Chapbook Odyssey

Anybody remember chapbooks? Also known as chapter books, or chapel books?

Well, before self publishing was a big thing, they were a thing. And therein lies a tale. One that, I’m sad to say, makes me feel a little old. But here goes.

Chapbooks were basically a collection regular eight and a half paper sheets, folded in the middle, with a cardstock cover, and stapled in the middle (saddle stapled). This resulted in a 5×8 publication, which was digest sized. Small press and zine publishers used the format, and before the advent of eBooks, computers, modern printers and POD, it was the route to self publishing. Some of them were quite nice with glossy covers and high end art. Some of them were works of art by themselves with handmaid paper, and hand sewn fabric stitching.

I first came across chapbooks at a local bookstore, McNally Robinson. Three collections of sci fi poetry and short stories by a local film maker, Perry Stratychuk. Back then I was doing a fanzine for a local sci fi club, and I was intrigued enough to interview him. He was a nice guy, he worked for the National Film Board, and he’d written, produced and directed a ‘no budget’ post apocalyptic sci fi epic called ‘Roc Saga.’

That was my introduction. Something off the beaten path, something cool. But not something I was interested in following. At that time I was writing short stories, lots of them, and sending them out steadily. Self publishing seemed like a dead end – I’d get a few copies in bookstores and…. so what?

Then shortly after, in September, 1994, the World Science Fiction Convention came to Winnipeg.

Gosh! This was the big time! Sci Fi fans were coming in from all over the world, and not just fans, publishers, editors, agents. This seemed like a golden opportunity for me and the members of my writing group to break through. And we were a talented group – Steve Erickson (the Malazan guy), David Keck, Ian Ross (Governor General Award Winner), Sean Garrity, Mireille Theriault and others. It was Ian that suggested that we do a promotional chapbook, one story from each of us.

So we went for it. Mireille did a press release. David did artwork. We all threw in a story. We sold advertising, and printed off a couple of hundred copies, placing them in bookstores all over town, getting them at dealers tables at the convention, and handing them out to anyone who seemed even vaguely connected. We even got some attention. CBC radio was looking for angles to cover, so we got a group interview, national coverage. The collection was called Whetstone, we went all out.

I still remember the bunch of us being interviewed, while we manually assembled the pages and covers, up in the boardroom of Prairie Theatre Exchange. Writing is a solitary endeavour, and even as a writers group, we were a collection of loners, come together to read each others work. This was one of our few common projects, where we actually joined together and worked together. It’s funny, now that I think of it, I don’t think we socialized much outside the writers group. We all had our own thing. But that group, those people meant a lot to me.  That little project was special, maybe just to me, but it was special.

I still have a few copies. Steve’s contribution was an excerpt from his then unpublished Gardens of the Moon, Dave Keck’s first short story ever. Maybe it’s worth something to collectors.

In May of 1995, we did a follow up chapbook, for Winnipeg’s Keycon Science Fiction Convention. Smaller, cheaper, called Psychosis. The cover was a Rorschach ink blot. Same format. Our group had thinned, I think Ian had moved on. But we all contributed stories. But Keycon was a much smaller thing than the World Science Fiction Convention. Keycon’s not the friendliest convention in the world, so I’m not sure why we bothered. Maybe it was just a bounce from September.

My (soon to be) wife got enthused, setting up her own small press. She’d started with fan fiction, but moved on to small press chapbooks – Scorpion Dreams and Badlands. I contributed a story to each.

The problem with chapbooks as I saw it, was distribution. You do a run of a hundred copies of your chapbook? So what? Where do you sell them? I mean, after we’d pushed them off on Mom and family members? Where?

Comic Cons large and small would have been great, but they didn’t really exist back then. Instead, what you had was annual small local fan driven conventions once a year in the area, that was it. You might get them placed in a few bookstores locally, but… I just didn’t see a point.

But in the summer and fall of 1995, inspiration struck, and I had a cunning plan: Comic books!

Let me explain.

Back when I was young (I won’t tell you how far back) comic books were these things you bought at the drugstore or the supermarket. Back then, it was about the economics of waste. Publishers shipped out tons of comics, magazines, newspapers. The vendor tried to sell as many as he could, the ones they couldn’t were just pulped – they’d rip off the covers or mastheads to send back as proof of ‘no sale’, and they only paid for what they actually sold.

So a publisher could send out a million comics, see 900,000 pulped, but if 200,000 sold they made money. Same thing with newspapers, magazines, paperback books. Everything that didn’t sell went into landfill. It was a nice convenient sideline.

Then sometime in the 80’s and 90’s, suddenly, people started noticing that those old comics, Superman #1, etc., could be really valuable. People started collecting comics, and trading them. Suddenly, a specialty market started to emerge, like stamp collecting, or trading card collecting. And this specialty market began to support specialised comic stores, and comic dealers.

It was more than just stamp collecting, comics began to be recognised as a form of literature. There were all these pioneers emerging, experimenting with artwork, with storytelling forms, telling long form narrative stories. Artists and companies like Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor.

A lot of this you haven’t heard of, but this pioneering work in storytelling, in narrative, characterization, visuals, became the foundation of the stories of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, became works that became movies and television series. It was something.

So, out of this vibrant, this immense creative explosion, there were lot of collectors, and a lot of creators, writers and artists, continually producing on a monthly basis. Good stories, good artwork created fan followings.

And in the middle of it all, were comic stores. In the 1990’s, there were about 15,000 of them across North America. That’s an amazing number, isn’t it. But there it was. In my modest sized city, there were a dozen stores, half of them within walking distance. A town of only fifteen thousand might have its own comic store.

Supplying all these comic stores were distributors. People who would pick up your comics for you, circulate them to stores. The stores would buy them on spec, sell what they could, and bag and store the rest in hopes that the unsold copies would appreciate in value.

It worked. You never knew what was going to be a hit. People sent out small print runs, but if it was popular, if they built and audience slowly or quickly, there would be a demand for those unsold back issues, and people would pay big, or at least bigger bucks for them.

That’s how I had my Eureka moment!

Okay, I wasn’t a comic artist. I wasn’t any kind of artist.

But I was a writer. I was a damned prolific writer. I was knocking out short stories regularly. I had dozens of stories – fantasy, horror, mystery, sci fi, fan fics you name it. I just liked to write, and I believed I was good at it.

I wasn’t just writing either. I was sending stories out with clockwork regularity, pitching to the high end markets, then the second tier, and on down. I was hammering, I was hammering away hard.

Basically, early on, I think I’d had the idea that the way to break through was to write lots of short stories, get published a lot in high end magazines and anthologies, and then move on up. That was, I think, the professional advice back then. And that was how most writers had their breakthrough.

But the thing was, the short story market, at least for majors and mid-range was drying up, had been drying up for a while. There were still the bottom tier, small home presses that paid in contributors copies. But the truth was that the marketplace had thinned out, there were very few magazines, and commercial anthologies tended to be invitation only.

So my short story career was going nowhere. The writing was on the wall. I had decided to start working on novels.

But get back to that whole comic collectors, comic stores, distribution system, that was essentially a pipeline straight into the audience?

Supposing instead of beating my head against the usual wall, I tried something different? Suppose that I could somehow break into that comic industry distribution system. Some random chapbook, probably wouldn’t it.

But supposing… just supposing… I had a theme. Not just a collection of random stories, but stories tied together by a solid marketable theme.

Vampires were really hot back then. Anne Rice was at the top of her game. Vampires were practically a genre of their own by then. I had enough vampire stories I could put a collection together.

But a one off? That wouldn’t sell. Comic companies, comic distributors and stores, they were about continuing series, limited series. The idea was that if you could make it work, then the books would steadily build a market, and the later books would sell the earlier ones as collectables.

Could I do a whole series of Vampire chapbook. Nope.

However, I did have a bunch of ghost stories, and some werewolf stories, and some serial killer stories…

I could do a series. Not on ongoing series of vampire stories, that would get tiresome. But six issue limited series – Dark Icon. Each book would be a collection of stories or essays about a different horror archetype – Vampires, Shapeshifters, Ghosts, Serial Killers, Monsters and Witches. Say five to ten stories, 20,000 to 25,000 words. They’d have a consistent cover art style, each cover a different bright colour illustrating the particular icon. I could create a limited series, a body of work that would encompass the entire field of horror.

That was a project! That had potential! Clive Barker had already made his mark with his Books of Blood, and I was aiming for something similar, with a much more tightly connected thematic series. The comic marketplace was open to an experiment like this.

Of course, I’d have to write more stories to fill out the collections. But no problem. It was actually a fun challenge.

So I studied the marketplace, studied distribution, wrote my stories, prepared advertising, press releases, a book launch. Readied my plans.

I was careful. I even tested my idea with a smaller project – I had a lot of comedic fantasy stories, so I did a two chapbook run, “Lite Fancies.” The stories were in my hard drive, all I had to do was pull them together, do some covers and there I was. I figured my grandmother would like those better. I tried a limited run with a couple of small distributors, to see if there were any bites. They bit, they bought, not huge numbers, but enough that I could see the real push succeeding. I had Capital City, one of the big three major distributors, and several of the smaller distributors lined up.

I was ambitious – first a two chapbook series of Terry Pratchett style funny fantasy. Then a tightly themed six issue limited run, Dark Icons. I was finishing a Vampire novel, that I could serialize for another four to six episodes. So, assuming monthly publication, I had at least a year’s worth of material before I needed to write. And I was prolific. Hell if it worked out well, I’d get Steve and Dave in, both of them were just goddamned brilliant and it killed me that they weren’t famous.

I wasn’t extravagant in my plans. There were about 15,000 comic shops. Obviously, my offering was extremely nonstandard, but interesting enough that someone might take a risk. If I moved one issue to 10% of the stores, or two issues to 5%, that’s 1500 copies sold. I’d have been thrilled. Hell, if I managed to sell 500 copies of an issue, I’d declare victory and celebrate.

It wasn’t just that either – I figured if I could sell copies in numbers, maybe I could get reviews, build up a name. Gain enough stature that if I went to Agents or Publishers, I wouldn’t be some random shmuck knocking at the door. And the collections could be reconfigured into traditional paperbacks or trade paperbacks.

In short, there was strategy. I was going to break through as a writer with brute force, cunning, and the deviousness of a fox infiltrating a henhouse.

So, of course, it all went wrong.

What happened? Back then, the 15,000 comic stores were served by three big distributors – Heroes World, Capital City and Diamond, and by a half dozen minor distributors. It was a big vibrant marketplace like I said. Lots of diversity, lots of points of entry.

The trouble was that Marvel Comics wasn’t doing so well. They were selling a lot of comics, sure. But not as many as they’d used to. And definitely a lot of these ambitious new start ups were eating into its market share – companies like First, Eclipse, Aardvark Vanaheim and others.

Okay, what you should do in that situation is just get better – tell better stories, have better artwork, get better writers, move your game up.

But Marvel was a corporation, so instead of doing that, what they decided to do was use their size and weight to basically corner the market. They went out and bought Heroes World, one of the big three distributors, and basically issued a fiat – anyone wanted their comics, they would only go through Heroes World.

Up to that time, all the comics companies went through all the distributors. So Marvel was about 30% of everyone’s business. 30% of Capital City, 30% of Diamond, 30% of the minors.

Well, all those Marvel titles were going only through Heroes World. Which meant that all the other distributors had just lost 30% of their product line, and 30% of their income. That’s a giant hole.

So what do you do? If you’re one of these other distributors? How do you fill that giant hole in your income.

Simple – you line up another major comic publisher, and you sign them up for exclusive distribution. Which is what happened. Diamond Comics distribution signed up DC Comics, the owners of Superman and Batman with an exclusive deal. Pow, there goes another 30%. 60% of the income, and the catalogue is now gone for the rest of the distributors. The writing is on the wall. Then Diamond signed up Valiant, Eclipse and First, that’s 20% or 30%.

And that, my friends, is all she wrote. Capital City, the third major distributor, had lost 90% of its catalogue and its income, as did all the minors. They closed up, were bought out or went out of business. There was no choice. There was talk of an anti-trust lawsuit, but it died.

Even Marvel ended up folding Heroes world, they’d mismanaged it into the ground, and signing up with Diamond, which then had a monopoly over the field. Or they did have, until just recently, when DC, unhappy with how they got treated during the COVID-19 epidemic, decided to break away.

All because Marvel, as a floundering dinosaur, decided to throw its weight around. Its response to declining market share and corporate ossification ended up being desperate blunders and cheap gamesmanship that made things worse for itself and everyone else. The f*****rs.

That’s a story we’ve heard again and again in American business, just in case you’re wondering how General Motors went from the number one car company in the world to runner up in their own country, or how the titans of American business ran themselves into the ground, and came in second to the Chinese and Europeans. Oh well.

What about yours truly? My distribution was with Capital City and the minors. The people that got squeezed out of existence.

Oops.

By this time, I think 1996 or 1997, the project was well advanced. I had a lot of the stories done, the format worked out. I’d sunk a lot of time and energy into it.

So the choice was walk away, or try and come up with a new plan. The new plan was the Zines network. Back in the 1990’s, Zines were a big thing, there were all kinds of Zines, self published newsletters and magazines, for music, for art, biography, fiction, poetry, you name it. You could go into record stores and head shops and pick them up. There were even magazines devoted to Zines – like Broken Pencil. It was a secondary, smaller distribution system, much more patchwork, more personal, more avant garde. So I wasn’t dead yet.
And with the Zine cultures and Zine distribution as a platform, maybe there was still a path into the mainstream.

I had to rethink the marketing. This whole ‘monthly release’ collectors market strategy didn’t really feel like a fit.

I decided to make a splash instead. So, I finished all six books, about 130,000 words collectively, contacted a Goth. nightclub, designed and put up posters all over the place, and then I did a book launch – a six book launch.

That was cool – no genteel bookstore with wine and cheese and people sitting in polite rows. This was gothic and hard core, full of pretend vampires, women in black lipstick and a dance floor with chain link fence. I took the stage, I rocked out some visceral reading, and then sold books and signed autographs.

It got attention. I got a full page in the Daily newspaper, art section, with a big colour photo. Some of the other local papers, University and Entertainment publications picked up the story. I got CJOB radio and CBC radio interviews, and Global TV even did a feature on me, which made it necessary to go back to the club and do another reading.

My high point came when someone from Vicky Gabereau called. Vicky was a national CBC radio host for arts and entertainment. There was a young Clive Barker/Steven King who was releasing six books at once. That was interesting. Sadly, I don’t think I played the pre-interview with the right tone, so they lost interest.

It’s like being blindfolded on a tightrope you see. You do these things, and you can’t tell where exactly to set your foot, you just keep moving forward and hope that you’re doing it right. But it’s so easy to slip, to get it wrong and fall off the tightrope.

I think that if I’d known a little more about Gabereau, and what she was looking for, maybe a bit more aware of the pre-interview, played it a little different, maybe I’d have made it onto her show. Maybe national radio exposure would have helped open a door to Canadian publishers in Toronto or Montreal.

But I choked. That was the first one.

I sent copies to my grandmother, and my parents and sister. I sent out review copies all over the place, particularly to the small press and zine networks. Which zine and small press milieu seemed to be crashing even as I was entering it, I can’t remember why. I just remember thinking ‘Aw no, not again.’

I pushed the books hard. I got them placed in a dozen bookstores all over the city, and in stores as far away as Toronto and Edmonton. Oddly, most of those bookstores would close within a few years, which was frustrating as hell.

I sold them at conventions, what there were, and flea markets (forerunners of comic cons). I sold them through mail order. I set up a web site. Donated them to libraries (they politely said ‘no thanks.’). I pushed them wherever I could. I stopped short of going door to door.

And hey, I got reviews.

In the age of the internet, that doesn’t sound like much. Everyone and his uncle is posting reviews. But back then it was genuinely hard to get your work noticed, to get a review of any kind. There simply weren’t that many reviewers, and they weren’t accorded a lot of space in the small press, or large press. So getting a review, any kind of review, was rare. They were positive, I was pretty happy.

It wasn’t just ego gratification. With a portfolio of reviews, you could leverage them for Arts Grant applications, demonstrate you were serious and credible, apply for readings, do spots, send them to agents or publishers as part of your portfolio. Partly on the strength of reviews and press coverage, I got a Writers Grant for my Vampire novel, and for a film project, Starwatchers.

I even got to be a guest at some out of town conventions, Conversion in Edmonton, and Ad Astra in Toronto. I’m pretty sure that the Dark Icons series had something to do with both. I mean, I wasn’t a big name. I wasn’t any kind of name. But I’d made enough of a ripple that if I was willing to fly out there, they’d put me on the official guest roster and let me participate in a bunch of panels. That’s good for credibility and reputation, particularly for industry professionals.

I even did the local convention, Keycon, where I got to share a panel on Vampires with Larry Niven, who was the god of Science Fiction, as far as I was concerned. That was a personal high water mark, I’m a little bit of a fanboy, I admit it.

It was at Ad Astra that I hit my high and my low. Ellen Datlow, editor of Omni, and the woman who edited the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies, saw my books in the dealers table, so I gave her a complete set. The result was I got a small paragraph in the year’s write up of going on’s in Fantasy and Horror – she said my books were pretty good.

Recognition!

I didn’t get any full stories reprinted in the Year’s Best, but three of my stories from the Icons, including stories written specifically for the series, received honourable mention.

Recognition!

Now, I had been conventionally publishing stories with magazines, and I’d actually received honourable mentions before in both Years Best Science Fiction and Year’s Best Horror. But this was a triple, and a full (though small) paragraph in the year’s roundup.

That was my high water mark.

Then the choke. At Ad Astra, I was on a panel with Kim Newman, a British horror writer and editor, big back then for his Anno Dracula. We got along quite well. Afterwards, he introduced me to Stephen Jones, another British Editor, and some of their crew. They were going head off for drinks. Newman made a gesture, a kind of sweeping gesture at me. I didn’t quite read it, so I said goodnight and let them go off. Afterwards, it seemed to me that the gesture was an invitation to go hang out with them. And perhaps if I had, I could have had a great night, made connections, made the critical connections with people in the trade that might have jump started my career to the next level.

But I didn’t. I was tired from the trip, I was shy, I was unsure how welcome I was, I didn’t drink. The opportunity passed by. Maybe it never really was an opportunity, and I’m fooling myself. But looking back, I think that as with Gabereau, I really was on the edge of something, on the edge of a next step, on the critical cusp of maybe going somewhere, of something that would lead to something. That I might break through.

And I choked. I blew it. Steadily walking the tightrope, blindfolded all that way…. and those critical slips.

I’m a bit shy. I’m very goal oriented, object oriented. If there’s a task, a mission in front of us, I’m very good socially, team player, even a leader. Even a fight, I’m comfortable. But straight up random socialising. It’s a nightmare. I’m not good at small talk, or schmoozing, or whatever passes for the cocktail or the beer circuit. I’m awkward and uncomfortable and hesitant. I’m shy.

Maybe that’s why I choked both those times, and I didn’t go on to break through then, or have a career as a writer then.

If it was there at all. Maybe they’re just mirages projected on my insecurity. I don’t know, really. None of us do.

After that? Got married, that’s all I’ll say about that. Some parts of my life will be private.

I still wrote and sent out stories, got a few more published here and there. But honestly, the short story market sucked. I got an Arts grant as I said, wrote my vampire novel. I wrote a fantasy novel. Shopped both of them around, got some nibbles but nothing really went anywhere. Did a short film, and a story for another short film. Came close, but no cigar.

Maybe if I’d kept at it, I might have gotten somewhere with the novels. I don’t know. I think I’d sent them around to everywhere I could think of back then. It’s a much slower process – publishers or agents could sit on those thing for months and months.

But in the meantime, my life was hitting an iceberg. I worked for a small law firm. My boss became increasingly, extremely erratic, which was bad for him, the firm and me. I was working extreme hours, falling behind, in financial trouble because of the firm, burning out. After a couple of years, I quit. I couldn’t take it any more. I was fried down to the bone, emotionally and physically exhausted, frustrated and burnt both on law and writing. I took a job up north, and began to get interested in LEXX, which is another story.

So there you go, my chapbook odyssey. It’s a completely different world now in every respect. Particularly in the field of small presses, self publishing and of ebooks. It’s something I’m still struggling to learn about, and maybe not doing so well at it. We’ll see how it goes. No matter how many times I quit writing, I still end up chasing it.

How do I feel about it all in hindsight?

You know, there’s a writer named Steven Brust. In one of his earlier novels, there’s a conversation about a gangster who becomes prominent in a chaotic situation. One character asks “Did he make it to the top?” And the response comes:

“He made it somewhere, and he called it the top.”

That’s sort of how I feel about the whole thing. The big plan A imploded, and then plan B imploded, and then plan C imploded. That’s what it felt like. I didn’t achieve any of my principle goals. I didn’t establish a viable alternate sales model, I didn’t break through in the industry. Maybe I could have, and choked. Maybe I didn’t. It doesn’t matter. In the end, it all came to nothing.

But still, I treasure the camaraderie of that evening we all put Whetstone together, that was special. My grandmother calling to tell me she’d laughed at my funny fantasy stories. It was kick ass to do back to back readings at a Goth nightclub, or to do panels at conventions, meeting Niven, or Newman or the others. I think it was worthwhile to do it, that the discipline and commitment helped me as a writer. That it called upon me to be creative and focused in so many areas. I think it was a pretty damned good collection, and that’s not just me, Ellen Datlow thought so, and I’ve got the reviews to prove it. I’m happy with it, I still think it was a great concept, and a good execution. Admittedly, the production quality is kind of crap by modern standards, but it was above average then.

I put out a body of work – eight chapbooks, forty or fifty stories and almost 180,000 words, and I’m proud of that. What was the alternative? Keep smashing against the wall, a story here, a story there in small little markets, a penny a word here, a half cent a word, and every now and then maybe a word of encouragement occasionally from a major. Yeah, another twenty years of that and maybe I’d be semi-pseudo-quasi famous, or at least respected, or at least someone that someone in the trade heard of. Screw that. I put out my body of work, and it was mine, I did it the way I wanted, and I made a mark. Maybe not a big mark, maybe not a mark that lead to a future. But I did it, so there.

As with Brust’s character, I didn’t make it to the top. But I made it somewhere. And if it came to nothing, so what? In the end, everything comes to nothing, it’s what you do along the way.

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