Please welcome one of my favorite publishers, and authors, Barbara Friend Ish, the editor-in-chief of Mercury Retrograde Press. Today she is visiting my lovely blog to talk mostly about Mercury Retrograde Press, what it means to be a small publisher, games & songs as story telling, and the upcoming read along of her first novel The Shadow of the Sun. Lady Ish is also offering up 1 print book and 2 ebooks to a total of thee lucky winners in the giveaway at the end of the interview. Winners will get to pick 1 book of their choice from the Mercury Retrograde Press catalog.
Now on to the interview!
Mercury Retrograde publishes fantasy, science fiction, and the unclassifiable. Tell me more about the unclassifiable? In the past few years, I have noticed more and more cross-genre books becoming popular, and even carving out a niche genre, like urban fantasy. What is the Press looking for in ‘unclassifiable’?
The book business is all about classification. It has to be. When you go into a bookstore, you want to be able to find the type of books you like. In a general-purpose bookstore, science fiction, fantasy, and horror in all their flavors tend to be shelved together—but in electronic venues such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble online, and in SF/F specialty independent bookstores, the classifications for this genre are more finely-grained. Fantasy is not only separated from SF and Horror, but has types within it such as epic, dark, and urban. These categories can shift, gradually or without warning, as when a few years ago (ten, maybe?) the book business suddenly decided to redefine “urban fantasy”. Now we know it as werewolves, vampires, witches, tough-chick protags who are invariably shown in not a whole lot of leather and tattoos on the covers. Before that, “urban fantasy” was Charles de Lint and his ilk. Imagine how confusing it must be to be Mr. de Lint.
But I digress, as usual. When we talk about ‘unclassifiable’ books at Mercury Retrograde, we’re talking about works that aren’t easily categorized. Personally, I love mash-ups, things that steal from two or more existing categories and re-invent them. Steampunk, when it began, was considered interstitial, unclassifiable. Then it exploded and became a subgenre—and a cultural movement—all its own. We’re open to border-crossing things like steampunk, but also to border-crossing work that is too unique to be readily categorized: frex, things that present as fantasy and turn out to be SF, things that smell like literary but are actually firmly genre in their totality, or whatever a writer’s particular combination of peanut butter and chocolate may be. Those sorts of books worry publishers and booksellers, because they’re challenging to sell. But I know the world is full of readers like me, who want to find the unique, fresh works and love them. Connecting those writers with those readers is an important part of Mercury Retrograde’s charter.
Sometimes we like to amuse ourselves by making up crazy cross-genre ideas, just for fun. We tell them to one another and build up these ridiculous concepts the way people tell bar stories: far-future memoir; police procedural with fairies; high-medieval conspiracy theory. The strange magic of these mash-ups is that we can spin them into publishing jokes—or discover they are actually the next great thing, and they’re coming across our desks. To create top-notch SFF literature, we have to hold ourselves open to all the possibilities—but be aware of the fine line between “outrageously awesome” and “ridiculously bad”. That line is defined by the individual, of course—which is part of why interstitial and unclassifiable works are so high-risk. Ultimately our acquisitions in this area are unpredictable and guided by our own tastes.
Your press has a strong artistic bent. Can you give us an overview of your nonconformist publishing ways, such as collaborative works with singers/song writers and game creators?
I suppose we are nonconformist. I think it is our goal of putting the art of story ahead of our preconceptions that leads us to make decisions that look weird. I’ve been a book person for as long as I can remember, but I fell in love with books because I am entirely committed to ideas and story. And as technology has changed in the course of our lifetimes, the ways in which stories can be told has changed. Some of those changes encompass the revival of story traditions far older than the novel.
Novel, of course, means new. This form we think is classic is actually an upstart, only a few hundred years old. Telling stories through songs is much older. Games, of course, are at least as old—although game as a formal storytelling medium is a relatively new development, as far as I know.
As a publisher of stories presented in text, we’re very focused on the longer lengths: the novella, the novel, and the series. That’s an outgrowth of the fact that SFF, as has been said before, is the literature of ideas—and as far as I’m concerned, the bigger the idea, the better. It’s this very expansiveness of our tastes in story that have led us to expand in more interstitial directions, by making room for our storytellers to delve into other media as ways of continuing or broadening the stories they tell. Several of our authors use games played by characters in their stories as avenues towards developing characters and plot; in a couple of cases, notably Leona Wisoker’s Children of the Desert series and my own Way of the Gods series, the writers have expanded the scope of what they do to include collaboration with game designers. Leona has worked with Chris Adotta on the development of chabi, a game reminiscent of and completely different from chess that illustrates the attitudes and survival techniques of a desert culture. Leona uses gameplay as an avenue of plot and character development in her novels, notably Guardians of the Desert and Fires of the Desert, which is slated for publication in April. I’ve been very fortunate to work with James Kempf and Anthony Thomas of Cliché Studio on the games for my series: the dicing game suabh (Sweep, in English) from my The Shadow of the Sun, and the card game Fortunes from my forthcoming The Heart of Darkness. I’m having an especially great time with Fortunes, which could be most succinctly explained by comparing it to playing poker with the Tarot: the cards and symbols of this Tarot variant are not only a working deck and divination system but also clues to the deeper mysteries of the series as a whole, while the games that occur in the novel are integral to the plot. We’ve had even more fun expanding this concept into the real world: I’ve been working with my most beloved artistic collaborator, Rachael Murasaki Ish, on development of the deck, having the pleasure of watching her take my ideas and develop them into images I could never have conceived on my own, and doing further work with my colleagues at Cliché to develop an electronic version of the Fortunes game that is fun to play in its own right, as well as an interesting window into the story world. Naturally I’ve got other game territory I’m looking forward to farming in conjunction with later volumes of the series. But it’s really too early to speak about them.
Game is just one of the storytelling avenues we’re exploring. Artist Ari Warner, who does all the maps for Mercury Retrograde books, and I have been developing the maps for The Heart of Darkness as another window on the story. He’s done amazing work with using the maps to express not only two different world-views (loyalist and kharr, the antagonists in the war going on in these books) but also ideas on cartography as cultural history, public versus objective truth, and the fleeting accuracy of truth in times of war. And Renaissance Man Jonah Knight, the paranormal folk musician who made his bones as a playwright and mainstream singer/songwriter before he fell through the veil into this weird zone we call speculative fiction, has me absolutely agog with his magical union of the ancient tradition of storytelling through music and tales of the weird. While his work in this vein is generally not to be missed, I’m especially excited about the project we’re embarking on together, in which he is telling tales from the worlds built by Mercury Retrograde authors in song. In some cases the works he’s developing are retellings of the stories in the books; in other cases he takes those worlds and spins his own tales in them.
I’m absolutely in love with taking stories that begin in text into other media, particularly media that allow the participants formerly known as the audience to become a part of the action. When you play chabi or Fortunes, you can play these games strictly for amusement, on their own merits—but, should you choose, they can also be ways of dipping your toes into the worlds from which they came, of seeing things through the eyes of people who live there. When you sing one of Jonah’s songs, or just listen to it, you are transported into the world he’s writing and singing about. Great stories have a characteristic we call immersion: they suck you in, make you live and breathe them rather than just watching. Media that allow you to not only immerse yourself but participate are, to me, the most exciting storytelling experiences of all.
Mercury Retrograde Press currently has a small catalog. One can see from the publications dates between books in series, that the Press doesn’t pressure their authors to complete rapid-fire works. Can you speak to how this fits into the overall philosophy of Mercury Retrograde Press?
I’m not completely certain, but I think we coined the term Slow Publishing. Our philosophy of publishing is inspired by the Slow Movement, which includes Slow Food and Slow Media. At its heart, the Slow Movement is about acknowledging that not everything can or should be produced according to Industrial Revolution business practices: that some of the best things we can experience can’t be mass-produced or even, really, effectively scheduled.
In recent years, book publishers have adopted the mindset that they are in the entertainment business, as opposed to the business of making art. This has to do with the fact that most major publishers are owned by international media conglomerates that insist on forcing publishing into a business model that puts product and profit ahead of writers and works. Publishing wasn’t always this way; a hundred years ago, and for decades afterwards, publishers took the time to nurture artists and works until they were ready for market. Not all the books that came out of that system were better, but books published under such a system certainly had a better chance of achieving the sort of transcendence that makes stories stick in hearts and minds.
At Mercury Retrograde, we envision a return to that sort of sensibility. I’m determined to give all the artists involved in developing books, from the writers to the editors and designers, space in which to do their best work: to aim for art rather than making products. It’s a healthier practice: artists held to production schedules not only have to make compromises in their art but tend to wreck their physical and mental health over time—or collapse under the pressure and quit. Imagine how many great works of art have been lost to us because the way the business works has broken the artists who would have created them. I am determined that Mercury Retrograde will remain a safe haven against that sort of problem. And I believe it’s ultimately a service not only to the artists, but to the readers, because the works we can offer under these circumstances are capable of achieving a completely different level of quality. I’ve observed that discerning readers would rather wait a little longer for an author’s next book, and receive something wonderful in return, than have something less than wonderful delivered in a timely fashion. And thank goodness there are so many artists working today that readers need not go hungry while they wait for the good stuff.
How did you come to the generous decision to offer a free ebook version for every paperbook bought? What are your thoughts on Digital Rights Media and the move by some large ebook publishers to go without it?
We began offering free eBooks with purchase of Trade versions in 2009. The idea came from a conversation I held with a reader around that time, who lit up my brain with the idea that what readers are buying is stories. Once I sat with that idea for a while, I began to think very differently not only about the issue of eBook pricing but about book pricing generally.
If readers are buying stories, experiences, then why should they have to pay twice for the same story just because they want to be able to take a book along electronically when they leave the house? That’s essentially the same thing as a music company insisting consumers buy a separate copy of an album for each digital device they own. We have to charge more for Trade paperbacks than we do for eBooks, because they are much more expensive to put into readers’ hands. We must print and ship each copy, whether direct or through our wholesale and retail partners. But once an eBook is complete, with the exception of distribution fees, we can sell an infinite number of copies of that eBook without incurring additional costs. And the costs of eBook production are covered by eBook sales. As far as I’m concerned, if a reader buys the Trade paperback, she’s already paid for the story. Putting the eBook into her hands, as long as it’s distributed from our site, costs us nothing more. It seems only fair.
I think the purchase of stories is going to become increasingly uncoupled from the methods in which they are delivered over the coming years—and we’re already seeing the beginnings of that trend. Some people love their paper books, but others want to read far more stories than they actually want to own in print. Print is becoming increasingly a collector’s medium: we are already seeing people buy print books because the collectible object has value to them rather than because they simply want to read the story. And when print books cost easily twice as much as eBooks on average, why should they not make a distinction between what they buy cheaply to consume and what they pay more to treasure?
I’ve never been a fan of DRM, or Digital Rights Management. While its original intent, protecting the artist’s work to ensure artists get paid, is a worthy goal, as executed it really just creates hassles for honest readers. I’m particularly concerned by Amazon’s handling of DRM, in which books can be—are!—removed from the devices of people who paid for them at Amazon’s whim. I’ve been delighted to see DRM-free eBooks becoming normal, mostly because I am very well aware that the people who will pirate eBooks were never going to have enough respect for writers to pay for the works in the first place. Now that the mechanisms for it are in place, we’re making our eBooks DRM-free wherever the distributors we work with allow us to do so. And of course they continue to be DRM-free when purchased from our site.
The Authors Page shows yourself and 4 other authors. What great things (new publications, reading events, etc.) do you authors have planned for 2013?
That’s a more complicated question than it might at first appear. As recently as last fall, I was still attempting to assign dates to things in advance: as serious as I’ve been about not asking artists to exceed their capacities, we have still collectively and individually continued to fall into the mental habits of the publishing industry. If you’d asked this question a few months ago, I would have offered you a very exciting and date-driven schedule of publications and events, which we were convinced we could live up to without too much craziness. But last year brought home to me, in completely new ways, the importance of drawing a protective circle around all our artists—myself included—and adopting an almost contrarian attitude towards dates. Our policy, as of this year, is to assign release dates when projects are altogether complete, and not before. So it is easier to talk about what’s in the pipeline than precisely what will be released and when.
Our next release will be Fires of the Desert by Leona Wisoker, Book 4 of her wonderful Children of the Desert series, which began with her acclaimed debut Secrets of the Sands. That book is slated for release on April 2; we’ll be hosting the official launch at Ravencon, in Richmond, VA, the weekend of April 5-7.
Beyond that, we have the second edition of There Was a Crooked Man by Edward Morris, a revised and expanded version that kicks off a series of eight novellas. I predict that this book will come out in late spring or summer; the remaining volumes will roll out behind it, as soon as the dream team of Ed, editor Joe Pulver, and artist Nick Gucker complete them.
Also coming up in the near term, but more likely next year, are Cael’s Shadow by Larissa N. Niec, the sequel to her stunning Shorn, and my next novel, The Heart of Darkness, which is the sequel to my The Shadow of the Sun. In conjunction with The Heart of Darkness we’ll be rolling out the Fortunes deck and book and the commercial version of the Fortunes electronic game. The Heart of Darkness is going to be an interesting release, because we’re trying something new, or at least new to us: while the book won’t be released until next spring, we’ll be releasing the story in installments by subscription in advance of the print release—and readers who choose to subscribe to the whole serial will receive the Trade paperback (and, of course, the eBook) for free at release. Because, in our view, they will already have paid for the story. Details on this, as with all our news, releases, and free-or-nearly-free expansions of our story worlds, will be available in our newsletter, our blog, and from the respective series pages on our website.
Meanwhile, Zachary Steele is working on an as-yet-untitled sequel to his hilarious Anointed and Flutter. I’ve read the early chapters, and it looks like his best book yet. Leona Wisoker is already working on the as-yet-untitled concluding volume of her Children of the Desert series. And I’m working with several authors who are not yet officially part of our roster, who have some very exciting projects in the works. I’m looking forward to sharing more about them when the time is right.
Our events schedule, on the other hand, is easier to quantify. I’ll be appearing at StellarCon in Charlotte, N.C. the weekend of March 1-3 and at MidSouthCon in Memphis, TN the weekend of March 22-24. Leona Wisoker and I will be appearing at Ravencon in Richmond, VA, along with a significant subset of the Mercury Retrograde crew, April 5-7. In May, I’ll be appearing at MobiCon in Mobile, AL, the weekend of the 17th-19th, and at ConCarolinas on the weekend of May 31-June 2. I’ll be appearing at ApolloCon in Houston, the weekend of June 21-23. Dates later in the year are still in the works.
Lastly, there is an upcoming read along for your book, The Shadow of the Sun. As an author and a publisher, what do you look forward to and also maybe have a little anxiety over concerning a group read along?
To say I’m excited about this would be an understatement! The author and the publisher in me are excited for different reasons. Like all authors, I tell stories because some kink in my wiring routes much of my drive to connect with other humans through the impulse to construct and share stories. Storytelling is a universal human trait, but for those of us who are optimized for that particular trait beyond all adaptive usefulness, sharing our fictional stories is at least as important as the sharing of true or subjectively-true stories that drives so much of human relationships. I am honored and delighted by the prospect of a group of discerning readers who have made their mark on the genre community by discovering and sharing great stories taking the time to read, discuss, and share mine. Additionally, the publisher in me is excited by this because I know that reader blogs and other social media shared by readers are the heart of book discovery for today’s readers. Word-of-mouth has always been the primary vector of book recommendation; the social internet has made that even more powerful, even while traditional methods of getting the word out about new books become increasingly irrelevant. The publisher in me is more pleased than I can say to see influential book bloggers giving eyeballs to Mercury Retrograde books. As both publisher and author, I am very excited by the prospect of meeting new readers who share my tastes in reading—because, like all writers, I am a reader first, and anyone who enjoys my work will naturally have a fair amount in common with me as a reader. So even while I’m connecting with people by telling my story, I’m also connecting with people through our shared love of the sort of SF/F that lights me up.
As to anxiety—it is always a somewhat anxious experience to have people whose opinions matter read one’s work. I so hope the read-along participants love my work, because in sharing our stories authors are sharing parts of our souls. It can feel intensely personal. And yet any professional knows that readers’ tastes are entirely involuntary, and what I think is world-changing may not move you at all. Or worse. But this is the risk all writers take when they send their stories out into the world: we send out little emissaries of ourselves, and hope they will meet new friends. In this, as in all avenues of human connection, the benefits far outweigh the risks—and whether the assembled readers enjoy my work or not, their discussion will teach me things I can take back to my study to improve future works.
It’s a huge gift to me as a writer, this read-along, and I’m very grateful to receive it. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.
Thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you and sharing our visit with your readers! Although it’s a bit outside the scope here, I also want to express my gratitude for the instrumental role you’re playing in the read-along. I so appreciate the opportunity to connect with fellow lovers of story and share my passions. It is, as always, so very stimulating to talk with you!
See! This is why I keep interviewing this woman. If you want more, check out an interview I did with Lady Ish on Darkcargo back in 2011. As always, I deeply appreciate Barbara taking the time to be a part of my blog. Just a note: The upcoming read along of The Shadow of the Sun will be April 2013 hosted here at Dab of Darkness. An announcement post with details will go up in March.
On to the giveaway!
There will be 3 winners. Mercury Retrograde Press is giving away 1 print book (USA only) and 2 ebooks (International). You must enter the rafflecopter to have a chance at winning. The contest will run for 2 weeks and then winners will be randomly chosen, verified, and contacted. Yes, I verify that you play by the rules. Because I care. With that, have fun!