February 2004

Stacy Cowley

features

Earthling Publications

The science fiction publishing ecosystem has always been nourished by small presses run by enthusiasts willing to throw time and money at their favourite genre. In the past decade, desktop publishing and the Internet have spurred DIYers to new heights of prolificacy, inspiring what writer and commentator Paul Di Filippo calls "a new Golden Age" for independent presses.

One press gaining attention among genre fans is three-year-old Earthling Publications, a one-man operation that recently published British horror writer Michael Marshall Smith's first U.S. short-story collection, More Tomorrow & Other Stories. Smith groupies have been snapping up copies of the book's 1,000-issue run and checking Earthling's website frequently to see what other goodies the press has in the works.

Earthling propitiator Paul Miller describes himself as something of an accidental publisher. Always an avid reader, he escalated several years ago to collecting his favorite authors, and he developed an affinity for deluxe limited editions. He has already a fan of Smith's work, and when another enthusiast began compiling a bibliography of Smith's works, Miller consulted his own collection and helped fill in gaps.

That experience inspired him to publish a bibliography for another of his favorite horror writers, Simon Clark. Clark participated enthusiastically in the project, and contributed a copy of his first, previously unpublished short story.

"For that first book, I laid it out myself, using Microsoft Word -- which is absolutely not the way to lay out a book -- printed the interiors myself, had a local printer print the covers, and assembled it myself," Miller said in a recent interview. "By the time I finished with those 250 copies I was convinced I'd never do it again."

The resolution lasted less than year. On vacation at a beach in New Jersey, Miller wandered into a gallery and spotted a vibrantly geometric cat painting. It begged to be a chapbook cover. Miller wrote Smith to suggest collecting several of his cat-focused stories into a collection. Smith, who had seen and liked Miller's Clark chapbook, gave his approval, and Earthling Publications became an ongoing publishing project. Once Smith's Cat Stories came out, authors began pitching Miller.

The turning point between hobby and business came for Earthling in 2002, when Miller published Earthling's first novella, Brian Hopkins's El Dia De Los Muertos. Printing 500 hardcover copies of the book required from Miller a larger investment than had the chapbooks he'd previously done -- but the gamble paid off in critical attention. El Dia de los Muertos made Locus magazine's 2002 recommended-reading list, and tied for the Bram Stoker award for long fiction.

Since then, the Shrewsbury, Massachusetts-based Earthling has been publishing steadily. The press put out seven books in 2003, climaxing with Smith's More Tomorrow, Earthling's largest print run to date. And the largest it will ever do, Miller vows.

"Now that this past year is behind me, I think it's sort of given me a new sense of where I want to take things. Which is, at least for the near future, not to become a Subterranean Press or a Cemetery Dance," Miller said. "I want to do maybe half a dozen books a year and focus on doing limited editions, not editions that have 1,000 or 1,500 copies for their print run. Being a book collector and collecting limited-edition books, I don't think having a 'limited' edition of 1,500 copies is particularly collectable or limited."

Miller still has a day job: For the past decade he's worked as a medical writer for a pharmaceutical company, writing up data from clinical trials for use in the drug-approval process. Part of his aversion to letting Earthling get bigger is his desire to keep the press a fun sideline. "I do like my day job. I also fear that I'd be turning a hobby into work if I made it full-time."

While Miller may not want to follow the path laid out by some of the bigger independent publishers like Subterranean and Cemetery Dance, he credits their founders with essential guidance during Earthling's early days.

"I think a lot of newer small presses rely on the established small presses to help establish some direction and pointers," Miller said. "They had basic pointers and warnings. [Subterranean publisher] Bill Schafer said at one point, 'Running a small press is a great way to turn a lot of money into a little money.'"

So far, Miller has been running his press without losing money, a feat he attributes to building the business gradually and publishing more well-known authors. This past August, Miller published a story by Brian Evenson, a writer he'd been interested in working with from Earthling's birth, but decided to hold off on publishing until Earthling had built enough of a reputation that it could entice customers to check out more obscure authors.

Miller's plan for the future is to scale back a bit from 2003's heavy publishing schedule and concentrate more on luxury productions, such as leather-bound editions and books in handcrafted slipcases. He anticipates publishing up to six books a year, mixing established authors with newer writers -- and while Earthling's focus so far has been on horror, Miller expects other genres to creep in.

"It's strange that I haven't published any SF. I hope to correct that soon," he said.

Projects in the works for 2004 include works from Glen Hirshberg, Jay Russell, and Perdido Street Station author China Miéville. (Miller declined to say which books will be original and which will be reprints of previously published stories.) Also under contract and planned for late this year or early 2005 is a sequel from Hopkins to El Dia de los Muertos.

And, of course, Miller has his dream list of major authors he'd love to work with. Topping the roster: "Stephen King would be great!" Prompt him, and he'll happily rattle off a dozen names, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Tim Powers, Greg Bear, and Neal Stephenson.

It's enough to keep Earthling's schedule booked for at least a decade -- which is fine with Miller.

"This year was more time and money than I anticipated. In January 2003, I sort of knew that it would be a tough year, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it," he said. "One of the nice things about a small press is that, at my day job, I have a boss I report to and a lot of different people to work with. I can't call the shots. But for Earthling, I have to call the shots, and be responsible for what works as well as for all the failures. Fortunately, I don't think there have been many of those, so far."