Years ago, I listened as a notable editor spoke about a tipping point in the 1960s, where a dedicated science fiction fan could conceivably keep abreast of the entire genre: they could read every novel and every short story that the various publishing houses and magazines put out on news stands and bookshelves. But once the industry's collective output surpassed 30 novels a month, it became far more difficult to comprehensively follow the genre.
Decades later, we're awash in words. Some of those traditional publications, like Asimov's, Analog, or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction are still around, while the internet has unlocked the possibilities for editors — aspiring and seasoned pros — to launch their own publications to occupy their own niche in the science fiction ecosystem. In the last decades, plenty have tried their hands at experimenting what the internet can do for readers and writers, and every now and again, there are some publications that arrive that look extremely promising.
2022 will bring a new such experiment, helmed by Realm (formerly Serial Box) co-founder Julian Yap and Updraft, Riverland, and The Ship of Stolen Words author Fran Wilde.
The pair are calling their publication Sunday Morning Transport, and it'll be an ongoing newsletter anthology that dispatches a new speculative fiction story to subscribers' inboxes each Sunday over the course of the next two years. The project is slated to launch in January, and when it does, it'll feature stories by authors like Max Gladstone (Craft sequence), Karen Lord (Redemption in Indigo, Unraveling), Kij Johnson (The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe), Malka Older (Centenal Cycle Trilogy), Elsa Sjunneson (Being Seen), and many, many others.
In a phone conversation a couple of weeks ago, Yap explained that SMT came about much in the same way that his other venture, Realm, came about: "It was one of those things that I felt should exist in the world," he said. "Someone has to do it, so why not me?" It was around the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic had started up, and he had subscribed to a whole bunch of newsletters. "There's a lot of great nonfiction out there," he observed, "but not a lot of fiction."
The idea reminded him a bit of the origins of Serial Box. He, along with Molly Barton, launched the company in 2015 as a way to reinvent storytelling for the web. They commissioned teams of authors to produce stories — serials — that could be consumed in bite-sized pieces. It wasn't quite taking a novel and doling out its chapters one by one, but more like a serialized TV series, where the story was played out in individual episodes, which would collectively come together to form a larger narrative.
In the years since its founding, the company has continued to produce its own original fiction with stories like The Vela, and Ninth Step Station (which Wilde co-wrote, along with authors Malka Older, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Curtis C. Chen), and has branched into licensed content by partnering with Marvel with some of its well-known heroes and the BBC for a continuation of Orphan Black, as well as some experiments into microfiction. Earlier this year, the company embraced its audio roots and rebranded as Realm, and has positioned itself as a podcast studio that produces its own original content (which you can also read on the web).
SMT isn't a Realm product, but Yap's interest in finding non-traditional ways to get stories in the hands of readers remains, and he explained that in 2020, there was a boom in new platforms for doing just that, led by companies like Substack, which allowed writers to charge for their content. Yap was drawn to the prospect of using one of those types of subscription platforms as a way to distribute fiction. There's been some efforts to do that: Substack launched a splashy initiative to sign on comic book authors and artists like James Tynion IV, Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, and Saladin Ahmed to use the platform to distribute their own comics.
"I experienced firsthand that getting something to read in your email is delightful," Yap explained, and that "it would be amazing to get something — a great piece of speculative fiction every week in your inbox, you wouldn't have to go anywhere else, you could read it in 10-15 minutes in your inbox, and then you're done."
Thanks to his work at Realm, he explained, he knew a lot of writers, and began to think about how to undertake such a project. "I discovered early on that it was a slightly bigger project than what's comfortable for one person with a full time job," he says. He opted to keep the project separate from Realm, which is entirely focused on podcasting, and he noted that while the company's done some experiments with short fiction over the years, this ultimately isn't a serialized storytelling project, and he wanted to keep it as its own independent thing.
That's when he approached Wilde. He initially wanted to get a story from her, but realized that he'd need help in bringing his idea to life. Initially, the pair began to reach out to authors that they'd worked with over the years, and that those authors made recommendations of their own. The pair aren't opening the publication up for unsolicited submissions at present: they've already filled much of the slots for the coming year.
A website can unlock all sorts of potential for publications: artwork, snazzy graphics or features, audio tracks, and more to enhance a story. Wilde and Yap are taking a simpler approach: "basically, a black and white newsletter," Wilde said. "Keeping it somewhat simple is part of our goal. There's a logo and some other things coming, but there's not going to be a full-color spread anywhere. It's something that will transmit easily and be focused on story."
Most editors out there will tell you when they're starting out that at their core, they're just looking for good stories, regardless. "My background in this from a very young age," Wilde noted, " was reading Gardner Dozois's Best of Science Fiction anthologies because that was what was in the local bookstores in Philadelphia. So I was picking up what the 80s and 90s what good speculative fiction was, but was also reading across the board — poetry and nonfiction. That sense of shock and amazement."
"I love so many kinds of literature that it's hard to pin down," Wilde said "and that's one of the things about this newsletter: we've got pieces that are fantasy slipstream, science fiction, historical fantasy, urban fantasy, pure modern-day material, and near-future [fiction]. I think that that aspect of it is that the one central core is that you kind of emerge from each of these stories, whether they're set in a world that the author has written in otherwise worlds that the author is writing in otherwise, or if it's a completely new story in a new world, you're grounded in the moment of the story. That's the sort of thing that I love, when I hit that last line, it rings like a bell."
"That's how we came up with the name," Yap explained. "That moment where the story just transports, right? That's what we're looking for." He outlined that their goal isn't to just focus on good prose, but good ideas that "blows off the top of your head, or stuff where the plotting is intricate and clockwork and beautiful."
Wilde and Yap say that over the course of the next two years, they're going to pay particularly close attention to the people that they're publishing, and using their platform to try and uplift authors who might not typically have had a place in a table of contents. "One of the things that we've been doing has been reaching out to the authors who we know who we've worked with," Wilde said.
Through that process, they've collected a number of names of people they might not have worked with before, and that's allowed them to put representation of marginalized communities into the publication's DNA from the start. "We're not treating this lightly," Wilde noted. "You have an editor of color and a managing editor who's disabled." They haven't shared what the overall demographics will eventually be, but it's something they're paying attention to. "We're keeping a close eye on it, and we're keeping an eye on our own biases as well, because the people that we're going to be responsible to really want to see a breadth of the work that's out there, and we want to provide that."
In addition to stories, the pair are hoping that SMT will lead to the growth of a community to help support the publication. "One of the things that we are doing that is slightly different is we'll probably have a subscriber-only call to talk about story with me, and hopefully Max [Gladstone], and maybe Amal El-Mohtar as well," Wilde said. "and then some guest writers now and then." They're also thinking of releasing that year's stories in a PDF or print version exclusively for subscribers. She also notes that those plans are also in a rough frame work at the moment, and could change once they launch.
Yap credits that part of the initiative to Wilde. "She said 'I think you have a real opportunity here to build community,' which I think a lot of the best newsletters do. We should do this: we can build something really special."
Yap noted that one of their guiding principles is that everyone involved will be paid for their work, and that they're prepared to run the newsletter for 100 stories over two years. I think one of the things that the internet did that was damaging was putting things out there for free and conditioning people that art should be free. Good art is expensive to make on all levels — not just writers, but copy editors or proofreaders — and I think it's important that everyone gets paid. Their metric for success? "A high subscriber count would be in there," he said. "At the end of the day, if this turns out it doesn't work, and we've printed 100 great stories, that'll be worth it." A high subscriber base will allow them to expand to include a submissions reader and to keep doing this beyond those budgeted stories.
But above that, Wilde says, building a strong reading community would be a success for her, one that could help raise the awareness of short fiction in new forms like a newsletter.
They will charge for subscriptions: although they'll have a free tier that'll send out a single story a month to subscribers. A full year's rate will run a subscriber $7/month or $70 a year (the price of a couple of new hardcover novels), while an above and beyond founder's level will run readers $250 for an annual subscription. SMT will launch in January with stories from Gladstone, Lord, and Howard.
Reading some of the initial stories that they've acquired, it's clear that both Wilde and Yap have a good eye for good, engaging stories, and for that reason alone, I have a feeling that I'll be blocking out a small part of my day on Sunday morning for the next couple of years.
You can sign up to get Sunday Morning Transport over on Substack.
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