Because later this afternoon my youngest son and I will be driving in to the City (Saskatoon) in order to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” on the big screen. I’ve been a fan of the Tark’s for ages and to have the opportunity to view his work on something other than a 32″ television is a temptation too good to pass up.
A few announcements to get out of the way, some housekeeping to tend to:
This Saturday, June 17th, as part of the W.I.P. Dance Series at the Free Flow Dance Centre in Saskatoon (224 25th St. W.), Jackie Latendresse’s group will be performing several new works-in-progress, utilizing some of my ambient music. Doors open at 7:30 and the performances start at 8:00. Interested in modern, creative dance? Drop in for a look…and a listen. For more info, see here.
If you’d like to experience some of my odd, spacey music, check it out either here or on BandCamp.
Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing recently published a poem of mine (now there’s a rare occurrence). You’ll find “Covenant” on page 67 of their latest issue, read it here.
* * * *
I don’t have a lot of friends.
My social network is pretty limited, the time I can devote to cultivating friendships—phone calls, writing letters and e-mails—almost nonexistent. What can I tell you? I’m a pretty driven fellow and creating things (novels, stories, paintings, short films, music) is the central, defining focus of my life.
Those few pals I do have are acquaintances of long standing, people who have proven they can put up with my temperament and endure my frequent and lengthy silences. If you’re looking for a high maintenance relationship, you’re scratching at the wrong door (my wife will confirm as much).
I got to know Gord Ames in the early 1990s.
I think we were still living in Iqaluit at the time and came back to Regina during the summer to visit family. I’d heard about the new bookstore on 13th Avenue and, of course, the bibliomaniac in me was dying to see it.
I wandered into Buzzword Books, casting a glance at the fellow behind the counter, who gave me a nod. No ebullient welcome, no attempt to strike up a conversation, no friendly banter.
Then I realized why.
The books said it all. The longer I spent in the store, the more I loved it. It wasn’t a big space but the selection was absolutely wondrous. No commercial crap or braindead best-sellers.
Real writers: Alexander Trocchi, Richard Ford, James Crumley, DeLillo, Pynchon, Harry Crews, etc. etc. etc.
Once I’d taken the store’s measure, I approached the counter with two or three books and raved at the bookseller on the quality of his stock. He offered some droll, funny response, and a friendship was born.
Sadly, the bookstore is no more and Gord and his wife Caroline have moved to the West Coast (might as well be Mars, sigh). But they’re still an important presence in my life, two unique spirits and true blue, dyed-in-the-wool characters.
It’s Gord’s birthday today and this morning I want to pay tribute to a man who is a friend, mentor and a valued confidante. The breadth of his knowledge, the sharpness of his wit, never cease surprising and astonishing me. His taste is exceptional, his editorial eye (and ear) peerless. He’s turned me on to so many brilliant authors, musicians, film-makers over the years, drawing my attention to obscure, forgotten talents I would have otherwise overlooked. How would I have managed without him?
That rare combination of intelligence, erudition and caustic, irreverent humor—you just don’t find that in too many people these days. My friend is a pearl of exceeding value and uniqueness; a one-off, a mutant, a genius.
Happy birthday to a man who is a daily reminder that the world is not as foolish, arbitrary and ugly as it seems. There are still men and women whose very existence serves to reassure us: though we may have descendants among lower order animals, we still possess minds and virtues that can defeat our humble origins…and carry us to the stars.
Gord Ames is my friend.
And for that, I will never, ever cease being grateful.
You’re one in a trillion.
“True friendship resists time, distance and silence.”
Print and e-book sales of my Black Dog Press titles have pretty much bottomed out in the last few months. If I ran a real publishing house, I’d have been shown the door (with no golden handshake) a long time ago.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my last four books were almost doomed to fail: The Last Hunt is a novel set in the Old West and, let’s face it, cowboy yarns aren’t exactly leaping off the shelves these days; following that, I released two companion volumes of verse and prose poems…not what any sane person would consider bestseller material.
And my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, is a short story collection. Yes, you heard correctly: a short story collection. And, yeah, I’m aware that no one reads short fiction any more and that, as a format, it’s as dead and buried as Ramses II.
What can I tell you, I’m a throwback. I love obsolete art forms like short stories and silent movies and radio dramas and mixed tapes. I own two Super 8 movie cameras and and a five year old iMac. I collect plastic model kits and first editions of books by Philip K. Dick. I know, it’s pathetic. A man my age…
I pay little heed to current trends and fashions. One glance at the bestseller lists or what’s prominent on the “New Release” racks is enough to set my teeth on edge. Whenever people complain to me about the poor state of writing in the indie/self-published world, I invariably reply have you been inside a bookstore lately?
Folks, I don’t know about you but I’m finding it harder and harder to find good writers. This despite the fact that there have never been more books published, the internet and print on demand outfits making it easy for anyone to put out a book. And that’s the trouble. These days, everyone from your dotty aunt to her pet parakeet call themselves “authors” and never mind that they’ve never mastered grade school spelling or punctuation and think “thesaurus” was one of those old Greek guys who taught philosophy and tried to seduce his students. No vetting of manuscripts, no quality control and, as a result, no quality. The worst of the worst. And with diminished expectations, publishers scramble and claw at each other in the race to the bottom of the barrel. Fifty Shades of Grey. The gospel according to “Snooki”. Christ. Offer North American readers unlimited shelf space, a world of knowledge at their fingertips and what do they select as their reading material of choice?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re a society obsessed by superficiality; the cult of celebrity holds sway and most of us would do anything for a few moments in the limelight, our allotted fifteen seconds of fame. We want to know what the important people are doing so we can act and dress and think like them. They are the annointed ones, lit from within by some special flame. Like Prometheus, we seek to steal their fire but not for the good of humankind, but to keep it and nurture it within ourselves. To out-shine the common people and know what it’s like to be royalty. Flashing that vapid Kate Middleton smile. Winking to your adoring fans like Brad Pitt. Besieged in your own homes. Stalked because you’re you. The universal dream.
The arts are not immune to such asinine sensibilities. Today’s aspiring writers don’t want to have to work at their craft. Spend endless hours coming up with original concepts, a fresh approach or innovation. Easier to borrow characters and plot lines, sharecrop franchises, remain on well-worn paths. Stick with the old stand-bys: porn and elves, vampires and chick lit. Serial killers and serial adulterers. The living dead and the mindlessly idiotic. All for 99 cents a download, forty thousand words and not one of them in tune.
It used to be our role models were Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Don DeLillo.
Now everyone wants to be Dan Brown, James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Not good, just rich.
How can I compete with that kind of mentality? Why should I bother going through the effort and not inconsiderable expense of conceiving, writing and releasing my books, some of them taking years to bring to fruition? Who’s going to notice my smart, sharp-toothed prose when there are hundreds of thousands of books churned out every year, all of them clamoring for attention, aggressively lobbying readers for just a few minutes of their time…
But if you’re an artist and you start down that road, it isn’t long before discouragement and contempt for your fellow human beings overwhelms you. You become sick in your soul, envious of others, dismissive and scornful; a universe of one.
No, what it comes down to in the end is the work. Keeping on keeping on. Laboring on behalf of the legacy of literature, those authors of the past and present who expand our horizons, warp and distort our perspectives, enlivening our moribund senses with the vitality and courage of their visions. You know their names, they’re the writers who set fire to your imagination, whisper words of commiseration during a difficult time, speak intimately to your heart when the rest of the world seems oblivious to your very existence.
The hacks don’t do that for you. The scribblers who aim to please and reassure and entertain, even at the expense of their integrity. They don’t care about you and they have nothing important to say. They’re in it for the wrong reasons, motivated by little more than greed and pride, surely the most venal of sins.
The authors I revere and try to emulate have a higher calling.
The best of them eschew fame and fortune, forsaking all trappings of success in favor of a singular and personal approach to their work, persisting regardless of ignominy, poverty, shame. Willing to sacrifice their bodies and minds as long as they are permitted to pursue their calling with dedication and obsessive zeal. Nothing dissuades or discourages them.
Brave as any frontline soldier, resolved to forge on to the bitter end.
No medals, no plaques—often, not even a well-tended grave.
Messengers and prophets, making “visible what, without them, might perhaps never have been seen”*.
Awaiting our discovery, keepers of the Logos, brilliant revelations yet to be told.
* Robert Bresson
Yes, indeed, I’ve been away, a rare trip that took me out of my home office and transported me across vast distances to exotic, terrifying centres like Calgary and Edmonton. Gather ye around and I’ll tell you all about it:
It’s a journey I should have taken long ago but, what can I tell you, I’m not a travellin’ kinda guy. Sherron and I have been talking this over for some time, debating the pluses and minuses of a road trip so we could take copies of my novel So Dark the Night around to bookstores and beg, threaten and/or bribe them into stocking it. It took some work but Sher finally convinced me we had to do whatever was necessary to get the book somewhere it’s going to get noticed, start some buzz. I did some research and identified around 10 bookstores, many of them indie, in Calgary & Edmonton that would be a good fit for So Dark the Night.
I have to say, the booksellers in Calgary and Edmonton treated us with exemplary courtesy and respect. They always listened to my pitch with patience and a fairly convincing display of attentiveness. We made some great sales and contacts and even the places that didn’t take the book outright asked for either a sample copy to look over or a promo flier (which we just happened to have on hand). Certain bookstores and staffs stand out: the folks at Pages, in Calgary’s Kensington district, and the dudes at Greenwood’s Bookshoppe in Edmonton. Liz Janzen at the stunning Chapters/Indigo store on Whyte Ave. in Edmonton (Liz, I could’ve chatted with you all day)…book lovers and enthusiasts, trying to keep the printed word alive and vibrant. I salute you and I hope you sell gazillions of copies of So Dark the Night.
But the trip wasn’t all business. July 28th marked our 20th wedding anniversary and Sherron and I celebrated in fine style at a luvly cabin just outside Jasper (a place called Pine Bungalows). Lots of wildlife…including roaming elk and the resort’s mascot, a chubby white cat Sherron dubbed Harold. Harold found us one night as we were star-gazing and hung around until we returned to our cabin.
On the way to Edmonton, we picked up our son Sam, who had been attending film camp with his crony and collaborator Sean. The two of them shot and edited (they’d completed the script ahead of time) a 20-minute short about a botched caper called “Newton’s Cradle” that is smashing. Look for it on YouTube—or over at their blog—one day soon (they’re going to give it a final tweak before releasing it). Fantastic job, guys.
Of course, visiting so many bookstores I couldn’t resist picking up a few titles for my personal library: Wandering Star by Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio; Wonderful World by Javier Calvo; Already Dead by Denis Johnson and Andrew Collins’ Where Did It All Go Right?
One of the high points of the trip was buying a new hat, a Barmah, made in Australia and built for abuse. Found it in a store at Lake Louise while we were waiting out a downpour and Sherron twisted my arm until I bought it. Okay, I exaggerate slightly. I threw a fit in the store and screamed until she gave in and said I could have it. Not quite accurate but a lot closer to the truth than the first version.
Yes, I know: pathetic.
It was a marvelous trip and that is entirely to Sherron’s credit. I’m more than a trifle agoraphobic and the idea of being away from home for any length of time fills me with dread and foreboding. But Sher made this trip fun and stress-free and I have to say I enjoyed being away from my desk for a few days, taking a breather and soaking up the beauty of our Rocky Mountains.
I feel better, re-charged and back in balance. New projects beckon and a good chunk of the summer is gone. Time to get refocussed and into a good groove. Busy times ahead.
Watch this space for further developments…
My wife Sherron has thrown down the gauntlet.
The other night she told me: “Listen, you’ve had your fun insulting editors and publishers, belittling their intelligence, always going after them. Now, how about something constructive? You’ve got ideas on how to improve things and make the system run better so let’s hear them, wise guy.”
Right. Here goes.
First of all, it must be acknowledged that, by any standards, the corporate book publishing model has been a complete failure. Publishers are losing money, cutting staff, consolidating…and book sales have taken a big dip (according to one stat I saw on Mediabistro, down a whopping 13% in November, 2008 from the previous year).
And this notion that there are editors out there with the wisdom and far-sightedness of Solomon, who are somehow able to identify and manufacture the next monster bestseller is a complete fallacy. Moronic, in fact. Has no basis in reality whatsoever. Look at what happened to Andrew Davidson (author of Gargoyle; Random House); guy gets a hefty advance, the book is promoted up the yin-yang…and it barely makes a ripple. Certainly no threat to becoming the next Da Vinci Code, right?
You can’t pie chart a bestseller, you can’t graph which book is going to break through big time–and which ones are going to flounder and sink like the Lusitania. Please recall that the enormous, worldwide success of J.K. Rowling resulted, largely, from strong word of mouth, parents passing along copies and recommendations of The Philosopher’s Stone until a genuine groundswell was created.
You can’t consistently create a bestseller but what you can do is use the new technologies out there so that, as a publisher, all your eggs aren’t crammed into one basket. Changing the metaphor, why settle for the equivalent of a single shot, old style flintlock, when POD offers you the opportunity to wield a state of the art shotgun?
Print-on-demand (POD) gives you that capability. Unlike the old, offset press method of publishing, POD is flexible, far less time-consuming and energy intensive and cheap to boot. You can print as many copies of a particular title as you want, from 1…to ten million.
Instead of throwing big dough at a title/author that is, by no means, a sure thing, why not spread that loot around a little? Rather than sign up five authors at a million plus each, why not give 100 writers a chance, paying them smaller upfront fees but rewarding them with a higher royalty rate. That payment regimen has worked with small and indie presses for years–and, believe me, you’ll be astonished at how little an author will accept in their desperation to get a book in print. It’s depressing, really. Pathetic.
Ah…sorry. Wandered off topic. Where was I?
Okay, now you’ve got 100 different authors with a hundred different books, 95 more opportunities to find the next Steve King than you had under your stupid corporate model. And you don’t give your 100 hopefuls ridiculous print runs, you start modestly. That way you won’t be stuck with massive returns, which then have to be remaindered, warehoused and pulped, more money down the drain.
You can print as few as 500 or 1,000 copies per author and then emulate what the movie companies do when they offer films as limited releases, to gauge audience reactions and get some idea as to a project’s potential appeal.
Thinking along the same lines, publishers could send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and bloggers and, simultaneously, “test market” books in selected stores (or by offering them as downloads through e-Readers like Kindle et all). Let the readers and the book-lovers determine which authors have wider appeal and then do another, larger printing to meet the demand (the author happily cashing in at the higher royalty rate).
Some might opine that under a royalty-based system the publisher would be tempted to cheat, since they’re the ones controlling the books. I would argue that Bookscan and related technologies, as well as computerized inventories and the publishers’ selfish desire for authors to score a hit and sell a gazillion books makes the possibility of fraud quite remote.
What I like about this system is that it allows a wider array of authors to develop a following, while not feeling the pressure of a big money contract hanging over them. The risks are shared between the writer and the publisher…and as far as I can tell the whole thing seems like a win-win scenario.
Corporate publishers have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies, especially POD. Instead of utilizing POD as I have suggested, some in the industry have chosen a more short-sighted and morally questionable approach. In my view, they’re misusing POD by going after relatively small peanuts, offering print-on-demand services to aspiring and amateur scribblers who have yet to make the grade, encouraging them to sign up and print their own books. Oh, and, let us not forget, that means said scribblers have to sell and distribute their own books. The big boys deigning to offer no other assistance, content to serve as a glorified copy shop for dingbats desperate for a for-real-and-true book to wave in front of their friends (“See? See? Told ya I was a writer!”).
But I have my doubts these tactics will work. Writers, as a rule, tend not be be made of money so you can only milk that teat so long. Besides, iUniverse and Lulu have been around a lot longer and have seized a sizable slice of the market share. But it’s an enticing proposition, turning the old regime on its ear: writers paying publishers, rather than vice versa. Zowie! And if there are enough stupid, starry-eyed authors out there, who knows? Those rotten bastards could stand to rake in a nice stipend.
But those same publishers could make a helluva lot more if they abandoned their home run/big book mentality and settled for hitting singles and doubles for awhile…especially in these precipitous economic times.
I’m not saying my business strategy is completely original or perfect and if you have any thoughts on its weaknesses, how it could be improved, drop a line or two in the “Comments” box below.
Let’s see if we can put our heads together as bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word and save publishing from the worst aspects of itself.
If it means a wider, more diverse cross-section of authors make it into print, having more books out there, more choices for readers, our efforts will be worth it.
Hey, you suits in New York and Toronto! Are you listening?
What do you say?