Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press: Index

By way of tying it all together, here's an index of all eleven of my blog post series on the small press, in the order they appeared.  (Which, by coincidence, is also their numerical order!)

Part 1: Non-grudging acceptances
Part 2: Artwork
Part 3: Editorial intervention
Part 4: Design
Part 5: Proof-reading
Part 6: Availability
Part 7: Publicity
Part 8: Communication
Part 9: Personality
Part 10: Professionalism

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 10: Professionalism

They said it would never happen!  Or they would have done if there was a they - that is, some appropriately shadowy convocation of interested parties - and if they'd been paying any attention.  Still, while none of that's terribly likely, it detracts nothing from the fact that if there was a they and if they had been paying attention, they would in all likelihood have said that the odds of me ever finishing this blog post series, begun in the heady days of February last year mind you, were about as great as the odds of me winning the Tour de France dressed as a pirate.

Yet here we are, nine articles of somewhat confused argument, inadvertent repetition and self-contradiction later, having smiled a few smiles and shed the odd tear, all in the service of showing that the small press can do plenty of things just as well as the professional press and one or two things even better.  So what could that possibly leave for this final post, other than some sort of muddled conclusion where I try and pull everything together only to reveal that I was too lazy to actually go back and read articles one through nine?

Oh, wait ... I put it in the title, didn't I?

And it probably doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.  Surely professionalism is the one thing you can't possibly expect the small press to do as well or better than the professional press?  That would be like ... um ... expecting cats to be better dogs than dogs are.  Wouldn't it?  Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I just typed that title wrong.

But no!  Odd though it sounds when you write it out loud, I think it's fair to expect a bit of professionalism from any editor, no matter their budget or level of experience.  All else aside, it has the potential to make their life a heck of a lot easier, especially if something ever goes seriously wrong or if a disagreement arises.  Not being a pro doesn't mean it isn't sometimes in your interest to behave like one; after all, the standards that have developed in the industry over the decades are there to protect editors just as much, if not more than writers.

So here are a few thoughts on the kind of professionalism that can be easily achieved without actually having to be a professional:

Put consideration into the tone of your e-mails, your guidelines, indeed any communication direct or indirect between yourself and the writer.  Be clear and precise about what you want and polite but firm when you don't get it.  Try to be reasonable in your expectations; fussy formatting requirements can be a nightmare for a writer who's submitting to market after market, and mistakes are bound to creep in occasionally.  If someone makes a genuine error, it's usually fairest to ask them to correct it and resubmit.  If they've ignore your guidelines altogether you may want to be less lenient.  Simply ignoring misformatted subs, however, as many markets claim to do, is self-defeating.  Not only are you damning a writer to months of pointlessly getting their hopes up, you're making work (or at least spam) for yourself when they finally lose patience and decide to start pestering you.

Many small press markets don't feel the need for contracts, opting instead for brief "verbal" agreements or even for nothing at all.  This is just about okay if you make absolutely clear what you're after, if your requirements are straightforward - say, one time, non-exclusive electronic rights - and, crucially, if those requirements are made available on a portion of your blog or website that will never be removed or changed.  Your writers have the right to know what to expect, and so do you; lacking a contract leaves you vulnerable to having stories pulled from under your nose at the last minute, just as a writer should know if you plan to keep their work archived for all eternity.  Generally speaking, they're not offering you a story but the use of a story, and there are many reasons why they might want to limit or eventually revoke that use, the most obvious being that down the line they may well wish to resell their work.  Be vague about this stuff and sooner or later it's bound to come back and haunt you.

If you're paying, providing contributor copies or offering any sort of remuneration, lay out a clear timescale in which that's going to happen; say, within one month of publication.  This is the kind of stuff that should be going in a contract, or at the very least in your guidelines.  And while things are always going to go wrong, especially when it comes to money, you should try your damndest to keep to those targets and - perhaps the most important point - be sure to say something when you don't.  Even if it's only, "Sorry for the delay in payment, my dog ate my debit card and then emptied my bank account and ran off with my wife."  Because, of the many things it sucks to be kept in the dark about, money figures pretty high on everyone's list.

Lastly, don't mix up professionalism with rudeness.  Professionalism doesn't mean you can't be friendly, especially once all that awkward contractual gubbins is out of the way.  If I had a pound for every e-mail I've had demanding something, be it a bio or an edit or a contract returned, I'd probably have enough money for that puppy I've always wanted and I'd be out frolicking in a field with my new best friend instead of sitting here writing this nonsense.  It's okay to say please and thank you; most writers will not interpret this as a sign of weakness.  We're all busy people here, and most amateur writers - like most amateur editors - are trying to fit this work that they do for love around other work that they do to keep a roof over their heads.

Which is perhaps the crucial point of this final post, not to mention much of this series: the publishing industry is full of very busy people and many of them, editors and writers alike, are having to manage their potential literary careers around other major commitments.  Not everyone can be a professional, and the industry wouldn't be half so much fun if they were, but there are times when acting professionally makes everyone's life easier.  And since writers and editors are more or less reliant on each other, and since we all want more or less the same thing, maybe making each other's lives easier is a good goal to be aiming for.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 9: Personality

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.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Help Kickstart a Nightmare

It's always good when life just hands you a wacky blog title post out of nowhere.

Don't go through the scary door.
In this case, I had an e-mail earlier this week from John Joseph Adams, who you may or may not - but probably have - heard of as editor (and as of recently, publisher) of professional web magazines Lightspeed and Fantasy, not to mention any number of anthologies - one of which, The Living Dead, provided my first big short fiction break.  Turns out that John is looking towards completing his genre publishing empire by adding a little horror to that line-up, in the form of a new webzine to be known as Nightmare.

Obviously, this is very good news - because there just aren't that many pro horror markets, and John is a terrific editor, both in the sense that he puts out some fine fiction* and in the sense that he manages to achieve commercial successes in a field that people are constantly trying to declare unprofitable, unfeasible or downright dead.

Both of those points are particularly relevant here, because the reason John got in touch was that he's planning to fund the initial getting-off-the-ground of Nightmare using Kickstarter.  For anyone unfamiliar, Kickstarter is basically a method of funding creative projects, which lets people pledge potential investments, in return for rewards should the project go ahead.  In this case, the rewards are things like issues and subscriptions, or if you really have some serious cash to throw around, unique print editions and samples of John's blood and toe nail clippings**.

Basically then, the idea is that you get to read an issue of or subscribe to what will inevitably be one of the best horror magazines around, based on the facts that John knows his stuff, is already editing excellent fantasy and sci-fi magazines and has some top fiction cued up for issue one.

A completely and utterly irrelevant picture I found somewhere.
This makes an emminent amount of sense to me, so I have no problem with promoting it in whatever limited fashion I can - even though other people who were quicker off the mark than me have already helped John kickstart the crap out of his target.  Still, all that means is that if you choose to chuck a bit of money at Nightmare now, you know for sure that you'll be getting an issue / subscription / unique genetic sample.***

Anyway, here again is the official Nightmare Kickstarter link, which explains everything at least nineteen times more coherently than I just did.

* In my ridiculously biased opinion, obviously, since John also took my story Jenny's Sick for Lightspeed.
** An obvious lie on my part.
*** Still a lie.