Reminder #1 came from Tor Books, a sub-subset of the vast Macmillan publishing combine and one of the very few big-name science fiction and fantasy presses that will bother to look at a writer's work if said writer doesn't have an agent. (I don't; I've worked with agents twice, and in both cases it was a complete waste of my time.) Just over a year ago, I submitted my novel The Shoggoth Concerto to them. I never heard back. After a while, I went digging through their website and found the place where they cheerfully admit that they lose manuscripts all the time, and that you should mail the thing in again if you don't hear back after so many months. So I did up the cover letter and outline and sample chapters and self-addressed stamped envelope, and sent it in again.
That was last fall. Today, as I'd more than half expected, the self-addressed stamped envelope came back with the rejection slip headed "Dear Author." Someone took the trouble to scrawl Re: Shoggoth Concerto across the top, which I thought was a pleasant courtesy; it's certainly closer to a personal response than you can expect to get from the average huge corporate press.
Again, I'd more than half expected that. The Shoggoth Concerto is an odd novel, a good 90 degrees off the lines of standard modern fantasy fiction; it's set in the fictive universe of The Weird of Hali but isn't part of that series' story arc; it's a story about love, death, classical music, and shoggoths, without even a nod of acknowledgment to whatever the latest fashions in the fantasy mainstream might happen to be. I'm quite prepared to believe that, as the rejection slip indicated, it didn't meet Tor's needs at that time; I'm quite prepared to believe that they didn't think it was any good What's more, I've received scores of nearly identical rejection slips in the past -- I got my first one in 1979. If you're an author, you get those, and if you're a big corporate publisher, you send them out by the bushel basket every single day.
Reminder #2, though, came from Founders House Publishing, the firm that's bringing out The Weird of Hali series. Founders House isn't a huge corporate press; it's a small firm, a little family-run business taking advantage of print-on-demand technology to carve out a niche market under the feet of the huge corporate presses. Yes, that's when I thought of the metaphor of dinosaurs and mammals.
The message from Founders House's publisher and general jack of all trades, Shaun Kilgore, was twofold. The first was a friendly note to let me know that the latest issue of MYTHIC Magazine, his fantasy and science fiction quarterly, has just been released; that note was partly because I've been a fan and supporter of MYTHIC since Shaun first mentioned he wanted to publish an equivalent of the pulp magazines where fantasy and science fiction first stretched their wings and rocket nozzles respectively, and partly because one of my Owen and Jenny Lovecraftian-mystery stories, "The Mummy of R'lyeh," appears in it. (It looks like a really good issue, btw -- you can get e-book copies here, and print copies will be forthcoming shortly.)
The second half of the message was a note about some of the steps Shaun's making to grow MYTHIC into the kind of community of readers and authors that Weird Tales was back in the day. He's offering deals for subscribers, of course, but he's also got a Patreon page set up here, with various tiers of support -- one of which gets you personal feedback on short stories, by the way.
The contrast between the two reminders was, shall we say, striking. What's more, it reminded me of a detail of history, which is that science fiction and fantasy had their golden ages when they were mostly being published by little firms who could afford the time to deal directly with their authors as people. The first golden age of science fiction and fantasy was the era of the pulps, when the big pulp chains filled roughly the same role that the big print-on-demand presses fill now, and little editorial offices with half a dozen people in them put together the monthly issues of the magazines that reshaped the modern imagination. The second golden age of science fiction and fantasy followed the paperback revolution of the late 1950s, when scores of small presses flooded the market with cheap first editions of the books that now count as the hoary classics of both fields. In both cases, countless writers flocked to the new venues because the established firms of the day weren't interested. (Ironically, Macmillan, the parent company of Tor, was one of those established firms in both those previous eras. I guess third time isn't the charm...)
C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith (among others) made a beeline for the pulps, and Roger Zelazny and Ursula Le Guin (among others) made a comparable beeline for the paperback presses, instead of trying to write for the big established publishers of their day. It's ironic that those few of the old paperback firms that survive are now wholly owned subsidiaries of big established publishers, but it's a kind of irony with which history is well supplied. Still, this last turn of events has finished the process of helping me make a decision I've been pondering for some time now. Since that first submission to Doubleday back in 1979, I'd always had the idea that eventually I'd get my fiction placed with one of the big presses. As a writer, though, it simply isn't worth my time to try that at this point. The contracts offered by the big presses are increasingly predatory, the level of support for backlist titles embarrassingly low, and based on what I'm hearing from other writers, the level of personal attention to the needs of authors you can expect from the big boys, even if they publish your work, is right around the level of personal attention you can expect for your manuscripts. ("Dear author...").
So I'll be placing The Shoggoth Concerto with a smaller press. You can find me scampering off underfoot with the mammals, as the dinosaurs lumber off to their place in the fossil record.