Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 10


In the early 90s I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation (once over 130,000 employees, now no longer exists), and during a trip to Palo Alto a friend of mine working for their Western Research Lab showed me a demo of an early Internet browser (xmosaic) when at that point the Wide World Web consisted of six demo web sites. I’d like to say that I thought of then someday starting a crime fiction web-site, but my thoughts were more business oriented—I considered at that time buying a Cisco router, a workstation, and starting what would’ve been one of the first ISPs and dedicating it to field service personnel, something that would allow them to access technical manuals anywhere they had access to the Internet. If I had done that I’d be very wealthy right now, but I chickened out. But a few years later as the web became more popular I started thinking of building a crime fiction web-site, and in 2002 I started Hardluck Stories. The name originated from my novel, Fast Lane, where early on I have a street pimp named Rude complaining to celebrity detective, Johnny Lane, about his newspaper column which details his PI exploits:

“Maybe I should talk to your editor. If he’s going to publish crap like ‘Fast Lane’, maybe he’d be interested in something good. Something real. The Rude Streets, stories of the Hardluck.”

Originally Hardluck was a site to promote hardboiled and noir books. Each book on the site had links to an author-written essay about the book—why the writer wrote it, what inspired it, etc., and a short story by the author. This concept would allow readers to discover new writers by reading these essays and short stories. I had a dozen or so authors participating in this, but it didn’t take off the way I had hoped, and eventually the site mutated to a quarterly hardboiled/noir fiction web-zine whose six-year run has just ended. My reasons for starting Hardluck were varied—it was partly to help me promote my self-published book, partly to give myself a creative outlet since I wasn’t having much luck at that time finding a publisher for my books, and partly to help out newer writers like myself. What differentiated Hardluck from the other web-zines and publications, at least at that time, was that I was going to be using a different guest editor for each issue. I had several reasons I wanted to do this: 1) so that the web-zine wouldn’t become cliquish, which I was noticing with some of the crime fiction web-zines back then—I wanted to make sure mine would be fair and not just me publishing friends 2) I wanted to keep the web-zine fresh and introduce ideas that I might not have thought of myself 3) I had gotten to know Vicki Hendricks through her guest-editing an issue of PlotsWithGuns and picking one of my stories, and I wanted to create the same type of situation for other guest editors and newer writers. I think it was due to this constant injection of new ideas from my guest editors and fairness in selecting submissions that caused Hardluck to increasingly get better submissions, to where in my opinion Hardluck was consistently putting out one of the highest quality short crime collections I’ve seen either on the web or in print.

In some ways starting Hardluck contributed to my first book escaping the stench of self-publishing and ending up with Point Blank Press. In a lot of ways this is one of those space-time continuum thingies that they’d have on Star Trek and other sci-fi shows. While I was doing this I got to know another frustrated noir writer—Allan Guthrie, and I ended up publishing his first short story, as well as the two of us showing each other our unsold novels and other works and trading ideas about them. That first publication of Al’s story triggered others, and the next thing I knew he was starting up what became Point Blank Press with JT Lindroos, and the first book Al commissioned was In His Shadow, which wisely had it’s name changed to Fast Lane. So I published Al’s first story and he published my first book—while I had sold the Italian rights to In His Shadow first to Meridiano Zero, Point Blank beat them to the punch by publishing their version several months before the Italian version was out.


Anonymous said...

In many respects print-on-demand and web technology have allowed for a return to the methods by which writing was published before the monolithic corporate "publishing house" phenomenon took over. Publishing as it exists now bears little resemblance to publishing ever; in the past something like Hardluck Stories was the norm, not an anomaly or an indulgence.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell anyone reading this that I have some fondness for Hardluck Stories because it was Craig McDonald's inspirational guidelines for borderland noir that: 1) got me to write the best short story I've authored to date, and 2) pulled me out of the professional rut I'd been in for time out of mind. But it's successes like Hardluck Stories -- small ones, the sort that are significant to those involved, but don't interest corporate publishing entities -- that make me think we're moving into a new, better phase of our business.

Money will still be involved, of course (people have to eat), but payments and opportunities ought to circulate among those putting in the hard work, rather than being skimmed off to pay some deskbound douchebag who considers writing "product."

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sam, I think the big innovation is really going to be podcasts--especially with the proliferation of iPods. The first month a story is on Hardluck it might get 500 hits, Vicki Hendricks had a podcast on a new crime fiction podcast site (CrimWav) and it had 1200 downloads its first day.