Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Road Ahead | The Class of 2032

I was reading an article in The Atlantic the other morning. A Stanford psychologist did a study of more than three million pop songs released between 1959 and 2010, in an attempt to find out why some artists hit the public consciousness with a dazzling flash and then disappear, never to be heard from again, while others stick around for long, steady, and successful careers. His conclusion was that there are two distinct phases in a creative artist’s life, exploration and exploitation, and the difference lies in how the artist manages the transition.

  • In the exploration phase, the aspiring artist is free to take risks, to experiment, and to try to find that ineffable something that sets them apart from everyone else and makes their work fresh and surprising.

  • In the exploitation phase, the successful artist, having now found that something and caught the public’s eyes and ears, sticks to it with fierce tenacity and never again surprises or disappoints their fans.

This is an extremely simplistic model, rife with opportunities for argument. Still, the finding intrigues me. I have always been far more interested in exploration and experimentation than in exploitation. Perhaps it’s a personality flaw, but I truly hate to repeat myself. To me the idea of writing one story that really clicks with an audience, only to find myself then condemned to spending the next forty years rewriting that same damned story over and over again, sounds like one of the torments of Hell that Dante thought was too horrible and subsequently edited out of The Divine Comedy.

Or a succinct description of Isaac Asimov’s career.

Today, Stupefying Stories stands at a crossroads, and the road ahead is decidedly unclear. A month ago it seemed too clear: Karen’s medical crisis back in February turned out to be not any of the things they’d thought it might be, but a symptom of her cancer returning. A month ago, the road ahead looked very much like this:

At that time, it seemed the only sane and sensible thing to do was to wind Stupefying Stories down as gracefully as possible and then try to guide it to a soft landing, in hopes that some of the wreckage might be salvageable later.

Today, a month later, things look somewhat better. We have a treatment plan and are pursuing it. There is a glimmer of hope. I am spending a lot of time driving around to various hospitals and clinics and sitting in waiting rooms, while Karen undergoes one or another outpatient procedure…

But what the heck. I do have a good laptop computer, and there’s this stack of manuscripts sitting here, waiting to be copy-edited. So why not work on trying to keep Stupefying Stories going?

As with any traumatic experience, the recent near-death of my indie publishing dreams has given me cause for reflection. If I were picking through the wreckage, what are the pieces I would hope to find and salvage? What exactly have I been trying to do here, these past twelve years? What do I think I can do, going forward? What are the parts of this job that I have really enjoyed doing, that I seem to do fairly well, and that I would choose to continue to do, if possible?

Looking back at the work of the past twelve years—at the fifty or so books and hundreds of standalone short stories we’ve published—a few salient points begin to emerge from the datasmog. I was never able to manage the transition from exploration to exploitation in my own writing career. Why did I think my career as an editor and publisher would be different? I have never been any good at self-promotion, and it seems my incredible gift for unsuccessful self-promotion is a sort of field effect that extends to cover those near me as well. (Sorry, Henry, Eric, and Judith.) I have this weird ability to come up with ideas that others can exploit with great success, but seem unable to keep any of them for myself.

Likewise, I have an impaired ability to ask for help. It’s not born out of pride or a desire to control or anything like that; it’s born out of my innate curiosity and constant love for exploring and learning. Just the other morning, I put on my to-do list: “Learn about podcasting.” (It’s for Dawn of Time. I’ll explain later.) Why did I phrase it that way? Why didn’t I write, “Find someone who already knows about podcasting, and is willing to advise and help, or better yet, do?”

Add that one to my growing catalog of character flaws…

*   *   *

As this introspective journey concludes, an elusive but common thread begins to glimmer into view. My constant interest in experimenting and discovery, coupled with my profound dislike for doing again what I’ve already done before? My greater interest in exploring than exploitation? My gift for coming up with new ideas that others can exploit successfully, but that I remain unable to exploit myself?

New ideas? Or new people?

Looking back at our collective history, it becomes clear that what Stupefying Stories has proven to be very good at is finding, coaching, and encouraging new writers. We began as a writer’s workshop. We seem to have a proven ability to find and publish now the writers everyone else is going to be talking about and publishing in another five to ten years. Not coincidentally, this is the part of the job I most enjoy doing, find most rewarding, and would most like to continue doing. Raising up a crop of new talent is fun.

I also know from personal experience how incredibly much it means to an aspiring creative to have someone who should know say to you, “You have talent. You have potential. You’re not ready to be the headliner yet, but you definitely belong up there on that stage.” 

And then not just to say that, but to put their own time and energy into putting you on that stage, even if the theater is a bit run-down, the ushers smell funny, and there are more empty chairs than people in the audience. Someone who should know is taking you seriously.

That’s what Stupefying Stories is all about. We’re not Carnegie Hall. But we’re a pretty darned good First Stage. 

*   *   *

If I was still working in public radio, this is the point where we’d cut to the pledge break. Thankfully I turned off that career path ages ago, but the idea is not dissimilar. I like Stupefying Stories. I think we’ve done some really good things over the years. I still enjoy the work, and I’d like to keep it going. (And maybe raise up a small crop of new editors, while we’re at it.) But to keep Stupefying Stories going, I need your help.

The financial model on which I originally built Stupefying Stories is unsustainable. We can get into the nitty-gritty of it another time, but the gist of it is that to keep Stupefying Stories going, we need to either win the lottery, find a lunatic billionaire sugar daddy (but Elon Musk’s attention is elsewhere right now), or switch to a crowd-funding model for future issues.

And at this point, I’m going to sign off, and put one more thing on my to-do list:

[_] Find someone who already knows about crowd funding, and is willing to help and advise, or better yet, to do

Thanks for reading,
Bruce Bethke


Arisia said...

A publisher doing crowdfunding. That's a great idea. And possibly a new idea. The whole book marketing industry has reached new lows, and this might be a way to pull it out of the muck of fake reviews and Amazon/Meta tyranny.

~brb said...

Thanks, but it's not a new idea, not by a long shot. I know that of the hundreds of writers who have come through Stupefying Stories, at least a few of them have gone on to run successful crowd-funding campaigns for other publications.

Stupefying Stories needs this, but I don't want to start from Square One. I want someone who knows how to do crowd-funding and has already done a successful campaign to teach me how to do it -- or better yet, to volunteer to run a campaign for Stupefying Stories, to raise the cash we need to put out SS#24.