Wednesday, 20 May 2015

New Stories

After self-publishing my story collection in 2013, I learned pretty quickly that the readership I had spent 20 years building had pretty much all wandered away when I stopped writing. To be fair, I sold more than a few copies of the book - more than 100 altogether, which by self-publishing standards makes it something of a success. Short story collections do not sell as well as novels. That's a fact. And I didn't have much promotional machinery behind it - despite getting some fabulous reviews from some top reviewers on Goggle and some pretty awesome readers and writers on Goodreads.

What short stories are good for is getting your name out into the marketplace - into publications that other writers are trying to break into and that some people actually read for pleasure. Publishing the traditional way - in other words by sending your stories out to editors in the hope that they will like it enough to pay you to run your story - is the best way to build your credibility in a hurry. You can write the stories over weeks and months instead of years...and then the publishers get the stories in front of awards voters and best of the year editors and critics.

It is however, a tough marketplace out there. A publication that's too easy to get into is probably not worth getting into.

I started off 2015 with an inventory of half a dozen stories that has grown to twice that in the intervening months. I sold a rewrite of an older stories to start the year. Then March saw the publication of the Exile Book of New Canadian Noir - to whom I sold a story in summer 2014. And now, the Canadian e-magazine Black Treacle has just published my story "The Ones Your Mother Gives You."

I hope people like them as much as my older fans liked my stories like "Fourth Person Singular" "Memory Games." Because it's definitely a new marketplace, with new preoccupations and sets of rules. Writing horror can be especially tricky - because so many of the things that tend to horrify us do so by offending our sensibilities. When you offend people these days, they are often quite vocal about it. And they are easily offended. Words like rape and madness can be triggers that will set people off before they've even considered the context or the message of the story.

Here are the stories that have appeared so far this year and where to find them:

"The Children of Bonetown" 9 Tales Told in the Dark #4

"Nunavut Thunderfuck" The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir

"The Ones Your Mother Gives You" Black Treacle #9

Thanks for any of them that you take the time to check out.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

New Publishing Ideas

The top five per cent of writers make 95 per cent of the money. T'were ever thus. And probably always will be.

It's on the publishing end that the sea change has taken place. Publisher's used to subsidize 95 per cent of their new titles with that five per cent of books that were making money. But ask any publisher - finding those titles is hard. Holding onto best-selling authors once you find them is only going to get more difficult.

With e-books, authors are able to get much larger slices of the revenues than with printed books. But by self-publishing, an author can quite conceivably keep 75 per cent or more of the profit. Sounds good - and if you build and maintain and keep yourself accessible to a hard-core of a few thousand cultish followers, it could be an extraordinarily fun and rewarding way to scratch out a living.

But I suspect most authors who take that route are discovering the downside fairly quickly. Without the PR machinery of the imprint - new work gets less exposure, resulting in fewer reviews and ultimately in weaker sales and less credibility in the marketplace. A couple books down the line, your sales are down, your new readers are falling off in droves and leaving you with growing library full of books (or at least virtual books) and the memory of a once very promising writing career.

With lower e-book prices and diminishing sales and visibility - it's hard for mid-list writers not to panic. It's hard for publishers not to panic. And it's even harder finding solutions.

Here's an idea.

Writer's Collectives. Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have done some interesting experiments in that regard. But the model I am putting forth is more like the Night Visions collections from Dark Harvest in the 80s. In Night Visions 3, there were four authors on the cover: The editor was "George RR Martin" The book contained novellas by Lisa Tuttle, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. The byline on Night Visions 4 featured Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Edward Bryant and Robert McCammon. I can guarantee that every author who took part gained new fans because of their association with the other authors. While it's true that the better known names have less to gain - it's still a net gain for everyone at the end of the day. Which is precisely my point. Everyone's fan base will grow - whereas if you are completely on your own and not cross-promoting with your homies - it's a struggle to hold onto the readers you have let alone find and recruit new fans. 

If the writers themselves are the publishers - self-publishing as an artists collective - they can make all the profits until perpetuity.

There are potential drawbacks. One writer friend pointed out how these things tend to go - with one person doing all the work and only getting 1/4 of the benefits. But I think there are ways to prevent that from happening. My main suggestion - take it out of the hands of everyone who is actually in the collective. But put the actual production of the book into the hands of a "packager." The packager is like a publisher - except for the fact that you pay them a flat rate for their services. 

So that I can present my idea more clearly here, imagine me as the "packager."  Ultimately, the collective is paying to self publish the book. Let's say they pay me a flat rate of $5000 for putting and keeping the project together (looking after cover design, typesetting etc.) and for getting word out about it and for setting up the retail side.  

Let's say you are China MiĆ©ville (whom I've never met, but his name came out of my mental hat). The first thing we would do is sit down and discuss writers you share a sensibility with.   Perhaps you feel that Paolo Bacigalupi is the best thing since sliced bread and it's a mutual admiration society and Paolo thinks that Nalo Hopkinson is the shit and you're all interested and available in forming a collective for a one off project.  So I come up with an idea to get Angela Carter to be the guest editor and we get her. No one is off the table as a collaborator/collective member until they have turned you down! I challenge anyone who assumes that writers at that kind of successful late-career stage wouldn't be interested in a wacky project like this. I think anyone with a keen interest in the future of publishing and in the possibility of helping shape the future of publishing could have their curiosity and enthusiasm piqued by a project like this. (Of course lots of people won't be interested or available - but hopefully some will.)

In the end: instead of a self-published novella by China MiĆ©ville - which is a pretty cool thing that might do brilliantly on it's own...what we're putting together is a one of a kind collection featuring new novellas by some of the coolest writers writing - all edited by Angela Carter and put together in a jazzy package with a cover by the hottest cover design I can afford on our budget.

Then it's a matter of building buzz - making everybody curious to see how the project comes out. 
Please note that even though this is all so much hot air, I am conspiring to put together an amazing book. Getting good co-conspirators on board  is an essential part of this process. With participants of that calibre, selling ten thousand hardcovers at 40 dollars each should not be a stretch. And then God knows how many e-books, POD soft covers etc could be moved.

Whether you're a writer, artist, businessperson or "other" - I'd love to hear your ideas, feedback or alternatives. And certainly, most collectives wouldn't be as jam packed with stars - but the project is quite scalable as long as you can afford and find a good packager. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Live Reading

I've done at least a dozen story readings in my life, at book and magazine launches and special events. Since I worked in radio (as a writer rather than an announcer) I've always felt I had an affinity for the the spoken word and I always read my stories aloud to myself as I write then because rhythm and cadence and the sound of words has been important to me.I'm not a huge poetry lover, but in university, I would occasionally go home and read TS Elliot aloud because I always found his use of words to be hypnotic.

While working in radio I did voice radio commercials - and in the process of that, I leaned elocution and became a better reader.

So, you'd think that I would be comfortable reading my work aloud. But I never really have been.
I was always extremely self conscious. Afraid to bore people, I guess it came down to a lack of confidence in my own stories. And there was often stress involved - time limits that never seemed quite long enough, poor acoustics, following on the heels of a truly marvellous writer.

I did read my horror story "Fourth Person Singular" at a Hallowe'en event in Victoria - where they gave me half an hour to read a story that was 25 minutes long. Best reading ever because I took my time. You think I'd have learned my lesson.

I read my humourous story "Showdown at Kitchtown" in front of an audience of more than 200 when I taught at the Victoria School of Writing. (they had come to celebrate graduation not to hear me). That time the crowd was big enough and laughed so hard at my funny lines that it forced me to pause between lines.

Again, you'd think I'd put two and two together.

But what tended to happen after that was that I would select a funny story - usually a 12 minute story that I would try to read it from start to finish in a 10 minutes - short-changing myself in my anxiousness. Before the audience had a chance to get any joke, I was halfway through the next line - which prevented them from any hope of appreciating it. The method also works brilliantly at undermining suspense. And of course, I'd notice that no one was laughing, which made me more tense. So I'd read even faster and more purposefully. After two or three readings like that, I became convinced I was a lousy reader/public speaker - which made it harder to get up there on the first place.

Before I read my story "Bad Copies" at Chi-Series in 2014 I had rehearsed it for hours - practically memorized it. But instead of the hilarious, impassioned reading I had hoped to give, I came off stage sweaty and shaking and miserable.

I attended the launch for the Exile Book of New Canadian Noir simply to support the publishers and editors and the writers who were scheduled to read. And I couldn't have been more surprised when editor Dave Nickle told me one of the writers was sick (Ada's story is brilliant and I would have loved to hear her read from it) and he wondered if I would mind reading from my story.

I couldn't have been more unprepared. I still had a lingering fever from an illness the day before. My reading glasses had broken on the transit ride to the pub. But I said yes and when I got up onto the stage - my goal was simply to read a few pages, and get the heck off the stage. Squinting through some borrowed reading glasses, I struggled to the end of the first paragraph, and as I gathered my breath and struggled to keep my place, the strangest thing happened. People started to laugh. Another line. Another laugh. As I plugged along, I found myself getting totally into character - remembering the intent and the tone I had worked toward as I was writing it. I had intended to read more, but as I turned the third page, I hit a line that got an extra large laugh and I said to myself, "Hey, that's sort of a natural place to stop." And so with the crowd still laughing hard, I stopped.

I did another reading (at the Chi-Series again) from the same story a few weeks later and even though it felt self-conscious and I wasn't sure it would work - it did!  I just followed the same set of rules. I took my time. I enjoyed myself and consequently the audience enjoyed it with me.

I look forward to doing it with a creepy or horrific story one of these days, to see if I can sweep people up in an emotion that's harder to sustain than jollity.

In the meantime, Exile has once again invited me to read from "Nunavut Thunderfuck" 7pm Thursday, June 11th at the Word Up Reading Series at the Unity Market Cafe in Barrie. Coming off a couple successes, I'm looking forward to taking my full 15-20 minutes and reading the entire story for the first time. And if I don't manage to make it all the way through - hopefully you'll like what you've heard enough to buy the book and finish it in your own sweet time.