Fables From the Past: Priority

Once upon a time, there were two writers — He and She.  They were, to be precise, science fiction writers, who are, according to the results of many Deeply Scientific Studies, the Most Troublesome of all possible genres of writers.

At about the time this story that I’m telling you takes place, these writers had . . . lucked out, publishing-wise.  The rights to their first three novels had been returned to them, and they had landed an amazing, it-never-works-this-way seven book contract with a brand-new publisher, who was willing to innovate.

Now, among the many other improbable facts surrounding and supporting these two writers is that they rejoiced — and I do mean that literally — in an active, interested, globe-spanning fan base, despite the other fact of not having published a novel in seven-or-ten years (He said seven, because He was an optimist; She said ten, because She wasn’t).  The reason they had . . . acquired? . . . accreted? this fan base was because of a complicated mixture of computer bulletin boards, FIDOnet, and the fact that He had started a (very) small press in 1995, called SRM Publisher, in order to provide that vocal, globe-spanning fan base with Liaden Universe® stories.  (Another improbable fact regarding these writers is that they had created a whole universe, yes, out of their heads, and wrote about the people who lived there and their various goings-on.  What was wildly improbable is that people wanted to read about that universe, those people, and their adventures.)

The (very) small press produced chapbooks — paper, because this was back at the end of the last century — 1995, to be precise, and you wouldn’t believe how awful the screens were, and we were so proud of them, poor children.  Anyway!

Though the writers had not sold anything in their universe for those seven-or-ten years, they had not stopped writing in their universe, and they had a small backlog of short stories (and novels).  SRM, Publisher produced one chapbook — Two Tales of Korval — it did well, and there was a demand for more, which the writers were pleased to do their best to meet.

This brings us to around 1998, the new publisher, the seven-book contract, and innovation.

When the publisher was made aware of the fan-base, he asked the writers to find out if there would be any interest, not only in high-quality hardcover and trade paper editions of their novels, but in signed copies of same.

The writers went onto their listserve and their blogs, and put the question.

Let’s say that there was interest.

So, the deal was struck with the publisher.  Readers interested in signed copies would preorder a title, the preodered titles would be shipped directly to the writer’s country estate in Maine, they would sign them, and mail them to the readers, following a list provided by the publisher.  For this extra labor, the writers would receive 50% of cover for all preorders.

The preorders were in the high hundreds, possibly a thousand; I’m not trying to brag, but — it was a Large Number. The writers received pallet-loads of their first book with this publisher — a slender volume (yes, I’m serious) entitled Plan B.

And now we come to the point of this fable.  Recall that the writers were not only to sign (and in many cases personalize) each volume, but they then had to physically mail the books.

At that time, the US Post Office provided a Priority Mail Flat Rate box — for free! — that was exactly the size of one hardcover volume.  Splendid; the writers went right to work — He assembled a mountain of boxes; She printed labels and kept them paired with the signing list.  Every day one or both of them would go out to the Unity, Maine, Post Office with a Big Pile of Boxes and mail them.  Everything easy.

What wasn’t easy, were the Canadian and overseas orders, of which there were — a few.  The Priority Mail boxes were for US mail only; the Retail Outlets did not offer the perfect size.  The writers looked at each other, frowning in thought:  How to make this easy and fun?

Then, He looked at the unmade Priority Mail boxes sitting in a pile on the floor, and He noticed — as only He would — that the inside of the box — was blank.  Yep, plain cardboard.  He snatched up an unmade box, put it together backward, that is, with PRIORITY MAIL US GOVERNMENT FLAT RATE on the inside of the box.  She handed him a signed book.  He sealed it in.  She applied the label.

The next day, they included this box among the dozens they took to the Unity Post Office.  The postmaster herself processed the order, and didn’t even look funny at the one, plain box.

The writers were back in business, and the rest of the mailing labor was easy and fun.


It is often said, and truly, that US Post Office has no sense of humor.  By the time the writers’ third book from the new publisher came out and was ready to be mailed, the Post Office had produced an answer to their happy innovation.

And that is why, to this day, when get a Priority Mail box at the Post Office, you will see that the inside has words on it, something to the effect of, “US Post Office, Not For Private Use.”