Tag Archives: independent publishing

The Best Author Interview – Todd Keisling

Maybe I’ve been wrong all these years and my talent is not in writing, but in interviews. Nevertheless, author Todd Keisling responds to my inquiries about his writing process, and his new book, A Life Transparent, which I fucking loved.

The characters in ALT seem familiar to me. Even the Yawnings. It was eerily familiar as I read it. Why do you think that is?

I wanted the characters to be as real as possible. They’re people to whom the reader can relate in some way. I think we’ve all been in Donovan’s shoes at some point, stuck in a dead end job, wondering if that’s all there is to life. We’ve encountered people like Donovan’s co-workers. We know someone like Donovan’s brother, Michael, or Donovan’s wife, Donna. They’re the people who are living the lives they want to live, or yearn for something more but feel they’re being held back by a significant other. I tried to identify certain archetype figures and incorporate them into the story via these characters.

To me, the story’s pseudo-villain, Aleister Dullington, represents that nagging voice in the back of our minds, reminding us of our action’s consequences, pushing us in one direction even if we’re resistant to it. Even his minions, the Yawning, are manifestations of the way in which our boredom and mediocrity can consume us, thereby defining our lives for us.

I’d like to think those connections came through in the text in a subtle manner, and that what people find so unsettling or eerie about the story is their subconscious connection these things.

I realize that’s probably a convoluted, pretentious answer, but for now I’ll stick to it.

I’ll take it. You had a rough time with your first self-publishing printer. Did you take an opportunity to take another look at the writing in your novel before you republished it anew, with a professional editor?

I’ll preface this by saying my experiences with certain self-publishing outlets were my own. Your mileage may vary.

That said, yes, I did have a rough time. The book was initially published through Lulu back in 2007. Though getting set up in their system and securing distribution wasn’t expensive, procuring copies of the book was overpriced. Toward the end of my time with Lulu, I found it cheaper to buy the book from Amazon and pay my own royalty than to order directly from Lulu with the author discount.

That is completely fucked up. I wish more people knew about that kind of experience, and that there are alternatives. Go on.

In late 2009, while working on the follow-up novel, I decided to look at CreateSpace as an alternate solution. Around May of 2010, I finally started that transition process, and it turned into a huge mistake. There were a number of quality issues that led me to sever that relationship and pull the plug.

Kickstarter afforded me an opportunity to hire an editor and revise the book. I wanted to make a definitive edition, something that would be as high quality as I could make it. My editor made her first pass over the manuscript, after which I took her comments and rewrote the novel during a period of about two months. The end result was a slightly shorter, tighter work. It went from approximately 60k words to about 53k words. The story remained the same, but new scenes were added to flesh out the characters, and minor details were altered to better suit a lead-up to the sequel.

Looking back, I’m glad my editor and I spent that extra time with the book. It needed it (the manuscript was over 4 years old), and the end result is far superior to the original.

Kickstarter is a huge part of your renewed publishing effort. How did you set your budget for what your objectives were, and did you have a backup plan in case the funding didn’t come through?

The Kickstarter project saved the book. When things fell through with CreateSpace, I really didn’t know what else to do. My only other options were vanity companies like Author House and Xlibris (which seem like a total rip-off), and going to an offset printer (which is very expensive, and wouldn’t provide the distribution I needed).

So, you could say Kickstarter was the backup plan. If my project proposal hadn’t been approved, or if the project hadn’t earned out, ALT probably wouldn’t be available today.

I calculated the project budget by obtaining a fee schedule from Lightning Source. Then it was just a matter of doing some rough math. First I figured out how much the approximate product cost for each book would be (paperback vs. hardcover). Then I used that info to pick appropriate pledge tiers ($5, $15, $25, etc.) and the rewards associated with each. I settled on a total goal of $2000. That would be enough to pay the setup fees, editing rate, ISBN blocks, digital layout, and shipping & handling. I’m fortunate to be married to a graphic designer who knows her way around Photoshop and InDesign, so that wasn’t figured into the cost.

In hindsight, I probably should have gone for $3k. Midway through the project, I decided to go a step further and set up my own publishing house. The business fees ate into the funds. My shipping estimates for international rewards were also low. In the end, I had to go out of pocket
by a few hundred dollars. I will say that, had I not had to pay the setup costs associated with the
business side of things, everything would’ve come down to the penny from the Kickstarter funds.

What an experience! So many of us just skip the funding part, and then realize that we get out of it what we put into it.

What are you working on next?

The next book is a direct sequel to ALT. It’s called THE LIMINAL MAN, and it takes place about a year after the events of the first book. Currently, the manuscript is with my editor as she makes her first pass. We hope to go to print early next year.

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Clogged

I’ve been thinking long and hard why I haven’t been able to write creatively (or editorially) for the past several months. I refuse to use the term “writer’s block;” it is just not a term. For the time that I’m not writing, I can’t call myself a writer, so “writer’s block” doesn’t apply.

I keep saying that when I get another job, one that doesn’t suck the life out of me, that I’ll be in a better position to free up that part of my brain that enables me to write creatively. But I don’t know if that is true, so I can’t set my expectations there or else I’m headed for disappointment. And I need that like I need an addiction to crack.

At least for the time being, it’s hard to concentrate on a fictional narrative, given this all-encompassing “holiday spirit” we are all supposed to be engaged in this time of year. Why is it that in a time of giving we are so obsessed with what we don’t have?

What I do have is what will enable me to clear my head and write, because that is what gives me the fulfillment I crave as a writer. I don’t know that the old adage of poor, hungry, alcoholic, tormented artists empirically applies. Good narrative writing requires a lot of things and discontentment isn’t necessarily one of them (or else every depressed person would have an equal shot at being the next great author).

What a good writer does need is confidence and gratification in her writing. We can’t write with the objective of getting external validation, in which all too often we get wrapped up. Independent publishing is more than just doing it on your own — it’s about making all of the details of a writing career your own, answering to no one, and making the right judgments in how to go forward. Or not.

My inspiration for writing fiction comes from having the bandwidth to notice small details and insights in the course of my days–a ladybug crawling up the curtains, the dust on a ceiling fan, a veiled comment. It’s when I don’t have that bandwidth devoted to noticing and cataloging those details that I can’t seem to write. I’m not Agatha Christie so my stories don’t involve complex twists in plots. The stories I am most successful writing involve complex characters with specific traits, involved in compelling yet often mundane situations.

So I need to free up my bandwidth to enable those insights. I am clogged up with resentment (for my boss who lied about my compensation package), commuting details (like leaving at a specific time to allow delays in the downtown 4 Express subway), kid details (oh shit I have to bake cookies for my kid’s school xmas party on Thursday), grownup details (Chase bank is a lying, cheating, manipulative bank that holds my first and second mortgage and if I don’t call them out with a letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency they won’t issue a new escrow statement with a cancelled gap flood insurance policy). And more shit like that.

I have to somehow find a better way of dealing with all of those shit details, compartmentalize them, in such a way that I can still write. I’m letting them clog up my life. It’s like what practicing Kundalini Yoga is like, when the instructors teach you to unblock all the blockages, whatever the hell that means.

Somehow I have to do that. Somehow.

 

Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back.

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Commodity or Magnum Opus?

Some people blow through a book in a day or two, while others take a couple of weeks or more. Many people just inhale them like a sweet breeze, one after the other, without stopping in between. I’m worse than that — I just forget the endings of books I enjoy. (Truth is, I don’t even finish books I don’t love.) To most avid readers, books are not only an unquestionable right, but they are taken for granted as a vital component of life.

It’s like when the tourists cruise through the Sistine Chapel, look up and say, “Look honey, Michelangelo’s painting, now let’s go get some spaghetti.”

But to a writer who may spend a year or more writing the damned thing, think about how we feel when we see a pile of books stacked up 5 feet high against the wall of a summer cabin and the proud readers saying, “We read all of these books this summer!” It’s an intractable dilemma. It’s not easy to write a book, and for some it’s extraordinarily difficult and a compelling feat. So when a reader zooms through it and moves on casually to the next one, how are we to reconcile this disparity?

Think of the planning, outlining, and writing. And writing. And writing. Then the editing, proofing, and rewriting. And rewriting. And editing some more. And then the synopsis. And for some who choose to submit their work for mainstream publishing, the sterilizing and demoralizing query process. Then the rejections. More queries. More rejections. Finally the agent, then the selling to the publisher. The reworking of some parts. The publisher meetings. The marketing meetings. The marketing. For the DIY writers, the layout–the horrible horrible layout process, then the pre-marketing, the blogging, the begging for interviews and reviews, the vetting of e-book/free-book websites, the setting up your website and trying to figure out the e-commerce plugins and CSS and HTML, the tweeting and more tweeting, the artwork, the printer or POD joint, the price gouging, the amazon threads that will make you gouge your eyes out, the paltry and late checks from your method of distribution.

And some asshole reads the thing in a weekend?

There it is, that’s the truth. We are at odds with the very mode of entertainment we choose to pursue. We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.

This supports my argument that short fiction, novellas, and experimental-length and format fiction should not only have more of a platform, especially with e-books, but that more authors ought to put out more of this type of work. ESPECIALLY with more e-books, because readers will devour even more of our work with this enhanced format, right? RIGHT? So all the better to fill up our tanks not with the predictably dull 80,000 word novels, but with interesting work that we can package with other media to deliver in the increasingly sophisticated (but still clunky) devices for reading.

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The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work

There are a couple of things here that you may think are unrelated but I’ll try to bridge the gap and make a coherent argument in support of my thesis. I contend that the history and very institution of publishing has lent itself to a culture of a lack of ownership by authors and artists, resulting in today’s hysterical clamoring on privacy issues.

You all have a better sense of the publishing industry since Gutenberg than I do, so there’s no need to retread. So just think about how difficult it is to turn that Titanic of a beast around in just a few short years. I’m no industry apologist–I think that’s been made clear–and I’m not saying that we should give it some time. I’m asking that we reconsider how we are framing the debate around the breakdown of the traditional publishing industry; the rise of the independent author; the risks and opportunities of technology to serve readers, established authors, and independent writers; and the implications of copyright, privacy, and ownership on all of the above. Here are some of the areas through which we have to change our perspective in order to offer thriving solutions:

Agents. While agents have no doubt played a pivotal role in mediating the publishing industry’s desire for total control of a text and an author’s rightful assertion of ownership, they have also perpetuated that very dispute. How? They haven’t fought on behalf of writers for their fundamental rights, because that is not their role, traditionally. Sure, a good agent has fought for more money, bigger marketing budget, a favorable contract that matches the author’s strengths. However, agents have supported the passive-aggressive nature of the publishing industry in recent decades by fighting within the publishing companies’ own rules.

See, what I mean by that is this issue of framing our own perception of things. We have to work outside what we know as the traditional boundaries. Isn’t that what successful technology innovators do? Next:

Ownership, Privacy and Copyright. I never thought I would get hung upon this, but every day we are seeing some outrageous assertions of ownership, and not by the authors. Where the hell are our writer-brethren taking to the proverbial streets and proclaiming their ownership of their works? Because we are seeing press releases and contract clauses and Terms of Services stating proudly that the content deliverer retains at least some aspect of the rights to the work in perpetuity, or some godforsaken thing. Come on, y’all, that’s just ridiculous.

What I’m trying to get at here is that writers have been utterly de-fanged over the years of publishing industry beatdowns, reinforced by agents. We need more Stephen King and less, well, of everybody else. (Which is to say, we need more writers who tell the industry paper-pushers to fuck off. See Hunter S. Thompson’s comment to this effect.)

It’s not rocket science. It just means operating outside the “Terms of Service” and when enough of us do so, and if we create a strong enough demand in the marketplace for our work, miraculously those terms of service will derive from our side of the dispute, not the publishers’.

Now I’m not talking about bunnies and unicorns: this is going require a tremendous amount of discipline. Which brings me to my next point:

Desperation. This is the reason why the industry as we know it has perpetuated. Writers in general are desperate for exposure and that potential big gain from a publishing contract. So what do they do? Give it all up. That’s right, they give up their e-book rights and derivative marketing rights to a marketing department full of 22 year old interns with no budget who foil that author’s attempt at success because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But the writer is ok with this, because they know that the risk they’ve put on the table is worth the possible reward. Wait, not it’s not. The rewards of signing with a major publishing company suck, and the chances of a $1 million book contract are nil, so why not publish yourself and instead play the lottery each week for a better chance to win? BECAUSE WRITERS ARE SO FUCKING DESPERATE THEY ARE BLIND.

I guess we could consider what it is that has made writers so desperate. Maybe it is in our personalities: we create something and put it out there and hope for accolades, because that piece of writing is an extension of ourselves. Maybe writers are just talented people who didn’t get enough love and so this is what they do. Except I’m not a shrink and couldn’t possibly assert any truth there. All I know is that when there is a mass population (there are a shitload of writers) who require such enormous public accolades, with a finite number of readers (and by extension a finite amount of money you can earn from selling your work which is in effect a measure of that public love), there are bound to be disappointments. Lots of disappointment.

Is it social Darwinism of writing? I don’t accept that because it assumes a framework from which to judge good or bad writing and assigning it a successful or unsuccessful stamp. But clearly our expectations must change or else we are all headed for continued disappointment.

Democratizing the world of reading and writing will help everyone, I’m sure of it. No more hardcover books, sold at ridiculous prices–there’s just no need. No bottlenecks and gatekeepers needed any longer, you are relieved of duty. The internetz can enable this democratization of the book and content marketplace, but let’s just keep aware of the vultures who prey on writers’ naiveté  or their unwillingness to blaze their own trail, instead of following the trail of peanuts right back to the monsters that ripped out their teeth.

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Gang Raped By Technology and Affiliate Marketers

This theme has been brewing with me for a while, and I’m not sure I’m equipped to broach it yet, but enough is enough and it’s time to start the dialogue. Harsh title? Hey, it’s my artistic license. Fuck you.  And if that doesn’t sit with you well, you’re probably a marketer.

I argue that the gap between marketing and technology, and the writing/artistic community is so wide now that the relationship is no longer parasitic (oh come on, it never was equal before either), but nearly irreconcilable. As we stroll further down the technology route in delivering content to readers, writers have less and less control over our work. I’m not talking strictly about copyright, I’m talking about how our work looks and how it is displayed on the variety of devices meant for reading. Ever try to upload a book to Smashwords? Fucking impossible. Ok, not impossible, but painstakingly annoying so much so that my eyeballs are still bleeding. But Smashwords must retain a standardized process because they are dealing with thousands of different formats and content types, so technologically it is the only possible way to do it. Right? RIGHT? Is that right? It’s not just Smashwords, and I don’t want Mark Coker to get mad at me again, so I’m not picking on Smashwords, which has been incredibly amazing to hundreds of writers and thousands of readers.

I’m picking on the very idea that writers are bending over and spreading our cheeks for any number of ways to have our work violated and repurposed. Knowingly so. Yes–we know the risks, we post our shit everywhere. Oh sure, some of you go to Creative Commons, blah blah blah, but have you actually read the terms of service for digital uploads at Amazon, Scribd, and other services?

Two things struck me recently:

  1. Mike Cane’s iPad Test posted two incredibly thoughtful and well-researched pieces about terms of service and writer’s rights to their work once posted on just about any number of the “free” online services to “help” writers gain visibility and “publish” their work. We all use these services. They are generally helpful.

“We,” the independent writing community (which functions without any governance, as most independent communities do) won’t revolt against this and even if we do, “They” won’t give a shit either way. Why? Because “We” are so fucking desperate for exposure and visibility we are knowingly taking the risks of our shit being stolen, in any number of ways.

“We” are kind of pathetic. The mainstream publishing system isn’t dead, yet, unfortunately, and the indies are an itty-bitty fly in the muck of it all.

One by one we can deconstruct the wasteland that is being built up around the fragile publishing industry to support independents. Because it isn’t really supporting us so much as it is exploiting the hell out of us. But who’s making money and benefiting? No one, there’s not enough volume of independent releases for a scribd or amazon or smashwords or bookbuzzer or whateverthefuck cutesy name is out there to exist parasitically off our work. We need them.

“We” writers and artists need to build the right infrastructure that supports our need for visibility while protecting our artistic license. If we leave it up to technologists and affiliate marketers, we’re going to get the gang rape we deserve.

2.  A post on metadata, by P. Bradley Robb on Publishr . What the hell would set me off about that? I’ll tell you what. There’s nothing more frustrating as a writer to read about a technologist’s analysis of the work in terms of fucking metadata. Just that word is enough to make me fall on a knife. It’s not that this discussion isn’t a timely, astute, and necessary one to have: it is, of course. But as I said, it totally underscores the Grand Canyon that is increasingly growing between those who wish to publish and help others publish, and those who just wish to write and have people read our stuff.

And there it is, a fundamental worldview in binary opposition: as technology continues to gain in our daily lives in new, inspiring, and innovative ways, writers remain mainly static. No one is at fault here. Sure I can make the argument that writers need to wise up to technology and content delivery mechanisms (huh?); or I can blast technologists and marketers for developing infrastructure for writers that just doesn’t mesh with our continuing need for artistic license.

The need to classify and Search (yes, I meant that with a capital S) is a key imperative, hence the good argument for that metadata post I so dreaded,  for writers’ future. Writers are most often lacking in this foresight. We need to get our shit together and stop letting other people codify our work. I don’t really know what I mean by that, but we need to take some of that responsibility back into our own hands instead of leaving it to the Bowkers of the world. Really now.

What’s the solution, when we both need each other?

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On Amateur Book Reviews

This isn’t a case of an author getting even with a shitty book review[er]. True, I got a shitty book review recently, but I really have no comments about that. It was a little weird, a misguided, but if that’s what the particular reader took away from it, then I can’t criticize.

Oh, wait, aren’t we all critics?

We keep hearing about “quality control” issues with independently published works. The shitty writing, the inconsistent editing, the flat-out embarrassing typos, the clumsiness of writers going it alone.

What about quality control issues with the flurry of book reviewers? Hey, it’s a democratic platforms we’re promulgating here, so even the best book with the tightest editing and production quality–published independently or not–is up for review by any of the thousands of amateur book reviewers. I’ve seen some of the most appallingly half-assed book reviews recently. Comments like, “Why can’t this author make characters that are believable. Real vampires would never say things like that…” and “I didn’t even bother finishing it since I figured out the ending in the first chapter.” Really? REALLY? Why the fuck are you writing a review, then, asshole? Read the fucking book, that’s what a book reviewer does.

Listen, we asked for democracy and we got it. But are there no guidelines? Apparently not, because amateur book reviewers are in it for pure glory–there are no incentives for them to be responsible, other than, well, um, ETHICS, but let’s leave that alone for now.

We want as many people reading books as possible. The only solid, consistent way for new and independently produced books to gain visibility is by word-of-mouth, which is effectively amateur book reviewers on their forums and blogs: we don’t want to shut any of that out. But just like with marketing our independent books (on those ferkakte author-review websites), we have to manage to weed out the noisy barkers and find the quality feedback.

My solution is to call amateur book reviews Feedback. Or something to that effect. If we’re getting people who admittedly haven’t even completed the book calling it a book review, something is very wrong with the semantics. As much as I would like to criticize those types of “reviews,” we can discredit the legitimacy of stupid reviews by taking them out of the review category and calling it feedback, which is what it is.

If someone reads a book that is way over their head; or they just didn’t take the time to contemplate the experimental value of a work, and they call it stupid or bad or ugly or meaningless, it’s not really a review, is it? How can we put that person in the same category as some of the world’s brilliant minds of literary criticism? Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye, Jacques Lacan, Levi-Strauss, de Saussure…and the rest of the gang of structuralists would be incensed to be put in the same category as “CheekyMama” on all those threads who just loves vampire romances but who refuses to read a book without a photo of the author on the flap.

Go ahead, call me an elitist hypocrite. I dare you.

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