On indie press: Margo Lanagan

I’ve invited a number of people who have published in indie press and are professionals in the field to write about their experiences. Here, Margo Lanagan shares her thoughts.

Indie presses—an extremely author-centric view

The recipe for building a career in speculative fiction publication is as follows:

  1. You write your half a million apprenticeship words.
  2. You send out shorts to magazines and anthologies large and small, with gradually increasing likelihood of being published in higher and higher-status publications and even, sometimes, paid.
  3. When you’ve racked up enough hits, you put together a novel, or a collection.
  4. You send it out, listing all your credits in your covering letter.
  5. The publisher sees that other people besides you think your work is okay, and takes a second look instead of slipping a form rejection in the envelope and shunting it back to you.

My publishing history, from a speculative fiction perspective, looks as if I did the exact opposite. My first spec fic publication was White Time, a collection of the stories I wrote for Clarion West in 1999, with a few additions. It came out, it got some good reviews, it quietly sank beneath the waves. Having published ten teen romances, two junior fantasy novels and two gritty realist YA novels before this, I decided that this writing lark was never going to work as a reliable money earner. I might as well stop trying to second-guess markets, I thought, and write purely for the reward of the writing itself.

Black Juice came out in March 2004. In October it started winning prizes, and it didn’t stop for about eighteen months.

At some time in 2005 Jonathan Strahan said in an email that I must be madly busy with writing stories for every magazine and antho under the sun. I wasn’t. I hadn’t sent out a single story, and I hadn’t been asked for one by a single editor. Any short stories I was writing (let’s not mention the crash-and-burning novels) were towards my third collection, Red Spikes. I was an iland, intire of my selfe.

This sounds as if I was pigheaded, possibly snobbish about where I’d put my work. But in fact I’d already done the rounds of a different series of indie presses—although we didn’t call them that, back in my day, she says toothlessly.

I’d spent my teens and twenties posting out poems to Australian literary magazines of various sizes, mostly small—Saturday Club Book of Poetry (that was my first, in 1976), Compass, riverrun, Post Neo—but some bigger, like Overland, Poetry Australia, Scripsi. I had about a dozen credits, enough to look okay on a Literature Board grant application. I’d played the rejections-slips-collecting game, I’d read and thought about and acted on the editors’ kind letters; I’d banked cheques amounting in total to, ooh, about $75?

And I was over this elaborate form of being ignored. I still loved poetry, but I wished I could pour out reams of prose. I wanted to produce whole books, not just a page at a time of compressed meaning, half-strangled by its own allusions. I was a reader of novels and stories, and I wanted other readers, not just other poets, to feel towards my writing what I felt towards books that I loved. When I heard, at Clarion West, that magazines-then-books was the way to climb this spec fic tree, I thought, Been there, bugger that.

‘A Pig’s Whisper’ was my first published story that wasn’t a reprint from the collections. When Cat Sparks published it in Agog! Ripping Reads people asked her, ‘How did you get a Margo Lanagan story?’

‘I asked,’ she said.

And there I was, perfectly happy to be asked, but not willing, with work and children and everything else in my life, to move into the hit-and-miss world of magazine and antho submissions. I didn’t have time to read them, let alone create the spreadsheet and have the 12-stories-out-at-any-one-time that some of my fellows at CW99 claimed to be aiming for.

Since ‘A Pig’s Whisper’ I’ve published two more story collections, and a couple more collections’ worth of stories that have come out in anthologies by mostly independent presses. Most requests for stories I’ve fulfilled; of those I’ve passed on, some have been on themes I don’t relate to, or the deadlines have been wrong for me, or, as lately, the requests have come in when the well is dry from my having said yes too often.

But when that well fills up again, I’ll go on. Publishing with small, or smaller presses, seems to me the most useful, relevant publicity a writer can do. After all, you can only visit so many schools, festivals and workshops before you get sick of the sound of your own voice. You can only travel so far and connect with so many people in person. But you can send individual shorts out into the world (or packets of shorts, like the Twelve Planets boutique-collection series). Who knows where they’ll end up, or who’ll open them, and happen on your work, and like it and look out for more?

If you’re not much of a con-goer, or a blurber, or a critique partner, publishing with small-presses also keeps you in touch with the genre communities your work makes you part of. In the course of the editorial, publishing and launching processes, you can keep up with the gossip that doesn’t make it online. It can be the way you support those communities; in some ways it’s the best and most direct form of support outside of buying their publications.

Margo is the author of award winning short story collections like Spike, White Time and Black Juice which won  two World Fantasy Awards. Her novel Tender Morsels won the Printz Honor Award. Her latest collection is Yellow Cake and she is one of the Twelve Planets, forthcoming from Twelfth Planet Press.