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’m referring to a recent post over at Mediabistro (why do I continue to subscribe to them, they only depress me) crowing that over 235,000 self-published books were released last year. That’s physical books and their digital cousins.
Sturgeon’s Law would have you think 90% of those titles are complete crap but, based on my own investigations, I would say the actual figure is closer to 99.8%. Which means, according to my very rough calculations (I’ve detested math all my life), less than 500 of the aforementioned books are worth even glancing at.
Nearly a quarter million books, only 500 possessing any kind of literary merit. Pretty grim, huh?
But when was the last time you walked through a Chapters or Barnes & Noble book barn? Of the thousands of books your eyes passed over, what percentage looked intelligent enough to warrant a closer look? I’m guessing it was a very tiny proportion. Crap is crap, whether it’s produced by a bad cowboy poet from Dubuque, or issues forth from Random House, with the full weight of their publicity machine behind it.
I’ve just about given up on the big box stores. This past week we were visiting Edmonton and I had the great fortune to spot Old Strathcona Books, a wonderful used book place on Gateway Boulevard. The selection was amazing and the two gals behind the counter friendly and welcoming, real book-lovers, with in-depth knowledge of their wares. My kinda joint.
Get out there and support first rate bookstores like Old Strathcona, marvel at the wide selection of titles they offer, hard to find tomes and marginalia that highlight the diversity of fine fiction available to discriminating readers, unheralded authors waiting to be discovered. Because despite the flood of offal being spewed out these days by traditional publishers and the self-publishing gits, superb works of literature are still being produced…you just have to dig around and search for them.
Don’t be discouraged, steel your nerves and have at it.
The reward, finding a book that changes your perspective, alters the way you think and look at the world, sends seismic shockwaves through your soul and soma, makes all those tireless efforts worthwhile.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Always pleased to hear from you…
This question has been much on my mind for the past while. I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore. I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter. Baubles and trinkets. Bullion and bullshit.
Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it. As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call. (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)
I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies. I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).
Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?
To be the best. To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians. Note perfect. I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.
I have no interest in being average. A “decent” writer. Ugh. Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.
Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes. If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards. Which automatically begs the question: have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?
I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it). And I’m a full time writer. Imagine that. Day in and day out for 3+ years. (Shudder) But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it. And I was right.
But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels. I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label. This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves. I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation. There’s just something within me that balks at the notion. I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.
So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts. They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience. They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV. Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.
What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well. You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath? I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART. I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.
I want to be the best writer in the world.
There. I’ve said it.
It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing. But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name. My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers. Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls. Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.
With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.
My idols would never forgive me.
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?
You’ll find it by looking to the right hand side, under the “Stories” widget. Just click on “Audio” and you’ll discover a large selection of my stories, poems, commentaries, even an excerpt from my novel So Dark the Night. All available for free listening and downloading onto whatever device (iPod or cell phone) you currently favour. Many of these pieces are accompanied by music, which provides dramatic highlights, a soundtrack that is either pleasing or provocative (or both).
The most recent offering is a six-minute chat about “indie” writing I recorded because I’ve received a host of questions, both here and in various forums where I hang out. People want to know what it means to be an independent writer…and I want to do what I can to dispel this notion that one goes the indie/self-publishing route because your work can’t cut it with traditional publishers. Hey, kids, I chose to go my own way because after 20+ years of dealing with inept, sociopathic, moronic editors, I’d had enough. New technologies like blogs, podcasts and print-on-demand put more control into authors’ hands, a situation I welcome with open arms.
For the record, here’s what I said–
–and after giving it a listen, I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog. And please check out the rest of my audio releases, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the production values and the power and intensity of the work.
Theatre of and for the mind…
Recently, Milan Kundera raised a few hackles in the Czech Republic by refusing to return to his home and native land to attend a conference devoted to his work. Mr. Kundera stated that he did not wish to contribute to a “necrophile party” made up of academics and scholars, discussing and debating his work.
He also said, even more provocatively, that he considers himself a French writer and writes exclusively in that language.
Take that ye cultural nationalists!
It has long been my belief that a writer is a stateless citizen, an individual who inhabits no country and is beholden to no particular culture, gender, creed or race. To identify oneself as an “American author”, “Czech author” or what have you, is to fly in the face of the kind of universality true authors seek to achieve through the power and originality of their work.
When I make my rare public appearances I often have to provide a short bio so I can be introduced to an audience or gathering and I struggle mightily to compose something that isn’t embarrassing or misleading. Earlier this year my wife adapted a couple of my short stories into theater pieces that were performed at a function here in the small city where we live. I think the M.C. at one point called me a “local author” and I shrank down in my seat. Is that all I am? A local author? A Saskatchewan author? Even a Canadian author?
Christ, I hope not. After twenty-five years of beating my brains out and destroying my fingers and shoulders and lower back, I’d like to think I have higher aspirations for myself than that.
Nossir, I want to be read not only locally, not only nationally but around the entire fucking world. I want my books and stories and essays to be devoured and enjoyed by future inhabitants of the Martian colony. I want my collected works taken on the first flight to Alpha Centauri. I want my prose to survive long after places like “Saskatchewan” and “Canada” cease to exist.
Isn’t that what all artists of worth strive for? Immortality, an appeal that persists centuries after their bones have turned to dust. And that is also why I struggle so hard to preserve the integrity of my work, not allowing some bowdlerized or aesthetically gutted version to supersede and supplant the real thing.
I honestly wouldn’t change places with the likes of James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer for all the filthy lucre in the vaults of Fort Knox. Their work won’t survive the next twenty years, let alone the uncounted eons that lie ahead. No, let them choke on their money and watch as their books go out of print in their own lifetime.
It’s funny: this past week I commented on the on-line site for CBC (our national broadcaster), responding to a short feature devoted to Robert Charles Wilson. Mr. Wilson has managed to secure something of a reputation for himself as a SF writer, even snagged a Hugo Award for one of his novels. Frankly, I find his prose merely workmanlike; he is yet another SF scribbler (like Jack McDevitt and Robert Sawyer) who has cashed in on a modest talent for stretching neat ideas into over-long novels and, in the process, made a tidy living for himself. It’s a situation that’s pretty much endemic in SF but those guys are more guilty of that particular sin than most.
The folks who responded to my initial post comported themselves like typical, moronic SF fans. They made all sorts of assumptions about me and indulged in numerous pointed, personal, ad hominem attacks, opining that I was merely jealous of Mr. Wilson’s commercial success.
I made the mistake of trying to debate with these “minions of fan-dumb” and earned more vitriolic attacks for those efforts. Fuck it, I thought, and signed off without posting the really nasty parting shot I had composed. It would have been a waste of time. These are the same vacuous shitheads who are lining up in droves to see “Star Trek XXIV: The Quest For Profit” and the latest comic book adaptation, wearing out their thumbs on their game consoles. The only heads they have on their shoulders are blackheads from all the junk food they cram into their maws so they can stay up all night watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies back to back and wrapping “Fallout 3”. Fuck them. No way I’ll lie down with those pigs.
No, I’m bound for the stars. I write for posterity and to preserve a literary legacy that I hope will last as long as there’s a single, discerning reader out there who longs for something off the beaten track, a work that reminds them what it means to be human, the attendant hopes and accompanying foibles. A man or woman lonely, isolated, seeking the companionship of a long-dead author whose devotion to the printed word transcends time and vast distances and alien, hostile farscapes.
Keep your trophies, baubles and bullion.
I serve a higher calling…and make no allowances for those whose lack of courage and faith causes them to choose low roads and demean the gifts they have been so generously granted.
I’ve been accused of lacking a certain amount of, well, esprit de corps when it comes to the plight of my colleagues in publishing. These are not the best of times for people in the biz: staffs are being cut, longtime employees dismissed, whole divisions lopped off in response to plunging book sales and evaporating profit margins.
But rather than commiserating with the editors and book folk who have been handed their walking papers, my reactions have been cold-blooded, remorseless and decidedly ungenerous. Why?
Try to see it from my point of view: these people have failed. They have failed to excite the reading public, they have failed to choose and promote books that appeal to the tastes of their purported readership. Their gross ineptitude has led to their bosses absorbing big financial losses and, quite understandably, looking to clean house. Honestly, why should we care if they’re called to account for their incompetence, summoned into an office and given ten minutes to collect their name plates and personalized coffee mugs and get the hell out of Dodge?
Is jetissoning them any great loss? Are they irreplaceable? Tireless advocates of excellence in literature and the power and glory of the printed word? Not in my experience.
Don’t forget, I’ve dealt with publishing types for nearly twenty-five years and I have all too frequently found myself on the receiving end of their stupidity and outright dishonesty. When I think of editors and those who serve with them as cogs in the corporate publishing mega-monster, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by warm, fuzzy feelings.
Occasionally, as I read the latest casualty rolls in some industry mouthpiece like MediaBistro’s “Galleycat” site, certain names make me perk up. ____________ and _____________ (names removed for legal reasons) were both editors at major New York publishing houses who were given the boot within a few months of each other.
The two editors treated me abominably, hanging onto my manuscripts for ungodly periods of time, refusing to respond to my communications. In desperation, I finally called one and at first the editor in question seemed genuinely contrite. “Oh, God, yes, I remember liking that one. I’ll get to you next week”. But a week passed and then a month…and when I called a second time, I was given a rude brush-off.
“I’ll get to it when I get to it, all right?”
Never heard from her again.
I’ve detailed my many odd and surreal experiences in the world of publishing in my essay “Solace of Fortitude”. Not a word of it is manufactured or exaggerated, I assure you. I only wish that were the case. (Warning: This essay not to be read on a full stomach.)
The truth is that in my quarter century as a professional author I can count the number of intelligent and thoughtful editors I’ve encountered on the fingers of one hand (sans thumb). Ditto for agents.
So why in the name of eternal, infinite God should I give a tinker’s damn if, as a species, editors cease to exist? Should I wear a black armband because the same people who have mistreated me, lied to me and denigrated my work are dangling from every lamp post in lower Manhattan? Fat chance.
To me, all this downsizing is a golden opportunity to pare away some of the dead wood that the industry has been carrying far too long. Editors and execs who have grown old, fat, stale and comfortable in their corner offices, as secure as tenured professors (and just as paranoid and senile). Insular, self-serving, fickle. Highly resistant to change. Time for some new blood, I say, new ideas and approaches.
Traditional publishing seems to be dead, so to me the obvious question that arises is: WHAT NEXT?
Clearly the corporate approach ain’t the answer. Publishing by committee, collating and analyzing spreadsheets, projected sales figures, flow charts and pie graphs. Slitting open a sheep for good measure and rooting about in its entrails for any insights that might be gleaned there. Always on the look-out for the next blockbuster, something sort of different but mainly the same. But while the big ticket scribblers like Rowling and Dan Brown may plump up the sales numbers for a few quarters, what are editors/publishers doing to grow and sustain a stable, longterm readership? Maintaining a lifetime consumer base that’s literate (something less and less important in these days of text messaging, emoticons and three line e-mails) and devoted to the printed word, unwilling to see books relegated to the status of artifacts and curios.
The way ahead lies with smaller, tightly run publishing concerns, staffed by informed, dedicated, reader-savvy men and women. Independent in spirit, offering a more diverse, iconoclastic selection of titles thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand (POD) publishing and e-book hard/software. Works which are then promoted through podcasts, blog reviews and on-line interviews, “virtual” book tours. Live “web chats”; YouTube readings and short films.
Computer technology also enables readers to connect directly with their favorite authors through personal sites, Facebook, etc., as well as allowing them to join forums devoted to writers or genres of interest. Forming a vast, far-reaching community of book-lovers and devotees, unimpeded by geographic boundaries and undeterred by small details like race, politics, gender.
The end of corporate publishing is nigh. The signs are all there. The multi-nationals are fed up with the red ink their book divisions keep hemorrhaging. First they went at the fat with scalpels, now they’re using machetes. Desperate tactics enacted by desperate people…and I suspect it won’t make one bit of difference. The die has been cast and nothing the suits do will have the slightest effect on the massive changes technology is bringing about and a paradigm shift that is part cultural, part economic and wholly beyond the control of Wall Street, Fleet Street…or anywhere else.
These are actually great times to be a writer, or, really, anyone who works and creates in the arts. Never before have we, as artists, had access to (potentially) such a vast audience, drawn from every corner of the world. And the good news is that we can acquire this access for a relatively modest investment. No longer do writers (for example) need to kowtow to the traditional gate-keepers of publishing, the editors and agents who are largely to blame for the present moribund state of the industry. Those self-appointed arbiters of taste have been rendered superfluous, shown to be incapable of identifying or developing authors gifted with originality, power and grace—the very qualities that get people excited about reading again.
It’s my personal belief that a good deal more publishing poobahs need to have their tickets punched before authors and the general reading public have any hope of being better-served. And if the end result of these lay-offs and staff reductions is better books, a wider selection and variety of formats for readers to choose from, more authors having their voices heard, I say:
HASTA LA VISTA, YOU WHITE COLLAR, SELF-REGARDING, MARTINI-GUZZLING, TOFU-EATING, FAKE-MEMOIR-SOPHIE KINSELLA-PIMPING IDJITS! AND GOOD RIDDANCE, TOO…
These are interesting times.
Book store sales are dropping, Borders on the verge of collapse, while places like Amazon report an impressive rise in their stats. Fewer people are reading books but there’s been a modest increase (3%) of those reading “literary” offerings. Newspapers are in decline, advertising revenues dwindling; to a great extent, folks now get their news, sports and entertainment info from on-line sources.
Despite their daunting price tags, more and more people are using devices like the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader or related palm-sized gadgets. And employing said gadgets to avail themselves of books presented in electronic formats, downloading and reading them in growing numbers.
I’m an old fashioned lad, a real throwback when it comes to all this technology–miles behind digital sages like Mike Cane, who have seen the future and are showing the rest of us dummies what lies ahead.
But I’m learning. I’ve posted two of my novels and numerous short stories on this site and, frankly, I’ve been astonished by the amount of people who have downloaded them–some of them are reading my fiction and essays on their computer screens, even printing them up to peruse at their leisure. But I’m also noticing a growing number who are coming over from various e-book sites and forums, places like this and this…
Frankly, I couldn’t care less how you read something I’ve written, what format you choose.
Coming up in March, some folks are celebrating the new reality in publishing by sponsoring “Read an E-Book Week” and I’m only too happy to throw my weight behind this event.
Thanks to this blog and the ability it gives me to electronically publish my work, I’ve been able to bypass the gate-keepers of publishing, editors and agents with one eye on the fickle marketplace and the other on their bank accounts. They’re no longer interested in identifying the “best” writers, merely the ones that hold out the most hope of selling the most books and earning them (agents, editors) more money. And that, of course, means producing empty-headed commercial fiction, copycat books and the latest “poor me” memoir.
But, re: the sales figures above, their record of late hasn’t been too impressive. The reading public has largely ignored the authors they herald, the derivative works they champion.
It’s time for a new paradigm and e-books are part of the solution. They put power and control back into the hands of writers, allowing them to publish their work without editorial interference or an unhealthy obsession with what’s perceived to be popular.
Authors can now create their own “buzz” and attract readers from around the world to their work. Others have debated the merits of offering material free, but I have found it has worked wonders for me, raising my profile to hitherto unheard of heights. Tens of thousands of folks from around the world have visited this blog and many, many of them have taken the opportunity to read and enjoy the material I offer.
Hats off to the folks behind “Read an E-Book Week”. I congratulate them for their foresight and the vision they have of a future where authors are granted paramount importance and corporate publishing is, increasingly, marginalized, rendered superfluous, perhaps even obsolete.
That day isn’t far off. And when it finally arrives, it won’t be cause for mourning or despair. On the contrary–and I’ll be one of the liberated, independent artists dancing a victory jig on their graves…
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?