Let me just come right out and say this: This book kicked my ass. It kicked about 100 asses, total.
It kicked my ass in the way it was written. This book moves fast. I mean FAST! It's hard for me to always appreciate that style of writing, but Old T-Pluck does the near-impossible: He makes fast reading that's still smart writing (to be fair, most fast reading is a kind of smart writing, but often those horse are of other color). This shit is sharp as its titular blade.
Just look at the damn opening and tell me you don't want to read this book:
Pluck's story follows Reeves, an ex cage-fighter who stumbles on his grandfather's spoils-of-war Japanese sword that serves as the major plot device to set the story in motion. There are ninjas here, folks, and that should be enough said. If not, then let's clarify: these are Thomas Pluck's brand of ninjas.
The story sings with its own bloody-knuckle rhythm and pulls few punches. This is true 70's-era pulp in its finest form. This is Leonard-level work. And I mean old Leonard. 70's Leonard. God rest his soul (I hope he told Peter that every damn sin on the list "was Justified").
Did I say this book kicked my ass already? I did? Well it kicked it twice. One for all the reasons listed above. Twice because it reminded me of everything I ever wanted to do with my writing. This is the book I wanted to write. On some level, I like to think of my first book, Raise a Holler, as something like this. That's not for me to say. But, this is EXACTLY the style of book I am hoping to accomplish with my next, the first of a series, called 16 Tons.
Anyway, go buy this book right now.
|You don't know til you drink it all!|
Oh yeah. This is happening.
You know that discussion you get into, the one with the people and the trendy book that's in all the airports and that your friend's wife just loved, and now he's all like, "yeah, it was pretty good; it had a good story, interesting characters, etc. etc. blah blah, old argument, logical fallacy, incorrect premise, and so on..."
Yeah. That one.
And you know where this is going, where it always goes. First you try to just move on to a new topic, because seriously, it's not a law that you HAVE to read every book-of-month Cosmo-pick that the ladies around the office are just swearing by (this week). And, let me repeat that, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO READ THE POPULAR BOOK. YOU CAN READ WHATEVER YOU WANT. IT'S CALLED CHOICE. AND INDIVIDUALITY. AND SOME OTHER COOL CONCEPTS PROBABLY BROUGHT TO YOU BY TOM PAINE AND T-JEFF.
But, moving on didn't work. They've cornered you. They're pressing you for your opinion. After all, you must have one. Everyone should have an opinion on some flash-in-the-pan gone-tomorrow pop-fiction novel. This is important stuff, not trivial bullshit like national healthcare or war. They always force this issue. The reason, I find, is that it becomes important to them, since you're a reader (maybe even a writer, as well), who's known for having odd or non-mainstream taste in your books. Because, you know, America. And shit. But, somehow this translates to the people at the dinner party or the office mixer, or what have you, as you being a "book-snob" or some other such nomenclature that demonizes having individual preference.
So, they need to bully you into the corner, because they think they've stacked the deck, and you are going to come out looking like the idiot and they so much smarter than you, here in this context.
And, finally, you acquiesce.
"It just doesn't interest me. It's not the kind of book I'd like to read," you say. "I don't enjoy the language, the way it's written, the author's voice, tone, style, etc."
You've been as nice as you think possible, leaving everyone room to go home more or less intact.
But, wait, here it comes...
"YEAH, BUT HAVE YOU READ IT?" they ask, all smirky and winky and shit.
"I read the first few--"
"AHA!! YOU HAVEN'T READ IT, SO YOU DON'T KNOW!!! BWAHAHA BWAHAHA!!" And some other faux-superiority bullshit.
"No, I read enough to know that I--"
"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU HAVEN'T READ IT, SO YOU DON'T KNOW!! YOU CAN'T SAY UNTIL YOU'VE READ IT!!!!!"
And, now in their minds, they've become infinitely smarter and superior to you in every way possible. You're practically the Al Qaeda of books now, as they've shown.
I suppose I should end this blog here, since anyone who is like those described above will have stopped reading by now in order to go forward being *"that guy."
But, instead, and for no reason other than my own lack of anything else to do at this particular second, I will trudge on in this probably less than interesting discussion with myself.
Because that argument is bullshit.
Because I don't need to drink an entire carton of milk before I can say it's bad. I don't even need to drink one sip. I can smell that shit as soon as I open the lid.
Because I don't need to eat my entire plate of food to know that I don't like the way it tastes. The first few bites are enough.
I don't need to marry every girl I meet before I know if it really might work between us.
I don't need to actually get a tattoo on my body before I know if I want to have a tattoo.
I don't need to spend 7 years & $100,000 on medical school to know I don't want to be a doctor.
I don't need to zip up in latex, get handcuffed, and participate in an orgy before I know I wouldn't like it.
I don't need to practice the drums and join a band before I know I wouldn't want to.
I could keep going, but why?
Seriously, you pick up a book, you read the first few sentences, paragraphs, even pages. If it doesn't pass the sniff test, then put it the hell down. We all got 99 problems in this world and having to fist this head-pounder into your brain ain't one.
So, you go read 50 Shades of Twilight. I'll go read Lonesome Dove. And, Jonathan Franzen can fuck himself. And, we'll all have a pretty good time.
Oh yeah, and that whole "Well, you gotta get through the first 100 pages or so, and then it gets good" argument? Yeah, that's bullshit, too.
Now, go enjoy your life.
*"that guy" is an asshole.
I am officially claiming the Pulitzer prize in fiction for the year.
No, I honestly didn't think it would ever happen either. But, this post by Pat Betram gets into some pretty serious upcoming limitations that the now publicly-traded FB is about to land on us simple, grassroots business-folk like the fiery hammer of an angry white God.
The article throws out little gems of info like this:
A major change is coming now that FB is traded publicly. If FB allows promo anywhere on the site, the pages lose their competitive edge. FB also loses potential advertising bucks.
Same goes for meeting up and hanging out with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc.: "So, how's work?"
Thus, Facebook becomes instantly reduced to a bunch of useless teens posting their prom pics, and the rest of us, you know, the working professionals who drive the economic current, yeah, we'll take our business elsewhere.
I suppose there's always (and has been) Twitter.
Google+ is starting to sound a lot less pointless.
It's too bad there's not some great big internet super giant that can just swoop in and fix everything, one with the vast resources and experience it takes to undertake a project like this, one with a track record of completely re-designing bloated, short-sighted, and failing industries and making them ten times more streamlined and viable than they ever imagined.
Maybe there is....
I started Burnt Bridge Press having no earthly idea what it was or what I was going to do with it. I had been playing with the idea of starting my own journal for a while and had gone through numerous different titles and false starts, all the while holding back on the project because, well, let’s face it: what’s the point of one more online literary journal? Go to Duotrope sometime and take a look at the sheer number of journals out there.
People lament the death of the short story, but the short story isn’t dead. Its readers are. The prevalence of graduate programs in creative writing has produced a virtual armada of short story writers all desperately seeking to get “published.” Some need it for their annual performance review (those lucky enough to get those coveted jobs in academia). Others are clamoring for it to have one more line on their CV, in the hopes they might get one of the coveted jobs in academia. They submit and submit and submit to every journal out there, often in raw, obstinate defiance of the editor’s guidelines and aesthetic preferences. And, sigh, finally, there is the total amateur, those random outsiders who submit their “untrained” manuscripts—don’t they know there’s a system us MFAers have set up? So, no, there is no dearth of short stories out there in the world. And, amongst them, there are many fine works. But, where are their readers? Who is our audience? For every short story writer produced out of our graduate programs, there are three others who didn’t (yet) make it into a program, but are still writing and submitting nonetheless. Of these writers, they have, what, 5-10 readers apiece? Their closest friends and family will take ten minutes out of their day to click that link posted on Facebook, haplessly skimming the prose to get to the end, all to come back and leave a pleasant little comment in the box under the link, “oh, you’re so talented. Loved it. J”
But, does anyone actually read this stuff? I mean, besides ourselves? And, do we even read this stuff? Yes, of course we read. We read as much as we can. I try to follow a handful of various lit journals, some in print, most online (because they’re free – we’ll get to the dollars and sense of it all later). But, that’s a drop in the bucket when thinking of the number of these journals out there.
So, yes, what did I do in the face of this overwhelmingly large vat of indistinguishable journals? I started one more.
But, I’ve learned as much or more in the past several months of doing this as I did during my time as an MFA student. For one, being an editor means other editors will actually talk to you. Who knew? I’m now on a first name basis with some of these persons. It’s quite refreshing. It’s also taught me a lot about formatting, packaging, marketing, etc. All things I wish I could have learned more of in my MFA program. I finally learned grammar. Almost. But, most importantly, it’s taught me the ultimate lesson of audience. Who is reading this stuff? The short answer: not many people. And, why should they? Why should the general public bother with us? They want Harry Potter and Twilight, and we all know this. We lament it, and poo-poo it at all opportunities. We quickly lecture our non-academic friends when we catch them with it. We lambast our literary theory academic associates if we catch them with it (always jumping on any excuse we can to assert our superiority over that “other” side of the English department). But, we’re staring right in the face of an important lesson and boldly not learning it.
People like that stuff.
They like it because it is disposable, and because they don’t need to think about it much, and they don’t have to invest in it much, and because the prose is usually accessible on a third grade level and can be burnt through quickly, and, most importantly, because it is fun.
Yes, the trash novel, the genre garbage, the shoot-em up, the courtroom intrigue, the, sigh, vampire romance, are fun for people.
The “literary” story has gotten so bogged down in pandering to the academic theorists and lit-crit folks, that it has all but abandoned the concept of entertainment. We’re too busy being important to be fun. Well, guess what: we’re not all that important anymore. Sure, our predecessors were and are. Barry Hannah, John Barth, David Foster-Wallace, Harry Crews, et al. They’re all the real deal. They got on this ship at the right time. And, their work stands up. But, hell, Barry and Harry are also just plain fun to read, too. And, I don’t know that that’s something true often enough of my generation’s MFA offspring.
We need to lighten up.
But, then two things hit me that changed everything about how I was looking at all this. I got wind of some former MFA colleagues’ poetry journal called Cellpoems. The idea is simple: you send in your cell number to a subscription list, and once a week a complete poem (albeit a short one) is texted right to you. This is their mode of publishing. It seemed brilliant.
Similarly, I had recently gotten my Blackberry smartphone (as with all things technological, I had put this off far longer than the rest of the free world), and was sitting, terrifyingly bored while in line at the barber shop, when I pulled this machine out of my pocket and began playing with all its many gadgets. I got bored with the bells and whistles and just jumped online with it, when it occurred to me, “hm, I wonder what Burnt Bridge looks like on this little thing.” Well, fancy enough, it popped right up, and even reformatted itself to a handy phone-screen size, and looked quite good. I jumped over to a few other journals, and the next thing I knew, I was reading short stories right there on my phone. I was delightfully refreshed, almost liberated. With this device in my hands, I would never be bored waiting in lines again. I could now double, nay, triple the amount of online journals I could follow. Stuck waiting for a flight? I’ve got short stories. Lunch meeting running late? Time for some flash fiction. Just can’t bear another minute of some pallid workmates’ dinner party conversation? I’ll whip over to the Collagist or Blip and see what’s new, and all the while look no more conspicuous than the mallrat across the room texting away to all her contacts. Yes, that’s the beauty: we now appear normal, just like every other avid “texter.” Remember the days when we were “that guy” at the party holding a paperback and ignoring the world? Now, we’re just like everyone else.
And, then came Kindle.
As of January 2011, Amazon.com reports that it now sells more Kindle ebooks than it does paperback copies. Richard Adams at Guardian.co.uk calls this a “landmark moment in the struggle between old versus new technology,” and it is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the article, the numbers only include “paid for sales” and does not factor in free Kindle ebooks downloaded to devices. Neither do these numbers account for all other ebooks sold under other retailer platforms, such as the also popular Barnes & Noble Nook. According to Amazon.com, the Kindle 3 became the highest-selling single unit in their history, outdoing even the Goliath Harry Potter.
Many die-hard fans of literature will vocally bemoan the death of the traditional book, but as small journals and publishers, we should be looking toward the market trend and our own bottom lines. The simple fact is, ebooks are where the future of the industry is going. They’re exquisitely cheap to produce (an hour or less of reformatting and the electricity to run your laptop), and they’re instantly distributable to readers. Ebooks download to the device in seconds from purchase. No shipping and handling. No waiting for the package to arrive.
And, the fact is, literary journals have been online for a decade now. Numerous fine journals have been publishing either both electronic and print format or exclusively online for some time now. Even many university sponsored journals are exclusively online. The venerable Mississippi Review for years had a separate, online counterpart that is now re-branded as the privately held journal BLIP (so titled as of this writing). So, what’s new about electronic literature?
Ebook devices are actually offering us the chance to meet with the printed word halfway. I myself have often griped at the trouble of reading online journals on those glaring, bright laptop screens. And, such attitudes have given rise to the increasingly popular (though not terribly lucrative) new form of the short-short story, the flash fiction, the 200-words-or-less-story. With these new devices, the glare is gone. The screen resembles the traditional page, and one can read for hours without strain. The question begs itself: why are we not jumping on this ship as fast as we can?
It’s such an easy adjustment. For those who publish online issues, simply load every piece into one file, reformat to a 3.5x5inch (the screen dimensions of the average device) PDF and upload to the site as a second option for viewing. Moreover, many eBook devices have their own, unique email address that can allow publishers to email viewable files directly to an individual’s unit. This can be a service the publisher provides to a maintained subscription list. Each month or quarter, when the new issue goes up, subscribers can have the full issue sent right to their units. It’s there waiting for them.
The best part is there’s no storage costs, no shipping costs, no per-unit cost to the publisher. For those of us who charge a cover price (which in many cases is holding us back from reaching more readers – because at 11.95 per issue, how many journals can we genuinely subscribe to?) this allows us to cut that price by more than half and still maintain the same bottom line. I can charge $3 for an electronic issue of Burnt Bridge compared to the $8+shipping cost of the printed copy and still maintain the same bottom line. But, the customer is saving over $5 and is reading the work immediately, instead of in 3-4 days waiting on the issue in the mail.
Some people will always want a printed book or magazine, and those will always be around (particularly with the advent of print-on-demand). But for most of us, electronic publishing is the way to get the material into the hands of the readers, and to actually get them reading it.
Another boon to the small press or journal publisher is this: We get submissions in by the garbage truck load. Log in to your email account in the morning and overnight a slew of new submissions have landed (none of which by actual readers of the journal, nor will they become so even in the event you publish them—just another line on the CV). For my quarterlies, I prefer to publish longer stories including at least one novella per issue. Online lit has all but killed the full-length story, and certainly the entrée-sized novella (a shame, truly). And, honestly, who of us really can stand to sit and stare at that screen for long enough to get through such a long story. This is why we like those short bits. It’s a quick shot, and we’re done. Thanks to eReaders, I can now load those longer submissions (3.5x5 again) on my Kindle and take them with me. I can burn through a full length story (7000 words or more) while at lunch drinking my second iced tea. It’s refreshing to sit there and casually read through the submission as if it were printed paper. And, I can load several at once. When I get to the point it’s a “no,” I skip to the next and so on. And, speaking of novellas, it’s high time this nearly lost form made a comeback. The mini-novel is a fantastic thing and deserves its platform. This is it.
Cathy Day writes in her article, “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” that “The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories.” She outlines numerous problems and hurdles created by the rise of MFA workshops in regard to the much bemoaned but not exactly proven “Death of the Novel.” She argues that long-form fiction is going the way of the dodo largely because such forms are not “taught” in the creative writing classroom, nor are they much published by the literary journals and small presses. We’ve whittled ourselves down to the flash fiction and short-short because that is what we perceive people will read online. Those people being, essentially, us.
This is, essentially, the problem we face as university-trained creative writers and publishers: we are the only audience we know, and we are used to quickly reading very short, exceedingly short, can we make it any shorter, short stories. We are accustomed to the workshop method. But the question that needs asking is: If the Kindle is now the best-selling single unit item in Amazon.com history, who are these avid e-reading people, and, moreover, how do we market to them?
With universal formats such as PDF, a journal press need not worry about being locked in to a single device platform, either.
The end result of all this is that the small press and journal press industry now stands at a crossroads of a new age of literacy and literary technology. Our outdated print journal and obscure online flash prose sites are now able to completely reinvent themselves utilizing these new platforms and technologies. We should no longer be marketing strictly to ourselves sitting at our laptops, or to those few of us who can afford the subscription prices for a full host of printed journals. Our potential readers are out there, devices at the ready, stuck in line at the airport, or the salon, etc. and are at least interested in giving our material a fighting chance, which is about as much as anyone can ask for.
Adams, Richard. “Amazon’s eBook Sales Eclipse Paperbacks For the First Time” The Guardian. January 28, 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/richard-adams-blog/2011/jan/28/amazon-kindle-ebook-paperback-sales
Barthelme, Frederick, ed., BLIP Magazine. http://blipmagazine.net
Day, Cathy. “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis” The Millions. January 18, 2011. http://www.themillions.com/2011/01/the-story-problem-10-thoughts-on-academias-novel-crisis.html
Shannon, Christopher, Eric Smith, Saara Raappana, et al. eds., Cell Poems. http://cellpoems.org/
Stuart, Jason, Robert Bunce & Joshua Gray, eds., Burnt Bridge. http://burntbridge.net
A recent post over at Anne R. Allen's blog outlined the thing that's been on the tip of my tongue for a few months now, and it's interesting to see that people (more people everyday) are seeing the same things happening in the industry.
The truth is those crazy book deals that people have heard about have always been flukes. Either the person was already famous or established at writing or from something else (Tim Tebow has a memoir out now--I mean, he's a great quarterback, but the kid's only 25. What kind of memoir is that?). Those people had/have a built in brand-name following and it's a safe bet they will sell a few hundred thousand copies or more.
It was a short-lived era through the 80's & 90's that saw a boom in publishing houses taking big risks on unproven authors, but these advances were not those six-figure deals you're thinking of. Hell, you were doing well to land a low 5-figure deal, and even then you never saw another dime because your book never even earned out its advance.
Because there are SO MANY, vast amounts of people, shocking amounts of people, publishing themselves or going with out of the box indie micropresses (like Burnt Bridge or Pulp Press) the big houses are now completely insulated against taking these big risks on unproven talent. Now, all they have to do is pay (or not pay) some poor schmuck intern to troll through the self-pub/indie-pub slush for the ones that are selling wares on a decent level.
This is how the game is played now. The bigs want to know you can hack it. Why should they take a chance on your book, blow a wad of marketing money on a writer that ends up a dud?They can wait to see if your book finds its market in the minors.