Monday, January 26, 2009

Schaffner Press: Publishing as Improvisation

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 1/26/2009

Tim Schaffner's hobby, jazz drumming, put him on a roundabout path to independent publishing. “I got involved with Artt Frank. He played with Chet Baker and has been my teacher and mentor,” said Schaffner. “We put together a book for jazz drummers—Essentials for the Be Bop Drummer [by Artt Frank and Pete Swan, 2005]. That led to a memoir by a jazz musician in L.A. who had been a convict at Folsom Prison for 10 years—Hope to Die [by Verdi Woodward, 2006]—and that led to The Snow Angel [by Michael Graham, 2006]; that was my first hardcover.”

Publishing is in Schaffner's blood. The son of a literary agent—whose clients included Ray Bradbury, Maxine Hong Kingston and James Beard—Tim took over his father's agency when his father died in 1983 and ran it until 1995, first in New York City and then in Tucson, Ariz., where he moved in 1990. After closing the agency, Schaffner taught high school English and English as a second language, and drummed.

Initially, Schaffner, now 48, founded his eponymous press to revive out-of-print titles. “That had always been my dream,” Schaffner said. Among his first books were Sisters on the Bridge of Fire (2002) by Debra Denker, a Central Asia travelogue that was originally published in 1993 by Burning Gate Press; Barbara Guest's 1994 Doubleday biography Herself Defined: H.D. and Her World, which Schaffner republished in 2003; and Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness by Edward Butscher, a Seabury Press hardcover in 1976 and a Schaffner Press paperback in 2004.

Schaffner signed on with IPG in 2005 for distribution. This, along with keeping print runs low—typically a few thousand copies—has enabled him to continue publishing while slowly building a higher profile. There have even been some critical and sales successes: the Plath bio and The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir, a memoir of life in Warsaw during WWII that Schaffner reprinted in 2007, have gone into second printings. Father Michael's Lottery by Johan Steyn, a fictional account of doctors battling AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa that Schaffner bought from KwaZulu Natal University Press, was blurbed by Ian McEwan and Margaret Drabble, and was a Book Sense notable book in January 2008.

The year 2009 will be the biggest year yet for the press, which has a handful of new titles scheduled for publication, including the just-released Dancing at the River's Edge by Alida Brill and Michael D. Lockshin, a dual memoir by a doctor and his patient documenting a chronic illness, and Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, a hip-hop–inspired mystery by Marc Blatte due in March. The book, slated for a 3,000-copy first printing in hardcover, is picking up buzz; the author—a Grammy Award–nominated songwriter—is already scheduled to appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

The press's highest-profile book this year is likely to be One Ring Circus, an anthology of 25 years' of boxing journalism written by Katherine Dunn, author of the acclaimed novel Geek Love. The book, coming in April, is likely to attract some of Dunn's cultish fan base.

Serendipity again played a role in this acquisition: Dunn was introduced to Schaffner through a friend, the film critic D.K. Holm, who is working on a book about filmmaker Richard Linklater for Schaffner.

“I had the idea for a collection in the back of my mind, but hadn't put any work into it until I was introduced to Tim,” Dunn said. Her agent, Richard Pine at Inkwell Management, negotiated a modest contract for the book.

“He was understanding of the situation,” said Schaffner, “and in fact seemed quite pleased that someone had taken note of this side of her.”

So far, Dunn said, she is delighted to be working with a small press: “Tim is both editor and publisher, so there's no disconnect there like there can be with a larger house.” She added, “It's been educational and revealing to me about what's taken place in American publishing. Here's an example of an indie press taking up slack from the conglomerate publishers. Working with Tim has been wonderful.”

Other forthcoming Schaffner Press books include the aforementioned look at Richard Linklater, as well as bios of Ken Kesey and John D. MacDonald. And while the list is eclectic, it isn't quite as improvised as it appears: “If you look at my list, the underlying theme is social issues and the concerns of our society,” said Schaffner. “I'm interested in books that come from a person immersed in a world that don't necessarily tell a story in a chronological order, and also address something larger than the subject itself. I have several books under contract that reflect that.”

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