Thursday, October 25, 2012

So Why Pulp: Pulp’s New Frontiers

It’s a whole new world baby!

Pulp sure has come a long way from its heydays back in the 1930s and 1940s. In that classic era, the stories were quickly written and purveyed as inexpensively as possible, via magazines printed on cheap paper, often with rough cut edges. It was pure entertainment fiction, meant to be read, enjoyed, maybe passed along, and then tossed. But something about all those pulse pounding tales resonated with the readers of that generation and those who came after as well. It still continues to fascinate us today, not only on the page, but in movies, video games, television programs, and so on. We love our fast paced action adventure stories. We adore larger-than-life characters. We like to see the good guys triumph and the bad guys get their just desserts, and to be able to tell the difference between them—especially in this day and age where everything is complex and technically challenging and you can’t even begin to guess who’s wearing the white hat.

Yep folks, pulp is here to stay. But that said, it doesn’t mean pulp can’t expand its horizons, grow up, stretch and move forward a bit. In fact it has to, because if we keep doing the same stories the same old timeworn way, we’re only going to serve the nostalgia market, which through attrition, is going to contract a little more every year. If you ask me, it’s time to pack up the old trusty knapsack, put on the hiking boots, and go out and blaze some new trails. In that grand old pulpy tradition, let’s see how far off the undiscovered territory lies, and what kind of secrets those haze covered hills and mist shrouded valleys hold. Along the way, we might even learn something about ourselves.

I believe it’s vitally important that we pulp purveyors not only understand what we’re writing but why we’re doing it, and balance those lofty ideals of what we expect to get out of this with a big dollop of reality. Being clear with yourself is only going to make it easier to get down to work. It’s no big secret that our little corner of publishing exists deep in the murky bottom of the literary world, where only the occasional ray of sunlight from above penetrates to illuminate a particular flashing body, before the roiling waters close in overhead and we’re back to business as usual.

There are a few of us supporting ourselves by writing, and I’d suspect even that is a tenuous means of making a living. The rest are obviously doing it for some other reason. We all know why—we write for the sheer joy of it! Everyone I know who pounds out a pulp tale does so because they love creating that kind of fiction. We publish it because we know others who love reading it too, and reaching readers in any way we can is far preferable to shoving things in a file and forgetting about them. Just because they aren’t big money makers, doesn’t make our books any less worth reading. And because there is no pretentiousness to fame, fortune, or grandeur down here in the underbelly of the publishing world, we’re free to create the kind of stories we truly enjoy. It may not be paying the mortgage, but since we’re all going to ‘buy the farm’ someday anyway, how much richer will my life have been if I can check out of this world knowing I wrote X- amount of books in my time?

That’s why I do it. Writing pulp is a source of pride for me, and a way of thumbing my nose at the established infrastructure of publishing which doesn’t hesitate to remind me that my name is unknown, and so my work is not weighty or salable enough to be displayed in mainstream book channels.

The hell it isn’t; because people do read, enjoy, and appreciate what I do, even when the bottom-line figures don’t exceed two zeroes. To have been published at all is far better than to have sat around waiting to be discovered by just the right people. I’d rather have my stories out there being read than to dream of what it would be like to have an audience while waiting for a rejection slip that might take six months or more to reach me.

Print-on-demand (POD) and internet sales have made a lot of new authors out of wannabes and engendered all sorts of publishing options that are springing up around it. And it’s been good for readers too, because now they have more choices than whatever Madison Avenue is currently pushing.

That said, even amongst pulp lovers, we have our own nay-saying, bluestocking critics. I find that kind of ironic because while there are some definite clunkers amongst the books we put out, Classic Pulp had more than its share too, and I’m sure it was just as blithely panned in its day. A reality check says pulp of any kind is meant to be pure entertainment, and that indie publishing on a small scale means a lot of volunteer work by folks who have day jobs and other demands on their writing and editing time. The majority of us are doing some editing and promotional work along with writing, since there are no budgets for hiring pros. I’d love to say we are turning out 100% clean copy, but I’d be a liar. We all work hard and learn as we go, doing the best to make the books we produce entertaining, coherent, and readable.

Yeah, things do get past us, and it’s an ongoing process to improve. So for those in-house critics, let’s think a minute about why we call what we do ‘New Pulp’. It’s primarily to distinguish what’s being written today from what was done in the golden age past. Oh, there are homage pieces and pastiches galore, but there are also a lot of original plots and brand new characters amongst today’s offerings. I don’t think our predecessors worried too much about whom or what they were paying tribute to. As long as readers were buying the magazines, they kept filling them with stories.

If anything, the pulp field has expanded over the years to bring in many more genres and ideas, and that’s good because it broadens the potential audience. If something about that ‘dilutes’ what you feel is classic pulp, well I guess that’s too bad. I’m perfectly happy to bring in new readers. I don’t live in the past, and I’m definitely not trying to write something akin to Macbeth or War and Peace. Nor am I attempting to recreate the writing of Dent, Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Howard. All I want is to recapture that similar feeling of breathless anticipation a reader gets when perusing a page turning, heart thumping storyline.

And I have to do that with today’s audience in mind, understanding that this a different time in history than when the classics were written. I know my readers, and they want characters they can care about, doing things they wish they had the guts to try. If my stories don’t exactly emulate what went before, if they aren’t using the same settings and formula, that’s on purpose. My predecessors were working authors trying to support themselves and they got paid by the word, so they wrote what their publishers thought would sell. While I have to give my publishers the same consideration, I only get paid when they’ve recovered printing costs, and so I have less incentive to pad a story and more freedom to experiment with settings and the complexity of characterization. I’m not churning my stuff out as fast as I can do it, because feeding the family and keeping a roof over our heads is not the focus of my writing. I know modern pulpsters who do that, and I salute them! But what I write, I do because I love creating it. It qualifies as pulp because of the pacing, but it’s not anything you’ve seen before and it’s written for people who are living in this day and age. The themes, settings, and some of the styling might be classic, but the storylines are all shiny and new. It seems to work for me…

There are so many options out there for how we present our writing. Besides the POD books you can order online or buy at conventions and author signings, pulp publishing has moved into downloadable paperless E-books, audio books, and I predict we’ll be doing chapters by subscription somewhere down the pike. In the heydays of classic pulp, magazines filled with various stories shared space on news racks all over the place, and so covers were lurid and vividly colored to attract attention.

Today we print more novels and yearly anthologies. While the artwork is just as riveting, it’s not as affordable because artists are more independent, so they need and deserve to be paid up front, and there’s no house staff in our small companies. The news racks of yesteryear have gone by the wayside and their decedents, the drug and convenience store spinner racks, are quickly following them into extinction. None of the small publishers have much of an advertising budget, and whatever brick and mortar bookstores that are left out there are either big box chains, small independents, or used booksellers. The little guys might accept books on consignment, but they don’t have much shelf room. The big guns generally stock only books the main company gets from wholesalers. So us indies are usually left with online sales and lots of self-promotion to do. Getting the word out is the hardest part, and we are just starting to open some additional avenues for that.

Besides the pricey costs of attending and setting up at conventions, or the small venue local book signings, most of those options involve the internet in one form or another. Social networking sites have the potential to reach hundreds if not thousands of potential readers, because every Friend or person in your Circles has several followers who might be interested in reading your Tweet or status update. Some online sectors are now evolving into business promotion through professional networks, audio podcasts, site linking, online advertising trailers, video conferences, and virtual conventions. There are all sorts of nifty new ways to reach the public.

Product advertisement online is an area which is growing very rapidly with the expansion of internet capability into more portable wireless network devices. So it’s a brave new world out there for us pulpsters, where a reader can hear about your book via a Youtube link posted on Facebook, buy a copy and upload it to their phone or E-reader with a few clicks, go back and browse your author page, blog, and website to see what else you have to offer, and then write a review on the same device. You can go to a convention or bookstore that has an Espresso printing machine (we have one in my state now), browse the catalog for something to buy, and watch your book of choice be printed on the spot.

While that’s not the corner news rack or neighborhood book store of the classic pulp years, it’s also not tied to any one place or time. As long as I can access the internet in my house here in Northeast Connecticut, I can buy your book written in Sidney Australia, published in London, and sold on Lulu,, Barnes & Noble online, Alibris, or Smashwords (and many more online retailers I haven’t mentioned). That’s the kind of global effect we can have now, something our pulp predecessors never would have envisioned outside the pages of a science fiction story. Who knows what else lies on our ever-widening pulp frontier?

The point here is, we have got to expand our offerings and change our thinking about how and why we write and publish to reflect the times we’re in. We’re no longer sitting in some smoky backroom office banging on a manual typewriter and handing copy off to the editor to be red- penciled. The stories we write still need to find that beloved status in the minds and hearts of the readers, but we have to go where those minds and hearts are. And that might just mean leaving the comfort zone of where pulp has already been and striking out for new territory. In the spirit of pulp, it’s time for new adventures to unfold. So shoulder your gear, grab your walking stick, and let’s go find out what lies beyond the horizon. I hope to see you out there!

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