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.

An Internship at Late Night Library

Late Night Library. I immediately liked something about the name. Perhaps it was the notion of a library—evoking a sense of community, egalitarianism, a quiet coziness—that first grabbed my attention. Or maybe it was something about this concept combined with the term “late night”—the continuation of the literary quest while all the rest of the world was winding down—that ultimately attracted me. Visiting the Late Night Library website, I was intrigued by what I read and listened to: from contributor columns and writerly contests to debut book reviews and author interviews to podcasts with publishers and booksellers across the United States, the website projected a collaborative, grassroots vibe without being overly kitschy. When I met with Paul Martone, the executive director of Late Night Library, for my internship interview a week later, he instantly created a dialogue of reciprocity, inquiring about my publishing classes, my work at Ooligan Press, my favorite books, and how Late Night Library might best assist me on my professional journey. The qualities that I noticed on their website and in my initial conversation with Paul—community, dialogue, a strong sense of reciprocity—are what really define Late Night Library and my internship experience so far.
In its original incarnation, Late Night Library was divided into three parts:

  1. Late Night Conversation, a podcast focusing almost exclusively on discussions with publishers and booksellers;
  2. Late Night Debut, a podcast highlighting conversations with debut authors about their books and their writing processes;
  3. Late Night Review, the home of contributor-based book reviews and author interviews.

This had been a great place for Paul and his then-business partner, New York City resident Erin Hoover, to begin their venture into the wild world of book culture. It gave the organization variety while at the same time keeping the staff focused on a specific set of goals. Paul and Erin’s venture succeeded in a tangible way, gaining listeners across Portland and New York City as well as positive feedback from organizations like Tin House, Poets and Writers, and Fiction Writers Review. Indeed, Paul was looking to expand even further just as I was arriving at the doorsteps of the Late Night Library headquarters (a.k.a. Paul’s house).

Managing editor Candace Opper and communications director SteveClauw

Managing editor Candace Opper and communications director SteveClauw in dialogue at the headquarters conference desk (a.k.a. Paul’s
dining room table), where we gather each month for staff meetings. [Photo courtesy of Late Night Library]

In keeping with Paul’s vision for the evolution of Late Night Library, managing editor Candace Opper and I began the process of seriously rethinking the structure and function of Late Night Review. It was necessary to be frank in our initial discussions: we had to let go of any illusions that our writers’ reviews could compete with The New York Times or Publishers Weekly and start focusing on what we could offer our audiences that would be both refreshing and indicative of the tone of our collaborative. Brainstorming with this reality in mind, we established five fresh columns:

  1. “Read This Book,” a new spin on the traditional book review that asks readers to craft personal essays exploring connections between their own lives and the books they read, how these connections might translate into larger global themes common to the human condition, and just what it is about that particular novel that makes them tell every person they meet, “You just have to read this book!”;
  2. “The Late Night Interview,” where staffers and contributors converse with their favorite authors about their novel(s), writing, and what it is about books that gets us all so twitterpated;
  3. “Dog-Eared and Dispatched,” a weekly news column focusing on the latest information to hit the book world;
  4. “The Rookie Report,” where we ask debut authors to answer ten nontraditional questions, such as “If your book were the lovechild of two others, who are its parents?” and “What ingredients go into the recipe of your writing style?”;
  5. “Freshman Reading List,” where we revisit books we loved as children and explore how our perceptions have adapted with age.
Staff page on latenightlibrary.org

Hey, look: that’s me!
[Photo courtesy of Late Night Library]

With the introduction of these new columns, I officially moved up in the ranks of Late Night Library, taking on the position of editorial assistant. My duties now include editing submissions, corresponding with contributors, and authoring the “Dog-Eared and Dispatched” column each week. As we head into the fall, Candace and I will be adding more columns to the mix, with one future write-up focusing on book lovers’ guilty literary pleasures.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been welcomed into a literary arts association like Late Night Library so early on in both its growth and my own professional career. Paul’s passionate enthusiasm is infectious, and at a time in my life when the presence and panic of the “real world” beyond academia is looming ever closer, it gives me a sense of hope to be a member of a group with such spirited ambition—an organization fueled by avant-garde initiatives; a collective where collaboration is king, queen, and jester; a place where literature never sleeps.

Staff of Late Night Library

Most of the staff of Late Night Library
[Photo courtesy of Late Night Library]