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An invasive interview with Permuted Press President, Michael Wilson

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For those who don't know, last June Michael Wilson took over the title of President at Permuted Press. Since accepting this new position a lot of great changes have been made to the company. They've broadened their genre from just zombies/end of the world. They've also introduced their new Platinum title program, allowing readers greater access to some hot books stocked on the shelves of your favorite bookstores. He graciously accepted The Bookie Monster's request for an interview, and was no doubt shocked at the questions, and how intrusive they were. I firmly believe that an unasked question is a missed opportunity.

Michael was a great sport, and didn't shy away from the depth of my questions, endearing Permuted Press to me all the more. Thanks for the transparancy, Michael!

I've been interviewed before but never in depth like this.

Hey Michael! I’m stoked that you agreed to take a turn in the hot seat with The Bookie Monster. It’s no big secret that I have a love affair with Permuted Titles. In fact we’ve reviewed nearly twenty of your titles in the past six months, with somewhere around forty more on the horizon. We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many of those authors and they all agree that permuted Press is an excellent publisher and treats their authors well.

Thanks, Shana. You’ve been really good to us. I appreciate all the good vibes you send our way!

Before joining Permuted Press, you were the President of Mad Dancer Media, a web and mobile app development company. How did the decision to make that transition come about?

I founded MDM in 1995. I had a good run with it, and the company is still going under the leadership of my former business partner. We launched the career of Taylor Swift. We worked with some big Nashville names like Shania Twain, and even a few artists that not only could I tolerate listening to, but I actually enjoyed like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Garbage. We also worked with some incredible legends like Dolly Parton. Around 2008 we got in bed with this bank that had over 2 Billion dollars in assets. The work we did for them made up about 65% of our business. Then, one day we get a phone call telling us the bank had failed and the FDIC was shutting them down. With one signature, the government rendered our big contract with them worthless. It was the first bank failure in Tennessee for over a decade and we got blindsided by it. Overnight the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business we were doing with them instantly vanished. That’s hard to bounce back from. I hung in there with my business partner for as long as I could, but finally ended up selling my shares to her and moving on.

One afternoon I was having lunch with a really close friend who is actually my pastor now, and I was sharing with him my decision to move on. After lunch that day, he made a phone call to one of his friends, a local businessman. A few minutes later the businessman called me. He was buying a publishing company and forming a second one and they needed someone to run both of them. They called me in for an interview, and even though my previous experience was mostly about selling records, the fact that I had a technical background was a nice fit for a company that was primarily an ebook publisher. That, combined with the huge similarities between selling music and selling books, made a nice fit for all of us. I immediately hit it off with both of the new owners. It all came together within just a few days and it’s been a perfect fit for everyone.

What kind of challenges have you come across as you’ve settled into the literary publishing industry?

There are two things that keep me awake at night. 1: What benefit are we as a publisher offering our authors over self-publishing; and 2: What can we do to get more exposure and more readers for some of these great books we’re putting out.

There’s a lot of discussion about traditional publishing vs. self publishing and what are being referred to as “hybrid authors” who do both. The fact of the matter is that self publishing has a lot of real virtues over the old model. When an author comes to Permuted Press, I want to be darn sure that we’re going to offer them something in return for the royalties we’ll share. That’s why we’re striving to offer the best packaging in the business. It’s why we’re hiring the best editors to make the books as great as they can be. It’s why we’ve gathered a marketing and promotions team of several people here at Permuted. Without some real added value, there’s simply no reason for an author to go with a publisher anymore. The challenge is making sure we’re providing that value. It’s something I dwell on all the time, making sure we’re doing right by our authors.

Another challenge is finding creative new ways to find an audience for a book. It’s what I did in the music business and in that industry there were some things that you knew you could do to sell records - touring, working social media, street teams, and that sort of thing. But it’s getting harder and harder to rise above the huge variety of choices that consumers now have where entertainment is concerned. So you have to get creative. We’re finding some sweet spots that we’re fortunate to have access to that we now know will move books, and we’ve experimented with some other things that conventional wisdom might tell you would help, but ended up leading nowhere. The marketing challenge is to adapt to a constantly changing landscape. And for a small organization like us, that’s a tall order but it’s something we’re constantly working on.

I see that you also started a venture with Post Hill Press around the same time you moved in with the Permuted family. The offerings at Post Hill Press are a lot different than Permuted. Can you tell us a little about that venture?

Sure. Our owners have contacts in many areas that are far reaching. On one side of ownership, we’ve got a guy who has been in the publishing world for two and a half decades who has run several huge imprints for some of the “big six” publishers. On the other side of ownership, we have a guy who is pretty much the most savvy businessman I’ve ever encountered. Together, they make a team that’s just amazing. Every day I learn something new from both of them. They purchased Permuted Press last summer, and amidst that, their discussions about publishing in general led to the realization that between their combined contacts, the business of putting out books would logically extend far beyond zombies and mushroom clouds. So Post Hill Press is a place where we publish works outside the world of horror. Post Hill and Permuted couldn’t be more different. One moment I’ll have my head in books about plague and terror, and the next moment I’ll be talking with a former state governor, the mayor of a big city, a celebrity doctor, or a reality TV star. The two companies are completely independent of one another. I just happen to oversee them both.

With new management always comes a new company culture. What kinds of changes have you made since joining Permuted last June?

I’m not really sure, because I don’t know what the culture was like before we took the reins. I do know we did a great deal of research going in to the acquisition and everything we learned about Permuted was overwhelmingly positive. The previous owner, Jacob Kier, is a man of great integrity and we knew that maintaining that level of integrity would definitely be at the forefront of our efforts. But in a lot of ways we’re developing that new corporate culture on a daily basis. We try to be humble enough to realize that we don’t have all the answers, but also to be adventurous enough to try and find them. We’re all still on a bit of a honeymoon and in love with this new venture we get to be a part of.

It seems like there has been a steady increase in releases and acquired titles in the last few months. What process is taken when a new book is accepted to releasing the title?

You noticed that, huh? (grin) The process is basically the same as it is for every publishing company. But we can be more opportunistic if we need to be, so we can accelerate the release process if we have good reason to. If we get pitched a book that we like, we do up the paperwork. When that’s agreed to and signed, we put it in our production schedule. And when it’s that book’s turn, we’ll put it in front of an editor. It’s not until the editor steps in that the real work gets done. Sometimes they’ll do a full developmental edit with the author if there are plot holes or inconsistencies. Other times we just do a light line edit and proofread. Recently, we’ve begun putting each manuscript through 2 or 3 passes across multiple editors to make sure it’s as clean as possible. Simultaneously we’ll do artwork and put it all together for release. Sometimes that process will take a year or more due to release scheduling. Other times we’ve been able to get a book on sale within 2 weeks of signing a deal. We’re not really doing anything productionwise that’s unconventional. We just sometimes do it faster. A lot faster. That’s the beauty of any small publisher. You can turn on a dime.

Do you ever proactively go after titles that have been previously self-published or do you wait to be approached by an author?

Oh yes. We do that all the time. Unfortunately a lot of great indie presses have gone under in years past leaving some really good works orphaned. We love it when we can breathe new life in to those titles. We’re not opposed to repackaging and rereleasing previously published works, and we do on occasion go out looking for new acquisitions this way, but our primary source of new signings comes from our submissions queue on our web site. Sometimes we’ll proactively search out titles regardless of whether they’ve been self published before or not, but most everything we sign comes through our regular submissions queue at permutedpress.com. We get lots of new stuff as well as previously released stuff through there.

What three titles top the Permuted charts in terms of units sold?

All time? That’s a hard one. You’ve got things like Peter Clines Ex-Heroes series, ZA Recht’s Morningstar saga, JL Bourne’s Every Day Armageddon series and David Wong’s John Dies at the End. They’ve all been huge. So huge that big publishers came knocking wanting to co-publish the titles. If you don’t count those co-published deals, we’ve still seen huge success with Peter Clines 14, the Sean Liebling Reaper and Blood Brains and Bullets series that we recently picked up, and a few others. All in all, I’d say Recht, Bourne and Clines top our lists, though.

What’s the average quantity of units sold per title?

Oh wow. I guess we’re being transparent here, right? You know, I have some personal favorite titles in our catalog that we can hardly give away. We just can’t gain traction with them and that disappoints me. We have other books that are slow cookers with long tails that consistently sell well month after month. There’s really no way to nail it down. Some books sell 1 or 2 copies per month, and some sell thousands in a month. Somewhere in the middle of that, you’ve got the bulk of our catalog. I’d have to look in our royalty software where all of our meticulous numbers are kept to have any kind of idea since we sell at so many retailers in so many formats. But if I had to guess, I’d say an average release – one that neither overperforms nor underperforms – might sell several thousand copies in its lifetime with us. We’re always aiming high. When an author pours months of their life into a manuscript, we owe it to them to try to move as many copies as possible. In the past, that’s meant a handful of copies for some, when it’s meant tens of thousands for others. You just never know.

Have you ever had to ‘fire’ an author or remove a title from your offerings? Of course, I don’t expect you to name names, but I’d love to hear the juicy details of why/what happened and how you handled it.

Not since I’ve come in last year, we haven’t, no. Having come out of the music business, I dealt with a lot of prima donnas there. And having never worked closely with horror authors before, I had a preconceived notion of what they would be like. The moment I took over, all those ideas were shattered. A lot of the authors I deal with on a daily basis are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met – the kind of people I’d want to hang out with outside of work.

I have heard stories from before I joined the company about one guy who insisted on inserting gratuitous rape scenes into all of his books. There might have been some pedophilia in there too. I don’t really recall. I don’t know all the details of what it was. All I know is that Permuted put the brakes on that in a hurry. We never put any of that guy’s books out. That is not who we are or who we want to ever be. I’ve heard it said by some authors that rape is a cheap device to use. I’m not an author, nor do I aspire to become one, so I can’t comment on that. But I do think that scaring the crap out of someone is an art. From the paperwork I’ve seen regarding that particular case, we had a formal recession agreement done up that nullified the deal and the old owner and the author shook hands and went their separate ways. Or maybe they didn’t shake hands. I don’t know! Ha ha.

Permuted sets the pricing of its books. What factors into the decision making process?

We’ve done a couple of things with this. We’ve researched it meticulously, and it’s something we constantly watch. After experimenting with some pricing strategies early on, I think we’ve hit the sweet spot that maximizes sales and revenue for both print and ebooks for the genre we’re catering to. Lots of number crunching and research go into our pricing strategy, and it’s subject to change at any time based on new data we might get.

Writing a great book doesn’t necessarily equate to it being successful. In a perfect world, the ‘Field of Dreams’ motto of if you build it they will come would be all it takes. But realistically, there are so many books available, so some kind of marketing is needed. How does Permuted market their titles?

I touched on this a little bit earlier, but we’re building a team of people to approach various aspects of marketing our titles. We have one person who does only blogger and reviewer outreach and direct email marketing. We have another person who works on special projects and promotions specific to individual books. We even have a team of about 8 researchers who data mine various bits of information for us to analyze and evaluate. We’re also beginning to offer marketing and promotions webinars for our signed authors who need a little help getting started. We do everything we can on our end to sell a book, but we still depend on our authors to develop and promote themselves. We provide them with as much back office support that we can as a small publisher, and we have just started hiring some professionals to do a bit of hand holding with them through this forthcoming webinar series we’re doing, but we can’t do all the heavy lifting ourselves. We still depend on the authors to help us with that. Some authors just want to hole up and write and leave it to the publisher to sell their books, and that’s a hard thing to do – even for a big company. An author is a brand, and a book series is a franchise, and in a marketplace where there are so many good choices, it takes a lot of work to stand out above the crowd. Some of our authors are geniuses at marketing themselves. Others really could sit at their feet and learn from them.

One of my main goals since taking over last year has been to develop a baseline point of marketing that every title, large or small, receives. I call it our “promotional pipeline.” It’s a system that every project passes through on its way to sale. I think every book deserves a chance. If it didn’t we wouldn’t have signed it. The pipeline is a pet project of mine that I’ve been harping on since I became President of Permuted. I’m constantly tweaking it and measuring its efficiency and return. I’m a numbers guy at heart, so I get off on that kind of analysis.

What sets Permuted Press apart from other publishers?

You know, there are a lot of great publishers out there that are in our same boat. For example, I have a lot of respect for the guys over at Severed Press. Shock Totem is doing some awesome stuff too. And micropresses like Dynatox are doing some really edgy things that although they aren’t my personal cup of tea, are cool and adventurous. We might have access to different resources than some other independent publishers do, but we all have one thing in common and that is that at the end of the day, no matter how much of a fanboy you might be, it’s still a business and we have to make the numbers work. We face the same challenges as any other indie publisher. There are a lot of great ones out there. We’re just one of many.

I do think that there is one thing that sets us apart from any other indie press in the horror world. I call him our secret weapon, although he doesn’t like me to call him that. One of our owners – the one who has been in the publishing business for better than 25 years – that guy astounds me. When I think I have a great idea, I bounce it off of him, and he’ll say “when we did that at so-and-so, we found blah-blah-blah.” I’m convinced there isn’t anyone in the business he doesn’t know. And his personality is such that if he doesn’t know you, within a few minutes you feel like you’ve been friends for a long time. Very few publishers, indie or otherwise, can claim the kind of real world publishing experience he brings to our table. That kind of experience with his network of contacts is priceless. You can’t buy that.

Give us a little education here. All Permuted titles are sold in electronic form with the major online retailers, and print forms are available via Amazon and CreateSpace. In February, Permuted announced that select titles classified as ‘Platinum’ will be sold in print form at physical book stores. What classifies a book as ‘Platinum’? Is it based on meeting certain benchmarks?

Permuted Platinum has really caused a lot of what we’d consider “big authors” to take note of us. You could say that Platinum does things “the old way.” All Permuted Platinum titles are manufactured in offset print runs rather than print on demand, and we’re distributed through Ingram Publisher Services in North America and Diamond Distribution everywhere else. Those distributor sales teams actively sell these books through to places like Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, and thousands of independent bookstores worldwide. Most stores have a policy not to stock print on demand titles because they don’t get the discounts they demand, and the books are usually non-returnable. Those are both deal breakers for most physical booksellers. The Platinum line plays by the traditional publishing rules by printing offset so the cost per unit is low enough to hit the retailer’s wholesale price points. Platinum titles are also made available through the traditional ordering channels from people they know and have established relationships with. There’s really no good way to sell a book in physical bookstores without doing it like this. You can’t make the New York Times bestseller list printing on demand. It might start there, but you’ve got to go beyond that to breakout in meatspace, and that’s what Permuted Platinum will enable us to do.

Even though the potential reward is greater for this business model, the risk is also much greater. It costs nothing to put a print on demand book up online. But because we’re talking about very real costs to print up thousands of books, we have to be very selective about what titles we sell this way. So books that are in our Platinum line are going to always be titles that we’ve done a reasonable amount of analysis on. We have to have a solid premise that leads us believe that particular book is going to sell well in the real world. That estimation is based on a number of factors. We look at the sales history of a book in ebook and print on demand formats. We look at the author’s overall popularity, and we look at the author’s marketing footprint. If an author has a huge social media following or if the author or the author’s agent is plugged in to some sort of publicity network that guarantees them a great deal of exposure, those are just a couple of the deciding factors we look at. When Platinum rolls out in the next month or two, you’ll notice that most of our Permuted Platinum titles are Permuted Press books that have performed really well. That track record is probably the single largest thing we look at when selecting titles for Permuted Platinum.

What does the average workday of Michael Wilson, el Presidente, look like?

Oh wow. If readers haven’t tuned out by now, this is sure to lose them! The average day is changing up because we’re adding staff to take over some of the overwhelming tasks of things like book production, contracts, royalties, and marketing. Just last summer there was only me, and now we have a support team of like 8 people helping out. Some are full time and some are part time. So, just a few weeks ago I would have talked about royalty reports and epub files but now I’ve got awesome people in our office handling that. The bulk of my day, honestly, involves trying to keep my email box tamed. One day I did the math and figured that I send out something like 70 messages per day on average, and I read about twice that many. And I file it all away electronically. People think I’m a fool for being such a data pack rat, but I can’t tell you how useful it is to be able to go back to an email exchange from years before to get details on something. I know all the business books will tell you that email is inefficient and a terrible way to manage your work, but what can I say. Old habits die hard.

Between email, a 300 calorie Subway 6 inch at my desk every day at 12:30, and an occasional cup of coffee, that’s the extent of my day. If I’m feeling super adventurous, I’ll hit Taco bell for a 450 calorie fresco #8. I count calories in my head meticulously. For one, I’m a numbers nerd and a bit OCD, but also because I’m closing in on having lost 100 pounds since coming in to Permuted Press. It’s remarkable what you can accomplish with high morale in a great work environment and a little Wellbutrin!

Being around so much creativity can be infectious. Has the writing bug hit you yet?

Not at all. I used to think I wanted to write a book one day until I started working with people who really write well… I was a classically trained pianist as a kid. All my teachers called me a child prodigy which made me a really cocky youngster. Now that I’m an adult having spent close to 25 years in Nashville watching people like Anthony Burger and Ben Folds play, I know now what a joke that was. So, instead of aspiring to be something I admire, I try to stick to what I’m good at. That definitely does not include being an author. And at this point, it doesn’t include being a musician either.

I do have a few pet projects in mind for both Permuted Press and Post Hill Press that I’d love to see come to light some day, but it would take someone else with the skill and talent that I lack to bring them to fruition.

What suggestions/advice do you have for authors wanting to work with Permuted Press? Is there anything special they can do to increase their chances of being picked up?

Absolutely, without question there is. The first one is the pitch. Your may have written the next American classic, but if you lose us on the pitch we won’t get far enough to find out how good the book might really be. The pitch is everything. I remember the first book I picked up because I loved the pitch so much. It was The Boom Generation by Tim Long and Jonathan Moon. They hadn’t even written it yet. Tim just emailed me and said, “At random times people are exploding in a manner that creates human bombs with bones as shrapnel. The main character escapes his office building and makes it home only to realize that he is not safe with his own wife and child because anyone of them, at any time, can become a deadly weapon.” From that short description, I knew Permuted Press had to own that book, and now it’ll be coming out later this year. Seeing that story in print is going to really be sentimental for me.

I guess the other thing I’d say, and this might sound dumb, but I’m serious… Don’t be a jerk. Business is business and conflict is a natural part of that, especially when it comes to things like contract negotiations. But how someone deals with those discussions often tells me all I need to know about whether that person is someone I want to be in business with or not. Frankly, there are so many insanely talented writers out there who are genuinely nice people that there’s really no need to invest time in someone who is unpleasant, overdemanding or thinks themselves higher than another individual. Kindness goes a long way with me, and I think in life in general.

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