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Bill Schafer and Subterranean Press: Setting the Standard for High-End Indie Publishing

The joke used to be that Subterranean Press editions sold out so quickly the books hardly seemed to exist in the first place. It's certainly a problem a lot of publishers would like to have, and speaks to the loyalty Subterranean's customers feel toward the brand. Over the past three or four years, however, not only have the books the press has produced been popular and beautifully made, Subterranean has also begun to register in a big way outside of the collector's market. Trade editions of both reprints and originals have made Subterranean more versatile and garnered even more attention from readers and reviewers. Founder Bill Schafer is attracting some of the biggest names in science fiction, fantasy, and horror--including Joe Hill, John Scalzi, and Peter Straub, as well as doing great work publishing books by relative newcomers like Mary Robinette Kowal. In addition, Subterranean has expanded to publish fiction online, further bolstering their profile while providing a much-needed showcase for some of genre's brightest stars.

Three recent titles exemplify what's made Subterranean Press so successful: John Scalzi's forthcoming The God Engines, James P. Blaylock's The Ebb Tide, and Crystal Nights & Other Stories by Greg Egan. The Scalzi is his first foray into dark fantasy, the Blaylock helps promote an excellent and nuanced author associated with Steampunk, and the Egan delves into the subgenre of hard science fiction. All three are high-quality, but more importantly help to demonstrate both the range and the savvy of Subterranean. (I'll be featuring several more Subterranean titles over the coming weeks.)

I interviewed Schafer about Subterranean and publishing in general via email...

Egan2_b Blaylock10_b Scalzi10_b 
(Egan's mindblowing hard SF, Blaylock's textured Steampunk, and Scalzi's nod to Conan; that's him on the cover...) What did you grow up reading?
Bill Schafer: I grew up reading pretty much everything, from Twain to Dumas to Agatha Christie to P.G. Wodehouse to Bob Silverberg, Isaac Asimov. I discovered Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle in high school and have remained a fan since. Both have collections coming out later this year, and I’ll be first in line to get copies.

I've never felt limited to any particular genre, though my tastes have certainly honed in on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as my reading time has been squeezed in adulthood, and in running the press. I should add that discovering Stephen King (and The Stand) when I was seventeen had a huge effect on my reading. I still recall fondly my freshman year of college when I was trying to deal with the transition from high school, keeping up with classes, working part-time, *and* reading IT every spare minute I could find. I've found King’s work, especially, functions as benchmarks for me, and I've recently begun reading works I first read decades ago--I'm 41 now--to see if my initial estimations have held up, or if my perceptions have changed with age. Did you always collect books yourself?

Bill Schafer: In the early nineties, before starting the press, I went through a period where I was a pretty heavy collector of signed, limited editions, but my needs have refined a bit--I don't need signed firsts of everything by all the authors I read. With certain exceptions,such as Dan Simmons, I'm content to have one signed first by an author I enjoy. What's the biggest difference in Subterranean's focus now as opposed to when you started?

Bill Schafer: At first, we were very definitely a horror small press in the Cemetery Dance mold, in part because my reading ran that way, and also in part because I cannot stress enough how much help Rich Chizmar was in sharing contacts with me, advising on print runs and contracts, and the other million things you don’t realize come with running a small publishing house until you’re doing it. There would not be a SubPress without his help in those early years.

At the same time, I couldn't help but notice the wonderful projects that CD was offered, and I realized that if we used the same playbook and authors they did, SubPress was always going to be the second option for those projects. At that point, this was when Rich was publishing the limited edition of Douglas E. Winter's seminal anthology, Revelations, I realized SubPress needed to go in a different direction if it was to succeed long term. Are the challenges the same now as they were then, with regard to the business of selling books?

Bill Schafer: It's become easier, and harder at the same time. When we first started, there was a network of small specialty dealers, and you could count on selling a good portion of your print runs to them. They paid slowly, but if you were conscientious about collections, and scheduling must-have books so dealers would keep their account reasonably current, you could do okay. On the other hand, we didn't have outlets like Amazon, which reach an infinitely larger number of readers than all of those specialty dealers' catalogs. Our print runs today are significantly higher than they were 15 years ago. Is there any early book you published that you feel helped define the Subterranean brand? Why?

Bill Schafer: I think our long-term association with Joe R. Lansdale has been essential to defining the press. Among those very early books, I'd have to point to his The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, because it gave us the template of being a place where authors could turn for projects that they wanted to do, but which might not be right for their mainstream careers. At a time when a lot of indie presses seem to be contracting, you're expanding. Is this a matter of building reader loyalty across authors, or something else entirely?
Bill Schafer: You've nailed it. We are very aggressive about establishing ongoing relationships with writers we enjoy, who also have significant followings. It's worked with Charles de Lint, Poppy Z. Brite, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and  more recently, John Scalzi and Kage Baker. Could you talk a little bit about how you and Peter Straub worked out publishing an alternative version of his forthcoming novel, Skylark?

Bill Schafer: I'm afraid there's no great story here. I heard through my pal Bill Sheehan, who is also close to Peter, that there was an alternate, more than 200 manuscript pages longer version of his upcoming novel, A Dark Matter. I've known Peter for better than a decade, and worked with him before, so I dropped him a note with an offer to publish the variant edition. Peter had another small press interested, but we were able to offer a bit more of an advance, and a definite slot in our schedule in which we could publish, so he said yes quickly.  In looking at the advance reader copies you've sent me, at a glance it would seem to be obvious which are going to sell better than others. For example, John Scalzi's The Last Colony will probably sell better than the brilliant Mary Robinette Kowal's short story collection. What constitutes success for you? Is it just selling out a print run? What intangibles come into play?

Bill Schafer: Bottom line, we publish what I enjoy, and want to share with people. Of course, different books have different audiences, some larger, some smaller, and we try to keep a good mix of those books which will keep us profitable in this economy, and those titles which may be close to my heart, but won't be as profitable. With the understanding that you love every book you publish, is there a recent book that for some personal reason you are particularly proud of?

Bill Schafer: I was truly honored to be allowed to publish Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Stephen King's quote, calling it "one gorgeous read" led me to pick up the trade paperback. After a couple of year of off-and-on searching, I located Carlos's agent, who was quite agreeable to our producing a limited edition. For me, that's one for the permanent shelf.
Even more recently, I'd have to point to Lewis Shiner's Collected Stories. Lew's criminally underappreciated as far as I'm concerned, and this 500-page volume of 41 stories shows off one of America's finest writers at his full range. What do you think of electronic versions of books, given that you obviously take great care with the physical look-and-feel of your editions?

Bill Schafer: I love them. We have e-readers of different stripes here in the office, including a Kindle, and frequently use them to read manuscripts, and other books we just don't feel like waiting for a hardcopy of.  Is there a book that got away? A book you wish you'd had a chance to do?

Bill Schafer: Of course, there've been a few that, due to rights situations, or politics, that haven't come our way, but I'd best leave those bodies buried, because, who or two of them might end up on our schedule if circumstances change.


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