Monday, January 21, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 4)

Continued from Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Announcing Some Mid-Trajectory Course Corrections

Therefore, as the cumulative result of our many eye-opening learning experiences in 2012, we've decided to make some significant changes as we move into 2013. Effective either immediately or phasing in over the next few months:

1. We've decided to let STUPEFYING STORIES become the science fiction and fantasy magazine it clearly wants to be. We're still willing to stray further into the gray areas between SF/F, horror, and mystery than most other publications, and we're still going to do a Halloween special (wouldn't miss that one!), but the straight-up contemporary mysteries, the exercises in depravity and revulsion that claim to be horror stories, and the "I don't know what the heck to call this but I thought you'd like it" pieces that are so experimental as to be unintelligible are out.

I know; when I first launched STUPEFYING STORIES, it was with the declared intention of overthrowing what I considered to be arbitrary genre boundaries. I still believe that needs to be done, but file that idea under H for Hubris, cross-indexed to I for Idiotic.

2. We are decoupling from the calendar for the next three months. We know that STUPEFYING STORIES sells best when we have a new regular edition ready to release on the first day of each and every month, but we've also learned the hard way that the demands of putting out a new book monthly, plus trying to launch a series double-length specials, has overloaded our capacity. Therefore, for the next three months, we are going to ignore the calendar to the extent possible and concentrate on getting the following books released:
  • PUTREFYING STORIES (a.k.a., "The Zombie Special.") This long-delayed double-length book is still stuck in the state of being about a week away from ready to release, but every time I've thought I've had that week clear, Otogu has interrupted. It's time to just finish this book and push it out the door, preferably on or about February 1.
  • FIVE STARS (a.k.a., "The STUPEFYING STORIES sampler.") This one is even closer to release--but I have got to get the zombie book out first.
  • THROWBACKS! This one isn't quite as close to release as PUTREFYING STORIES, but it's only a few weeks behind it, and once we've got the zombie book out the door it's next on the docket. Sadly, it's not going to make it in time for "Jesus Leads the Jets to the AFC Championship" to be timely and topical, but maybe we're getting an early jump-start on next season.
  • The once-again-nameless mystery special. Sorry Jeff, Nicolai, Thomas, and Kent; I know this one has been on and off the docket for a ridiculously long time. This project is still near and dear to my heart, and right up until mid-December we were still aiming for a January 1 launch and planning to make this the inaugural title in our new quarterly series. We still have the funding, but simply don't have the man-hours (okay Karen, person-hours) to launch another series at this time. So we're putting this one back onto the STUPEFYING STORIES PRESENTS list and targeting it for release on or about March 1.
  • M. David Blake is off on a mission from John W. Campbell Jr., doing an invitation-only pro bono special of his own design, and those who need to know about it do so already. I mention this now only because it's going to be a monster, and when it hits it's going to chew up a lot of admin time--but right at the moment, I have no clear idea of when that impact will happen. It's kind of like knowing there's an asteroid with your name on it somewhere out there, floating around in an intersecting orbit...
  • Sometime between now and mid-February, we'll be releasing STUPEFYING STORIES 1.12, which will be a regular issue/edition, and sometime in March we'll be releasing 1.13. But we're not going to sweat hitting any particular release dates right on the nose for those.
If all goes according to plan we hope to be back on our regular monthly schedule in time for the 1.14 release on April 1, and plan to be back on it for May 1. But things have gang agley aft enough in the past year that none of us is willing to stake his or her life, fortune, and sacred honor on those dates.

3. We are changing the way we handle submissions. Again. We stuck to my original ideas of making certain every submission got two full reads and of sending personal rejections whenever possible far longer than everyone said we would, but in the end, the sheer volume of submissions has ground us down. Effective immediately:
  • We no longer accept printed submissions sent to our P.O. box. They make the office admin's day when she finds an actual manuscript in the mailbox, but given the way our personnel are distributed across the entire continent, physical manuscripts are a pain to process. From now on, we accept electronic submissions only.
  • We no longer accept multiple submissions. No more bundling three stories into a single submission, please. Put your best foot (or hoof, claw, tentacle, or pseudopod, as the case may be) forward. If you've sent us one submission, please wait until you hear back from us before sending another.
  • We'll still consider simultaneous submissions, but exclusive submissions will be given preference. If your submission is exclusive to us, please say so in your cover letter.
  • We're going back to pre-screening submissions. We see an awful lot of submissions that are instantly and obviously Not Right For Us from page one, paragraph one. This is not to say that they might not be perfect for someone else; just, they're not right for us. Therefore, in the interests of making best use of our first readers' time, we're going to resume pre-screening.
  • We're going to be making greater use of form rejections. I hate to do this--believe me, I'd love to send each and every aspiring contributor a detailed critique of his or her story--but there just isn't enough time left before the heat death of the universe to do so. Ergo, don't be miffed if you've previously received a personal rejection and now receive a form rejection. It doesn't mean anything more than we're running out of time.   

4. We currently are conducting an audit of our submission files. In September 2012, we cut over to a new server dedicated to handling submissions. It's become apparent that the transition did not go as smoothly as we thought at the time, as we are still finding stories that were "misplaced" in the move. If you submitted a story to us before September 1, 2012, and either a.) never received an acknowledgement of receipt, b.) received an acknowledgement of receipt but never heard from us again, or c.) received a notice telling you your story was being held for further consideration but never heard from us again, please contact us now.

5. We currently are conducting an audit of our contract files. As a side-effect of the submission audit we're finding stories we accepted but for which we don't have contracts; stories under contract which we've forgotten we had; stories with old contracts that pre-date our use of the expiration date clause; and stories with expiration-date contracts that are about to expire. Late last year we moved to using Adobe EchoSign to do electronic contracts with e-signatures, and the difference this has made has been spectacular.

Therefore, if you have any concern about your contract in general, please contact us, but in particular, if you have an old pre-expiration date contract (Nicolai, this means you), or if you have a contract with an expiration date that's about to expire (Joshua, this means you), please contact us, and we'll re-draft your contract using EchoSign.


One more time, I want to stress that we accomplished a lot of really terrific things in 2012, and I can't begin to thank the STUPEFYING STORIES crew enough. Henry, Marc, Vidad, Kersley, Erin, Guy, Barbara, Allan, Frances, Jason, Eli, Ryan, Arisia, Tyler, Ricky, Paul, Mike, David, Alicia, Theo, and above all, Karen: THANK YOU! We couldn't have done it without you!

Responsibility for everything that went wrong or that we failed to accomplish in 2012 belongs on my desk, with most items to be filed under H, for Hubris. And with that said:

Upward and onward, into 2013!

Kindest regards,

Bruce Bethke

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 3)

...continued from Part Two...

Otogu Speaks
It is said that somewhere in the Far East, in the mist-shrouded K'themai Isles, there stands a great temple, built by the now-vanished K'bab peoples and dedicated to Otogu the Insatiable, Devourer of Days...
If you've been hanging around any of my blogs in the past few years, you probably know that Otogu the Insatiable began life as a mere acronym—OTOGU—that I got in the habit of using whenever I needed to explain why I wasn't blogging this week. It meant simply that work on fun things had been interrupted by Other Things Of Greater Urgency, and as such was an outgrowth of my First Rule, which I've stated in many ways over the years but usually put something like this:
The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is:
Paying work on deadline always takes priority.
A few of you might even have heard me cite the Zero Rule, which states simply that the needs of your family always come first, even before the demands of the First Rule.

The First Rule in Action

It's common for writers to fantasize about someday getting their Big Break. When it happens, they imagine they'll quit their day jobs and forever after do nothing but be brilliantly literary, 24x7, for the rest of their days.

Me? Been there, done that. And after having been in the position where my ability to make the house payment hinged on whether the guy from Simon & Schuster was telling the truth this time when he said the check was in the mail, all I can say is: never again.

Unlike most writers, I actually like my day job. Some days I even love it. I'm proud of the work we do and the things we build, and grateful for all the help and support the company has given me and my family during the Zero Rule events of recent years.

Still, Otogu dished up more than the usual share of work-related First Rule situations in 2012, and when DARPA tells you they're sending some people over to see what you've been doing with some millions of their R&D dollars, you drop everything and give them your undivided attention, for as long as they want it.

Which definitely did chew up some significant time in 2012.

The First Rule (Modified): The 2012 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award

Given everything else that was already going on in my life, it was probably an idiotic act of hubris on my part to accept being named to the 2012 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award jury last March. As a past winner of the award, though, I felt an obligation to "pay it forward."

Ten months and 100+ novels later, I feel confident that that debt is now paid in full, at loan shark's interest rates and with an extra pound of flesh and some fries on the side. You can see the list of finalists here, but beyond that, I am sworn to secrecy until after Norwescon 36.

The Zero Rule

Most of you already know about my big Zero Rule situation. (If you don't, go back and read Part 2.) There were others as well: for example, in October my mother had a serious medical emergency, which put her in the hospital for a month and then opened up a whole new series of elder care issues that we're still in the process of solving.

Not all Zero Rule situations are bad. Some are delightful, and the highlight of the year was the day my youngest daughter married her handsome young lieutenant. They make a wonderful couple together, and if Fate is kind, I'll be meeting my first grandchild sometime later this year.

This, in case you're curious, is the stage of life that I am at.

Many years ago, at some now-forgotten sci-fi con, I ended up sitting in the hotel bar with a bunch of my peers, listening to them swap divorce horror stories. After awhile the topic turned to the mystery of just why the writing life is so toxic to marriages, and as I listened to them talk, it began to dawn on me that they had it all backwards. It isn't that being a writer is toxic to marriage. It's that each of them had, for the sake of his or her writing career, made the value judgment that it was more important for them to be in the hotel bar at some forgettable sci-fi con than at home with their spouses and children. The men, especially, had decided—by default, if not by conscious choice—that it was perfectly acceptable for them to let their children be raised by their ex-wife's next husband.

That was when I began to realize: perhaps these people weren't my peers after all.

So, in the copious spare time left over after all that...

For us, 2012 was a year full of valuable learning experiences. (As in, "Oh God no, not another valuable learning experience!")

We learned that our original lean-staffing model was hopelessly inadequate, and that we needed to recruit a lot of extra help. We learned that the half-life of a slush pile reader is about a hundred stories, and after that they either burn out or need a very long rest. We learned that we didn't need to worry about receiving enough stories; rather, we needed to fight writers off with a stick. We learned that custom covers are beautiful and everyone loves them, but they're also budget-busters—and worse, sometimes schedule-destroyers, when you plan an entire issue around a specific cover story and then the artist fails to deliver. We learned not to pay artists in advance. (Somehow that one seems kind of obvious in hindsight.)

We learned that our original email service wasn't up to the volume of traffic we were generating, and ultimately ended up changing not just email services but ISPs and broadband providers as well. We learned how to change the process of beginning with raw submission files and ending up with a bug-free e-book from being something mysterious and magical to being a documented and repeatable procedure, which took us until August, but once we finally had it cooked down to a procedure it yielded dramatic gains in our ability to produce and release books. In September we cut over to a new server dedicated solely to handling submissions; we're still finding stories that supposedly were moved to the new server then but in actuality weren't. To all the authors affected: Sorry!

We learned that the publishing world is full of succubi and incubi who will promise to do all sorts of wonderful things for your sales and cash flow, if only you make a few small changes to what you're doing: more of these sorts of stories and fewer of those; more stories by these writers and fewer by those; tilt your editorial stance just a little this way to appeal more to this religious doctrine or that political belief. In the end, we rediscovered the wisdom that Jon David put into the mouths of the mice in "We Talk Like Gods:"

We just want to tell stories.

We learned that splatter and slasher movies have a huge fan base, and far too many self-identified horror submissions are not so much spine-chilling as stomach-turning. We learned that a significant portion of the submissions we receive are instantly and obviously rejects, either because of the author's amateurish writing skills or because of his (mostly his; rarely her) complete contempt for the concept of guidelines. We learned that hard science fiction written by someone who actually understands science is a very rare bird indeed.

We learned—and relearned, and learned yet again—that the critical factor limiting the growth of STUPEFYING STORIES is the amount of time that I have to put into it, and most of the things we tried to do in 2012 to change that didn't really reduce my workload, they just changed what I was doing from being something fun and interesting to being something irksome and managerial. We learned that 40- to 45K words is a comfortable size for the kind of book we want to produce, and that STUPEFYING STORIES sells best when we have a new one ready for release promptly on the first day of each and every month. We learned how to hit that target consistently—

But we also learned that to do that, and release novels, and release theme-issue specials, was just slightly beyond the realm of what was realistically possible for us at this time.

Right up until mid-December, we still believed we could do it. We had five books in various stages of production, all of which we were still busting chops to get out the door before the end of the year. Then one day—the 20th, I believe—we stopped short, looked at each other, and said, "This is nuts. If we keep going at this pace, we'll burn out.

"We need to make some changes around here."

...Tomorrow: the exciting conclusion(s)!...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 2)

Public Service Announcement: The long delay between Part 1 and today's post was not an intentional pause for dramatic purposes. This was a "Holy Cow! This new strain of flu is as bad as they say it is!" pause. Take the public health warnings seriously, folks. Even I get sick from time to time, but it's been years since a virus knocked me on my backside for five days straight.

Continuing from Part 1, then:

What We Did Not Accomplish in 2012

While we accomplished a lot in 2012, when measured against our goals, what we did not accomplish is instantly obvious: we published about half as much fiction as we'd originally planned to publish in 2012. Why?

The answer requires a brief detour into history, a certain amount of whining, and the presentation of excuses. So put on your wellies, stand by for venting, and here we go.

From Pre-History to Modern Times

I've been involved in various electronic and small-press publishing experiments and pilot projects since the mid-1990s. About a decade ago I even pulled together a group of prospective investors with the intention of buying and revitalizing one of the famous old pulp magazines that had fallen on hard times. After studying the issue thoroughly, though, we concluded that trying to reanimate Hugo Gernsback's corpse one more time would be a great way to waste a lot of money, but in the end we'd still own a dead magazine.

So we broke up the band and went our separate ways.

A few years later, advances in technology made the idea worth reconsidering. When we founded Rampant Loon Press and incorporated Rampant Loon Media LLC it was with the understanding that we were going to take several years to study the issues, to learn, experiment, and produce test-bed projects and prototypes, and to grow the business slowly. Our original intention was that we would not have this company fully up and running until about five years from now, when I'd be ready to begin thinking about retiring from my current career and taking up running Rampant Loon Press full-time.

Similarly, when we first launched STUPEFYING STORIES, it was envisioned as a quarterly print publication, which we would take a few years to experiment with and fine-tune until we got it right.

Unfortunately, literally between the day we signed off on the printer's proofs for the first prototype and the day the bindery delivered the finished copies, my wife and primary business partner was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. This immediately put all our plans on hold for more than a year, as she went through surgery, chemotherapy, the discovery of four more secondary tumors that proved inoperable, and subsequent months of radiation treatment.

Introducing STUPEFYING STORIES: Take Two

When we re-launched STUPEFYING STORIES in 2011, it was with a new vision, inspired largely by all the time my wife spent in clinics and doctor's waiting rooms, reading books and magazines on her Kindle. This time out STUPEFYING STORIES would be a monthly direct-to-ebook-only publication, with all the money we'd previously spent on printing instead going to the people who actually wrote the stories we were publishing.

We had no idea just how popular this vision would prove to be.

Since our re-launch in October 2011, STUPEFYING STORIES has been evolving at a breakneck pace. The flow of incoming submissions jumped exponentially in a matter of weeks, and the book itself is now averaging 135% of the size of the first editions. For the past year we've been on a high-speed rocket-sled ride without any rails, discovering what works, what doesn't, what we didn't know that we didn't know, and what "everyone knows is true" that just ain't so. Many of the missteps, mistakes, and overreaches we made in 2012 can be attributed directly to our desire to make up for lost time, our sense that we didn't have much more time to waste, and our attempts to compress what originally was planned to be a seven-year development cycle into three years. We had a nasty scare in September, when one of my wife's follow-up tests returned a disturbing result, but after further diagnostic work it was declared to be a false alarm.

Four weeks ago, we celebrated one year of remission. Now it's time to step back, take a deep breath, and reassess our plans. be continued...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 1)

A week into January, life begins to return to normal. The ornaments have been taken down, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, and packed away again until next Christmas. The tree (a real one this year) is out on the brush pile, currently providing temporary shelter for birds and already well on its way to becoming the dry and brittle centerpiece of next midsummer's bonfire. The last of the pine needles have been vacuumed out of the carpet; the living room furniture returned to normal configuration; the holiday cards taken down and changes-of-addresses noted and filed away; and the NFL playoffs have begun as they rightly should, with the Packers beating the snot out of the Vikings. It's time to pause, take a deep breath, and take stock of the situation.

Executive Summary

Rampant Loon Media LLC is:
A privately held limited liability company, dedicated to proving out the proposition that if we produce high-quality work, conduct our dealings in an open and ethical manner, and always treat our contributors and staff as we ourselves would wish to be treated, it is possible to build a successful commercial publishing enterprise without seeking foundation grants, courting sponsors and advertisers, becoming the house press for some religious or political advocacy group, or publishing work we would be embarrassed to have our children or parents read. 
Rampant Loon Press™ is:
An imprint and trademark of Rampant Loon Media LLC. 
Rampant Loon Press's premiere short-fiction showcase, dedicated to finding promising new talent, encouraging its growth and development, and bringing the resulting creative works before a wider audience, in hopes that the talents we help to develop will someday outgrow us and move on to significant careers in the publishing industry.

What We Accomplished in 2012

In 2012, we received and processed more than three thousand new short story submissions. With the tireless help of the Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps—Erin, Guy, Barbara, Allan, Frances, Jason, Karen, Ryan, Arisia, Tyler, Ricky, Paul, Mike, David, Alicia, and Theo—we reduced this mountain to somewhat more manageable dimensions, eventually accepting about 150 stories for publication. With the generous assistance of the core editorial crew—Henry Vogel, M. David Blake, David Yener Goodman, and Kersley Fitzgerald—we published 89 of these short stories and novelettes in eight volumes of STUPEFYING STORIES, while also releasing three full-length novels through Rampant Loon Press. We are pleased to report that a number of the stories that we published for the first time have since been picked up for podcasts or reprint anthologies, and several of our authors and/or their stories are currently in consideration for significant awards.

Considered objectively, then, 2012 saw some impressive achievements. Well done, everyone.

Measured against our original goals of releasing sixteen new volumes of STUPEFYING STORIES and six novels in 2012, though—well, perhaps our original goals were not merely aggressively ambitious, but flat-out ludicrous.

Thanks to the generosity and patience of our investors Rampant Loon Press remains well-capitalized, with sufficient funding in-hand to continue pursuing our development plan through 2013. We are still losing money with each new book released, but it's a smaller loss each time, and we are still tracking to our projection of breaking even by the end of Fiscal Year Two.

The members of the STUPEFYING STORIES crew continue to perform well above and beyond any reasonable expectations, and we are deeply grateful for their continued help and support. The critical factor limiting our growth remains what it has been since the inception: my time, and the other demands that contend for a share of it. be continued...