Back in the day, before all the madness of a three book novel deal came along, one of my chief pleasures as a writer was getting to muck around, trying odd new things and taking risks, safe in the knowledge that the worst that could happen would be that I'd end up with an unpublishable short story - or that I'd inadvertently sell something that by all rights was too silly to see the light of day.* There are many sucky aspects to being an amateur writer, but that's not to say it doesn't have its virtues too, and surely one of those is that you can treat storytelling as a playground rather than a workplace. Want to write a second person romance, or a fairy tale where the prince is a weregoat and the princess is a serial killer? Hey, why not? Possibly no one but your mum will ever read it, but at least you might pick up some tricks for the next one, and - if you happen to really take some risks or go all out on the crazy - you might even end up with something special.
My impression is that all of that holds true for the small press too, at least in most cases. Obviously as a small press editor who hopes one day to be a professional editor, you might not want to make too many embarrassing mistakes or take too many unnecessary risks. But it seems to me that those editors, the ones who are primarily interested in working their way up to bigger things, are in the minority; the majority of small press editors want to be exactly that, and to enjoy the freedoms that it entails.
Only, what exactly does that freedom entail?
It strikes me that the least interesting thing a small press market can be is a cut price version of a professional market. Without naming names, I can think of a handful of webzines that are a lot like, say, Strange Horizons, only with lower production standards, less quality control and reliably weaker fiction. That's not to say those markets are worthless; at the very least they offer a ground for learning writers on their way up. But without the obligations of needing to reach a large readership, surely there are more exciting things to do than what someone else is always going to do better?
Point being, one of the values the small press is uniquely well placed to deliver is character. In fact, character is high on the list of things a good small press market can't afford to be without. I've touched on this in other posts, but what I'm really talking about this time around is stuff like developing a distinctive editorial voice, looking for themes that no one else is touching, trying to keep authors whose work you like coming back and representing all those choices with a distinctive visual tone - trying, in short, to make something that has a bit of your unique identity in it and so is unlike anything else out there.
It's a hard thing to get right, just as figuring out how much of your personality should make it into writing or blogging or any other kind of interaction takes time. It's easy to slip into creating an ego product; in both writing and editing, it's vital to love what you do, but equally important to keep a small part of your mind concentrated on the question of whether other people will be able to love it too. Still, like I said, it's completely necessary. If you need proof, just keep an eye on a site like Duotrope's Digest, see how many cookie-cutter webzines are announced, with similar names, similar designs, asking for similar stories - and see how many of them are still around in six months' time.
A few words of caution, though. Like anything, you can take this stuff too far. It's always struck me as unfair, for example, when editors come up with themes so wilfully obscure that writers are obliged to write stories that can't possibly be sold elsewhere. It might seem like a great idea to put together an anthology of Lovecraftian horror featuring anthropomorphised soft toys, and maybe it is - in fact, now that I think about it, that would be the best anthology ever - but it you receive a hundred submissions and accept only twenty, that's eighty authors who've put time and energy into work that stands no chance of seeing the light of day. Too many small press editors don't seem to even consider things like that, but routinely wasting people's time is hardly a great way to make friends. Similarly, there's a fine line between exploring interesting niches and being needlessly obscure, and the latter doesn't exactly tend to drag in readers.
Which, I suppose, is only to make the obvious point that having a distinctive editorial character means having a good - or at least interesting and entertaining - editorial character. Let's just take rule eleven, "not acting like a jerk," as read, okay?
Next week: Part 10! No one ever believed it would happen! Or much cared! But it will ... oh yes, it will...
* Which, in fairness, did happen at least once. I'm thinking here of the weasel-filled barrel of crazy that was My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7, as published by those adorable loons at Andromeda Spaceways.