The rise of digital publishing has unexpectedly also seen the return of older distribution models for fiction. Serials are viable again, novellas as well. And most importantly for me, the pulps have returned in the form of the cheap e-book.
If you correct for inflation, today’s $2-3 pulp volume costs about the same as a dime novel from the early twentieth century. The format is, of course, different. But the style and reasoning aren’t. There are practically no distribution costs in releasing an e-book because digital content doesn’t require printing and binding volumes from a press. Even the yellowed paper of old required some up-front costs to get books to readers; even on the print side, now, digital printing means the reader, not the author or the publishers, pays to get a physical copy produced if he or she wants one.
The pulp model predicated on low costs as well: low or no royalties (a flat fee per work was common), light or no editing, and printing on cheap pulp paper that would literally dissolve after a few readings. We remember the best ones for their wild inventiveness, for writers using or even subverting well-worn formulas to sneak social, religious, political commentary under the nose of polite society. We remember lurid covers, transgressive content, and a vibrant field. We don’t remember the sheer amount of garbage that allowed the better works to thrive in a kind of seething cesspool bubbling with strange ideas.
Then paper costs went up and other media leeched away the target working-class readership, and the pulp model was no longer viable.
The self-pubbed e-book has sometimes gained the title “new pulp”: quick reads for a low price, yes, but also with the downside of little to no editing. E-book pulpsters produce a lot of writing in the course of a year to feed the audience, just as their predecessors did; only the new pulpsters have royalties now. The main problem is getting readers’ attention.
The thought of wading through the myriad of title released through Kindle Direct Publishing every day for something good by unknown authors isn’t very appealing for me (and for a lot of people, I’m sure); the experience feels nothing like browsing a spinner rack.
Yet I could definitely see a small press with a judicious editor and a designer with a talent for nifty, old-style pulp covers starting up a successful imprint by relying on e-books as a primary distribution model. Above all, it would promise 50-70,000-word adventure tales at a low price. By savvy marketing and building a reputation for solid content on the part of the publisher, these books would also have a better chance at capturing an audience.
Some of these sorts of presses exist already, though they haven’t gained enough traction for widespread recognition. That time for new pulp presses gaining popularity outside of a narrow audience, however, might be coming soon.
I look forward to it.