Next Tuesday, we’ll be releasing our third collection of short fiction from NPR’s “Voice of Books,” Alan Cheuse. This collection — An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring & Other Stories — is the largest and most ambitious one yet.
My journey with Alan started in early 2006, a few months after we published our first title (Ray Robertson’s Moody Food). My development editor at the time, K.E. Semmel, knew Alan from George Mason University and conversations between the three of us eventually drifted towards a familiar complaint for literary types — we were living in an unpredictable era of change and declining support for the craft of writing. Publishers were afraid to take risks, and that meant that great authors and great books were being ignored, or relegated to out of print status.
In my mind, the hardest hit by the wrong-headed thinking of mainstream publishing were the novella and the short story authors. For a few years there, the novella almost seemed like a dying art form. Some quaint thing that belonged in a dusty book from an earlier, tiresome decade. That’s changed these days, thankfully, but there were dark times for the short form at the start of the 21st Century. Publishers shunned collections of short stories because they didn’t sell well, and authors were being conditioned to strive for the long form if they wanted to break through the barriers.
I decided to put SFWP to the test and opened discussions with Alan to have our second book be a collection of his short stories. He gave us four novellas, two of which operated perfectly together as a “linked theme” (language we were advised to adopt to avoid the stigma of publishing a duo of novellas). These were released as The Fires, in 2007.
Contrary to predictions otherwise, The Fires did well. It didn’t pay for itself — there is no fortune in publishing — and it suffered a few setbacks, largely thanks to my inexperience and some misplaced trust in an “arts advocacy” organization, but it lives on today in our catalog and continues as a source of pride. It was with the publication of The Fires when I realized that SFWP had a chance, as long as I took the lessons learned to heart and steered the course.
I had intended the book to be the start of a series of short reads — the “commuter series” — aimed towards all of my fellow Metro riders, and with an eye to get in good with the airport/train station bookstores. But, at times, it almost felt like I was single-handedly trying to revive the short form, and I couldn’t find a decent follow-up.
Finances also got in the way and, by 2009, after two more titles, SFWP’s publishing future looked grim.
Then came the full force of the ebook revolution, and SFWP briefly moved into digital-only titles. This revived effort was inaugurated in 2012 with our second Cheuse collection, Paradise, or, Eat Your Face.
Larger than The Fires, we expected Paradise to be a quiet little backlist title, the results of an experiment concocted six years earlier. We planned to release it mid-summer and carefully watched the costs going into development. The idea was that digital-only titles would have a huge profit margin, saving the thousands usually spent on the development and production of a regular print run.
Then, with only a few months before release, the book suddenly caught fire. Demands for tour stops, and a physical version, caused us to scramble a bit to bring the book from the digital-only platform to a full, regular release.
We produced a print run of 1000 copies and hoped for the best. We’re now down to the last 50.
Shortly after Paradise, our distributor, IPG, put into motion a plan to provide short runs of backlist and midlist titles. Partnering with a professional printer, they could provide a short run at low cost, and meet demand as if there were a warehouse stacked to the rafters with books.
The industry changed again. Today, many publishers use this method. It saves on those sky-high print costs and enables us to go wild with our catalogs. I can publish anything I want, no matter the style or genre or length, and a full-market frontlist release what used to cost $20,000 to put together now just costs $2,000 and looks just as good.
So when it came time for the third collection of Alan’s short stories, I decided to go nuts. Captain Marvel is 318 pages, the second largest book we’ve released. Alan and I labored for months on an order for the stories — the title story is a flash fiction piece that acts as both prologue and an intriguing look at Alan’s inspirations. It takes us through a child’s eyes into a fantastic land that informs, shapes, and travels along with us as we move through the other stories, touching on loss, love, family, travel, and the things that shape all of us.
It’s sometimes hard to describe Alan’s work. In some cases, there’s a bit of the Everyman. His stories touch on the familiar parts of our lives. They speak to us on a level that we can understand. It’s those stories that let Alan into your head and leave you with images that will travel with you always.
In other cases, his stories verge on the experimental. There’s a story late in Captain Marvel — a dream within a dream of sorts — that speaks from the viewpoint of the Pequod’s shipkeeper, Pip, from Moby Dick.
I hope you’ll give Captain Marvel a chance. You can find it wherever books are sold, and as an ebook, worldwide.