It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.
Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.
And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.
Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.
And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.
But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.
Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.
Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.
Anything but that screaming silence.
Don’t start thinking about the last pass you made through the new release section of ___________ (fill in the blank with your favourite box store).
Shelves of books by the likes of Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, James Patterson.
Tepid mysteries and formulaic thrillers. No music to the prose, no originality, nothing to recommend them except their elementary school reading level. Forgettable and digestible; like fast food, only not nearly as good for you.
Comparisons are inevitable but you can’t start placing the intelligent, literate work you do alongside such mindless pap. That way lies madness. It will only inspire a blind, incoherent fury toward the “average reader”, which, these days, appears to be a euphemism for “hideously in-bred moron with the reasoning capacity of a plasmodial slimeworm” (see? it’s started already!).
A couple hundred thousand books published every year, God knows how many cable channels, the internet, social networking, “sexting”…it’s pretty hard for anyone to get noticed these days, at least for the right reasons. Behave badly, on the other hand, and the whole world seems to lap it up. Check out the latest wardrobe malfunction or celebrity meltdown; share it, like it, plug another quarter into some asshole’s ad revenue stream.
After all, it’s essential to keep up with the latest trends, highlighted by hashtags like #Kardashianweightgain or #femaleViagra. Absorbing the world in 140-character bites, possessing the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier.
Let’s face it, you’re not the kind of author who appeals to that sort. No media stroking or flame wars for you, right? You’d rather folks discover your work on their own, rather than hawking it about like an old style newspaper vendor. Or a whore. You’d like to believe there are still smart readers out there, looking for original, daring fiction. Looking for you.
But you’re fifty years old now, heading into the autumn of your life. You’ve got ten solid books to your credit, given everything you’ve got to Literature…and part of you is starting to seriously wonder about those discerning, thoughtful readers. If they really exist, why aren’t more of them finding you and singing your praises? Spreading the word. Providing for your retirement.
Maybe they don’t exist. Deep breath. Maybe the internet and connectivity has rewired brains to the extent that light entertainment and diversions are all people can handle these days. Dark, depressing visions like yours are out—bring on the mind candy! It explains the proliferation of rom-coms and the continued existence of “talents” like E.L. James, Jennifer Anniston and James Cameron.
Suddenly, it’s become clear to me. It’s the day after the zombie apocalypse.
Cripes, what a depressing post.
I warned you not to go there, didn’t I? And I’ll bet it’ll take a lot more than a Marx Brothers flick or a few old Looney Tunes cartoons to shake you out of it this time…
A gratifying response to my last post, a couple of the writers I cited reaching out and offering words of thanks.
No problem, folks.
But I also took some stick for neglecting to include some other neglected authors on my list and for that let me say merely mea culpa.
Here are some more names to ponder and, hopefully, seek out. These wordsmiths are/were absolute masters and deserve to be discovered (or rediscovered):
Past (Honorary) Members:
M. John Harrison
Compared to the junk currently being excreted by traditional publishing, these fine scribes are like brilliant flowers growing out of dung. Help save great works from obscurity and superb writers from the bottomless trash can of history.
Awhile back, I exchanged some e-mails with my colleague Andrez Bergen, both of us bemoaning the sorry state of the publishing biz. Andrez is a superb writer, his novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat a stunning blend of Phil Dick at his best and “literary noir”—if you haven’t read it, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Which is kind of the point of this post.
In one of my final missives I joked to Andrez that I was going to start an association called The Neglected Authors Alliance (NAA), and that the two of us would be charter members. Over the ensuing weeks, the idea kind of stuck with me and sometimes, as I passed my bookshelves, I’d take note of an author or two who weren’t household names, who had either slipped into obscurity or had never been widely read in the first place. I started putting together a roster; the living and the dead.
It was a depressing task; once I saw the sheer amount of raw talent represented, I felt sick. If these guys and gals couldn’t garner the rewards and praise and posterity to which they’re entitled, what chance do I have? Thirty years I’ve been putting pen to paper and my literary profile isn’t exactly where I want it to be (he says, choosing his words with extreme care).
And so, in tribute to Andrew and some other very fine scribes who deserve(d) far, far better from fickle readers and negligent publishers, I would like to recommend to you the following authors who have labored selflessly and courageously to produce innovative, literate prose, and who I am honored to add to the rolls of our oddball “society”:
Paul Di Filippo
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
Steve Rasnic Tem
Past (Honorary) Members:
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Notice to any authors on my list who come across this post: drop me a line if you’d like to have your own, official NAA button, with all the perqs and benefits that implies.
And, in the meantime, don’t give up, don’t stop producing great work, refuse to cede the field to the hacks, “share-croppers” and pornographers plying their trade today.
We need you.
The barbarians are at the gate…
Photo by Sherron Burns
You know that’s always the case. When I’m hard at work, the last thing I think about is composing another blog entry. Don’t get me wrong, you folks are great, love hanging out with you, but writing, the creative act…well, that’s my lifeblood. My raison d’être.
This time, yes, there’s been creativity, a new short story…but, in all honesty, I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to promoting Disloyal Son. With the hundreds, thousands of books being released every month, how do I draw attention to a solid, literate novel that anybody with two neurons to rub together will love? How do I compete with shapeshifter erotica and zombie porn and glorified fan fiction? Well, first of all, I send out review copies. Lots of review copies. To the major newspapers, mystery magazines, selected bookstores. Along with promo material and fliers that we agonize over, striving to come up with the most enticing wording. Again, trying to separate this book from the herd. The dung pile.
Good God, there are a lot of terrible books out there. Not just “self-published” either. The traditional publishers apparently believe the vast majority of contemporary readers (especially women) have the I.Q. of brain-damaged marsupials. If you’re looking for a quality book to read this summer, good luck. The trads no longer have any interest in cultivating authors, helping them find their voice and develop as artists. They’re staffed by corporate drones who merely seek “product”, mass market releases—swiftly excreted, endlessly repeated. Passionless, derivative, facile, inept.
You want to know the difference between my approach to writing, as opposed to just about everyone else’s? I care. I respect language, the traditions and legacy of literature. I treasure a well-constructed sentence and expend enormous efforts honing and shaping my work. I’m a freak when it comes to editing—meticulous to the point of, well, insanity. While many of my colleagues seem content with one or two drafts, getting their slop out as soon as possible, I drag out the process of creation to the extent that completing a short story takes weeks and a novel like So Dark the Night required over three years before I was finally satisfied and released it. And that was working on it full time, every single day.
Writing is not a craft to me, it’s an art. There’s a difference. A big difference. Most scribblers can’t make that leap. I can. Every single one of my books is intelligent, challenging, innovative; none conform to expectations or fall back on formula. I try to get that across to readers, reviewers but it’s hard. They see that Black Dog Press is my imprint and right away start thinking “this is more self-published crap”. Dismissing me out of hand. Never giving me a fair shot.
I defy anyone to read the first 5-10 pages of one of my books, choose whichever you like, and then stop. By that point it will no longer be a question of the origins of the book, the circumstances of its publication—you’ll be too caught up in a great read. Of that, I am 100% certain.
Reviewers have written about the element of surprise in my books and stories and I think that’s key. When you’re reading one of my tales you have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s coming next. I love pulling the rug out from under you, leaving you in a whimpering heap. Never saw that coming, did you?
That quality is very much in evidence in Disloyal Son. It’s a mystery, within a mystery (and then some). The truth revealed in bleeding layers. If you give it a chance, it will be the best book you read this summer, maybe this year. And I don’t need to buy a four-star Kirkus review in order to know that.
Seven cartons, containing 160 copies of my novel Disloyal Son were deposited on my doorstep mere days ago. Not long afterward, my brand new 27″ iMac was delivered, unboxed and set up.
I was fortunate, ladies and gentlemen, because for the last couple of years I’ve been backing everything up on an external drive. When I had problems transferring files from the old Mac via ethernet cable to the new model, I called Apple Support and outlined the situation. When the Apple guy heard the age of the software in my source Mac, he whistled in dismay. Bad sign. He wasn’t too sure exactly what to do…until I mentioned that external memory. He sighed, relieved. No problem. Dump the ethernet cables, plug the external directly into the new Mac and voilà. Mission accomplished.
But let this be a lesson to anyone else out there running an obsolete operating system: that external memory was (at $125) one of the best investments I ever made. Saved me a huge headache. Think about it.
There have been a few minor glitches but so far I’m impressed by this new monster. Can’t wait to give it a real test drive. Unfortunately, the MIDI keyboard/synthesizer I ordered is still en route and I don’t have the nerve to tackle Final Cut Pro yet. So I’ll bide my time. Meanwhile, try to get acclimatized with the larger screen, slightly different configurations, the peculiarities of its machine brain.
Spent a couple of days tidying up this blog, updating some of the pages, slimming things down a little. I’m a bit taken aback by the sheer amount of fiction, music and even short films I’ve uploaded here over the years. It’s quite the hoard of strangeness. Sherron says it’s time for a new theme and I suppose she’s right. Still want to keep the picture, though. I find it…haunting.
I’ve been flashing copies of Disloyal Son around town, pleased by how taken folks are with the cover. People wanting to know how to pick it up, where to order. Answer: everywhere…but, preferably from your nearest independent book store (McNally-Robinson, Powell’s, etc.).
Weird how everyone responds to the book’s central theme of family secrets. Think I’ve hit on something here, purely by accident. I’m getting goosebumps and the hair on my arms is standing up. Maybe because of close proximity to the zeitgeist.
Now, whether that will translate into some decent book sales, who knows? Hard to tell in this era of shapeshifting-sado-masochistic-paranormal-romances.
Ay yi yi. What will they think of next? (No, please, don’t tell me, it’s probably better if I’m not privy to that information.)
But we forge on, boats against the current and all that.
I remain convinced that there are still smart readers out there, a small but devoted demographic desperate for a transformative experience when they open a book.
They want to believe in magic and too often are poorly treated by contemporary scribblers.
Here at Black Dog Press we offer something different, an intelligent alternative to corporate publishing.
Books for bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word.
Written and published with love.
Or maybe that should read: reverence.
As you can see, the proof of Disloyal Son arrived and, once it was approved, I placed a big order for friends, family and a small but rabid posse of readers/freaks who have followed my jagged career arc for many a year.
Good news, folks: the books should arrive in about ten days, if Lightning Source stays true to form. You can reserve your copy now…and, of course, I’m only happy to sign it for you.
Each book costs $19.00 (USA/Canada)—Shipping: $12.00 (Canada); USA $9.00 (Surface) $11.00 (Airmail)
Happy days around Casa Burns. Disloyal Son is in the house…