I apologize for being two months behind on my column. It’s been a busy time. My wife and I found out we’re having our second child. We bought a puppy. I’m transitioning into a new job. All of those are excuses, but the reality is Prime Books publishes collections of short fiction almost exclusively. And between you and me, I don’t really consume short fiction with any great vigor. See, I’m one of those readers who falls into the one more chapter syndrome. Novels suck me in, they demand I keep reading them well into the night. When I finished a short story I just put down the book, satisfied and ready to sleep.
For the purposes of this column, I’ve made it a point to read two new volumes from each publisher before writing about them. In the case of Prime, that left me reading two short story collections, and it just took time for me to get through them. Or, we can blame Hurricane Sandy.
Although Prime Books doesn’t call to mind quite like Tor, Del Rey, or even Pyr and Night Shade, anyone who’s spent some time combing the shelves of their local bookstore will surely recognize their logo–the circle within a circle. They dominate the space reserved for collections between the new releases and the back list. Making their commitment to short fiction an interesting marketing decision. Despite the decline in shelf space around the country, squatting above the “A” remains a choice place to be. If readers aren’t terribly aware of Prime, they’re well regarded in the field, having won the Special Award: Professional at World Fantasy in 2006.
Of course, they do publish novels–five in 2012 and one currently planned for 2013. Among eighteen total books to be published in 2013, the single novel is an anomaly, a near complete reversal from the ratios most publishers employ today. Regardless, their novels don’t tend to stand out, better known as they are for short fiction, both single author collections and clever themed anthologies. An exception to that rule was Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, published in 2011, which received critical acclaim around the world, including a Nebula Nomination for Best Novel and a Crawford Award win for the same.
Mechanique is more the exception that proves the rule though, and more significant have been collections like Elizabeth Bear’s Shoggoths in Bloom. With over sixty short stories published, something like eighteen novels, and another five or six novellas, Bear is one of the most prolific writers in genre fiction today–maybe the most prolific. It had been six years since her previous collection, The Chains That You Refuse from Night Shade Books, and felt well overdue. Shoggoths, almost entirely reprints with the exception of the final story, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio”, trends toward the melancholy, perhaps not unsurprising given the collection title’s reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s creature.
The one new story is interesting, partially in itself, and partially because of its placement in the anthology and its subject matter. It’s a first contact story, but also a story very much about the people who’ve been contacted. Near the end Bear says,
“It was Carl, too, and that’s what he was trying to tell me. That we could be lonely together, and it might help somehow.”
On the other end of the book, beginning the collection, is an introduction by Scott Lynch, best selling author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Bear’s significant other. It seems to me the purpose of a collection such as this is to get to know an author, to see the span of their work, to provide a unique window into what makes them tick. Structured around these two pieces, the book seems to be a marker for a change in an author’s writing life, one I expect to witness as Bear heads deeper into her already exceptional Shattered Pillars series from Tor.
As yet unreleased, Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks, doesn’t do any of those things, focused as it is on a single character spread across ten related, but unconnected, shorts. Parks’ collection is truly the closest a collection can come to novelization, with stories referencing one another in a semi-chronological order. It’s a strange reading experience, particularly for someone who prefers novel reading, but is also oddly successful despite my initial impression of abject confusion.
Parks sets a series of supernatural detective stories, with something like a Holmes/Watson paradigm, in Medieval Japan. The plots themselves would fit nicely into any urban fantasy milieu, but Parks does a bang-up job of selling his setting and, more importantly, draws characters that feel authentic within it. The author has a novel, To Break the Demon Gate, featuring the same characters (and setting, obviously) due out from P.S. Publishing some time next year. Despite my lack of comfort with the kind of book Yamada Monogatari is, I’m very much interested in the forthcoming novel, proving the value in this first volume from Prime.
Throughout my exploration of Prime I dabbled in several other books, their forthcoming sports anthology titled Future Games and Moscow But Dreaming, stories from Ekaterina Sedia. Both seem well formed, but as I read I realized that the vast majority of fiction Prime publishes was first published elsewhere. That realization leads to an interesting place when it comes to a small publisher making ends meet (reprint rates are much lower than what’s paid for new fiction). It also had me questioning how to discuss their editorial direction.
In many ways, small press publishers fill a niche. Whether it’s the literary crossover market that Small Beer Press excels in, or difficult to market novels that Night Shade embraces, they all do things the big boys don’t. They all publish more short story collections and anthologies than their larger peers, but Prime takes it further, relying almost exclusively on the format to sustain their business. In so doing they’re providing not only a market filler, but a vital service to the authors and the reading community. To the former, it’s an additional revenue stream for stories that would otherwise sit in a corner and gather dust, and for the latter a unique opportunity to sample, explore, or rediscover a writer.
I admit, Prime publishes a lot of things every year that hold no interest to me. Aliens: Recent Encounters, an anthology due out middle of next year, or Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy, from this past year, would be examples of such. But, that’s the strength in what they do. In publishing such a large swathe of collected short fiction they bring in a lot of genre’s disparate interest groups under one umbrella. Where many of the bigger publishers feel exclusionary, Prime Books feels just the opposite. For this reader, I’m glad they’re around, partially because I don’t always want to read what they publish.