This glorious age of internet, in which we all reside, has given us a bounty of free content. Instead of being satisfied with our social media feeds, our five free articles a month, and beautiful endless blogs about food and books and everything we love—our appetite for free stuff only grows.
Paying for art is tricky. Artists don’t create things with money in mind, usually. But artists are people (I’m not ready to count the AI that paints, yet) and people have to pay for the roof over their head, the food they eat, and the other art that refills the artist’s creative well. Trust me when I say I get the irony here, you are reading this piece for free. I don’t get paid to tell you this.
This insatiable content appetite has consequences. Last week we saw layoffs of writers from Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, both famously free sites able to pay their writers because your attention shook the corporate pennies loose. Which is to say, advertising paid for the work. The writers of Twitter and Facebook (my main feeds) gave advice about where laid-off writers could go to get paid and the most common suggestion was corporate freelancing; writing copy for companies instead of telling stories for people.
I was particularly moved when I read Michael Kelly’s forward of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Five (edited by Robert Shearman and Michael Kelly from Undertow Publications ) only to discover this is the last issue of this anthology. The life-cycle of a short story is heartbreakingly brief. They get published in journals and magazines, online or in print. If they’re lucky they get picked up for a second round in an anthology. If the writer is prolific, and let’s be honest, also has a novel up their sleeves, the story might have an additional life in a collection.
This anthology is a beautiful and now extinct creature. As promised, these stories are weird. They are wonderful. In this collection you will find Carmen Maria Machado’s, “Eight Bites,” which is a good place to start if you haven’t already fully committed to Her Body and Other Parties. Paul Tremblay is next on the heavy hitters list for this year and his piece, “Something About Birds,” closes out the collection. Kurt Fawver starts Year’s Best with an utterly weird and memorable story about a child-specific virus that arrives via bouncing ball. This story felt like it could be an allegory for everything from racism, to school shootings, to merely growing up and growing away. Something that takes your child away from you forever and parents who wholeheartedly cling to their children regardless.
I fell hopelessly in love with Kathleen Kayembe’s story, “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych.” It was like she wrote it just for me (thank you!); there’s ghosts and sibling rivalry, real dripping and yet lovely gore, a triptych story structure. Above all, the characters are amazing. They are complex people and have complicated relationships. It feels so true and there is real love in this story.
I wanted to know more about this press and Michael Kelly was generous enough to answer my questions.
Gemma Webster: What made you want to start an independent press?
Michael Kelly: Essentially, I found that they the types of journals and magazines that I enjoyed, were few and far between. I like literate, ambiguous, and strange horror fiction. Or weird fiction. And, truthfully, I had a particular aesthetic that I didn't think was being catered to. That strange, liminal area where horror fiction overlaps with weird fiction, but is literary, ambitious, yet still accessible. That stuff that is just below surface, unseen, yet tugging on you with incredible force. Like an undertow.
GW: What is more challenging than you imagined about running an indie-press? How do you evaluate the risks you take in publishing your titles?
MK: The most challenging thing is making money. At least enough money to keep the press going. I'm sure it's the same struggle with every independent and small press. We do this because we love it. But distributors and vendors eat a lot of our potential profit. It's a hard, difficult business. Sometimes, as was the case with the Year's Best Weird Fiction, we make the hard decision to cease publication. But we persevere.
And since I do not have good business acumen, I actually don't really evaluate any potential risks in a title. I simply publish books that I love, that I think (perhaps unwisely, so) that readers will love, as well. Sometimes it works. I've been very pleased with the response our books have elicited.
GW: How did you choose your guest editors for the Year's Best Weird Fiction series?
MK: The concept for the Year's Best Weird Fiction was to publish an annual anthology of superior works each year that promoted a diverse and eclectic vision. And quite simply, to do that, you need different editors for each volume. My précis was to have a completely different volume each year in terms of tone, voice, authors, theme, etc. I wanted to show the great range and breadth of weird fiction.
My five guest-editors were chosen because I was familiar with their work, and I knew that they each would bring a distinct, uncompromising aesthetic to the project. That they each would produce an exceptional book that not only showed their considerable editorial tastes, but would also stand along and complement the other volumes in the series. I think we achieved something quite magical. I'm very proud of all five volumes.
GW: What makes your days sing doing this work?
MK: Reading new voices—we are known for publishing striking debut collections—and the actual editing. Reading and editing bits like this:
Love that descriptor of the 'soft machine of the sky.' Those little details make my day.
GW: What else should we know about Undertow Books?
MK: We're currently running our annual subscription drive. Purchase a subscription to all three of our original 2019 releases in Trade paperback or hardcover at a significant discount. Prices include worldwide postage.
We're also readying our first deluxe hardcover release, aimed at the collectable market, The Moon Will Look Strange, by Lynda E. Rucker. It's going to be a great book, limited to just 100 copies.
GW: These books look amazing. I can’t wait.
Go to Undertow’s online shop where not only are this year’s subscriptions on sale but most of the back catalog has been marked down. If you liked Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior, you might like the story “Ghost Dogs” in Simon Strantzas’ collection, Nothing is Everything. If you haven’t already picked up Priya Sharma’s All the Fabulous Beasts, this is also available and you can complete your weird fiction anthology collection by picking up every volume of Year’s Best Weird Fiction. You can find Undertow Publications in person at BookMarkiT Expo in Whitby, Ontario on May 4, at Ad Astra Convention in Toronto, July 12 - 14, and at FantasyCon in Glasgow October 18 - 20.
The particular magic of books is that when you pick them up and read them, they live again. They are not taxidermied animals in the museum collection. But the makers of books from writers to cover artists to publishers to editors (hey, even book bloggers) have to eat to live. Let’s all commit to paying what we can for the things we enjoy. Let’s keep the makers alive and kicking.