It started when my agent at the time did not want to send out a manuscript of my short fiction that had been published in literary magazines. I was calling my book The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, to reflect both a sense of humor and literary quality. One magazine editor had already called my stories Raymond Carveresque.
“There’s no money in short fiction,” said my agent.
“I see short story collections all the time from such people as John Updike, T.C. Boyle, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and others,” I said.
“They’re done as favors by publishers to their top novelists. They don’t make any money. So write me a novel.”
I did write a novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, but I did not want to give up on my short story collection. My friend, Daniel Will-Harris, who’d I’d met when working as the senior editor at Prelude Press and with publisher Peter McWilliams, said, “You’ve been in publishing. Become your own publisher. Start your own company the way Peter did and publish your short stories. I’ll do the graphic design for free.”
This was just as print-on-demand had been created, and so I was part of a new thing. That began my push into publishing.
It was to be a one-time deal. After all, I had an agent. I began White Whisker Books and ran it the way we did at Prelude Press. First, I hired an editor, Nomi Isak, because I couldn’t be my own editor objectively. I hired proofreaders to catch the small things. Then Daniel-Will Harris became my designer. I told him, “How about a cover with a handsome middle-aged guy wearing a fisherman’s hat, standing next to a boat?”
“Too obvious,” he said, and within a week he came up with a dozen unexpected and awesome designs. Not a single fisherman. I took the four best and showed them around as part of my marketing research—another thing publishers do. Don’t just guess. Get feedback.
By far the favorite cover was a black-and-white one with a fish jumping out of a fish bowl. “It reflects your stories. I read them all, you know,” said Daniel. You can see the cover by clicking on this link: The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea.
I gave it a publication date of January 1, 2006, which was three months after the book was done. Publishers create publication dates in order to market their books, and I sent my book to many reviewers. The first review came out on January 2, 2006 from the Los Angeles Times. I nearly blew my breakfast milk all over the newspaper when I came across it. My heart beat fast. Would I be trashed in the Times?
It was a good review. Months later, the national magazine Entertainment Weekly mentioned it. Sales were good—better than I expected. My agent even called to say, “I was wrong. You did well.”
Most people wouldn’t admit to such a thing. We remain friends, even if, by that time, I had another agent.
I went on to publish a second collection of short stories, Months and Seasons, which ended up on the long list for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. When the new agent didn’t want anything to do with The Brightest Moon of the Century, written for my other agent, I published that, too.
This brings me to the biggest problem these days with writing literary books. They do not fit easily into a genre such as romance, mystery, or thriller. The publishing industry still makes most of its money on genre, and the newly minted self-publishing superstars—Amanda Hocking, John Locke, J.A. Konath, Barry Eisler, Bob Mayer, among others—all write genre books. It makes for easier marketing.
Small mass-market paperbacks used to rule genre books. As a New York Times article yesterday said, however, “While mass-market paperbacks have always been prized for their cheapness and disposability, something even more convenient has come along: the e-book.”
I’ve been trying to find someone who’s made a mark in literary fiction via eBooks. Perhaps it’s me. I’m not alone in literary books, but the literary novels I’ve read and adore in the last few years are all from big publishers: Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I flew through these books—great stories, concise writing, and all brilliant. As eBooks, they’re priced $12.95 to $14.95. Where are the independent books under $5? Can it be done independently or does it take a big publisher?
I like to push the edge in my work, and I found an agent who loved my manuscript about a 32-year-old genius and physicist, Gunnar Gunderson, who has just been given tenure in the physics department at the University of Wisconsin. He specializes in what happens to matter near absolute zero, −459.67 °F. Matter becomes something else. With tenure, Gunnar yearns for a wife, and he thinks he can find one in three days using the Scientific Method. Of course it doesn’t work. Rather, crazy things happen.
My agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich (Konrath’s agency), sent the manuscript to forty editors, and three editors in particular seemed to love the book. However, their marketing departments didn’t.
I couldn’t abandon my comic novel, which I’ve called Love At Absolute Zero. I’ve brought it out through White Whisker Books first as an eBook, and in print on September 17th. I’m flying to Wayzata, Minnesota, for a publication party at the Bookcase Bookstore at 7 p.m. that night. It’s the town where I grew up. Another publication party will be in Pasadena, California, near where I live, at Vroman’s Bookstore at 7.p.m on Thursday, September 29th.
I’m now writing my first mystery. It’ll probably come off oddly as my stories do. I’m enjoying it.
My involvement in great fiction doesn’t end here. Two years ago when I was teaching in the graduate writing program at USC, two of my colleagues were having problems in publishing. One had his agent retire, and the other just didn’t like his publisher despite his last book selling nearly 45,000 copies. My friends each admired what I was doing and asked me what they should do. I read their books and wanted to publish them.
Thus, I’ve just brought out each of their books first as eBooks. E. Van Lowe’s Boyfriend From Hell is a captivating paranormal romance with humor. Van Lowe is an expert story teller, having written and then produced The Cosby Show as well as working on many other sitcoms. In this novel, the first in his three-book Falling Angels Saga, fifteen-year-old Megan from Glendale, Arizona, is starting to date just at the same time her single-mother Suze is dating. One of them is falling for the devil.
The print version comes out any day now.
The other novel is a dark mystery, Iron City, from David Scott Milton, who has published four other novels with critical success and from big publishers. His book involves a policeman forced to retire in Tucson after problems there, and he returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh (“Iron City”) where a friend of his was brutally murdered. He’s swept into a whirlpool of bizarre killings, religious fanaticism, church duplicity, hustlers, cops, junkies, old friends gone bad. Amid the fractured landscape of Iron City, he struggles to find sense in his life. Ultimately he must ask: who is he and can he survive?
Perhaps in publishing these genre books—brilliant ones—I will learn more about today’s publishing environment and can adapt my literary fiction marketing to it. I’m hoping there’s a place for independently published literary books.
Update: A reader just told me about a self-published book called The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan. It's #5 on the Kindle bestseller list. It can be done! Now I'd love to know what she did to get there. She has over a hundred and twenty reviews. I know that offering a book at 99 cents alone doesn't do this because I've tried that, and my books sell better at higher prices. I contacted her, and she agreed to an interview--coming soon.
Update 2: Click here for the interview with Darcie Chan. Shortly after this, her book became #1 on all Kindle sales, and #1 on Amazon's literary list both printed and Kindle.
I'll also add that my friend RJ Keller's book, Waiting For Spring, started as a self-published literary book and then was picked up by Amazon Encore. The eBook is still in the top two thousand on most days. Impressive. Literary books can sell.
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