July 27, 2012

The Stupefying Story Behind Stupefying Stories: an interview with Bruce Bethke

Yesterday, I reviewed the March 2012 edition of Stupefying Stories, an on-going anthology series from Bruce Bethke. Today, I have an interview with the man behind the madness. Enjoy!

Gef: Here's a tee-ball question to kick things off: What was the inspiration in starting up Stupefying Stories?

Bruce: There's inspiration, and then there's motivation.

My two inspirations were George Scithers, founding editor of
Asimov's and later editor of Amazing Stories, and Charles C. Ryan, founding editor of Galileo and later Aboriginal. Thirty-some years ago, when I was a young punk just starting out in this business, George and Charlie were the only two editors open-minded enough to be willing to consider a story by anybody and patient enough to put up with me. Their advice, guidance, occasional whacks on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and eventually acceptances and publications, were what launched my career.

They're my inspirations. Then there's my motivation, which comes from another place entirely. I'd been running an online writing workshop for several years and was getting tired of hearing my workshop writers -- some of whom were producing truly first-rate work -- complain that they just couldn't seem to get a break. So I started looking into it, and realized that yes, the kids were right; there really
are very few editors out there now willing to do for today's new writers what George and Charlie did for me.

So I decided, this is something I can do.

Understand, I don't need to do this. I am not one of those people who's always dreamed of someday being a famous editor. It's even in our business plan: if
Stupefying Stories ever does become commercially successful, the second person we're hiring is an editor-in-chief to take over the day-to-day running of the thing.

(Our first hire will be a good administrative assistant. Believe me, we need one.)

Ergo, I do not do this for the sake of my own ego. I'm doing this because people seem to keep wanting to pay attention to
me, because of some stories I wrote twenty to thirty years ago and some awards that hang on my office wall, and if I can use this attention to instead redirect their focus onto new writers, who are doing great new work now -- well, this would be a good thing, no?

Gef: You make the distinction that Stupefying Stories is less a magazine than an anthology series. Did you opt for that method as a way of focusing on the stories, since magazines tend to contain other items like essays, poetry, and reviews? Or was there another contributing factor?

Bruce: We did consider doing it as a magazine. In fact, a few years back I pulled together a group of investors and we seriously considered buying Amazing Stories, which at that time had just gone out of business again. But the more we studied the idea, the more strongly we came to the conclusion that launching a new magazine -- or buying Amazing and trying to reanimate Hugo Gernsback's corpse one more time -- would be a really great way to blow at least $100K annually, and at the end of the investor's money we'd still have a dead magazine. I mean, consider the recent death, resurrection, and final death of Realms of Fantasy as a case in point.

The age of the subscription-driven monthly or bimonthly magazine is over. You want book and movie reviews? There are better and faster places to get them online. You want a letters column and some sense of interaction with the editor? There's this thing called Facebook. You want gasbag op-ed pieces and science-fact articles? For the love of God, why?

The interesting part is, once we decided to jettison everything that wasn't story, we found we had a product with a much longer shelf-life. It's the non-fiction content that makes a magazine ephemeral. Fiction does not age, or at least it doesn't age as badly as does a book review.

So by making Stupefying Stories a fiction anthology e-book series, this immediately lets us put out a product that we can keep on the market for a long time. A magazine has its month in the sun and then it's done. We can keep a volume of Stupefying Stories available for sale for three years, and take the time to build our readership slowly, as people discover us and go spelunking through our back catalog.

Thus far the model seems to be working. Whenever we release a new book, we also see a jump in sales of our backlist, as people discover that they like what they're reading and decide to go see what else we've published.

Gef: What was the first preconception of running a periodical you saw dashed before your eyes?

Bruce: Given that I come from a Journalism and non-fiction writing background and have spent the past thirty years selling to periodicals and hanging around with publishers and editors, I already had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. So I guess I didn't have too many starry-eyed preconceptions waiting to be dashed.

The one thing I'd say I really underestimated was the sheer volume of management involved in putting out a publication. Between processing submissions -- in a slow month we get around 200 new submissions, and in our peak month so far we received 500 -- recruiting for and managing our ever-growing crew of first readers, keeping submissions moving through the review | acceptance | rejection pipeline, handling relations with authors, artists, and production personnel, and all the other invisible back-office busywork, I spend one hell of a lot more time managing people than actually editing and publishing fiction.

As I said before: I could really use a good administrative assistant.

But since you're looking for dashed preconceptions, how about this? When I was on the writer's side of this relationship, I never understood why editors made so much use of form rejections and so rarely provided substantive comments. Now that I'm on the editor's side, I fully understand why. When you're dealing with hundreds of submissions monthly, there simply is not time enough to provide meaningful commentary on every submission.

I wish there was. There simply isn't.

Gef: The covers for each installment have been a great blend of striking and strange. Do you offer input to the artists on what the cover art should look, or is it simply a matter of letting them know what you need and let them run wild?

Bruce: Both. I offer input, but that's just the nudge to get the artist started and give him or her a sense of direction. I love to be surprised and impressed by other people's talent, so whenever I give out a cover assignment, I'm always hoping the artist will come back with something far more awesome than what I had in mind. Thus far, our artists have done so.

If you think you've seen some cool covers already, just wait 'til you see what's in the release pipeline for the rest of this year!

Gef: How daunting is a slush pile for you? Is there a recurring annoyance among story submissions that you wish could be wiped from your inbox, or has the wheat-chaff ratio been easy on you?

Bruce: Again, I came into this with the benefit of thirty years' experience and a lot of time spent talking with more seasoned editors, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. Our wheat-chaff ratio has settled into the expected conformance with Sturgeon's Law. About ten-percent of the submissions we receive are actually worth reading.

Believe it or not, when we first launched, we were afraid we weren't going to receive enough good submissions to make a go of it. That worry lasted about two weeks. Then we started worrying about how we were going to handle our rapidly growing volume of submissions.

And then we got hit with the Great Submissions Blizzard of 2011. More than five hundred stories before it was over. It took us nearly two months to dig out from under it.

We've had to evolve very rapidly since then, and invent a lot of processes from scratch. Being an Internet-based virtual company with staff spread out across 2,000 miles and three time zones, many of the submissions handling processes used by traditional publishers are worthless for us. Just managing contracts when you're dealing with authors who live on every continent -- and yes, we've even received stories from people stationed in Antarctica -- is an adventure. Thank goodness for PayPal.

So, recurring annoyances? Just the usual, I suppose. Funny stories that aren't. Horror stories that are nauseating, not scary. Stories written by people whose ideas about normal human behavior come from watching actors play characters on television, not from observing real humans in their native habitat. Space opera written by people who've clearly watched every episode of every Star Trek series ever made but never had a single original thought about the idea. Military stories by guys whose combat experience consists of playing a lot of XBox. True Blood fan fic. "Little kid discovers that the monster under the bed is real;" there must be some how-to book somewhere that says this is the perfect story to write, because we receive it about five times weekly. Stories from writers who've clearly never read our submission guidelines, because if they had -- especially this part, http://www.stupefyingstories.com/p/what-were-not-buying-now.html -- they'd have known better than to send us that steaming load of crap they sent.

The most astonishing -slash- depressing thing to come out of our slush pile so far has been the realization that there are a whole lot of people running around out there with advanced degrees in Creative Writing -- BAs, MFAs, even PhDs -- and absolutely no frickin' clue as to what a story is! They send us beautiful wreckage -- sensuous sentences, perfect paragraphs, evocative images, scintillating scenes -- but when you get to the last page, you're left wondering: what the Hell was that all about? Five thousand words of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

If I could automatically filter out one thing from my inbox, that would be it: the piles of words -- sometimes beautiful words -- that don't contain any actual story.

Gef: In the introduction to the March 2012 edition, you cited Beth Cato's "Red Dust and Dancing Horses" as a stand-out. I, too, have to say it's one of my favorite stories of 2012, if not the favorite. When it comes to discovering or providing a stage for up-and-coming authors, how do you see your role as an editor there? Do you feel tempted to break out the pom-poms and add cheerleader to your job description, too?

Bruce: I think I've already answered this one, but yes, "coach" and "cheerleader" are definitely parts of my job, and definitely the parts of it I wish I could spend more time doing.

However, first I need to get the back-office processes running smoothly, and then we need get more books out the door. At the moment we have five books stalled in various stages of production. We've only released two volumes of Stupefying Stories so far this year, as opposed to the seven we should have out by now, so we need to get things moving again. (I should probably mention that while we didn't hit our plan to release a new SS on July 1, we did release three full-length novels that day, albeit through Rampant Loon Press, not Stupefying Stories. So it's not exactly as if we've been sitting around twiddling our thumbs since March.)

Release books first. Do cheerleading afterward.

Gef: Maybe it's me, but I sense a hint of nostalgia in many of the stories that appear in Stupefying Stories. By that, I mean a harkening to the speculative fiction of the mid-twentieth century--not an imitation, but a sentiment or like-minded approach to storytelling. Am I on-base with that or just seeing things through my own Bradburian lens?

Bruce: It's interesting that you make that observation. We are not consciously trying to "go retro" -- well, except for Throwbacks, but that's a special case -- but all the same, we seem to get tagged with this label with some frequency. I think this perceived sense of nostalgia comes from a simple set of stylistic cues. To wit:

We publish stories. With characters. And plots. If what you've written is seven thousand words of formless goo about a hapless schlub who spends the entire narrative sitting in his apartment, wallowing in a puddle of existential despair and paralyzed by the bleak meaninglessness of it all, and who in the end goes nowhere and does nothing, we're probably not the right market for you. Why don't you instead try it on that depressed Goth chick who hangs out at your favorite off-campus coffee shop? I bet she'd really get off on it.

We don't publish porn. We have published stories with sex scenes: T. D. Edge's "Spirit Bags" in the January 2012 issue comes to mind, as it has a scene in it that made a few of our associate editors blush. But we don't publish the kind of fiction that used to be called explicit hard-core porn, before a couple of fortuitous Supreme Court decisions made it respectable and very profitably mainstream.

We don't publish stories about serial killers, the sexual abuse of children, serial killers who sexually abuse children, sexually abused children who grow up to become serial killers, or any other permutation on that those ideas. If that's your thing, there are plenty of other magazines that publish it. We don't.

We don't publish stories that seem to be more about the author's personal sexual problems than about anything of any interest to anyone other than the author and his or her psychotherapist.

We have yet to find a compelling reason to publish a story containing any of the small set of words that used to be called "obscenities." We've accepted such stories, but always found in copy-editing that the author was willing to substitute a more benign word on request. In fact, quite a few authors have told us they only put those words in in the first place because they thought they had to, in order to be considered hip, modern, and edgy.

Look, let's be honest. Walking around with the word "FUCK" written on your forehead was very edgy -- in 1968! But if you take a look at the very short list of the kinds of stories we don't publish, and if it's the absence of these kinds of stories that defines us as being "nostalgic" --

Well, maybe being "modern" is greatly overrated.

Gef: The first year anniversary looms. Anything special planned to mark the occasion or is it simply full-steam ahead?

Bruce: No, nothing special. We've got to get Stupefying Stories back onto a stable monthly release schedule, first. Then we've got two double-length "theme" anthologies in the works that we've got to finish up and release, and after that there's -- well, the usual term is "sister" publication, but this is more like a "disreputable half-brother-in-law" publication that we'll be launching this Fall. But more about that another time.

So no, at this time we are not planning anything special to mark the first anniversary. We're just trying to get books out the door.

Our goal is to make it to the three-year mark. If we're still around in the Fall of 2014, then we'll do some serious celebrating!

1 comment:

  1. It's nearly the Fall of 2014 and you are still around. Good going.