In October, readers of the Style blog of the Washington Post were greeted with some interesting news: Jon Clinch would be self-publishing his new literary novel, The Thief of Auschwitz.
With mainstream publishers snapping up previously self-published titles and more and more genre authors making tidy livings releasing their own work, we’re beyond the days of self-publishing (or “indie” publishing, if you wish) being derided as vanity. But writers of literary fiction, for the most part, have been slow to join the movement. For many people, seeing someone of Clinch’s caliber—here’s a guy with two widely praised novels in Finn and Kings of the Earth—break with the revered publishing houses was jarring. In the blog post that broke the news, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles put it like this: “‘Am I insane?’ (Clinch) asks, as I struggle to come up with some polite way to ask if he’s insane.”
Clinch isn’t insane. If you read his blog, where he generously shares his insights about going it alone and doing it the right way, you begin to realize that he has managed to bring his literary sensibility—deeply insightful, methodical, precise—to the business of being the wordsmith equivalent of a craft brewer (an analogy Clinch himself champions).
The Thief of Auschwitz is now available in trade paperback and e-book formats. As Clinch prepared the book for release, he agreed to field some questions from novelist Craig Lancaster about how he arrived here—and where he’s going.
Was there a singular moment of “OK, this is a viable option for me,” or was it more of a gradual realization?
It was a slow build to a moment of insight. Or maybe it was just an accumulation of dread—it’s hard to tell the difference.
As you know, your relationship with a book you’re working on changes over time. While I was writing The Thief of Auschwitz I was totally, “This is going to be my breakout novel, the one that takes me from critical praise and a modest audience to genuine household-word status.” As Indiana Jones told Short Round: “Fortune and glory, kid.”
You always think that, of course.
As I drew nearer to the point of shopping the manuscript to editors, though, things began to change. I grew increasingly terrified of the possibility that what had happened to my last book, Kings of the Earth, might happen to this one as well. Kings was set up for success: Oprah’s magazine put it at the top of their summer reading list, for heaven’s sake, and it went on to be named one of the best novels of the year by the Washington Post. But the Oprah nod came six or eight weeks before publication date, and Random House either couldn’t or didn’t capitalize on it. By the time the book hit the shelves, it was already forgotten.
That sad history began to eat at my confidence regarding the future of The Thief of Auschwitz. I simply couldn’t bear the possibility that it might slip into the same abyss that had swallowed Kings At the same time, I was having great luck with the sci-fi novel I’d self-published under a pen name, What Came After, by Sam Winston. Ten thousand copies or so, no sweat. Which got me thinking that maybe I should try kicking open a different door.
Literary authors tend to be reverent of the publishing houses, and you’ve left that track. How has the reception been overall?
You’ve hit on something here. Literary writers revere the publishing system itself and everything that goes with it—the imprints where their heroes were published, the apprenticeships through Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley, the physical weight of a hardcover book. They’re willing to take a small advance or no advance at all to be published by even the smallest of small presses, because it means that that house has found them worthy. Writers in the genres don’t see it that way. To them, a reader is a reader is a reader. I have to confess that they’re probably right.
As for the overall response to what I’m up to, it’s been extremely encouraging. I have friends who write all kinds of books. Literary stuff, of course, but also thrillers and mysteries and horror and chick lit and so on. Everybody’s saying, “It’s about time a guy with some literary cred did this thing.” On the other hand, I’ll bet that a few of them are glad that it’s me rolling the dice, not them.
More interesting than the public response has been the private reaction. Writers who are complete strangers to me—writers I’ve admired for a long time, writers who’ve had enormous bestsellers and even bigger advances and, in some cases, subsequent disappointments that were bigger still—have reached out to initiate long conversations about the state of the industry and how I’m working to circumvent some of its endemic frustrations. They’re watching, in other words, with great interest.
On your blog, you’ve been forthcoming about dealing with all the processes a publisher ordinarily would have shouldered. What, if anything, has surprised you about taking on that work?
Being on the sales team is the toughest part. So it was during my years in advertising, and so it remains. It’s not that I’m not a personable human being or that I’m lousy around people. Quite the opposite—I have a kind of compulsion to see to it that the folks I work for are happy. So I’m pretty much made of regret when I’m unable to accommodate somebody’s needs.
Where that issue comes up is in brick-and-mortar distribution of paperbacks. If your only objective is to make ebooks available through Amazon and B&N and Kobo and iTunes, you can mark that job “mission accomplished” in an afternoon. The various web sites have made it that easy. (I’m talking about posting files, now, not about creating them. Creating them takes time.)
But if you have the aspiration I do, which is to get a physical book into physical stores, it gets more complex. At my level—where on one hand I don’t need a million copies and on the other hand I don’t want five hundred of them in my basement—the only way to go is Print On Demand (POD). A number of companies offer POD services, making very nice books and getting them into the various online and real-world sales channels. I’m using CreateSpace, although I understand that Lightning Source does a good job too. The problem is that POD does not offer one thing that bookstores, both chain and independent, have come to depend on: returnability. Yes, you read that right. If your local bookstore doesn’t sell those fifty copies of Snooki’s latest novel, they can return them to the publisher. Crazy, huh? The big houses have set that standard, and whether they like it or not they’re stuck with it. Little guys like me simply cannot compete on those terms. It’s something I have to explain all the time.
What’s the future of big publishing, as you see it? And was this choice a reflection of that view?
There’s no question in anybody’s mind that big publishing has made itself into a business driven by blockbusters. I won’t go into the cultural and financial and global business issues that have brought it on, but the results are plain. The aforementioned Snooki, for example. And E.L. James, whose S&M fan-fiction has moved twenty percent of the physical books sold this year, 35 million of her first book in the U.S. alone, yielding so much dough that Random House has given everybody from the top brass to the janitors an extra five grand in their paychecks.
There is simply no way that serious fiction can play in that big-money, low-intellect arena, any more than an independent filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch or Joe Berlinger can compete financially with Spider-Man and The Hunger Games. There is no reason for publishers on the hunt for the next big thing to bother sniffing around writers like me. Absolutely none.
The best way I’ve found of looking at it, to set the Hollywood metaphor aside, is to characterize myself as a microbrewery. (Blame it on the Vermonter in my soul.) Big brewers do just fine with their mass-market brands, while little craft brewers find their opportunities in niche markets that are simply too sophisticated and demanding and unprofitable for the big guys to address.
The nice thing is, niche buyers (whether they’re drinking beer or reading books) tend to be very loyal.
I read a piece where you spoke about Mark Twain and how he trusted readers to follow wherever he went. Publishing, obviously, tends to pigeonhole authors. How are you breaking out of that with The Thief of Auschwitz?
By the standards of today’s market, I’ve already made a huge tactical error by not writing the same book over and over and over again. Heck, I’ve never written two books in a row that sounded alike.
Back when I published Finn, I recall being asked any number of times which literary character I was going to write about next. My answer was always the same: “I don’t want to be the guy who does that.” Once, the person who’d asked looked me square in the eye and went right to the heart of the matter, saying, “The guy who does that makes a lot of money.”
He probably does.
Anyhow, Finn and Kings of the Earth were both extremely American books, while The Thief of Auschwitz is clearly not. That’s a big change. The language of Thief has a very different, simpler feel as well, and the narrative is—surprise, surprise—entirely straightforward. (Finn looped around as drunkenly as its protagonist, and Kings was a sort of choral arrangement. Thief is an utterly linear story, period.)
What they all have in common, I suppose, is traceable to my usual concerns: family and community, the relationships between parents and children, the demands of faithfulness. Those things, plus my insistence on revealing the strangeness and uncertainty of the world right before our eyes. Historical fiction, and its possibility for both immediacy and remoteness, always serves me well on that front.
You received a rights reversion on Kings of the Earth and have published that in paperback, too. A simple case of “ask and ye shall receive,” or did it take some wrangling?
Reversion is always built into your contract, of course. Traditionally, it was triggered when the publisher stopped printing your book. Now that ebooks live on forever, though, publishing contracts include language defining a book as still in print as long as a certain number of ebooks continue to be sold over a certain period time. It takes forever to play out, and even longer to calculate. Sometimes, all you can do in a case like that is to throw yourself on the mercy of the court.
The minute I heard that the hardcover of Kings of the Earth was going out of print (a paperback was never released), I began pursuing contacts in Random’s legal department via phone and email. They were reasonable and efficient, and I recovered the rights very quickly. I’ve released both a paperback and an improved—that is, more carefully made—ebook.
How has becoming your own publisher affected your writing time? How do you protect that and still wear these new hats?
It’s killing me. I hope it gets better once Thief is out.
It seems to me that a big barrier for some folks who might be inclined to go this route is giving up the exterior validation that comes with being picked up by a publisher. To what extent does having two well-regarded, traditionally published books allow you to find validation elsewhere?
Oh, it’s definitely a factor. I mean, Finn was an American Library Association Notable Book, for heaven’s sake. That just knocked me out. And both Finn and Kings were named to year-end best-books lists by the big papers, which was thrilling too. Having experienced that, though, I’m willing to risk never seeing it again in return for gaining control over the whole process.
On the other hand, and taking the long view, I would hope that the work I’m doing here might make it possible for other independent-minded individuals to have their books included in those kinds of lists one day. I don’t know, though. There are so many books out there. Book reviewers at major papers see upwards of 150 new ones every day—and I’m talking about books from the big houses. So how this new firehose of media gets filtered remains a question.
You’ve referred to this as a do-it-yourself project in every way: You designed the cover, you’ve written the promotional material, you and your wife (and some helpful early readers) have handled the editing. As you move forward, do you see yourself bringing in other professionals on future books, or is that intimate involvement in every aspect how you’re setting yourself apart?
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty self-reliant and control-oriented. Wendy and I put in almost twenty years in advertising as a two-person shop, because the technology let us do everything that ordinarily gets done in-house by a conventional agency, all by ourselves. Not just copy and art direction, but imaging and retouching and production and media and billing and…
The truth is that I enjoy all of those things. (Well, except for the media and billing.) All of the creative and even vaguely creative parts are fun for me, though, because they exercise different parts of my brain and give me different kinds of satisfaction. So I hope not to have to give them up again. I think my cover design for the new paperback and ebook versions of Kings is loads better than the original, by the way, although lots of the credit goes to the extraordinary image I was able to use. It was done by a great friend, Michael Ticcino, who worked alongside me as an art director at more agencies than I care to name. You can see his work at www.MJTiccinoimages.com.
I’ve been struck by the meticulous way you’ve gone about this. Do you have a road map, or are you lighting the way as you go?
Meticulous, that’s me. I began the process with an action plan that had about a hundred and fifty items on it. They ranged from developing web assets (a new site, a new blog, banner ads for Shelf Awareness) to writing press materials (which I’d had experience doing for my two novels with Random) to actual book and e-book production steps (I’m getting pretty good at it by now) to seeking author endorsements (writers always have to do this themselves; I ended up with good ones from Howard Mosher and Robert Goolrick). There was lots more, of course, and the list kept growing. In the end, though, I was through the bulk of it and ready to pull the trigger in exactly thirty days.
I should write a book about that.
Of course I didn’t pull the trigger right off. That would have been the normal thing in micropublishing, but it’s definitely not the normal thing in big publishing. In big publishing, it takes a year for the distribution and publicity machines to kick in, if they ever do. So I compromised, hiring my own publicist and setting a release date of January 15 so as to give her time to work. I’ve stayed busy in the intervening months, blogging and doing interviews and so forth. One day I’ll get around to finishing up the next novel.
Craig Lancaster is the author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, and the forthcoming Edward Adrift.