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What is New Pulp?

I’ve gotten into a bit of a “pulp fiction” kick of late and have been reading reprints of the stuff like a madman over the past six months. I’ve eaten up 30 volumes of Doc Savage; tons of adventures of the Spider, the Phantom and the shadow; checked back on the work of HP Lovecraft, RE Howard, Burroughs, Chandler and more.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term beyond it being used as a name for a Quentin Tarantino film, pulp fiction (or, “the Pulps”) was a method or type of publishing from the late 1800s through about the mid 50s. It was made up of a ton of different genres (everything from sci fi, fantasy, horror (although it was first called “weird tales”), romance, sports, war, westerns, detective stories, etc) published in the cheapest format possible, to be sold to the widest audience possible. They started off as large magazines, printed on crappy paper, usually with untrimmed pages.

Pulp Magazines were a mix of genres published in as cheap a format as possible.

The pulps grew out of the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the 19th century and eventually turned into the mass market paperbacks of the 60s and 70s.

The key to the pulps (and their successors in the “pulp paperbacks) was they were cheap and aimed at the largest audience possible. There were a lot of really great authors who worked in the pulps – HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Arthur C Clark, Philip Dick, Fritz Lieber, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler and lots more – but for the most part, people were buying them for the lurid covers, cheap price and mix of stories that anyone could read.

I want to place emphasis on that – cheap price and aimed at the widest audience possible..

Which brings us to a “movement” that has been running around for the past few years: New Pulp.

When I started up on my “pulp” kick, I was pretty excited to hear there was a band of publishers running around and billing themselves as “new pulp.” Awesome, I thought, there is someone out there cranking out fun, shorter length product on a monthly basis for a low price – and, for me, the “monthly” aspect wasn’t as important because I’d grown up with the “pulp” paperbacks of the 70s. As long as there was enough cheap, regular content coming out, I was cool with it because I read a lot (4-5 novels a week). I was also excited because, I assumed, these “new pulp” publishers were going to be putting out a wide range of material – after all, there were absolutely no set genres in pulp fiction.

Jumping on the BN.com and Amazon, my assumptions were quickly shattered and three facts reared their ugly heads.

The first was that none of the “new pulp” books were cheap. They all started at about $10 and headed up to about $25 for paperbacks.

Second, the majority of those publshers calling themselves “new pulp” were only publishing what were essentially just from the “pulp heroes” area of things, and were knock-offs (well done knock-offs in some cases) of characters like Doc Savage, the Shadow or G-8, or they were stories using “pulp hero” characters who had fallen into the public domain and required no licensing or guidance by the estate of the creators of those characters. This second point has caused a lot of “old pulp” pundits to refer to the work as “fanfic” because it is unauthorized. Their thinking seems to be “Sure, anyone can write about a character called “Sherlock Holmes,” but that doesn’t make it a “real” Sherlock Holmes story.” Or Domino Lady or Black Bat or any other public domain character you want to insert.

See? Lots of different genres in there...all for cheap!

I can see both sides of the argument – how is your Sherlock story any more “official” than that lady’s slashfic with Sherlock making out with Doctor Watson? – but it didn’t really come in to play. For me, a good story is a good story. What did matter was the fact these “new pulp” publishers were all talking about “capturing the feel” of the original pulps and so forth, but they were really only doing a pastiche of one small segment of the pulps.

This limiting of what was called “pulp” irked me a bit. Pulps were so much more than that – really, the only thing that linked most pulp authors together were their nearly universal tendency to over-pad their word counts. When you’re getting paid less than a cent per word, you want to make sure you stretch that out as much as possible! Aside from that, there really wasn’t a lot of crossover in terms of style.

The third thing I noticed was that there were very few of these “new pulp” novels available for sale electronically on either of the biggest two book markets on the internet – the Nook and the Kindle – and those that were tended to be higher priced. I saw ebooks priced at $3 and up.

Now, to be fair, $2.99 for a standard novel really isn’t a bad price. It’s a standard price for an average indy-published novel. $3.99 and up is a bit expensive for an unknown author from an indy press, but $2.99 is a standard price. However, $2.99 isn’t a PULP price.

In my head, these three factors – factors which were some of the basic foundations of what pulp fiction was – confused me. These “new pulp” publishers were charging premium (and above premium) pricing for their work, were limiting the scope of what they produced, and were limiting the availability.

Needless to say, I was pretty mystified by their selection of the “new pulp” term for the work. If you aren’t supporting the tenets of “pulp fiction” then why adopt the name? Even if you say to me “well, they are putting out content that is similar to some of what was produced, so that argument is out,” there are still the pricing and availability issues. Really, without them, science fiction, fantasy or romance are all just as worthy of being called “new pulp” as something starring a clone of Doc Savage or John Carter.

Football, detective, romance, westerns...lots of genres. Not just "pulp heroes" set at the beginning of the 20th Century.

For me, and I am no one of consequence, the term “new pulp” is a misnomer, especially when there is already a “new pulp” movement in existence, and one that is far more worth of the name. The real “new pulp” is e-publishing. With it, a publisher (or even an adventurous author out on his own) can price their work cheap enough to entice as wide an audience as possible AND make it available to that audience for potential purchase.

Pulp fiction is alive and well on the Kindle and Nook, and the “new pulp” is really “E-Pulp.”

UPDATE: I just posted a follow-up – What Is New Pulp – Part 2!

-Mat Nastos, Super Genius
http://www.MatNastos.net

PS. This post is in no way a knock against the talent or work of those individuals who call themselves “new pulp” autors or publishers. I’m actually a big fan of a lot of the guys producing what is essentially a group of period (late 19th through mid 20th century) action/adventure or SciFi/fantasy stories. I recently finished up “The Rook” volume 2 by Barry Reese and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d have picked up more, but the books are either unavailable in eBook format, or over-priced as ebooks and print books. I’m also a HUGE fan of guys like Van Allen Plexico, Bobby Nash, Mike Bullock, Dwight McPherson and Ron Fortier. I just wish their publishers would get savvy to the fact that they have priced themselves right out of the Pulps.

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Mat Nastos
TV, Film, comic book, fantasy & steampunk writer/director, known best for bad horror movies about giant scorpions, killer pigs & dinosaurs in the sewers. You can find his work on Smashwords or at his Amazon Author Page.

8 Responses

  1. Mat Nastos says:

    The two things I didn’t talk about in the post, because it was getting way too long, were:

    The majority of the guys involved in “New Pulp” would have been introduced to the format by the later “pulp novels”. Since the pulps died out 50-60 years ago, there aren’t many creators involved who were fans of the originals. My intro to the material, being born in the early 70s, was with cheap-o paperbacks in the late 70s and early 80s, often picked up at the swap meet or used bookstores.

    The other point is that “pulp fiction” is really “pop fiction.” It’s material that has wide appeal and is easy/cheap to consume. I didn’t want to toss out another coined term just for the sake of being cute. Sad to admit, my marketing side won out and I couldn’t resist bringing it up here. 🙂

    -Mat N

  2. Van Plexico says:

    Good points, Mat, and thanks for the kind words as always.

    I will say this, though: In regards to the price that the (mostly) small-press publishers charge for New Pulp, a lot of that is simply beyond their control. I don’t think many New Pulp publishers intentionally set out to price their works out of the market. You cite Kindle prices of as low as $2.99 as being too high for pulp– but yet I as a small press publisher am not, to my knowledge, able to get Amazon to let me charge less than that price. It seems to be their rock-bottom minimum, if I am to make any money selling something there.

    Similarly, because of the limited (but growing) audience for New Pulp, printing is usually done via the more expensive per-unit Print-on-Demand rather than via huge (but cheaper) general print runs. That, too, is not the fault of the New Pulp publishers. If POD printing cost less, publishers would charge less. At least, I know at least one or two who definitely would.

    None of this is to argue with your observations, but merely to expand a bit on some of the factors the publishers face. Thanks again for discussing the subject to begin with!

    • Mat Nastos says:

      I think you misunderstood my point. I think $2.99 is a great price for an e-pub novel and buy them at that price myself all the time. I just don’t know how a standard pricing for ebooks (and high prices for print books) equates to “PULP.” My issue isn’t with the pricing, my issue is how something can be referred to as “new pulp” when it doesn’t really reflect a “Pulp” type pricing. It’s me trying to work through that…the pulps were cheap entertainment, even when I was reading their descendants, the mass market paperbacks of the 70s. To me, the reason for taking on that particular name is to reflect what the pulps were known for. Otherwise, you’re just doing adventure stories or sci fi stories or superhero stories. The pulps were cheap entertainment and without that, what have you really got?

      My point is, and this is someone who understands the issues and costs of things like POD and self-pubbing, that perhaps “New Pulp” isn’t the best of titles for what tends to be a premium priced line of books.

      Also, there are a lot of ways to get Amazon to price your work lower than $2.99 – I have material up at 99 cents and you can even get your work up free! They have an entire section of free Kindle books. Maybe I’ll do that as an article if you think it would help. 🙂

  3. Mat Nastos says:

    Since I posted this last night, I’ve received a flurry of emails from people in the “New Pulp” movement – 4 authors and 2 publishers. None of them seem to be able to agree with one another on what “New Pulp” is or even what the original pulps were. It’s pretty interesting. To everyone I say: leave comments instead of sending emails because an open discussion might help the branding issues the movement has a lot more than a bunch of disjointed private ones.

  4. Barry Reese says:

    Thanks for the Rook mention, Mat. I posted a link to this discussion on my website. You raise some interesting points though if we were to price everything on print books as low as you seem to want, most of us would see our already tiny profits vanish and some of the self-pub guys would probably end up losing money in some cases. I always stress to publisher’s to price my stuff as low as they can, even though it means I make less on each copy.

  5. Mat Nastos says:

    The Rook is great…and a great example of missed business opportunity. Your volumes should be available online – vol 1 should be $1.99 and the rest $2.99. You’d get a lot more orders and see some nice profit…and get them all on Amazon!

    You’re talking about the problems of any small business — you can’t compete with the standards of the industry or the pricing needs to achieve mainstream marketplace success.

    I understand those problems, but they’re not a factor in what I’m talking about. I’m saying: the Pulps were cheap entertainment and you’re offering premium (and sometimes HIGH premium) product and branding it with a budget label.

    In other words, you’re trying to sell a $20 product in a 99 Cent store. 🙂 The combination, to me (and I’m no one), makes no sense.

    HOWEVER, putting together a solid line of New Pulp content with a 99 cent introduction volume (or $1.99) and well-priced subsequent volumes, does. Keep the pricing consistent and economical – make it as easy as possible for new readers to give it a taste test and make it cheap enough to start bringing in casual fans. A $24.95 paperback isn’t the way to do it (even an $11.95 one is a bit tough, but not outrageous).

    Keep your print prices where you are forced to keep them, and use the e-versions as a way to expand, grow and solidify your audience.

    Thanks again for the comment, Barry! The Rook volume 2 was a ton of fun and, as I said in my reviews, I thought it was a lot better written than the block of Doc Savage stuff I just worked my way through. Good stuff! Fix your pricing and availability, tho 😀

  6. James Palmer says:

    Hi Mat,

    Thanks for starting this discussion on “New Pulp.” I am a “New Pulp” author, and I agree with much of what you’re saying. When people ask why pulp is so popular today, the people who write it often point out the similarities between the original heyday of the pulps and now: Widespread economic recession, scary foreign wars, and a cheap distribution medium, which seems to be what you’re focusing on to the detriment of everything else.

    Is a romance novel pulp just because it’s available as an ebook for $2.99? I think that even the most casual reader, unconcerned with genre labels, would think not.

    As for the pricing of print books, I’ve had no problem selling copies of my work at conventions if a person is really interested in it. After all, they have been “trained” by the market for other books to expect such prices. I can often by them at a discount anyway, and pass the savings on to the buyer and can still make a good profit.

    I agree that there needs to be more of it available in e-format, and hopefully we will get there soon. Part of the problem, at least with one publisher I work with, is the Kindle’s near inability to display interior illustrations, and they like to include these illustrations in their books as an homage of sorts to the original pulp magazines. I’ve said from the beginning that we could easily do an e-book version without illios, then a print version containing these illios for collectors. By the way, this publisher makes their work available in pdf format for $3.00, so there are cheaper options available.

    I liked what you said about pricing e-books starting at $1.99 and going up to $2.99 or so. This would work great for a series book.

    Anyway, thanks for starting this discussion.

    • Mat Nastos says:

      No, Romance could be considered a pulp because it was one of the major genres found in the original pulps. I think genre is one of those things that can be ignored when it comes to “pulp” – it’s well know that the pulps were made up of just about every genre that was sellable, from romance to sports to business to adventure to crime/detective to pre-horror “weird stories” and scifi.

      My issue (and I’ve said this over and over in the posts and comments) isn’t with the prices. It was with the prices in tandem with the use of the term “pulp.” I just don’t see the correlation of “pulp” with high prices (or even standard ones). If pricing was a major factor of what the pulps were (cheap pop culture entertainment of the time) and it’s not there for the New Pulp, then how is the term being used in this particular instance? What makes “new pulp” more “pulp” than Romance novels or SciFi or True Crime or Horror? I think there needs to be clarification in the branding…and from what I’ve heard over the past day or so, it sounds like a lot of people outside of the New Pulp movement (and a lot of the authors in it!) are confused by what “new pulp” is. I know, I’m one of those confused people.

      I like $2.99 for an eBook (or $3.99 – $4.99 for a more established series even). I don’t mind $10-$11 for a paperback if I’ve had a chance to be introduced to an author at a lower price. $14.95 starts to hit that iffy range for me (and most mainstream buyers). I definitely wouldn’t pay $24.95 for a paperback prose book, even if it was from a big A-List author and an established property I loved. I do think, even if you forget my own issues with the term “New Pulp,” there are problems with a lot of the pricing being too high…and in a lot of the material not being available for the Kindle or Nook, the two major eReaders. To someone who went to business school, it just makes no sense!

      In terms of illustrations and the like, that should all become less of an issue in the next month or so as the new Kindle Format 8 rolls out. It allows tables, illustrations, all the cool design techniques used for print. Along with the upcoming new ePub format, eBooks are going to be looking pretty darn spiffy!

      Thanks for the comment!

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