“You can’t just stick a rocketship on the cover of a book and expect it to sell. That’ll work for the Hard SF readership, but that’s not going to sell thousands of copies.”
Jacob Weisman is the editor and publisher of Tachyon Publications , a San Francisco small press behind some of the decade’s best science fiction anthologies and short story collections. Recent books include Steampunk (Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), Content (Cory Doctorow), and Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, (James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel).
I spoke to Weisman about building a small press, guiding Tachyon through tough economic times, and exploring the secret history of science fiction.
The Rumpus: Tell me about creating Tachyon. That was 13 years ago?
Jacob Weisman: Yes. Thirteen years is a long time. I initially thought we’d do something similar to NESFA Press — you know, bring back the old masters who were out of print. And that’s what we did with our early books; we did collections by Clifford Simak and Mary Shelley, novels by Stanley Weinbaum and Robert Nathan — you don’t get much older than that.
We reinvented the business in 2003, signing up with a new distributor. Before, we’d done two or three books a year, and sold them exclusively to the specialty stores. The specialty stores were all going out of business; we needed to adapt if we were going to survive. Selling through a distributor meant we had to sell books to the chain stores and everywhere else. It revitalized the business and now we publish roughly 10 books a year.
Rumpus: I saw that your most successful books have been the anthologies — Steampunk and The New Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and the cyberpunk and slipstream anthologies edited by Kelly and Kessel.
Weisman: Yes, those are some of our bestsellers. Some of our other books have done quite well, too, like our titles with Peter S. Beagle, Tim Powers, and Thomas Disch.
Rumpus: And you have another anthology from Kelly and Kessel coming out later this year.
Weisman: Right. We actually have three anthologies coming out, either late this year or early next year. The one you’re talking about is going to be called The Secret History of Science Fiction. It’s based on an essay by Jonathan Lethem, “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction.” It begins in 1973, the year Gravity’s Rainbow lost the Nebula Award [given by the Science Fiction Writers of America], and ends in 2008, when The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Hugo [given at the World Science Fiction Convention]. It’s got science fiction by mainstream writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon, and science fiction writers like Karen Joy Fowler and Gene Wolfe doing much the same thing.
Rumpus: Do you agree with Lethem’s thesis that the Nebula defeat of Gravity’s Rainbow was a turning point for the genre? That there was a missed opportunity for science fiction to merge with the mainstream?
Weisman: I think there’s some truth to that, but I don’t know if Gravity’s Rainbow losing the Nebula is when it happened. There was certainly a lot of excitement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a sense that you didn’t know where science fiction was going, what it might become. Then in the early ’80s, post-Star Wars, science fiction started looking at its past for inspiration. The fiction became very inward looking, and with actual bestselling novels by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and L. Ron Hubbrad, more commercially oriented.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s where the field is now?
Weisman: Well, not really — since The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Hugo, you could argue that we’ve come full circle. The real question isn’t where science fiction has been, but where it’s going. You’ve got all these smaller groups in the field that are no longer able to really talk to each other, so there’s less of a central conversation.
Rumpus: What does that mean for a publisher like Tachyon?
Weisman: Well, it means that you have to be creative. You can’t just stick a rocketship on the cover of a book and expect it to sell. That’ll work for the Hard SF readership, but that’s not going to sell thousands of copies. In the 1960s there were only 150 or so books published each year, so it was really possible for a dedicated fan to read 50 to 100 of them. Now, Locus lists something like 2,500 books published in the genre annually. No one can read that much.
One of the things we try to do at Tachyon is publish authors who are still part of that central conversation. Like James Patrick Kelly and his story “Think Like a Dinosaur.” What was that story he was referring to?
Rumpus: “The Cold Equations.”
Weisman: Yes, and not just “The Cold Equations,” but also Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. So that story is a dialogue with those two other works, at least. It’s a story that, for the right reader, packs additional meaning and significance.
Rumpus: Backtracking a bit, you were mentioning the other anthologies coming out this year.
Weisman: Oh, right. Well, we’ve got an anthology from Ellen Datlow called Darkness, which covers horror fiction from the time Clive Barker published his Books of Blood trilogy in the early 1980s.
And what was the other one … The thing is, we normally do five books in the spring and five in the fall, but this year we’re doing four and six, so I’m always trying to remember the extra book.
Ah, right, it’s the 60th anniversary anthology of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. That’s going to be a really big book, we’ve got everything from the original version of “Flowers for Algernon” to the original Gunslinger story by Stephen King.
Rumpus: It seems like everything you hear about the publishing industry is bad these days. But you’re not too worried?
Weisman: It’s hard to say. I like the way were positioned, the titles we have coming out this year. I’m excited. The question is, can the economy keep up with what we’re trying to do.
We expected to see more returns in December, and that didn’t happen. I suppose we sold fewer books during the holiday season than normal. But that’s all to be expected. Overall, we’re doing very well.
Rumpus: Was the decision to do four books in the spring and six in the fall a conscious reaction to the economy, hoping that things will pick up at the end of the year?
Weisman: It was more of a fluke, but once we decided to do that, we realized, hey, that makes sense. I also feel like we’re in a good position to adapt and be creative if the market gets worse.
Rumpus: Because you’re such a small organization?
Weisman: Well, there’s that. And also, although it takes us a long time to publish things, it’s still about half the time it takes a big New York publisher. I’m not saying that’s OK, I’m not saying that I’m not trying to improve, but it does mean we’re faster.
Rumpus: Can you give me an example of a time when you were particularly creative or adaptable?
Weisman: Well, the first of those anthologies, Feeling Very Strange. We had no idea if there was an audience for that.
Rumpus: Where did the idea come from?
Weisman: I was actually on my way back from [the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts], and we’d been talking about slipstream. I realized there hadn’t been an anthology that focused on the Slipstream movement. I was kind of shocked, really. And it seemed like John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly were the perfect people to put it together for us. I’d worked with Jim Kelly before, but not John Kessel.
Rumpus: And that bet paid off?
Weisman: Absolutely. Each of those anthologies has sold better than the one before it.
Rumpus: What about e-books? Are you exploring that avenue at all?
Weisman: We’ve sold the rights to two books to be published on the iPhone, but that’s not really something that we’ve set out to do.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s where the future is?
Weisman: I don’t know. We’ll need screens to improve first, though I think it’s somewhere within a standard deviation of the Kindle. If that does happen, we’ll probably see a renaissance in the short story, because that’s the ideal length for screen-based content. But neither of those things has happened.
Rumpus: How do you think being based in San Francisco has influenced Tachyon?
Weisman: Well, I grew up here. My family came out here in 1968 when my father got a job with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
Rumpus: I just know that they do a lot of political stuff.
Weisman: That’s right. It’s what brought my family out, and was the environment I grew up in. The Mime Troupe was completely audience-funded; I helped to pass the hat after gigs. I got to meet, even before I knew who some of these people were, several members of the Black Panther Party, Robert Crumb, people my dad would work with on occasion.
Rumpus: There’s this literary scene in San Francisco whose roots go back to the ’60s counterculture. Do you feel like you’re still connected to that, that Tachyon is still connected? Or is it like this little island of science fiction?
Weisman: Well, I think both of those are equally true. For what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, we’re in science fiction mode. In terms of inspiration, there are still elements of, like, guerrilla street theater from the ’60s and ’70s. Part of it is, “Let’s put on a show, let’s publish a book.” Let’s do Cory Doctorow’s book about how you can give away your book for free, and let’s publish it as a traditional book. Even though every review that we’ve gotten tells you how to download the book for free, we’re still selling copies.
That part is very much what the mime troupe would have done in the ’60s. They had a play that my father worked on that was called How to Rip Off the Phone Company. At the time, there was a whistle that came in a box of Captain Crunch, and if you blew it into a phone receiver, and you entered a certain code, you could then dial any number that you wanted without charge.
Rumpus: Do you feel like your work has any impact on the broader cultural dialogue in San Francisco?
Weisman: The science fiction community might. I think we’ve got a lot of well-placed people, especially say south of here in Google and Yahoo. I think there are a lot of science fiction fans in those organizations.
San Francisco has always had this strange thing, and I encountered it with my father as well, which is that the local media here isn’t like the local media anywhere else. The local media anywhere else celebrates the local culture, almost to a fault. San Francisco has never really done that. It’s skeptical of the things that come out of San Francisco, of anything that isn’t played out on a national stage.
Rumpus: What about local authors, do they get a home field advantage with you?
Weisman: Well, we’ve certainly published a lot of them. I don’t think that’s something that we’ve consciously set out to do. I run into local authors all the time, many of them are my friends. And I think it might also be a case where there’s a local view of the world those writers bring to science fiction that has a special resonance for me.
Rumpus: So who are the locals? Ellen Klages …
Weisman: Ellen Klages. Eileen Gunn was when we did her book; she’s now in Seattle. Dick Lupoff is in the East Bay. Peter Beagle is in Oakland, although he was in Davis when we started working with him. Terry Bisson is in Oakland, though he was in New York for many, many years.
Rumpus: Can you dig into what that San Francisco influence is, what aligns those writers with your interests?
Weisman: Well, it’s probably more of an interest in politics. The idea that maybe the book means something beyond just the fact that the hero gets away or saves the world is probably part of that, too. I think living here has made me conscious of bigger issues. And I think it’s those same issues that have brought many of those writers here as well.
It’s weird, San Francisco has really changed. People who used to feel they couldn’t fit in on the East Coast would move here. Then San Francisco became where you moved when you were a success in Silicon Valley, but we still have a lot of people who move here for more idealistic reasons.
Now that the tech market has slowed down, I’m hoping that there will be an interesting synergy to these groups that will revitalize the creativity in our region. I feel like that process started with the dot-com bust a few years ago, and has only accelerated in the new economic climate. I’m very excited by all the possibilities.