May 2006

click for more info Aside: A Note About Content. (2022) A few of the editorial comments by JTC during the early 2000s were political in nature. Those represent purely my own opinions stated at the time, and may not have agreed with the opinions of my esteemed team members. Explanation follows. Click for more INFO.

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Name Games & Other Strategies

Mars the Divine That's my new SF novel by John Argo. Or John T. Cullen? I've used a bunch of pen names, based on long-ago reading about BRAND (author name). Like Nora Roberts is also J.D. Robb, but clearly the one is more of a suspense monicker and the other more for romance. I get it…slowly.

I Love That Clock. It's 2006, ten years (talk about time) after Brian Callahan and I (C&C Publishers) launched our pioneering Web publishing enterprise, soon also to embrace e-books, and right after that Print On Demand (POD). Those were innocent, joyful days. We sailed out upon the digital sea of wonder, and realized its unending potential. We wandered around downtown San Diego, photographing delights like this particular clockface at the former Horton Plaza. Among the many cherished memories was watching Brian shoot pictures he would later painstakingly turn into first-class artwork for our side. For example, there's the *parking* sign (at a pay-garage near Horton Square) that became on of the small but leading icons on the Neon Blue Fiction landing page. Like any talented artist, he is able to think ahead from the object of his interest to how he'll fit it into an artwork yet to be done.

BTW, a staffer at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (where our magazine is listed as a historical object) commented that our web pages from back there look somehow sparse and diminutive, compared to another website from that era that is rich in colors and detail. I had to explain: Brian was all too aware that many people in those days relied on telephone modems of very low BAUD transmission capabilities. Yes, Brian could have fashioned great panoramic murals, but he used every trick in the book (e.g., progressive jpeg files) and practically counted the number of pixels in an image before uploading it to the website. There's an explanation for virtually everything.

Adventures In A Key of W (as in WWW). After a lifetime of being shut out by the print cartel, and its even lesser sibling the pulp cartel, we finally were able to reach readers with our fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Ten years ago, last month, I was an unpublished author sitting in my cubicle at a company… systems development corporation that is now extinct. It was no doubt the most corrupt company I've ever worked at. I put in long hours, produced a glowing user manual plus technical specifications, a quick start guide, training manual, and all the usual things technical writers produce. It was nonetheless just a question of time when they'd go totally under. Meanwhile, Brian and I would meet for energetic lunch-time discussions about our publishing projects. Brian handled all the design and webmastering of our two initial websites, which starting in April 1996 were mere folders at a San Diego hosting company on India Street. He had his own collection of photos from living in Europe for a year. That's where the Clocktower Fiction (soon Books) logo came from: The Big Bed clocktower or Westminster near Parliament in London. We would also go to downtown San Diego after work to take more darkish, Goth photos as Brian liked them. He moved on to another company with his skills as a webmaster and artist. I stayed as the ship slowly went under…

—juicy digression deleted—

…run by a bunch of jack-in-the-boxes. I don't mean the fast food place; these people couldn't have gotten half-cooked french fries right, much less software, and they mostly ended up in jail or in hiding.

—more stuff edited out—

I won't mention names, except to say that this corporate circus involved a remarkable cast of characters—at least two crooked San Diego Congressmen (one serving eight years in the Federal can for being the biggest bribe-taker in U.S. Congressional history), a slew of religious extremists, a corporate org chart designed by Dilbert's evil boss…did I mention that my predecessor back two was literally carried away in chains by the Sheriff's deputies as a con artist with warrants out on him?…and an assortment of other colorful harlequins that wouldn't be believable if one wrote the story as fiction. Only truth can be this strange; but that is a story for another day, and not the topic of today's agenda…

—end digression—

Recap 1996 …around March of that year, anyhow, there I was, typing away at some turgid technical fiction, when in walks a bearded young Goth named Brian Callahan wearing a long black coat, sunglasses, and a slightly bemused expression. Not a corporate animal, this Brian. We'd made nodding chatter in the halls, and now he asked me: "Do you know any good places to submit my short stories?" I had closed that door in my life years earlier, no longer willing to waste time and postage. I was tempted to be dismissive (not about BC, but the idea of wasting years and postage and sweat sending stuff by mail to places that keep it for a year or more, then either reject it or publish it to their vast audience of 100 subscribers). I caught myself, and remembered what the Chairman of the English Department at a Grand And Self-Important & Vastly Over-Stuffy University (GASIVOSU) had told me many years earlier when I was a similarly fresh-treaded tire at the outset of life's long, ribbon-like highway: "Gather a circle of like-minded souls and publish your work together, and if successful, it will be received by an ever-growing audience." The source of that paraphrase gets paid to talk about poetry, not write it. I think in my best year as a poet I earned $3.00. I haven't published much poetry in the intervening decades, for practical reasons.

I gave Callahan, who turned to plod off with drooping shoulders, the equivalent of a "hey, kid, come back here." A vision flashed on the drive-in screen behind my forehead. "You're technically savvy. How would you feel about starting a magazine on the, what's it called, World Wide Web?"

Who even uses that term any more in 2006? In the 1990s, the Dot Com Bubble was seen as the Dot Con Babble and burst, people spoke with wide and glistening eyes of the WWW. Today, we've been noticed by the print and pulp cartels. We are the enemy. Now W is a term equivalent to Satan and the anti-Christ—eyes are still wide, and they glisten, but with tears instead of wonder. In the pulp cartel, a war was going on between the progressives of 1999 and the Backwardians (who in the 1930s could truthfully call themselves, proudly, the Futurians).

It's nothing new, and writers especially need to understand what they are up against. If it seems odd that the print cartel (and pulp cartel) would react by waging a war of annihilation (and corruption) against the new publishing modalities (WWW, e-book, POD, self-publish OMG the heresy of it all!) then consider the following. Back in the 1940s, our troops overseas were given plain-cover, paperback editions of print cartel novels to read in the far-away trenches, paid for by the U.S. Government. After 1945, with the war over, the print cartel wanted to return to their publishing mode. It was actually quite fake, because their 'hardcovers' were really paperbacks with boards glued on; nobody took the time or trouble anymore to case-bind books by hand, with decorative gilt titles and fancy cloth spine trim as in centuries past.

In the late 1940s, a few pioneers (think us in the 1990s, half a century later) stepped in and insisted on publishing what were quickly known as *pocketbooks* or *paperbacks*. Think of them as today's racksize. The pioneers were Ian and Betty Ballantine, and a company called Pocketbooks. This started a war as the owners of the print cartel fought to keep their money. From about 1950 to well into the 1970s (a quarter century) none of the so-called hardcover imprints in New York City (I assumed it wasn't much different in London or elsewhere) would touch a paperback with a ten foot pole while holding their noses. The way it worked was that, if you were among the lucky chosen few, your agent would secure for you a typical cartel contract (stealing all your rights in the same swoop). Let's say for example there would be a 10,000 copy press run, and you'd get something like a $1,000 advance against royalties, which at 10% or less you would probably never earn back on hardcover sales. Then the agent would persuade them to invest in a paperback edition but, since the cartel would not touch a paperback with a ten foot pole (just like their myopia in the digital age), the agent would work out a separate deal with a (gasp, choke, smell bad…) *paperback* house. Typically, maybe the paperback house would get 50% of the net income (after paying from the cover price approximately wholesale 15% and retail 40%). The originating hardcover publisher would take the remaining 50% (after those expenses) and pay the author maybe a few pennies per copy sold.

Stop and think a moment: this is all nothing new. Jane Austen (early 1800s) was forced into self-publishing because her publisher in London effectively stole all her rights and barely paid her but kept most of the revenue. At the turn of the last century (around 1902) another young woman in London created a children's story book with water color illustrations. Every publisher in London dismissed her, saying "nobody would ever be interested in anything like this." It's a familiar refrain when dealing with an investor-driven industry, whose investors usually have no direct stake or interest in publishing. In fact, also, during the consolitations of the 1980s in the US, oil companies purchased publishing houses mainly to use them for loss leaders or tax write-offs against their more profitable business subsidiaries. Well, you know, that young woman in 1902 borrowed some family funds and self-published (gasp! horror!) her book. And guess what? It became an instant bestseller (everyone was interested) and has never been out of print since. The book's title was, and is, Peter Rabbit and the young genius was Beatrix Potter. Being a young woman in her 30s was no doubt an added burden in those days. She went on to become not only one of the immortals of publishing (along with Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie to name just two); she became a world-class scientist (again often snubbed because of her gender). I like to call Beatrix Potter 'the James Audubon of the Mushroom World," because her paintings are still today standards in her science disciplen, as Audubon remains famous for his bird pictures. Another brilliant modern author who initially ran into that sort of brick wall opposition (but at the last moment did break through before she had to self-publish) is J. K. Rowling. It's just my private surmise, but I have to wonder if her choice for the hero's name (Harry Potter) is not a fond tribute to Beatrix Potter.

Bottom line, it took the print cartel at least a quarter century to realize they could make more money by acquiring those horrifically diabolical, heterical paperback shops and making paperbacks part of their product line. They also played the game of releasing the expensive (circa $28?) hardcover a year before the paperbacks…then release a mass market paperback (under $10 usually) for those readers who preferred to wait a year. Added to the game was a new category called the Quality Paperback, priced maybe between $10 and $20. So anyway… Back on topic, which is about C&C Publishers getting started in the mid 1990s.

For a time, being a radical and pioneering innovator along with Brian, I had avid readers around the world. In those days, not long ago, few people had computers at home. Whether it was the lady in Johannesburg South Africa, or the man in Wellington New Zealand, they sent urgent emails (many still in my files today) pleading for the rest of the story. I was releasing my novels at a rate of one chapter per week.

The world's first HTML novel, as I call it, was my suspense novel Neon Blue. Please note that I make this claim based on several factors: (1) proprietary, owned by the author, not public domain like the stuff published by Project Gutenberg; (2) published in HTML to be read online at our website; (3) published in its entirety, not teaser or intro chapters; (4) not on portable media like CD-ROM, floppie, or tape but again, totally on our webside formatted in HTML. Soon, when we got urgent emails from around the world (every continent excapt Antarctica), saying "I can't wait to read the rest; the suspense is killing me!" we provided a downloadable text file in TXT format for them.

That was in the late 1990s. We released Neon Blue (Girl, Unlocked) in 1996, followed starting July 1996 by my SF novel Heartbreaker (title changed in 1998 to This Shoal of Space). Our suspense/thriller imprint was Neon Blue Fiction (see Neon Blue Fiction). Our SFFH imprint was The Haunted Village (see The Haunted Village). We followed those titles with short stories, plus novels like CON2: The Generals of October (political/Constitution thriller), Terror In My Arms (noir thriller, like reading one of those 1980s suspense films I loved), and more.

Word of Mouth: Critical Mass and Branding Among the important things I have learned are the value of Critical Mass and of Branding. The former is an old term, relating to quantum physics and the atom bomb, but it still resonates today (if one may make a pun on sound, as in kaboom or kablooey. Unsure of myself, naive in many ways, I launched a number of literary careers (those of John Argo, Terry Sunbord, and even Ann Cymba, in addition to that of John T. Cullen). Cymba is Latin for 'skiff' or 'boat,' which for some reason resonated poetically in my head for years. For a while I considered republishing all my work under my own name (John T. Cullen) at the ten year mark of my presence online. I've decided to keep my venerable SFFH/suspense name John Argo, named after the Bronze Age ship of wonder. Jason and the Argonauts (literally Argo-Sailors) set forth on adventures in the outer space of their day long ago (e.g., the Black Sea) which reminded me so much of the Sense of Wonder that started exciting me greatly about the Internet as Brian and I launched our first ventures in early 1996. Brand is the most important aspect of your publicity as an author. It's a small thing in a way. The theory is that someone who liked your one book may actually come back and read your others, thus multiplying your sales base. That is BRAND. If you use one name and stick with it, constantly building Word of Mouth among readers, that's good branding. Readers don't care who published it, whether print cartel (Big 5) or thousands of small press publishers. Readers will listen to input from their friends, or book club, or a media personality like Opra Winfrey…but our safest bet as authors is to create a marketable name. One example that struck me as superb years ago was discovering Faith Popcorn , whose real (less exciting) name is Faith Plotkin.

Poor Ann Cymba and her lone literary work (a somewhat steamy and very intriguing historical thriller set in 1945 San Francisco). I consider it my own homage to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (the rather episodic, literary novel, not the sentimental and candied film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Today that novel has grown into huge, symphonic thriller titled Siberian Girl by John T. Cullen. My former pseudonym is firmly in the bookshelf among the works of the former John Argo and Terry Sunbord. Thank God I didn't have time to invent more of these things. They become dead evolutionary ends that die and fall off like dead twigs. Now at least I can reveal that John Argo, which I made up on the spot sometime in 1996 as I launched my published career, was a reference to the ship of wonder ridden by Jason and the Argonauts. Rather obvious. Moreover, I actually planned to create a raft (ahem) of pen names taken from the constellation Argo in the Southern Hemisphere of the night sky. Cymba is Latin for boat. The point is, it's better to build one tall building than a row of little ones. And besides, using one name makes life simpler, and it restores something of one's soul.

More in next month's rant. Thanks for stopping by, keep reading subversive and thoughtful literature like the best that SFFH has to offer, and have a great month!



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American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips (Current Events/Nonfiction, Viking Penguin, New York, 2006 ). Few thinkers so profoundly capture the cataclysmic changes bruising the world in this new stage of globalism. Phillips is an old-time conservative graced with critical and clear thinking skills unlike the muddled, avaricious, and mean-spirited emotionalism of that breed of wolverine known as neo-cons. Phillips' writings about the perils of democracy, the Bush dynasty, the persistence of ignorance and corruption, and other topics have been on the mark many times over the past several decades. Phillips is one of the few political writers who think large and in the perspective of centuries. He describes the triple whammy of big oil, big religion, and big debt that is working a tired USA over in a back alley with foreign powers leering over the fence at a job they might consider well done. In my own recent studies of the Roman Republic and its fall into Empire, I have seen these themes too closely replayed for comfort. For a long time, polls of the American citizenry have consistently revealed a sense of growing but undefinable unease about our country's direction. Make that the direction of our civilization. Students of history often ask "Why didn't the [plug in what you will: Romans, British, French, Austro-Hungarians, etc] see it coming?" The answer is, of course, that the fish does not see the water he swims in. We are fish, swimming in a changing lake. The question remains: Is the lake dying, or being remade? According to the vast underbelly of deluded fundamentalists, the alleged "End Times" are near and we might as well party hearty because nothing matters any more. According to these neo-Christian jihadists (they are fish who cannot see themselves in the waters of their own brainwashing) are going to be supping with 72 virgins while the rest of us (the intelligent, the educated, the critical thinkers) are going into a hell presided over by Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. This is my rant on Phillips' book. Not to put words in his mouth, because Phillips is great and doesn't need propping up. Read the book—you'll be glad you did. Like St. Augustine over in Hippo (Africa) writers and observers like Paul Krugman, Kevin Phillips, and Tom Friedman must be bemused by the distant pillar of smoke rising from the modern USA Rome. Does that rising smoke signal our destruction at the hands of external enemies (9/11), or our self-destruction at the hands of internal enemies (neo-Christian, racist, and ultra-nationalist fanatics at Oklahoma City)?

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Warning: Intellectual Property Notice.

For historical information, visit the Clocktower Books Museum Site. Far Sector SFFH (formerly Deep Outside SFFH) was an imprint of Clocktower Books, our umbrella small press publishing house in San Diego, California USA. Our original motto: "Clocktower Books means Exciting Fiction For Avid Readers—On The Web Since 1996." This was digital publishing at its best in that day, including digital and print editions of many titles. Visit John T. Cullen's Webplex for info about Clocktower Books today, plus his continuing books and projects.