Business Musings: Pulphouse, Alternate History, & the Modern Era
When you come to my website right now, it’s rather hard to ignore the fact that we’re running a Kickstarter. I have a Kickstarter widget tracking our progress in real time, and I blogged about the Kickstarter on Friday.
The Kickstarter will help us revive Pulphouse Fiction Magazine, which we stopped publishing 21 years ago, when we shut down Pulphouse Publishing. Dean has talked about bringing back Pulphouse for years, but we weren’t ready.
Some of the reason we weren’t ready was me. I wasn’t emotionally ready to revisit Pulphouse in any way.
You see, much of the hard learning I did that enables me to blog every week about business came from Pulphouse Publishing—both from its successes and its failures.
Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine (the name of the old incarnation) was one of the successes. Unfortunately, it had to shut down when we shut down the business.
Dean and I did not have the time or the ability to continue the magazine. We were too busy writing. We repaid hundreds of thousands of dollars in Pulphouse debt by writing our way out of it. Media tie-ins, standalone novels, comic books, other editing gigs, you name it, we did it to pay back all that money. The latter half of the 1990s is a complete blur to me. I do recall that one May, Dean had five novel deadlines, and he met them all.
The aftermath of Pulphouse was a tough time. So I put off reviving it, even though we had started a new publishing company seven years ago. Dean wanted to revive Pulphouse Fiction Magazine at the very start. I didn’t.
We did Fiction River instead. It has a different vision and a different mission. It also has a different voice.
Editing Fiction River calmed me down. I took on two other editing projects—The Best Crime and Mystery Stories 2016, and The Women of Futures Past. I got pilloried for The Women of Futures Past, which I expected, but not for the reason I expected. I got pilloried for partnering with Baen Books, so half of the sf field didn’t even read the book, because the book wasn’t released by the Approved Literary Press of science fiction—ignoring that I had partnered with a strong woman who ran a publishing house so that we could bring out a book about women in the sf field. I figured our joint presence alone would show people that women have been part of sf for decades. I was wrong.
Anyway. That experience bolstered me. I realized that no matter what I did, people would have weird opinions based on their own reality, not mine.
My reality with Pulphouse was complicated not just because of how the publishing company ended, but also because of how it began.
We started the publishing company piecemeal. I was working as a secretary for a forensic psychologist as I made the transition from non-fiction to fiction. Dean was working as a bartender, as his fiction career was taking off.
I don’t remember the early discussions of Pulphouse; they were organic, and in the way that Dean and I still do things, eventually an idea morphed into a full-blown plan. (Not every idea becomes a plan; not every plan gets executed, but many of them do…)
I have a vivid memory of sitting at my secondhand kitchen table in my crummy one-bedroom apartment in Eugene, Oregon, with Dean at my side, a notebook open between us, with a business plan in front of us.
We had already decided to do a hardback magazine, quarterly. It would be collectible, with two states—the leather and the trade. Dean had done the research on cost. I was going to edit.
The plan in front of us was divided according to sales. If we sold 200 copies, we had to invest x dollars. If we sold the entire run (1200 copies), we’d have to invest y dollars.
We laughed at selling the entire run. We were unknown and the project was new. We could afford the investment for the 200 copies (plus content) as well as upfront money for an “issue zero.” The issue zero was Dean’s idea.
He’s trained as an architect, and architects build models of their buildings before they ever build the buildings. So he wanted to produce a blank book to see if that book would work for our hardback magazine.
It did. We stamped it with the name, art, and “issue zero,” and got our copies. We loved it. And I got the bright idea to send Issue Zero to all of my favorite authors, along with an invitation to write for us.
I don’t know if all of my favorite authors agreed, but most of them did. I got stories from all of the big names in the business at the time, as well as the very best of the up-and-coming names. The stories I got from those names weren’t cookie-cutter. I had asked for the stories they couldn’t sell anywhere else, so I got some off-beat, incredible pieces of fiction. Not all of them were science fiction or fantasy. Some, like the lead-off story in the first issue, were pure suspense, others mainstream. Many dealt with what we would now call non-binary gender issues, others with stories about people of color that for some reason (sigh) never found a home in the traditional publications of the time.
Plus, I found some truly amazing stuff in the slush.
We had a too-big, but great first issue, and as we advertised it, with Issue Zero (which went to the bookstores), the big names and a promise of signatures, we got a heck of a response.
We sold out.
Remember I mentioned above that we had the money for 200 copies. Well, oops. We suddenly had to produce and ship 1,200 copies. We hadn’t budgeted for shipping materials or postage or anything.
Yes, we were new at this.
On one of the hottest Labor Day weekends I’ve ever experienced, Dean, Debb Cook (now Debb De Noux), and I packed and repacked books. We got covered in what you people call plastic peanuts, but which we to this day call ghost turds. And we threw several Issue Zeros out a second-story window, and drove over them with Dean’s Firebird.
The Issue Zeros were packed as best as we could pack them before we threw them out the window. They didn’t even get crushed when Dean’s car drove over them.
We got the books out on time. We got paid for them 90-120 days later by almost everyone. But as I’ve said before in this blog, there’s a cost to money.
We spent most of year putting out up-front money and didn’t get the money we were owed until December/January of the following year. Plus, we had undercharged for the hardback because we didn’t factor in all of the costs, and we listened to the advice of our cheapskate bookseller friend who wanted us to set the price that he wanted to spend, not the price that the book was worth.
We owed interest on the money that we borrowed. We were always behind on the money, always, no matter how we tried to get ahead. I had a knot in my stomach for the next ten to eleven years, because we never quite had enough money to pay the bills.
The hardback was the first product. We did many others including Axolotl Press and finally, Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine. It was our first truly traditional magazine, not a book pretending to be a magazine. And Dean edited it mostly on his own, because by then I had become the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (Which, for one delusional summer, we considered buying. In fact, we would have bought it if Mercury Press had asked a reasonable amount for the magazine. They didn’t; they wanted more money than the magazine was worth. Imagine: another alternate history.)
Still, Pulphouse Publishing started with that horrid financial miscalculation. We survived it, and have gone on to create other businesses and to dole out business advice, trying to prevent others from making the same mistakes we did.
And yet, as we put together this Kickstarter for the reincarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine, I couldn’t help thinking what if….
What if we had all of the tools available in 2017 back when we first started?
The world is incredibly different. Excitingly, incredibly different.
We’re going to ignore one difference. The late 1980s/early 1990s was the heyday of the collectible book market. Gather great stories by great writers, add signature sheets, and limit the editions, and those books would mint money. (If you priced them properly.)
That doesn’t work very well today. I signed some signature sheets a few months ago for a tribute project that isn’t out yet, but that is a rarity. Hardly anyone does that kind of collectible any more, and the buyers are no longer looking for those books.
The markets have changed.
Let’s pretend that they haven’t, though.
Let’s pretend that we’re starting the Hardback Magazine from scratch this year.
What would we do? We’d still have our savings. We’d still have our plans. We’d still do Issue Zero.
But we would crowdfund the anthology.
Crowdfunding would have given us a crucial piece of information that we did not have in the late 1980s. Crowdfunding would have told us how big our potential customer base was.
We would have known from the start that we were going to sell out the entire run. And we would have had cash up front to pay for everything, so we wouldn’t have borrowed.
We still would have been short, because, as I said, we were clueless about some of our costs. We probably wouldn’t have known about shipping and packing materials. We most likely would have made the beginner Kickstarter mistake of having costly rewards that cut into the profits in all the wrong ways.
But we wouldn’t have been thousands of dollars short. Maybe a few hundred. Something easily manageable. That knot in my stomach wouldn’t have existed—for a few years.
It would have shown up eventually because Dean and I made other business errors. Like any new business owners, we did a lot right and a lot wrong. I honestly can’t imagine what the history of Pulphouse Publishing would be if we had access to crowdfunding.
But I can tell you this: it would have been very different.
The video for the Pulphouse Kickstarter starts In a world without internet…where we had to walk uphill in the snow both ways just to get our magazines which we read exclusively on paper…
I started the video that way for a reason. I knew that we are in a very, very different world now.
Much of what we did cost a lot of money. To get magazines to subscribers took mailing and special bags from the post office and all kinds of certification. We couldn’t really advertise—not easily, anyway—so we went direct to booksellers.
There were thousands of booksellers, and they specialized. Some only sold at conventions. Others had small dusty shops filled with all kinds of goodies.
We didn’t do traditional newsstand distribution in grocery stores and airports and all of those places where there were magazines because that required even more costs and hoops than we were willing to put up with.
We had trouble selling overseas. We had to charge massive amounts of money in postage, and we couldn’t guarantee receipt.
We had to guess how many copies we would sell, print them in advance, and pay for overages. We also had to store them. Storage meant more money because either we rented office space large enough to handle boxes and boxes and boxes of magazines or we rented a storage unit.
And so on and so forth.
We had our own publishing company in the dark ages.
Even so, Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine sold thousands and thousands of copies per issue. And, apparently, it’s remembered fondly, because the support for the Kickstarter has been amazing so far.
We’ve blown through our original goal and have moved onto the stretch goals.
We had hoped a few people would remember the original magazine. It seems more than a few did. The initial announcement of the magazine and Kickstarter went viral this past week.
Yay! And thanks!
Because we’re being surprised all over again at the interest. Only this time, we don’t have collectible books with collectible signatures and a tiny market. We have the goodwill from more than twenty years ago.
That’s amazing to me.
And it’s opened a world of possibilities for us.
We were innovators back in the day. We still are. That’s what we do. And a lot of the ideas we had at Pulphouse Publishing simply weren’t possible in the 20th century.
They’re possible now, and at a greatly reduced cost. We don’t have to use an expensive web press to print the magazines. We can use Createspace and go through Amazon or, if we want to do a limited edition, we can use Ingram Spark. We don’t have to fork out major big bucks just to get our paper copies.
And we don’t have to limit ourselves to paper copies. We can have electronic copies, which opens our market to the entire world. People in other countries can easily get their hands on the magazine. I haven’t looked for exact numbers, but I do know that our backers (so far) aren’t just from the United States.
Advertising is different too. Websites, social media, online banner ads—the number of ways to get the word out about the magazine astonishes me every time I think about it.
Not to mention the fact that most of the ways to advertise these days are inexpensive, rather than costing thousands upon thousands of dollars.
We used to do mailers, where we’d send beautifully designed postcards to subscribers of other (similar) magazines begging those folks to subscribe to ours. Buying those subscription lists costs hundreds (thousands) of dollars, and some of the lists were utterly worthless.
Now, we can target through social media ads. We can develop our own newsletters, not just of subscribers, but also of interested folks who might have read the magazine online or in a library or somewhere else, folks who might spread the word but can’t afford to subscribe.
Until I think about how hard it really was to do a magazine all those years ago, I don’t remember how lucky we are right now.
It truly is a golden age for content—and for those of us who produce that content.
And sometimes it takes digging through old photographs to remind me just how good everything truly is.
Something else I didn’t mention as a funding source—Patreon. Sites like Patreon or even something like the PayPal donate button that I have on this blog allow writers like me to produce content on our laptops in the quiet of our own homes.
I could never have written a weekly column like this blog in the age of paper-only magazines. First of all, who would have edited it? And what kind of magazine would have bought it?
I’m able to do this because of you folks, and I’m able to write about business and other things because I’ve done so much both in the past and now.
So, let me say thank you. Thanks for making this blog possible, and thanks for asking questions, making comments, and sharing what I write all over the web.
I greatly appreciate all of it.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Pulphouse, Alternate History, and the Modern Era,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.