What if a device existed that could tell you (somewhat cryptically) how your life would end? Would you let it?
That’s the premise behind Machine of Death, an anthology of stories published by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (Yes, that was an exclamation point after his name — we’ll get to that later.)
The idea sprang from a comic created by North in 2005. Things started to snowball from there as Bennardo and Malki ! teamed up with North and began to ponder what would happen if they accepted story submissions all built around the concept of a machine that could tell you how you’ll die.
They went for it, and by the end of the submissions period in 2007, they’d received nearly 700 stories, 30 of which they selected to become part of the book.
After shopping the book around to agents and publishers for three years, the team decided to publish it themselves. On their blog, they talk about what spurred this decision:
…we learned a little something about the anthology market. Stephen King isn’t in this book. Neither is Dave Eggers or Neil Gaiman or Nick Hornby. Nobody would buy this little book full of stories from nobody famous, we were told.
This is why I choose to highlight Machine of Death in this post. Because it reveals the fundamental flaws in big publishing. A lack of imagination. An inability to adapt to new ideas. A refusal to consider new talent.
And it also shows the power that independent small publishers now possess. They can adapt. They can find writers who fit an established readership regardless of their lack of fame or track record.
Released in 2010, Machine of Death (MOD) was a hit, and thanks to a clever and ambitious marketing campaign, it reached #1 on Amazon on October 26. There are more than 25,000 copies in print. You can buy a hardcover or paperback edition, or you can get a free PDF or an audiobook version.
For those of you considering self-publishing your own book, don’t assume that I’m giving to you the green light to plow forward. The MOD crew had an established fan base and they put a lot of work into the editing and design of the book (see the second question of the interview below). They are business people with a plan and industry knowledge.
But it can be done.
The interview with David ! below sheds some light on how this team ran with an interesting concept and turned it into a successful publishing venture. It highlights how they went about editing, designing, and marketing the book as an independent publisher, and what they looked for from their submissions. Finally, David ! reveals what he’d do if he were presented with an actual real-life Machine of Death…
Pubmission: Okay, first question: I’ve got to ask you what’s up with the exclamation mark? Do you find that a lot people end up shouting your name?
David Malki !: I am shouted at a lot. People get excited when they read my name! It’s part of my humble campaign to make the world more interesting. I am, however, always quick to correct people: it’s a silent character, not pronounced (like the ‘p’ in ‘pterodactyl’). As far as usage goes, consider it a suffix. Some people have Ph.D. after their name; I have an exclamation mark!
Pubmission: From the stories I’ve read in MOD, I’ve been impressed with the editorial quality of the book (which is fairly rare in the e-books I’ve read). Many of our readers are new independent publishers…can you briefly describe your editorial process? How many editors do you use? How many proofreads, etc.?
David Malki !: There are three of us who edit the MOD books, and we all have slightly different tastes. We discuss among ourselves the stories that we especially like, and when we can find a story that we all agree on, we have a pretty good idea that it’s a good one! I’ve also read too many anthologies that couldn’t hold my interest, so one of our main goals is putting together books that read well as packages, that lead the reader from one story, one world to the next in a seamless emotional experience. That informs our selection process, as well as the stories’ order in the book.
As far as proofreading — by the time the book was ready for printing, we’d lost our objectivity to the material, so we sent it out for a professional proofread. But as we were still making design modifications at that point, errors inevitably get missed, or creep back in…so we had a contest for our readers to point out typos in the first printing of the book, so we could fix them in the next printing!
I think a very important thing that we brought to the book, however, was a strong design sense. I personally have a very picky eye for design, and I wouldn’t allow our book to go to press without a sharp look and a distinct design aesthetic. I think I looked at 19 different cover treatments before we landed on the one we printed! And I think all that work and attention to detail pays off in the final product. How the book looks, inside and out, is incredibly important, especially for an independent book. It’s your credibility.
Pubmission: MOD has received astonishingly good reviews, especially on Amazon. Did you have any idea, when you first started this project, that it would achieve this kind of success?
David Malki !: We had hopes, obviously, but the response has been overwhelming! And it is incredibly gratifying. MOD had a very long road to publication, and there were a hundred speedbumps along the way that could easily have killed the project if we didn’t believe in it with our whole hearts. To see people respond positively to it, to see the same magic that we discovered when we started reading submissions, is truly wonderful.
Pubmission: After all the submissions you’ve reviewed for the first, and now the second book, can you say that there’s a formula for a strong MOD story?
David Malki !: It’s a bit tough to say! We definitely see certain themes come up a lot. My co-editor Matt was just pointing out the other day that because of the limited nature of the premise, there’s only so much you can say that’s new about “What It All Means.” About the nature of fate, and the question of destiny, and coming to terms with your death prediction, the rediscovery of joy…these are all great themes, but there are probably not 1,000 ways to explore them in a Machine of Death sort of way.
There are, however, infinite ways to tell stories that are narrative, propulsive plots set in worlds where the Machine of Death exists. All you have to do is look at a familiar situation and say, “Add the machine…and then what happens?” How would it affect life insurance salesmen? That’s a story. Infomercial producers? That’s a story. Soldiers at war? That’s a story. Party-game hostesses? That’s a story. And in fact these are all stories that we printed in our first book! They’re all very different, and they all explore a different facet of the Machine of Death idea.
So I’m pleased to say that there isn’t a formula for a strong MOD story. The formula for a strong MOD story is the same formula as for a strong story in general: interesting characters, vivid worlds, page-turning developments, emotionally satisfying conclusions. (Note: we wrote about “common approaches to avoid” and “new angles to consider” on our blog here: http://machineofdeath.net/
Pubmission: It seems like MOD is a fantastic premise for a TV show. Have you shopped it around?
David Malki !: We have had a few conversations. Anthology-type TV shows are incredibly difficult to make, apparently, because you have to find a new cast, build new sets, etc., for every single episode. But we are excited to see if the MOD world can make a transition into other media! In the meantime, we’ll continue making books and hope people keep liking them.
Pubmission: You obviously had a lot of success getting the word out about your project. What was the most effective tool in your marketing strategy to promote the release of the book?
David Malki !: The most effective tool was the platform that we had to shout from. My co-editor Ryan and I have each been making comics and putting them online for free since 2003, and growing audiences around them. We also had a book with 65 contributors (authors and artists), many of whom have their own audiences as well. When the time came to launch the book, we had a single goal — get to #1 on Amazon — and a single rallying point — the call to action on our blog. (http://machineofdeath.net/
And it worked. But let me make it clear: this was a nuclear option for us. Ryan and I had been giving away free comics for fifteen cumulative years at that point! All of that bought us the opportunity to ask one little favor in return: buy our book, from Amazon, on this one specific day. It worked for us, that time. But rare is the person who can start with the “ask a favor of folks” part — that’s putting the cart before the horse. We had to buy folks’ goodwill first.
Wonderfully, most folks enjoyed the book once they did buy it! So it wasn’t, like, a scam that we pulled on them. Again, we only went to these lengths because we had a real love for our product. That showed through to folks, I guess!
Pubmission: What are your plans for the future? Do you foresee other theme-based projects on your to-do list?
David Malki !: Right now we’re reading submissions that were submitted to us for MOD Volume 2 — almost two thousand of them! That’s the rest of our year, right there. We’re hoping to release MOD2 next year. After that, it’s very hard to say. I read an interview with Louis C.K. in which he quoted a boxer: “It’s not your title fight that counts. It’s your first defense of the title.” So all our energy right now is being poured into making MOD2 the absolute best thing it can be.
Pubmission: If you had the opportunity, would you have your own future read by a Machine of Death?
David Malki !: I would almost certainly be the kind of guy who stumbles over a curb, falls accidentally into a Machine, and gets his fate read without really wanting to. It’s just the sort of thing I’d mess up royally.
Thanks very much to David ! for the interview. Go get a copy of Machine of Death by clicking here.