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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • “2018: Where We Stand,” by Bruce Bethke •



We began with a Kindle.

That sounds much better than, “We began with a series of expensive blunders, some of which continue to this day.”

A decade ago, when we first incorporated Rampant Loon Media LLC, I really had no interest in becoming an SF/F fiction publisher. At that time I’d already spent about 30 years in the publishing business, on one side of the desk or the other, and in the end, I’d walked away from genre fiction with no regrets.

Or so I thought.

When we launched Rampant Loon Media—and note the name; “Media,” not “Press”—I was most interested in exploring this emerging new world of electronic publishing, and I wanted to do non-fiction: especially cookbooks.

There, that’s a trade secret for you: if you want to tell stories, write fiction. If you want to make money, and write a book that people will treasure for years, return to often, give as gifts to friends, and pass down to their children, write a good cookbook. Say, Gourmet Kosher Vegetarian Stir-Fry on a Budget. Seriously. That and the Hmong Church Ladies’ Potluck Recipe Book were to be our first two titles. Ever seen the movie Gran Torino? The way it portrayed the traditional Hmong ‘Ordeal by Food’ was exactly right. Mm-mmm. Sticky rice, sweet pork, and spring rolls. Wish I could still eat them without blowing my glycemic index to hell and gone.

Excuse me. I really must learn not to write these columns before breakfast.

While digging through our files recently, I stumbled across our original mission statement:
“Rampant Loon Media LLC is a small, privately owned Midwestern company dedicated to the seemingly radical proposition that if we produce high-quality work, conduct our business dealings in an open and ethical manner, and always treat our partners and contributors as we ourselves would wish to be treated, we can successfully bootstrap a New Media company from the ground up without swearing fealty to some political faction, joining a religious order, begging for corporate sponsorship, groveling before foundation grant committees, or publishing work we’d be embarrassed to have our parents or children see.”
Hmm. “New Media:” well, that certainly was pretentious enough. But not a word in there about launching a pulp revolution, changing the face of science fiction, making genre fiction great again, or anything that smacks of a manifesto, is there? In fact, from the outset, I was determined to avoid having the company take any sort of public political stance, as I thought it was irrelevant to what we were trying to do, which was to educate and entertain.

Here in 2018, is it even possible to avoid assuming a public political posture anymore? Must one pledge allegiance to the Big Endian faction and denounce those vile Little Endians, or vice versa, and thus immediately write-off half your potential market? I no longer know. I only know that last year felt like 1969 all over again, and that worries me, because I remember 1970 much too well.

One last observation re our original mission statement: bear in mind that it was written as I was ending my ten-year term on the Board of Directors of yet another Section 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and after serving on the BoDs of three different 501(c)(3)s I had profound antipathy for the whole idea of non-profit corporations and their effects on the arts. But that critique is best saved for another time, if ever: suffice to say it’s why Rampant Loon Media was born as a for-profit corporation, not a non-profit.

And then, Stupefying Stories


Rampant Loon Media backed into being a genre fiction publishing company with the 2010 launch of Stupefying Stories—which, to be honest, was mostly a lark, expected to be a one-off, and an outgrowth of the original Friday Challenge. We thought it would be fun to see if we could duplicate the look and feel of an old-school SF pulp magazine—and we could, and it was—but it was expensive fun, so we decided not to do that again. However, if you want to see, feel, and smell how the experiment turned out, we still have a few copies left in the warehouse, and they’ve probably aged enough to have that proper musty-but-not-mildewy scent by now.

GRATUITOUS PLUG! BUY THE BOOK! BUY IT FROM K&B BOOKSELLERS!

And this is where the Kindle enters the story. Literally between the time we signed off on the printer’s galleys and the time the bindery delivered the finished books, my wife was diagnosed with advanced lobular invasive breast cancer. After recovering from the surgery she began daily chemotherapy, and being someone with a four-novel-a-week reading habit, she quickly found that schlepping around her usual bag filled with traditional print books and magazines was exhausting. So purely to save weight and wear and tear on her, I bought her her first Kindle: one of the (now) old, E-Ink, grayscale models.

That little gizmo was a revelation. Up to this point I’d been thinking mostly in terms of web and media (e.g., CD, DVD) delivery of content. I’d tried most of the pre-Kindle e-readers, but none of them worked well enough to pursue further. That first Kindle, though, showed me that it might—just might—be possible to publish genre fiction in a way that made some kind of economic sense.

A year later, Stupefying Stories was reborn, this time as a direct-to-ebook title. Rather than natter about the next few years, though, I’ll just point you to our old Publications Catalog, which to my surprise is still online. You might find the author index mildly amusing.

Stupefying Stories was doing reasonably well until issue #11, after which things went off the rails big time. Since then we’ve had a long string of false starts, attempted reboots, discursions into blind alleys and bad ideas (e.g., Theian Journal, Putrefying Stories, Tales from the Wild Weird West, etc., etc.), all of which are now filed under Expensive Blunders.

Why not just call it quits? I’m not entirely certain. Pride? Hubris? Pig-headed stubbornness? Perhaps it’s some warped form of personal integrity. I only know I’ve made a lot of promises to a lot of people, and I’m determined to make good on those promises. I’m not ready to shut it down just yet.

2018: The Road Ahead


As we roll into 2018, though, it’s clear that we must make a lot of changes in the way we do business. What used to work no longer does. In 2011-2012 we were pioneers on the digital frontier, and could pretty much fling anything out there and have it succeed. Now, the landscape has changed. Hell, the devices have changed. My wife’s latest Kindle Fire HD 10 looks and works nothing like her original Kindle (which she’s quite forgotten how to use). There’s a lot more competition out there, a lot more books, a lot more authors—not many more readers, apparently—and a lot more we could be doing with the technology. We now need to think very seriously about look, feel, marketing, positioning, the “reader experience,” and branding. Just what does the Rampant Loon Press brand mean, anyway?

I heard that. Someone in the back of the room said, “The Henry Vogel Publishing Company.” Well, yes, that’s been true, and Henry’s books have kept RLP alive, for which we’re grateful, but we’ve got to expand beyond that, and in 2018, we will.

We also need to figure out what the Stupefying Stories brand means, and that’s where it gets sticky, because up to this point, what it’s mostly meant is, “stories Bruce Bethke likes.”

Oh. I’ve never considered myself as a brand before. And when I do—when I turn it around, and consider what I would think of myself if I was a writer, dealing with myself as an editor—well, I don’t much like what I see, especially on the “always treat our partners and contributors as we ourselves would wish to be treated” front. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

So that will change. Fortunately, I think there’s still time to fix that, and make it stand for something good, and not, “Now what?”

I won’t say all our problems are fixed and we’re back in full production again. I’ve been burned—and have burned other people—too many times by saying that. But with #18 released and selling, #19 releasing next week, #20 copy-edited and in final production, and #21 well in-progress, I’m beginning to feel cautiously optimistic.

No Free e-Book Friday this week. Instead, we’ll be doing a free e-book promo next week, in conjunction with the release of #19. Watch for it.

And in the meantime: PLEASE BUY OUR BOOKS!




In science fiction circles, Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his 1995 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people in the SF world have known about him until recently is that he actually began his career in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI interface and the Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in supercomputer software R&D, doing work that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already fluent in Old High Unix and well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics.

In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer love of genre fiction and the short story form.

1 comment:

Mr. Naron said...

Good luck. I’m rooting for you guys.