I came home with a copy of William Shunn’s “An Alternate History of the 21st Century,” a chapbook of six stories. Over the weekend at WFC, I had a chance to hang out with Bill and got to know him. On the way home, I got to know his writing. And, in the wake of a few days of wandering through the dealer’s room, swapping moo cards, and shuffling through the stacks of postcards left on the freebie table, I’m thinking about chapbooks.

I ran into Jacob McMurray (resident designer of Payseur & Schmidt) while I was picking up a copy of the Matthew Hughes’ story, “The Farouche Assemblage,” that P & S had turned into an art object, and we talked briefly about the whole secondary raison d’etre of little books. Sure, the impetus for their creation is a vehicle for getting stories out, but the secondary appeal is that they fun to hold. They are things you explore, that you treasure, that you trade with others. They are low-rent multi-media experiences, opportunities for experimentalism that has a market in the hundreds (or, maybe, tens).

[You really do need to look at the Hughes’ book if you get a chance. Especially the signature page. McMurray’s solution for a scheduling problem (late arrival of signature sheets and possible cock-ups with getting them back and forth across the Canada/US border) was to create a banner that was then glued and sealed on the page of the finished book. It’s a little strip of art hiding inside. It’s a brilliant solution that raises the bar for signature pages.]

Anyway, back to Bill and his chapbook. He wins the “favorite new writer I discovered at the con” game, because of the ease with which I became familiar with his work. I have a stack of postcards, URLs, and moo cards from other people to wade through over the next few weeks, and an even thicker stack of books to read. But, let’s be honest, going through all that is going to take months because there are other distractions. But, not for Bill and me. I had time to kill in the airport; I had his chapbook in the outer pocket of my bag. Hell, I mailed two boxes of books home because there was no way I could fit them in my suitcase.

[And, to be fair, I did also have the pirate issue of Shimmer and the latest Electric Velocipede with me, but I’m not considering those in this argument, because while I read most of them, they were many names and many stories, and by default (read exhaustion), I don’t have the same connections between stories and faces.]

Hell, ‘zines and chapbooks aren’t new. Nor is the idea of swapping them at conventions. But, in the wake of some discussions about the usefulness of short fiction to novelists (aspiring and otherwise), which is a better tool for finding new readers: a bookmark / postcard / moo card that will probably get lost / discarded / eaten by TSA or a small booklet of fiction that’s been put together with an eye toward making an artifact?

I know. I’m just advocating flooding the con floor with thousands of pieces of paper, but I think there’s a couple of built-in restrictors: 1) you don’t allow them to be sent ahead of time, or stuffed in the con bags–the authors have to hand them out, or sell them individually; (2) they will take time and money to put together–more than the cost of making bookmarks and postcards? I don’t know; (3) the shitty ones–the cheaply done stack of bad design with a staple through the middle–are going to drop off in a few years because design and quality standards will be set (like McMurray’s signature page in Hughes’ book).

If you have the budget for a 1000 bookmarks (which, realistically, only about 50 people are going to actually pick up and follow through on, if you are exceptionally lucky) or a 100 chapbooks that are marvelous little things that are fun to page through and that are going to immediately put your writing in front of people’s eyes (they could be read on the elevator, or in the cab, or in the lounge at the airport), I think the chapbooks are an easy choice. It’s better to run out of what you brought then to find yourself sneaking by the promo table and retrieving the thick stack of your unclaimed bookmarks because, damnit!, they were expensive.

Plus there is the whole collecting aspect. I’ve got a Shunn and a Hughes, as well as a Rosenbaum and a Reese from a previous con. They’re like trading cards for writers. What have you got?