Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books Like Records

Ah, now see? This is what I've been getting at. I suspected it was a common enough comparison (even if handled a bit facetiously by flavorwire), and I'm glad to see I'm not the only one thinking in these terms.

So: small press publishing. At best, they can attract a devoted readership by consistently putting out high-quality work that is catered to more discerning or adventurous tastes. At worst, they - just as indie record labels have so often done - can be horrible at following up on the promises they've made to vulnerable authors who usually aren't in a position to argue.

There's a famous anecdote from a legendary band who talked about doing business with an indie label. I'm not going to search out the direct quote just now, but it ran something along the lines of, "We knew they were screwing us. When they gave us some money, we asked if we could see the accounting behind it. 'Well,' they said, 'you can see the accounting or you can see the money. Which would you like it to be?'" I'll bet there are a million similar stories in the small press publishing world.

And I'm not really sure that small publishing houses have been as successful at developing their brand identities as indie record labels. I get the feeling they haven't found ways to snag the "young eyes" to the same extent that the young ears have been successfully colonized over the years. Every now and then, I'll see a House of Anansi bookbag when I'm on the subway. But they're few and far between, and not as prevalent as the Arts & Crafts buttons I see on jackets and backpacks.

But once again, I think the allure of indie-scaled publishing is that you can stop shaping your work according to what's been landing 6-figure deals in exchange for slowly cultivating a readership that will feel strongly about your work. For projects that won't ever be considered commercially marketable, that seems like a far healthier place to be writing from. All of which is really easy for me to say at this point.

I don't have enough experience yet to do more than guess at how things will play out. I guess we'll just see, right?

Monday, August 05, 2013

Son of "Stereo Sanctity"

I don’t know anything about publishing.

Honestly, I’ve never had “skin in the game”, so to speak, so I have no idea about how things work or what to make of recent shifts in the industry’s changing landscape. It’s all new to me, and there’s no doubt I’m learning as I go.

But because I’ll be done with the last edits of my first novel within the next few months, I’ve had to think a bit harder about what comes next for me. During that process, I’ve slowly developed a pet theory about what avenues will ultimately be open to this raw but not-young first timer when push finally comes to shove.

At this point, I’m thinking about it like this:

I’m old enough now to understand that my tastes in most things are slightly unconventional. They probably always will be, for that matter. Not that it’s really anything to be proud of. It just means I have my own particular preferences that are sometimes hard to find reflected in the mass media. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those rare and beautiful snowflakes. Plenty of people in the world like what I like. We’re just not as prevalent in the general population, I guess.

I’m listening to Sonic Youth’s album Sister while I type this, for instance. I could listen to it all day, and often have over the last few decades. It’s not especially obscure, but what percentage of active music listeners would say it’s something that holds meaning for them? How many would turn it off before the first song was done? When indie label SST first put it out, what did the major labels think about it? It was so dissonant, so ugly, in comparison to what was on the radio. “Limited appeal” is probably the gentlest way to put it, you know?

And yet, that album’s marked “otherness” is exactly the kind of effect I’m hoping to achieve with my own project. A lot of people debate self-publishing’s potential for competing with traditional publishing’s ability to sell books. I’m feeling like the more relevant issue for me is self-publishing’s ability to make works of “limited appeal” available to those who have always had to search longer and harder for things that will satisfy their odd cravings.

I suspect that major publishers seek to smooth out those eccentric edges whenever possible. They rely more on what’s tried and true than on what a few oddballs are dying for, and I understand the need for that approach. But if my novel ends up in the hands of those few people who will truly connect with it, EVEN IF THERE AREN’T ENOUGH SUCH PEOPLE TO MAKE THE EFFORT A SUSTAINABLE ONE, then I’ll feel extremely successful. I know this isn’t a new distinction to make, but I’m feeling the need to make it here anyway. There may be future projects where I’m fine with letting the work be (re)shaped by market forces, but my first novel is not one of those projects. It’s intended for a certain kind of person, and I want to make sure that it’s out there for whoever is searching for such things in a form they’ll understand and appreciate.

I’ve worked hard at the writing part, so I feel more or less obligated to follow up on the querying stage, where I will shop the manuscript around in the hopes that a seasoned agent will see some promise in it. And wouldn’t it be great if that happened? It would be fantastic, for sure. Maybe I’m doing something that a lot of people will like after all.

But most likely, everyone is going to find problems with it. It’s my first novel, after all, and one of the most consistent pieces of advice I’ve come across is that a new author’s first try invariably sucks. At best, I’ll probably be asked to change things about it so that it’s more of one thing or less of another. And that’s fair; that’s what chasing after publication is all about.

So maybe I need to start thinking “spirit of SST” kind of thoughts rather than going overboard on the “kill your darlings” model of success. Maybe there’s an opportunity for self-published authors to offer their problematic darlings to readers who’ve been frustrated by them being cut out of most books in the past. Maybe I’m just realizing that small publishers may be the best solution to the kind of rare vision vs. marketable product conundrum I’ve been wrestling with.

I’ll be sure to let you know how it all progresses.