In the mail today: A copy of Jonathan Letham’s new book, How We Got Insipid, from Subterranean Press; it’s a collection of two of Lethem’s short stories which have apparently been out of circulation for a while, even though one of them (“How We Got in Town and Out Again”) was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. The link above is for the standard edition; there are also signed and lettered editions available via the Subterranean Press Web site.
What’s interesting about the book is that, according to the press release accompanying the book, Subterranean is contractually obliged not to promote the work via the usual channels — it can’t send the book to newspaper or magazine reviewers or to the trade magazines like Publishers Weekly or Booklist. This is apparently an attempt to make sure Insipid doesn’t cannibalize the sales of Lethem’s big publisher work (although since Insipid has a print run of just 1500 copies it’s hard to see why that’s a real worry), or cause the newspapers and magazines in question not to review Lethem’s other work because they just reviewed this. The end result of this is that Subterranean will be relying on Web reviews and commentary (like, uh, this) and word-of-mouth to move copies of Insipid.
I guess I’m a little confused as to what these restrictions are supposed to achieve. Speaking from experience, I can say that Web-only publicity can easily sell a small run of books; Agent to the Stars had only two trade publication reviews (PW and Booklist) and no print reviews otherwise, and we sold out the entire 1500-copy run of the hardcover in about nine months, based entirely on Web promotion through Web site reviews and commentary. And I’m just me; Lethem has got a number of major book awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant to his name. One also wonders what will happen if — as is entirely possible, given who Lethem is — a magazine or newspaper reviewer actually buys the book and then reviews it. You couldn’t really stop a reviewer from doing that, if they wanted to. All that contractual effort, gone to waste.
Bear in mind I’m not a disinterested party here: I publish books with Subterranean Press, I’ve edited its magazine, and I’m pretty good friends with its publisher, Bill Schafer. Having plopped all that down, I think in general it’s pretty silly for a major publisher to get its underwear in a wad over what one of its authors is doing with a small press. What small presses do, in my experience, is generally complementary to what larger presses do — and if you’ll excuse the lapse into corporate speak, all of it feeds into building the brand of the author. When Subterranean published Agent, it didn’t detract from the novels I’m doing at Tor; indeed, I suspect it helped me capitalize on new readers looking for something from me in the wake of Old Man’s War and helped set the stage for The Ghost Brigades.
Speaking personally, I also find a relationship with a small press (in my case Subterranean) allows me to try some things I wouldn’t get to do with a major publisher. Later this year, Subterranean will be releasing Coffee Shop, my book about on the writing life. The audience for this book is somewhat specialized, but that’s fine because “specialized” is part of Subterranean’s business model. Next year Subterranean is going to print a fantasy novella I’m writing (although — he hastened to add because he knows his next book’s editor reads the site — not at this very moment); again, this project isn’t right for a bigger publisher but is right in line with what Subterranean does, and I get to play in the fantasy genre without the pressure of a full-blown novel pressing down on my brain. Everyone wins.
Now, it does matter that, in my experience, Subterranean is sensitive to what I’m doing with my career overall; it doesn’t want its Scalzi books to compete directly with my books from Tor or other larger publishers, and not just because it knows it would lose (by, among other things, annoying me) but because it knows that success of its books of mine relies to a great extent on my success with larger publishers. This is what I think makes Subterranean one of the smarter small presses out there: its understanding that it’s part of a writer’s overall career, and its understanding of how it needs to fit in that equation, for its benefit and the benefit of the writer. Subterranean does other things right too, as far as I know its business, but this aspect is the part that is the most imporant for me. I’d be surprised if other small presses don’t do it this way too (and if they don’t, I feel sorry for them).
All of which may explain why I’m confused as to why Insipid has to follow a silent treatment. Its success — should it be a success — almost certainly won’t impinge on any success that comes from Lethem’s more mainstream work; indeed, its success would be a net benefit, since in keeping 1500 Lethem fans happy, it’ll also keep them looking for Lethem’s next thing. It’s a little strange to see that as a threat.