Australian Speculative Fiction: writers, editors, publishers
Shane Jiraiya Cummings
Shane Jiraiya Cummings
Interview by Ben Peek
Shane Jiraiya Cummings is a writer and co-editor (with Angela Challis) of Shadowed Realms. Issue Four should be live within a day, but there's still the previous issues to check out. In addition, Shane currently has fiction in the latest, if elusive, Aurealis.
1) Shadowed Realms is a relatively new net based publication (issue four is just live), but it does appear that a lot of the strong new short story 'magazines' are being born on the net these days. What's the attraction to it as a medium for you, and why the decision to limit yourself to fiction beneath a thousand words?
Societal trends are pushing us towards technology, and especially the internet. From that perspective, I'm actually surprised that more hasn't been done to embrace e-publication in all its forms. While I have a huge soft spot for the physical connection between the paper book and the reader (and author for that matter), I believe minds just aren't tuned into the electronic possibilities at the moment. A book by necessity means one reader at a time. Ten books capture ten readers at any one time, but also requires those ten books to be printed. The attraction to an internet based magazine is one web page offers itself to multiple readers. Any e-publisher can potentially reach a billion people (hypothetically of course). While the number of readers for most webzines is relatively small at present, the potential remains. In saying that, a top selling Australian magazine or small press anthology may sell 500 or 1000 copies? I can't speak for other webzines, but in my web duties for Shadowed Realms, I know we exceed these figures (in terms of unique 'visitors') by easily a factor of ten. Not hundreds, but thousands of people reading our stories, and we've only just started to be noticed on the Australian SF 'scene'.
To think of it another way, consider your blog. A generation ago, your thoughts would have been written in a diary and read by one person. In today's context, you have thousands of people annually who incorporate into their routine surfing your blog and getting their daily 47.3 second fix of your thoughts. It's a phenomena that was previously unheard of--to harken back to the paper diary for a sec, to do the same thing, you'd have a line of people stretching from your living room out into the next suburb. Web logs are a culture-bearer for the naughties. All of it made possible, for the first time in history, since the advent of the internet.
The other thing I was hoping of doing with online publications is to experiment with the story format. To date, Shadowed Realms has presented relatively static text in a shiny, nicely illustrated box. This puts us (and other zines) on par with the our print half-siblings. The other 'strong new short story magazines' you allude to (which I'll take as venues like Ellen Datlow's Scifiction, Strange Horizons, Oceans of the Mind, and others like Ideomancer) all appear to suffer a production values mindset similar to print publishers. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I am suggesting that 'story' doesn't not necessarily equal words presented in a linear format. I'm looking into hypertext, image, and interactive media options that could accompany fiction in the future. Perhaps one day it will be harder to differentiate movies from literature. At present though, it's just a matter of taking baby steps and advancing with technology and experience.
So, to rein this spiel in, I believe webzines like Shadowed Realms, as long as they stay viable, are ideally placed to be the first to benefit from these new phenomena when they rock our worlds. I've heard about paper-based e-technology that is already being developed overseas. I can't wait to get my hands on that stuff.
And the 1000 word thing? There are two main reasons. Technology current limits internet users to sit in front of a screen of some sort--usually a stationary one. Why would anyone want to sit in front of a computer screen, or squint at a PDA, to read a 5k or 10k story (or even a novel for that matter). Books are ideal for that, especially when you can curl up around one or take it anywhere. 1000 words is a great online length--it's short, it's punchy, but still long enough to fill a few minutes. Shadowed Realms is specifically designed for the upcoming generation that's either too busy or has movie-trailer mentality (or a goldfish attention span, take your pick).
The other reason kind of grew organically in the first few weeks of Shadowed Realms' birth. We narrowed the focus to flash fiction and found ourselves with a boutique publication on our hands. There are a couple of dedicated flash fiction publications out there (print and online--including the venerable AntipodeanSF) but to my knowledge none pay full professional rates and specialise in dark speculative fiction. I believe we are unique in this regard, not just in Australia but internationally. We're a monopoly of one. We know this because our submissions don't just come from Australia, or even the US and the UK. We've been swamped with dark flash stories from countries we never knew existed. And it's great!
2) The real issue with publishing an ezine is that, financially speaking, it doesn't return in the same way that the purchase of a book does. Strange Horizons, for example, does a fund raiser once a year to raise the funds to pay their contributors, while their staff remains unpaid, by all accounts. How do you approach that issue? And does it present a concern for the future, especially when in previous cases, going to subscription based readers to pay for the zine is generally the kiss of death?
Profit can be measured in ways other than material gain. Sure, money is a factor in the society we're in, but I believe people are too focussed on definitions of profit. People squander money on collections of kitsch, or at the pub, or at the track, or up their nose, or whatever. What they're really purchasing is an experience. A collectible is collected because it gives the collector a sense of pride when seeing it displayed on the mantel piece. That is money spent to cultivate an experience, just as the guy with the beer or the happy pill is investing in cultivating an experience which is in every way fleeting. Spending money to publish high quality stories is an experience. One I believe worth having.
On a practical level, if I could live exclusively from writing and editing, I would. Most writers or editors usually need a day job (or their partner to have one) to pay the bills. That's all well and good, but I feel most (if not all) unpaid editors who have a day job might need to consider their motives. The online press (as it stands today) is not the place they should be. If they are out there for the financial profit, then unless they find a very innovative way to fund their zine, looking to make money is (in my opinion) the wrong way to go about it. I firmly believe in quality. I know Angela has even higher standards than I do. So what we're aiming for is purely and simply to publish the absolute best stories we can. Shadowed Realms pays professional rates to reward writers for providing the experience of an excellent story. That's why we pay 5c/word, and that's why the magazine is free to read. It's an investment in quality.
I can't emphasise that point enough. Quality is its own reward. I believe by hunting for the holy grail of the 'perfect story' and not exerting energy into making money, that we will one day earn a reputation. A true reputation, without hype attached. Reputations such as these are rare, but they inevitably attract positives, perhaps even supporters or like-minded investors. It sounds almost spiritual in a way (dare I say, karmic?), and in a way I think it could be. If nothing else, this relentless pursuit of quality, which Angela is very much at the helm of (warning to potential contributors now: the Shadowed Realms editing process is both active and exhaustive), reminds me of the Japanese notion of 'seishin' (excuse the spelling) or 'right consciousness'. It's a case of 'do it for the right reasons, or not at all'.
Which brings me to subscriptions. It may be the kiss of death for the web, but again, I think it comes down to the true intent of the publisher or editor. Subscriptions were never considered at Shadowed Realms, neither was advertising, pyramid schemes, or anything else in that vein. The site had to be a crisp and visually appealing vehicle for the stories. No extraneous bits. Shadowed Realms publishes the best dark flash stories available--full stop--not advertising banners, or a subscription service.
On a personal level, I would consider a fund raiser (ala Strange Horizons) as it doesn't interfere with the site. I feel likewise about grants, but only if the philanthropist, group, or government are using their money in a legitimate and (especially in the case of government) tax-payer approved way. However, given what I've just stated, any activity which significantly removes Angela and I from our duties is something that needs to be given serious consideration.
3) What's your opinion of the local scene, quality wise?
I can finally put down the Shadowed Realms hat for a sec... (although Angela wears that anyway).
As much as I've been into editing recently, I really am a writer first and foremost. As a new writer, I can view the 'scene' with a fair degree of objectivity (at least at present). Eighteen months ago (when I first took the plunge into the solitary writing thing) concepts like Swancon, Clarion South, Aurealis magazine, fandom, and Ditmars didn't exist in my little universe. Attending Clarion South 2005 really did open my eyes. The talent at Clarion South 05 was immense. I was surprised as I hadn't heard of half the names before I went, even with the magazines and a bit of internet research.
I feel the large publishers are attempting to do sincere work (well, the editors and staff anyway), although they are philosophically and commercially constrained on what they can and can't do. If a breakout new talent submitted an amazing manuscript which broke all the rules, I have this (possibly naive) faith a publishing house editor would seek to publish it. Otherwise, they're forced to stick with commercial viability.
The small press is a different matter. Given what I've seen and read about speculative fiction as a whole ten to twenty years ago, the scene appears quite vibrant. Let me (in no particular order) mention: Agog! and CSFG press (regular anthologies), Aurealis, ASIM, AntipodeanSF, Borderlands, Dark Animus, Ticonderoga Online, Fables & Reflections, and Visions (and/or its new incarnation), plus Shadowed Realms. There are also a few lurkers out there who may or may not be viable, like Altair Books, Aus SF Forum, Potato Monkey, and the Mitch? anthos, plus some one-off anthologists.
This is a wealth of diversity for today's writer to tap into. I congratulate each and every editor (or editorial committee) for keeping genre aspirations alive. But there is a downside to all this diversity. The focus has strayed, so instead of a few pro zines, we have a dozen semi-pro or unpaid zines. I will (and probably already have done) submit and continue to submit stories to many of these fine markets. But what I bemoan is the lack of financial reward available (and to clarify my earlier comments--I'm talking about paying writers). I know this is beyond the power of editors, but look at the figures: $25 or so flat fee from several of these markets. Aside from Shadowed Realms ($50 for a 1000 word story, based on 5c/word), Aurealis realistically ranges between the 2-4c/word mark, and that's it (aside from Zara Baxter's proposed antho) at pro rates. ASIM do their best at 1 & a bit cents, and the rest are flat fee (or none).
For the writer keen on making a living, the Australian scene, as well intentioned as it is, just doesn't have the juice the internationals do. It's fat fantasy trilogy (or YA series) or bust, these days. My true gripe is the 'powers that be' in control of the big players aren't actively seeking out the emerging writers, or those floating around at semi-pro level but can't get their 'excellent but too much horror or science fiction or other non-vogue SF element' novels published. I'd love to see a publishing house hand a wad full of cash over to Chimaera, or Agog!, or CSFG, and say 'here, find us twenty outstanding short stories for a mass-market anthology'.
I don't want to appear negative, because the Australian SF scene is great for emerging writers. From my limited experiences so far, the people already 'in' are welcoming and willing to share space at the table.
There's also a bunch of talent. The Clarion workshops have already churned out quality. People like Paul Haines, Cat Sparks, and Brendan Duffy cleaned out the Aurealis awards this year. Rjurik Davidson has simultaneously scored a Ditmar nomination and an upcoming story in Datlow's Scifiction. Mark Barnes has his first flash story ever appearing in the current issue of Shadowed Realms. Fantastic Qld deserves a huge thank you for their efforts in running Clarion South and in unearthing this talent.
Add to this established individuals like Dowling, Hood, Harland, Dedman, Battersby, De Pierres, Williams, Lanagan, Maloney, and co, and you have a depth of talent that rivals anywhere else in the world. There's also the incoming Prime Books and their barrage of upcoming collections. Australia is a thriving place right now.
4) You're dead. You were bitten by the white tailed spider, and lost your legs to gangrene. It didn't kill you, so you actually died of natural causes at the age of 91. Your legs were waiting for you in Heaven. After that, you saw God, and you said?
me: "Hey, G-man! I guess I was wrong, huh? I coulda saved $17 on that etern-e-sleep neck pillow."
*muttered conversation between God and Angelic scribe*
me, interrupting: "For disbelievers? How hot did you say that Lake of Fire thing gets?
*muttered conversation between God and Angelic scribe, some pointing at me and the world below involved*
me: "HOW LONG?"
*scent of sulphur wafts through the clouds*
5) Favourite swear word?
I'm not fond of swearing. It conveys nothing except 'I don't have the right words for this situation'. It's saying nothing in an aggressive way. However, I seem to be fond of exclaiming odd phrases in conversation--usually very ocka. If pressed, I'd throw in variants of 'bloody' (bloody hell, etc.), and the occasional 'crikey!' (as in, 'crikey! a croc took me leg!').
I'll add that I absolutely detest the 'c' word. I won't disassociate myself from someone who uses it, but I'll irrevocably consider their IQ to have dropped 40 points.
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