On indie press: Dirk Flinthart

So it turned out we had one laggardly author with indie publishing thoughts to share – the indomitable Dirk Flinthart tells it like it is…

Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow

So, what’s it like working with small press in Australia?

Except for the money, it’s bloody fantastic.

Take a look at the last few years worth of Ditmar and Aurealis awards. You will notice that except in the novel-length categories, small press is wildly over-represented. Why?

Well, you could argue that the big press has no real interest in short stories, novellae, anthologies, and so forth. But look more closely. Ask yourself why that’s the case, and you’ll find it comes down to one thing: money. The big kids don’t want to put money into shorter works because there’s not enough profit in it for them. Meanwhile, the poor small press folks have trouble competing at the novel length because quite honestly, most of us who write a novel-length MS would rather like to be paid for it … and small press can’t manage that. Yet.

I’ve had a damned good time working with small press in Australia. To date, I’ve found the people doing the editing and publishing are energetic, co-operative, friendly, skilled, and helpful. Best of all, they’ve got that rarest and finest of qualities: a sense of wonder.  They’re in it because they love this stuff. The small press people are doing the hard yards. They’re uncovering new writers, people with interesting voices and personal viewpoints. small press takes risks, and in so doing, makes us all much richer.

Take Cat Sparks’ agog! press, for example. Aside from the rather fine series of anthologies of that very name, Cat was kind enough to give me the opportunity to create the Canterbury 2100 anthology. It was an unusual, experimental form: not a ‘future history’, but an anthology of future oral fiction, aimed at depicting a possible England in 2100 or so by showcasing the kind of stories that people from that future might tell to each other.

In terms of sales and reviews, we didn’t achieve much, limited as we were in our print run and distribution. On the other hand, out of something like twenty stories, I can point to first (or very nearly first!) sales to Thoraiya Dyer, L. L. Hannett, and Laura Goodin – all three of whom have gone from strength to strength. The anthology also picked up an early piece from Matt Chrulew, and another first from Durand Welsh.

Big Press doesn’t do that. By the time you’re printed in the big press, either they’re taking a punt because they hope you’re the next Matthew Reilly, or you’ve already done the weary rounds of magazines and small-press anthologies. Big Press doesn’t take risks because Big Press is there to make money. They’ll put $300 million worldwide into advertising a sure thing (the last Harry Potter novel being the case in point) but they won’t risk $50,000 to try out someone genuinely new and interesting.

I’ve got no objection to money. But I do object to lack of vision. It’s fine to keep churning out the same old stuff in genres like crime and romance. But science fiction and fantasy? Most of us got into reading this stuff because it offered a new vision, a chance to escape the familiar and discover something dangerous, something daring. The point of speculative fiction is speculation, and therefore, risk.

And this is why I love the small press folk, particularly here in Oz. Look at the work being done by Twelfth Planet Press, with its collections of work by new female voices. Consider the last-gasp publication of Paul Haines’ big collection by the late, lamented Brimstone Press – or Mr Haines’ career in general, if you will. Haines has what I think is the most original and viscerally disturbing voice I’ve seen in a generation of horror writers, with more awards under his belt than is really legal … and he doesn’t have a contract with the big kids. My guess? Probably it’s because he doesn’t sound like Stephen King, or Dean Koontz, or someone else with a few million sales behind them. He’s a new and demonstrably different talent, you see. Risky.

Small press takes risks, gets to be creative and discover new voices. Big Press waits, and invests big money in what it hopes are sure things. Is that a reasonable state of play? Can we live with this, as writers and as readers?

Sadly, no. The small press game burns people out. It costs money, and it takes time. Editing and layout require tremendous concentration at a high level of skill. Dealing with writers takes diplomacy, tact, and strength of will. Getting books together, getting them printed and launched and distributed, making sure the money goes to the right places: that’s a full-time kind of job, and unfortunately, it doesn’t pay full-time money. We get wonderful, brilliant people coming into the small press here in Australia, but it wears them down.

It’s not much better at the other end. Big companies get bought by even bigger companies. Costs get cut. Editors and sub-editors get canned. Fewer risks than ever are taken. When you’re down to just a few big players, the potential outlets for new writers are vanishingly small.

In the end, nobody wins.

Change is coming via the Internet. The rise of e-readers, tablet computers and smartphones as reading platforms is already reshaping the marketplace. Self-publishing is now ridiculously easy, and everybody’s doing it.

Into this fray Amazon has entered, signing up new writers as aggressively as it promoted its Kindle reader. This isn’t good from the reader’s viewpoint. Amazon’s Kindle is a nasty bit of work, with a proprietary format to lock their content away from other devices, and an inbuilt backdoor so Amazon can retain control over everything on the system. You don’t really buy books for the Kindle: you lease them until Amazon says otherwise. With an already massive market presence, if Amazon becomes the major online publisher, simultaneously applying leverage with the Kindle as the most popular reading platform, we’re just going to see the promise of e-publishing turn into a new ‘Big Press’ situation.

However, there’s one line in that NY Times article which really stands out to me. Russell Grandinetti of Amazon is quoted as saying: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

That’s interesting. It reflects the point of view of a market-man, a person who lives and dies by sales, and figures, and money. But it doesn’t quite reflect the reality of the situation, because the truth is that with so many people churning out books, readers aren’t simply spoiled for choice: they’re drowning in it. Sadly, most of those choices aren’t good. Of every hundred new SF novels self-published into e-print, experience says that ninety-nine will be pretty damned ordinary. I speak here as a slush-reader (for small press, of course) of considerable experience.

Perhaps the reader and writer may be the only ‘necessary’ elements in this new marketplace, but a good, critically-savvy gatekeeper with a reasonable public profile is extremely damned helpful. With Amazon moving to establish a monopoly around the Kindle and its existing book-sales business, it looks very much as though the time is right for someone with a track record in finding new talent and bringing it to the light. Someone who already knows how to work with an author, edit an MS, lay out a book in a readable form, and place it attractively in the market.

In fact, I’d say the situation is just about ripe for someone in small press to hit the big time.

Dirk Flinthart is a writer, mostly of speculative fiction, who lives in Northeast Tasmania. Every year he gets a little older, which alarms him at times, until he remembers the alternative. Between teaching martial arts, raising kids, and maintaining a chunk of rural property, he’s a lot busier than he ever hoped he’d be, but writing is still his first love, and he’s just taken on a Masters degree … because he’s a glutton for punishment. Flinthart has won the occasional award, been published in most of Australia’s small presses, written non-fiction and humour (and a best-seller with John Birmingham) and likes to cook dangerously spicy food. How much more does one need from a life?