A brief history of Machine of Death; Execution by Beheading

Two weeks out from the release of the second Machine of Death anthology, “This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death”–hip hip hooray!

The first installment, “Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die,” has kind of a storied history.  I won’t recount it in its exhaustive entirety here–details and source materials are available all over the web (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machine_of_Death, for starters), and are far more interesting than any in-depth synopsis I could write.  But as I’m already gathering information to present to some local news outlets, I may as well hit the highlights for those who might run across THIS before they encounter the first volume.

The editors of the Machine of Death anthologies are also the creators of some very well-regarded webcomics: David Malki !, of Wondermark fame, and Ryan North, author of Dinosaur Comics.

The concept of a machine of death–a machine that uses a simple blood test to predict (often in very brief, misleading, and/or apocryphal terms) how a person will die–originated with North, who conceived it in an episode of Dinosaur Comics. North and Malki–as well as co-editor Matthew Bennardo–thought it would be fun to edit a collection of stories based on that premise, and put out a call for submissions in 2007.

Accepted stories were largely from unknown authors, and for that reason–lack of name recognition–no publisher would take the book.

The editors gambled on self-publication–and it paid off in a HUGE way (for the brand, if not for the editors financially, but Google “Machine of Death” + “Borders” for more information on THAT). They organized an MOD-Day for October 26, 2010, urging fans to all buy the book from Amazon that same day. In a coup that Malki described as “the literary equivalent to winning the Super Bowl,” the book actually earned the #1 bestseller spot for the day, edging out conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s new book at the time, and prompting Beck to grouse that the antho was part of a “liberal culture of death.”

The press only helped MOD.

From May through July of 2011, the editors accepted submissions for a follow-up book. Interest from prospective contributers was HUGE–there were nearly 2,000 submissions, from which the editors selected 28 (reserving an additional three slots for their own work).  The line-up was officially posted in about November of 2011, and was shortly followed by an incredible (at least to me) announcement: “This Is How You Die” was picked up for mass-market paperback release by Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books), an imprint of Hachette.

The editors, riding this building wave of momentum and excitement, decided that they wanted to start merchandising the MOD brand, and created a Kickstarter campaign to fund a card game based on the books. The goal was $23,000; this was reached in LESS THAN ONE DAY, and over the Kickstarter’s month-long run, 10,666 backers pledged more than half a million dollars ($556,596).  Needless to say, the editors (and authors) were/are BLOWN AWAY by this incredible outpouring of enthusiasm.  And it is my great good luck that, although the card game wasn’t a passionate thought in their minds when I wrote my story, my contribution prominently features cards and a card game.

Pre-sale reviews of the anthology have been amazing, with Publisher’s Weekly listing it as one of their Best Summer Books of 2013, and calling it an “[h]ilarious, tragic, splendid anthology of stories and comics in which people learn just enough, or not quite enough, about their future demises. Like death itself, this simple premise provokes a broad range of questions and some surprising answers.”

My experience with this book beautifully highlights, I think, why publishing on a professional levels requires a depth and breadth of patience that most jobs don’t call for.  I read the first Machine of Death book sometime in late 2010, early 2011, when a friend gave it to me as a gift (thank you again, Benjamin).  That same friend pointed me in the direction of the submissions call early in the summer of 2011.  I wrote my story, and sent it in on June 15.

That’s a two-plus-year turnaround.  For a SHORT STORY.  A long short story, granted (at about 7,700 words, I’m guessing it’s likely to be one of the longer ones in there).  And I was one of the very fortunate ones–an acceptance, a best-case-scenario.  Almost 2,000 others wrote stories that’ll never see the light of day.  And STILL it has taken more than two years to get any kind of conventional gratification out of this piece of work.

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