I met Michael Bunker at last year’s LoneStarCon 3 in San Antonio, the World Science-Fiction Convention for 2013. We were seated next to each other at the dinner Hugh Howey hosted for local fans and fellow writers, and we hit it off quickly. The man makes quite an impression. About the last thing you expect to see at a science-fiction convention is an Amish man and his family dressed in traditional garb, and Michael was asked more than once if he was engaging in a bit of cosplay. He good-naturedly informed the curious that he was, in fact, Amish, and was also a writer of science-fiction, thanks for asking. Making even more of an impression was the obviously sharp mind beneath the straw hat, along with his passionate advocacy for independent publishing.
Bunker has made a rapid transition from author of primarily non-fiction books such as Surviving Off Off-Grid: Decolonizing The Industrial Mind, to prolific writer in the science-fiction and post-apocalypse genres. His newest release is the complete omnibus edition of Pennsylvania, which has been serialized over the course of a year. It promises to be a true showcase for what’s possible in independent publishing, with cover by Jason Gurley and interior illustrations by Ben Adams. The trade paperback edition is being released on Tuesday, April 29, and Bunker is cooking up a “book bomb,” asking fans to buy it on that day, the better to make a boulder-sized splash in the rankings. I checked in with Michael to get the latest on the release:
SS: I already know, of course, because I’ve been reading the installments, but for everyone else, give us a rundown—what is Pennsylvania about?
MB: In shorthand, Pennsyvlania is about a young Amish man who, like his ancestors before him, decides to emigrate to a place where he can find good cheap land in a new Amish community. It just so happens that this community is on a new planet… the earth-like planet of New Pennsylvania. The journey thrusts young Jed into the midst of a war between an insurgent anti-government organization, and a tyrannical government agency, and in the midst of a number of mysteries that involve the very nature of time and space.
SS: You seem to have mined a unique sub-genre: Amish Science-fiction. How does your own life in a “Plain” community inform your fiction?
MB: I think living as a plain man in an off-grid community involves a daily study of how technology affects our lives and how we interact with it. Our cottage on our forty acre farm is completely non-electric, but I have an office several hundred yards from my cottage where I work. In my office I have limited electricity via solar power and a generator. So every day I experience the tension between the modern technological world, and my own community which is a simple, peaceful, plain community. That contrast is the root stock of Amish Sci-Fi. The Amish have never been anti-technology. They are just very deliberate about what technologies they choose to use and examine how the use of it will affect their lives, families, and communities. I think Amish Sci-Fi is a perfectly natural extension of what Sci-Fi is all about… how we deal with the future and how it affects our humanity.
SS: Pennsylvania was released as a serial in five installments over the course of a year, culminating in the omnibus edition. You’ve done that with many of your other novels. How does serialization help the Indie author? Is this still the most effective strategy?
MB: I think serialization offers the reader the best of both worlds. Some readers HATE serials, and only want to purchase the finished novel. Great! My books are compiled and novelized at the same speed as if I’d written the book and published it as a complete novel. So there is no “waiting” involved, other than the waiting that would have happened if I hadn’t serialized. At the same time, there is a large and growing population of readers, raised on serialized television and even serialized movies, who love the serial form. Actually, the serial form in literature is very, very old, and some of the greatest works of literature were serialized first. So readers can consume their fiction however they like it.
Serialization helps the author in numerous ways. First, it creates a relationship between the author and the people I call “super fans.” Those readers who just love serialization and love to actually have direct contact with the content creator. These readers become partners in the production and distribution of the work, almost like they are co-writers. They often offer early comment and critique as the story is being written, and through social media the author can actually listen in as his or her most avid readers discuss what they like or don’t like about the story.
Next, the super fans are also a driving force. They encourage the author to keep moving forward and to produce on a schedule. Like I said, they become full partners in the work! Then, with a large number of readers who are partners, our finalized novel has a firm platform to be launched out to the rest of the world. It is improved by the help from our partners, and those partners become voices that help move the story out of our immediate circle of influence. I don’t think serialization will work for every book, but for most speculative fiction it is an ideal plan for both the readers and the authors. I meet people all the time who say, “I hate serials. I’ll just wait for the full novel,” and I say “GREAT!” And I reinforce the fact that the serialization process has added ZERO time to the waiting. The Pennsylvania Omnibus will be released exactly when it would have been released if I hadn’t serialized it. The only difference is that I believe it is a much better book now than it might have been otherwise.
SS: You’ve put a lot of effort into the print edition of Pennsylvania. What’s special about the trade paperback?
MB: I’m one of those strange fellows who likes both e-books and paperbacks. I have well over 3,000 books in my personal library. I love physical copies of books, and I think there are still a whole lot of people who love physical books. At the same time, I realize that some people don’t have room on their book shelves or for some reason they just don’t like to buy physical books. Like with the Serial vs. Full Novel issue, with Indie publishing every reader can get exactly what they want.
I also happen to believe that we are in a very special time in the history of the world, one of those Golden Ages that happens in literature every 50 to 100 years. I believe that some of the Indie writers telling stories today will one day be household names, and they’ll be studied in classrooms in the future. I wrote a blog post for my blog yesterday where I explained how Gogol and Pushkin, both self-published authors at the time, published books in 1831 that fundamentally changed the world and all of literature. It was the beginning of the golden age of Russian literature.
So having some of these important works in the Indie publishing revolution in print format—a first edition—is a very cool thing. I’m developing quite a pile of signed Indie works, mainly because I believe they are going to be very valuable very soon. I can tell you this, if you had a signed print version of Hugh Howey’s first WOOL Omnibus (the earliest “ugly” yellow cover), you’d be able to sell it for a lot of money on Ebay. The one that is available there this morning is $599! I think that kind of collector reality is happening right now in self-publishing. I want the early, first edition printings of Pennsylvania to have the kind of intrinsic value that makes it valuable to the reader for more than just the story. That is why I put a lot of time and money into the first print edition of The Pennsylvania Omnibus, and why readers can buy it directly from Amazon unsigned, or they can ordered a signed First Edition directly from me.
SS: You have a book bomb planned for April 29th when the print edition is released. What everyone really wants to know is, which adult beverage are you holding in reserve to celebrate? And which stogie will get the honor?
MB: It will definitely be Scotch. I haven’t purchased it yet, but I’m considering my options. I think I will spend the day in Fredericksburg, Texas and I’ll buy a bottle of 12-year-old Highland Single Malt and I’ll sit back and see how the launch goes. As for a stogie, same deal… there is a pretty nice little cigar store in Fredericksburg and I’ll go pick out something fine and perfect and I’ll enjoy the day!