Independent Publishing

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Between the extremes of the ubiquitous free content on the internet and the pricier words that the major publishing houses bind up and sell and Barnes & Noble, there exists a realm of independent publishing that seems to be fairly extensive and somewhat difficult for me to understand.

Seems to work not unlike music and record labels work: These three tiers exist — doing-it-for-free, doing-it-independent, and doing-it-major — and artists shuffle around as they get started and wind up in one tier or another. They probably about evenly split between the first and second (based roughly on skill), with a fortunate handful rocketing to the top (based on skill, but often times somewhat arbitrarily based on current trends and elements unrelated to the music such as the good looks of the lead singer).

I digress.

So, considering that it’d be great to get paid some money for writing, and knowing that getting attached to a major publishing house may not be something within my realm of control (right now), I figure I need to start digging around in eclectic indyland to get a sense of who and what I might have to deal with. And to round up some good ideas about what makes for good publishing.

Like I said, I don’t really know anything about it, yet, except from what I’ve gleaned from perusing the web and poking around bookstores. But I won’t let that stop me from commenting, anyway, on some recent independent publishing finds. (I’m concentrating on fiction, by the way, so you’ll have to wait to see my reactions to Badaboom Gramophone — which deserves a lengthy discussion of it’s own.)

Pure Sunshine (published by Push) Push happens to be a subsidiary of Scholastic Publishing, interestingly enough, considering that Pure Sunshine is about high school kids doing bunches of acid and acting like nutty high school students. (Doesn’t Scholastic also publish Highlights magazine for eight year-olds?) I’m sure Brian James has embellished his own experiences for the sake of the novel, but it reads the same way a photograph at a party looks, as a kind of reality shot less interested in being completely in focus and nicely composed and more interested in capturing the vibe of the times. Nothing feels exaggerated (except the time-compression which writers almost always have to use to tell stories like this — allows them to focus on the one issue at hand rather than the eight different things that would be going on simultaneously in a real high schooler’s life). Anyway, enough rambling about this. It’s short. It’s cheap. And it’s a good example of mid-level publishing, though Scholastic is involved and I did find this at Barnes & Noble. Maybe Push could be compared to, say, Sony Picture Classics — an indy art-label inside a major.

McSweeney’s 7 Also, I know, not purely independent considering that it’s published by staggering genius Dave Eggers who has had one heartbreaking work already top the bestseller charts — published by Vintage. But McSweeney’s answers to no one — truly independent, though probably financed by some of the Heartbreaking proceeds and bought on the good name of Eggers and the other big names (William Vollman, Michael Chabon, Chris Ware) stuck on the cover. That’s why I bought it in the first place, at any rate. I should say that McSweeney’s has been around since before Heartbreaking Work hit the big time (I think).

Now, McSweeney’s 7 is exciting because of the whole package: from point of purchase to final read. First, you get the names of authors on the cover, but no other indication of what might be inside the shrink-wrapped package. It’s got a ragged cardboard cover with the world’s fattest rubber band holding the works together at the waist. Inside are nine seperate books between 30 and 150 pages long, each with a nice cover — really, each just a nice publication alone. The stories don’t seem related except that they tend to be dark and strange in some way. Another unique part of this quartly publication is that lack of: letters to the editor, introductory bits, advertisements, and other magazine filler I’m used to getting along with the meat articles I want. Not all McSweeney’s are like this, but 7 sure is. It’s nice. So, I’d call McSweeney’s an indy, but an indy on the high-end of the indy scale.

McSweeney’s also publishes books of fiction, but I have not dug into any of these yet. (I have flipped through the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and found it a bit cutesy-self-absorbed for my tastes. If a sweeping criticism of Dave Eggers can be made, “a bit cutesy-self-absorbed for my tastes” would probably be it.) And McSweeney’s runs a website with copious amounts of clever writing.

If I had to generalize what I liked about these two pubs, I’d have to say I found the pocket-sized portions to be great. I enjoy reading fiction that’s between 30 and 150 pages. Makes for a good afternoon or couple afternoons and then it’s over. Not that longer works aren’t worthwhile and sometimes refreshing, but lately I’ve been enjoying works that don’t take a huge investment of my time or money to read. (Anyone care to make a wager about what the ratio of people who’ve read the first page of Infinite Jest to those who’ve read the last page is? I bet 4:1.)

Now, I would have already ordered something from SoNewMedia, a publisher run by Austin’s own Ben Brown, but PayPal’s treating me goofy, and it looks like I’ll have to wait. Fortunately (for me, but maybe not for them, because if I get my fill before giving them money, I may not give them money) they have plenty of SoNewMedia writing available on the web in various places.

I started by taking a look at an excerpt from Strain 17, by Josh Allen. Let me quote a couple things for you to demonstrate how to make Josh Knowles totally lose interest in your writing.

From the author’s description: “So I selected a structure that would reward both a lack of planning and a limited time-frame: the first-person fictional autobiography. I heartily recommend this format for all writers looking for an easy out.”

The first sentence of the free sample on the web: “I’m asked to stay late one day and the van leaves without me, shrugging, and I feel like I’ve been socked in the gut. The teacher’s lounge has orange fluorescent lights overhead. The table is shaped like an egg, a brown egg. ‘Son, we just want to try something real quick here and please rest assured that it’s completely by the book.’”

So, you happily wrote crap and, oh!, look — there’s the crap. Good for you. Next.

Next, I decided to get interested in The Brick, a serial written by James Stegall, one of the SoNewMedia crew, I gather. Thankfully for my wallet, turns out it’s also published online — in its entirety — at Serialtext.

Let me talk about Serialtext for a sec — as an aside. If you check out “About Serialtext,” you will be greeted with these bold words: “Dickens, Flaubert, et al. It’s how they started.” This is the most succint argument for web publishing that I’ve come across to date. Maybe you think otherwise. I wonder what parallels could be draw between magazine publishing in the 19th c. and web publishing in the 21st… I don’t know enough of the history, but any site that leads itself off with such a title wins my attention. For a few days, before I get distracted by Fox TV, again.

Serialtext has a philosophy obviously drawn from the normal continuum of literature (meaning, not web lit) and they attempt to execute that philosophy without much fluff. Right on.

Anyway, The Brick reads, unfortunately, sort of like weblog entries do: each “chapter” is rather short and they don’t glue together exactly right. Seems to be a short-attention-span Thomas Pynchon approach to pop culture. Each “chapter,” though keeps my attention and tells a story well enough on its own. I’ll probably keep reading this.

Back to SoNewMedia itself. I like that they publish “Minibooks.” Like I said, I like the minibook concept (and “minibook” sounds much better than “novella,” in my opinion.) I would like to have more minibooks. Also, they accept minibook submissions (7000-8000 words — that’s about 30 pages of 12pt Times) and have a good deal for indy writers — they split the $3 they get for the book with you 50/50. I don’t know for sure, but I bet Random House gives authors… 5% or gross sales. Maybe 10%. (At least, this is the case if book pubishing economic work anything like record label economics.)

So, I like SoNewMedia. but I don’t like the book designs (at least as they look on the web). They look like O’Reilly programming textbooks, mostly. To me, books are unified pieces of physical art, with the packaging, cover art, font, margins, et al all being quite important to communicating the content of the book. Of for at least making the book more pleasurable to be around. A publisher can ignore these things, but to me, it’s like a publisher not checking the spelling in the book. Sure, a book with spelling errors still makes as much sense as one without, but it’s just not as “nice” or “professional” or whatever. Most books, in my opinion again, don’t have good physical design. McSweeney’s sure as hell does.

So that’s all I want to write about that right now. I also looked around at Henry Rollin’s 21361 and 4 Walls 8 Windows, other “big name” indies. Look for yourself, if you’d like. Tell me what you think.

Internet Explorer just crashed, so we’ll leave it at that.


Push Publishing
Excerpt from Pure Sunshine
McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies
Excerpt from Strain 17
The Brick
4 Walls 8 Windows

(I stick the links at the end instead of inline as a way to convince you to read all of what I have written before jumping around like the hyper-caffeinated web monkey you are.)