Author: Guest blogger
By Chris Flynn, founder and editor of Torpedo
In the introduction to Torpedo Greatest Hits, I describe how in 2002 a friend and I flew into Prague airport on a ten-pound Easyjet flight and were picked up by an elderly man with no English who proceeded to drive his ancient Eastern bloc car at a terrifying speed along darkened back roads into the city. Whilst I was attempting to communicate with him that he needed to slow down, the car struck an enormous wild turkey that was out for a leisurely evening stroll. Like some cartoon, the turkey’s wide eyes slammed into the windscreen right in front of me before disappearing over the roof. It was a traumatic and later hilarious moment my companion and I recalled once we had reached the guesthouse, cradling our giant beers whilst watching the Czech version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? We marveled at the fact one million Czech zlotys was equivalent to about sixty thousand Australian dollars, our sense that we had landed somewhere very strange indeed amplified by the news that several animals had escaped from the zoo during the recent floods and that a gorilla was still unaccounted for.
I compared the car journey to the experience of starting a literary journal. The metaphor of speeding down an unknown road, unsure of where you are going, giddy with excitement and completely unprepared for that sudden turkey in the face seemed all too apt.
Torpedo Greatest Hits marked the final outing for the journal I had birthed in 2007, after only three years and seven issues. Whilst it is a satisfying way to end the brief trip down a shadowy country road, it does feel like I managed to steer the vehicle over a cliff at some point. TGH was published by John Hunter and I will be eternally grateful to him for investing in such a gesture, as I could never have published such a collection myself. Upon hearing of its release and my announcement that no further issues of Torpedo would be produced, most people have expressed dismay and disappointment (genuine or no, it doesn’t seem to matter now) and all have asked the inevitable question – how come?
Torpedo was never successful, at least not in the way a journal needs to be in order to survive, which is by selling a few copies. Our kudos may always have been high, due to the beautiful design and covers, and the eclectic story selection, but sales were always startlingly low. I’ll be honest here – the combined sales of all seven issues were dramatically less than what one single issue of Meanjin sells. Everybody I met kept telling me how much they admired the journal, but rarely did I meet anyone who had bought it.
Money is a tricky issue for journals, even the well established ones. With Torpedo I wanted to create a journal that printed only short stories, some of them in comic format but for the most part straight fiction. That may have lessened its appeal, I don’t know. I also chose from the start to have a mix of overseas and Australian fiction, which, across the seven issues in the end proved to be an even 50-50 split. I wanted to print stories by the great young American writers whose work I had enjoyed in journals like McSweeney’s and Zoetrope alongside Australian writers I liked but whose names rarely appeared in other journals. The problem with this was that it rendered Torpedo ineligible for grants. Thus I had to pay for everything myself. During the three years of Torpedo I worked full time at the Arts Centre Car Park, first as a valet driver and cashier, then later as a manager. After paying rent, bills and food, all my spare money was plunged into the journal. Constantly broke, I departed the Arts Centre for a more senior position at Crown Casino, as a duty manager in their car park. Oh, the glamour of independent publishing! The result? An income of minus seventeen thousand dollars over the past three years and monthly loan repayments that threaten to continue for the next three.
But what the hell, eh? Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that. What else would I have spent that money on anyway? Booze, tight jeans, a fixie bike and a trip to New York? Pshaw! Whilst it was often stressful, it was always exciting receiving a delivery of fresh issues from the printer, though carrying them up the stairs did tend to diminish the appeal. I always had high hopes, pleased that each issue seemed to improve on the former, wanting to believe that maybe this was the one that would sell out its tiny print run. They never did, and I gave away many more issues than we sold in the end. There are still a few boxes sitting in the corner in fact (five bucks each on the website, folks!). I never did work out what the problem was. Maybe it was my story selection. Maybe I have weird or deeply unfashionable taste in fiction. I was certainly never good at promotion. I have a horror of event organization. Launch parties always seemed dismal affairs to me, and I couldn’t afford to drop several hundred dollars on free wine. Good reviews seemed to make no difference (The Herald Sun, The Age, mX, Vice), ditto for advertising, which I did on 3000, on the Vice website and in Australian Book Review. Maybe there are too many journals out there already, vying for a tiny sliver of readers whom I imagine have very limited funds at their disposal. I really don’t know. It’s probably a combination of all those factors, or maybe the real reason is the unthinkable one – it was rubbish. It’s hard to tell when you’re so close to something whether it’s any good or not and whilst I honestly believe it was a worthy journal that at its best was pretty special and at its worst was so-so, I’m willing to concede that it perhaps wasn’t most people’s cup of tea. The fact no one bought it is, in the end, inescapable. If the print runs of 500 (and for later issues, 250) had sold, then it would have continued. It’s that simple.
A cautionary tale for those inspired to create their own publication by Meanjin, harvest, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, Ampersand, HEAT, Sleeper’s, Going Down Swinging and all the other journals that have bookstores scratching their heads wondering where they’re going to display them? Perhaps. It is at least worth remembering that lying somewhere in the silt at the bottom of the ocean is an unexploded Torpedo, waiting for aliens to discover in the 23rd Century after we’re all long gone, just like at the end of that Spielberg movie A.I. when they find Haley Joel Osmont frozen in his helicopter. In the meantime I’m up on the surface in my rowboat, paddling towards the sunset, keeping one eye open for errant turkeys.
Chris Flynn reviews for The Book Show.