Risktaking and gatekeepers

Alaskans are innovators. Risk-takers. Maybe even opportunists. We’re not afraid of change. (I refuse, however, to embrace the M word, leaving maverick to the Texans, the occasional Arizonian, and Alaskans with large political aspirations.)

Stereotypes aside, I think there’s a fair pile of evidence behind these assertions. Indigenous Alaskans are ingenious, master of developing and adapting technology. And most of us newcomers embraced change by journeying far from the familiar, embracing adventure.

So where do we stand when it comes to changing paradigms in publishing? Consider this excerpt from agent Nathan Bransford’s blog post, “It’s the End of Publishing as We Know It: Do You Feel Fine?”:

“In essence, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. If you’re an enterprising author there is a world of opportunity out there. Never before have we had a book publishing world where truly anyone could publish and potentially find their readers. Before there was a fundamental obstacle: distribution. That’s going away. Anyone can publish. It’s a massive, groundbreaking shift! I suspect soon there will be even more opportunities for collectives and online communities to boost sales, build brands, and become real players in publishing. Out of chaos comes order.

At the same time, when faced with such a multitude of choices, people tend to go with the familiar, and publishers are following that trend and filling that niche. The blockbuster model carries a great deal of risk, and there are drawbacks to putting so many eggs in a few baskets, but it may not be an irrational choice. And of course, this means that precious few new authors will get the backing of the publishers, making it that much harder for them to break out. But once an author is able to break out and convince a publisher to invest in them, no one can match a major publisher’s combined efforts in publicity, production, and distribution.

It certainly is a brave new world. After changing so little for 75 years, the book industry is in for a wild ride.”

I’m enterprising. I embrace opportunities. Heck, I’m even part of an online community with the potential to boost sales and build brands. When I was an educator, I had a reputation for trying new approaches and initiating new programs. So why as an author do I cling to the traditional routes to publication, chasing after editors and agents who, by virtue of the system, spend a good chunk of their time slamming the gate?

In her review of Shopping for Porcupine, Amanda Coyne bemoaned the fact that traditional publishers had passed on some of Alaska’s finest writing. With paradigms shifting, will the path to viable regional literature for Alaska mean passing on traditional publishers?

7 thoughts on “Risktaking and gatekeepers”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    So true, Deb! I sure wish people would chime in on this one.

    Many aspiring writers seem to think getting published (including getting published by a big house) is the hardest part of becoming an established writer. I think the hardest parts are 1) learning to write well — a lifelong pursuit and 2) finding readers.

    Just because your writing is between covers doesn't get it sold or read. Good distribution in big stores, with marketing, helps — for the first 6 weeks or so. Then books that don't find word of mouth still sink.

    So, regardless of what happens at the publishing end, we need to use every possible new technology and new insight to find readers — people actually waiting for our next book to come out. A few thousand loyal readers may matter more than the tens or hundreds of thousands of new readers we may imagine trying to hook. I've heard authors like Jodi Picoult have huge email databases. Other people are making use of Facebook etc. Dana Stabenow popped up on the bestseller list — I'm guessing because her fanbase all ran out and bought her book in the same week. Do these strategies favor more commercial authors? Possibly. But look at the music model, where even small, obscure, unusual bands are finding their audiences now, via youtube etc, in a way that wasn't possible before.

    I used to be uncomfortable with advertising/marketing, because I saw it as trying to foist something unwanted & unneeded on new audiences. But as a consumer in today's world, I'm often SEEKING new things that match my interests — new books, new music, and new movies. I appreciate websites, applications, and subscription services (think Netflix) that help me find more of what I like, including things I didn't yet realize I'd like. We all need to catch up on how our writing careers will fit this tech-faciliated model, even while old-school publishing is struggling.

  2. Out with the old (most of it is through the door already) and in with the new. But part of my problem is envisioning how readers will find our books – and how our books will find their readerships – when there may soon be more writers than readers, a related topic on which I plan to post soon. Will word of mouth, perhaps mostly through blogs like this one, do the siftin and sorting that gatekeepers used to do? How will book buyers catch the buzz if the whole world is humming? Or will it all degenerate into Amazon-type reviews, where resourceful writers get their friends to post 5-star reviews and idiots like me, clinging to principles as worn-out as using sick leave only when you’re sick, leave our reviews to strangers?

  3. A few comments.

    First, I don’t want to speak for Seth, but while Milkweed may not be Knopf or Norton, it’s a very well-respected and long-established smaller press. You can even make an argument that because it’s a press that pays more personal attention, his books have done better than they might have with a bigger New York publisher, where there’s a greater chance of getting lost in the shuffle. Of course, everybody everywhere ought to be reading his two books–and everything else that’s deserving out of Alaska–but I think just about every one of us would be satisfied to work with a publisher like Milkweed, and to end up with Seth’s level of readership and acclaim. (And while it’s easy now to see that the acclaim has been deserved, it’s not like those acclaimed books just happened. Seth worked on Ordinary Wolves for years, and I’d be pretty sure earlier, rejected, versions, while different, would have merited acclaim also, if only they’d been accepted. But that’s only a guess.) In any case, while Milkweed isn’t a New York mainstream publisher, it still feels relatively traditional.

    I appreciate that Andromeda mentions the independent music model, where there isn’t the same stigma with self-producing CDs as there is with self-publishing books. While I’ve been fortunate at having a number of books published, they’ve all been with small presses, and the six small presses I’ve worked with have gone about their business in a variety of ways. As a result, I’ve had to (reluctantly) learn all sorts of ways to help publicize and promote to get my books in people’s hands.

    It helped that I first self-published poetry chapbooks (after having a couple of hundred poems and stories in literary journals), and then poetry postcards and bookmarks. That got me started.

    It also helped that I started touring and performing regularly in the late 1990’s, which forced me to learn how to begin working with media.

    What helped the most, in my case, was that I also released a music CD about the time the first full-length book came out. Having that CD, which included original poetry on top of old-time Appalachian music, allowed me to perform at more venues, which ultimately meant more attention to the books. While I’ve never sold all that many books, I’ve done reasonably well, mainly because whatever the strengths and flaws of the individual books, I do cross disciplines and am able to sell books in nontraditional settings. A couple of weeks ago at a music club in Chicago, I sold 42 books (and even more CDs). It was a fluke evening, sure, but still. I’m trying to figure a way to duplicate that one. And just like there’s an issue with finding readers, there’s an issue with getting anyone to come out to see a show, or for anyone anywhere to pay attention to any one thing in our increasingly cluttered world. In any case, I don’t think you’ll ever find Olena Kalytiak Davis, or Anne Coray, or Joe Enzweiler, or Tom Sexton doing what I do–nor would they want to. They have their own ways to write poems, to get published, and to get their work out there.

    So much of this business–or, really, any business–is cumulative. First, like Andromeda says, you have to keep at the writing so you have more and “better” material. Then, with luck and/or persistence, you might find a publisher. Then, well, there are infinite ways to try to get people to pay attention. Some ways cost more money. Some ways cost more time (which might be better spent writing).

    In the end, sure, the times are changing with all this. We all could use some help figuring out how best to proceed. Doing nothing sure feels reasonable–until you find that by doing nothing no one knows your books are out there, so no one is interested in reading them. In my case, while I like to keep my correspondence personal and human, working like that feels increasingly inefficient. I keep experimenting, or, better, evolving with how I go about all this.

  4. Great comments, Ken. You’re right that Milkweed is close to traditional, especially when compared to self-pubbing or e-pubbing. And less-traditional presses have definite advantages. I’ve sold many more copies (and collected more royalties) from the books I pubbed with regional presses than the books pubbed with big NYC houses, because the regional press keeps them in print so much longer. Not to mention that regional and independent presses often do a better job of target marketing – a book published by a big house may in fact get less recognition than one published by a company with less clout but more caring.

    Excellent point, too, about how music brought to market in nontraditional ways doesn’t have the stigma of books taking similar routes. Maybe it’s because music doesn’t usually need editing?

    And you’re so right about doing nothing – it feels great until you realize the consequences.

  5. My latest publisher is createspace, the Amazon company. My book is a collection of outdoor essays from Alaska Magazine, the best 30 of 60 I’d written. They were all edited, I had good photos for each, and I paid a graphic artist $500 to make front and back covers and design the inside.

    I pay createspace nothing. They get a cut for each book ordered. People order them online from Amazon, and Amazon alerts me every time I sell a book or two.

    I haven’t enjoyed my experiences with two small publishers on my first book. A good editor to work with at one of the places, but then bankruptcy, and a form letter to me saying the checks will stop for a while (and they haven’t reappeared). A dodgy contact at that press who didn’t want to sell me the rights to my own book. Damn it, that’s MY book! Just a bad feel all around.

    So, why not try doing it myself? Who has my best interests in mind? Who’s going to try to sell that book with all his soul?

    As for the stigma attached to the words “self-publishing,” I don’t buy it. I never care what publisher’s name is stamped on a book, as long as the subject interests me. Quality will rise, somehow. And, for the first time, I can say I’m now very happy with my publisher.

  6. I’m so glad you posted about createspace, Ned. I was just looking at it the other day on behalf of a freelance client, and I thought wow, this makes sense. No matter what people say about Amazon, their models make sense. They’re not afraid to go outside the box or, for that matter, toss the box and replace it with some new shape. And they’re making money. Today. In this economy. Meaning they’ll be around for awhile – another novel idea in publishing.

    Maybe the real reason we cling to an archaic system with all its middlemen is the flip side of what Ned says here. If we’re our own publishers, we have to perform to our own satisfaction, not just in writing but also in marketing and promotion. Complaints circle right back around and land in front of us.

    Good, fresh models will pick up speed as respected authors like Ned shake off the old and try something new.

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