Wading through the sea of Print-on-Demand titles, one overpriced paperback at a time--and giving you the buried treasure.
Friday, March 04, 2005
When filmmakers decide to do it on their own instead of going through a large/conglomerated studio, they're considered smart and edgy. Indie film is where it's at.
When rock bands do it alone--indie rock--they're the coolest. How often do we hear that so-and-so did their best work before they sold out to Geffen?
But indie lit? Self-pubbed novels?
Losers. Nothin' but losers.
You are all of the folks who couldn't get an agent or whose agent couldn't sell your book or who got brushed over by even the smallest press. That memoir about the guy who collects chewing gum from under school desks was just picked up by Algonquin but your story of barely surviving Lupus gets a big shrug.
But something is changing. It seems the midlist and the POD list are starting to become parallel. Am I suggesting all the POD titles? Please. Because, as we all know, the large majority of POD titles suck harder than a fleet of Dirt Devils.
But not all of them.
On the flip side, I know of two debut titles that were purchased for near six figures by major houses and one has sold under 1000 copies in four months and the other has sold just over 700 copies in nearly a year.
I also read that one of the National Book Award nominees for fiction had, before the award was announced, only sold 240 copies of her book. What's really sad about that story is that she couldn't muster 240 family, friends, neighbors and associates to nudge toward a sale. Most POD titles sell around 250 (on average--and likely to friends, family, yada, yada, yada) so that puts them in good statistical company.
In any case, the top end of the POD market and the majority of the midlist market are starting to mimic one another. And I can't see why two lists would ever need to exist. How long before the big New York houses reduce their products to proven authors? We're closer than we think.
Why do I care? Because I am a midlister.
I'll give you some personal nuggets here: I've sold, as of March 1, just over 8,000 copies of my book and I've got some distance before earning out my advance--not much, mind you, but a distance nonetheless.
What happens to the midlist concerns me. And it should concern publishers, too.
Cheryl Bartlett—oh, excuse me, that’s Dr. Bartlett to you—tells a humorous and down-to-earth tale of switching careers—and interests, so to speak—to the world of stripping. Unlike the woe-is-me tales of poverty and aggression, like the recent offerings from Traci Lords and Jenna Jameson, respectively, or even the I’m-desperate-and-I’ve-got-nowhere-else-to-go stories like STRIPTEASE, STRIPPER SHOES comes from the base desire to take it all off, for the simple cartharsis of it.
Ms. Bartlett had it all: healthy kids, good husband, solid career and a well-earned Ph.D. She comes to stripping from the other side. Her story tells of her launch into the sex business as originating from an even mix of boredom and feminism. At the tender age of 32, she dropped it all and became the queen of the g-string, stretch marks and all, to a bunch of college kids.
Her first night she got $8.00 in tips.
The journey is both hilarious and compelling. The story is told in bite-sized vignettes and the book is easy to pick-up and put-down without breaking the chain of story—but my guess is that you’ll finish it in one sitting.
STRIPPER SHOES deals heavily with the stripping environment, and delivers a handful of surprises, but overwhelming speaks of the customer base one might deal with and what it is like to dwell and/or work in the sex industry. But the most poignant moments are delivered upon her introspectiveness.
“For a few seconds when I catch a glimpse of myself on stage, I feel really, truly great. I am as good as I want to be, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m underfoot or if anybody likes me or how behind I am on laundry and shopping or whether I remembered to sign a permission slip or help with math homework or whether someone at work has it in for me or if its all in my head. There I am, just me, all by myself on stage. I’m tired and sore as hell, but if I can’t be in bed asleep, this stage is not the worst place in the world to be tonight.”
If there is any flaw to John Hartnett’s ALWAYS FAITHFUL, A MEMOIR OF THE GULF WAR, it’s that it is too similar in title to William Putney’s ALWAYS FAITHFUL, A MEMOIR OF THE MARINE DOGS OF WWII. If you do a search on Amazon, you’ll get a deluge of “Always Faithful” titles, but having duplicate titles about ex-war marines might easily spin the reader in the wrong direction.
But that’s where it stops.
The rest of this marvelous memoir is a delight to read. And I should say we are talking about the first Gulf War (Desert Shield)—which may be why New York passed (assuming they passed) on publishing it; they’re certainly more concerned with the current war. The sad part is this book is far more poignant than some of the most recent war titles released from the big houses.
Hartnett’s memoir is not so much a story about fighting and bleeding in battle, and it is certainly not filled with the details of war itself (far less, in fact, than you might find in a W.E.B. Griffin or Tom Clancy novel.) Instead, it is the humble story of a man caught between honoring his family and honoring his country and fellow marines—taking all of the stresses and issues of home life and throwing war on top of it. Hartnett delves into the far deeper philosophical aspects of war—and morality. He even touches on his influences (right down to Lawrence’s SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM.) He lets you get into his mind, virtually asking you to help make the decisions for him, and you come along for the ride, both up and down.
I found myself not only enjoying the prose, but flying through the book, ultimately wishing there had been more than the 180 or so pages. The book is interesting and thought-provoking and would not only please those with an appetite for military history, but the reader drawn to memoirs dealing with internal battles, with yearning.
This POD title is worth the money. If you can find a copy, buy it and enjoy. Then tuck it away on your bookshelf in a nice safe place. You’ll want to read it again someday.
Okay, first I want to say thanks to all the folks who somehow found this blog after it had been up for seven hours. Way bizarre.
Second: No, do not send me copies of your POD book for review. Let's be honest - I have no place to put them. I'd need to get a self-storage locker if I accepted unsolicited books (sound familiar?) I will, however, gladly accept an email with a description of your book so that I can research whether or not to read the thing. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Third: Surprisingly, I was asked by three people already (in less than 24 hours) what the best (or, as one fella put it, "most prestigious") POD company is. The answer? Who knows. It seems there are many dozen, and from what I understand they all use the same printer (Lightning Source.) I will say this though: My writer friends and I have read, believe it or not, over 1000 POD books. I'm not saying we read all of those 1000 books in their entirety, but we have had that many in our grubby little hands. Some we purchased (both new and used), some were given to us, some we found and others landed in our possession without recollection as to how. That said, it seems to me that the best writing has typically come from folks with iUniverse and the worst--hands down--has come from PublishAmerica. Make of that what you will, but for the most part the quality is completely random.
Would I recommend one? Sure, as soon as I get a paid endorsement. In the meantime, do your homework and balance reliability with affordability. And make sure you can control some piece of the price. Nothing like a $35 paperback, you know?
Fourth: Yes, I have an editor (an excellent one) and yes, I have an agent (an excellent one) and no, I will not be recommending your stunning book to either of them, unless, for some reason, it is the most drop-dead gorgeous, tear-generating, laughter-inducing, I-can't-catch-my-breath prose I've ever let pass through my eyes and into my brain.
Then, and only then.
Besides--who am I? I ain't no Steve King. I be no Johnny Grisham. I might have some influence. Some.
Thanks for all the contact, and stay tuned for book number one. It'll be here before you know it.
First, let me say this: I am a published writer. My debut novel was published by one of those frisky little imprints at Penguin Putnam, and my second novel is due for release this fall. And no, I am not going to use this forum to peddle my wares. I’d rather remain anonymous—though I’ll give you this tidbit: my debut novel is currently at 13,763 on Amazon.
It’s a fairly good day.
So, why am I here? To tell you about an entire world of books we are all missing: self-published titles—specifically, POD titles.
For those who do not know, about four years ago the self-publishing world took an awkward and potentially regrettable turn: Publishing on Demand. This means anyone with a word processor and a few hundred bucks can create a book that can be distributed on Amazon, BN.com and various other online venues without having to pre-print a single book (at an inflated price—about $3 to $5 more per trade paperback.)
As a result, however, the world has seen an influx of some of the absolute worst writing known to mankind.
Here is where the headache begins: the lack of editing, the orphans, the widows, the cheese-ball covers, the lack of plot, the lack of common sense—and oh, dear God, the lack of talent.
I had lunch with two of my writer friends one day and they showed me a novel that was produced POD. Little did I know it was a prank. I had to admit the cover was tastefully done (quite unusual) and the book was perfect bound and solid, the paper was good quality. Even the picture of the author was professional.
Then I read the first paragraph.
Two of the first five sentences were verbless. I can only assume this man forgot them by accident, perhaps so excited at the prospect of seeing his product in print that he wrote the thing in a week. Let’s hope.
Soon, it became a hobby for my friends and me. Trying to find the worst POD titles out there and collecting them (hey, some people collect pieces of string—I’ll be the first to admit I did it subconsciously to help me feel better about my own writing.)
Then one day I got a surprise of my own. Thinking I would grab the diamond award with my friends for worst POD ever, I read a book called LORD VISHNU’S LOVE HANDLES by a guy named Will Clarke, a story about a guy “knowing things he shouldn’t know” and having visions and the like, who eventually meets two “secret agents” who show him what it is really like to “lose your mind.” The plot alone was enough to launch it to the top of my POD collection, except for one thing: I finished it in four hours. It was, and is, magnificent, from the first sentence to the last. I still laugh out loud when I think about parts of that book.
Granted, it wasn’t perfect. It had a handful of grammar issues and some minor editing glitches, but really nothing worse than I have seen in some stuff released by Random House (Penguin, of course, would never make such a mistake.)
I mentioned the book to my editor and she blew me off (which is fine because, well, she’s my editor) and said it sounded ridiculous. Even now I cannot truly explain the story well enough to give it justice. However, vindication came two months later when she told me she heard the movie rights to the bizarre title had been sold. And now, as it turns out, the book will be released by Simon and Schuster in hardback sometime this summer.
My copy was from 1stbooks (now Authorhouse). Let’s just say I’m keeping it safe and damage free.
Then it happened again with a book called PIPSQUEAK by Brian Wiprud. He had originally published with iUniverse and now that book (and others) were sold to Dell.
So I did a little research. It turns out many decent books that were once POD went on to do well and sell to major publishers, including LEGALLY BLONDE by Amanda Brown and THE IDIOT GIRLS’ ACTION ADVERNTURE CLUB by Laurie Notaro (which I read when it was a NY Times bestseller and had no idea it was once POD.)
I mentioned this to my editor, part as a jab and part as a query. She responded with “Look, I read tons of good stuff, but reject most of it because it just doesn’t move me. If this writer happens to miss the mark with other editors the same way, then her book dies, with no imprints left to submit to. She’s got two choices: self-publish or throw it in the garbage.”
And so I realized, as the “midlist” dies (a dreaded place, I should add, that my book lives), it will slowly move to the POD list. It seems it may be heading there already. I can name eight POD titles off the top of my head (books I would not necessarily recommend) that have sold more copies than all of the 2004 National Book Award fiction finalists combined.
There are some good books in there. But it’s like trying to see a constellation through a cloudy sky. There is just so much crap in the way.
I am an author and instructor, in that order (for now.) My debut novel (which debuted in the midlist) was released by Penguin Putnam in 2004 and my second novel was released early 2006.
As for this blog, it has been profiled in many online magazines, blogs and news stories, including the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the LA Times and Publishers Lunch.
To answer the deluge of questions I have been receiving from publicists: I'll review pretty much anything that is good--but it better be good, or I'll never look at another one of your books again. Then I'll hunt you down. Fiction preferred (no fantasy or young adult, go easy on the science fiction.) Non-fiction should be memoir, humor, self-help. Definite no-nos: cookbooks, textbooks, porn, books without verbs. And it must be POD (no small presses.) Otherwise, email with pitch first.