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April, 2004 : Feature:

Difficulties, Oddities, and Rarities

The Changing Role of the SF Small Press

In recent years the small presses have become increasingly important sources of certain varieties of SF books. There has long been a niche for the small press as a place to find high quality editions of books, reprints of particularly obscure books, and books simply too strange for conventional publishers.

More recently however the consolidations of various major imprints into just a few publishing houses, and the concomitant elimination of other imprints and some SF lines, have removed many of the conventional slots for books. Also, the book buying practices of the major chains, and certain changes in book distribution, have apparently forced an increased emphasis on finding blockbuster titles, at the expense of modest but reliable sellers. In addition, chain buying practices are said to discourage writers to take risks—one book that sells many fewer books than its predecessors can result in reduced pre-orders for subsequent books, with almost inevitably reduced sales. All this is a capsule summary of "the death of the midlist". (One should probably add in fairness to publishers and booksellers that there are other factors—many more authors means more books means less sales per individual book, for one thing. And readers' buying habits have changed too.)

Whatever the cause of "the death of the midlist," a result is an increase in the categories of books going begging for a publisher—which is to say an increase in the categories of books ripe for small press publishing. Add to this the fact that in certain ways it has become easier to do publishing. "Desktop publishing" and other uses of computers have simplified production. Online bookselling has made it possible to sell books without distribution to bookstores or a mail-order network. And Print-On-Demand allows for very small print runs.

The upshot is that we see many more small press books these days, in a variety of categories. Short story collections, chapbooks, reprintings of obscure older works (and sometimes not so obscure works), and brand new novels—the SF small press is an interesting and varied field, and it behooves one to root around in it for the occasional treasures. I'll consider books from each of these categories below.

Short Story Collections

In the past SF story collections were relatively common. An established author would, it seems routinely, collect his stories every few years. They probably did not in general sell as well as novels, but that seemed to be understood by bookstore buyers. A writer could even build a career, albeit a modest one, on short story collections. For example, the great Robert Sheckley published 3 wonderful collections (Untouched by Human Hands (1954), Citizen in Space (1955) and Pilgrimage to Earth (1957)) before his first novel, 1958's Immortality, Inc. All these were mass-market paperbacks (with a simultaneous hardcover for the first one)—reflecting another change in today's book market.

More typical might be the example of Isaac Asimov, who steadily collected his short stories over time in books like I, Robot (1950), Earth is Room Enough (1957), and Nightfall and Other Stories (1969), interspersed with his novels. Eventually Asimov's urge to completeness led to The Early Asimov (1972), in which the many early stories (often rather poor) that he had left unreprinted were finally collected. To be sure, only an author of Asimov's popularity was likely to publish collections quite that regularly and with quite that degree of completeness.

Perhaps a more acute example of the change in the market for short story collections is illustrated by the collections of Lawrence Watt-Evans. His first collection, Crosstime Traffic, appeared as a mass-market paperback from Del Rey in 1992. His second didn't appear until 2002, a print-on-demand book from Foxacre Press, Celestial Debris. I don't think this reflects a decline in Watt-Evans's career—he is surely better known and better established now. Rather, it reflects a change in the market conditions.

Nowadays there seems to be a fear that putting out a story collection will potentially jeopardize future sales of novels. Thus, there seem to be fewer story collections, and many of them appear from the small press, where they remain mostly outside the scope of chain book buyers and their dreaded computer programs. Consider another popular writer, Robert J. Sawyer, a Nebula and Hugo winner for different novels. His first collection, Iterations, appeared in 2002 from the Canadian small press Red Deer in hardback, with a trade paperback version now available (Red Deer, 2004, ISBN: 0-88995-303-1, US$16.95).

Despite the early examples of writers like Sheckley, in the past couple of decades it was more usual for a writer to publish some novels before putting out a short story collection. (Indeed, I've seen reference to past contracts that "rewarded" an author for novel success by agreeing to publish a collection.) But a possible side effect of the move of story collections to the small press is that some newer writers are producing collections before ever publishing a novel. Recent examples include Richard Parks's fine collection The Ogre's Wife (Obscura Press, 2002, ISBN: 0-9659569-5-4, $18.95) which became a World Fantasy Award nominee; and a couple of books from Fairwood Press (publishers of Talebones): James Van Pelt's Strangers and Beggars (Fairwood, 2002, ISBN: 0-9668184-5-8 $17.99), and James C. Glass's Matrix Dreams (Fairwood, 2004, ISBN: 0-9746573-1-X, $17,99). To be sure, it's still possible to place a first book with a major publisher that is a collection: witness Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others (Tor, 2002, ISBN: 0-765-30418-X, $24.95). But I think most people would agree that Chiang is an extraordinary case.

Let's consider two very recent small press collections. Brian Stableford's Salome and Other Decadent Fantasies (Cosmos, 2004, ISBN: 1-58715-408-0, $15) is the second recent collection of his work from Wildside's Cosmos imprint. Stableford's fiction has long featured two main branches—his very imaginative, fairly "hard" SF, often on biological subjects, well represented by his Emortality series of six novels; and his colorful, exotic, often quite dark fantasies—in a word, decadent—well represented by such novels as The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires. Last year's collection, Complications (Cosmos, 2003, ISBN: 1-58715-412-9, $15), was more focused on the SF branch. As you might guess from the title, the Salome collection represents the second branch.

The stories are strong, intelligent, stuff, mordant, often darkly humorous. Some are twisted retellings of familiar stories—"Salome", for example, quite cynically recasts the story of Herod, Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist. "O For a Fiery Gloom and Thee" movingly presents a version of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", with some of Keats' lines used nicely. Other tales recall such writers as Dunsany (as with "The Unluckiest Thief", about a man foolish enough to steal a jewel dedicated to a vengeful god), or Clark Ashton Smith (as with the longest story in the book, "The Light of Achernar", set in Zothique, about an astrologer exiled to an island who schemes to bring a royal family to power, to the general misfortune of all). "The Evil That Men Do" tells of a wicked king who reforms himself completely—with less than happy results. A fine collection indeed.

Stableford's books represent short story collections by an established author, of stories many of us may have already seen in the usual places. (With to be sure a few from out-of-the-way spots.) The small press really shines when it turns up glorious creations from unexpected sources. Such a book is Henry Wessells' Another Green World (Temporary Culture, 2003, $65). To be sure, this glorious creation comes at an, er, glorious price. But it's a beautiful book, with some lovely stories.

Wessells' interests are literary, and these stories reflect that. Indeed, a few are subtitled "A Critical Fiction", and work both as stories and as critical reflections on authors (Don Webb and Janwillem van de Wetering) or books (John Crowley's Little, Big). I found the story based on van de Wetering's work, "Ten Bears; or, a Journey to the Weterings", one of the best stories published in 2003: a wonderful fantastical mystery that is also a tissue of allusions to the work of van de Wetering, a Dutch-American mystery writer. Other stories touch on Lovecraft, on a secret history of Polynesian settlers of the remote Kerguélen Islands, on a monk creating flying machines to aid the Irish resistance to English control in the 16th century ... on curious and esoteric, and fascinating, subjects, in general. This book is an intricate and elegant creation, a very satisfying object, in both the physical and intellectual senses.


A publishing form peculiar to the small press is the chapbook. This provides a way to get a few stories, or sometimes a single long story, printed in a more "permanent" form than a magazine. It seems to me a good way of publishing what might be called "starter" collections—early collections by newer writers. This form has also often been used for collections of poetry, or of essays. Certainly chapbooks have a long and respected place in publishing history. Examples from SF include the reputedly gorgeous Cheap Street editions of works by Gene Wolfe and others, the "short story paperbacks" from Pulphouse in the early 90s, which reprinted single short stories in very slim books, and some of the United Mythologies Press editions of R. A. Lafferty's books.

More recently Small Beer Press has published several chapbook collections, including in 2003 Foreigners and Other Familiar Faces by Mark Rich, Bittersweet Creek by Christopher Rowe, and Other Cities by Benjamin Rosenbaum (all from Small Beer Press, 2003, $5). Steve Miller and Sharon Lee have long collected their Liaden stories (and others) in chapbooks through their own venture, SRM publishing, and last year they published a two story collection by another writer: Lawrence Schoen's Buffalogic, Inc. (SRM Publishing, 2003, $9).

Some of the very nicest chapbooks I have seen come from Wormhole Press, based in Fort Wayne, IN. Their books are printed on particularly high quality paper, and are nicely illustrated (color plates, no less). You do pay a little bit more for the quality, to be sure. They also produce a lovely catalogue, complete with original short-shorts, interviews, and a column by Edward Bryant.

Recent chapbooks from Wormhole include original novelettes from Bret Bertholf and Alex Irvine. Bertholf's story, Alfred Bester is Alive and Well and Living in Winterset, Iowa (Wormhole, 2003, ISBN: 1-932030-17-4, $13) has also appeared in F&SF, where it made a deserved splash. An aging man agrees to an experimental neural implant treatment, and finds himself receiving ambiguous messages, perhaps from his daughter. Perhaps these messages concern a classified program she and her husband were working on—but can he trust his perception of reality? Particularly since he seems to be reliving an odd version of 1957, with historical characters replaced with characters from Alfred Bester stories. The story is told in a bravura multimedia fashion, a clear hommage to Bester, and it crackles with energy throughout. The chapbook also includes illustrations by Bertholf, an introduction by Bryant, and an afterword by the author. Irvine's Down in the Fog-Shrouded City (Wormhole, 2002, 1-932030-11-5, $13) is a wild fantasy in the hard-boiled detective style, about wizards, monkeys randomly typing in the hopes of producing new spells, and an Agency that has taken the protagonist's memory of his beloved. Irvine continues to surprise with each new story. The illustrations are by Steve Rasnic Tem, the introduction by James Patrick Kelly.

Obscure Reprintings

Surely one of the most valuable services of the small presses collectively is bringing rarities back into print. There are many old books that deserve to be available—that will at the very least be of interest to historically minded readers—but that will likely have only a limited market. Wildside Press in particular does yeoman work in this area—for example they have brought almost the complete works of Avram Davidson back into print.

It could be argued that SF small press publishing began by doing just this. However pioneers such Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's Fantasy Press and Martin Greenberg's Gnome were really putting popular magazine serials into book form for the first time. (As with the Fantasy Press editions of books like Spacehounds of the IPC by E. E. "Doc" Smith and The Black Flame by Stanley Weinbaum, and the Gnome editions of books like Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.) Perhaps there just weren't enough "obscure", and also "old", SF books until somewhat later. By the 1970s, though, the likes of publisher Donald M. Grant were bringing books by H. Warner Munn, Talbot Mundy, H. P. Lovecraft, Harold Lamb, and of course Robert E. Howard back into print. How obscure some of these authors are is questionable, but certainly many of the books were rarities.

Surely one of the most obscure of recent reprints is Dwellers in Darkness (Gryphon Books, 2004, ISBN: 1-58250-058-4, $15), by John Russell Fearn. Fearn was an English writer for the pulps—his best known pseudonyms were Volstead Gridban and Vargo Statten. Beginning in 1939 in Fantastic Adventures Fearn published stories in the Doc Smith mode but featuring a female anti-heroine, a man-hater, the Golden Amazon. These stories were fixed up into a novel in 1944. The novel eventually appeared in the Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star-Weekly, and evidently the Golden Amazon was sufficiently popular that the same newspaper contracted for multiple sequels—Dwellers in Darkness was the 20th in the series. Only a few reached book form before these recent Gryphon reprints.

By the time of Dwellers in Darkness, the Amazon had become a more conventional heroine, and had acquired a husband (Abna, Lord of Jupiter), a daughter (Viona), and an alien son-in-law (Mexone). The four are known as the Cosmic Crusaders, and they cruise the universe in their copper-powered spaceship Ultra. This short novel concerns a visit to a dark nebula, wherein live a couple of dark-loving species. Two of these peoples are at war, and the Cosmic Crusaders must try to return light to the nebula, and eventually to travel in time to set things right for everyone, including the villain. It is all very silly stuff—to my mind of historical interest only. It certainly has some of the flavor of Doc Smith, but it serves to remind us that there is a reason Doc Smith was so popular—he did this sort of wacky superscience adventure much better than just about anyone else.

This edition of Dwellers in Darkness also reprints a short story, "Science from Syracuse", also involving time travel, as Archimedes comes forward in time hoping to rule the foolish people of the future. The two stories combined come only to about 40,000 words, which does highlight one problem with small press books and their small print runs—$15 seems a fairly high price for such a slim paperback. I should mention also that Gryphon Books publishes other writers such as Jack Williamson and E. C. Tubb (including the The Return, Tubb's final Dumarest novel)—further reprints of older stories, somewhat pulpy in nature, but certainly of interest to a subset of the field.

Original Novels

New novels are outside the traditional purview of small press publishing, with two exceptions. One I have already implied: some of the very first in-genre SF books were from the small press. But before long most new novels appeared from major publishers. The other exception is that the small press has often published higher quality, limited, editions of mass market books—in many cases, for example, the only hardback edition of a paperback original would be from a small press. (For example, several years after Tim Powers' wonderful novel The Anubis Gates appeared as an Ace paperback original the small press Mark V. Ziesing issued a lovely hardcover edition.) Sometimes, too, small presses put out limited luxury editions of general release hardcovers. (Ironically, the early Subterranean Press edition of another Tim Powers novel, Declare, ended up disqualifying the book from the Nebula Final Ballot in 2002.)

These days there seem more and more worthwhile books that for a variety of reasons don't find homes with major publishers, and the small press is picking up the slack. Two recent novels that might be called part of the quasi-movement the "New Weird" make good examples. It's possible that their very "weirdness", New or otherwise, it what caused these books to end up in the small press.

I've generally found Michael Cisco's stories to be well written but not about things that interest me. His new book from Prime Books, The San Veneficio Canon (Prime, 2004, ISBN: 1-894815-68-8, $17.95), pairs his 1999 short novel, The Divinity Student, with a new short novel, a sequel, The Golem.

The first story concerns a divinity student, never known by any other name, who is killed and reanimated by a mysterious process involving filling him with written words. He is sent to the city of San Veneficio. His charge is to go to work for a "word finder"—wandering the city to "discover" unknown words. But it transpires that his real mission is to discover a lost Catalog of truly unknown, secret, words. In The Golem the Divinity Student is reanimated again, this time to control a golem—a creature surgically created from pieces of corpses to resemble him closely. His quest this time leads him to a sort of mirror city underground, along with a beautiful magician also looking for special magical knowledge, and another person with his own motives. The quest resolves itself in a more directly (it seemed to me) religious fashion—and I found the ending pretty interesting.

Both stories have passages that are fascinating, and lots of exotic and impressive imagery. But both also have longeurs, and the overall action and central ideas never cohered for me. And I found the prose inconsistent. It's interesting work, and work that, it seems to me, excellently represents, both in its strengths and weaknesses, what I see as the esthetic of the "New Weird", such as there can be said to be an overarching "esthetic" to that "movement".

Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground (Night Shade, 2004, ISBN: 1-892389-91-6, $25) is the first novel by a writer who has done some pretty good shorter stuff in recent years, mostly slipstream, often with a horror tinge.

This book has a high concept premise—Jack Kerouac meets Lovecraft. That is, the novel is set in the early 60s, and Jack Kerouac is mysteriously enlisted to wage a battle against the denizens of R'lyeh, which has risen in the Pacific. People are turning into beetlemen, horrible cults are forming, mysterious things happening. Kerouac tracks down Neal Cassady and heads cross country from Big Sur and then San Francisco, destination New York. Along the way he picks up William S. Burroughs.

I found much of the book interesting, but kind of slow. (Perhaps it would have helped if I was more knowledgeable about either the Beats or Lovecraft—as it happens, I've read very little in either area.) The writing is sometimes quite nice, with plenty of exotic and original images. The portrait of Jack Kerouac that results is pretty effective, and fairly moving—somehow the weird occurrences around him just don't hold the interest to the same level.

And to close, a new novel from a small press by a long-established writer, and of fairly familiar subject matter. Medicine Road (Subterranean Press, 2004, ISBN: 1-931081-96-4, $35) is by Charles de Lint. It's one of a planned series of shortish novels, apparently about seven sisters from the backwoods. This novel concerns Beth and Laurel Dillard, twins who play "old-timey" music together. They are touring Arizona, and come to Tucson. There they find themselves involved in a century long bet—it seems that Coyote Woman changed two animals, Changing Dog (a dog) and Corn Hair (a jackalope) to humans and told them that they would be changed back to animals in 100 years if they could not find true, permanent, love. Corn Hair has found someone to love, but Changing Dog can't settle down ... and only a few weeks remain. Then Changing Dog meets Bess ...

You can see where things are going, but De Lint does a nice job getting us there, and his ending, for all its inevitability, is honest and just a bit unexpected. It's light fare, fun but perhaps a bit ephemeral—a nice mixture of music, gentle humor, Native American mythology, and a couple of sweet love stories. It's also very nicely illustrated by Charles Vess—perhaps that's the reason it's a small press book.


I hope the above demonstrates the variety and value of the contemporary SF small press. And I have only scratched the surface. I haven't mentioned original anthologies, for example, of which wonderful recent examples are Kelly Link's Trampoline (Small Beer Press, 2003, ISBN: 1-93152-004-6, $17), Jeff VanderMeer's Album Zutique #1 (Ministry of Whimsy Press, 2003, ISBN: 1-892389-60-6, $12.99) and Deborah Layne and Jay Lake's Polyphony 3 (Wheatland Press, 2003, ISBN: 0-9720547-3-1, $17.95). I've also not mentioned critical works, in particular the fabulous historical work of Advent, Publishers, who are responsible for such books as Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder, "William Atheling's" (James Blish's) The Issue at Hand, and Ted Cogswell's Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies. More recently one might cite David Langford's Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays 1980-2002 (Wildside, 2003, ISBN: 1-59224-055-0, $21.95).

The SF small press has long played an important role in keeping valuable books of perhaps not particularly broad appeal in print. Nowadays its role has expanded—it seems that more books of a wider variety are appearing in the small press. I hope interested readers will keep searching them out.

Copyright © 2004, Richard Horton. All Rights Reserved.

About Richard Horton

Rich Horton contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found in many places, including Locus Online, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Black Gate. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.


Apr 21, 14:49 by John Frost
The Small Press: the future of science fiction, or the fringe? What have you loved from the small presses?
Apr 23, 18:18 by Joe Tokamak
Thanks for that article, Rich... a spot-on analysis, I'd
say. I wonder if there isn't even some opportunity for
small presses in the major markets of pocket paperbacks and
the like? It seems like the big New York publishers are
stuck in a bit of a formula -- maybe an opportunity for
some ambitious small press?

Now we need someone to do a similar survey for digital
Apr 25, 13:46 by Richard Horton
Thanks, tokamak.

It does seem that pocket paperbacks might be a market that is being underserved, but I think you need an efficient mass distribution system to make money and take advantage of the economies of scale well enough to make the lower cost per unit worthwhile.

Or something. That was a long sentence, eh?

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