Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feature: Interview with Jesse Willis of SFF Audio

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Jessi Willis is the co-founder and senior editor of
SFF Audio.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you get into science fiction/fantasy?

I first got interested in Fantasy when I was a very young kid. My father had a book with a dragon on the cover. I asked him to read it to me, and he did. That book was Tolkien's The Hobbit of course. Later on, after my father died, I asked my father's younger brother, my uncle, to read me The Lord Of The Rings. And he did! It turns out these guys, my father and his four brothers were big readers of Science Fiction and Fantasy when they were kids. Still later my uncle gave me a copy of Ringworld - and that's how I really got into SF.

What are some of your favorite books or who are some of your favorite authors?

That's a tough question. I have many favourites. It's almost easier to say what books and authors don't appeal to me. But, if you twist my arm, and ask for some examples of what I think makes good introductory books... In Science Fiction, I always recommend William Gibson's Neuromancer. And both Ringworld and Protector by Larry Niven of course. I'm also very partial to Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle. In Fantasy I still hold The Lord Of The Rings up as the gold standard. On the author front it's a similar story. I enjoy so many authors - here are just few: Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert A. Heinlein, Spider Robinson, Clifford D. Simak, and out of the SFF genre I can't get enough of Lawrence Block or Donald E. Westlake.

What made you decide to start up SFF Audio along with Scott Danielson?

Well, back 2001 Scott was writing a column for SFsite.com, maybe a year into his column I had written to him about some suggested listening. We became internet friends and a few months later I think it was Scott who thought it might be cool to have a website all about Science Fiction and Fantasy audio - kind of like his column but writ large.

What are your goals in setting up SFF Audio? What currently are your challenges in meeting those goals? How is the site faring so far?

I'd say that the goals were rather muzzy at first, we knew the basic sort of thing we'd do, write reviews of audiobooks and audio drama and point people towards good listening on the net. As the site evolved we came up with editorial policies, stylistic and graphic regularities. At one point I came up with the idea of posting minimum one story per day, every day. And achieved it for a while. Today, it turns out now that we have sometimes four or five posts per day on average, and yet some days nothing gets posted.

The site averages about 1000 unique visitors per day - which is pretty impressive. One thing we don't track at the moment, and should is our RSS feed usage.

Whenever I interview someone when it comes to websites, I always wonder about the logistical aspects of it. First question with regards to this matter is whether the site pays for itself and if not, if there's an intention to do so in the future?

The site does pay for itself in terms of hosting and bandwidth. But, we don't actually pay anybody. Money comes in on a regular basis through Google ads. With it we've been able to make a few capital expenditures on things like our awesome logo, and a professionally produced podcast promo. It also allows us to make the occasional donation. I'm very proud of the fact that SFFaudio was the first donater to Escape Pod, Psuedopod and Podcastle.

Aside from posting links to SFF Audio, is there anything else you do for the website that's "behind the scenes"? How different or similar is your assigned duties compared to Scott?

I'm basically the siterunner. Scott's more the webmaster and the reviewer whipper. I execute most ideas (and most posts) all on my own, consulting with Scott and the other folks I've cajoled into working on SFFaudio. When there are serious editorial policy changes I always want lots of people to argue with. I'm probably far too radical for my own good. Scott's more conservative, more grounded. When I think I might be about to do something crazy I turn to Scott to check my thinking.

What's your regular schedule like?

First thing I usually sign into the site to moderate the comments. Next I check our technorati ranking. When it goes up I get happy, when it goes down I figure it isn't the end of the world. I also follow any backlinks. Then I check my email, I get lots of email from contributors who don't post their own stuff to the site. They give me post ideas and often I work on them (listenin', writin' and photoshopin') over the course of the whole day. I also have a lot of listening to do - maybe three hours per day. Scott told me how many reviews I'd written since the site started and I was very impressed. On the larger scale I've started a few traditions on the site, sort of annual events. For three years running July 1st (Canada Day) is "Review of Red Panda Day" and November 11th (Remembrance Day) is "SFFaudio Challenge Day." I like traditions. Recently I started up the "Five Free Favourites" post which goes up on Fridays.

What was the first podcast you listened to or how did you get into podcasts?

I got into podcasts because I was scouring the internet looking for them. Part of my routine, back then, and today, is to search the web for good FREE stuff to listen to. I tumbled to the Dragon Page podcast early on, that may well have been the first one I heard.

What is it about podcasts that appeals to you?

I'm an audio guy. I love storytelling, both fiction and non. Podcasts are that. Podcasting is a revolution greater than both radio and television combined because it makes anyone with the bent for it a broadcaster. I love podcasts because they bring the minds, the ideas, and the voices I want to hear right to my ears. Blogging is cool, and certainly more permanent than the ephemeral nature of many podcasts, but, podcasting is intimate and emotionally connective. Blogging can be that way, but often isn't.

What for you constitutes a good podcast?

If a podcast is telling me something I didn't know, allowing me to spend time with the person on the other end (who I rightly or wrongly consider a friend), or connecting with me in some other way - it's a good podcast.

If we are talking fiction about audiobook style podcasts... it has to be well read, good sound levels, sound-effect free, and unabridged.

Have you read a story for a podcast before? Are you planning to do so in the future?

Oh no, I'm a terrible reader. I get asked to be in Audio Dramas on a regular basis, but I'm a totally useless actor. Reading a story would violate my own standards for a good fiction podcast.

Right now, which do you prefer more or find more time devoting to: print books or audio books?

Unquestionably the answer is audiobooks. It has been that way for about ten years. I read paperbooks (every day) but the ones I read are ones that aren't available in audio. I read paperbacks, textbooks, magazines, comics, anything that isn't available in audio. The way I see it, reading in any form is reading, ideas are ideas. Information can enter your mind through your eyes, your ears, or your fingers (braille).

Any future plans for the site?

We're talking about an SFFaudio podcast, we'll see if that happens - we need Scott to make the time on that. Other than that, more of the same! Got any ideas?

What advice can you give to podcasters?

My main advice is, if you've got a podcast that fits into the SFFaudio spectrum, email me. I'll give you a post even if I think your podcast is shit.

Advice for aspiring writers--be it for books or podcasts?

Don't expect anyone to care about your podcast fiction unless it is unabridged. Excerpts suck.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Yes, there's this really cool blog out of the Philippines. It's called Bibliophile Stalker. The guy who runs it has exquisite taste in interview subjects. Check it out.

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