Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.



What’s your take on this?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

  1. Dario, I don’t blame you own giving up on SF. There are still some good books and movies, but you’ve got to work to find them. I liked Gattaca and Robot and Frank, at the movies. And I thought Ready, Player One, The Windup Girl, Little Brother and Spin very good books.

    I really enjoyed Aegean Dream. It was real, and I often mention it to people and talk about your experiences in the book. Aegean Dream kept me reading unlike many genre books I’ve tried in recent years. I’d rather read a book about you publishing science fiction than to read most science fiction that’s coming out today. I’m not against science fiction, and a lot of the stories are well written even. But I’m old and prefer more reality than fantasy now-a-days. All the books and movies I mentioned had a good deal of realism to them.

    • Thanks so much, Jim–so glad you enjoyed Aegean Dream so much 🙂 means a lot to me. I also liked both those movies, two of the few good SF movies out there; generally, my enjoyment of SF film pretty much runs in inverse proportion to teh number of explosions and chases LOL. Those were both thoughtful movies with a good deal of content (incidentally, did you see my thoughts on Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” on the other post I linked? Still thinking about that movie months later. It got right into my subconscious.) I still haven’t read “Windup Girl,” I look forward to it.

  2. In my head, I’m hearing a reworked version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. (“We don’t need no genre limits…”) This is great news, Dario. It’s also cool to find out I’m not the only Tarkovsky fan I know. You know, you told me once that you loved a good loose cannon. I guess you weren’t kidding! Best of luck. I’m looking forward to it.

    • LOL Jason! And thank you so much 🙂 I’d forgotten the loose cannon quip… But, yes, I’m just darned tired of formulas and cookie-cutter fiction. It seems to be everywhere. I think we have some pretty darned exciting fiction coming out this year.

  3. Contact’s message wasn’t helpful, true, but what really bothers me is when SF movies/books have a counterproductive message. Case in point, the practically Luddite message behind Bruce Willis’ film Surrogates.

    • Orion, yeah, that might be even worse. I haven’t seen SURROGATES and probably won’t, but Luddism ain’t no solution to anything. What we need is less PEOPLE, not less technology LOL. I do wish there were more SF films with actual content, but I’m afraid it’s all just explosions, mad chases, and slo-mo Kung Fu. And when you get one that has enough content that it could have been so much better (like Contact), they just find other ways to screw it up. I want SF that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges me, that celebrates the mystery and terror of being and the near-infinite insignificance of our species. 😉

  4. Dario, it’s so great to see Aegean Dream doing brilliantly, and I wish you the same for Sutherland’s Rules…and with the the new fully functional non-genre Panverse indie press! Fantastic!
    You..contrarian?? Never 😉 Heehee….

  5. I love science-fiction, but most sci-fi movies make my brain bleed. I prefer the ones with an obvious disregard for natural laws but a good sense of humor or adventure (like most series), to those that pretend to teach us something about the “real” world and shove philosophical hogwash down our throats.

    • Vero, I couldn’t agree more. That’s so true. “Avatar” might be the worst offender in the “Philoso[hical hogwash” category, but the otherwise amusing and visually delightful”The Day After Tomorrow” had a pretty clumsy message too. I guess they all do, and, let’s face it, even the original ST series was strong on message. It’s really in part HOW the message is delivered, isn’t it? IOW, a moral/ethical message integrated as theme into a GOOD book or movie, no problem with that. In film, “Gattaca” might be one of the better recent examples. Great to see you here, and thanks for commenting! 🙂

  6. Lyn

    No rules entertainment … sounds like my sort of paaaartaaay. Looking forward to it all. 🙂

    • Thanks Lyn 🙂 Yeah, that’s about it. Oh, I’m okay with rules when they’re not stupid. But I honestly detest the committee approach to creating a book or movie. It;s just so damn hard to find anything worth reading anymore LOL.

  7. Hey Dario! I am so glad to see that the blog is back and I am so excited for you and for Panverse for opening to different genres. I expect great and exciting things to come from this. Yay!

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