SINGULARITY & CO - SAVING SCI-FI ONE CLASSIC NOVEL AT A TIME
17 August 2012
By Chloe Healy
Singularity & Co is New York’s newest bookshop, something to celebrate in itself. But even more so when we hear that it’s dedicated to Science Fiction, new and old! The team have also launched an online bookstore dedicated to bringing back to life out-of-print classics, a ‘Save the Sci-Fi’ project made possible by pledges made via the funding platform Kickstarter. We had to find out more so interviewed co-owner Ash Kalb...
Tell us about 'Save the Sci-Fi' - what was your initial mission statement and has it been well received?
This is our mission statement, word for word, from our kickstarter campaign:
We love books. A lot. And we love sci-fi books, new and old. But mostly old.
We’ve seen too many sci-fi books that are out of print, out of circulation, and, worst of all (given the subject matter) unavailable in any digital format. Meaning, as of now, these books may never be seen in the future imagined in their pages. That’s just not right.
So here’s what we’re going to do: Each month we’ll choose one great classic, obscure or otherwise fascinating sci-fi book that’s no longer in print and not available online, track down the copyright holder and/or author (if they’re still around), acquire or otherwise clear the copyright, and publish the title both online and as an e-book, for little or no cost. Our supporters and followers will help us choose which books will be digitally rescued from copyright and publishing limbo via a monthly poll on our website, and we'll share the story behind the story, including with each ebook what we learned about the book, the author and their history along the way.
I'd say it's been more than well received at this point. We had early and vocal online support from authors like Neil Gaiman, Ken Macleod and Cory Doctorow, amongst many others, and have been working closely with the SFWA's Estates Project, headed up by the incomparable Bud Webster, since the beginning. Oh, and also, we were looking to raise $15k on Kickstarter to get started, and ended up raising over $50k, not counting a large matching contribution for the initial goal. That translated into about 1500 subscribers on day one, and that number has grown substantially in the past few months. If you think about what that means, it's kind of gives you pause. We've gone from zero to thousands of pairs of eyes on our monthly releases almost overnight. I'm not sure exactly where that puts us in comparison to the circulation figures for other small scifi publishing houses, but it has to be significant.
Can you share the story behind one of the books you have published/will be publishing, what you learned about the book, the author and their history?
Well, just today we finished a substantial deal for a well known author's catalog (It's actually my birthday today, and I can't imagine a better gift), and that's a really great testament to what we're doing, because getting it done involved getting the attention of some pretty substantial literary agents, going and spending some time with them, talking about our vision and our mission, and convincing them that it's not just a good idea, but also a good idea for their clients. A lot of what we do involves finding authors or their heirs themselves, and talking to them about beloved works. But this is a little different, and in some ways a huge step forward, because it means that we've convinced people who are in the world of traditional publishing of the viability of our model, and its ability to bring value to readers and authors alike. That's happened even faster than we could have hoped for.
We'll be announcing that deal in the next week or so, when we know the release timetable for the books it covers.
The next book we're publishing, which is exceptionally obscure, is, however, a bit different. This book, which we're hoping to get out next week, is one that I'd read about over and over again in pieces about the history of scifi as a genre, but when you go and ask the authors of those pieces if they've ever actually read or even seen the book, the answer is consistently no. In fact, as far as we can tell, despite the fact that this book is often footnoted, there are only about seven known copies in university libraries around the world. And they don't circulate.
And that's exactly why we're doing this. Here's a book, and there are paper copies of it still in existence, and it's long out of copyright (and we've been unable to find any literary estate in any case), but it's not on Gutenberg or Google Books (or Amazon or iTunes for that matter) and it's effectively lost to the world. A book that everyone says is significant, but no one's ever read.
We've read it. We found a copy in the library at an Episcopal Church retreat on the Virginia/West Virginia border, and explained our mission over the course of several months of emails, until one Tuesday Cici and I got in the car and drove the eight hours each way from Brooklyn to go and carefully photograph the book in our prototype portable non-destructive scanner (not as impressive as it sounds).
The physical book was back on its shelf the next morning, no worse for the experience, but come next week the knowledge contained within the book will be back in circulation. I consider that a job well done.
So much of the passion for pulp or vintage SF is wrapped up in the cover art. We all have our favourite SF covers from the 70s. Can you share with us here some of your favourite book jackets?
Are you kidding? The reason I talked Cici, Jamil and Kaila into opening a bookshop is so that we can have as many of them as possible! But I really love the covers of the earlier Ace doubles, and we just acquired a few dozen vintage Doubleday hardcovers from the 50s that have really incredible dust jackets.
And everyone loves the covers to Who? and Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, right?
It's great to be able to celebrate the opening of a bookshop, let alone one dedicated to Science Fiction. What's a typical day like at Singularity & Co?
Well, we all do other things as well, and use S&Co as a headquarters for our various activities. I'm a lawyer by trade, and these days I work with some really cool tech startups, so I tend to spend the first part of the morning emailing and on the phone, until Cici and I grab the ferry from Williamsburg to Dumbo with our trusty dog Robot, and get to the shop around 10.30, open around 11. Cici is a musician, and owns a modeling agency to boot, Jamil is a highly sought-after branding consultant, and Kaila, who just left Gawker Media to join us, is an online force to be reckoned with. We're all there in various combinations depending on the time and day, and we all tend to have people coming in and out to talk, meet, discuss all the time, both about S&Co, and our various other gigs. It's really collaborative, really great. It's like the best co-working space in the world, because it's in a scifi bookshop.
We get truly great customers, lots of whom work at startups in Dumbo, and lots of whom come from all over, and all of whom love the genres we stock, so the shop really feels like a clubhouse. During the course of the day we do a lot of work cataloging paper books, discussing upcoming releases, scanning, authoring and proofing ebooks. And planning for the long term. We've got some pretty great ideas about how to have a substantial impact on traditional publishing. Watch this space...
We've been doing a lot of press lately, so it feels like there is a photoshoot every other afternoon. We're there until about 7 or 8pm typically, and there are already things like classes or film screenings in the shop many nights of the week. Even when we head home we all tend to keep working until too late, then, speaking for Cici and I, if she doesn't have a gig, we make dinner, watch a movie or a couple of episodes of Stargate, and get ready to start over again the next day. It's really great.
Your mission to save SF books from oblivion hints at a preference for a golden age of SF, rather than the contemporary SF scene. Do you think the new stuff matches up? Which contemporary writers do you read? Does Singluarity & Co stock new releases alongside genre classics and if yes, which are proving more popular?
We've actually started by saving slightly older than golden age books, largely because that's what's presented itself early. The next couple of releases will likely be golden age, but that's just how things are falling into place. I think the reason that the golden age books seem like an emphasis is simply that they're more likely to be out of print and not available as ebooks than more modern works. Also, the covers. They look great on a website.
But we're not married to any particular period of time. We tend to think that many of the scifi authors working in the 40s, 50s and 60s were particularly poorly rewarded and recognized for their work, so that's where a lot of the passion lies. But I love contemporary writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken Macleod, Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Charles Stross… the list goes on and on. We stock it all, and are actually shelved by decade of publication, so people can explore by era when they come to the shop.
E-publishing is allowing obscure/widely overlooked older books to prosper and to jostle with new books for the reader's attention. With projects like yours on the rise, do you think we're looking at a near future where backlist books become more popular and sell more than new books, as we've seen with digital music sales?
I don't think it's an either/or, or a direct comparison. You listen to an MP3 over and over, but how many times will you read an ebook? In any event, the bestsellers, the Harry Potters, Hunger Games and Twilights of the world (all arguably scifi/fantasy books, in case you're keeping track) are going to be "new" books as long as traditional publishers continue to exist, simply because promoting those releases is what they exist to do. Your guess is as good as mine as to how long that will be, but I will say that I believe publishers do serve a purpose, even in a world of self-published ebooks, and I'd argue that that purpose lies largely in helping readers determine what is worth their time. There's a lot of noise in the ebook world, and publishers can provide signal.
But an old book that you've never read or heard of is as new to you as a new book, right? So books that have made their way through the traditional publishing process at least once, and have lived on peoples shelves for decades, and that have their champions and devotees, I think they can very likely find an audience. It's really not about going up against no. 1 bestsellers. It's about giving an extremely dedicated fan base what they want, and helping them find things they may have overlooked. And making sure that books that might otherwise be overlooked are preserved, even when their paper fails them.
Where can lucky New Yorkers find you? What if you live elsewhere? What can readers do to get involved?
We're at 18 Bridge St. in DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY, a short ferry or subway ride from Lower Manhattan. The walk over the Brooklyn Bridge is particularly nice; I highly recommend it. People in or coming to NYC can learn about the shop, and people anywhere can subscribe to our monthly releases at Savethescifi.com, and we'll be launching an online shop for vintage pulp hardcovers and paperbacks at Scifibooks.com just as soon as we can get it ready.