Interview with Tim Schaffner, Publisher
How did Schaffner Press start?
I started the press in the early 2000s with an eye to first reprint out of print titles, non-fiction mainly and in trade paperback. My first few titles such as Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness by Edward Butscher, The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir, and Fools Rush In by Bill Carter are examples of this. From there the list expanded to include originals and hardcovers and more recently an annual award (see more on this below). At present, we publish about six to eight books a year. Our interests continue to range over genres, and we are always looking for exciting works in fiction and non-fiction (history, arts, science, nature, music), whether memoirs or biographies.
Tell us a bit about Schaffner Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
As the press developed, I shaped the list around a mission statement to publish books of social relevance and social change, which has been the guiding theme every since. I’m pleased to have published several books, both fiction and non-fiction, that deal with current issues such as mental health, chronic illness, humanitarian crises, war and PTSD, and environmental and racial issues. We have several books also in development that exemplify these themes, and we are also doing more in the area of works in translation as well as more fiction titles. When I was in my early 20s fresh out of college, I had the amazing experience of working as an intern at New Directions Publishers, and it was then-publisher J. Laughlin’s life story and the incredible books he published that have inspired me ever since. Some time later, I was fortunate to be able to rekindle this longtime dream and start my own press. Among those publishers that inspire me are Other Press, The New Press, Nation Books, University of Texas Press, Graywolf, Milkweed, Coffee House, etc., and of course New Directions who are carrying on the JL tradition brilliantly.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
To follow on the theme of works of translation, in October we are publishing a new novel by the award-winning Mexican author, journalist and editor Héctor Aguilar Camín, a sizzling noir titled Day In, Day Out, following on our release of his first novel, Death In Veracruz. We are also doing a story collection by the Bolivian author, Magela Baudoin, titled Sleeping Dragons, next spring. I have a biography of the painter Agnes Martin, Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon, coming out next March and an environmental memoir by an Amazonian tribal leader and recipient of the Global Citizen Award for his crusading to save the world’s rainforests and the indigenous people who inhabit them, titled Save The Planet, in April 2018. We also do an annual award in honor of my late brother Nicholas Schaffner, a rock critic, musician and pop music devotee: The Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature is now in its fourth year, and we have successfully published each year’s winners which span the genres from memoir to poetry to novels. The recent winner, Cages by Sylvia Torti, a novel that takes place in a bird lab and concerns the intertwining relationships of three research scientists, is enjoying great success right now. Our winner for 2017 is again a work of fiction, a comic novel titled The Futility Experts by Margaret Broucek, due out in the summer of 2018.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
The thing I find so exciting and challenging about being a small press publisher is that you can be nimble and make decisions quickly, and fly under the radar, so to speak, in terms of publicity and marketing opportunities. As far as changes, there are many factors that concern us about which we small presses have little or no control that are dictated in large part by the huge publishing conglomerates and online vendors. I’d like to see a return to the traditional handsell of bookselling that was the mainstay of the likes of the aforementioned J. Laughlin. There is nothing more exciting and rewarding than publishing a good book and getting it into the hands of truly engaged, concerned, and discerning readers.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Schaffner Press?
I try to keep a balance between the number of printed copies and the expected returns. I feel publishing is a risk-taking business, and if you’re not willing to take on that risk, then you shouldn’t be publishing that particular book, or for that matter, in publishing at all. I stick to the “old-school” formula of royalties on list price against an advance, which is generally very modest—in the low and very low four figures—and keep initial print runs low accordingly: the average is 1.5-2K. And, I’m always prepared to go back to press in a timely and sensible manner so as not to leave a gap where books are not available.