Today’s small press shout-out is the fabulous Soho Press! Soho has been pumping out quality books from New York City since 1986. They specialize in literary fiction and young adult books and I’m sure they’re all great, but… ah, there’s no point in denying it, I’m most drawn to Soho Crime, their international-themed crime fiction imprint.
Soho Press has yet another gorgeous website, with one of the coolest features I’ve seen: a world map showing the settings of their crime fiction. Who’s the hardest person on your holiday list to shop for? Do they like traveling? Mysteries and crime fiction? If so, I recommend clicking on the country they love and/or have always dreamed of visiting, and buying them a few crackling good crime stories.
Even cooler, if that’s possible, is Soho’s Passport to Crime bundle. For seventy-five bucks (sixty-five for e-books) you get 12 first-in-series paperbacks. Again, a perfect holiday gift idea for anyone who might enjoy exploring new authors and new worlds. Soho also has a gift-ready subscription plan.
There are small presses and then there are small presses. Soho Press, with its long history of successful publishing, probably deserves something more than a shout-out. Maybe a plaque in the Small Press Hall of Fame?
Today’s small press spotlight turns on Atticus Books. Yes, it was named after Atticus Finch, but that’s not all – it was also named after the Atticus (i.e., Cicero’s friend), as well as a chance encounter with a bookstore that apparently changed founder and publisher Dan Cafaro’s life. All three inspirations get their due on the Atticus Books website, which (in addition to looking great) has a kind of rolling, storyteller’s garrulousness that one suspects mirrors Dan Cafaro’s inspired mind and varied interests. After spending some time roaming around the website it’s easy to guess why Cafaro felt stifled by his corporate job and headed out for the territory of small press publishing.
Cafar0 originally started out with the idea for a combination of bookstore and publishing house. He even investigated the use of an Expresso print-on-demand bookmaker among other research:
As he mounted thousands of miles on his SUV and continued his hunt of a physical location for Atticus Books, Dan stayed focused on the goal of building a book business that served authors, readers, and the offbeat literary community. The more he pursued the goal of opening a retail operation, though, the more he was foiled by the exorbitant price of commercial space in highbrow places like Bethesda, Md. Not to be derailed by the harsh economic realities of starting up a brick & mortar retail business during an abysmal, nationwide economic stretch, Dan opted instead to concentrate his efforts solely on publishing books.
After he decided that a bookstore wouldn’t make sense for what he wanted to do, he focused on an “implausible” idea: the “[creation of a] viable book business whose purpose was to discover voices otherwise lost in a crowded, unforgiving marketplace.”
What’s especially interesting to me about Atticus Books is that they unapologetically publish literary fiction – poetry, short stories, novellas and novels that (presumably) would not be at the top of an MBA’s business plan. Why? You’d have to ask Cafaro, I suppose. But if I were to guess, I’d say it was the decision of a man who loves literature and figured there’s no sense taking a risk if the reward isn’t going to be what you want it to be. Let’s hope things go well for him.
So on this day of roaming around, as everyone in America buys like crazy before the shelves empty, why not think of those readers in your family – you know, those people in your life who would appreciate something thoughtful and heartfelt and with a little homegrown spirit to it – and check out Atticus Books Online and their catalog.
Sometimes changes make tired old arguments look even more creaky.
This is how I felt when I encountered yet another back-and-forth about whether book reviewers should strive to be positive and avoid snark, or whether they should be hard-minded critics, willing to blame as well as praise in their criticism. Maria Bustillos has a rundown.
This debate is like the dance of the straw men. Each side exaggerates the position of the other, until a positive book reviewer is merely a shill, and a negative reviewer is snarky or narcissistic or whatever.
People: the world is changing. It’s not the case that a small number of publications review a few selected books every season, and readers are led by the nose to what has been selected for them to read. They have access to all kinds of books as well as to all kinds of critics. A million flowers have bloomed.
Critics want to take a consistent approach? Fine. Write a manifesto? Great. Criticize some other critic’s manifesto? Now you’re tipping into pointlessness.
Here’s my manifesto: Don’t argue about how to review books. Just review them.
Let your approach manifest itself in the reviews themselves, and let your audience decide whether or not they value the approach you’ve taken. There’s room for dialogue as well as promotion. Harshness and praise.
The critical voice – your voice – is your best asset. Don’t try to make it into something that it’s not to suit your theory.
Is what I just wrote positive? Snarky? Actually I’m not sure. It was my honest response. That’s what I’ll stand by. Good critics should too.
Okay, Borders has gone under. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Independent bookstores have been embattled for years.
I’m a fan of Amazon (and used to work there! they’re good folks! they paid my wages!). But I’m also a nostalgic person. If I can be misty-eyed about the end of Blockbuster, I’m certainly allowed to think fondly about all the time I’ve spent in bookstores. Out-of-the-way bookstores. Corporate behemoth bookstores. Waldenbooks at the mall. Airport “bookstores.” Antiquarian book shoppes. Garage sales. Library basements. Mystery-themed bookstores. Waterfront gift shops with a shelf of books about ships. Anything at all!
So maybe there’s no presently viable business model for a brick-and-mortar store. But there’s a hunger! And where there’s a hunger, there’s a fool ready to supply it.
Obenauf’s jumping-off point is this year’s expansion to a longlist for fiction nominees (from five to ten), which sounded promising to him, as it did to all lovers of good fiction. Until, that is, he saw the list, which was packed with offerings from traditional publishers. This struck him as missing an opportunity:
[R]ather than five slices of plain bread hopping out of the toaster we were met with ten instead. What was the point of expanding to a longlist at all?
As I explain below, I don’t fully agree with his solution, but boy does he nail the diagnosis:
Readers! I’m pleased to announce I’ve joined the ranks of writers who have managed to complete all the steps to make one of their books available to the world. And with actual sales! Hooray!
But this is not about me. It’s about YOU. You may be sitting there, as I was, wondering how in the world you’re ever going to get it done. I’ve been there! I know!
Because – as every writer knows – writing a book is hard enough, even if it’s something you enjoy doing. In writing a book you’re forced to make a million decisions. Question after question after question. What happens next, who is the narrator, why is this conveyed in dialogue and not description, what’s the title, how should this chapter end, is this character a stereotype, is that phrase a cliche, is this too long, is this too short, why this word, why this comma. Exhausting!
And then you’re faced with building the rest of the book and you think: how am I supposed to do the rest of this? Editing? Beta readers? What? Cover design? ISBN? Kobo? Mobi? EPub? Kboards? Huh? What?
You know how this feels!
You’re overwhelmed by the idea:
Maybe I can do this – but how am I supposed to know how to do it right?
It’s like redesigning a kitchen. Maybe you’re good at that and relish the prospect. Or maybe you’re like me and spend six weeks picking out a color for the walls and think, “This is just the first of many, many decisions” and you find yourself deciding that living with your tiny kitchen with the gravy-colored walls is okay after all.
Don’t do it! Don’t live with your tiny kitchen!
Here’s the secret to How To Get It Done: others have already done the thinking for you.
These are the early days of self-publishing for e-books, but you’re not a pioneer. There are other people out there who have gone through this, and who have talked about it, and whose example you can use. And I’m not just talking about how-to articles, although those are often very helpful. I’m also talking about using them as examples. What did they do for their own books? If you find the right person to use as a model, you’re all set.
For me, it was the fabulously helpful Joanna Penn. You may find someone else – there are many others to choose. But for me, every time I was faced with a tough decision, I would traipse back to Joanna Penn’s site to find out what she had decided to do. She’s wrestled with all these decisions, she has good judgment, she talks to a million people, and she has experience with what works and what doesn’t. I’m not writing in the same genre as Joanna, so I adapted a few things here and there, and I tailored some other things based on what seemed to make sense for me. But in the end I figured that if I kept moving forward, and basically followed her lead, I could get it done.
We have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past. And my tone was perhaps inappropriate. However, I will try to do better. I think your heart is in the right place and I have long appreciated your devotion to good writing and good literature. I am a fan of yours when you’re not being condescending! (Sorry, tone again. Mea culpa.)
I was interested by your statement that you are working on a series of articles on the changing literary landscape. I myself have come to view these changes as a great positive force for good. If that is too optimistic, then perhaps we can agree that change is inevitable; what we can hope for is that each of the constituent groups affected by the change will benefit to the appropriate extent.
I think the key main groups that will be affected are publishers, writers, and readers. (There may be others, such as bookstores, critics, teachers, and librarians, but I think these are the core three.) The key questions as I see them are these: Which of these groups do we want to see prosper? And how do we measure this?
Frankly, I expect publishers (and agents to the extent they are allied with them) to fend for themselves. They’ll figure out a way to make money or they’ll do something else. I do not care if at the end of the day Company A is ahead of Company B. Or if Grand Poobah C retires early while Grand Poobah D is forced to keep slaving away. We need to fight for the interests of writers and readers. I’m willing to base the success of publishers on how well they’ve served these two groups.
Moving on, while I’ve mocked the Great Fear of the Almighty Slushpile in the past, I do think there are ways in which readers can lose. Certainly if writers stopped writing, readers would lose. If books became more expensive than they are now, that would be a setback for readers. So too would reduced formatting options – if printed books disappeared altogether, for example, that would be a great blow for most readers.
The last group, and the one I want to focus on here, is writers. And the problem of measurement looks hopelessly formidable. What’s better – a thousand writers finding a way to publish for the first time? Or an established writer who is able to quit her job and write only what she wants? (And if that’s our goal, the patronage system might defeat anything currently on the horizon.) What are we trying to achieve here: A Nobel Prize winner? An all-time classic novel? A hundred really good books a year? Or a broadened field of a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million books out of which great art may arise (or may not). If we take publishers and agents out of the picture, do we think great art won’t happen at all? Or that we won’t be able to recognize it?
The problem is that any analysis of writers slides into an analysis of which writers you want to privilege. Do you believe there are a small number of people – the Great Authors of Our Generation – we should be looking out for? Do we open the doors completely and give everyone a shot? Opinions will no doubt differ.
What I would like to propose is a framework for a utilitarian analysis of the impacts of change on writers as a category, without privileging one type of author over another. In fact, I’ve already done so, with my Levels of Financial Success for Writers. I would hope that your forthcoming articles will not be limited to a few anecdotes but will instead look at the big picture. How will changes move writers up and down these rungs? How much do we value each of these categories? We all have opinions about what kind of books we want. What kind of world do we envision for writers?
This long Salon article by Laura Miller covers the battle at Goodreads between readers and self-published authors. High Priestess Miller once again bemoans the democratization of authorship, which in her view is marked by
average readers, who, now that agents and editors can be bypassed, would be exposed to the horrors of the slush pile for the first time
Mercy! Ah do declare, Miss Laura, what will all those poor lil’ readers do when they encounter that big bad horrible slush pile!?
Um, perhaps they might take their lead from a professional book reviewer such as Miller? Seriously, has she no confidence in her and her colleagues’ ability to help readers figure out what’s worth reading? Why does she think she’s writing those reviews? To impress people with how much she’s read? How in the know she is? Who does she think she’s writing for, anyway? Authors? Publishers? (Don’t answer that.)
Note to Ms. Miller: You help people make choices about which books to read. That is what you do.
One of her colleagues (who to me sounds “reasonable” and “possessed of common sense” but to Miller is a “techno-utopian”) points out that people will find ways to figure out which books merit their attention, perhaps using bloggers, other experts, or “the crowd” (in forums and sites like Goodreads) in order to help them figure out what to read. Miller’s condescension slowly ascends (“I’m sure he had plenty of company in that hopeful sentiment” she snarks) before reaching its peak:
Gatekeepers of some kind are necessary simply because there are way too many books chasing far too few readers, and people have to choose among them somehow. But it’s unrealistic to expect professional behavior from people who not only aren’t professionals but are not even aspiring to professionalism and have no obligation to accountability. The whole point of a hobby is to do as you please.
Argh, where to begin with this? I am not strong enough. I will retire to my fainting couch and hope that some publishing professional comes along to tell me what to think about it.
In fairness to Miller, she seems to recognize that this “Goodreads flame war” is “just one corner of the shifting landscape between authors and readers,” which makes me hold out hope that her coming articles will look at the positives (higher author royalties? a good thing!). Why not look at Joanna Penn or Denise Grover Smith or Kristine Kathryn Rusch or any of the other positive examples of self-published authors finding their readers, to the benefit of all (except perhaps the professional bank accounts of the professional gatekeepers, whose professional services apparently were not professionally needed).
Miller goes on to declare “there could not be a better illustration of that old adage: Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.” Is she referring to a wish that changes in the publishing world will make insufferable snobs harder to hear? Because in that case, let’s hope she’s right.
A quick summation: yes, there is a difference between genre fiction
and literary fiction; no, genre fiction is not necessarily ‘lower’
than literary fiction or mere escapism; yes, literary fiction has just
as many cliches and tropes as genre fiction; and yes, there are many
examples of top quality work and utter crap in both categories, and
people shouldn’t pigeon-hole their reading habits to solely one or the
As Campbell recognizes, the issue is not about defining literary fiction or pitting it against genre fiction (sinkhole arguments which unfortunately bog down a lot of these discussions). Most literary fiction authors I know don’t really view their fiction as better or more purposeful than other types of fiction. They recognize the value of genres and like reading them. They didn’t set out to write “literary fiction” per se, they just set out to write a story that wasn’t in a genre. No detectives, no cowboys, no zombies, no mummies, nothing set in the future, no characters who can read minds, no gun play, no car chases… if you create a long enough list you realize you’re left without a clear genre home. and yet we know that people do write and read books without any of those things. The category of “literary fiction” fills that gap.
As Campbell identifies, the main problem for a book that doesn’t fit well in any category other than “literary fiction,” is that it’s hard to find its audience:
whereas it’s fairly straight-forward to tell someone your book is
fantasy or sci-fi or erotica and give them a pretty good idea of what
to expect, describing it as ‘literary fiction’ does absolutely nothing
for you, and so makes it much more difficult to market.
This is particularly true for indie publishers, who can’t count on marketing campaigns or the imprimatur of a traditional publisher. (Note: there are an awful lot of traditionally published midlist authors who don’t get much marketing support these days either.)
Campbell has landed on a couple of solutions. 1) Build an author brand, and 2) go to the readers rather than expect them to find you.
One approach may be starting up a blog like this one, which focuses on issues of self-publishing and literary fiction. I’m not
convinced, however, that marketing to fellow writers is the best way to go.
Other ideas for finding readers: focus on groups of people who share common interests with your characters. Is your protagonist a dog lover? A fisherman? Racecar driver? Ethnographer? Latin expert? There may be online forums with potential readers. You don’t want to jump in with a spam post demanding people buy your book, but participating in
the forum – demonstrating some expertise and enthusiasm that people care about – may lead others toward giving your book a try.
I’ll post some other ideas in future posts – and Campbell has promised to update his Facebook page with news of his efforts, which will be worth tracking as well.