What next?

Planning for the last mile

The Big Book of Cyberpunk is published in the UK, and it is now all over except for the proverbial shouting. People keep asking me… (that’s a construct that I’ve always found inherently suspicious. Which people? Are they really? So in this case, let’s be clear ‘people’ = ‘my agent’ and ‘my mother’)… what I’m doing next.

Publishing relies on external factors. I can research and write and edit a whole book, but it won’t ever be a book unless there’s publisher involved. I can only take it so far - and that’s very, very far - but not all the way. An apt, if clunky, metaphor is the ‘last mile’; that final, immensely difficult, step in the infrastructural journey. I can make 95% of a book, but the last 5% - the last mile - relies entirely on someone else.

A book is still a book whether or not it is on the shelf at Waterstones. The act of creation is a spectacular thing, and one to be celebrated. Etc. All that said, I, personally, am not an art-for-art’s-sake guy. I make things to be of value to other people: to entertain, to educate, to platform, to prompt discussion. In my case, a book needs to be available to achieve that objective.

My progress bar is more binary: a project either is happening or it isn’t. I can faff around polishing the isn’ts until they gleam, but 95% is just a nice way of saying 0%. Or, as my dad likes to snark whenever a batter thwacks a foul ball deep into the stands: ‘That’s a long strike.’

Early-career John D MacDonald got around the last mile through sheer brute force. He wrote millions of words of short stories, and he was relentless at trying to get them published. JDM kept each story out on submission, with a carefully curated sequence of editors, ensuring that every editor had a story in front of them, and not consigning a story to the bin until it had been rejected by all of them. He wore through a lot of shoe leather walking that last mile.

Folks like Brandon Sanderson (most famously), and many others (not so much), have taken a different approach by self-publishing. Self-publishing may not be the outcome that many creators initially had in mind, but it is a solid opportunity to Take Back Control of that last mile. If I still had my own publishing house, for example, I could provide progress bars with confidence, knowing they could creep all the way to 100%.

Ted Gioia of The Honest Broker talks about the new trend of creators taking ownership of distribution in this way. Taylor Swift and the Eras tour is the exceptional example, but he connects it with others examples of Hollywood filmmakers buying their own cinemas and, of course, himself. Gioia chose to start his own newsletter rather than relying on a third-party publisher.

But..

I’ve been there, and I know the difference in scale that this means. I’m not Swift or Sanderson. If I took over the last mile, my books would sell hundreds, not thousands. As Gioia points out, owning your own cinema is cool, but famous directors can screen their films there because they also know that their films are still going to be screened elsewhere. Sanderson self-publishes with zero risk, because every conventional publisher would devour their own young to do his publishing for him. His existing success means that his last mile is covered, no matter what route he chooses to take.

Owning the last mile is also not total independence. Gioia, for example, talks about his newsletter as his own direct-to-reader channel. It is. But I’m also not linking it, because, as good as I think it is, he’s still relying on Substack, and I think they’re scum. Self-publishing a book would mean de facto anchoring myself to Amazon, and I don’t think they actually like books very much. There are ways around all of these decisions, but the stark reality is that there are morally-questionable turtles all the way down.

Finally, and most practically, the last mile takes a completely different set of skills and resources to navigate. The first 95% of the journey is making a book’s worth of text. the last mile involves editing, design, printing, marketing, publicity, distribution, metadata, and more. Some of that stuff is fun, but all of it requires time, money and expertise. I’ve done, and lived, the cost-benefit analysis: it may work for others, but it doesn’t work for me.

The mere mortals that make up the bulk of the creative industries don’t have the same platform of confidence that Sanderson or Swift do, and that affects the decisions of what we can/can’t or will/won’t creatively produce.

This is a systemic moan, not a personal one. I’m really lucky! I love what I do all day, every day, and my publishing projects are a luxurious side-hustle. I have the freedom to wait until I find a publisher or project where their vision of 5% aligns with my vision of the 95%. That’s a massive position of privilege.

For others, it isn’t that easy. Most are stuck looking for ways to compromise their vision in order for it to become real - and pay the rent. Yet another reason to tackle systemic inequality across the entirety of the cultural/publishing ecosystem, and support programmes that not only increase access for new creators, but also support them as they develop and scale their careers.

What am I doing next? I don’t know.

I’ve written a lot about cyberpunk. And I’ve also written a bit about barbecue. But have I written about both of them together? YES, I HAVE.

Axminster is home to the Community Waffle House - a combination community centre, co-working space, youth club and (as it says) waffle restaurant. It is a true ‘third-space’ that provides a) an excellent service easily competitive with its private sector equivalents, b) agile response to community needs (whether that’s a school uniform bank or a walking club for the elderly), and c) waffles.

The Waffle folks are looking at an expansion into Lyme Regis, and are looking for start-up funds.

The metaphor of the Wafflers moving into the defunct Post Office is not lost on me. The Post Office was, once upon a time, also a hub for community services. It wasn’t a youth club, but it was an omni-functional support entity that helped with everything from personal banking to launching a home business to scaling a small enterprise. The hollow shell of the Post Office - squatting on Lyme’s high street, across from the also-closed bank - is a visible reminder of how small towns are losing access to vital services.

I’ve written in the past about the decline in middle spaces between ‘corner shops and city centres’. Towns and villages are even less likely to be served by these ‘semi-critical’ spaces that allow people to thrive and grow. Towns shouldn’t need to pass the hat to make critical spaces and services available, but, well, here we are.

what i’m reading (offline)

Sugar and Salt by Susan Wiggins. Not one I enjoyed, but fascinating in its unenjoyability. Although vaguely positioned as a romance, this actually closer to a ‘saga’ - a sub-genre where the central conflict/narrative is less about two people gettin’ together and more about several generations of a family facing their trials and tribulations over time. All the values are pointedly liberal, with extremely explicit themes covering civil rights, social justice and women’s right to choose. The extremely right on themes are undermined in the execution, with many ‘did anyone think this shit through?’ type moments.

One on One by Jamie Harrow. I think this may have benefited for following on from the above, but I really enjoyed it. Annie’s got a ‘last chance’ job at her alma mater, as videographer and hype-reel-producer for her college’s basketball programme. A former friend, Ben, is on the coaching staff, but now they’re rivals (for Reasons). Also, he’s super hot now. It is a charming, low-stakes romance filled with characters that are all actually really nice and mutually supportive and cute without being painstakingly quirky. There’s a twist, as the book does tackle the serious issue of sexual harassment and the abuse of power endemic in college sports, but it incorporates this serious theme gracefully and considerately. The book releases this fall, and I definitely recommend it.

Happy Medium by Sarah Adler. A quasi-ethical con artist runs into a real ghost and is tasked with keeping a sexy goat farmer from abandoning his farm. It is part Ghosts and part Cold Comfort Farm and is actually laugh out loud funny at points. Another one that I highly recommend: Gretchen Acorn is a delight. (There’s one plot non-twist that really bothers me: a first act gun that never fires. Other folks need to read this so we can discuss it.)

what i’m reading (online)

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