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Ten questions for Combustion Books

By kate | June 24, 2011

Last month I had the great fortune to table for AK Press at the annual Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, one of the most well-attended anarchist events in North America, and a total pleasure. I was also fortunate enough to get a stack of copies of the first book released by Combustion Books, a new publishing project with anarchist principles, started by the editor of AK’s volume on anarchist fiction, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers, and other alumni from SteamPunk Magazine. The books were fresh from the printers, and arrived just in time for the event, and I’ll be damned if we didn’t sell the entire stack. It wasn’t hard. The book is called What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower (Being an Adventure of Your Own Choosing), and at $8, it’s a bargain for nearly endless hours of fun… I figured it was time to call up Combustion Books and get the scoop on what they’re up to, and what other little gems are in the pipeline for the coming year. Margaret, Smokey, and Elena were kind enough to answer my questions …

Let’s start off with an easy one: tell me a little about Combustion Books. Who are you, and what’s your story?

Margaret: Combustion Books is a worker-run genre fiction publisher based in New York City. We’re brand new, though the group of us have been working together on radical fiction projects for a number of years.

Your tagline is “Publishers of Dangerous Fiction”–why? What’s dangerous about the fiction you publish?

Margaret: I think the best stories have always been dangerous. I think that stories have a real power, that we build our identities and our lives based on fictions and myths, and we aim to publish stories that challenge the status quo. The stories that really stick with us are the ones that shake up or shape how we see the world, that focus our dreams and help us figure out what we’d like to see in the world. Genre fiction has a rich history of this–Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin come to mind–but a sadly overwhelming number of books are published every year that are just banal and derivative, or even reactionary and conservative.

I find myself going off sometimes about “cultural warfare” as an element of social war or class war or whatever: I’m all about encouraging stories of the underclasses, of the oppressed. I want us to stop fantasizing about being powerful queens and princes and start identifying with people closer to our own situations who learn how to struggle to be free and happy.

Smokey: I would add that all regimes have always banned works of fiction much more than non-fiction which makes sense to me. Fiction has an uncanny power to infect people with new ideas and for many that can be very dangerous indeed. Also most fiction is controlled by a few publishing houses that fear for their bottom-line. That means any work that is not easy to identify and sell is dangerous. We are interested in publishing books and works that might be hard to publish elsewhere because they are groundbreaking, using unusual formats, saying unpopular things, and so on.

Can you tell me a little about the structure of Combustion Books? Are you a collective? Is it a completely volunteer-run project, or do you intend on paying yourselves?

Margaret: We are a collective and make our decisions by consensus but with a large degree of individual autonomy in our work. Ideally, we’ll be paying ourselves a bit through this work–because publishing is indeed a lot of work–but we’re committed to anti-capitalist practice. Smokey can probably explain that better though.

Smokey: We have had to struggle quite a bit around the issue of intellectual property rights, royalties and capitalism in general in designing Combustion Books. We in Combustion Books are radicals and believe that capitalism is a poor engine for disseminating ideas we care about. Thus we have had to rethink every aspect of how books get published. In short we want to create a community of authors, publishers and artists that work together and support each other while making the works available to the largest number of people. We do not believe in property rights (royalties) and are moving more to the model many radical and even progressive musicians have moved towards. We pay for the actual work, for both writers and artists, and make every step both participatory and transparent. The authors and artists keep the rights and we provide them money for allowing us to publish they work but that is it. If they ever feel we are not doing a good job or for whatever reason they are not content they are free to sell their work elsewhere. We want to be able to push just as hard titles that will only ever sell a thousand copies as we would for some blockbuster. The key for this new approach to work is that artists, writers, editors, people distro-ing, etc. all feel they are partners in the project that is Combustion Books.

You have a close relationship with the genre of Steampunk–one of your founders was the co-founder of SteamPunk Magazine, and others of you have written for SteamPunk in the past; talk about how that particular genre is important in what Combustion is trying to do. Is it just a matter of personal preference or taste? Or something more political or subversive?

Margaret: It’s actually something of a coincidence. As writers and publishers, we all met through work on SteamPunk Magazine, and when we started Combustion, a lot of our backlog of publishable material was pretty firmly rooted in steampunk. We’re definitely looking to break out of steampunk as soon as possible: our next novel in the pipe is an anarchist high fantasy story of dragon kings, for example.
That said, we do all have a love for steampunk, and for me, steampunk definitely has subversive potential. SteamPunk Magazine was an openly political project, and I love the inclusion of “punk” in literature and subculture because I love that it focuses on the underclasses and struggle. And I’m fascinated by what steampunk offers us philosophically, re-envisioning humanity’s interactions with technology.

Elena: The connection to Steampunk is opportune also because what we all love about Steampunk is the DIY aspect. Becoming publishers definitely has a DIY element to it, at least for me. In Steampunk DIY doesn’t mean poorly made, on the contrary it is about intentional design that is skillfully crafted. I hope we can take that from Steampunk into the future of Combustion Books.

And how about your relationship to anarchism?

Margaret: Well, I think it’s safe to say that all of us are active anarchists and consider ourselves part of the worldwide anarchist movement–or space, or whatever we’re calling it these days. Though what I’m interested in doing specifically with Combustion Books is to actually be within the genre world as anarchists, instead of being the genre fiction element of anarchism. Anarchism doesn’t specifically need fantasy books–although of course many of us as individuals do–but radical ideas and practices ought to be introduced to the genre fiction world. Basically, we’re not trying to sell radicals on genre fiction, we’re trying to introduce radical ideas into genre culture.

Smokey: We are all anarchist AND avid readers of fiction as are most of our friends. We are also committed and active anarchists so it is a shame that most of the fiction we read is directly against our politics. We also think that stories have a powerful ability to shape how people see the world so we would like to see more fiction that is not antagonistic (at least) to anarchist principles.

Elena: We also want to support good, cutting edge anarchist fiction, and radical art in general. Unfortunately in the anarchist community we see a lot of really bad art tolerated and disseminated just because it has a radical or anarchist tinge to it, or because its author is someone known for their anarchist politics. Politics is no excuse for bad art. We are confident that anarchists and radicals are just as talented as capitalists or apolitical writers and don’t need to be supported through some kind of ill-conceived anarcho “affirmative action”.

Let’s talk about your first book release: What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower (Being an Adventure of Your Own Choosing) … sooooooo, it’s a choose-your-own adventure for “grownups” (if any of us want to identify ourselves that way, which is questionable) with anarchist themes. Why did you decide to go for this format?

Margaret: Well, I wrote this book, so I’m pretty biased. I grew up loving CYOA books, maybe because I wanted to be playing Dungeons & Dragons but didn’t have enough friends. Though one thing I’ve learned is that this book is actually a lot of fun with groups: I’ve been doing “rapid consensus decision-making workshops” with readings of the book, where one person reads the story and then the group determines what to do at each fork in the path. I won’t go so far to claim that non-linear books are more radical in form–an interesting case could be made for it being a less authoritarian format, but I think that’s sort of bullshit.

Smokey: This format is a case of a dangerous format. There is only one company really publishing these types of books and they are for children. No matter how good the book is, it just wouldn’t get published today because of the format. It is not easy to sell an adult choose your own adventure.

Talk about ebooks. You’re planning to release all of your titles simultaneously in electronic and print format?

Margaret: What matters is the story, when it comes down to it. I know so many people who hoard books even when they claim to want fewer possessions. Now, I like printed books myself and don’t have an eReader, but I’ve learned to get over my chauvinism against the format, because that’s all it was.

Smokey: I am a big fan of e-books and have hundreds of them on various devices. I was also a very early and enthusiastic supporter of the Gutenberg Project. I think it is clear more and more people will be getting their fiction primarily from this format so we want to be part of it.

Are you finding limitations to making your books available in electronic format? You’re obviously a design-conscious crew–all of the publications so far look great–so how do you deal with the limitations of e-readable formats design-wise?

Margaret: Design is all about usability, about maximizing the impact of the content. I’ve never been a design-for-design’s-sake designer: it’s one reason I actually prefer designing the interior of a book to cover design. Designing for eReaders is definitely different, but really it’s different because you need to learn to let go a bit, to offer the reader more control over things like font size, line spacing, etc.

What’s next for Combustion Books? Any new releases in the pipeline?

Margaret: We’re going to be putting out a few more releases related to SteamPunk Magazine: a Catastrophone Orchestra reader that includes new material, and an omnibus of sorts of the first seven issues of the magazine. That should happen in the next few months. After that, we’ve got a high fantasy book and then probably another steampunk book or a new weird book, but we’re also definitely looking for submissions.

Any advice for folks trying to get their own publishing projects up and off the ground?

Margaret: Just do it. Make things, get them printed, and figure out ways to get them in people’s hands. Make everything you do as well as you can but don’t get bogged down in perfectionism: just make shit, put it out, then make something better next time.

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more, even if I find it hard to heed those words of wisdom sometimes! Combustion Books is off to a really strong start; be sure to grab a copy of Clock Tower (on sale through AK Press Distro!), and stay tuned for future releases!


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