Recently by Ellen Finnigan: What Fifteen Years Can Do, aSadNightinGeorgia
The free market is overrated. In fact, I think it kind of sucks. Forget what all of these people at LRC have been telling you. So the free market is dead or dying? Good! I want it to die. I will watch as it happens and laugh at its pain.
I am an artist jilted and scorned.
In 2006 I quit my job in D.C., sold every possession that wouldn't fit in my car, and drove west to pursue my M.F.A. in Creative Writing. In case you didn't know, "M.F.A." stands for "More F*ckin' Around" – they don't say that for nothing, folks! Pogo sticks. Bacon parties. Dance parties. Halloween parties. Staring contests. Intramural Softball Champions 2008 (holla!) But after graduation, I decided to get serious, to really do this thing: write a book.
So I moved to a small town in the Rockies where snowstorms were already tearing the leaves off the Aspens like they were nothing more than tissue paper. Mid-September and winter had already arrived. For eight months I lived as a cold hermit and wrote, wrote, wrote. Goodbye career trajectory. Goodbye M.F.A. parties. Goodbye social life. I'll miss you, muscle tone.
Flannery O'Connor said, "Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay." I found this to be true. I emerged from a writerly reverie sometime in midwinter to find myself throwing a tennis ball against a wall. The computer screen was blank as it had been when I sat down, nine hours earlier. During a whiskey-fueled bout of procrastination, I wandered into the bathroom and gave myself a haircut. The dentist informed me that my gums were, indeed, receding. By spring I had to start putting "shower" on my to-do list. I was so cabin-fevered and carpal-tunneled that, perhaps prematurely, I began querying literary agents.
They all said the same thing: "The writing is good, but where would this book be shelved at Barnes & Noble?" The book, they said, had a couple of flaws that would prevent it from being bought by a mainstream publisher: 1. It was segmented structurally, very experimental in style. (Yeah, it's called "art," people.) They all wanted a boring straightforward narrative. 2. It had a serious genre problem, meaning it would be hard to classify, thus market, thus sell.
One agent I really liked. He was smart and witty and seemed to really get what I was trying to do. So I pulled off my hiking boots, bought a new dress, and flew out to New York to attend a party at his agency's penthouse office in Manhattan. I strode toward him in my heels, ready to sell him on my book and the brand that is "Ellen." (I guess writers are supposed to have brands now?) He greeted me with, "Hey, you must change your book into a straightforward narrative. You know that, right? As it is, it is not commercially viable." I refrained from stomping my foot, imbibed what was left of my martini, forced an amiable smile and told him I would think about it.
The agency was reputable and, okay, the manuscript was, admittedly, a mess. (Hey, it's called a first draft, people.) The agent said he would help me edit it in return for first dibs once it was complete. Then he got my dream editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) on the phone and pitched it. The editor was interested! He asked to read it! What can I say? That was all I needed. A straightforward narrative it would be! Commercial viability is the brand that is me! Where do I sign?
One year out of an M.F.A. program, writer lands literary agent and gets the attention of an editor at the most prestigious publishing house in the world.
Guess what? This part of the narrative is known as the "false climax."
Fast forward two years, past two summers spent waiting tables, four subsequent drafts, an epic game of Dodge-the-Census-Worker in 2010 (this should really be its own essay), and I am living on a commune now (anything to buy time to finish the book), and the agent, who has thus far been a tremendous help to me, asks me for another revision, a sixth draft. It was now the requisite straightforward narrative (and admittedly, a better book), but that pesky genre problem persisted.
He said, "Marketing will never go for this. Do you have any idea how hard it is to sell a book these days? Editors are terrified of losing their jobs. Nobody wants to take a risk on something ambiguous."
"Just send the damn thing out!" I said. "I can't eat any more tofu! I have flying squirrels living in my bed! They like to snuggle in my hair at night! Pretty soon, it's going to be my turn to clean out the compost toilet!"
I convinced him to send it to the FSG guy. He finally did. The editor rejected it.
I said, "So what? Just send it out to some more! Everyone at LRC is telling me to buy gold – I can't even afford socks!"
The agent refused. If publishers couldn't get a clear idea of where the book would go at the store, then his conclusion was that there was something wrong with the book.
So off to Barnes & Noble I went to do some research. Once inside, I walked past the puzzles, greeting cards, wall calendars, journals, tote bags, scented candles, stationery, yoga mats, muffins, flavored coffee, stuffed animals, board games, and devices on which to read books. I found the books. Then I walked past the cookbooks, the books written about celebrities, and the books written by celebrities to find those other books. I looked for a shelf labeled Creative Nonfiction or Literary Nonfiction (which is what I write). There was no shelf for that.
I saw many shelves for different kinds of non-literary nonfiction: Business, History, Computers, Self-help. I saw one small, far, dusty shelf labeled Fiction-and-Literature. This question of where my book belonged was truly perplexing. The Me Years is a work of nonfiction, but it borrows heavily from techniques of fiction and reads, mostly, like a novel. One would think (or hope) it could be classified broadly under Literature or Memoir, but there is no Memoir section at Barnes and Noble (memoirs are shelved under Biography for some reason, and that shelf seems largely limited to public figures, historical figures and cancer survivors), nor does the book have a tacit secular worldview. To a lot of folks in the New York publishing world, this is a big red flag: It means that the book cannot possibly be literature.
"Perhaps it would go over there," they thought, "on the Christian shelf?" But if it was going to go over there, then they thought it needed to be more consistently and devoutly religious. As one agency person put it: "You need more church scenes." I didn't feel that the book called for more church scenes and I didn't think that the scenes in my book should be determined by a shelf. After my trip to Barnes & Noble, I still did not have a clear idea of where my book would go at the store, so I concluded that there must be something wrong with the store.
Hence, you can now purchase my book, The Me Years, directly on Amazon.com!
(Oh, by the way, I did walk over to check out Borders, but it had gone bankrupt.)
Publishing directly through Amazon made sense to me for a few reasons, some of which have to do with the state of the industry, some of which have to do with my book, and some of which just make me feel better about never getting invited back to that fancy penthouse for cocktails and a skyline view (sigh):
A genre is a marketing tool, a way of describing a product to consumers. It is essential to business, not literature. Consumers like to know what they can expect from a product. Look at McDonald's. Every cheeseburger you order, no matter where you are in the world, will look, taste, feel, and smell the same: same toppings, same number of pickles, no sesame seeds. McDonald's became successful using a business model that emphasized consistency and repetition. People tend to buy the same products at the grocery store over and over again not necessarily because they are the best, but because consumers feel comforted when they know what they can expect. With this in mind, one can see how important it is to sell books and films that fit the formula.
Genres also have a lot to do with demographics, which is the reason why the second most popular question you are asked when you are trying to sell a book is: Who is the audience for this book? This is why Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance, Travel, and such are all separated from "Fiction and Literature." This is why "Fiction and Literature" takes up, I would say, less than 5% of the floor space at Barnes & Noble. After all, does it make any sense to ask: Who is the audience for The Great Gatsby? (Answer: humanity? How do you market to "humanity"?)
We hear a lot about the mainstream media and think of companies operating in the field of journalism (I use the term loosely). However, the big six media corporations own most of the major publishing companies as well. The tentacles of the establishment extend pretty far. Take the establishment worldview (limited, reductive, regulated, politicized, polarized) combined with corporate incentives, extend the line of thinking about product consistency and repetition into the realm of ideas and the world of letters, fairly assume that readers are not necessarily lovers of literature but are often seeking in books merely one more source of information (I use the term loosely) or entertainment, or one more product brand or cultural signifier ("I own a Lexus, so I am successful"; "I read Miranda July, so I am quirky"), and you have megastores full of "books": glossily bound ideological cheeseburgers.
I look at the "Christian Inspiration" shelf: I just get depressed. The books all resemble each other, in style, in content, in approach, in look and feel, in tone. I believe this is worse for our society than the left/right paradigm in politics! So this was my main reason for publishing directly through Amazon: There was never going to be a place for my book on that shelf, and I believe that if there are only certain ways that we can write about faith, if there are only certain kinds of stories we are allowed to tell that include dimensions or discussions of faith, then there will eventually be only certain ways we can think about faith, thus limiting, ultimately, our understanding of faith.
Amazon has no shelves. There is infinite space. Amazon can rely on the viral potential of the Internet to allow a product work to find its audience. Or not. It doesn't make much difference to them (see "Supply = Demand" below). Hence, no genre problem.
That was the main reason. Here are a few others:
- Creative Control: Amazon is never going to tell me to write more church scenes into my book, nor are they ever going to request an accidental decapitation, a street race, or a steamboat fire. (True story: My friend's publisher asked him to write these events into his novel.) Through direct publishing, I also have control over my own book cover, my own website. No one is going to stuff me in their lame little brand box!
- Price: I get to set my own price. If I want to sell my book for $.99, I can. (I don't.)
- Word Count: Amazon will never give me an arbitrary word limit. If I want to write a longer book, I might eventually make less money on the print version due to per page cost, but that is my decision. Length is determined by the work itself, not market pressure or financial spreadsheets.
- Rights: So this is something I never realized, or really thought about, until I pulled my head out of the ephemeral clouds of creative consciousness (or some might say my ass) and actually thought about this writing venture from a practical, business-y perspective, but when you sell your book to a publisher, you sign over the copyright. In return, they give you about 15%. 15%! When publishing through Amazon, you still own the copyright, and for eBooks, Amazon only takes a 30% cut. The rest is yours. There is some really great information about business-y stuff, money and the economic side of publishing and stuff like that (yawn…ooh, maybe I do need an agent) here, in this dialogue between Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Go read it and you, too, will want to kiss "legacy publishing" goodbye.
- Amazon is fast; legacy publishing is slow; I'm completely impatient; the world's about to end: I read a friend's completed manuscript last winter. His book will not be available until March. March! He had an agent and a book contract, and it is still going to take his book over a year to get to market. Imagine how long it would take me if I had to start over: find a new agent, submit to more editors, the inevitable clash with Joe Marketing, revision requests, additional drafts. It could take years, literally! By then, the entire world economy could collapse! The process would be soul-sucking, probably artistically eviscerating, definitely exhausting. I'd rather put that time and energy into writing another book.
- With Amazon, supply = demand: When I launched The Me Years a few weeks ago, I ran a free giveaway on Goodreads.com. I was monitoring how many people signed up to win free copies and comparing it with other giveaways that were ending on the same day. A snapshot:
- Date with a Vampire: 3,649 people requesting
- Unleashed (paranormal romance): 2,314 requesting
- Speed Dating with the Dead: 1,188 requesting
- Sex Lessons (does it need explanation?): 1,541 requesting
- Hearts of Darkness (a woman and a man get caught in an elevator, the lights go out): 819
- Talking with Twentieth Century Women (a psychic "interviews" dead female celebrities, channeling their words from "our home on the other side"): 792
- The Me Years: 359
So you can see why I'm drinking some Haterade when it comes to the free market. Yes, I'm slightly bitter. In terms of demand, my book was on par with the books of poetry! Hey, don't laugh: I wear this as a badge of honor. (I salute you, poets!) Now, I'm not saying that everything that gets published is crap, or that people only want to read crap. Last time I checked, Cormac McCarthy was still getting book deals. And I'm not saying my book is high art or anything. I'm just sayin' that if this kind of stuff is what the market demands, then that's fine, the market doesn't owe me anything, but I refuse to go churchin' up my book because readers of Hearts of Darkness, who buy most of the books, wouldn't know what to make of it otherwise. As a writer, I can honestly say that I would rather have 1,000 readers of my difficult-to-classify book than 30,000 readers of some horrendous marketing mutation that that was revised into unrecognizability because some suit wanted it to appeal to the widest possible demographic.
I have one friend who is a very talented writer. He couldn't sell his (very good) short stories to a legacy publisher but he could sell a young adult series that he pitched to his agent only as a joke as "Dick Cheney meets Inspector Gadget." So now, that is what he is working on.
Amazon's print-on-demand service (through subsidiary CreateSpace) assures that supply always meets demand by eliminating the guesswork inherent in legacy publishing and thus the risks associated with printing thousands of copies of something that might not sell and could be left to rot away in a warehouse. Amazon brings to market good books that might otherwise be left to rot away on a hard drive because the market for them was considered too small (or nonexistent) or they were considered too risky. By doing so, Amazon encourages writers to write what they want to write, not what the publishers think they can sell to the most people.
Andy Crouch wrote in Culture Making: "It is not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique culture or copy culture. Most of the time, we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture is to create culture." Amazon, by opening up quick and easy avenues for writers to circumvent the establishment and get their books to market with little or no upfront cost, helps we, the people, create culture! Legacy publishing, on the other hand, not always, but often, encourages the squandering of talent while degrading culture. After all, do we really need another "Dick Cheney meets Inspector Gadget" in this world? I think not. James Joyce would agree. (Though whether the world needed Finnegans Wake is probably just as debatable, but that is the subject of another essay.)
- Nicer to trees. Amazon's print-on-demand service and pioneering in digital book distribution means less need for paper, warehouses, shipping and such. As a result, it's nicer to trees. My friends back at the commune would be proud.
Is publishing directly through Amazon going to solve all of my problems as a writer toiling away in obscurity? Not likely. It is difficult to match the publicity power of legacy publishing: You are a lot less likely to get reviews from established publications, for instance. A magazine or newspaper owned by News Corporation, for example, is a lot more likely to review books published by HarperCollins, as they both have the same parent company. The New York Times is likely to review only books published by companies that have paid millions in advertising. "Self-published" still has a loser stigma associated with it. And then there is the stubborn problem of the "free market."
Ludwig von Mises:
“The moralists' and sermonizers' critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers – the people, the common man – prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books…The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling u2018bad' things than in selling u2018good' things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely.”
The only solution to the free market problem, that I can see, would be to run for President, get elected, and appoint a Czar of Literature or something, to oversee and "regulate" the populace's literary intake. Until I have the power to ensure such progress, however, I will cast my lot with Amazon, the viral potential of the Internet and the democratization of technology, which lowers the cost of access to the marketplace, eliminates cultural gatekeepers, counteracts EstablishmentThink, widens the selection available for consumers/readers and, hopefully, in the long run, will improve and enrich our culture and the quality and depth of intellectual discourse – just like YouTube did! Wait: just like YouTube did!
The astute reader will point out that by praising Amazon as my publisher of choice, I am not shunning the free market so much as embracing and affirming it, as Amazon has provided an improvement in the market for writers and readers by making it more free. I realize this, but what better way to get a bunch of cantankerous contrarians and staunch pro-market libertarians such as yourselves to read an article than by dissing the free market? (Cheap trick, I know.)
One writer friend recently said to me, "Ellen, deciding to self-publish after receiving one rejection from FSG is like deciding not to go to the prom because you weren't elected queen."
But I don't know. I feel more like one of the cool alternative kids who skips prom altogether. The clock has struck twelve at the publishing industry's party, the (slow, cumbersome, expensive, outdated) carriage is about to turn into a pumpkin, and the after party has already started, baby: on Amazon! Out here in a sketchy hotel room on the outskirts of town, it's like the literary Wild West: no institutional supervision, no silly themes or signed wavers, no fussy chaperones to rubberstamp your ticket, no dues that need to be paid, no expensive dresses to be bought, no probity of civil society, pomp, and circumstance, or, for that matter, standards of literary merit. It's just you and me Amazon, a cheap handle of vodka, my quite possibly compromised judgment, and a long, fun night ahead, the unexplored frontier – freeeedom!!!
Will it lead to fame and fortune? Personal ruin? Crippling regret and crushing self-doubt? Nothing at all, really, to speak of? Only time will tell.
Here's another analogy for you: I like to think of the Gas N' Sip scene in Say Anything. Remember that film?
Glamorous Diane Court (traditional publishing) has just broken up with "basic" Lloyd Dobler and super depressed one night and driving around aimlessly in his car, he runs into a bunch of dudes from school hanging out behind the gas station. The dudes see how upset he is about the break-up and start giving him advice about how to get over Diane Court and move on.
After a while Lloyd becomes skeptical. He says, "Hey, I have a question for you. If you guys know so much about women, then why are you here at, like, a Gas ‘n’ Sip on a Saturday night, completely alone, drinking beers, with no women anywhere?"
Then their leader shouts: "By choice, man!"
Is self-publishing still a default for losers? No way, man.
I'm choosin' it.