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The power of steam

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A man goes on a mission to locate writings from authors around the country. He sets up shop in his living room and sells retro-futuristic and pulp adventure fiction compilations — to be viewed on a fantastical device that fits in the palm of your hand — to readers across the globe for the unbelievably low price of just $1.99 an issue.

Science fiction?

Nope, though when you think about it, Steampulp Publishing's concept does loosely resemble the literary genre it's designed to promote. Steampunk melds the speculative with the scientific in a subgenre that, while formulated in the late 1980s, harkens to writings of the steam-powered 19th century.

Steampulp Publishing takes steampunk and gives it another twist. According to the company's president, John Sondericker III, "We wanted to update the pulp adventure magazines of the '20s and '30s, and bring that at a very low cost to something portable. You know, people used to read those kinds of things on trains and during commuter trips and stuff like that. And it was time, in a sense, for that pulpy, easy-to-read short fiction to be read in that way again."

And with that, the first electronic pulp fiction magazine for the iPhone was born.

From dirigibles to downloads

Issue No. 1 of Steampunk Tales dropped in May 2009 with 10 stories, including pieces by nationally known authors such as 2010 Hugo Award-nominated Catherynne Valente, as well as a handful of locals such as Brian Rappatta and Klayton Kendall. Every issue introduces new authors from across the country, and Sondericker says the project is going strong: They've sold thousands of downloads, and just released Issue No. 8 on Aug. 23.

It helps that steampunk has a solid Internet following. You can find topic-specific pages and forums, as well as groups on popular sites such as Facebook and Meetup. On boingboing.net, steampunk is one of 12 archived categories — listed alongside business, technology, culture, etc. — and Steampunk Tales has been blogged about and discussed there.

Sondericker spends about 30 hours a month during evenings and weekends running Steampulp Publishing in his Old Colorado City home. (By day, he's the director of technologies for Wybron, a local entertainment lighting products company.) The 44-year-old, who used to run the local blog nonprophet.typepad.com, says his new venture is making money: "I'm not ready to retire, but it's been worth my time."

It helps, he notes, that the company doesn't have to rent office space or store hard copies of magazines. Steampulp's other staff members, editor Meagan Franklin and marketing and promotions head Evelyn Kriete, work from their homes in Denver and New Haven, Conn., respectively.

Renowned Steampunk writer, essayist and tor.com blogger G.D. Falksen has been a major part of Steampulp's process; each Steampunk Tales release to date has featured an episode of one of Falksen's two serialized pieces.

The first, The Mask of Tezcatlipoca, is a pulp adventure story set in mid-1920s Mexico that, says Falksen, is "basically a competition between the pulp-adventure heroes who are all ex-First World War pilots and an archeologist from Mexico, who is trying to save this Mexican relic from the Aztec period" from her sister, who's bent on selling off Mexico's heritage to raise money to stage a government coup.

The second, An Unfortunate Engagement, is set in the early 1900s and "follows the narrator, Alex, who's sort of traveling around Europe with her friend Bruno, and her other friend Francis, who's a bit of a wet blanket." The three uncover a conspiracy to start a worldwide war using stolen airship technology that Bruno developed, and they're trying to stop it from occurring.

Falksen offered up parts one through four of An Unfortunate Engagement for the company's first free issue. He'd written them for The Willows Magazine, a print product, but ironically, the publication tanked before the episodes could run.

"Print's done," Sondericker says with a laugh.

There might be an app for that

Sondericker says both fan and author bases were there for a product like Steampunk Tales, and it made sense to go electronic: "Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers, which is fairly remarkable if you think about it."

But getting up and running with Apple wasn't easy.

In trying to get into the iTunes App store, he faced the same challenge encountered by artists ranging from South Park creators Trey Stone and Matt Parker to graphic novelists who've interpreted James Joyce works: a cry of "objectionable and obscene material."

In other words, as Sondericker puts it, "everything needed to be Disney."

And though Steampunk Tales covers standard adventure fiction fare — "which can have some intense situations in it" — it's far from another of Apple's rejections, iChatr, the Chatroulette app. Sondericker was sent away five times before the first issue was finally approved.

The process became a little easier with Apple's recent addition of a movie-type rating system; he started labeling everything 17-plus, and got around having to "ask an author to edit their story because Steve Jobs didn't like the language that was used."

But Sondericker says that just this week, as he tried to distribute Issue No. 8, Apple objected to Steampulp's storefront and rejected the new work. He doesn't know when it will become available, but in the meantime he suggests iPhone users read it via the Kindle for iPhone application.

Or they can drop the iPhone altogether. Steampulp recently expanded its offerings, allowing readers to purchase issues straight from the company's website for MobiReader eBook (.PRC) and Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) DRM-free digital downloads.

No matter how cool the iPhone may be, it seems struggling with it is widespread. Falksen can write for Steampunk Tales, but he can't read them. Not on one of those new-fangled machines, at least.

"I've wanted [an iPhone] for ages, but I just can't justify it," the Camden, Conn., author says, laughing, "because they're on AT&T. And while AT&T is a fine service, they're just not as good as Verizon, especially in the area I'm in."

kakens@csindy.com

Steampunk made simple

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