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 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…
This is the view from my window. Notice the old, dessicated oak tree struggling for life alongside our big maple. It’s a “witch tree”, all right, look at it. Entangled in the strangling roots of its neighbor but somehow surviving, year after year.
Cold this morning, with a nut-cutting wind chill. A good day to stay inside, build a fire and read. Yesterday, I finished the new Lee Child novel, Worth Dying For, in about five hours. Just tore through it. Give Child credit, he’s got a sweet franchise going. Sometimes his “Jack Reacher” novels are suspenseful, sometimes they slip into formula. Reacher the unstoppable superman (yawn). This one is better. The story hums along and there are good supporting players.
January 1st, if you recall, I start my “100 Book Challenge”. I’ve already set aside 18 first-rate tomes, fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping will get me going, build up some momentum that will carry me through the year. These include some of the smashing great books Sherron, er, Mrs. Santa left under the tree for me. Stuff I’ve wanted to read for ages. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen, Ken Kalfus’s first short story collection, Thirst, and Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder.
I’ll be spending most of the next two days finishing my year-end cleanup. A ritual that goes back many years. Remove all material related to last year’s projects and prepare for new work. New Year’s Eve, sometimes pretty close to midnight, I clean and vacuum the crappy old carpet in my office and that’s it: I’m ready for whatever comes.
I know, my family thinks it’s weird too.
And there are my resolutions to prepare, a roster of promises I try very hard to keep (and usually end up batting around .500). Then I write out a list of “pending projects”, big and small jobs I’d like to focus on in the coming year. Need to straighten up in the basement too; the workbench overflowing with crap that has to be put away (or shit-canned).
I find I’m feeling pretty good as 2010 draws to an end. Two books released this year, a number of solid shorter efforts…plus there’s the music I’ve created with Garageband, two disks of weird ambient tunes that still make me smile. I’ve discovered I love noodling around and experimenting with different media—Sherron has infected me with her belief that making art shouldn’t always be work, there can also be an element of play involved. In 2011, I want to do some photography, stills and short videos. Sometimes I get tired of working exclusively with words and need a break. A chance to explore non-verbal, non-narrative concepts. I’ve even tried my hand at painting. I hope to do more visual experiments in 2011 (and beyond).
But the main focus, of course, continues to be improving as a writer, growing and developing, moving the bar ever higher with each book or story I take on. I’m certain the “100 Book Challenge” will introduce me to different influences/perspectives and it will be interesting to see how that affects my work. God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I started writing more like Italo Calvino or with the ferocity and power of a Celine?
Er, I forgot. Louis Ferdinand Celine’s not exactly a popular figure these days. Very difficult to find his work. Awful man…but even Beckett admired his writing and those two were miles apart, ideologically speaking. Celine’s malign nature is as undeniable as his genius. They probably went hand in hand. But anyone who denies themselves the opportunity to read Death on the Installment Plan or Journey to the End of the Night because of his personal failings (however despicable) is missing out on some of the finest writing of the 20th century.
All that said, the first book I’ll likely tackle in the New Year is Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88. A volume I can zip through in less than a day. Something fast and breezy and fun to get me started.
And then only 99 more to go…
A tip of the hat to John Miedema, for selecting this blog as one of his “Ten Favorites of 2010“.
Bless you, John.
God bless the people at Lightning Source (our printer), they turn out a fine product, the look and binding of the volumes they produce of consistently high quality. But the hoops you have to go to to make your text and cover files conform to their rigid parameters will, eventually, drive a teetotaller to drink and a man of faith into the arms of the Great Dissembler hisself. We had similar problems with our first book with LS, So Dark the Night, and it seems experience hasn’t made us any wiser. I give Sherron credit for not throwing up her arms in frustration on at least a dozen occasions…her patience is one of her greatest virtues.
We’ve submitted the interior (text) files twice now and, thanks to the Columbus Day holiday, we’ll have to wait until Tuesday (October 12th) to find out if we got the formatting right this time around.
Still hoping to have the proof in my hands and ready for approval in 10 days. Is that merely the errant wish of a terminal fool? We shall see.
In the meantime, I checked out prices with my chum Les at the local Canada Post outlet and got some figures re: shipping costs for Of the Night.
If you’ll recall, the book retails for $11.00 (USA & Canada) and postage is as follows:
Canada: $3.00 USA: $7.00 Europe/Overseas: $14.00
First Class airmail. From my door to yours in the time it takes you to say “UPS”. And, natch, there will also be Kindle and e-book versions available, likely for around $3.99. Yesterday I posted an excerpt from Of the Night on my Novels page, the first 30 pages or so, just to sink the hook in. Those who read the previous incarnation of this book (I posted it as a free e-book until a few days ago) will notice the improvements I’ve made. It’s a leaner, meaner effort.
Feel kind of bad leaving things so up in the air in terms of the book’s release date and availability. I’m already getting inquiries…hang in there, folks, it’s coming. In the meantime, here’s another one of my Garageband efforts, an instrumental number I’ve dubbed “Uncertainty”. Give it a spin:
The cover of the next novel in the Ilium “cycle”, Of the Night. Coming soon to a bookstore near you (we hope)…
Our pal Chris Kent completed work on the cover this weekend and I have to say he’s come up with another beauty (Chris also executed the cover for my previous book, So Dark the Night). Australian visual artist Adrian Donoghue created the original image and Chris, as designer, supplied the fonts and conceived the “look” of my book without damaging Adrian’s wonderful work.
(Click on the cover if you want to see a larger version)
Final edits on the text will be complete this week and both the text and cover files will be sent to our printer, Lightning Source, by the weekend. Then we get a proof copy, check it out and if everything looks A-okay, Of the Night will be available for sale. I’m anticipating an official release date somewhere around October 20th. Keep checking back for the latest updates and news.
My deepest thanks to Chris, Adrian, and my wife, Sherron, for combining their talents and visual acuity to give me the loveliest cover an author could ask for. Folks, you’re the best!