With both Apex Magazine’s and Shimmer’s recent news, I’ve been thinking about the State of the Thing; and that Thing of course being specfic publishing in the Near Now.*
The field of weird and wonderful fiction has changed a lot since I started subscribing to ‘zines. There was that slow-burn month or quarter of excitement as you wondered what tales might arrive through your letterbox, and what characters you might meet. Some were glossy works with smooth layouts, others stapled together and photocopied. Each and every one was a delight. Some of the authors became familiar, and you’d track them across different publications. They felt like friends, even if you’d never met them. Other names you might never hear of again, but their stories stayed with you. It was harder to meet fellow weirdworlders back then; you formed scriptorial packs, secretive cabals; you lent well-thumbed booklets to those who understood.
With the arrival of broadband came services like Ralan and Duotrope, and the field of specfic seemed to go supernova. The stories became easier to get at. It was like there was a drug out there in plain sight. Not everyone knew about it, but those that did hungered for it. On social media you can rave about your recent discoveries; your friends can point you to new ones.
However, it would be fair to say that even despite its loyal fanbase, specfic has always been a fragile market in publishing terms. No one gets into this field for the money, after all. Unless you’re Jeff Bezos. Zines all across the world are cobbled together through late-night brainsweat and pennies, and offered up just because humans can’t not tell tales to each other.
Nothing new, then. This is how the market has been dating right back to Ye Olden Times, when the first pulps like Planet Stories! or Unknown and the like had publication histories worse than a Sherlock hiatus.
There was always more passion than there was profit in this game. But there is a more serious danger to this fragility; that the legacy of these artists and works will be lost under the treadmills… It’s not just a loss of a singular artist’s vision, but also a greater loss to the collective imagination – the sea of possibilities, no matter how fantastical, that informs us.
The Cruelty of Numbers
There’s been a few approaches tried, and most indy presses seem to use a variety:
- Physical Sales. Historically the least successful, unless you have a massive distribution network.
- Subscription Funding. Always been the standard, and new forms like Patreon can be added to this model.
- Private Presses. Some indy zines edit and publish whole novels and anthologies in-house, with the higher RRP supplementing magazine sales. These can be both physical or digital books.
- Project-Only Publishing. Kickstarter, IndyGo-Go, etc. Using a KS campaign to publish each project – be it a yearly or quarterly anthology etc.
But even with these options available – and all the great potential that self- and indy-publishing offers us, we still have world premier titles struggling.
The State of the Thing
It’s precarity, right? Which is to say that precariousness has been pre-programmed into the current economic system. If you’re not part of the centralizing monopolies (and by that, I am almost exclusively referring to Amazon, ahem, as it seems that even the Big Five Publishers have taken a beating in recent years) then you are pushed to the margins. You have to work multiple jobs, your ‘passion-project’ (which is a weird term, when we think about it) is something external to your life.
Again, always thus for writers and artists – but now it seems that the machineries of that precarity are much more finely honed. There are less feral gaps in which to occupy, where you might have a chance to buy yourself some freedom for that passion.
All of which makes me think about what a more resilient specfic would look like. What if we applied the principles of sustainability to our passions as we did to other areas of life? The most accepted answer to antifragility is to become more agile. Have more diverse revenue streams, more outreach.
All well and good, and from the above we can already see that there are four possible funding structures to mix and match.
But a part of me wonders if agile has become synonymous with overworked. Like specfic companies, artists – anybody, really – are that guy running across the logflow, having to keep moving in case they drown…
Now, this is just a wild idea of course – but what if indy publishing went the other way? Went more zine-y? People talk about the Isles of Blogging and the Republic of Newsletters; a syndicalist spread of creative outposts who reach out directly to their readers. Is specfic publishing in the tomorrow going to look like that? Direct-mail stories? Limited-run collector edition anthologies? It doesn’t necessarily mean less public consumption of storymeat, but perhaps more selective navigation.
“Hey, are you signed up to Bradbury’s Story List? Did you get the recent issue?”
I think I can see fragments of how that new publishing might work in things like Ganzeer’s Times New Human site – which are all gloriously free stories, using the website as a project-specific platform with direct Tip Jar donations. Maybe one day we’ll see a Republic of Works – which apart from sounding like some weird ecclesiastical organisation, would be a cornucopia of imaginative projects available for us all to discover.
I guess that there would still not be anyone making any money though (apart from Jeff Bezos) but then again, by the time that tomorrow has fallen on our heads, we might either all be living in permacultural urban gardens or telecommuting to Mars, right?
*Specfic = Speculative Fiction. Near Now = The current state of politics, culture, economics and technology, featuring the utopian and dystopian eruptions of possible futures, amidst the ghosts – both benefic and predatory – of our pasts.