How To Grow Bizarro: Lee Widener

By Lee Widener

Guest Writer

I have been following the series “How to Grow Bizarro” with some interest. There have been some excellent ideas presented, but I wanted to provide an alternative viewpoint. So far, almost everything boils down to networking and fostering community. Those things are important, of course, but they only go so far, and the amount of effort required often does not result in an equivalent outcome. People putting in the effort to make things happen get discouraged or burn out.

My idea is simple: You want more people to read bizarro fiction? Write and publish better books. I will make a statement which will not win me any friends in this tiny community, but it needs to be said. There is a lot of bad writing in bizarro books, and there is a lot of terrible publishing. Now obviously not every single book is going to appeal to every single reader, and that goes double for bizarro, but there has to be a level of competence in the ability to tell a story.

Back when I was fairly new to the bizarro scene there was a scheme hatched by one publisher to generate reviews for their titles. They created a hierarchy of readers, arranged in a military configuration (everyone was even given military ranks—I was a Sergeant) and assigned books to review. In exchange for our reviews we were to be given free books. The book I was assigned was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. The prose was flat, writing was sloppy—in several scenes characters who had not been introduced into the scene suddenly started talking—punctuation was abysmal, and on and on. And I’m not the only one who thought so. Several of my “troops,” who had all been assigned the same book, told me they didn’t want to write a review of this book—they couldn’t in good faith write a positive review. Those troops dropped out of the group and soon left the bizarro scene altogether.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve opened a new bizarro book and cracked it open in anticipation, only to be appalled at the level of writing. In the past few years I have finished reading only half the bizarro books I’ve started. I just couldn’t slog through the poor writing. Given, a lot of bizarro books are by first time authors. But if we ever want bizarro fiction to break out of its self-imposed dungeon, there has to be a base-level of writing skill. Break stylistic rules. Go crazy mashing up genres. Silly scatological satire send your mind soaring? Go for it! But a coherent story has to be told. There has to be internal logic. A publisher who’s putting out a book by a first-time author has a duty to make sure that book is the best book it can possibly be. 

Which brings me to my second point—publish better quality books. A publisher is like a captain of a ship. They’re responsible for every aspect of the books they publish. I heard a major bizarro publisher/editor say they don’t like to interfere with an author’s voice. After reading many books from this publisher I can only conclude what they mean is, “I don’t have the time/resources to actually edit this book professionally, so whatever you give me is what’s going to be published.” Now, we all know there is no such thing as a “perfect” book. Typos sneak in, even in the most highly respected publishers. But in the small press world, where more often than not a publishing company is one person doing EVERYTHING, it’s a great temptation to start cutting corners. Don’t get me wrong—I have read many bizarro authors I would put up against any of my other favorite mainstream or genre authors. These are the “superstar” writers of the bizarro movement. Their books, miraculously, seem to be well edited. But the first-time writers and other “mid-list” authors don’t seem to be given the same care.

This happened to me on my first bizarro book. After I turned in my manuscript and it was laid out, I was given a file to check for errors. I marked three dozen typos and other errors and turned the file back over to my editor. Imagine my shock when I was given my own copy of my book. Such a wonderful feeling to have a copy of my very own book in my hands. That feeling was mauled and put to death as I read the copy. Every single error I marked was still there. Naively, I sent another copy of all the errors to the publisher, thinking they would be fixed, naively thinking the publisher cared about producing a quality product. As I read more books from this publisher, it became apparent this was standard operating procedure for this company. We’re not talking a few errors here and there. We’re talking errors throughout books, often coming as frequently as every other page. Typos, bad punctuation, words used improperly—I remember one book where a character’s name changed in the middle of the book without explanation or mention, and then thirty pages later changed back again.

Another book published in conjunction with my book was even worse off. Multiple typos per page. Another book I bought recently was a collection of two stories. One story was a reprint from a different publisher, and the other story was new. The reprint was pristine—not a single typo. The new story—they were rife. “So what,” you might ask? People who are not inside the bizarro community bubble expect a certain level of competence when they pick up a book. They take a chance on this new weirdo genre, and the book is presented in such a slipshod manner, they figure it’s just a bunch of amateurs fooling around and never reach out again. Want to grow bizarro? Write and publish better books. When someone tries out this new upstart genre they won’t be turned off.

I propose publishers adhere to a professional code of conduct which includes:

1. Pay Your Authors: This problem is endemic in the small press world, not just bizarro. Publishers come and go at the drop of a hat, often leaving authors without their due. But if your company manages to remain solvent, pay your authors. You wouldn’t exist without them. Back to my first bizarro book. I was astounded at how little my royalty payments were. I know there are expenses, but there were times I know books were being sold—I saw pictures of them! And payments never came. When I asked, I was told that payments were ninety days out. But when ninety days passed, still no royalties. There was even a time when copies of my book were sold at a convention. I saw them being sold! I signed them! I waited . . . no payment. So I inquired. Was I sure copies had been sold? Yes. I even provided names of who bought the books. I was paid. For those copies. And never got another cent.

Things were seeming fishy, so I asked around. I found twenty-four other authors who had similar feelings. Some had NEVER received anything for their books. Certainly, we authors are not privy to everything it takes to maintain a publishing company, but if you have a contract saying you will receive a certain percentage per book sold, that should be honored. The number of authors who felt they’d been paid what they were owed? A handful. I ended up asking for the rights to my book back, and I republished it (without the typos!) and made more in two months than my book had made in three years with the original publisher.

2. Treat Your Authors With Respect: Same book. My contract stated I could purchase as many copies of my book at cost as I wanted. But ordering those books was a chore. It took multiple requests to get a response. My last request was never answered, despite multiple emails. I’ve heard the same thing from others. Botched transactions resulting in missed deadlines for events. If your publishing model means you need to crank out as many titles as is humanly possible making it so you can’t possibly keep up with other responsibilities, perhaps a different model is called for.

3. Have Editorial Standards: You’re an editor. Edit. Fix those typos. Put out a professional product! If polishing a text is not your strong point, or you don’t think proofreading is your job, hire somebody.

4. Maintain a Professional Demeanor: You know that aphorism about a “rising tide lifts all boats?” Everyone espouses that, but behind the scenes? Oh boy! Publishers trash-talk each other all the time. I’m familiar with a certain author who has had multiple small presses courting them. In one case, two publishers were vying for a manuscript, both publishers spreading juicy bits of gossip about the other to the author and vaguebooking insults at each other on social media. I’ve seen publishers melt down online, insulting customers and authors. This community is tiny, publishers—do you think we don’t talk to each other? There are bizarro publishers I would never work with, having heard some of the shenanigans they partake in, in private.

On a positive note, the last couple of years has seen an explosion of sorts in the bizarro publishing field. New voices are out there, and a raft of new publishers. My hope is these new outfits will maintain a higher standard of product and professional behavior, because without that, this genre will never expand out of the sandbox. Can it be done? I hope so, because if we don’t bizarro will never be more than a footnote in publishing history.

Lee Widener is the author of Rock N Roll Head Case, Teeny Tiny Stories From the Marinated Jungle and Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales. He is a fan of obscure music, underground comix and bizarre movies. He studied playwrighting with Megan Terry and ran his own company X. Perry Mental Theatre. He also draws pictures and is somewhat pompous.