I've got a Jackson on my wall, framed with the cover of Thuglit Issue 3. It's the first twenty bucks I earned writing fiction. So it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the chance when Ed Aymar, editor of The Thrill Begins asked me if I'd interview Todd Robinson, the man behind one of the most important venues for both new and established authors of hard-edged short stories about crime. Here's the piece which originally ran earlier this month.
Thuglit’s name says it all. Tough stories written by strong voices. It’s got a reputation as a home for tales that scratch the underbelly, probe dark channels, and confront themes the meek and tender would best avoid. But more than that, it’s a place for good story-telling. Publisher and chief editor Todd Robinson and his crew have a knack for identifying promising new voices and slipping them between the covers with some of today’s top crime novelists who keep bringing the grit.
As markets for short crime fiction go, Thuglit’s steadfast delivery of “eight punches to the gut, six times a year” is a track record only the most committed anthologists can claim. The work involved in reviewing, selecting, editing, proofing, and delivering a top-notch product is hardly a part-time job, yet Robinson, aka Big Daddy Thug, never misses an issue.
With a work ethic that would put anyone to shame, he somehow found time to share his thoughts about how hard that work is and whether or not it pays off. (Hint: his answer is impassioned.) He also offers no-holds-barred advice on what not to submit—his own no-bullshit rule.
A lot of crime fiction is dark. Tell us about the particular flavor you’re curating.
I’m just trying to curate whatever the hell is good. A mistake that writers make over and over is when they tell me they’re working on a “Thuglit story.” They’ve already failed. The best story you can write is what we want. Period. Because we have looser restrictions on graphic violence, language and sexuality doesn’t mean that it’s a requirement. A lot of writers treat that freedom like a kid who just learned how to swear. Just write a great goddamn story.
Given the audience you’re building and your commitment to being “always open to submissions,” you must be inundated. How do new voices keep breaking through?
We’re buried. Submissions are all I read nowadays. As far as “new voices” are concerned, I believe that there are two answers, both for why the newer writers fail or why they succeed, and they’re both in relation to tropes.
The failures come from writers who think they know what the genre is about, and think that because it’s genre, that the same-old same-old approach works. It’s 2016, and I still get “Detective-at-desk-drinking-whiskey-dame-with-legs-walks-in” stories. These are clearly writers who are stuck in a time-warp, never having read a book published after 1957 and have never seen Terriers or The Wire. And that’s fine. We all dig what we dig. Now, can that archetype be made fresh? Maybe. I haven’t seen it more than a couple times in over eleven years of submissions. (Note: That is NOT a fucking invitation to send me your “Detective-at-desk-drinking-whiskey-dame-with-legs-walks-in” story.)
But that also tells me that they’ve never picked up an issue of Thuglit and looked at the stuff we do. And that pisses me off. I once got roundly criticized by a writer for not publishing enough stories by women. I pointed out that about fifteen percent of the stories we publish are by women writers while women account for only five percent of submissions. The criticism then turned to the “masculine nature and tone” of the mag frightening off women readers and writers.
Then I asked the woman if she’d ever read the magazine before. Want to guess what the answer was?
I don’t give a blue fuck if the writer is a transgender Klingon with a Furry fetish. If the story is good enough, we run it. But that’s the shit I have to deal with.
NOW, despite my earlier rant, I think a lot of reasons that new writers succeed is because they HAVEN’T read too much of the genre. They don’t know what the supposed rules and tropes are, so they don’t feel beholden to them, subconsciously or otherwise. Their take on a crime story is purely organic, and coming solely from their own writerly imaginings and not locked into genre archetypes. (Note: There ARE no genre rules.) But being a crime fiction magazine, your story should have a crime in it. Just sayin.’
It’s a tough balance.
Is there any consideration, thematic or otherwise, that goes into each issue beyond the best eight stories you got that month?
Thuglit’s submission guidelines [read ’em, they’re great] are about as clear-cut as they come. Have you ever had to send someone over to explain them?
Ugh. I’m through with berating people who are too goddamn stupid to read submissions guidelines.
You once told me something like, “It doesn’t have to be gritty. It just has to be a good story.” What’s a good story?
Who the hell knows? I could point out two dozen stories that I think are fantastic, and I’ll have a different reason for why on each one.
You were first to publish a long list of authors who’ve gone on to rock the crime fiction world. Must make you proud. Care to gush?
The list is too long to gush about any more. But yeah, I have immense pride when any writer who has passed through our doors makes their way onto a bookshelf. It’s no secret that I’ve had a really hard time in the publishing world. Any time I can step up and help a great writer avoid the pratfalls and mistakes I’ve made, I figure I’m removing one more mark on my “Going to Hell” ledger.
It’s a thick ledger.
Your role as an editor combined with your experience writing both short stories and novels gives you a particular perspective on what works in short vs. long form. Some authors say they “can only” write one or the other. What advice would you have for a self-described novelist who wants to try their hand at short crime fiction?
Chuck it in the Fuck-It Bucket. Write whatever you want. Just care about what you’re writing. Care about who you’re writing for. But most of all, care for the people you’re writing about.
Like every great property, Thuglit’s got an origin story. Can you tell it?
I just got sick of nobody publishing the kind of fiction I liked to write. It’s also the fiction that I like reading. We are fucked in the head, publishing-wise, in this country. Major publishers have no balls whatsoever to work with something new, even if they’re passionate about it. They fear marketing departments that don’t want to work to find new audiences, but instead just want to lazily keep the old gears running. It takes work to build a new machine. But then again, if I had any idea how to market a goddamn thing, I’d be selling more copies of my own shit. But again, I’m not in marketing, and am probably talking out my ass…again.
After launching in 2005, you published until 2010 and then re-launched in September 2012 with a solid run since then. What brought you back? Given you’ve doubled your pay rate for stories, it must be working. Do you know why?
Nope. We are an absolute failure as of right now. Not gonna lie. We were a free online mag originally. In 2012, on-demand publishing and e-books were a viable platform, and I figured if we could make a little money, we can actually pay the writers (which they wholeheartedly deserve) and maybe make the effort worth our own time.
So we re-opened the mag as an e-book at $0.99, the lowest allowable price, in an effort to regain our old audience. We peaked at 4% of our prior (free) readership after two years, when I raised the price to $1.99 and increased the pay rate accordingly. Our sales haven’t stopped dropping since. Issue 20 was our lowest-selling issue to date. Keep in mind, two of our competitor magazines closed their doors in 2015. Our submissions doubled, our sales continue to sink.
Problem is, we’re in a cheaper-is better-society. There’s a lot of free content online that’s dumped out there without the kind of dedication that we have to a quality product for both the people writing the stories and those reading it. There’s some wonderfully curated stuff online, as well. After our initial run, I figured that we’d built up enough of a rep for what we do, won enough awards, to be able to ask for less than a goddamn coffee for it.
I was wrong.
But as a society, we’d rather sift through a turd buffet with the off-chance that there might be shrimp buried in it than pay two bucks for a meal that’s been presented with care at a restaurant that has a history of doing so.
Suck on THAT metaphor.
And finally, a lot of writers complain about a lack of paying markets, but ask them when was the last time they read one—fuck that, bought one just to support the market. It’s no different than paying a couple extra dollars for a book at an independent bookstore because you want one to stay in your neighborhood.
I’d lay down that most are going to look at their shoes and reply with something that sounds like, “Hurr-dee-durr.”
Remember that part where I said that I wasn’t going to lie? Clock is ticking.
You’ve got Rough Trade, the sequel to The Hard Bounce, coming out from Polis Books this August. Every sixty days you pump out another issue of Thuglit like clockwork. You’re a force behind Noir at the Bar in NYC, and you crack wiser than most on social media. Where the hell do you find the energy?
You forgot that I also have a six-year old who goes to school an hour away from where we live, and I work in a bar 40 hours a week.
My current workload is killing me. And that is literal. I don’t sleep enough, and my fat-ass 43-year-old body is starting to suffer for it. Something needs to be cut off the schedule, and without some kind of miracle where we can triple our paying readership to just 9% of where we were when we were free…
Well, Thuglit isn’t making it to 2017, and that’s just a cold fact, kids. You heard it here first.
Buried in that sentence was something about a miracle. Wanna be a part of it? Check out Issue 21. Or take a look at the line-up in Cruel Yule or pretty much any issue over the past three years. You’re gonna see authors you know. Maybe your name will make it to the cover before this year is out.