The Book Smugglers: Five Things We Learned Starting a Short Fiction Program from Scratch

Nearly ten years ago, two LOST geeks decided to start a book review blog. They determined that together they would read the latest and greatest releases in genre fiction and aspired to post at least one review a week each. Most importantly, they were eager to create a conversational space dedicated to discussing genre fiction online.

Those two women — spoiler alert, it’s us — created The Book Smugglers. Since its inception in 2008, The Book Smugglers has grown and changed in many ways, from the genres of books covered to the types of reviews and conversations held in this space. The one thing that remained constant, however, was our desire to discover and share new books and authors with the world.

Three years ago, we Book Smugglers found ourselves in a unique position, as first time nominees for a Hugo Award for our blog for Best Fanzine, and contributors to Best Related Work finalist, Speculative Fiction 2012. For a while, we grappled with our next Big Step. Other bloggers before us had gone the writer route–they became authors in their own right by penning their own SFF narratives, or compiled and sold rights to collections of nonfictional writings. Neither of those routes seemed completely right for us Smugglers–although the idea of publishing new voices appealed to us strongly. We had just finished editing our first nonfiction anthology, Speculative Fiction 2013, and hungered to do more–but this time, we wouldn’t just scour the internet for essays about SFF already written and posted by others.

This time, we wanted to take it a step further, to discover, edit, and publish brand new short fiction.

And so, in 2014, Book Smugglers Publishing was born. Our mission was (and remains) to find and publish diverse, subversive fiction about and from underrepresented perspectives, for readers of all ages. We launched our very own short fiction program by opening submissions in April 2014, and publishing our first season of stories in October.

From the outset, we were determined to make Book Smugglers Publishing’s short story program distinct from other SFF zines and publishers in terms of content and structure. Instead of having a rolling call for submissions timed to specific magazine issues published throughout the year, our submissions would open for a limited time and focused on a central theme that would change each year; e.g. subversive fairy tales in year one, first contact stories in year two, superhero fiction in year three, and gods and monsters in year four. We would comb through hundreds of submissions to find the best, most interesting, most subversive stories, publish them for free online, but also make each individual story available as an ebook for sale. Some stories we even made available as limited prints or via more broadly available print on demand editions, as either stand alone pieces or collected in larger anthologies.

Starting a short fiction program from scratch has been one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done–but it also was one of the hardest things we’ve ever attempted to undertake. As we head into our fourth year as publishers and tenth year as bloggers, with an active Kickstarter campaign to help us continue to find and publish awesome new short stories from different voices–here are a five things we’ve learned in starting our short fiction program from scratch.

THERE WILL BE A TON OF SUBMISSIONS.

You would not believe the sheer volume of submissions received. When we first announced our short story call to action, both of us were slightly terrified that no one would want to submit to us–after all, we were bloggers and writers/editors of nonfiction, so maybe authors would scorn this small indie venture from two nerds. We needn’t have worried–in our first year of short stories, we received over five hundred submissions. That number increased exponentially with each subsequent call for submissions, as our program grew and became more established in the SFF world. So you think you want to start a short fiction program? Make sure you have a lot of time built in so you can read through the inevitable inbox-slaying digital reams of submissions.

MAKING CHOICES IS HARD. YOU WILL ALWAYS WANT TO BUY MORE THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY AFFORD.

Just as you will receive hundreds, if not thousands, of short stories, you will inevitably find that there are many awesome stories in the batch and you will want to publish more than you can possibly afford or handle. If you’re running your short fiction program with other editors and have to jointly determine which stories will make the cut, be prepared for an editorial battle royale. (And also be prepared to be sad because you won’t be able to publish everything you want. Choices are hard.)

SHORT STORIES ARE A TON OF WORK.

This seems like something that everyone knows. But, in the sage words of MTV’s Diary, you think you know… but you have no idea. (Until you’re actually in the heart of it, that is.) Reading through submissions and selecting the stories you want to publish are just the tip of the iceberg–there’s the entire editorial process, the commissioning and editing of cover art, the actual digital creation and distribution process, the wrangling of contracts and royalty statements, and so on and so forth. All of the different touchpoints that are involved in the genesis and life cycle of a short story are the same as they are for longer form fiction–you just have a much shorter window to turn it all around and make it real.

YOU WILL SECOND-GUESS YOURSELF. A LOT.

Did we pick the right short story? Did our editorial direction actually make the story stronger and more cohesive? Do people care about what we’re doing? Do they want more stories? Less stories? Should we open up submissions to include reprints or translations? There are a myriad of questions that will haunt your every move, especially as you start out on your first short fiction publication endeavor–we just remember to trust our gut, and believe in our authors and our choices.

DAMN, DO WE LOVE READING SHORT FICTION.

The most important thing of all, the best takeaway and lesson we’ve learned over publishing short fiction, is that we love reading short fiction. Even when we’re slogging through some weaker submissions, even when we’re facing impossibly tight deadlines and the specter of Real Life is threatening to interfere with our ongoing pub schedule–the constant that remains is how much we love SFF short stories. We have the joy of reading and working on some truly unique, memorable, and poignant SFF that challenges the status quo. We have the incredible honor of finding and nurturing new and burgeoning voices in speculative fiction from around the world–who otherwise may never have been published or discovered. We love what we do. And, at the end of the day, publishing short fiction reinforces why we do all of this in the first place.

(Our first ever Kickstarter campaign is in its second week and we are hoping to fund a brand new season of short stories – under the theme “Awakenings” – at a higher pay rate to authors, along with commissioning paid non-fiction work for The Book Smugglers.)

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The Book Smugglers are:

Thea James is a Hapa Filipina-American who works for Penguin Random House by day, and is a Book Smuggler by night. When she’s not at The Book Smugglers or swamped in pending papers and proposals, she can be found blogging over at Kirkus with Ana. (If she’s not there either, try the local bar.)

Ana Grilo is a Brazilian who moved to the UK because of the weather. No, seriously. She works with translations IRL and hopes one day The Book Smugglers will be her day job. When she’s not at The Book Smugglers, or hogging our Twitter feed, she can be found blogging over at Kirkus with Thea or podcasting with Renay at the Hugo Award-nominated podcast Fangirl Happy Hour.

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