DeFlip Side #38: Small Press Revolution


Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Some months ago you heard me talking about the ups and downs of my publishing career, and my futile attempt to get my second novel published. Of course I take full responsibility for my failure.

But let’s face it, there were elements out of my hands. Chief among them, the ultra conservative, play-it-safe atmosphere of the publishing industry. Look. It’s a business. They need to make money. And the best way to do that is to bank on proven commodities. Why do you think you see so many J.R.R. Tolkien clones out there? Thanks to the late professor’s continued success, you can’t swing a dead hobbit in the genre section of the bookstore without hitting some multi-volume Fantasy epic, which itself will be fairly indistinguishable from the other multi-volume Fantasy epics that surround it.

Not that I haven’t read my share of multi-volume Fantasy epics. I’m even in the middle of a few right now, ranging in quality from dismal to terrific. But as satisfying or disappointing as these reading experiences can be, they all have common plot elements, regardless of each author’s unique creative spin:

The shepherd, farm boy, hobbit or scion will be forced to flee his home in the face of some great threat emanating from an all-powerful dark force. Along the way he will face unspeakable dangers, find unexpected allies and eventually win the day, but find himself changed irrevocably by his experiences. This we know. And it’s because we know that we keep coming back for more. It’s the literary equivalent of slipping into a cozy sweater and pouring a cup of hot cocoa. And so publishers keep churning out cozy multi-volume Fantasy epics, one size fits all.

But it’s a catch-22 that eventually snares every genre reader, especially Fantasy fans. There comes a point when you just can’t bear the thought of investing yet more years and money in doorstop-sized books that may never end. Sometimes you just want the last page to be the last friggin’ page already and be able to get on with different types of books. But you still want to keep all the neat stuff—the magic, the fantastic elements. You still want something cool to happen.

Well there is an alternative. There are original voices to be found in SF and Fantasy today. But like most good new things, they don’t fall into the neat little pigeonholes that publishers have traditionally used to quantify and categorize genre fiction in order to process it for mass consumption. And to find the best stuff, you have to go beyond the bookstores.

This new school of writing is most commonly referred to as Weird Fiction, and is characterized chiefly by stories that encompass elements of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, in a refreshingly literate way.

The biggest name in the Weird Fiction movement is undoubtedly China Mieville, whose book Perdido Street Station debuted to almost universal acclaim and won all sorts of awards. In it, Mieville takes us on a dark and fantastic ride through his fictional city of New Crubozon, as dirty and corrupt as any city you’d find in the real world, only it’s got magic in it, too. His two follow-up novels, set in the same fictional universe, have been received just as well, making Mieville the one shining ray of mainstream success that gives hope to other practitioners of Weird Fiction, who still toil in relative obscurity.

One such relative unknown is author Jeff VanderMeer, who cemented his reputation with two books that made it onto the Year’s Best lists of most SF&F reviewers, me included. His first book to reach a broad audience was City of Saints and Madmen, which is a collection of stories that take place in VanderMeer’s fictional city of Ambergris—a writhing, vibrant metropolis that provides the backdrop for stories that are gritty, magical and offbeat. His first novel-length work, Veniss Underground, takes a much darker turn, with more of a Horrific Science Fictional bent. Publisher’s Weekly compared it to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the space of these two short books, VanderMeer creates two distinct worlds that are in many ways more interesting and believable than those you find in most overly-long Fantasy epics. But despite their universal acclaim, you won’t find them in the bookstore. Almost all of VanderMeer’s works are only available through independent small press houses that sell exclusively online, like Prime Books, Cosmos Books, Wildside Press and Golden Gryphon.

Another great author available only through small press is Paul Di Filippo, and I’m not just saying that because of the similarity in the name. I recently read his novella, A Year in the Linear City, released by PS Publishing out of England. Mind-blowing would be an understatement. How work of this caliber is not being devoured by the public at large is beyond me.

But this limited availability is part of what makes small presses commercially viable. Most of them turn out high-quality books with small press runs that help lower production costs and minimize losses. Because of this, publishers have the guts to bet on fresh voices that would otherwise never be heard.

Small press books are also especially attractive to bibliophiles like me. In most cases the books are limited editions and come signed and numbered. And many publishers include little extras; one book I got came with a postcard featuring the cover art, which was also signed by the author. It doesn’t sound like much now, but these are the kinds of things collectors will kill for when the authors get their deserved big breaks. It really is a chance to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing in genre fiction.

Another perk about dealing with a small press is individual attention. Every book I’ve ever ordered has been confirmed with a quick, personal note from the publisher. And when one book I ordered from PS Publishing came damaged, they sent me another one free of charge, no questions asked, and told me to pass the damaged one along to a deserving friend. Try getting that kind of service from a multinational publishing conglomerate.

As a reader and collector of books, I find this personal attention to detail and quality refreshing; as a writer, I find it a vital and long-overdue alternative for authors unwilling to compromise their artistic vision to conform to the cookie-cutter mentality of the big publishing houses—a haven for the misfits and mavericks who will reinvent and redefine genre literature in this new century. When it’s time for me to start shopping manuscripts around again, I know where I’m headed. True to the spirit of one of literature’s most famous mavericks, Huck Finn (who just happens to reside on my bookshelf alongside The City of Saints and Madmen), I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because those big publishers, they going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.