There’s been a lot of bitching and moaning recently about the death of the Novel (with a capital N) and that no one reads anything longer than 140 characters and oh my god the sky is crashing in on the world of the written word. Soon, they say, we’ll be living in a society of people who communicate only through pictographs and grunts.
To quote the illustrious Douglas Adam: Don’t Panic – the sky is not falling in and properly formed sentences will not fall out of fashion. You’re just looking in the wrong place.
After months of agonizing and praying and making sacrifices to pagan idols, I recently signed a contract with a small press to publish my first novel, STAY GOD. One of the first things that attracted me to Otherworld Publications was its manifesto – and one phrase of it in particular: ‘Our goal is to make the authors successful.’ That statement should seem a bit obvious. ‘Well of course,’ you think, ‘the only way a press survives is if people buy the books.’ Unfortunately – as I found out after 1,205 emails telling me I was very talented but the book just wasn’t marketable – it’s not as instinctive a response as it should be. Major presses count on a few blockbuster titles to make their budget; the other books just fill space in the catalogue.
Small presses, however, are, well, different. They have evolved from the single-celled organisms they once were – no longer does ‘small’ mean college students Xeroxing poetry chapbooks at their workplace – and, through being as vested in a book’s success as its author, have become the testing grounds for some of the most innovative and exciting fiction around. Because the investment capital is so low, authors are encouraged to experiment with language, media and narrative formats in ways that wouldn’t be possible at a major house, but are exactly how art becomes dynamic.
One of the problems I frequently encountered with STAY GOD was it involves too many yets: it’s crime yet comedic yet horrific yet surreal yet intelligent yet emotional. Otherworld didn’t see this genre crossing as a roadblock to its marketing plan, but rather as a way of accessing several types of reader. Crime fiction can be funny, horror can be emotional, and you can use several polysyllabic words in a sentence without sacrificing the reader’s attention.
Admittedly, life at the small press will not get you new wheels (unless it’s a Yugo or Schwinn) or allow you to buy cases of Dom P to spray at passersby, but that’s not really the point, is it? Oftentimes, the small-press author is more involved in the day to day happenings of their book than they would be at a larger house. Guerilla marketing, innovative promoting and basic networking are all essential. For STAY GOD, we’re utilizing everything from personalized matchbooks to podcast readings to handmade excerpt booklets in order to spread the word before the release date. Once the book launches, we’ll start the circuit of readings in bookstores, coffee shops, bars, conventions, pawn shops, park benches, parking garages: pretty much any place where people will listen (and hopefully buy a copy.) True, this approach requires more work than a conventional promotional campaign, but the reward is also much greater.
Like supporting Sunderland year after painful year, it’s heartening to hear a small press success story. Recently, Publishing Genius Press—run by a friend of mine from his living room—sold the film rights to Light Boxes to the filmmaker Spike Jonze. Flashes of brilliance like this—in addition to the number of small-press authors being offered contracts by Harper and the like—give more credence to what is happening below the radar and prove that there is still a market for intelligent fiction that challenges not only the reader but language itself.
Those who shout that literature is dead are too busy performing an autopsy on a mannequin, searching for answers to questions that weren’t important in the first place. Stories are as important to human life as Pimms in the summer, and as long as there is breath in our lungs, we’ll be telling them. So, now, go burn your books (see: Blake Butler, author of Scorch Atlas, published by Featherproof Books) gather the remains and see what the flakes of ash tell you. There’s a beautiful story among the charred corners and – if you write it well enough – there’s someone out there to publish it.