Image by Liam Burns
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.
In the week since I’ve wrapped up work on Sex, I’ve been in kind of a “transition” phase, as I prepare for another edit of my novel-in-progress.
I couldn’t just dive back into the novel after spending several weeks tinkering with a batch of really dark, harrowing short stories—I needed a break, a way to ease into it.
I go through these periods every so often and it’s during these times that I create some of the strange short films and ambient musical pieces that you’ll find under my “Films/Music” tab. It’s also when I’ll retreat to my cold, damp basement and slap some acrylic paint on canvas for a few days. Experimenting. Playing.
And I’m prone to sudden attacks of poetry, as well.
Which is what happened this time around.
For the past 7-10 days there’s been a lot of scribbling going on around here and much of it centers around a suite of stanzas I’ve put together under the title “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning”.
For at least fifteen years I’ve kept a couple of notebooks devoted to…I’m not sure what you’d call it. Automatic writing? Free associations? Visions?
When I’m in a certain mindset I feel a compulsion to scrawl words, disjointed sentences, dream sequences, snippets of verse. The spell only lasts a few hours, a day at the most, but I’m often surprised by what these sessions produce. Recently I decided to go through both notebooks and write down certain key words or lines or themes that stood out. Once I assembled a roster of these bits, I began to shape them, dividing them up, juxtaposing certain parts, creating fascinating fusions, collisions and cross-fertilizations.
I was delighted with the end result and just posted “Sixteen Rites of Deconditioning” on my Scribd page–I encourage you to zip over there and cast you eyes over a mind-blowing poem, by far the longest and most complex I’ve written to date.
I welcome your comments and reactions—the poem is certainly subject to a variety of interpretations and I’m interested by how people experience “Sixteen Rites”, if it strikes any familiar chords.
Am I plugged in to the zeitgeist…or spending far too much time alone in my office?
Let me know what you think.
Sorry. Geez. Talk about belated.
Several weeks since my last post and I offer no excuses, no rationale. Yes, I’ve been editing the third draft of my new novel, going through its 200+ pages over and over, shaping and paring, trying to find a consistent voice, a smooth, narrative flow. And, yes, my days are long and intense and my focus can be downright scary at times. That need to immerse myself (there’s no other word) in the world I’m building, basically from scratch. It’s important to envision that creation in as much detail as I possibly can so that it seems credible and fully formed. I know my readers are pretty discerning people.
You have to understand, at times like this, when I’m going full-bore on a project, it’s easy for the rest of Earth Prime to fade away…and that means all ties, all friendships, all responsibilities become, well, superfluous. Wish I could put it more nicely but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes in order to meet the demands of my work I have to become selfish and solipsistic…it’s one of the least attractive aspects of being a creative artist. When a project reaches this state, I literally have to take a leave of absence from my regular life and that can be hard on family, friends and, yes, my small circle of readers and blog followers.
The end result is a completed novel or short story but getting there, while still retaining contact with the people who mean the most to you…that can be a struggle.
I guess what I’m trying to say is be patient with me, know that I’m operating in the thrall of my Muse, my imagination racing, my brain clicking on all cylinders. If in the performance of my duties I’m negligent in terms of my worldly obligations, it is, for me, a necessary (even mandatory) state of affairs.
You want to know what life is like for a full-time, independent author?
Well, there it is.
In the pipeline…
Some publication news for you: as well as the novel, this year I’ll be working on a new edition of my very first book, a short story collection titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The collection was released back in 1990, the entire print run selling out in a matter of months. It’s virtually impossible to lay your hands on a copy of Sex and I’m going to address that by re-issuing it with a new cover, Introduction and Afterword. I’ll be formatting and correcting the manuscript this summer and will publish it through my Black Dog Press imprint either later this year or in early 2015 (the 25th anniversary of its original publication).
The new novel, meanwhile, is slated for a Spring, 2015 release.
Drop in for further updates as the year progresses.
You might be noticing a few changes to Beautiful Desolation—I’m streamlining, consolidating for the purposes of simplicity. Eliminating some pages, expanding or creating others.
The end result will be that you’ll be able to navigate around my blog more easily, find what you’re looking for in less time. The new look will also highlight the growing importance of short films and music in my creative life. Technology has allowed me to explore disciplines other than writing and for that I’m immensely grateful.
You’ll find tons o’ free material to download—novel excerpts, stories, personal essays, films, ambient music, spoken word pieces…hours of fun and entertainment.
But the idea, of course, is that once you fall completely under my spell, want to read everything you can get your hands on by this whacked out Cliff Burns dude, you simply visit my bookstore, follow the link(s) and drop a few shekels my way. Because I gotta tell you, without the occasional sale, some actual coin in pocket, this indie guy finds it hard to pay the bills. The “freeconomy” is fine and dandy for some, but as far as creative artists are concerned, it’s also getting harder and harder to make a buck. And, like everybody else on this side of Heaven, sometimes we find it a real squeeze.
If you notice any glitches or broken links, drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll effect a fix ASAP. Might be a few bumps in the road along the way but, when all is said and done, this blog will be more navigable and user friendly and that’s worth a little short term pain and frustration.
Thanks for coming by.
Last night we had the official launch of my new novel Of the Night at the North Battleford Library.
A heartfelt thank you to Wendy and all the hardy souls who braved the first serious cold snap this winter to celebrate the birth of my latest literary offspring. Sherron and my two sons handled the lights and tech and made sure everything went off without a hitch. Thanks, guys!
Naturally, I over-prepared, endlessly rehearsing my introductory remarks and the three excerpts I had chosen to read. Ah, well. I think it went off well and the good vibes bubbled over into the book signing afterward.
Speaking of those remarks:
I’ve decided to post them, since they’re a good, concise description of my experiences over the past two decades as an independent author and publisher. I hope these words will inspire others while, at the same time, providing insights re: some of the difficulties and frustrations I’ve endured for choosing the less-travelled path (my essay “Solace of Fortitude” covers similar territory, albeit at greater length).
To all the indie authors out there, struggling to make themselves heard: write on!
* * * * * * * *
What do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
Twenty years ago, when faced with that dilemma, I made the somewhat irrational decision to go ahead and print it myself. I knew nothing about what went into producing a physical book but, to my mind, that was beside the point. Getting that book, that gruesome little book, into the hands of readers was paramount.
Because the alternative—giving up, throwing in the towel—means that a good book never even has a chance at finding a readership. It languishes in a box somewhere, years and perhaps even decades pass and it doesn’t see the light of day. It might be a lost classic…or a piece of garbage. We’ll never know. Book-lovers aren’t accorded the opportunity to render their verdict.
And let’s take a look at the recent track record of the folks who decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Hardly encouraging, to say the least. Sales figures are dropping precipitously, bookstores and chains all over the U.S. and Canada are closing or seeking bankruptcy protection; independent bookstores have almost entirely disappeared. Venerable publishing divisions have been lopped off or dramatically downsized, layoffs announced, the demise of the book predicted, onset of a post-literate culture looming—
Doesn’t sound like publishers and retailers have succeeded at capturing the contemporary zeitgeist, does it? Why have so many people, apparently, stopped reading or scaled back to the point where a substantial number of respondents in one poll indicated they hadn’t read a single work of fiction in the past year?
Could it be that the industry is printing and selling books that nobody wants to read? Perhaps in their efforts to meet the lowest common denominator, rehashing the same types of books over and over again, scraping the creosote off the bottom of the barrel, traditional publishers have alienated serious readers; worse yet, bored them with formulas, derivative prose, copycat covers and cookie cutter authors.
Publishing today has been debased by celebrity and dumbed down to attract people who normally wouldn’t tackle anything more demanding than the back of a cereal box. This mentality is abetted by greedhead agents looking to nab their 15% of the pie and corporate editors who know full well the suits upstairs want big numbers, bestsellers…and if they don’t deliver, they’ll lose that rent-controlled apartment, all those sweet perqs and per diems that make their lousy lives bearable. Shit, let’s face it, the markets take one more big dip, the guys in the boardroom start getting nervous and anyone could end up in the street. There are more than a few ex-CEOs and executive vice-presidents living behind 7-11’s, begging spare change so they can get their Blackberrys out of hock.
So let me ask you something: why should I, as an author, defer to anyone affiliated with an industry that publishes godawful tripe by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Sophie Kinsella and…well, feel free to fill in the blanks with your most detested hack of choice. Those inept scribblers aren’t better writers than I am: their prose has all the symmetry and grace of someone slipping on a wet floor with an arm-load of pots and pans. Understand, I don’t resent their big money contracts, but I sure as hell detest them for taking up valuable shelf space and making mince-meat out of the printed word.
I love good writing and revere authors who trust and respect their audience enough to break away from convention, fearlessly leading readers into strange, unknown terrain. But it’s getting harder and harder to find work that seems fresh and exciting. You have to look farther afield, to some of the small and micro-presses out there…because traditional publishing is a wasteland of zombies, vampires, tepid romance and poor-me memoirs. It’s enough to make a book-lover weep.
But there are alternatives. Those small presses I alluded to…and a growing number of independent authors who, taking a cue from their musical counterparts, have gone their own way, demanding total autonomy over their career and creations. Seizing control of the means of production, refusing to be exploited and humiliated by a system as ancient, obsolete and calcified as a dinosaur turd.
Independent authors…like me. Back in 1990 I knew I had a good book, a cool collection of short stories that counted among its fans none other than the great Timothy Findley. How could it fail? But that volume, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, was turned down by literally every press and publisher you can name. So I released it myself. We sold out the entire print run in 4 1/2 months…and I was hooked. I loved the sense of empowerment the process of self-publishing gave me, loved how every decision–from the selection of cover art to the choice of interior font–was left completely up to me.
This year, 2010, our imprint Black Dog Press is two decades old and it’s my 25th anniversary as a professional writer. Usually I’m not one who displays much interest in birthdays or anniversaries but I felt compelled, on this occasion, to do something I hadn’t done before, which is release two books in one year—just to prove my oddball micro-press is still alive, still kicking.
I think the books in question, So Dark the Night and Of the Night, are representative of the best of what independent presses are capable of producing. Thrilling, literate, original fiction; books for readers who still treasure a well-told story.
And aren’t they beautiful? For that, credit belongs to our long-suffering cover designer, Chris Kent, working his magic with lovely artwork created by Ado Ceric and Adrian Donoghue. I also want to say special thanks to Sherron, for the invaluable role she has played in the conception, creation and release of literally every single thing I’ve written for the past quarter century.
So…what do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
D.I.Y. Do it yourself. Use new technologies like print-on-demand and e-books and blogging to get your work out there. Let your readership decide if your prose is worthy…or not. Write as well as you can and edit your work carefully; do a better, more conscientious job than your traditionally published, over-paid counterparts. Help defeat the impression that the indie movement is nothing more than a haven for amateurs and never-will-bes. Most of all, don’t let anyone deny you a voice, your rightful place at the campfire. Your story is important. It’s part of a long tradition, a Great Narrative as timeless and enduring as the very fabric of Creation.
“In the beginning was the Word…”
And don’t you ever forget it.
Y’see, when I’m away from this blog for extended periods of time, that means I’m writing. Deeply, intensively, happily immersed in some project that’s caught my fancy like a handful of shiny coins tossed into a monkey cage. I live to work and while I enjoy posting on this blog, it’s not the kind of creative endeavor that fires my soul and gets the creative juices bubbling and steaming.
To catch you up on things:
My novel So Dark the Night moves ever closer to publication. Yes, I mean an actual book. I did a lot of research into the various print on demand outfits and decided to go with Lightning Source. Their poor rep, Chris Thompson, put up with pages of questions and a couple of phone inquiries, often having to endure some crankiness from my end. Usually it was because I’d misread some piece of info and assumed LS were over-charging for a service. I’m naturally suspicious and sometimes equate print-on-demand with the bad old days of “vanity” publishers, who tried to bilk every last dime out of suckers. But so far Lightning Source passes in the service and honesty departments with flying colours. They offer a lower per book cost and at least the opportunity, a chance (however small) to break through into the retail marketplace.
The text is set (thank you, Sherron!) and the cover design is moving along. We’re using the same Ado Ceric piece that we employed for the e-book. The first time I saw the picture, I knew it was the one. It’s going to look gorgeous reproduced on a fat 5.25″ X 8″ trade paperback. Oh, yes…
We’re looking at a retail price of $17.95 which, I think, is reasonable and certainly in the range of other books similar in size and format. Hoping for a release date in mid-late April and will post further on this point as publication nears. Can’t tell you how thrilled I’ll be when the book arrives from Lightning Source, printed, bound and beautiful. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written…and the hardest work I’ve ever done. 3+ years writing and editing. And editing. And editing…
But it was worth it.
We’re coming up on the third anniversary of this blog—March 18th is the semi-official date of its inception. I usually have one or two little treats I dole out around that day and this year is no exception. If you’re in the neighborhood mid-month, drop in for a visit. I think you’ll find a few goodies and tidbits, a heartfelt “thank you” for your support and patronage.
I’ll say no more.
There are exciting times in the days and weeks ahead. I’ll be sharing the highs (and lows) with you, continuing to depict, as authentically and truthfully as possible, the life of an indie writer in the 21st century. It’s a hard row to hoe and the rewards are few and far between. But it’s a life that allows me to work and exist in absolute freedom, beholden to no one but my Creator.
So what, exactly, do I have to bitch about?