Sean McMullen's

Suffering For Someone Else's Art


1994 is the twentieth anniversary of the first book from Void Publications. The novel was a western, Hot Lead, Cold Sweat by Paul Collins, yet Void went on to become one of Australia's best-known SF small presses. Since then, six local SF small presses have published over forty books in print runs ranging from a couple of dozen to 5,000. While this is small scale by overseas standards, it is fair to say that these books have dramatically changed the publication of SF in Australia. In addition to covering this historical perspective, I have also written this article partly to refute a few common myths about our SF small presses, and partly to show readers and authors why they should be taken seriously. Please note that I have attempted to define an SF small press as a non-vanity operation that has published at least one book: a rubbery definition perhaps, but it will have to do. Unfortunately, I don't have the space to cover those mainstream small presses that occasionally publish SF.

Those who remember my earlier articles in Eidolon and Aurealis on Australian SF will already know something of the achievements of our SF authors with small press books, but that is only part of the story. Publishing a book requires a cash outlay sufficient to buy a medium-sized car, as well as an immense amount of spare time, yet if a book even covers costs it is considered to be doing well. Thus dreams of vast riches can probably be scratched as a motivation for people becoming small press publishers. Could it be that the publishers are frustrated authors, and that a small press is a way of sneaking their own work into print? In practice, some editors do occasionally contribute fiction, but this is a very small component of small press output. Publishers who have spoken to me generally talk in terms of promoting the talented writers around them who they see going unpublished or unrecognised.

If small presses have made Australian SF what it is today, what was there before they came along? Locally published Australian SF emerged as an identifiable area of the market in the early 1940s but, until the mid-Seventies, rather simplistic SF tended to dominate. This was because mainstream publishers were trying to cash in on a significant niche in a market that they understood poorly. Although the likes of Broderick and Baxter occasionally managed to slip higher-quality works into the system, conservatism was the rule. Around 1975 two events corresponded to change all this. The Literature Board of the recently-established Australian Arts Council held out the prospect of subsidies for local publishing projects, and a World SF Convention was held in Australia for the first time, raising public awareness of Australian SF and authors. As a result of the convention some mainstream publishers did place a little more emphasis on SF, but people within the SF community also began to question the whole concept of SF being at the mercy of commercial publishers who knew little about it. The time was right for SF small presses to emerge.

Paul Collins maintains that he established Void to make a bit of money to support himself while he wrote his own SF. In hindsight this seems a fantastically hopeful idea, but then he was only eighteen at the time, and the size of the potential SF market was unknown. After publishing the western mentioned above, Collins launched an SF magazine, and Void 1 appeared about a week before the World SF Convention in Melbourne in August 1975. It contained original stories by Jack Wodhams and A. Bertram Chandler, as well as reprints by overseas authors that Collins had bought from an American agency. Void came out twice a year, until it was replaced by the Worlds anthology series in 1978. The May 1976 issue contained the first Ditmar Award nominee from an SF small press, Chandler's Kelly Country .

Norstrilia Press was born from a scheme of Melbourne residents Bruce Gillespie and Carey Hanfield to raise money to help publish the literary fanzine SF Commentary. (Well, that's stretching the truth a bit, but Norstilia was originally meant to carry more SF criticism than original fiction.) Rob Gerrand joined the team about a year later. Norstrilia's name was derived from Cordwainer Smith's fictional world Old North Australia, and its first book was the non-fiction essay collection Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, published in 1975 and edited by Bruce Gillespie. Thus far SF small presses had published a western, a magazine and a book of essays, but in 1976 the first book of original fiction, The Altered I, finally appeared. Edited by Lee Harding, and containing stories from an Australian writing workshop led by Ursula LeGuin, it had the honour of being the first anthology to be published by a local SF small press. It had a print run of 2,000, and was later republished in the USA.

While it is probably fair to say that much of the SF in The Altered I was promising but generally lightweight, it did make people aware that there were no fundamental barriers to Australians writing good SF. View From The Edge, edited by George Turner, came out in 1977 with the assistance of the Literature Board, and contained stories from a second writers' workshop, this time with Vonda McIntyre and Christopher Priest. Two of its stories received Ditmar nominations.

For their first few years the entire output of original SF from Void and Norstrilia was short fiction. Void published its first two anthologies, Envisaged Worlds and Other Worlds, in 1978. Both of these - and Void's other three anthologies - were published with the assistance of the Literature Board. David Lake's story "Creator" appeared in Envisaged Worlds and was subsequently republished four times, once in Wolheim's World's Best SF 8 (1979). Some say that "Creator" was the first world-class SF to come out of an Australian small press. Alien Worlds appeared the next year, and was reportedly placed on the Recommended Reading list of the US trade magazine Locus.

In 1979 Norstrilia (and the Literature Board) assisted a mainstream small press, Outback, in publishing the anthology Transmutations, edited by Rob Gerrand. Both Norstrilia and Void had meantime made a startling discovery that flew in the face of the expectations raised by the 1975 and 1977 workshops: that good novel-length SF was very thin on the ground. Norstrilia went looking for a 1970 winner of a special award for unpublished manuscripts and Moon in the Ground by Keith Antill resulted, the first novel from an Australian SF small press. It seems odd that it was not until the eighth small press book that novel-length SF emerged, because novels are supposedly the most marketable form of SF. On the other hand, remember that an 80,000 word novel is 16 times the length of a 5,000 word story - and 16 stories is more than the majority of Australia's SF authors ever publish. Remember too that the local SF boom was only four years old, and novels take time to develop. Antill's book was nominated for a Ditmar the following year, in a ballot which was notable for all nominees in the Australian SF section having been published in Australia.

In 1980 Void published its first novel, Jack Wodhams' Looking For Blücher, which carried the Void serial number 1. Next came Lake's The Fourth Hemisphere and Wynne Whiteford's first novel Breathing Space Only - all three novels were Ditmar nominees in 1981. Three books with Ditmar nominations in a single year is a Void achievement which was only matched by Aphelion this year [1993], yet the 1981 winner came from Norstrilia! Well . . . sort of, but not quite. Damien Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons was first published in the USA by Pocket Books, but Norstrilia paid $2,000 for the right to bring out its own edition two months later, and even Penguin Australia later republished it. Whatever its origins, The Dreaming Dragons was outstanding. It won a Ditmar, and was runner-up for America's John W. Campbell Memorial Award. 1980 was a high point without doubt, and pointed to a boom in SF small press activity that continued through the first half of the decade.

Void's anthology Distant Worlds came out in 1981, and contained Keith Taylor's "Where Silence Rules". This story won the Ditmar Award for original Australian SF, so that after seven years a work first published by a local SF small press had finally won the national SF award! It was a key breakthrough, and local small presses have supplied the Ditmar winners for original SF six times in the twelve years since then. About now Void was renamed Cory & Collins, after the bookshop in Melbourne run by Rowena Cory and Paul Collins, although Void's trademark continued to be used on the spine. Cory was an artist, and contributed a series of bright, primary-colour paintings for the covers which clearly defined the books as SF - something absolutely vital for marketing and distribution.

In 1982 Void's Future War by Jack Wodhams became the first SF collection to be published by an Australian SF small press. This turned out to be an aberration, however, and no more collections from SF small presses were published until the 1990s. The following year Void published four books: the anthology Frontier Worlds and three novels. Four SF books in one year is another record that still stands among SF small presses in Australia, and two of those were Ditmar Nominees. Frontier Worlds and one of the novels eventually sold out without being remaindered, a feat matched by most of Collins' other anthologies. Oddly enough, 1983 was also the beginning of the end for Void. Collins wanted to concentrate on his own fiction, and he was to publish only one more novel, Chandler's The Wild Ones in 1984. Void finished with an impressive tally: 17 SF books published, with 5 sellouts and only one loss (when the distributor went broke and ran off with a large part of the stock). Void fiction had 11 Ditmar nominations and one winner, and Collins himself was nominated twice for Best Editor. Four novels and over two dozen stories were republished overseas, and when Collins finally remaindered his outstanding stock and wound up the company, cash inflow had exceeded outflow to leave an overall profit.

How did Void influence Australian SF? The mere fact of having a stable market for SF induced people to start writing who might otherwise have remained readers. Both Void and Norstrilia launched, revived or boosted many authors' careers. Void also helped establish high fantasy in Australia, and at a time when it was still only emerging in the US. Collins himself had his first fantasy stories published in the US magazine Weirdbook in 1977.

Meantime, Norstrilia's publishers were blurring the boundaries of genre fiction with what they published. Of their 14 books, only 6 qualify as original SF: four were poetry, autobiography or criticism, and the remaining four novels could be better classed as mainstream fiction using genre icons and devices. This is not to be derogatory, of course. Gerald Murnane's The Plains (1982) is a good alternate-history novel with some important insights into Australian cultural values. It generated a lot of critical interest, sold well, and was republished both in Australia and overseas. For all that, it is nevertheless not SF. Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons was the closest that Norstrilia ever got to the leading edge of SF as such. In 1983 Greg Egan's An Unusual Angle and the anthology Dreamworks, edited by David King, were published. The Egan novel, while demonstrating the promise of its author, was not SF, and some of the Dreamworks stories were distinctly marginal. Whether it was all SF or not, Dreamworks did well for Norstrilia. It was well reviewed, sold about 600 copies (which was enough to cover costs when added to its Literature Board grant) and one of its stories won a Ditmar - in fact, all four 1984 Ditmar nominations for short SF were from Dreamworks.

An Unusual Angle was Egan's first published novel, and he also had his first short story published in Dreamworks. Egan's early works showed promise, but he only became great by having the guts to work hard and develop his style overseas during the next five years - until he was capable of turning out such a hauntingly beautiful work as "The Caress" (Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, January 1990). Although Egan is pretty clearly Norstrilia's greatest discovery, it must also be evident that much of his development came after his small press beginnings. The problem of authors outgrowing their origins is the perpetual dilemma of the small press: how do you publish great works when the authors that you cultivate outgrow you and need a bigger market than you can provide?

Norstrilia's excursion into autobiography was George Turner's In The Heart Or In The Head (1984), which won the William Atheling Award. In 1985 Murnane's Landscape Within Landscape became Norstrilia's last book to date, and editor Bruce Gillespie won the Ditmar Award for Best Australian SF or Fantasy Editor. Thus both Void and Norstrilia were selling reasonably well and getting a fair degree of acclaim by the middle of the decade. Norstrilia had invested in an IBM electric composer, and this machine was able to provide enough outside work for Gillespie that he was able to live off the proceeds for some years (indeed, a lot of Void's composition work was done by Norstrilia). Around the mid-Eighties the electronic revolution in desktop publishing began to erode this source of income, however. More seriously, Hanfield got married and became a father a little later in the decade - one of the surest ways possible to renounce the time needed to run a small press - and Gillespie and Gerrand also began spending more time with their private lives and careers. Perhaps most important of all, the Literature Board had a shift of emphasis in the allocation of grants in the second half of the Eighties. Bear in mind that two-thirds of Norstrilia's books and three-quarters of Void's books had Literature Board assistance and it is clear that the small presses had to sell about twice as many books about three times faster just to stay where they were.

In 1984, just as Void and Norstrilia were within a book or two of ceasing operations, Ebony Press published Broderick's Transmitters with assistance from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Jenny and Russell Blackford were the enthusiastic proprietors, and again they were based in Melbourne. In a sense this book had everything going for it. It was a novel (well, "an imaginary documentary") by a well-established author, and there were many connections in the text with the local SF community. It sold over a thousand copies and did better than break even. I have been told that it won a special award at the 1985 National SF Convention, but I cannot confirm this. The cover photo - featuring a full-frontal female nude - undeniably drew the attention of many potential purchasers to the book.

After this promising beginning Russell Blackford and David King set out to edit the anthology Urban Fantasies. SF anthologies seem to exert an attraction like a strong, succulent curry, tempting publishers to bite even though they know distress is sure to follow. It is worth examining this anthology in some detail, as it illustrates a number of problems encountered in small press publishing. For a start, King tried to subject some authors to postal tutorials in creative fiction, generating a certain degree of animosity that was not really necessary. There were plenty of good authors writing good SF available at that time, as Collins, Broderick and other editors had demonstrated, so that the editing should have been a matter of making the best selection rather than improving the prose itself. Problems with the cover were somewhat more important. While the montage that the artist turned in might not have been out of place in an art gallery, it did not readily identify Urban Fantasies as SF. Worse, the lettering of the title blended in with the artwork, so that anyone scanning bookshop shelves would be hard-put to read the title. Most importantly of all, while some Urban Fantasies stories were excellent, several others were "difficult" and uninteresting even if one did manage to finish them. Say what you will about literary merit and innovative experimental prose, a difficult read is a difficult sell.

The anthology was launched at the 1985 World SF Convention in Melbourne, at a well-attended party with champagne provided by Ebony. This was an excellent strategy as it got a good base of copies sold and many people reading the contents. Urban Fantasies stories gained four out of six Ditmar Nominations the following year, of which Terry Dowling's "The Bullet That Grows in the Gun" was the winner. Critical opinion was very positive. Urban Fantasies sold about 600 copies . . . and made a loss, although not a catastrophic loss. Its sales were not much different from those for Dreamworks, but then Dreamworks had Literature Board assistance. Collins sold far more copies of his anthologies, but then he had his own bookshop, as well as the Void magazine subscription list. Ebony simply did not have the distribution infrastructure of a more established small press.

Ebony immediately went on to publish Contrary Modes, a collection of papers from the 1985 World SF Convention, but the overall effort needed to produce Urban Fantasies seems not to have been offset by the returns, thus dampening the Blackfords' enthusiasm. In a sense, there was no reason that Ebony could not have gone on to do as well as Void and Norstrilia, but mistakes hurt, even if one has to make them to learn. Thus Urban Fantasies shows us that there are many little details that can promote or hinder a small press SF book. A launch at a big convention can help sell dozens, if not hundreds of copies by both direct sales and associated publicity. If the book is generally rewarding to read, then word-of-mouth recommendations (widely acknowledged as one of the most potent forms of publicity) will lead to more sales. After that, you have a more remote audience to reach by promotion and your distribution channels, and these follow-up sales will be the difference between covering costs and a loss. A good cover that draws attention to the book will help here. Reviews (whether good or bad) will catch the interest of librarians and other professional buyers, but awards come well after the initial buying frenzy is over and their only practical use is to allow the "Award Winning" grabber to go on the author's next book.

In theory Aphelion Publications' origins go back to 1985, but because its first two books did not appear until 1990, I shall deal with two other SF small presses first. In 1989 Graham Stone, a Sydney bibliographer, collector and secondhand bookseller, republished Phil Collas' The Inner Domain (Amazing, October 1935) as a hardcover monograph, having done the binding and some of the typesetting himself. Being a bookseller he knew his market well, and because he had sound bookbinding skills he could tune production to the market very finely. The initial print run was 25 copies. I would not advise anyone else to try it, but in Stone's case it worked for the low-volume project that it was. Stone also republished the Nineteenth Century play The Burlesque of Frankenstein by George Isaacs in 1989, and has two more books planned.

In 1990 Dreamstone Press published a fine collection of A. Bertram Chandler's short SF edited by Susan Chandler and Keith Curtis, but the project had its origins at least five years earlier. From Sea to Shining Star was conceived as a high-quality collector's book on acid-free paper, lavishly illustrated and available with an optional slipcase. What we got was exactly that, but the amount of suffering that went into it was horrendous. (For a detailed account, see the entry in The Science-Fantasy Publishers by Jack Chalker and Mark Owings, Mirage 1991). In hindsight, the publishers probably tried to do too much with too little experience. Problems included printers going out of business, some of Nick Stathopoulos' excellent internal illustrations being lost or stolen, problems obtaining suitable cloth and paper, and proofreading errors, particularly in the bibliography (the last being certain to antagonise specialist collectors). On the positive side, Stathopoulos' beautiful cover painting won an art prize yet worked well as a cover, the book itself was very attractive, and the stories were an interesting odyssey through Chandler's forty-year career in SF. It received a Ditmar nomination for long fiction, and the reviews ranged from positive to very good. At the time of writing I have no data on sales, although the print run of just over 500 seems to be fairly realistic for such a book. A colleague of mine began building an extension to his house in a matching English bond brick pattern some years ago but, half a dozen builders and a couple of court cases later, he has decided to learn bricklaying and do it himself; his experience reminds me of what happened with Dreamstone. To get high-quality work done you need experience with the various ways that suppliers and contractors can foul up. Had Dreamstone begun with a less ambitious project they might have gained that experience less traumatically, and thus had an easier time with From Sea to Shining Star.

During the 1985 Melbourne World SF Convention, Peter McNamara from Adelaide decided to publish an SF magazine, and in the following year Aphelion appeared. Its stories won two Ditmars, and several of them were republished elsewhere - one by Egan was republished in Wagner's Years' Best Horror XVI. It ran for 5 issues, but distribution problems killed it early in 1987.

Thus far Aphelion might be any one of several failed SF magazine ventures, but McNamara decided to learn from his experience rather than give up altogether. Aphelion Publications began with two collections in a joint (more or less) launch at the 1990 National SF Convention: Turner's A Pursuit of Miracles and Dowling's Rynosseros. While both were well edited and packaged, Rynosseros featured a striking and attractive cover by Stathopoulos. Initial sales were quite solid, but still only about half what was needed to cover costs - having no Literature Board grants, Aphelion had to get twice as many sales as its luckier predecessors just to break even. Both books were well-reviewed, both locally and overseas, then Rynosseros was placed on the Locus Recommended Reading list, and won a Ditmar at the next National SF Convention in 1991.

Dowling's next Aphelion collection, Wormwood, was released in both hardcover and paperback, and was launched by yours truly at the same 1991 convention. Wormwood sold well, but Rynosseros sales also surged ahead when the second book was published. McNamara noticed that when Turner's novel Brain Child was published overseas, sales of A Pursuit of Miracles also suddenly rose by a couple of hundred. The same thing happened after Dowling's Blue Tyson was launched at the 1992 National SF Convention: Wormwood sales picked up again, and Rynosseros actually sold out - more than halving the previous best sellout time for a book with a similar print run. Wormwood won the 1992 Ditmar for long fiction, and Blue Tyson soon became Aphelion's fastest selling book - displacing a collection by that brash newcomer Sean McMullen from that status. Stathopoulos illustrated the covers for all three collections, and as covers they present the books well. The Blue Tyson cover won Stathopoulos the Ditmar for art in 1993.

Note that the Aphelion sales patterns are very different from those for the Norstrilia and Void books. Paul Collins reports that Void books would have an early peak in sales, then settle down to sell steadily until sold out or remaindered, and that subsequent novels by the same author had no noticeable effect on sales. The pattern was similar with Norstrilia's books. Looking further, we can see for example that Void's Frontier Worlds was a paperback selling at $3.95 in the same year that Norstrilia's hardcover Dreamworks came out at $12.95. Costing a third as much, Frontier Worlds sold four times as many copies. On the other hand, Urban Fantasies was a paperback and roughly the same price as Frontier Worlds yet its sales were more like those of Dreamworks. The difference probably stems from the fact that Collins had a bookshop and had the persistence to keep promoting Void books over a very long period: although several sold out, they took up to twelve years to do so.

There are some important lessons here. First, SF conventions and the SF fan community are important bases for launching a book, but they generally account for only a few hundred sales and cannot be considered to be the entire market. Second, the best way to boost the sales of a good book by a popular author today seems to be to publish another book by that author. Third, people will more readily buy books from an author that they already know and like. Fourth, one must develop a few authors well, rather than giving a lot of people their first books. Fifth, a well-designed and illustrated cover is a potent factor in selling a book. Sixth, the second, third and fourth points mean that SF small press publishing really has to be a long-term effort, involving at least five years and a dozen or so books, because books depend on each other for sales. Last, Collins, Gillespie and McNamara all reported that the authors who actively promoted their books had significantly better sales than the rest.

My own experience with Aphelion may be instructive. In March 1991 Peter McNamara was in Melbourne on business, and staying in our spare room. Over dinner he said that he liked most of my published SF, and wanted to see some of my unpublished stories. I gave him some manuscripts to read in bed. Next morning he came out to breakfast and announced that he wanted to do a collection of my short SF. A year later, almost to the day, the first copies of Call to the Edge came off the press. At the time of writing it has paid back my advance, covered most of its costs, rated a mention in the Locus Recommended Reading list and is still selling steadily. I have since had a novel accepted by Aphelion. All the foregoing probably seems fairly painless, and that was in fact the case. Compare it to my experience with a large New York publisher, who kept the manuscript of my earliest attempt at a novel for eighteen months, lost it, then rejected the resubmission! The way of the SF small press can be an excellent alternative to the nightmare of submitting a first book overseas.

The overseas market is difficult beyond one's wildest dreams, even with an agent, but getting established locally with a small press can be a big help. In the mid-1980s Wynne Whiteford sent copies of his Void books to Ace in New York, instead of the manuscripts. The people at Ace liked what they saw because, say what you will, a published book looks better than a manuscript. Whiteford is now well established in the US, with six original or reprinted books published. How does Aphelion compare with the American market? The low end of US advances is about $2,000, while Aphelion pays $1,000. Print runs of about 2,000 reflect the fact that our market is less than 1/20th that of the USA.

Aphelion has had 4 Ditmar winners from 18 nominations for fiction, and one Ditmar for art, out of its first six books and one magazine. Four have been on Locus magazine's Recommended Reading lists, and all six have had good reviews. Such achievements are not only good for morale, they also confirm that the publisher is on the right track. Further, good quotes by respected reviewers are very helpful when assembling publicity material for the next book, and the two words "Award Winning" are particularly beloved of publicists. Of Aphelion's six published books and five planned ventures, only three are novels. Even though the current wisdom is that SF novels are the biggest sellers, Aphelion has still done better than survive in the middle of a recession. McNamara plans to edit and publish an anthology next, and reports already having secured a strong foundation of stories from such authors as Turner, Egan, Dowling, Whiteford, Sussex, Love, Collins - and even me - as well as another dozen or so who are either on the way up or who had dropped out of sight for some time. Will Aphelion emulate Collins and break the six hundred copy barrier for SF anthologies? The launch is scheduled for Easter 1994 at the National SF Convention in Melbourne, and the prospects are good for Aphelion showing how very far SF from small presses in Australia has come in twenty years.

Australia's two paying SF magazines, Eidolon and Aurealis, both produced marginally book-style publications in 1992, but I doubt that they could be classed as true small press operations unless they continue with such publications - which I hope they do, of course. Is anyone else out there? Does anyone else want to try setting up a small press to publish SF in spite of all the foregoing? Distribution problems will haunt and torture you, so start thinking about them now. Great novel-length SF is not only more thin on the ground than you may imagine, but you will also have to cultivate certain authors to the exclusion of others. You certainly can break even in the long term and even small profits are possible, but they will not finance any Barrier Reef holidays. Operational work will soak up a huge amount of time, and that time will be on top of your regular work. Phrase it however you will, this really is suffering for someone else's art.

Australian SF would still exist without the small presses, but it would be poorer without them. They are better tuned to SF than most mainstream publishers, they are likely to take a chance with new authors, and although distribution is a problem for them, they can help one move on to larger markets. The Forties, Fifties and Sixties in Australia showed us what happens when purely commercial forces dictate what SF is to be published, but Void and Norstrilia pioneered a viable alternative. Luckily for both readers and authors, there are other SF small presses still with us.

Thanks to all those associated with SF small presses - authors, artists, publishers and editors alike - who have entertained me with stories of their triumphs and catastrophes for the past decade. Particular thanks are due to Paul Collins (Void Publications), Bruce Gillespie (Norstrilia Press), Jenny Blackford (Ebony Books), Nick Stathopoulos, Graham Stone, and Peter McNamara (Aphelion Publications). Those wanting to know more should consult The Science-Fantasy Publishers by Jack Chalker & Mark Owings (Mirage, 1991), and my articles in Eidolon 6, 7 & 10, and Aurealis 7 & 9.

Originally appeared pp. 16-24, Eidolon 12, April 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.