You knew I had to be up to something and you were right.
A month between posts? C’mon, you know me better than that.
This summer has been my most productive, writing-wise, in several years. It’s like the taps were turned on again and I’ve been writing with all my focus and concentration, feeling the juices flowing again.
Two, count ’em, two long stories since June, quite a few poems, a short prose piece that’s one of the best things I’ve written in quite awhile…
And everything registering strongly on the aesthetic Richter Scale—nothing slight or inconsequential. Intelligent, literate efforts, not pandering to any school or taste.
I haven’t lost a fucking step.
Oh, and I’ve started work on a new novel. Well, not quite a new novel—I’m completely overhauling a 250-page manuscript I originally conceived around 2002. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m looking at 12-15 months worth of revisions, so you shouldn’t expect to see that one in print until, ballparking it, mid-2019. No teasers, except that it references a classic Victorian thriller and will be darker and more horror-related than some of my recent work.
But fear not, impatient readers, I shall be releasing not one but two full-length efforts in 2018: first, The Algebra of Inequality and Other Poems, a selection of verse culled from the past five years. The title is nicked from a line in a Don Barthelme short story that caught my eye. Ol’ Don had some zingers.
I know poetry is a hard sell to some folks but I believe it gives me the opportunity to address profound philosophical and spiritual and existential questions in the most spare, personal, unforgiving literary format. Poetry permits no artistic missteps—it really is like walking a tightrope.
And there will be (drumroll please) a new short story collection next year, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Original tales, all centered around everything magical and terrifying about cities, near and far, real and imagined. Killer stories, spanning just about every genre, guaranteed to amaze, disturb and warp your puny perceptions and sensibilities. Consensual reality? What the hell is that?
Both books will feature, as per the custom here at Black Dog Press, gorgeous cover art and will be professionally formatted and bound. There will be an e-book version of Electric Castles, still mulling it over re: the poetry. Poetry is so unique and personal and analog…does it really belong on a tablet or phone screen?
Lots of writing and revisions in the months ahead, some highs and lows, good days and days when, as they say, “the bear gets you”. All part of the creative process: painful and terrifying, but also exhilarating and inspiring. No doubt you’ll be reading something of my triumphs and travails here…and I hope it will serve to remind you that the writing life is not easy and requires a great deal of courage and fortitude. Perseverance and sheer guts get you a lot further in any profession than mere talent. Surely you know that by now.
Some mornings I can’t imagine facing that page again.
And yet I do.
That’s the difference between an author and a poser.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for real writers, girls and boys, every fucking month is “National Novel Writing Month”.
You heard it here…
Photos by Sherron Burns
Over the holidays I devoted a considerable amount of thought to what should happen next with Black Dog Press.
So far, my imprint has released eleven books, a couple of limited edition chapbooks…but now what?
I’ve come to the determination that I won’t be publishing anything in 2017—and before the emails and complaints start flying, let me elaborate.
Despite my considerable efforts, Black Dog Press remains a very marginal enterprise. It is a constant struggle to draw attention to my writing when there are so many tomes being published and self-published, churned out like dumb, identical widgets. I want to pursue new methods for advertising my books, trying my best to overcome my aversion to self-promotion (a particularly ugly manifestation of narcissism). I’ve never been an author who haunts forums, always looking for an opportunity to reference my own work, and I’m not much a joiner, if you get my drift. More like your classic lone wolf.
In the past, I’ve sought out other, like-minded indie authors/publishers but, candidly, haven’t found many who take the printed word as seriously as I do. Very few scribes these days produce genuinely original, literary work; their prose is often derivative (fan fiction) or stuck in a genre of little interest to me (zombie, shapeshifter romance, etc.). Sadly, the proliferation of technology, the growing number of publishing platforms, means that the amateurs and wannabes out there can publish all the crap they excrete, with the minimum of editing or critical scrutiny. Pounding their chests and calling themselves writers, having a fit when anyone dares question their professional credentials. As petulant as they are untalented, vicious, rather than visionary.
Sending out review copies doesn’t work—that much has been made clear. Again, too many books, too few good publications (even fewer qualified critics)…and then there are the unnamed rags that want you to buy advertising space before they’ll even consider your book for review. There’s a special red-hot poker in Hell waiting for that scum.
I adamantly refuse to purchase a positive, five-star review from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. Never, never, never.
What does that leave?
I’ve been looking into hiring a publicist, but that would mean leaving my comfort zone and putting my books, my personality, my face in the hands of a stranger. Granting them permission to do what’s necessary to “raise my profile” (I’m literally squirming as I type those words).
But something has to be done. I’m publishing terrific, intelligent, compelling novels and stories and they’re not getting the attention they deserve. After over 30 years as a professional author, my stature isn’t anywhere near what it should be…and the fault lies with me.
I have to do better at promoting my growing body of work, even if that means trying things I’ve never dared attempt before.
It’s an approach I’ve always shied away from, but there’s no other option.
If I want to continue growing my readership, keep Black Dog Press afloat, I have to cast aside my aversion to, gulp, selling myself to the public.
This isn’t going to be easy…
Righteous Blood slowly creeps toward publication.
Susan, who’s been handling my interior layout, has delivered a text file for Lightning Source and is currently working on Kindle and ePub versions (to be read on tablets and other devices).
Chris, as you saw from my previous post, has devised another wondrous cover.
Both text and cover files were submitted to Lightning Source two days ago and the book remains in “pre-media”. If there are no glitches (there usually are), a proof of the book will be printed and dispatched to me via courier for close examination. At that point, if all is well, I give the go-ahead for publication, order however many copies I want to sell to booksellers and friends…and from then on, Righteous Blood is officially back in print.
But we’re not quite there. I mentioned previously that the folks at Lightning Source are more than a trifle finicky; their system has very strict specifications and that can be maddening. With previous books, I’ve had to re-submit either the text or cover files two or three times before I got it right. Crossing my fingers I’ve nailed it on this occasion and should know for sure in the next day or so.
Since I began posting about the process of publishing Righteous Blood, I’ve received a number of queries from individuals regarding various aspects of indie/self-publishing. Thought I’d post those questions and my replies for the benefit of all:
Q: You’ve complained various times about the difficulty and complexity of using Lightning Source as your printer—why stick with them when there are other platforms available?
A: Well, you know that old saying about the devil you know…but, really, I suppose I continue to do business with Lightning Source because they produce such lovely, professional looking books, plus they’re the platform that, in my view, promises the best potential access to booksellers around the world. As long as I pay my $12 annual fee, my books remain in Lightning Source/Ingram’s vast catalog, available to anyone who wants to order them, anywhere on the globe. I also like the fact that many mainstream, commercial publishers use Lightning Source as their printer—with over 30 years as a professional writer under my belt, I want all the benefits of high-quality services and standards. My books are created and designed to look identical to (or better than) any title released by traditional publishers. That’s my goal and Lightning Source helps me achieve it.
Q: Have you had any experience with Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu.com?
A: No, I haven’t. My understanding is that Lulu is more geared to beginners and amateurs. It’s where you should go if you want to print a few copies of your family history or a collection of your grandmother’s poems (or whatever). CreateSpace seems to produce a lot of stuff I have little use for: fan fiction, erotic shapeshifter romance, the silly shit produced by wannabes and sub-literates. Much of it only available digitally (because it’s so cheap and easy to set up). Both CreateSpace and Lulu are less costly and more user-friendly than Lightning Source, which is why certain kinds of “authors” are drawn to those other platforms. With Lightning Source, there are more hoops to jump through and that tends to discourage non-professionals. I guess that’s yet another reason I use them.
Q: I find the self-publishing process confusing and labor-intensive and I have limited computer skills. Your advice?
A: There is a learning curve and you can expect a great deal of frustration along the way. There are agencies like Upwork, who can provide you with connections to skilled men and women who have extensive experience typesetting and designing books. For a relatively modest fee, they can prep your manuscript so that it is printer-friendly, even set up a cover for you. The more services and help you require, the more expensive it gets. Again, if you’re only publishing a vanity book, something of questionable literary or commercial merit, go to Lulu, get it done on the cheap. You don’t need an ISBN, you’re not looking to get on bookstore shelves, you just want a couple of copies of a title for sentimental reasons.
Q: Even after all this time, do you find there is still a stigma toward self-published books?
A: Undoubtedly, and in my opinion that stigma is well-deserved. Technology and print-on-demand is allowing far too many people to publish their godawful, inept scribbling. It has empowered the wannabes, convinced them that for a few hundred bucks they can be SERIOUS writers. The cult of the amateur has done lasting damage to literature, reducing authors in stature and cultural importance since, after all, “everyone has a book inside them”. That kind of twaddle has enriched creative writing programs (and instructors) for decades.
Q: How much can I expect to spend publishing my book?
A: That varies. If you’re computer-savvy and can handle the set-up yourself, it saves a lot of time and money. Finding and purchasing cover art is another expense—again, if you have some design background, perhaps you could cobble together an eye-catching cover without having to resort to using someone else’s work. My books usually range from $1200-1800 (each), depending on if I’m using my own cover art, the length of the book in question and the number I want printed to sell or send out as promo copies.
Q: How do you promote your books?
A: Short answer: badly. I send out review copies but that’s usually a waste of time. Book reviewers are a dying breed and most of them have a dim view of self-published books, regardless of the quality. Last time I heard, something like a quarter million books are published in North America every year, and self-publishing has only contributed to that deluge. So much crap being printed and so many different forms of entertainment and distractions available to our potential audience. How do you draw attention to your work in that maelstrom? If you figure that one out, you’re on the fast track for a Nobel Prize…
* * *
That’s it for now. If you have any further questions about self-publishing or indie writing in general, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Well, here it is.
My tenth full-length book.
We “leaked” the cover to Facebook earlier this evening so why not post it here?
What do you think? Is Disloyal Son Chris Kent’s best cover design yet?
The release date has been moved up to mid-April.
(Click on book image to see enlarged view.)
That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?
I looked up from my desk a moment ago and watched another leaf begin its slow, stately death spiral to the ground below. The end of August coming up soon, the Labour Day weekend approaching; the nights have been cooler and we’ve been keeping an eye on the temperature in case frost threatens our tomato plants, which have been slow to ripen this year and still need a couple of weeks before harvesting.
I’ve been trying to keep up with the yard work, get outside as much as I can, stay active. My sedentary lifestyle isn’t conducive to good joints and sound posture. Not too great for the heart either, I’m guessing (though I haven’t had any trouble on that count yet, knock wood). As I get older, I have to make more of an effort to maintain my general fitness, monitor what I’m putting into my body and all that. Except the other day I took my bike out for a spin and ended up pulling a muscle in my lower back about two hundred yards from home. Not a bad strain, it turns out, but I hadn’t exactly been exerting myself at the time and I’d done my usual stretching that morning—what gives?
It’s called “middle age” and I’d better learn to deal with it and stop all this raging against the “dying of the light”. I’m told by venerable friends and acquaintances it won’t do any good. Aging with dignity, that’s the important thing. That and finding the right kind of underwear.
So much for the wisdom of our “elders”.
But as I hobble about this weekend, a cold pack strapped to my back with the sash off my bathrobe, I feel nothing but gratitude for a summer well spent.
It wasn’t all work and I did some traveling (not much), visiting friends and family. Fishing, sight-seeing…no complaints on that count. Even managed to take in a few films, read some books. Pacing myself more than I used to.
But I have to say the progress I’ve made on two separate projects since the beginning of June gives me my greatest feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.
My short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination is now finished and ready for production. Sherron completed her proofreading last week and I’ve tapped in all the necessary changes and corrections. I’ve contacted my production and design folks, inquired as to their availability—looks like it will be my usual, reliable crew.
Hoping for a pre-Christmas release of Sex and will get you a sneak peek of the cover ASAP.
Meanwhile, my novel project also proceeded by leaps and bounds this summer, to the extent that I have no doubt I’ll be able to meet my self-imposed release date of April 1, 2015. Sherron also read a rough cut of the novel and, well, I don’t want to blow my own horn but let’s just say she enjoyed it immensely and leave it at that. Everything’s looking very, very good. I’ll be writing more about that book in the coming weeks (I know, up until now I’ve kept it tightly under wraps).
So the next six-eight months bode well: two excellent, book-length projects due for release and new work also on the horizon. A great way to celebrate (in 2015) my 25th year as an independent publisher and my 30th as a professional author.
It feels like I’m in a creative “zone” right now. I don’t want the spell to be broken, the magic to end.
Please, keep those words coming…
Tonight, with the Perseids
In the light of a super moon
blazing in its hearth;
Under the firmament
pinholes in black velvet;
Another summer storm brewing
to further prevent the dark
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.
I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes. A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).
But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.
I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.
Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?
But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?
* * * *
A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:
25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?
I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.
Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.
One last thing: three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.
My thanks to you, one and all.
I was talking to someone recently and spoke of the pressure I feel as an independent writer and publisher to ensure my work achieves professional standards. I’ve been an indie guy for over twenty (20) years and I can tell you I take what I do very, very seriously. I labor without respite, without consideration to either health or sanity, to release volumes of the highest possible caliber, painstakingly conceived and lovingly produced.
To me, it’s important to present readers with a complete package: a book that’s lovely to look at and hold, the formatting easy on the eyes and, most important of all, the quality of the writing is in evidence in every line.
Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.
Self-publishers, especially those who primarily favor the e-book format (for cheapness and ease), select the most generically ugly covers imaginable. Artless, crude, formulaic. And, chances are, those adjectives can also be applied the prose they excrete at an alarming rate. It’s amazing how many books you can churn out when you don’t edit or proofread. Or spell check.
I look at these efforts by my “colleagues” and shudder. And feel an even greater motivation to somehow separate my fiction from the terrible slop that people are constantly releasing thanks to e-books, blogs and print-on-demand (POD). How can I convince readers that my work is the exception that disproves the rule: not all independently produced writing is sub-literate, juvenile, asinine tripe?
That question has bedeviled me for a long time, my friends. I can’t describe to you what a downer it is to walk into a bookstore with some of my books and see the manager’s face fall when I tell him/her my work is released under my own imprint. Book employees are constantly being approached by people pushing their dreadful poetry, memoirs and cookbooks on them, demanding precious shelf space, while simultaneously giving every impression of enduring lives of endless persecution and unacknowledged suffering. But I have to say, the book people I’ve dealt with usually do an abrupt volte-face when I pull out a copy of a Black Dog Press release and show it to them. The covers are always eye-grabbers and that helps, then they spot the glowing reviews and blurbs, open the book, feel the pages, glance over the formatting…more often than not they end up taking a few copies. And not begrudgingly either.
I’m learning to accept that I can’t do much about the silly, deluded people who are determined to foist their unpolished, inept scribbles on the world, flooding the market, reproducing themselves with the prodigious energy of hormone-laced hares. I must keep on keeping on, positioning myself before this keyboard every single day as I have for the past quarter century or more. Seeking no fame or recompense, wishing only to improve my craft, grow and develop an an author. Clinging to a kind of belated faith that there are still serious readers out there, bibliophiles avidly seeking out literate, well-honed prose.
If I keep at it long enough, remain devoted and true to my calling, they’ll eventually find me.
It’s kind of like believing in God, only the evidence is far more tenuous, the suspension of disbelief even harder to maintain…