Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Small Press Profile: Atomic Fez

Welcome to Small Press Profile, an occasional series here at Midlist Writer focusing on, you guessed it, small presses! Today we're speaking with Ian Martin, publisher of Atomic Fez, a new fiction publisher out of Canada that recently came out with their first catalog of four books. I met Ian at Odyssey 2010 last month.

OK, first thing’s first — what’s with the name?

At some point I ought to come up with a snappy one-liner to explain it, but haven't so far. I've always had a thing for fezzes, mostly because I've always associated them with the late-1950s and early '60s 'lounge' period. As a lover of Jazz and martinis, it isn't an odd thing to also love the brimless headgear, to my mind. The same period of history was a time of great optimism and open-mindedness regarding art and culture. Books were a part of everyday life in the same way that movies, television, painting, and theatre were. People generally were looking forward, searching for better ways to do things, new solutions to old challenges, and alternative ways of thinking which might provide further growth in technological and cultural advancement. There were some daft ideas that came up—nuclear-powered stoves, a continued policy of racial segregation, communist witch-hunts, the embracing of the Monroe Doctrine which purports that it is America's destiny to police-force the world from 'tyranny'—but on the whole, while things may not have been better then, things were getting better or people were looking to find ways to make them so. This period is often termed 'the atomic age', mostly due to the widespread acceptance of atomic power as the new source of cheap, clean, and long-lasting energy.

Besides, who doesn't love something with the word 'atomic' attached to it? Naming anything an "Atomic __________" is the way to make it way retro-cool, isn't it?

This optimism; this feeling of joy and possibility; this heady amalgam of a pro-active, open-minded approach to problem solving using a "let's try…" mind-set instead of the current "we can't…"; this is the place from which Atomic Fez approaches decisions and planning. The road to success is not paved with constant victory, but only by trying things does one make any movement at all. We learn from making mistakes, but we must risk making them by trying things in order to make that success.

So, basically, Atomic Fez is 'fun', 'future', and 'optimism' directed, but very much has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

The first reaction everyone had when I tried the word out them was the same: they smiled, no matter what their age, gender, sense of humour, or taste in fiction. I knew I had nailed it.

Everyone’s talking about the crisis in the economy, the crisis in publishing, etc., etc. What made you decide to launch a new publishing venture in such troubled waters?

Warren Buffet, probably the single-most influential financial analyst in the world today, repeatedly says that the best time to do something is when everyone else isn't; sell when people are buying, buy when people are selling, be fiscally conservative when people are throwing their money around like water. By the point everyone realizes 'the right time' to do something has come along, you're already doing it and others have to catch up to you. This seems to be the best thing I can do with what talents are available. My father went into university expecting to graduate a pharmacist, yet ended-up with a B.Ed. with which he taught high School Geography, and now he's in upper-management of one of Canada's largest ground-based shipping and long-haulage companies. Those sound entirely unrelated, but if you work through the flow of his progress with all the additional steps and details, you see all of those dissimilar bits of experience add up to him being perfect for the position in which he now finds himself.

I'm no different. Why a publishing venture? Because it's right for me; it's right for now, because no one else really is doing it; and it's what will make sense to have done at this point when looked from the future in a decade's time.

The key to avoid the 'crisis in publishing', as well as any 'economical crisis', is to examine the old models of how to do things, stack them up against the ways that how things ought to be or need to be done in order to be ecologically sensitive and economically intelligent, then mix and match while keeping an ear to the ground for new technological advances that permit 'doing more with less'. Being small helps, as the internal structure of any large company is the single biggest stumbling block to any fundamental change to how things get done. People's minds are often the most difficult thing to alter, and the luxury any small press outfit has over the large publishing houses—and they're the ones who will be hurt the most with this 'crisis', if that's even the right term—is that publishing and budgeting schedules are not locked in stone. Getting a story from writer to store shelf is easily a three-year process with a large publisher. Marketing campaigns, editing, production stages, shipping of inventory, all of them very much rely on each other to begin or reach completion at very specific times. For a real 'sea change' to take place, the resultant alteration of a publishing processes would require at least those same three years to filter down through the complete schedule. This is why the rapidly changing publishing processes have first been embraced by the small press houses, where the methods are more protean in nature. Adaptation is our day-to-day activity. It's not that the large, multinational publishing houses such as Random House or Simon & Schuster will not change to adapt to the new economy, they just cannot do so overnight; much like steering an ocean liner requires factoring in proceeding in a straight line for miles before the ship responds to the wheel being turned. If they can hold on long enough to permit the new ways of accomplishing things filtering through the system, they will survive. If not, they won't.

I don't see the small press picking up all the trade the big houses have now; the headaches involved in satisfying that size of a market are astronomical, for one thing. The future is to locate the people that like the kind of books that particular publisher releases, in however narrow a niche that may be.

There are lots of small press genre publishers. How will Atomic Fez stand out?

Beyond the name, it's the approach of Atomic Fez which will be unique, probably. The 'niche' I'm looking at isn't one specific 'genre', nor is it exclusively 'genre' (a term many agree is more confusing than clarifying). As with music, categories in fiction may have served a purpose at one time, but no longer do so. Terry Pratchett writes comedic stories based in an alternate Elizabethan-aged world with a dollop of modern technology, there are wizards and dragons all over the place, and throughout the thing are references to late-20th Century popular culture which are used in conjunction with character types to make social commentary on modern society.

Now is that "Fantasy"? The dwarfs, dragons, and magic suggest so. It's an alternate reality, though; perhaps it's "SF"? Some of the stories involve solving a case of murder or intrigue, bordering on English police procedurals, so should those ones be placed in "Mystery"? Then again, the comedic social satire suggests it ought to be in "Fiction (General)", as does the inclusion of all the literary allusions to Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and so on.
Arthur Conan Doyle mostly wrote horror stories, and even attempted to focus on those exclusively by killing Sherlock Holmes off at one point. The public screamed until he brought Holmes back again, leaving Doyle known almost entirely as a 'mystery writer'. In fact, The House of the Baskervilles is considered by some to be the finest of the stories featuring the detective, yet Holmes doesn't show up until well past the midway point, there's not much of a mystery to be solved, and the only thing anyone has to accomplish is the actual defeat of the beast itself; making this a fantastic horror story, and not a Sherlock Holmes mystery at all (except that Holmes and Watson are in the damned thing).

I could go on and on about how categories of fiction only make sense to marketing departments, so please stop me now. More than likely everyone's heard all this before, has agreed to everything said, reorganized their own shelves accordingly, and wonders why the discussion has continued for so many years now. The catalogue I'm building with Atomic Fez doesn't specifically get built with cross-category material in mind, or even with an eye to "the big publishers would call that a 'hard to market' title". The titles are selected because they are well-written stories, which I think are worth people spending some time enjoying. That 'broad swath' of selection is something which is very subjective; tastes vary wildly between one person and another, and that's a very good thing. While there's no intention to create a list of titles which could be called "safely appealing to everyone", there's not a specialization in any one story type either.
I'm all about making well-written books available, without relying on any one fiction type or specialty collector's editions.

Your first catalog manages to pack quite a range in just four books—grim horror, humor, erotica, and noir, often with more than one of these elements in the same book! Will future catalogs be this varied and is there anything you won’t publish?

Well, 'erotica' isn't quite the right term for John Llewellyn Probert's collection, which I presume you're referring to. Wicked Delights has a certain amount of reliance on the stories' common theme of sex, but it's only a thread which runs through the collection to bind it together. There's actually one story that hasn't so much as a reference to kissing in it, but there is an off-hand reference to a wedding, which is its sole, vague connection to the act of the carnal embrace.
Chances are the future will hold more of the same eclecticism, yes. If there's any one thing that does come up a bit more than anything else with the books selected, it's a bit of humour. You need some levity in order to make the downward shift of horror or anything akin to shock make any impression. Without some light, it's tough to see how dark the shadows are, if you will.
I'm leery about publishing nonfiction, purely because it's such a small market, and the material is often something less than 'a fun read'. It's certainly possible that nonfiction will appear in the catalogue, but it would be a specific project that would win me over; a specific topic or subject matter would do it, but until that comes along, there's no rush.

Is there any difference between running a small press in Canada and one in the United States?

Yes and no. The USA has more people in it than the Dominion of Canada does, obviously, and there seems to be a more open attitude to readers listening to any sort of marketing there — Canadians are very wary of any promotional style, while Americans listen with an informed ear and filter as they see fit—but other than that, not really.

If there is one difference on the production side, it's the ability to print and bind books for less money there than in Canada. Importing US-produced volumes isn't an answer, due to the customs duties on them leveling the playing field. As a result, the North American printings are done in Manitoba for the most part.

E-books do seem to be far more accepted in the USA, however. I'm not sure why, though, unless Canada's got so much damned space in it we don't need to worry about miniaturization until we start filling up the Prairies with our stored belongings.

There certainly is a difference between the acceptance of anything which is tainted with 'horror' when you compare the United Kingdom with North America. In the UK, horror is only now becoming acceptable after several decades of being almost 'the genre which cannot speak its name'. North America, on the other hand, only had a brief period in the 1980s and early '90s when the 'slasher films' gave horror a bad reputation. But, as with anything, the pendulum has to swing to its extreme before it comes back again; it's just swinging a little slower in the UK than on this continent.
Coming up tomorrow: the second part of the interview where Ian tells us what he wants to see in a submission, what it's like to work with Kobo, and what's coming up next for Atomic Fez!

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Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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