Richard Nash's blog
In my Soft Skull days I often said that the reason I published books was to find out why I published books—the process of ushering them deeper into the world taught you the meaning of the book. I published to learn.
The judges' citation has taught me yet more about Vanessa's book.
"When practicing zazen, the disposition of our mind should be to see without being marred by what we see. This definition stands in stark contrast to the experience of reading Vanessa Veselka’s keen dystopian novel Zazen: we can’t help but be injured and destabilized. We can’t help but find the contents at once disturbing and funny, explosive and muted, encyclopedic, intimate, and painfully honest. On top of all this, Veselka has thrown herself into every single sentence of this lyrical, incisive, nervy book, turning even the most nightmarish scenes and satirical dialogue into effortless beauty. An ambitious encapsulation of our modern times,Zazen tackles counter-culture hipsters, geology, Buddhism, consumerism, terrorism, veganism, family drama, and, above all, love. In doing so, Zazen brings to the foreground the most fragile aspects of living the 21st century life, and how, in the end, we as a society can become the very thing we fear."
Oh man. Reading that just made me tear up.
While it is her glow, and her glow alone, I'd love the whole Red Lemonade community to bask in it for a wee bit. Each work here on the site is an expression of something each of us wishs to foreground about our world, and each os the more powerful for being read in the context of the others. That context is why we are the publishing community that we are, and so thanks to all of your for your intelligence, creativty and engagement and a special shout-out to Brian McFarland, Community Manager, so all he does to facilitate that. So, everybody, let's all go enjoy Vanessa's prize!
It is unusually complex to speak of my relationship to The Sovereignties of Invention for it is impossible to follow the standard acquisitions editor script of “How I came to acquire X manuscript,” a script so standard few who follow it are even aware they’re doing so.
The problems begin with the word acquire. I didn’t acquire it, I licensed it. An odd word to use in the precincts of publishing, “licensed.” It’s rather tainted, sprinkled with the ochre of lucre. But you know, it’s factually more accurate (it’s a license, not a purchase) and frankly it’s less odious that the language of sale, of purchase, of acquisition. Acquire is perhaps genteel, it suggests the purchase of, oh, a wooden trunk. A shotgun. A car, such as an Aston Martin. License, even though it doesn’t assert dominion over the author’s work, lacks gentility.
So I didn’t acquire Matthew’s manuscript. I simply read it, and loved it, and offered to license it for three years, in a semi-exclusive arrangement designed to maximize its value and visibility to our mutual benefits.
How did the read-and-love-and-offer come to pass, then? Well his agent didn’t submit it, nor did it get sent to me in the slush, the two standard modes of manuscript transmission in our times. Matthew uploaded the manuscript to our site here. I saw some lovely comments around the manuscript, from a wide range of our membership, some loving the tone, a few calling out a sentence here or there for its loveliness or, even, its inconsistency. Here was true grist for the mill of culture I could see. These stories of Matthew’s gave an occasion for a discussion around beauty, cliché, genre, the first vs third person, seduction. I saw comparisons to Jose Saramago, not unexpected, and to Cormac McCarthy (unexpected, but the reader was right, in that moment.)
And I loved it too. Was I influenced by these other readings? Hell yeah. Should I be embarrassed to be influenced by them? Should an editor consult only his own aesthetic? For me, I see myself as a conduit through which an idiosyncratic set of cultural forces expresses itself. No doubt I pervert it slightly as it flows through me, but my gut instinct is that I am a listener, a viaduct.
There is certainly a role for the editor who only publishes what she personally likes—that ruthless of purpose, like a writer’s own vision, is a powerful engine. But that editor should always remember that she too is a creature of her culture—it doesn’t take much research to note how one generation’s gold is another generation’s dross, one man’s silk purse is another man’s sow’s ear.
Am I addressing here readings of The Sovereignties of Invention as a book, or just talking about how it came to be published in the present manner? The latter, clearly, but also the former. (Though for a universe of responses from Red Lemonade members on the former, see Ancillary Probes: Being a collection of reader responses to Matthew Battles' The Sovereignties of Invention.) Myself, I’ve a predilection for the overdetermined and the title itself is so deeply evocative of the processes I’m discussing here: where does invention come from, whence its provenance? Who can claim ownership of it? Who might assert control and on what basis? Matthew, as with any fiction writer, does not propose resolutions for these questions. But the title hints at Matthew’s instincts: origin and attribution are plural, are various, are contested. These creations of Battles aren’t just that, created artifacts but also about creation and, as such, are perfect for a publisher interested in elucidating how literature is to be disseminated in these strange, giddy, feral times.
A guest post from Joshua Malbin
I explained in the last post I contributed here why I've been serializing my novel Soap and Water rather than publishing it all at once here on Red Lemonade. I'd originally intended to follow that up with a post explaining all the ways you can promote yourself, whether you serialize or not, but I decided it'd probably be more effective if I just described what I use and then invite all of you to add to the list. When we're all done, if there are lots of contributions I'll pull it all together into an easier-to-read form.
Here's what I use. Add your own stuff in the comments.
1. Much of the rest of what I do is made possible by the fact that I have my own website. Web hosting has gotten pretty cheap---I paid under $150 for two years of hosting the last time I renewed the domain with GoDaddy.com. I should say that there's no way I ever would have thought to set this up for myself or known how to design it to look as good as it does. I was lucky enough to have a Web designer friend make a gift of it to me. Maybe you can beg your designer friends to do the same.
2. When I post a chapter here on Red Lemonade, I also post it on my own site in PDF and e-reader formats (ePub, which serves iPad, iPhone, Sony Reader, and Nook, and .mobi, which serves Kindle). I use PDF Creator to make PDFs and then convert those to e-reader formats at 2EPub.com. Both are free, and it saves me from having to monkey around in InDesign.
3. I record myself reading chapters using a Zoom H2 combination microphone/digital recorder, which sells for around $125 to $150. Honestly, though, from what I understand the microphone on an iPhone is good enough now that you can just use that, if you have one. I'm currently hosting the .mp3s on my own site, but I'm thinking about paying the $5 a month to have them hosted through Libsyn, because they automatically syndicate to iTunes for you.
4. When I put up new chapters I Tweet them, post them on Facebook, and send out an email announcement. I like the messages to go out all together at about 9:30 a.m., so I use HootSuite to schedule the Facebook and Twitter messages and MailChimp to schedule the email. Both are free. MailChimp is nice because now I can invite people to sign up for the email reminders. I also get email marketing analytics like how many people opened and clicked my messages. HootSuite is okay, though its analytics cost extra, and sometimes it forgets to post my scheduled messages on Facebook.
So what about you guys? What are you using to promote yourselves? What self-promotional gadgets should the rest of us know about?
As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been serializing my novel Soap and Water here on Red Lemonade rather than publishing it all at once. I could put it up all at once, it is all finished, but there are several important reasons why I think that’s the wrong way to approach publishing on the Web.
As part of my day job I edit a blog about marketing, and over the past three or four years I’ve watched the buzzword of “content marketing” become nearly universal among online marketing types. For those of you lucky enough to be innocent of that kind of language, “content marketing” is basically when companies try to get your attention by offering useful information, or at least some kind of entertainment, rather than sticking an ad into something else you’re reading or watching. It’s become ever more important on the Web, where users demonstrated years ago that they have no patience for pop-up ads and ignore banners. (There’s a million examples out there, but here’s one off the top of my head: http://www.gereports.com/.)
The idea is that it’s better to attract a group of people who like what you do and nurture a conversation with them than it is to make a fleeting impression on a bunch of people who don’t care about you.
So I have this thing I want to promote—a novel—and it’s full of content. Instead of simply offering it in one big lump, therefore, I decided to dribble it out.
The other major thing I had in mind was that people simply don’t read anything long on the internet. Everything I’ve seen about internet use patterns says that you’re doing amazingly well if you can get someone to stick with you for a full minute. It didn’t seem realistic to me that anyone would read 400-plus manuscript pages on a computer screen. Indeed, it might be pushing it to think they’ll sit still to read a whole chapter.
Some guidelines I’ve tried to stick to:
1) I keep it as short as possible, preferably under 2,000 words per installment. Ideally it’d be a lot less than that, maybe as little as 500 words, but given the chapters I’ve already written I think chunks that small wouldn’t make enough sense.
2) I try to keep to a regular schedule, posting new chapters every Sunday and Wednesday.
3) I publicize each new chapter everywhere I can, on Twitter (@joshuamalbin), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/joshua.malbin), via email (http://eepurl.com/f-9tH to sign up), and on my own blog (www.joshuamalbin.com).
And I keep trying to adapt. Once I realized how easy it was, for example, I started making every chapter available on my own website in various e-reader formats (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water). Lately I’ve started to notice a kind of burnout happening among my readers, and have started to wonder if perhaps I’m not following well enough the lesson of email marketing that if you pester your audience too much, they’ll stop responding. I’m going to test out a less frequent publishing schedule and see how that goes.
I’m hardly the first guy to figure any of this stuff out. Comic book authors like Warren Ellis (with FreakAngels, http://www.freakangels.com/) and Carla Speed McNeil (with Finder, http://www.lightspeedpress.com/) have been doing it for years: publishing stories online serially and then selling collected versions as books. I expect we’ll start seeing it more and more in fiction, too. (Though only as these authors have done it, as promotion for a book they ultimately plan to sell. A user poll over at Smashwords (http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/06/are-serialized-ebooks-bad-idea.html) suggests pretty strongly that users won’t pay for a book in installments. Once they pay, they want the whole thing. )
What do you guys think? Does the return of a super-cheap mass distribution technology mean a return to the days of Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote their books for dirt-cheap newspapers? Or will serialization become a meaningless idea once everybody has a tablet for their e-books?
So our online bookstore has finally gone live. Buy early and buy often: our author contracts provide for the author to get paid every month on direct sales, rather than every six months as is the industry norm, so purchases from our store help writers!
However the main thrust of this post is not to prod publishers toward that model (though it would be nice of they did) but to prod farther towards DRM-free. Why?
Well, here's a theory about DRM-free that's widely-held by advocates of DRM-free.
"Don't treat your customers like criminals."
That's true, though it's not the only reason we do it. Another theory is:
"Make something convenient for folks and they won't pirate."
Also true, though also not the only reason we do it.
The deep reason we do it is that we want you to forward the ePub to someone you think will really like it.
It's not that I trust you not to pirate it—it's that I trust you to pirate it responsibly!
Because the primary reason folks don't read a particular book isn't because it costs money (though for some folks that can be an issue), it's because it takes time, and brain power, and emotional commitment. And you don't give those things up lightly. You give them up mostly when a trusted friend advises you to.
So if I want to make new readers for Kio and Lynne and Vanessa, a good thing for me to do is give you tools. You have come to Red Lemonade and bought a book, I shoud give you the tools to get that friend of yours, that friend you believe will enjoy it, give you the tools to get her to actually read it. (Though, if you don't want to be sending them attachments, you can always refer them to our site, where folks can browse the full text of our books online for free and check out a whole community of writers similarly inspired.)
And if they do, and love it, somewhere down the turnpike they buy a paperback, or another digital download or a limited edition or the next book or a previous book or a class.
So I am empowering our readers to be advocates for the writers they love, thereby increasing readership.
And here's my gauntlet thrown down: If, as a publisher, you don't believe your writers can motivate readers to do that...then you shouldn't be publishing.
In order to ensure that Red Lemonade remains insulated from the pressure to make a lot of money now, to grow to a uselessly generic size now, we (Mark Warholak and I) have decided not to take a salary from the business. But this has been a labor of love for us, we'll continue as before to support both the site and the publisher.
This does of course mean we have to take care of our respective familiies somehow! So I'm starting to work for a rather cool start-up called Small Demons and Mark is in the process of doing the same. But Red Lemonade courses through our veins, so we'll always be here for you, fear not.
Speaking of which, we're sharing a table with Electric Literature at the Brooklyn Book Festival! Sunday Sept 18th 10am to 6pm in downtown Brooklyn. Looking for volunteers to help table, sell books, help me keep an eye on the youngest Fizzy One, my almost-four-year-old daughter. Email me if you've a little time—it's a great event to visit for the day.
We believe that a publisher should offer the reading and writing community the fullest range of experiences and services. We are therefore offering a series of writing workshops and reading seminars with Red Lemonade authors and their sympathizers called RedLemona.EDU
These will not be one-size-fits-all but rather workshops on topics dear to the teacher’s heart and mind. We're in the process of developing these now. For example, Kio Stark might help us see how our next novel could be sitting next to us on the park bench. Matthew Battles could lead a seminar on handwriting (the subject of a book of his that Norton is publishing in 2012) and Lynne Tillman is developing a writerly persona called The Translation Artist who might have one-to-one advice sessions for eager writers. More updates as we figure out what in fact they will be doing!
What we do know is Vanessa Veselka will launch RedLemona.EDU with three online classes over the Fall and Winter, each class described in loving idiosyncratic detail below.
The format is weekly online chat, combined with online document editing and commentary. Enrollment is limited and a brief application vetted by the teacher and the publisher, Richard Nash, is required. For details on applications and on forthcoming classes and to give feedback and suggestions about our workshops and seminars, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Veselka I: When the world is too much with us…
We have all read or written work where the author’s agenda seems to drive the narrative and characters felt more like sock puppets than people we might meet. But this raises a question, where do we put all the intensity we feel about the world without ruining a work? One place we can ground passion and conflict is in narrative voice. Since many of us write, or start out writing first person narratives, this workshop will focus exclusively on voice and exploring the difference between your voice as an author, and the voice of your narrator. Over the course of the workshop we will with what you bring and with exercises done over the life of the class. We will not be working toward a polished work so much as a deeper clarity and freedom with the medium. After all, when the world is too much with us, is when we want to be able write! *While this is the first in a series, it can be taken on its own as well. [8 weeks. Online. Fall 2011. Starts Sept 15th. exact dates TBD. $350 (20% discount for Founding Members and Annual Subscription)]
Veselka II: No really, there were cannibals…
The curse of personal experience People always say that writers need to have rich life experience but sometimes life experience gets in the way. Often the exact part of a story doesn’t ring true, is the thing that actually happened. How can this be? Learning to scavenge our own stories without their attendant storylines is critical for any writer of fiction. This course will focus on how we use our own experience to further the imaginary worlds we seek to create. We will work from pieces we bring in, shorter works assigned over the course, and quick exercises to get at this tricky thing called believability. * While this follows nicely on the heels of “When the world is too much with us…” it can be taken on its own as well. [8 weeks. Online. Late Fall-Early Winter, exact dates TBD. $350 (20% discount for Founding Members and Annual Subscription)]
Veselka III: You’re Not the Boss of Me! Writing without restriction…
You’ve heard the rules. You’ve read the canons. But conventions are for institutions. Writers require instinct. Most Moby Dick readers never make it through the “Cetology” chapter. The great Polish writer Bruno Schulz used “gold” eight times on the first page of Street of Crocodiles. So what? How long are you going to wait for literary permission to follow your gut? In this workshop we will look at the parts of our work deemed most awkward by others and ask ourselves the question, why do we love them so? Maybe there’s a good reason and maybe not, but the point is to work toward more instinctual writing. During this course we will look at sections and outlines of longer work as well as tight turns in stories. Come on! It’s time to break a few priceless vases and save American fiction from ineffable dullness.* While this workshop builds on previous courses, (When the world is too much with us…” and “No really, there were cannibals) it can be taken on its own. As you like it!. [8 weeks. Online. Early 2012, exact dates TBD. $350 (20% discount for Founding Members and Annual Subscription) All Three Classes $800 ($700 for Founding Members and Annual Subscription)]
In the last couple of years, the blog post I'm about to discuss would have been a straightforward tweet. "One writer's five-year plan: what's yours? http://bit.ly/qGVPrY" and poof! Job done. But as I was about to send out just that tweet, I realized that the post would really be better chewed over right here on this site.
It's by Jenny Davidson, a novelist and English professor, not of creative writing but of 18th century Enlgish literature. (Disclosure: I published her first novel, Heredity, at Soft Skull—it was her debut AND mine: the first book I ever acquired.)
Here's the nub of her dilemma:
Every time I write a novel, by the way, I say I will not write another one! I don't know that I feel it quite so strongly this time as I felt it after the last one (that time I was mostly suffering from tenure-related fatigue plus the dispiriting knowledge of the likelihood of little support from the publisher as far as selling the book went). Novel-writing remains a uniquely interesting way for me to work out a question or problem and think through a set of issues, and ever since childhood I have secretly felt that there is no other worthwhile activity than novel-writing, or at least that there is no substitute for it in my life.
And yet everything to do with publication and book promotion seems deeply unsatisfactory and uninteresting to me, and there is an increasing suspicion in my mind that it is hardly worth writing the book if one is not going to put some decent further additional chunk of energy and dollars into promoting it. This is what I don't know that I really have time and vim for: surely that time and energy are better spent doing perhaps unstimulating but more deeply necessary work like writing student letters of recommendation, evaluating manuscripts for journals and presses, writing tenure review letters, etc.?
Now, sure, for folks would would really love to be published in the conventional manner, these might be seem to be problems you wished you had. But, as with so much in life, one typically find that the admonishment "Be careful what you wish for" applies to oneself awfully frequently as Jenny herself notes.
When I was first starting out, I fantasized about big offers and huge corporate publishers, but now that I have published one novel with a small independent press and two with a corporate behemoth, the small-press option is looking pretty good to me again! What I am most hoping for, with this book, is an editor who loves it and who will be able to follow through on that commitment by securing strong in-house support: the book will then have to take its chances in the world, of course, and I think it is too intellectual and peculiar a tale to end up with monstrously large sales, but one of the most painful things about publishing The Explosionist was that my absolutely brilliant and wonderful editor - from whom I learned a huge amount about novel-writing and story-telling as we worked together on revisions - was laid off a couple weeks before the official publication date. The marketing group saw a bunch of lay-offs at the same time, and I don't think I'm breaching any secrets when I say that though the subsequent editor I was assigned is herself an extremely talented and inspiring editor, someone I'd be very happy to work with again in future on a project of her choosing, the in-house support and marketing for that pair of books was basically negligible!
Jenny goes on to discuss the tradeoffs of novel-writing-for-pleasure-except-not-always and academic engagement (she takes far more joy in teaching than does the average humanities professor, it must be said). While her individual circumstances will specifically dovetail with only a minority of Red Lemonade members, I sense that every Fizzy One could benefit from writing a short essay about your Five-Year Plan, one that candidly assesses your talents, priorities, your limitations, your opportunities. Maybe you don't need to actually post it anywhere but imagine you're writing for someone to read, risking a little bragging here, a little deprecation there. Clear-eyed. A good exercise, I think.
Well, when a book-related business as big as Borders finally gives up the ghost, much opining follows. And where opinion goes, I follow. CNN got to me first though, so I wrote something for them, which folks seem to have liked so I thought I'd link to it here. They prefer we not post the whole shebang though, so it's a teaser and a link:
We are without doubt in the middle of the greatest explosion in creativity we humans have ever witnessed—more music, more images, more news, more words. It's part of what killed Borders, the giant bookstore chain that just announced its liquidation. And it's why the thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs at Borders are more important than ever.
There are many reasons why the tiny, scrappy independent publisher I ran from 2001 to 2009, Soft Skull Press, became a publisher with a Pulitzer finalist and books on bestseller lists from the Singapore Straits Times to the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Those reasons include the quality of the books themselves, the engaging authors, the supportive media (sometimes!). But the main reason people discovered our books, read them, and told their friends about them, is that thousands of people over the decade unpacked a box of books and, in the process of putting one on a shelf, got curious about it, decided to read it, and recommended it to friends, co-workers and, yes, customers.
Also, uber-Red Lemonader Brian McFarland (the bubbles are strong with him) decided this piece needed an illustration. Mini-Oprah above!
Thanks to the good people at Tin House, I'm going to Portland, albeit all too briefly. In a much less systematic way than Portlandian Matthew Stadler's NAFTA tour, I'm adding a super low key meet-up on Sunday to which y'all're invited (and anyone you think might enjoy doing it too). I'd vowed to myself that once Cursor had a critical mass of folks using the system, I'd do a CursorCon, of Cursor users (which included the Fizzy Ones of Red Lemonade) and fellow travelers.
But recently I've been thinking, screw it, no time like the present. So consider this the afterparty of the first CursorCon, minus the Con itself. It's Sunday, July 10th, 7pm. at the Laughing Planet Cafe near Reed College, since my wife Zoe and child Sophia will be with, and we'll want them to have an easy walk back to campus (the Tin House shindig is at Reed).
Also, the following day, Ooligan Press, part of Portland State University, have put together a Discussion and Q&A session with me, Red Lemonade's Vanessa Veselka, Todd Sattersten of whom you'll be hearing a lot more, and Dennis Stovall, founder of Ooligan. It's Monday, July 11, 2011 @11am at Smith Center 294, Portland State University, 1825 SW Broadway, Portland OR 97201
To conclude in Portland, I'm giving a talk as part of the Tin House Writer's Conference in Vollum Hall, at Reed College Monday, July 11th, at 3pm.
Then on Wednesday, I'm in Vancouver speaking at Simon Fraser University's Harbor Center. My afternoon talk is just for the students but in the evening Dominique Raccah and I are going to have a conversation about the emerging business models in publishing. Which is open to all. So I'd be free to chat after with any Fizzy Ones, or folks curious about using Cursor to start a publisher or amp up an existing one.
So come say hello at any of these things. Whenever I travel, I'm now going to do everything I can to ensure that I've a chance to meet the folks I encounter here and at other Cursor-enabled sites.