Those of you who have read at least one of my posts or suffer through the inanity that is my Twitter feed probably know that I’m not exactly a spokesperson for Big Publishing. I won’t attach any descriptors or judgment values to my approach to publishing except to say that it deviates slightly from the work of Maxwell Perkins.
In 2000ish, I started a publishing company from scratch with no idea of what I was doing, unless, of course, you count the loose understanding of what a “business” does and that this particular “business” was dependent on selling a product (books) to customers (readers).
Though not the fount of good advice it is today, the internet gave me enough information to put on a suit and tie, grab a briefcase, and declare myself a publisher. Drunk on the power of being my own Destiny Shaman, I oversaw the publication of a few books in those early years and then packed up the car with boxes of them to hang out at the Publishing Country Club (read: tradeshows) with the other publishers.
You know who was the absolute Belle of the Ball? Me. This guy, right here. Yup. Took my suit to the drycleaner and everything. Set up the sign I had made at Signs by Tomorrow, stacked the books in our booth, and waited for security to open the door to all of the people who would be coming in to see what was new in the publishing world (namely “me”).
Imagine my surprise when the doors were flung open and we were greeted with...well, I wouldn’t call it active derision, maybe something more like aggressive ambivalence. Yeah, it turns out, since nobody knew who we were, our display was not on par with Random House, and our books were kinda “meh” looking, no one really felt compelled to pay attention to us.
But! I insisted, if you’ll just read the book, you’ll see...
Alas, it was not to be. We got a little foot traffic. A few curious raised eyebrows. More than one, “Oh, that’s cute, they’re so young and they’re wearing suits.” But as far as starting down the path to a 401k—we were frozen in the starting blocks.
On that long drive home from Appleton, I might have cracked open one of the books we published, and, if I was totally honest with myself, I might have said something like, “Yeah, the author is cool, and most of my friends couldn’t do better, but this isn’t exactly it. It’s a solid first step, but we need to do a bit better on the editorial selection side."
Nagging doubts are a bitch. But they’re grounded in real weeds.
Maybe, thought I, the problem is we went regional. The Wisconsin Librarian Association. The Upper Midwest Booksellers Association. Maybe we needed to go Broadway with this operation. So we did a few new titles and decided to hit Book Expo America.
Surely the problem was with our hickish, fly over country launch, what we needed was a bigger platform, a deeper pool, a diving board high enough to draw Spectacle level attention. New York City! The place never sleeps. All kinds of rags to riches stories to mine! It was time to make a name for ourselves and to sell a million books!
But, damn! Have you ever been to Book Expo America? It’s like everybody who has ever read a book ever is there and so is everybody who ever published a book. It’s a whole City of Literacy and maybe we were still some of the youngest people, or maybe we had a cooler punk edge, or maybe our new books were actually good enough to be on the shelf next to The Establishment, but there were also 100 other booths set up in the small press area. And they probably were all staffed by people who were thinking things like the things I was thinking.
They were also dressed up as gorillas. One dude was walking around with a toilet seat around his neck. Some folks leapt out of their booths with smiles that scared more than endeared with promises of get rich quick schemes or “This is the one book you’ll need for the rest of your life!”
And I got dismayed.
It didn’t matter that my suit had gone back to the drycleaner. It didn’t matter that we’d gotten a nice review in Library Journal for one of our recent books. It didn’t matter that we were being earnest. For every patron—buyer, librarian, reviewer, reader—walking down that aisle, the reaction was almost universal.
“Where am I? What in the hell is this? And how do I get out of here?”
And off they went to the comfort of a known quantity like the cheese and wine being served by Simon & Schuster, or to get a book signed by Julie Andrews, or whatever. Somewhere that wasn’t overwhelming. Somewhere that didn’t require a bullshit detector. Somewhere to catch a breath and not worry that a hyper aggressive dude dressed in a gorilla suit was going to do gorilla things.
Did my ability to have a conversation in my booth take a hit? Sure did. Was that the fault of the BEA attendees? Nope. How can I fault somebody who gets enough of a sample size to make an assessment and decides they don’t want to be around it anymore?
If you would have stopped those people and said, “Is this row indicative of all small presses?”
Even the moderately informed of them would have said no. They knew about the companies who had already proven themselves. They might have mentioned people like Soho Press or Akashic Books or Soft Skull who earned their respect by putting out quality books and working their way up the ladder of public awareness.
If you would have then asked them to go back into the unregulated aisle of Small Press Row and determine who was a publisher worth paying attention to and who was just a guy standing on a milk crate in a homemade Batman suit with a shitty book, they would have been perfectly within their rights to decline your offer.
In any endeavor, you aren’t afforded respect simply because you want it. I can’t climb over the bleachers at Wrigley Field and say, “Well, I’m here to play shortstop. Let’s get this tryout underway!” and then pound my mitt a few times to show them I know what I’m doing and that I mean business. It doesn’t matter that I may very well be good enough to field groundballs and bat .220 in pinch hitting duties. Nobody owes me that tryout.
There are multiple ways to find success in industry. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be a little bit more laser focused.
You can publish with a big publishing house, you can publish with an indie publisher, you can self-publish by your lonesome. If you’ve got real innovation like my guy Raven Mack, you can carve haikus onto railroad spikes.
All of these are viable things. Choose your own adventure and alla that. If you write a great book, I'm proud of you and wish you well. I hope you sell a million copies.
But getting pissed off at the indifference of the audience or the skepticism of folks who have been burned in the past or who have seen the gorilla at BEA and don’t want to risk being attacked again, doesn’t serve you at all. Also, not for nothing, but you aren’t owed anything.
Is it possible to suffer because of the sins of others? It sure is. That’s a fact of life. Is it fair? Probably not, but it happens, every day, all day, to people all over the world. People only have so many hours in a day and can only take in so much information before making decisions about how to spend their time, money, and energy.
The things I publish today generally get good reviews in the trade publications and even sometimes in places like The New York Times. The books get stocked, in varying quantities, on the shelves of bookstores across the country. I’ve built up trust with those folks over a larger body of work. Sometimes I can’t convince a reviewer to review a book I really, really love. Sometimes I can’t convince a bookseller to stock more (sometimes any) copies.
It's ten years later, more than a hundred novels published, and I still run into awkward moments when I introduce myself and somebody says, "Oh, I've never heard of you," and then moves onto a more desireable party guest.
When faced with that disappointment (and it is a disappointment)I don’t generalize and say, “Oh, well they must hate all smaller publishers! I hope their empires crumble to the Earth!” I know better. One, I know it’s not true. Two, I know it doesn’t accomplish anything for me to stomp my foot. Three, I don’t know what their experience has been like with the last six publishers they’d never heard of who showed up on their doorstep with a request. Who am I to judge?
So what can I do?
Pick up my dry cleaning, read submissions, ask myself hard questions, and do my best to do better than the day before, no matter how good that was. I can keep it in perspective that I'm not owed anything, there aren't reliable shortcuts to the 401k, and not everything I do is going to resonate with all parties equally.
Sometimes that's hard to swallow. It is still the truth.
In part, the above discussion was spawned by the reaction to Chuck Wendig's post here, both in the comments section and on social media.