You trust me, don’t you? Take my hand. We’re going to jump.
I’ve been watching for years as writing and publishing have changed. They were already changing when I first started paying attention to writer’s guidelines for magazines and publishing houses — don’t use a dot-matrix printer, they were saying, don’t use fan-fold printer paper — struggling to keep up with changing technology, with tools that were cutting edge for the time and have already gone the way of the telegraph. Years later, it was don’t send your submissions via e-mail, editors prefer a paper copy. I don’t think that one’s true any more.
Most of these changes were easy to keep up with. One of them wasn’t.
Back in 1987, back when I was still having to try to explain to most of my friends what “e-mail” was, personal computers had already changed the way writers worked, forever. Word processors meant that writers could painlessly work through multiple drafts without retyping everything. Desktop publishing software had transformed the humble fanzine — amateur magazines — from the realm of typewritten mimeographed pages to slickly-produced, almost professional-quality layouts.
I put out a fanzine myself, with fan fiction based on my favorite TV shows. (Smile if you like. But keep in mind that in the whole long tradition of storytelling, from Greek myths through Shakespeare through King Arthur and Robin Hood, this whole notion that you can’t tell stories about certain characters because someone else owns them is a very modern one — and to my mind, a very strange one.) I wrote stories, did the layouts, handled the printing and the distribution.
But even while I was doing it, as modern as the technology I was using was, it felt immediately old-fashioned and outdated. Because while I was shuffling pieces of paper around, I was also posting those same stories online, on the Internet — and reaching an audience that was literally global.
I knew the Internet wasn’t going to remain the domain of geeks and academics forever. It was going to change the world, and it was certainly going to transform publishing. I loved the printed page, but, if writers could now get their words before the eyes of readers all over the world in seconds, what was going to happen to books?
I waited anxiously to find out. I’m still waiting.
I’ve been staring at this carousel as it’s been spinning faster and faster, looking for the right time to jump on. I suppose I’ve been hoping that some New Normal would emerge out of it all — some business model, some distribution system, that everyone would point to and say, this, this is the way we do things now, and then that’s what I’d do. That doesn’t really look like it’s going to happen any time soon.
Print-on-demand kept catching my attention. It was an incredibly promising idea — no spending years shopping your manuscript around, hoping it gets noticed and appreciated by editors and agents, only to have your book disappear back out-of-print after its moment in the sun, unsold stock remaindered or stripped and thrown away. But for years, there were two problems with it all.
First, the books were terrible. Not the contents (although those frequently were terrible, too), but the books themselves — cheap paper, poor print quality, flimsy binding, covers that creased and peeled apart. This is finally changing — the technology is catching up to the promise.
Second, there was their reputation. Print-on-demand was no better than vanity press — it didn’t count. This was what frustrated me the most. Artists who sold their work directly to the public were entrepreneurs; musicians who survived without a label were hailed for their DIY punk spirit; “indie” comics artists who published their own work were treated like heroes by their fans. But a writer, self-publishing? Obviously a loser who wasn’t good enough to really get published.
But all that finally seems to be changing as well. I constantly hear about writers who are pushing the boundaries of how to get their work into their readers’ hands — Elizabeth Bear, Catherynne M. Valente, Scott Sigler, many others to numerous to mention — and no one seems to think any less of them for doing it.
Is it safe to jump? There’s space to land, just there, and I can grab that bar, loop my hand through that strap, I might just be able to hold on —
But I’ve still been standing here, keeping my feet on solid ground — because I keep walking into these huge bookstores, your Barnes and Nobles, your Borders, and thinking, man, somebody’s getting published, still. No matter how hard everyone says it is, all these people are still getting published. And I still want it. I still want to be a “real” writer, whatever that means, and I want to walk into one of these big box stores and see my book on some big colorful cardboard end cap display. Soon to be a major motion picture.
Well, maybe. It could still happen. And it’s starting to look like I could do both — like publishers just might not think a writer’s been tainted and ruined and untouchable if they’ve dabbled in self-publishing. And I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m presented with two tempting options — I do like to choose both of them, whenever possible.
All these years, while waiting and watching, I’ve been telling stories. Reading them aloud at coffeeshops and conventions. I became almost more interested in the readings themselves than in the idea of getting my stories out there in print — I love the performance, I love the immediacy of the audience reaction, I love how much it’s taught me about language and about the sound and meter and rhythm of my words.
Some of my words ended up in print anyway. I have had one book of original short fiction published, by a small start-up publishing house that never quite found a distributor for it. That book, Counting From Ten, does have a small but intense fan-base of people who have purchased it from me in person, or on-line.
Those fans, my readers and listeners, have been asking for years — when will you have another book out?
I haven’t known what to tell them. While I’m not sorry about releasing Counting From Ten, I don’t think I’d want to go the small-press route again — not one that didn’t have an established distributor, at least. But I just didn’t think I’d have a chance with a larger publisher. Not with my short stories, at any rate.
Short fiction has, for whatever reason, kind of dwindled in value in the publishing marketplace over the last few years. Magazines devoted to short fiction are slowly disappearing. And selling a single-author anthology of short fiction, like this one, to a major publisher is — from what I hear — practically impossible, unless you already have an established following. Nobody’s interested in short fiction anymore, the argument goes.
I finally decided — I know people who are interested, why not take my short fiction directly to them, and save my novel-length fiction for a more conventional approach to getting published?
It feels like the right decision. It’s certainly the simplest, cleanest decision, the best way to jump into two worlds at once. I’m just sorry it’s taken me so long to get here.
After all, people have told me for years — you should do what scares you. So now you know. This book scares me.
I like to think it will scare you, as well.
— Michael Montoure, September, 2010