What’s This Publisher Smoking?

KENSINGTON, MD – I’m faced with a self-made conundrum and I’m not sure how to solve it. I simply adore random story collections. So much so, that each and every night in my after-hour publisher duties, I shuffle through several rough manuscript drafts and bounce from piece to piece; it would be fair to say that these disparate volumes of literature are keeping me up at night. Not only because they’re so delectable to read, but because I’m worried that my abnormal passion for collections—and my desire to discover new writers through the compilation of their short, riveting works—will become my financial ruin.

As an avid reader and collector of books, I have an unnatural affinity toward short fiction, as strong and anomalous, you might say, as one who has a fetish for pink flamingos (John Waters, you go girl!) or creepy purple dinosaurs (yes, Barney, I mean you). I’m not sure exactly when or how this rabid interest in story collections began, but I recall that in my indie bookselling days (1995-1999), many story collections that made their way into my store stayed in my store until I either took them home or finally unloaded them for pennies on the dollar.

It would stand to reason then that any level-headed publisher who had tried and earnestly failed to hand-sell story collections (on the floor of his own bookshop, mind you) certainly would not allow his intellectual tapeworm for tall tales told in short form to sway future investment decisions. He’d have to be a walking P&L disaster to not learn from experience, right? Even market contrarians eventually catch drift of a ferocious crosswind and set their sail cats straight with the current, right?

Oy captain, my captain, I will not fall cold and dead. With apologies to Walt Whitman and Dylan Thomas (and Annie Lennox, too), even if sweet bankruptcies are made of these, Atticus Books will not go gently into that good night until the press sells enough novels to support the publication of story collections and poetry volumes and other notoriously poor selling books of literary goodness packed with wisdom and whimsy.

It is true. I am incapable of compartmentalizing my personal life from my professional life—my leisure reading from my evaluative reading. I am stubborn (and perhaps crazy enough) to think that the market for story collections indeed will grow in this age of mass deficit disorder (so deficient in attention that you can exclude the word attention from the phrase deficit disorder and do away with commas too and hardly a soul will notice). I especially believe there’s a place for flash fiction—or sudden fiction or micro fiction or short short stories, however you want to describe these ripples of genius.

Flash fiction is the epitome of immediate gratification. At no time does it allow the reader to zone out. At no time does it allow for a slow-paced, steady bout of rope-a-dope holding on for dear, desperate life. Instead, it demands surefire readiness and mental acuity as it unleashes a fast and furious staccato delivery of rhythms and images. Instead of offering a deliberate series of verbal jabs, feints, and hooks, flash fiction abridges the distance between writer and reader by delivering thundering punches, all registering in a swift, precise attack, crescendoing with one final death blow to the skull. Flash does not sneak up on us. It knocks us out. Unconscious. Without fanfare. In the first round. Before the ring card girl even gets to hold up her end of the schtick.

In these days of mental masturbatory pursuits, in these days that are short on cerebral orgasm and much too long on staid, formulaic writing, how the hell hasn’t a publisher found a way to monetize flash fiction in the same way that Apple has monetized the two-minute and 30-second pop song? Selling blocks of content on iPads and Kindles has not gone far enough in driving consumer behavior. We need a pusher on the streets, peddling this stuff in schoolyards, meeting folks halfway down dark alleyways, roughing them up if they don’t pay up. We need a dealer who knows the value of this drug and who knows how to sell it because he understands its allure, because he’s hooked on it too. We need a small press entrepreneur willing to risk his fortune on stashes of fine flash fiction whose volumes have grown uncontrollably in the last decade and have caused the drug lords—big publishers—to come unhinged while across the border from the houses of chivalry and practical business sense, authors—suppliers of the wacky, one-hit spliff—remain unrecognized. All because we don’t know how to package their product.

If we can agree that short stories are virtuous and untouchable as far as storytelling devices have gone since mankind’s humble cave scrawling beginnings, then surely we can agree that flash fiction is more than just the equivalent of 21st-century literature’s bling. So what we need now is a marketing plan, a branding initiative, a way to communicate the value of flash fiction with flashy buzzwords. Try these on for size:

Flash fiction: More than costume jewelry.
Flash fiction: No longer an ornament to be worn as a decorative accessory at the queen’s parade.
Flash fiction: Fast becoming today’s crown jewel.

Once a mere sideshow attraction amid more serious works of literature, flash now has staying power both online and off. It steals the show at readings and often lights it up by way of virtual foot traffic on websites. Since much of flash actually addresses real life issues (granted, sometimes in abstract fashion), it usually does not defy categorization. For publishers bent on seeking themes, it is rather easy to put together a burst of flash for a journal issue (or a section in a book).

While some publishers are electing to banish the practice of considering story collection submissions (for sound economic reasons), it may be shortsighted of them to dismiss the craft of short fiction when half the reading population forgot where it parked its car this evening and the other half isn’t sure if they unplugged the coffee machine after they left the house for work.

In other words, because I have acquired the rights to three new story collections for 2012 and am considering more for 2013, many in my profession indeed will think me plainly insane to believe that any one of these volumes will break even (financially speaking). But there’s something to be said for a publisher’s intuition even when his hunch may conjure up the vision of a crack pipe falling out of the pocket of a white-collar employee standing outside the office of Human Resources. Sustainable business models may not be made of these in the current environment, but the appearance of a crack dealer in a nice, suburban neighborhood invariably calls for the beheading of a few authority figures—and it seems high time we demanded a changing of the guard.

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