics. They also seek to make the physical book a more unique, and therefore, a more worthwhile purchase. I know it worked on me.

Something else I enjoyed from his interview was his commentary on the ethics of bookselling. Bill asked, “If you have access to a backlist of books by an author who already has an established fanbase, is it ok to jack the price up and sell them for more?” Collectors are willing to pay higher prices to get signed copies of their favorite authors, and eBay sellers take advantage of this by buying low from the press and selling high to consumers (sometimes in the $500 range). Bill Schafer provides one answer to this issue; he sells the higher demand books from his stock at an elevated price based on the current market price of the book, but then donates the money to charity. The consumer still pays a higher price than the book was originally marketed at, but the proceeds aren’t for the benefit of the press: a happy medium or too conscientious?

Next week’s episode takes questions from aspiring writers who have enrolled in an “Out of Excuses” writing retreat. For anyone interested in how small presses work (especially if you have any fanboy or girl knowledge of the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres) this is a great insider look at that world, and for those who are generally interested in a writer’s perspective on the publishing world, these guys are definitely worth a listen.