written & illustrated by Bradley W. Schenck
Coming late in 2016 from Tor Books
After a surprise efficiency review the switchboard operators of Retropolis find themselves replaced by a mysterious system they don’t understand. So Nola Gardner pools their severance pay to hire Dash Kent, freelance adventurer and apartment manager, to find out what’s happened to their jobs.
That ought to be easy for Dash, even if his practical experience is limited to heroic rescues (of what he calls entities) from the priests of the Spider God, in their temple at Marius Crater. But the replacement switchboard is only one element of a plan concocted by an insane civil engineer: a plan so vast that it reaches from Retropolis to the Moon. Dash and Nola race to find the hidden switchboard and solve the mystery, and they think they’re on their own.
Of course they’ve got no idea how this plot has affected the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons, or the Ferriss Moto-Man Company, or even those infernal children from the third floor. And while everyone scrambles to save their jobs – or their freedom – the world’s smallest giant robot is striding toward its destiny. An inch or two at a time.
Retropolis has found ways to contain its abundance of Mad Science. But in Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom we find that when engineers go mad. . . they know how to build madness on a scale that’s never been seen before.
The Short Version
My illustrated book Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom has been acquired by Tor Books for publication late in 2016.
I’ve been trying to find a home for the book for more than a year, but let’s face it: everybody at Tor may have been drunk at the time, and now they’re just too polite to tell me so. Still a big win, right?
For the (very) long version, click on through to the rest of this post.
The Very Long Version
Some of you know me best as the creator of the Pulp-O-Mizer, so you may figure that Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom is the book the Pulp-O-Mizer built. You would be wrong, but eventually you’d also be right. Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom is – first – the book that the Pulp-O-Mizer interrupted.
The book began as a new illustrated story for Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual. The Thrilling Tales had turned out to be expensive to produce – with over a hundred illustrations each – and also expensive to print, because those illustrations were in full color. The cost of my self-published books was so high that I couldn’t sell them at wholesale prices, and that kept the books out of bookstores and libraries.
So Switchboard would follow a different model. It would be longer, for one, and there would be just one black and white illustration in each chapter. There were questions about how to serialize the story on the web, but it would have a lot more potential in print. It might even interest an actual publisher. With that new format in mind I got to work on the story in the late summer of 2012.
Things went very well, until in October I’d drafted the first thirteen chapters. It was at this point I did something I strongly advise that you – part way through the first draft for a book – should never do. I looked down. Down, I mean, into the dark and echoing crevasse that had been there, under my feet, the whole time.
Looking down: just don’t do it.
When I looked down I saw several things, not all of which were true. I saw three large problems with the story; I was wrong about two of them, but having seen those problems I just couldn’t stop seeing them. I also noticed that I’d been spending so much time on the book that I hadn’t been doing enough to make a living.
If this book had three large problems, which it seemed to have, then I might have to go back to the beginning and do some substantial work on it… at a time when making a living was looking a little tenuous. So I decided to do something about my income and then, if that worked out, I’d get back to these huge, hideous, horrifying revisions to my first draft.
At this point I sat down to build the Pulp-O-Mizer. If I’d done this on purpose, it would have been the smartest thing I’d ever done. I’m telling you this because (much, much later) it made my agent chuckle. But in 2012 I didn’t have an agent, any more than I had a book.
The Pulp-O-Mizer’s a web application that lets users build their own custom retro science fiction magazine covers. They use titles, backgrounds, and characters that I created, and text that they create themselves. It’s handy for making meme graphics and blog illustrations and (according to people Who Are Not Me) it’s fun to use.
And it does two other things. First, it lets you print your cover graphic on coffee mugs, notebooks, iPad covers, and T-Shirts. This makes me money which, as we’ve seen, is important. You can use the web resolution images in just about any way, except in a commercial product, so long as you leave the Pulp-O-Mizer credit in place. So the other thing the Pulp-O-Mizer does is spread itself.
It seemed like it might work. Once I was pretty far along in testing, I tweeted about it in order to get a few more testers. This worked slightly better than I expected: within days the Pulp-O-Mizer was getting over 4000 page views per hour. I somehow finished my testing and bug fixes even though it seemed like the entire world was using the thing at the same time.
So on the one hand, it looked like I wouldn’t be running out of coffee for awhile; and on the other, a lot of people who had never seen my work were now excited about it. This, as we’ll see, was why building the Pulp-O-Mizer had been such a good idea.
And then I went right back to work on the book, right? Well… no. Stuff just kept coming up for the next few months, and as I dealt with all that stuff I didn’t read Switchboard‘s first chapters again until October. That’s 2013, if we’re keeping score. And you know what? Only one of my Three Big Problems was significant, and its solution was pretty obvious to me now: so obvious that before the end of November I’d finished the first draft.
Read; revise; repeat.
Early in 2014 I had a pretty solid fourth draft. I researched agents, made a list, and started to send out queries.
Now, my life was still full of Pulp-O-Mizer fallout. Among other things the Pulp-O-Mizer made it possible for me to blackmail an author into reading my book. I was looking for some feedback that would help me to make the book better; what I got was a champion for the book who did his best to see that other people liked it, too. I’m not going to tell you who this is because I don’t want his name to show up on a web site called Authors Who Can Be Blackmailed Into Reading Your Book. But it was (and is!) pretty neat.
During my agent search I posted here about my progress, and in response to the first of those posts I got a message from Marco Palmieri at Tor Books. He said he’d really like to see the book when that was possible. Marco had been following my work for several years, and he friended me on Facebook during the Pulp-O-Mizer Incident; it’s on Facebook that he saw my post.
Months later every agent on my list – and then some – had passed on me. So I let Marco know.
I won’t pretend that this didn’t take awhile. Everything in publishing takes awhile. But on one Tuesday in October (that’s 2014, now) I got an email from Marco saying that he’d like to talk to me about the book on Friday, if I’d be available for the call.
Here’s a thing I learned. If you’re an editor, and you tell someone that you’d like to talk to them about their book on Friday, you should finish with “Sleep well.” I mean, when it comes to pure villainy, why take half measures?
Inside of twenty-four hours I’d decided that this was not a flat-out “No”. It might be anything else; but it was not a flat-out “No”. At that point, in a mental fillip that still amazes me, I let it alone. I’d know on Friday.
And it was not a flat-out “No”; in fact, the word “No” didn’t come up at all. Pretty soon thereafter I had an offer, but by then I’d already gone back to my list of agents, all of whom had passed on me, and made a new list of those who’d passed on me with the most enthusiasm.
Hey, it’s all relative.
They tell you that the easiest time to get an agent is when you already have an offer from a publisher. This is probably true. I’ve only done it the once, and that’s how it worked for me. And, agents? Get a good one. Mine (the excellent Caitlin Blasdell) more than paid for herself in the first contract cage match.
And the contract cage matches continued through late 2014, with a truce during the holidays, and on into the beginning of the new year. Until now, when I can finally mention that this has been going on.
So when I say that the Pulp-O-Mizer eventually built the book, I mean that the Pulp-O-Mizer started as the thing I worked on instead of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom; then it turned out to be a device that helped me sell the book. If I’d done that on purpose I’d be the kind of guy who says MUAHAHAHA! on his way to check the mail.
There’s also this: when I decided to take the book to traditional publishers I had to tell myself that there were things I’d need to give up. Things I liked, like the title, and like the cover I’d put together for the book.
I sweated over my title. I changed my mind many, many times. But at last I arrived at a title that 1.) reminds you of old pulp titles like Priestess of the Purple Pyramid; and 2.) is ridiculous, because of its combination of supercharged words like "Slaves" and "Doom" with that undercharged word, "Switchboard". I love my title. The book is exactly what it says on the tin.
But I didn’t expect a publisher to feel that way about it. Now, this may yet change: but for the moment nobody has mentioned changing the title to something punchy and compressed, like [ADJECTIVE] [NOUN]. So I have hope.
And the cover? It won’t be the one you see above, but I will be doing the cover for the book. This may not surprise you, but it sure surprised me. Book covers are a marketing problem. Publishers have their own solutions to that problem. So I just tried to look forward to the fantastic cover that somebody else would do. My brain had given up the cover long before, so when I was told that I’d be doing it? Huge deal. In my head, I mean, and maybe even elsewhere.
Now, another thing: this will continue to take a long time. There will be revisions to the book (now at version 5b); there will be copy editing; there will be proofreading, and book layout, and marketing; there will be printing, packaging, and distribution. There will be things I’ve never even heard of, like… like that thing I’ve never heard of, for example. Yeah, that one, over there.
Altogether, we can’t expect to see the book before late 2016.
I’m pretty excited by this. Who wouldn’t be? But what it really means is that something a gazillion times more exciting is going to happen about twenty months from now. Which may seem like a long time to wait. Heck, it is a long time to wait. The thing is, now it’s going to happen.
For now, I’m just glad I can finally tell you about it. I mean, I’ve been telling my houseplants about it for months, but it really isn’t the same, is it? And anyway, my houseplants know me so well that it’s pretty hard to get them worked up about anything.
That’s our job.