An Argument for Writers' Taking Charge

In reviewing the third volume in Norman Sherry's biography of Graham Greene for The New York Times last year, Paul Theroux lamented the decline of literature's impact on mainstream culture. He wrote:

It is impossible now for any American under the age of 60 or so to comprehend the literary world that existed in the two decades after World War II, and especially the magic that fiction writers exerted upon the public.
Theroux's point rings loud to writers, publishers, agents, editors, and booksellers alike. Even young people, new to the trade, long for the time we never actually knew when publishing wasn't dominated by faceless corporations and the public was hungrier for good books.

But Theroux takes his criticism of today's literary landscape one step further when he characterizes ours as "an age of intrusion, where publishers conspire with bookstores to bully writers into the open and make them part of the selling mechanism. This weird and philistine exhibitionism is now the way of the world."

It is an odd notion that 21st-century writers are a bullied lot. If anything, writers tend to be ignored by their publishers; most writers can scarcely imagine a situation in which a publisher makes promotional demands of them.

Anyway, writers should embrace the hard work that is now required to promote their books. Too often, authors watch passively as their books fail to climb onto best-seller lists. Some still presume their talent alone will lead to a New York Times review, even though the newspaper can only cover a handful of books every week--while in the year 2003, 175,000 new books were published. There's tough competition out there. Having a book launched by Random House or HarperCollins is no longer any guarantee that high-profile reviews and brisk sales will follow.

I entered the book business through the portal of underground rock music. Along with Mark and Bobby Sullivan, two friends from Washington, D.C., who, like me, had no experience whatsoever in publishing, I cofounded Akashic Books in 1997.

We had grown up playing in bands together in the D.C. punk scene of the '80s, where we were inculcated with a simplistic but sensible "do it yourself" ethos. The idea was that hardworking bands, upstart record labels (often launched by musicians), and dedicated fans could forge a vital, idealistic alternative to the mainstream music business. A culturally healthier business model, we imagined, would place more value on the adventurousness of the music than on the accumulation of capital.

Burgeoning punk labels aspired to provide a cultural counterbalance to the corporate heavyweights; over the past two decades, a small number of giant companies have dominated the industry (and now the book business as well). These behemoths are often ill-equipped to handle art that is not targeted at huge national markets. Always hunting for hits, they routinely overlook brilliant music that may not have mass appeal.

In 1991 three friends and I formed the band, Girls Against Boys. Though we are largely inactive these days, our first CD came out in 1991 and our sixth in 2002. We worked with independent labels for our first four albums, touring constantly in the United States and Europe, before we signed a high-profile deal with Geffen Records, a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group.

It was the money I received from our record deal that gave me the means to begin Akashic. We modeled it after visionary, independent music labels, like Dischord Records in D.C. and Touch & Go Records in Chicago. Although Bobby, then Mark, left the company early on to focus on raising their families, I have worked with Johanna Ingalls, our managing editor from near the beginning, to keep our doors open for business. Now we publish more than 20 books a year; our list is about three-quarters urban literary fiction and crime fiction, one-quarter political nonfiction.

Today's indie publishing community is in some ways reminiscent of American punk rock in 1982. In that era, bands took it upon themselves to carve out networks that would connect the punk scene in San Francisco to the one in Phoenix, the one in Lawrence, Kansas, to the one in Washington, D.C., to Amsterdam's, to Belgrade's, to Israel's, to Bangkok's, and beyond. Working closely with indie labels, bands did the dirty work of booking their own tours and driving in decrepit vans and sleeping on floors and in parking lots--hammering out a vibrant (and, yes, highly flawed) new underground culture where one didn't exist before. A similar grassroots approach to local- scene building--and to the networking between those scenes--is under way in indie literature.

Calling upon writers to do more of their own promotional "dirty work" is by no means a suggestion that they alone must carry this burden. To be sure, it is primarily the publishers' job to market the books they take on. But in Theroux's "age of intrusion," it is unwise for any author to hand over the reins of her career to someone she doesn't trust. The ideal, of course, is to collaborate with an attentive and zealous publisher, but the reality for most artists in any medium is that little is guaranteed beyond one's own efforts. (Even close friends with "good connections" often fail to come through for artists.)

Selling a book can seem as difficult as getting a Democrat into the Oval Office. I'm always surprised by how many people continue to believe that book publishing is profitable. Publishing is a problematic business, pretty much across the board: Even imprints owned by the largest of conglomerates struggle to post enough profit, or show enough "growth," to keep their corporate overlords from folding them or placing them on the trading block. On the other hand, no self-respecting "shark" would waste his time here, so the industry is largely free of financial funny business.

My own endeavors as a publisher have proven most effective with authors who pound the promotional pavement along with us. A prime example is T Cooper, whose debut novel, Some of the Parts (2002), drew high praise for its redefinition of "family values." The book traces the paths of four disparate characters--a rootless bisexual, a jobless "gender freak," a divorced soccer mom, and a hapless middle-aged man battling illness--who overcome interpersonal obstacles to forge a fragile new family. The book struck a chord on a mainstream level with the help of Barnes & Noble, which selected the novel for its Discover Great New Writers program.

T hit the road on a national tour as soon as the book was published in September. She took an active role in the promotion and coordinated many of her most successful events, including one in Atlanta, in which Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls sang a few songs to open the show for her. Reaching beyond the general Barnes & Noble audience, T flooded media outlets with a constantly growing press kit for her book; this effort, in turn, tapped into various networks of queer and other underground readers who sustained the momentum by word of mouth.

Sometimes she threw in playful additions to her readings, such as bringing in a baton twirler to warm up (and confuse) the audience in a Las Vegas Barnes & Noble. Though some might call this approach lowbrow, there was no denying that media coverage--and sales--of Some of the Parts were strong. Without T's creative promotion, we may not have drawn the ensuing book club selection (InsightOut, a division of Quality Paperback Books), award nomination (Lambda), and translation deals (in Turkey and Italy). We value this level of commitment from our authors, having discovered the hard way that good reviews on their own do not sell many books.

Best-selling mystery author Lawrence Block is another example of a writer who has conscientiously guided his long career with a combination of great books, a commitment to literary community-building, and a good dose of business smarts. He nurtures his audience with regular newsletters and an impressive interactive web site, both of which offer fans information on new releases and rare editions of his work, and on upcoming public events. While most of his books have been brought out by major publishers, Block supports independent literary endeavors, as well as up-and-coming writers from other countries. When Akashic began publishing Cuban mystery writers living in Havana, for example, he bent over backward to boost our efforts with public endorsements.

Neal Pollack, an author best known for his works of satire, assembled a rock-and-roll band to promote his latest book, Never Mind the Pollacks (HarperCollins, 2003), a parody of music journalism over the past five decades. His raillery translates fluidly to the stripped-down language of rock and roll, so he was able to use a raucous musical pulpit to seize attention for his new book. I have plenty of other examples, but the point is that these authors have taken an aggressive, realistic approach to managing their careers, keeping the long view in mind, and not depending on publishers, editors, or agents to get something happening for them.

When my band was preparing to sign the deal with Geffen Records, we took a close look at the experiences of the bands who had made the jump from indie to major before us. As a result, we were not exactly shocked when the perils of working with a huge corporation manifested themselves. There was the seemingly fated mega-merger; the resulting layoffs of all the Geffen staff we had developed close relationships with; and the weeks of unreturned phone calls to the label. The "18-month marketing campaign" we had mapped out with the label collapsed after 90 days ... and thus ended Geffen's efforts on behalf of our still-new album.

Fortunately, we had prepared for this predictable outcome by negotiating a clause in our contract allowing us to extricate ourselves when it all crumbled. With our full creative control built into the agreement, Geffen was required--once we decided we were ready--to fund the recording of our next CD. The label strung us along for over a year, during which time we submitted to them a number of demos of our songs. But they weren't hearing any smash hits. (At one point, the company's postmerger president actually told me, "What I need from you guys is verse, chorus, verse, chorus--hit!")

My bandmates and I grew frustrated and finally decided to enforce our contract: Geffen had to either free up the recording budget for our next album or release us from the agreement. They chose the latter, dropping us from their roster. Since they were breaking the contract, we came away in great shape, with a golden parachute in the form of a substantial payout. Losing over a year of our band's life late in our career to a battle with Geffen was frustrating, to be sure, but we were able to keep moving forward by touring and writing songs for the next record (released in 2002 by the Delaware-based independent Jade Tree Records). In retrospect, there is no one to blame for the label mishaps, because we were fully aware of what we were getting into when we signed the Geffen contract and took their money.

Writers, likewise, should no longer be shocked when, for example, their big-house editor takes a better-paying job at another conglomerate, stranding them at a company where, suddenly, no one cares about their book. This happens all the time. Open-eyed artists who mind the hazards of their trade can be better prepared for the (almost) inevitable.

Which brings me to (could you see it coming?) the advantages of working with independent publishers. For starters, one's editor at an indie is often the publisher herself, who can't easily up and leave for greener pastures. And if you are square enough with yourself to recognize that a runaway hit is highly unlikely, no matter how good your book is (just look at the dismal percentages--very few big-house books are commercially successful), the advantages of being published by a conglomerate are reduced to a single one: the big advance. Over time, indie publishers who manage to stay in business can develop distribution networks that rival those of the major houses. And independents are often far more attentive to their books, and more creative with their marketing, even if their budgets are smaller.

Some veteran authors have begun rebelling against the inflexible, bottom-line imperative of the major corporate publishers. My own publishing roster has several fine examples. Akashic's current best-seller is Hairstyles of the Damned (2004), a novel told from the perspective of an insecure and lovesick teenage boy. It is the third book by Joe Meno, a corporate-publishing dropout. It is also the debut title from our Punk Planet Books imprint, run by Daniel Sinker, publisher of the Utne Award-winning Punk Planet magazine, based in Chicago.

Joe Meno's first novel had been published by St. Martin's Press and his second by Regan Books, a division of HarperCollins. His impressions of these companies are best captured on the acknowledgments page of Hairstyles of the Damned, where he warns publishing corporations: "Be ready, the end is nigh." Ironically, this new book has been selected by the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and had outsold Meno's previous novels within several weeks of publication. There are forthcoming translations into German, Russian, and Italian.

A common complaint from writers working with big houses is that they have no say in their book-cover designs. Leaving aside the fact that writers should demand cover-art approval when negotiating their contracts, I still have trouble understanding why this is something authors must fight for. Why exclude the author from such a critical aspect of his work--the first thing a potential reader sees when she picks up the book? Not every author has a good visual sense, but I find that most can at least offer valuable feedback, if not a solid cover concept. It is creatively dunderheaded (and commercially dubious, since authors know their work best, even if they are not marketing experts) to exclude authors from this process.

Nearly every Akashic contract gives the writer full creative control on both the editorial and design levels. What should be standard industry practice gives writer-friendly independents a small but important advantage over the corporate publishers. So despite a hefty payout up front (which often bears little correlation to sales), the playing field for indies and majors may already be close to level. To be clear, I don't begrudge any author getting (over-)paid with a big advance--in fact, I encourage and celebrate it--but everyone should be honest about what's going on. I could not have started Akashic Books without the cash that my band was (over-)paid by Geffen Records in 1995, but I never confused that income with imminent commercial recording success.

If you want to deflate the expansive ego of a fellow writer published by one of the big houses, just get access to BookScan, an industry marketing device that tracks actual sales via bookstores and other retail outlets. Nine times out of 10, the BookScan data will burst your friend's bubble, since agents and editors routinely shield writers from such numbers. This is understandable, because the numbers are too often depressing.

Although it is notoriously imprecise, BookScan does reveal the distressing reality that most books sell in very small quantities--even those that garner positive reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. National Book Award finalist Christine Schutt has been ridiculed for the fact that her book had sold scarcely 1,000 copies at the time of her nomination. But the fact is, other than blockbuster hits, few books sell more than a couple of thousand copies. When a writer tells you how many copies his book has sold, you can usually divide that number by two or three to get closer to reality--though this may be a reality of which the writer himself is unaware.

Once the pitfalls of today's publishing terrain are understood, writers can readjust their expectations. Start with a basic truth that is rarely presented in MFA programs and writers conferences: 5,000 copies sold is a fantastic number, particularly for a first-time author. This goes for books published by either indies or majors. (A quick probe of BookScan will show how few books pass this threshold.) Those criticizing the National Book Award committee for nominating Christine Schutt don't understand the nature of the beast.

Along with the self-starting authors mentioned above, there is a new crop of idealistic independent publishers taking steps to revitalize the trade. One such company is SunRaSon Productions, launched several years ago by poets Heru Ptah and Tehut-Nine. With a minuscule budget, Ptah and Tehut-Nine printed copies of their own books and began selling them at poetry slams, on sidewalks, and in beauty parlors and delis in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

One night in February 2003, while hawking books on a New York City subway, Ptah met MTV Books publishing director Jacob Hoye, who bought a copy of Ptah's novel, stayed up all night reading it, and promptly offered the writer a book contract. With advances in design software and print-on-demand technology, book publishing is increasingly accessible to those lacking big salaries, loaded backers, or trust funds. As in the early punk days, when musicians began creating their own record labels, there are many ambitious, community-minded authors launching their own publishing ventures: Ugly Duckling Presse, Literally Speaking, UglyTown, and Flowers in Bloom, to name a few.

The mission statement of Verse Press, a Massachusetts-based publisher founded in 2000, expresses the vision evident in this new breed: "Verse Press is committed to bringing attention to emerging writers and to the idea that the audience for poetry in America is larger and more diverse than commonly thought. We encourage our authors to read extensively at venues throughout the country as part of our commitment to bringing poetry to literary and popular audiences."

Another publishing entity that has been breaking the mold for some years now is Oakland-based AK Press, a collective with anarchist leanings. In addition to selling books through regular retail channels, AK sets up book tables in a wide variety of public settings--county fairs, political rallies, and rock clubs, among them.

Reaching beyond traditional venues and actively seeking out new audiences, rather than waiting to be "discovered," young writers and publishers are rolling up their sleeves and carving out new networks through which literature can be promoted. Publishing is a tough business, no matter how you slice it, but this may be a blessing, because the love of books remains the guiding principle for almost all indie publishers.

Paul Theroux's sentiment--that we are living in an age in which writers are bullied into publicly prostituting themselves--bolsters the misguided idea that a writer's work is done once a complete manuscript is delivered. Publishers and writers alike must adapt to the realities of a glutted marketplace and an overexposed public, whose noses are more often pointed at computer screens than buried in books. Only by recognizing--and embracing--these realities can literature hope to reclaim the magic it once exerted upon the public.

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