When Stuart David Schiff began publishing Whispers as a thin, typewritten, black-and-white fanzine in July 1973, he had little idea that his efforts would eventually graduate to beautiful, four-color, perfect-bound magazines that epitomized the heights that the small press could aspire to.
During the course of producing 24 issues of the magazine and eight hardcover books, Schiff and Whispers Press won a World Fantasy award, showcased some of the finest fiction to be found anywhere in the genre, and established new standards for specialty press quality standards. Schiff also parlayed his success with Whispers magazine into a series of mass market Whispers anthologies, published by Doubleday.
All too suddenly, Schiff and Whispers Press disappeared from the scene. Following the release of issue #23/24 in late 1987 (the last book had appeared 1985), Whispers literally disappeared from the scene. In the following interview, Schiff explains how Whispers came into existence and, more importantly, where it went…
TSF: How did Whispers magazine come to be?
SDS: When I was in dental school, Dave Hartwell lived down the block from me, and through a coincidence—with Gerry de la Ree wanting to buy something from me and Dave wanting to buy something from Gerry—Gerry told Dave “why don’t you see this guy Schiff, he’s right near you.”
So we became fairly good friends and when Derleth passed away, Dave—who was at that point just beginning his editing, acting as a consultant for Signet or NAL, I think—so when Derleth passed away, we looked at each other and said wouldn’t it be nice if they continued the Arkham Collector. So we made a proposal to Arkham, who at that point were in a lot of disarray. Eventually a letter came back to us that said “we are not interested in continuing the mag,” so [Dave and I] dropped it.
1 graduated from dental school and moved to North Carolina; Dave was still at Columbia. We’d see each other a lot, but we’d never talk about the mag. So I decided to do it on my own. I was married, my practice was a real 9-to-5 job—I had plenty of time and actually had some money at the time. In [the Chapel Hill, North Carolina] area, I got to know Dave Drake and Karl Wagner and Manly Wade Wellman. I’d made a lot of contacts.
I asked Drake for a story and he was more than happy to donate one. Some time went on [without receiving any more stories] and Drake said “hey, you get what you pay for. Why don’t you offer a nominal fee?” That sounded like a good idea, so I started offering a penny a word and I got some submissions. Kirby McCauley sent me several nice stories—a Lumley story, a Brennan story.
TSF: So you actually solicited all your material? You never put out any guidelines or any word out to the small press?
SDS: I’ve never put out a guideline. I was using the contacts that I had generated from six years previously, from going to cons and collecting HPL and writing to Bloch and things like that. It really all started with Meade Frierson—when he decided to do a magazine called HPL he wrote me and said “hey, wouldn’t it be nice if you would help me?” He had money and I had none, since I was in dental school at the time. He paid for everything and I solicited away. Then when the mag came out, it was lovely. He got all the credit. He did all the layout and he paid for it all, but I said “gee, nobody knows I did it,. If I ever do something like this again, I’m gonna be the editor and the publisher.”
TSF: What year was this?
SDS: Probably ’70 or ’71. While I was still in dental school. That’s what got me on the path to this—seeing something I’d created.
TSF: I understand that you were originally going to give Whispers magazine a different title. What was the name originally going to be?
SDS: The original title was going to be Ye Evil One. I even have printed checks with that title on them. I think I showed it to Dave and Karl and they said, “what are you, crazy? That’s a terrible title.” I agreed, so I tried to think up a title that would imply everything I wanted to imply. In a Lovecraft story called “The Unnameable,” there was a horror mag titled Whispers. I thought “what a great idea,” although most people are not going to [recognize the reference]. They might think—it’s funny, there’s a lingerie store in Chicago called Whispers. So I thought how am I gonna get people to realize what this magazine is really about?
So I thought Whispers From Arkham certainly sounded like a good title—it would signify Arkham House, the Lovecraft story—it had everything in it. In fact when I commissioned Tim Kirk to do the cover, he incorporated that in the illo. Just before I was ready to go to press, I got a call from Kirby McCauley—who knew about the title—he suggested that Arkham House might give me some problems, so why don’t 1 just drop the “From Arkham,” and stick with Whispers. They never said a word, but in anticipation of a problem, I changed it. If you look at the cover of the first issue of Whispers, there’s a lot of black space where “From Arkham” has been blacked out.
TSF: How small were the print runs of those early issues?
SDS: Most quantities are listed in Jack Chalker’s book [on the small press—The Science Fantasy Publishers]. The first two issues I know were between 1,000 and 1,100 copies.
TSF: Did they sell well?
SDS: At the time, it did well enough for me to continue.
TSF: Did you have any outlets in which to sell the magazine?
SDS: I did it all by myself. I wrote every dealer I’d met at a con, I wrote to every one who had an ad that said I’m selling Lovecraft or SF books. I’d sell five here, five there. No distributors, nothing like that. I don’t even recall any mailing lists other than from the HPL mag.
TSF: What was the print run for the last few issues?
SDS: It varies, but the last couple were about 2,500.
TSF: Was the Stephen King issue (#17/18) a particularly fast seller?
SDS: That was the only one, to my memory, that I printed any more of—3,500 of the regular magazine and 500 of the hardcover version. That was the only issue that sold out quickly.
TSF: Did the popularity of the King issue have any carryover?
SDS: I don’t think so, to be real honest. The Whitley Strieber issue, which was the next one, hasn’t sold really well.
TSF: When do you feel you hit your peak with Whispers?
SDS: To be honest, I don’t have a good answer for that. Obviously, the King issue sold the most. Number 21/22 got the most honors. After the first four or five issues, I never really pushed it. I never advertised; after I let SF Distributors handle distribution, I really didn’t try to sell it in any way.
TSF: How large a volume of submissions did you receive at your peak of popularity?
SDS: Purely as a guess, about a hundred a month.
TSF: Do you still get submissions?
SDS: I get about one or two a week, which surprises me. I’ve dropped out of Writers Market and those other guideline books. I haven’t had an issue out since ’87—so why I still get them, I don’t know.
TSF: Is that issue from 1987, number 23/24, going to reign as the last issue?
SDS: No. And yes. How’s that for an answer? I was within probably two weeks of putting #25/26 to press and had some real financial problems—business stuff. We renovated our offices at the same time that OSHA wanted us to change some sterilization procedures, and we ended up putting about $400,000 into the office. So how was I gonna spend $10 to $12,000 that I didn’t have? And I’d already put about $10,000 into this issue. I just couldn’t do it.
My decision now is that Tom Monteleone [of Borderlands Press] and I are going to do a Best Of Whispers book and several of the stories that are going to be in that book are stories that were originally slated for #25/26.
I’m probably also going to do a cheap version of #25/26 which will include a Shepard interview, and I’ll probably just Xerox it and use a clasp binding or something. That will probably be the last issue for a long time. But it won’t be a “real” issue [when compared to the preceding issues], so I’ll be giving people the option of a discount on a book, or something out of the backstock.
Now, if Harlan Ellison someday hands in his story, I might change my mind. And there’s another major author who, if he ever gets anything to me, would cause me to put something else out. But in all likelihood, [#23/24] is the last major issue of the magazine, not counting this “funny” little issue [#25/26] that I’ll be doing.
TSF: It’s understandable that you want to put this last issue out as cheaply as possible, but do you have any qualms about doing that when you look at the previous six or eight issues of Whispers and you see this beautiful 4-color trade paperback?
SDS: I do and I don’t. I do in the sense that it’s not going to look as good as some others, but people have paid me for the issue, and authors have submitted stories, so…unless it were truly embarrassing, I think those people would rather see another issue than not. I’ll ask them that, obviously, but…it’ll look okay. I think people will get their money out of it.
TSF: Will that issue exhaust your remaining inventory of material?
SDS: Yeah, probably. I’ve got a few decent stories in stock—I’ve got a Brennan story, a Chet Williamson story, one or two like that which may not quite make it into the book, and so I’ll have to try and figure some way out to use those. Maybe I’ll donate them to another magazine, with the authors’ permission.
TSF: Did Tom Monteleone approach you about publishing the Best Of Whispers, or did you approach him?
SDS: I approached Tom, I believe.
TSF: Do you have any other future plans beyond this last issue you’ve described and the Borderlands Best Of book?
SDS: Once I get this out, I will probably get…if you know the term manic/depressive, well when you get into a manic stage, and when I see this last issue finally out there, then yeah I might want to do something else. Although I’d prefer to do something for someone else, like edit an anthology. I tend to do much better working for someone else, with firm deadlines to meet and so forth, than I do working for myself.
TSF: Other than your dental practice and life in general, what have you been up to the last few years. Someone told me just recently that you were selling art.
SDS: I’m not selling art per se, but over the years I’ve developed quite a nice collection of books and art, and with this massive debt I took on going into my practice, I needed to sell a lot of my things to live. Also to pay for Whispers Press business, of course—I owed almost $50,000 at one point. So I’ve sold art and books over the years.
TSF: Are you still an active collector?
SDS: I am and I’m not. By having sold a lot of major items from my personal collection, I’m not as fanatic about it as I used to be. Although I did just send a guy $200 for a Robert Chambers book.
TSF: Looking back, when did you decide to get into publishing hardcover books, instead of just publishing the magazine?
SDS: I’m not really sure, but as I recall it, Tom Collins came to me and said “I’ve been doing all this research on Lovecraft, and I’ve found all these poems and essays that have never been reprinted anywhere. Wouldn’t it be nice if we put all this together and do a book?” And I thought that sounded like a great idea. So I think [the book publishing] really started with Tom Collins’s idea—even though that book (Winter Wish) wound up being the second Whispers Press book, because Tom took forever to get it done.
TSF: This question is based upon information that appeared in an article by Ben Indick in TSF #9, on the history of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. The article mentioned that you and Chet Williamson had some sort of feud regarding the boxed edition of Winter Wish. Any comment?
SDS: It’s funny you should mention that…I was in the EOD, and Chet and I exchanged some comments on something, but…I have to take your word for it that we were talking back and forth about Winter Wish, because 1 can’t even remember exactly what it was we were discussing. I suppose it could be true that there was a feud of some sort, but if there was, it was certainly good-natured. In fact, Chet submitted a couple stories to me not recently.
TSF: Getting back to the books you published—what was your best seller?
SDS: In terms of copies moving out the door, it was Rime Isle, which sold out relatively quickly, in a couple years or so. The book that made the most money, by far, was the Asimov book, Foundation’s Edge.
TSF: And at the other end of the spectrum, what book do you still have the most copies left of in your basement?
SDS: Psycho 2. That was the biggest surprise I’ve ever had, and probably the biggest disappointment.
TSF: Do you think that was because the paperback edition came out at roughly the same time?
SDS: No, my edition came out first. The problem, as I see it…the reason that Rime Isle did so well and Psycho 2 didn’t is the reviews that came out in the major journals—meaning Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus—the trade publications that the librarians read. Even though my edition came out first, it was a preview of the paperback that got reviewed, and there was never any mention that there was also a hardcover edition. And when I subsequently sent my stuff to [the trade publications], they basically that they’d already done something on the paperback and that they didn’t review things twice.
And so the one thousand or fifteen hundred copies of Rime Isle that were sold because of reviews in those magazines— that didn’t happen with Psycho 2. And then the movie came out—which had nothing to do with the book—and nobody liked the movie, and the book just died, unfortunately.
TSF: How many copies of the trade edition Psycho 2 did you print?
SDS: A lot. I think about thirty-five hundred.
TSF: How about the limited edition—how did you do with that?
SDS: Again, I printed a lot more limited edition copies of that book than 1 printed of any other book. It’s basically out of print now, but I sold the last two or three hundred copies to John Maclay at a discount price. If he wouldn’t have bought those, I’d still have copies of the limited sitting around.
TSF: Did the failure of that book almost single-handedly lead to the suspension of Whispers Press publishing?
SDS: It hurt. I made a lot of money on the Asimov book, but [the losses from] Psycho 2 more than balanced that out. It really put a damper on things, because after the Asimov book, I was starting to make all these plans about the great things I could publish, and then…boom, it was all gone.
TSF: I’ve heard that you may have also had some problems selling your edition of F. Paul Wilson’s The Tomb—what’s the story with that book?
SDS: That’s another terrible story. It’s like they say, “sometimes you can’t win.” I had done so poorly with Psycho 2 that I said “look, I don’t want to take a risk, I don’t want to go and print thirty-five hundred or four thousand copies of this book.” Even though I loved the book, I didn’t think, at that time, that Paul had great sales potential to libraries. So I thought I would print about two thousand copies, and with the printer’s overrun, I’d have about twenty-three or -four hundred copies.
So what happened, of course, is that the book gets great reviews all over the places. My printer, instead of printing an overrun, only printed nineteen hundred copies. I normally drop-shipped about eight hundred copies to my distributor; this time, the printer screwed up and shipped fifteen hundred copies. So I was left with only four hundred copies.
The distributor quickly sold all of his copies, and wanted more. But since I had to give him a 50% discount on all those copies—some of which I had planned on selling myself at a much lower discount—I wound up losing money on what was, for me, a best-seller.
TSF: Were there any books that you wanted to publish, but never got around to doing, or never got a chance to publish? In particular, I seem to remember that you were going to do Harlan Ellison’s From The Land Of Fear.
SDS: Harlan bought the contract back on that book. He’s had some illnesses and so forth, and the book just wasn’t going to come out. As it stands now, I’ll have first crack at the book if it ever comes to fruition. Considering my current financial situation though, it’s probably not a real viable proposition for me.
TSF: Your Basil Smith collection was sort of an unexpected surprise, since no one in the field had ever heard of him before. How did you discover Smith?
SDS: Kirby McCauley got the stories from Russell Kirk. The whole story about how Kirk met Smith, and got Smith’s stories when he passed away, is written up in Kirk’s introduction to the book.
TSF: Have you ever thought of remaindering your remaining inventory?
SDS: The closest I came to remaindering anything was selling the signed edition of Psycho 2 to John Maclay, and John paid dealer price for those, or a little less. I have no plans of remaindering any other books. I have a large basement, it’s climate controlled, and the books will do very well over time.
TSF: Do you ever see yourself publishing books again?
SDS: If the right project came along, it could happen, but the odds are against it…in the foreseeable future.
TSF: I’ve heard that you’re not on the best of terms with a couple of your old Whispers contributors, David Drake and Dennis Etchison—any truth to that?
SDS: None at all. I’ve never had a disagreement with Dave in my life. And Dennis…recently dedicated a book to me, so I think you’d have to say we’re getting along all right. Of course, there are other people in the field who I’m not exactly thrilled with…
TSF: Such as?
SDS: The major disappointment that I have had in this field is with Stephen King. I gather that I did something that pissed him off. I have no idea what it was, although my guess is that it’s because I sold some chapbooks [The Plant] that he had given to me as Christmas presents—I needed some money at the time, and so I sold them. That may be what it was.
So I wrote to him, and I said “I’m sorry for whatever you think I did. Would you let me know what it was that I did.” Because I wasn’t at all sure it was the deal with The Plant. I must have written him half a dozen letters never got an answer. If I did something wrong, at let me know what it was so that I can apologize.
TSF: How well did the Whispers anthologies [published in hardcover by Doubleday] do? Why was the series discontinued after six volumes?
SDS: They did very well. First the print runs started to drop off because the library sales were dropping off, and the series was stopped because…well, I should tell you that I had a contract for Whispers VII, and I busted my butt to turn in the manuscript for it on time. But then, after a year-and-a-half went by and the book still wasn’t scheduled [to be published], I started trying to find out what was going on. It turned out that the new editor, Lou Aronica, didn’t want to publish the book. So that was the end of it.
TSF: Are you particularly proud of introducing writers in Whispers? (or re-introducing them, as in case of Hugh Cave?).
SDS: That’s a tough one. I think the Basil Smith book was as nice a thing as I ever did…I think Dave Drake got a little bit of a boost from me, and Karl Wagner as well. And then Karl and Dave helped put me in touch with Hugh Cave, who I was really happy to help get back into the field.
And I published about 10 or 12 “first stories” by various people. There’s really a lot that I’m proud of.And I’m just as proud of the artwork that I published. I got Lee Brown Coye to come back out of retirement, I got Tim Kirk to do some wonderful covers. Steve Fabian did some marvelous stuff, as did John Stewart…there are a whole bunch of artists whose work I helped produce that I’m really proud of.