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
I’ve put together a short roster of the best of the best of these queries and my responses (though, in some cases I’ve pared the original question down and added more detail to my replies).
Here are the top ten:
What’s the difference between calling yourself a “self-publisher” and an “independent author”?
In a word, talent. Oh, and professional credentials. Oh, and the seriousness with which you approach your craft.
Before I started my own imprint back in 1990, I’d already received a Canada Council grant and published a good number of tales in various venues around the world. I toiled every day on my writing and though the money was almost nonexistent, I didn’t care, it was all about becoming the best writer I could possibly be. I was focused, obsessed with my work. I created Black Dog Press because I detected a dearth of vision and intelligence among the editors I was dealing with and since I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t take rejection lying down, I decided to empower myself, rather than accept the verdict of dingbats.
Most self-publishers, however, are hobbyists, part-timers, dolts with little knowledge of what entails good writing, they merely want to see their name on a book, regardless if it’s any good. They don’t labor over their work, endlessly polishing and editing, growing and developing as artists. Such notions are beneath them. Some have the decency to confine themselves to giving copies of their amateurish efforts to friends and family and I have no bone to pick with them. It’s the morons who’ve written a memoir about their so-called interesting life or a spin-off novel lifted from some popular franchise and are deluded enough to believe they are “real” writers that raise my ire.
Why are you such an asshole?
Yes, I’ve received a number of communications along these lines, usually from the aforementioned amateurs and wannabes. They demand that I take their vampire porn or zombie splatter or “poor me” memoirs seriously and resent the notion of applying professional standards (y’know, like spelling, syntax, grammar) to their abominable tripe.
To them, there’s no difference between great writing and garbage, since such standards are arbitrary and unfair (usually they have trouble with big words like “arbitrary”, but I digress). As I’ve written previously, I have nothing against aspiring writers, beginners, folks who genuinely care about the printed word and want to create the best work they can. It’s the ones who foolishly believe their 10-book vampire series (released as super cheap/free e-books to inflate their “sales”) is imbued with true genius that I take exception to…and vilify accordingly. They read shit, they watch shit, they write shit. I dismiss (and diss) them out of hand. They are part-time turd-peddlers and pretenders and they deserve nothing but contempt. And I give it to them…in spades.
How much money do you make?
Seriously? Dude, you think I’m gonna open my bank records to you? Let’s just say that if you got into writing (or any art) for the money, you’re a fucking prostitute, and I mean the kind of gutter trash that solicits around public toilets and drops to their knees at the slightest indication of praise or approval.
I doubt I’ll ever become rich from my writing but a number of my favorite writers lived and died in poverty and anonymity, yet their body of work out-lives them and most of their popular contemporaries. I’m in this for the long haul and will trust posterity to determine my stature as an artist. I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’d rather have a million readers than a million dollars and anyone who knows me is well aware that I’m not joking or resorting to hyperbole. I’m an author’s author…and it’s unlikely that the fuckwits who read Fifty Shades of Grey will have much affinity for my work.
No regrets there.
You’ve been called an “elitist”–do you agree?
Yup. No question. I place high standards on my work, set the bar higher and higher with each new effort. I don’t confine myself to formula and refuse to cater to anyone’s expectations. Sales figures (see above) are irrelevant, the most important thing is releasing a work that is a celebration of the best in literature, a novel, poem or short story that pushes me to the limits of my abilities and sometimes beyond.
I write with intelligence and insight and I demand that from every film, book or artwork I see. I don’t waste my time on “popcorn movies”, mind candy or escapist entertainment. I feed my spirit and get inspired by innovative, original work.
Are you a horror writer? A fantasy or science fiction writer? How do you categorize yourself?
Well, I don’t. Not really. I utilize some of the devices and tropes from all three of the genres you mentioned but only to further the aims of my storylines. I suppose you could also call me a fabulist or surrealist…but I think any niches or slots are distinctly unhelpful when it comes to work as singular and unusual as mine.
I’m a literary writer, that’s the way I perceive myself. As for the rest…
I really think you’d like my writing. Can I send some of my stuff your way to critique?
No. Absolutely not. It’s not my role to be your editor or ego booster. Real writers write and that’s that. A thousand rejections and the opinions of others should have absolutely no effect on you if you’re truly devoted to the calling. Nabokov talked about “writing in defiance of all the world’s muteness” and that’s advice you should take to heart. Write and write and write. If you need feedback, there are plenty of opportunities for that through local writing groups and guilds and God knows how many on-line venues where up and coming writers gather to talk turkey and swap story samples. But leave the pros alone. We have our own schedules, deadlines and pressing projects. Don’t annoy us with your self-centered, egotistical lobbying.
You seem to genuinely hate traditional publishing and your harsh language must have drawn their attention. Don’t you worry about ruining your chances of becoming a truly famous writer?
Yes, I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of my remarks have made poobahs in publishing extremely cranky with me. How dare I question their intelligence, their professionalism, their psychopathology and their integrity? But, see, I’ve dealt with these bird-brains (editors, agents, publishers) for over twenty years and as I wrote in a recent post on RedRoom, I despise the vast majority of them. I hope I run into a few of the biggest arseholes before my arthritic hands wreck my chances of punching their fucking lights out. A substantial proportion of the people who decide what books get published are too stupid to be trusted with sharp objects and should be, if there was any justice in the world, employed as assistant managers of a fast food restaurant, a job more befitting their low intelligence quotient and lousy inter-personal skills.
As for being famous…it just isn’t a priority. Obviously.
I want to become an independent author too–how do I get started?
First of all, I wish you’d take a long, hard look at your work and decide, as objectively as possible, if you have anything to contribute to literature. Is your writing really that unique and unprecedented? Is it even literate? Have you spent years learning the craft of editing, ruthlessly paring and polishing your poetry/prose until it shines? There are quite enough bad, self-published books out there, why contribute to the dung pile?
But, really, if you’re determined, there are sites you can go to for advice (a couple are on my blog roll). A good ol’ Google search under “independent writing and publishing” will probably take you somewhere helpful. It’s a long, arduous process and the learning curve can be steep. And once your book is published, then you’re faced with marketing and distribution—and good luck getting your self-published offering into most book stores. I still find it a chore and I’ve been at it a long time.
Why are you so jealous of writers more successful than you (i.e. Amanda Hocking, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James)?
Jealous of…? Er, no, I’m not jealous of rich writers or sub-literate authors who manage to score a book deal. Literary whores with the skill set of a Grade Eight diarist and the aesthetics of a village idiot. Personally, I’m envious of scribes whose talent leaves me gasping like a fish washed up on some sandy shore. I’m referring to giants like Thomas Pynchon, James Crumley, Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard—artists of the highest caliber, whose books will stand the test of time. I labor in the shadow of greatness. Daunting? You betcha. But it’s a challenge I accept every time I enter my home office, sit at my desk and commence another day of work. I crave to be an author of stature. And that has nothing to do with the size of my bank account.
I sense you’re a lonely, bitter, isolated man. Is that an accurate representation?
I’m still chuckling over this one. I don’t think the correspondent in question was trying to be offensive or “trolling”, merely curious and so my response was quite tolerant (for me).
I’ve been a loner all my life and require little in the way of companionship. I belong to no professional writing organizations, nor do I seek out other authors to befriend or chat up. I’ve been happily married for over 20 years and have two teenage sons. Between my work and my family, there’s little time left over for leisure or company. It’s just never been a priority to me. I have a small, intimate circle of friends who are fiercely loyal and who have been around me long enough to inspire my affection and trust. They understand my hectic schedule and introspective lifestyle and place no demands on me. But they also know I’m the kind of guy who’d walk through a wall of fire for a loved one and would defend a pal to my dying breath. It’s the Scotch/Irish in me, I suppose. The rage, the violence…and the passion I bring to every aspect of my life. Those who know and love me respect that and tolerate the long silences that are part and parcel of my calling.
As for everyone else…who cares what they think or believe? They don’t know me and I don’t spare a moment for their views and opinions.
* * * * *
Thanks for the questions and feedback. My email address is email@example.com.
Always pleased to hear from you…
* immediately loses the right to vote (only adults have that privilege)
* is likely obese (physically or mentally)
* won’t be able to decipher this quote from Jung: “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”
* should be consigned to menial jobs (cleaning, service industry); work more suited to stunted intellects and invalid brains
* must enter mandatory counseling for those suffering from “intimacy problems” (i.e fear of penetrative intercourse and/or anything remotely resembling a healthy sexual attitude)
* will immediately enroll in Morons Anonymous, rising at their first meeting and loudly proclaiming: “Hello, my name is ______________ and I’m a fucking moron”
* should turn in their library card (in a post-literate world, you won’t need one)
* probably hasn’t had a date for awhile
* is likely to be a shut-in (and if not, should be)
* clearly made a mistake not finishing high school
* signs their name with an “X”
* reads tabloids
* needs help
Right now there are, count ’em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.
Let me remind you folks: this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash. Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.
I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.
Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?
Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al. I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears. We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle. The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.
Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.
I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.
What comes after E.L. James?
That’s something too terrible to ponder…