Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AE at PAX East

This past weekend, I piled into a rented car with my wife, my daughter and my good friend Max for the long drive to Boston and PAX East.

I'm not afraid to admit that in addition to being a science fiction nerd, I am also something of a gaming nerd. And PAX is the undisputed mecca of gaming. I've mentioned before my fascination with the overlap of video games and science fiction. I have a post brewing about the collegial relationship between the two. That post is not this one but, in service of that future post, consider filling in the brief poll down at the bottom. This post is about the amazing people you can meet at a place like PAX.

On Saturday night, after a panel on Interactive Fiction, I sat down over beers with Jim Munroe and Jeremy Freese.

Jim Munroe is a science fiction writer, indie video game auteur and DIY-publishing agitator from Toronto. I've known Jim for years and it's always a treat to hang out with him. At the aforementioned panel, Jim's graphical interactive fiction Everybody Dies was held up as being one of the best examples of original voice in video games. You should play it.

Jeremy Freese is the author of Violet, the first place winner of both the 2008 IFComp and the 2008 XYZZY Award for Best Game. You should definitely play it as well. I had never had the opportunity to meet Jeremy before and it was a real pleasure. He did an admirable job of appearing interested as I ranted manically for hours about publishing, AE and my own efforts at indie game programming. A real gentleman.

Another person I was thrilled to meet was Chris Dahlen of Kill Screen Magazine. The first issue of Kill Screen is hot off the presses and it's a really top-quality publication. It's definitely worth checking out. Of particular note is the fact that Kill Screen raised its start-up funds using Kickstarter. Maybe this isn't such a crazy thing we're trying to do here after all.

I even had the chance to talk briefly with Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik (a.k.a. Gabe). We didn't get a chance to chat for long, but he scrawled his tag across my badge before rushing off to his next checkpoint. Simply attending PAX is overwhelming enough, I can't imagine how much more so trying to steer the craft.

And, of course, I took lunch with AE's own Helen Michaud who makes her home in Boston and across a physical table from whom I don't get to sit nearly often enough.

It was a whirlwind weekend and I'm still unraveling it. As I do so, there will be more to say, old puzzles seen under new light and novel tangents ripe for exploration. But for now, let me leave you with this:

Science fiction has solidified as one of the core elements in the world of video games. Starcraft and Mass Effect and Bioshock (just to name a very few) bring the worlds and ideas of the genre into the living room and introduce them to a wide new audience. It is certainly the case that far more people have played Halo than have read Larry Niven's Ringworld. What does this mean for SF literature?

Register your opinion in the poll. It can be found in the sidebar to the right.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Small Press

Back in 2004, I wrote a novella. I thought it was pretty good. Of course, the problem was that novellas in the modern market (by which I mean the post-18th century market) are a really hard sell. In fact, from an unknown writer, they're an impossible sell.

So I shoved the manuscript into a drawer, hoping that happenstance would deliver me some idea of what to do with it. Happenstance was generous. I had a friend who was the proprietor of a successful local independent record label and events promotion company. I mentioned the forsaken novella idly one day in conversation. He asked if he could read the manuscript.

My friend, it turned out, also thought the novella was pretty good. "I want to print this," he said. "But I have no idea what's involved in doing so."

The arrangement we worked out was that his label would publish the book and I would come on board without charging a fee to help them make it happen. We talked some more, signed a contract, and then his label basically dumped a bunch of money in my lap and said: "Bring home a print run."

As a result, I did all the things that someone self publishing with money from their own pocket would do. I talked to dozens of print shops, meticulously comparing prices. I arranged for cover art, for editing and for internal design. And in the end I brought them a small perfect bound print run of 500 copies.

We had a launch event and I promoted the book online1. I took part in Jim Munroe's Perpetual Motion Roadshow, a reading tour that took me to a dozen cities in Canada and the northeastern USA. In addition to selling books online and at these readings, the label hawked copies at their events and got the book on shelves in a few dozen, mostly independent, bookstores in the USA and Canada.

We ended up selling out completely and having to do a second print run to meet demand. Eventually, that sold out in entirety as well. The label earned back their outlay and then some, and I too ended with some money in my pocket. All in all, the whole endeavour was a tremendous success. But more than any financial benefit or personal recognition, what I gained from the experience was a whirlwind tour through an entire microcosm of the publishing industry.

Books, I realized, were not brought into being by any arcane means. The entire process is something that people can just do2.

This seed of realization germinated in my mind for a long time before eventually sprouting in the form of AE.


1 - Though the book is out of print, you can still read it--in its entirety--online thanks to the Creative Commons license: Free E-Book.

2 - I remain leery of the idea of self-publishing and print-on-demand. My main reservations come from the fact that they make it too easy to skip essential steps in the process. A tragic number of otherwise meritorious books find their way into print in this way without a thought to promotion, distribution or even proofreading. That said, there are plenty of people who do it right: one example and another and another.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Magic of Money

Let me share with you a little meditation on what literary magazines, genre or otherwise, bring to the world.

Short fiction. This is what they offer us. To some, myself among them, this is enough. I love short fiction. Salinger's Nine Stories, Nabokov's Dozen, Gibson's Burning Chrome, Poe's entire non-poetical oevre. There's a magic of immediacy in the length. A story, read in a single sitting, can deposit itself beneath your skin entirely undigested--its payload whole and potent--in a way that no novel can.

Alas, not everyone agrees with me (a state of affairs not limited, I might note, to issues of literature). There are those--an astonishing number of them, really--who regard short fiction as a frivolity. A beast entirely different from and wholly less than works of a more sober length. You, reading this now, may even be among their number. I account it a sin to think this way, but I will not try to correct you just now.

I can hold off on this (much needed) reeducation because the independent merits of short fiction are quite superfluous to the value of literary magazines. For there is something else offered to us by these publications. They give us writers.

An autobiographical aside: I have dreamed of being a writer all my life. In elementary school, I bound my schoolyard fantasies in cardstock and slipped them onto the shelves of my school library. An elegant shortcut, I thought.

I was twelve years old when I received my first rejection letter from an editor and seventeen when I received my first acceptance. It was for a short piece set within the world of a commercial role playing game and it appeared in a magazine printed by the publisher of that game. It was, in other words, fan fiction (a quite poorly regarded endeavour within the geek hierarchy). But any question of the merits of the piece or the caliber of the publication was rendered entirely moot by the fact that the acceptance letter was accompanied by a cheque for $42.00.

This cheque conveyed something that no amount of praise from family or peers could ever hope to. There were people, people who didn't know me at all, who thought that my writing was an actual contribution to society. Enough so that they were willing to part with hard-earned money to encourage it. And, in fact, they believed that they could turn around and resell it.

With that cheque, I had transitioned from aspiring writer to writer. It would be almost four years before I successfully sold a second piece. If one were to try to stretch out those forty two dollars across all the writing I did in that time, I am certain that my hourly rate would be measured in fractions of cents. But no matter. I was a writer. Published and paid.

That single cheque (and the all-important byline) was enough impetus to keep me writing through heaps and mounds of rejection letters and ill-mannered manuscripts.

In Annie Dillard's words:

"It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. [...] Out of a human population of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms."

Writing a novel is such a massive undertaking--and a first novel, with no advance or guarantee of publication, such a terrible risk. Without a market for short fiction on which to cut their teeth, to learn what works and what doesn't, how many great authors would never dare to write a longer work?

It is no coincidence that the vast preponderance of literary giants, both in science fiction and mainstream literature, launched their careers from magazines. Without Astounding there would likely be no Asimov, no A.E. Van Vogt. Without the Paris Review would anyone have read V.S. Naipaul or Jack Kerouac?

And without AE to send out $42.00 cheques (though they will be for rather more, on average), who knows what masters of the future might never buckle down and take the great gamble of penning a first novel.

A Little More About Me


So, over on our Kickstarter page, I've posted a short bio and exploration of just what it is that brought me to AE in the first place. Rather than duplicate the whole thing here, I thought I'd just leave you with the link: Who We Are (1 of 3): Duff

The Beginning of Something New

Hi, my name is D.F. McCourt and I love science fiction. It's in my bones

Last summer, I was lamenting to a friend that there was not a single Canadian science fiction magazine left that payed SFWA rates. Well, Maya Angelou said it best: "If you don't like something, change it."

So, here we are. AE is three people. In the role of editor, I am one of them. The others are Adam Lonero (Art Director) and Helen Michaud (Editorial Director). I think that between us, we have the skills and the passion to pull this off. We'll see. If I am right, six months from now a potent new entry in the world of science fiction will hit mailboxes and newsstands across Canada and the world.

Success or failure, it'll be quite a ride. And I'll be chronicling it all here, as it happens. So stay tuned.

Relevant links:

AE website
AE Kickstarter profile
AE on twitter