Robin Sloan
main newsletter
October 2021

It will think you are crunching bones

Spectra of various substances, 1868, R.H. Digeon
Spectra of various substances, 1868, R.H. Digeon

In California, at last, the rain has come; a storm is sched­uled to hose down the whole northern half of the state this weekend, more precip­i­ta­tion in 48 hours than the past eight months. Here in the Bay Area, our just-ended “water year”, which runs October-September, amounted to about eight inches of rain. This storm, the first of a new water year, could dump five inches on us!


Let me tell you about an uncanny encounter with a publisher.

The cover of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, stark black with an illustration, in white, of a spooky figure standing in front of a tree.

A while back, I came across Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, by J. Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna. It belongs to one of my favorite genres, which I’ve spoken about before: encyclopedias, glossaries, and dictionaries, partic­u­larly those that catalog … well … ghosts, monsters, and demons!

Even so, I was not prepared for how deeply this book capti­vated me. For weeks, I read it over break­fast and before bed. I carried it everywhere, including into the bathtub, several times. The appeal was manifold: brisk writing; linguistic diversity; genuinely new-to-me mythic imagery; great illustrations!!

An illustration from the book, showing a creepy ogre-like monster with slavering hounds at his side.

If you follow me on Instagram, none of this is news to you, because I was, during those weeks, constantly posting snip­pets of the book. Here, the saliva of doom:

Airi is in the habit of spitting a lot. His saliva is extremely poisonous. If a glob of it lands on someone, that person is doomed to die within a few days unless healing rituals are performed.

Here, the flick­ering aonglamla, what an image:

This spirit ... has a tendency to flicker. One moment she's there, the next she's gone. The reason for the flickering, some say, is that she becomes invisible whenever she makes direct contact with the ground. You can only see her when she is floating in a pool of water; or if she hops; or if she steps on her hair while she's walking.

Here, robot assas­sins from thou­sands of years ago!?

Bhoota Vahana Yanta means 'spirit movement machine.' The term is used for several varieties of robot drone assassins and sword-wielding machine-men mentioned in the Lokapannati, a Pali-language text written between 1000 and 1200 C.E. by Saddhammaghosa of Thaton, but conerning events that took place much earlier, around 500 to 200 B.C.E.

And here, perhaps my favorite image in the whole book:

Despite being fearsome and bloodthirsty, Faru Furetas are quite cowardly and easy to fool. One way to scare a Faru Fureta away is to noisily crunch breadfruit chips. It will think you are crunching bones. This will convince the monster that YOU are much more dangerous than IT, so it will hightail it back into the water.

I think Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India is exem­plary of what a book can be, how it can operate. It’s a bridge across space, time, and language. As a phys­ical book, it’s innately random-access, great for browsing (although I was so capti­vated I basically read it straight through). In form and content both, this is the kind of volume that, if you discov­ered it on a shad­owed shelf in a used book­store, would make you giddy with delight.

Having had such a strong reaction, I decided I ought to prop­erly inves­ti­gate the book’s publisher, Blaft. Well, its website is great, its offer­ings totally compelling, sooo of course I bought $200 worth of books. Blaft is in Chennai, so I knew ship­ping would be slow, and that was fine with me. I love a book order that arrives long after you’ve forgotten about it. “What’s this? Oh, yeah … OH, YEAH!”

A couple of days later, I was heading out to grab lunch. At the precise moment I hopped onto the sidewalk, a figure was approaching the gate; we star­tled each other. This figure carried a large box, but was not an agent of the USPS. The figure was, in fact, Rakesh Khanna, CO-FOUNDER OF BLAFT–!!!! — whose parents (I learned, there on the side­walk) live in the East Bay. Rakesh was visiting them, and he kept at their home a cache of Blaft titles, so, he figured he’d just make this delivery himself.

Here’s the best part: I was heading out in the manner that had become customary, which is to say, I had my hat, my phone, my keys … and my copy of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, tucked under my arm. I held it up, waggled the book at its co-author and co-publisher.

The whole encounter was almost more uncanny than charming; almost.

A collection of books laid flat for inspection, all published by Blaft. Their covers are colorful, some showing cyborgs and/or women drinking from skulls.

I’ve now dipped into my Blaft haul. The volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction are, as expected, amazing: tran­sects through a vibrant print culture in which the median author seems to have published about 500 books. The biograph­ical sketches are as much fun as the stories, which is saying a lot, because the stories are WILD.


There are so many book publishers out there of exactly this scale and specificity, and they are, to me, the marrow of the medium. I mean “marrow” in the sense of, like, “secret center of produc­tion”; or, as Horace Portacio says in Sourdough,

From the Old English mearg, the inner­most core. The hidden heart! It makes our blood in its secret chambers. That is Mr. Marrow’s ambition, I believe. The produc­tion of new blood.

Discussing the work of publishing with ~internet people~, you often encounter a reflexive belief in the value of disintermediation. The internet person who says “YEAH, we need to finally get rid of those PUBLISHERS” sees them strictly as parasites, slowing and constricting the ideal rela­tion­ship between author and reader. This person believes the direct link is what everyone involved actu­ally desires. The direct link — and liberation!

Now, I appreciate a direct link. I have published a ton of things on my own, and here I am, linked to you directly.

But if publishing was only direct links, if it only produced the kinds of books that emerge from that partic­ular rela­tion­ship — that geometry—then it would make for a bleak shelf. I’m not sure how best to artic­u­late this … many books just don’t work that way. Many books need to be trans­mitted through a thick mesh rather than a laser-straight link. When you step into a book­store or a library and you get that feeling—you know the one — I believe it is this mesh you are sensing.

You’re standing inside of it.

I feel like the people who make the most noise about “liberating” authors from their publishers (and musi­cians from their labels, etc., etc.) are the ones who … don’t actu­ally enjoy books that much? Any medium-serious reader has their favorite publishers, their reli­able foun­tains of fascination: Belt Publishing, Locked Room, Duke Univer­sity Press, Paul Dry Books, Heyday, FSG Originals … 

Publishers like these don’t just ferry finished work into the market­place (although they do that, too); they actu­ally summon new work into existence. The idea of Daniel Heath Justice writing a perfect slim volume about badgers on his own is nonsensical. But his Badger is a beau­tiful book, so I’m very glad Reaktion’s animal series gave him a reason to write it.

These are not even all the ones I have
These are not even all the ones I have

I will cede a bit of ground to directness: I think readers (medium-serious and up) really ought to purchase books directly from these small, specific publishers when they’ve iden­ti­fied some as favorites, the way I have. It makes a huge differ­ence finan­cially as well as, I think, emotionally. It’s nice to “see” your customers! I say this with some confidence, based on my Fat Gold experience. We sell a lot of olive oil through retailers, and we are very happy to do so … but I love ship­ping Fat Gold straight to people’s homes best of all.

And who knows … if you order straight from the publisher, he might show up on the side­walk in front of your house.


Six kinds of electric light produced in tubes containing different gases, 1868, M. Rapine
Six kinds of electric light produced in tubes containing different gases, 1868, M. Rapine

Craig Mod released, just a few days ago, a short docu­men­tary detailing the produc­tion of his latest book: printing, checking, sewing, binding, ship­ping. In the video, it’s inspiring to see all these real people — and all their great machines! — working together toward the goal of making a vessel that, with luck, will carry Craig’s words and images down the river of time on a longer-than-average journey.

Some would claim Craig for the direct-link model, but I think he is just a very small publisher with a very specific list 😎

And, OKAY, even if we cede his beau­tiful book to the direct-linkers: that’s sort of my point. I am delighted to have access to a system of publishing capa­cious enough to include Craig, Blaft, Belt, FSG, and every­thing in between. Liber­a­tion is not currently required. Now, if you’d like me to tell you about some real problems … 


I received a phys­ical copy of Tamara Shopsin’s new novel, published just this week, a perfectly compact and appealing object:

A copy of LaserWriter II, with its black and white cover evocative of a pixelated printer test page.

I really loved this book, and if mid-1990s Macin­tosh computing played any role at all in your life, I am confi­dent you will, too.


A double rainbow, 1868, R.H. Digeon
A double rainbow, 1868, R.H. Digeon

Just look at the trea­sures avail­able at 50 Watts Books, the new online book­store estab­lished by Will Schofield, whose 50 Watts is one of the web’s great troves. Think of the authors behind those books; think, too, of the publishers.

From Oakland, before the storm,

Robin

October 2021