On indie press: Robert Hood

I’ve invited a number of people who have published in indie press and are professionals in the field to write about their experiences. Today’s post comes to us from Robert Hood, who considers some of the differences between small press and the pros.

Photograph by Cat Sparks

Independent vs Mainstream Publishing

In some ways, issues of small-press vs mainstream publishing have been a bit moot in my own writing history – and I think it’s fairly typical. In part it’s the difference between being a short-story writer and being a novelist. For genre short-story writing (in particular), small presses are inevitable, at least in the long term.

My writing career was undoubtedly forged in the cash-strapped world of the small press. In those early years, though story publication sometimes came via well-paying mainstream markets (such as the National Times, a Century Hutchinson anthology, The Bulletin, Rolling Stone), small-press literary journals and more left-field non-genre markets such as ABC Radio, The Australian Way inflight magazine, Woman’s Day and a Campbelltown Council-funded anthology of ghost stories offered more consistent publication than the mainstream book publishers. This was the 1980s, when simply getting manuscripts into the hands of US magazine editors was logistically difficult and virtually no professional SF/horror markets existed at all in Australia. Few, maybe none, of us were sufficiently well-known for overseas editors to offer invitations to submit to the bigger anthologies.

For me, winning a crime story competition led to publication in a series of Allen & Unwin crime anthologies and then UK editor Karl Edward Wagner chose to include a story originally published in a small literary journal in his prestigious Year’s Best Horror series. But even then single author short story collections weren’t high on the to-do lists of the big publishers, certainly not when they were the demanding progeny of little-known authors. It was inevitably a small press that gave me that opportunity.

A group of (mainly) poets centred on the University of Wollongong foolishly decided to create a co-operative press, as the mainstream presses were even less interested in publishing poetry than they were in publishing short stories. To avoid it being an exercise in vanity or mere self-publishing and to ensure a certain level of independent critical evaluation, anyone wanting to be part of the cooperative had to subject their manuscript to a general cull. Full agreement from prospective members was necessary to get in, so the large number of applicants was gradually weeded down to a few. Eight writers ended up forming Five Islands Press. My collection of genre/semi-literary stories – Day-Dreaming On Company Time – represented the only prose involved. Of course, being published by Five Islands Press felt a little like self-publishing even so – though when the book went on to be shortlisted in the Best Collection by a Single Author category of the 1990 Readercon Awards in the US, it went some way to convincing me that taking the right approach to “self-motivated” publishing (that is, a critical one) was a viable option in the production of quality work. After the first round of publications, however, the co-operative nature of Five Islands Press evaporated and the press, under the auspices of poets Ron Pretty and Deb Westbury, went on to become (for a time) one of the most significant and prolific poetry publishers in Australia.

Before morphing into a solely poetic enterprise, however, FIP managed to produce two other genre anthologies – Crosstown Traffic (edited by Stuart Coupe, Julie Ogden and myself) and Intimate Armageddons (edited by Bill Congreve). The latter, appearing in 1992, was arguably the first anthology of original horror stories ever published in Australia. It also introduced me to Bill, who became a life-long friend and later established MirrorDanse Press – one of the first and most successful genre-focused independent presses in the country.

This was in the early days of generally available computer layout programs – the same ones the “mainstream” used, now accessible to all. It was a form of democratisation brought about by the spread of the home computer that has continued to today. Suddenly “amateurs” could produce books that looked identical to those produced by the Big Publishers, if they had the talent and critical ability, and at a fraction of the cost (because they didn’t have to absorb corporate overheads into their budgets). Available talent and editorial skill, and issues such as how to get good artists and designers to work for peanuts, remained a problem, but it was no longer impossible. Only distribution (and consequently payment levels) remained as a major difference between small and mainstream press.

Since Day-dreaming on Company Time I have had two further collections of short stories published, both through small presses. Still today the likelihood of a “mainstream” publisher being interested in a single-author genre collection is minimal. As always they don’t mind considering “literary” story collections, being generally willing to forego high sales for respectability and the prestige value of good reviews and mainstream awards. They’ll consider collections by bestselling novelists, too, if only to keep them happy while they’re writing their next bestseller. But generally, the answer is, “No thanks!” to everyone else, top-quality writing notwithstanding.

My highest selling collection, Immaterial: Ghost Stories, was published by MirrorDanse Press, put together and edited effectively with the expert help of Bill Congreve. Creeping in Reptile Flesh followed in 2008, published first by small-press Altair Australia and then reprinted (and re-edited) by Morrigan Books (Sweden) – released in both book form and as an e-book last month. I’m interested to see how being readily available on Amazon affects the sales of this one.
During the 1990s I found myself getting published more often in “mainstream” (that is, “professional”) publications (such as Leigh Blackmore’s Terror Australis anthology from Hodder & Stoughton, Paul Collins’ Strange Fruit anthology from Penguin, even the Sun-Herald) and in the odd significant overseas publication (Dark Voices 3: the Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by David Sutton and Stephen Jones for Pan UK, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the US magazine Aboriginal SF), but meanwhile the small-press in Australia loomed ever larger. Who among my generation of writers could avoid the influence of Aurealis magazine and its Western Australian compatriot Eidolon? At the time, getting published in these two small-press publications was a major aim of Australian genre writers and both fostered many of the older writers still working today.

At this time, too, Bloodsongs, the first ever “professional” and widely distributed Australian horror magazine, appeared on the scene, emerging from a group of enthusiasts rather than any of the big magazine publishers. Bill Congreve and I managed to get the very first issue slapped with an “R” rating and subsequently banned in Queensland. It was an odd high point in my publishing career – a good anecdote to tell at parties. Bloodsongs was in reality a small-press publication, but it paid reasonably well, offered effective and discerning editorial oversight and achieved good distribution through specialist bookstores and newsagents. Then, as now, the difference between “professional” and “small-press” markets for genre short stories in Australia was more-or-less insignificant – at least at the high end.

These days most of my short-story sales are made to anthologies – sometimes produced by the “mainstream” (such as recent sales to Zombie Apocalypse! edited by Stephen Jones, and a major franchise tie-in anthology, Zombies vs Robots, edited by Jeff Conner for IDW Publishing in the US), but mostly “independent publishers” in Australia and overseas. Some of these small presses, being located in the US, have print runs equal to or exceeding those of Australian mainstream publishers. The books, too – as artefacts – are the equal of those produced by the Big Guys. Often they exceed them in quality and sheer beauty, even in Australia. Take a look at the products turned out by Twelfth Planet Press or Ticonderoga Press, for example: award-winning, internationally recognised work in books that are beautifully produced.

As has been the case for as long as I’ve been in the game, the market for short stories still tends to be dominated by the small press, except for Big-Name Authors. If anything, current technological trends have given independent presses a definite edge over their “legitimate” mainstream rivals, certainly in terms of anthologies and collections. And let’s face it: there’s not that many “professional” genre magazines still in business these days. Some of the most prestigious of the genre magazines are in effect small or semi-professional in business mode.

My first novel, however, was definitely a “mainstream” publication, and usefully so. Hodder Headline editor Belinda Bolliger contracted Backstreets on the basis of a proposal. I already had a relationship with Hodder through the publication of a series of short children’s horror/comedy novels under the franchise title CREEPERS, co-written with Bill Condon. Belinda was a great example of a professional editor; her input and oversight helped make Backstreets a significant and successful publication. It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without her. My experience with the editorial aspects of the subsequent SHADES series of YA supernatural thrillers was equally effective – though the marketing of the books illustrated the fact that the Big Publishers could be just as clumsy and ineffective at selling and distributing a book as the small press was generally reputed to be (and often isn’t).

The future? I have no doubt that small and independent publishers have played a vital role in the development of genre fiction, and, I believe, are increasingly important to its survival, at least as an innovative medium. As book publishing undergoes significant changes and mainstream publishers struggle with profit margins, independent presses represent a viable option for writers and creators generally.

In the past, ensuring production quality, adequate distribution and significant market impact were almost impossible goals for small presses to achieve. However, changes to technology and more importantly to the way readers access product have given small presses a chance to flourish. Mega bestsellers may still be outside their purview (though I think that will change) but at least the level of available financial resources and the expensive technology it provides play a lesser role in book production. The mechanics of publishing have become more “democratic” and quality product is now only hindered by the same sort of quality issues faced by all publishers – finding and recognising the best work, having talented artists and designers available, and gathering personnel with editorial skill to whip authors’ work into its best shape. All hard enough to achieve, but in a marketplace where mainstream publishers are becoming more and more conservative – restricted by the cost levels they are forced to maintain by the nature of their corporate structures – their independent brethren can afford to be and are generally more willing to embrace risk. Innovation and imagination require risk. Also as mainstream publishers dump their mid-list authors in favour of the instant profit gratification of the bestselling celebrity, many of these dispossessed authors are looking to small presses as a source of artistic survival, if not continued full-time employment.

Small presses are here to stay. All they have to do is make sure they maintain editorial standards and design/production quality, and find the best way to get their books to the general public – just like the mainstream publishers. Both struggle with marketing and distribution. The mainstream publishers still offer the best hope of gaining “bestseller” status, of course, and hence a full-time writing career, but beyond that it seems to me there’s little difference between them.

Robert Hood’s many stories, which have appeared in major Australian and international genre magazines and anthologies, range from crime to science fiction to dark fantasy, often mixed. Some of these are in his three collections to date: Day-Dreaming on Company Time (Five Islands Press, 1988), Immaterial: Ghost Stories (MirrorDanse Books, 2002) and Creeping in Reptile Flesh (from Altair Australia Press in 2008 and as a second revised edition from Morrigan Press in 2011 – in both physical and digital formats). His novel, Backstreets, was published by Hodder Headline in 1999 – and is soon to be re-issued by Hachette Australia as part of its proposed e-book program. The Shades series – four connected YA supernatural thrillers – appeared in 2001, also from Hodder Headline. He has co-edited five anthologies, including the award-winning Daikaiju! Giant Monster Tales and its two sequels (Agog! Press, 2006-2007), and has published many short children’s books and stories.

Often nominated for Aurealis and Ditmar Awards (most recently for ‘Wasting Matilda’ from Zombie Apocalypse! from Robinson Press/Running Press and for Creeping in Reptile Flesh – both as collection and a novella), he has won several Ditmar Awards, the Canberra Times National Short Story Competition, the Australian Golden Dagger Award for short crime fiction and two William Atheling Awards for genre commentary and review.

Coming up, he has stories in Anywhere But Earth (edited by Keith Stevenson for Coeur De Lion), In the Footsteps of Gilgamesh (edited Karen Newman and Pete Kempshall for Gilgamesh Press), Exotic Gothic 4 (edited by Danel Olson for PS Publishing) and in a major anthology of stories based on the Zombies vs Robots comic franchise (edited by Jeff Conner for IDW Publishing). Hood’s website is: www.roberthood.net. He also has an award-winning blog, Undead Backbrain (www.roberthood.net/blog/), which he posts to with varying frequency, as time permits.

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