One of the best parts of my job is discovering what goes on in all corners of publishing. If you look beyond Manhattan, you see innovation, experimentation, and, yes, consternation as changes to the industry seem to happen every day. I am asking those who are involved in these ventures to share successes, failures, ideas, and how they are surviving in an industry that constantly seems to be experiencing death throes.
It turns out there is far more optimism, pragmatism, and creativity than there are worries about the demise of the industry. Today and tomorrow, I am pleased to feature author and publisher Gina Frangello as she focuses on independent press and book tours and making money in the world of small press. The first installment focuses on her experiences surrounding her current story collection Slut Lullabies. The second will look at the state of small press.
And now to Gina:
I have done just about everything there is to do in publishing, except actually get paid.
Well, okay, maybe that’s a misleading sentence on a couple of fronts:
- I do get paid a little, for some of my writing/editing pursuits
- “Not get paid” is, alas, very much something to do in indie publishing, so could actually go in the “things I’ve done” column as well as functioning in the negative.
At this point, I have been working in publishing for fifteen years. In my experience, there are two ways one enters the publishing arena. The first is to go to Oberlin (substitute Sarah Lawrence, Brown, etc.) and get a low-paid, entry-level position in New York at a corporate publishing house, where you slave for several years before working your way up the ladder, become a senior editor eventually, enjoy some period of (underpaid but prestigious) success, make a misstep in your editorial choices and lose money for your corporate shareholders, lose your job, and either get lucky enough to be snagged by another corporate imprint, or proceed to spend the remainder of your days on Twitter, snarking about the demise of publishing.
The second is to volunteer as a “first reader” of an independent or university-affiliated literary magazine, where you slave for several years before working your way up the ladder, become the Associate Editor, wait for the Editor to retire, take over the magazine, launch a book press, teach at various universities to make ends meet since your editing work does not actually pay, enjoy some period of (unpaid but fulfilling) success before your indie magazine/press goes bankrupt, or get lucky enough to find a Sugar Daddy to acquire you as an imprint (go, Dzanc Books!) Otherwise, revert to spending the remainder of your days on Twitter, snarking about the demise of publishing.
In first of the scenarios, you will have more expensive shoes and will receive invitations to the Hamptons.
In the second, you will have more editorial control, and are virtually guaranteed never having to work for a Republican.
Life is all about choices; that’s all I’m saying.
Needless to say, I came up through the second route. My work at Other Voices magazine eventually led to co-founding Other Voices Books. Publishing short work in literary journals eventually led to my meeting Lidia Yuknavitch, who herself went on to launch a book press—Chiasmus—and published my first novel, My Sister’s Continent. That novel led, indirectly, to my being invited to blog for the online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown, where I was eventually invited to become the co-editor of the Fiction Section, and my work at OV and TNB has led to various invitations to guest-edit anthologies or serve as the faculty supervisor for TriQuarterly when the magazine transitioned online. Indie lit circles led me to meet my current editor, Bryan Tomasovich, at AWP 2009, where he solicited a manuscript from me—a collection entitled Slut Lullabies—that was just released at the end of May.
My collection was ten years in the making, and seeing it out in the world was a dream come true. Sometimes, when one dream comes true, a girl can get greedy. Another lifelong dream of mine? Book tour!
See, when my first novel came out, I was nine months pregnant and in the hospital for double pneumonia. I then spent the first few months of my novel’s life nursing my son, unable to leave Chicago for longer than a few hours. This time around, I resolved to do pretty much anything anyone invited me to do. Podcast, interview, reading, book group, panel. Writer for hire!
Well, figuratively speaking. I mean, I was only hired twice, by universities, to come in and read/speak to the students. The rest was gonna be on my own dime.
My fabulous publisher, Emergency Press, is not long on money. I was about to defensively stipulate that “no indie is,” but these days, almost no publisher is, period. Author book tours have been slashed and burned by the big houses too, with only select writers each season being chosen as the likely big-sellers and paraded around. Other big-house writers often languish on the vine, as under-promoted as indie writers or more so, since indies at least tend to have smaller lists and, even if short on money and time, focus their energies on fewer writers.
I, however, was undeterred by financial constraints. Due to an academic invitation, I had my plane fare to LA covered, and a stipend for my gig out there (in Palm Springs) that would cover two additional tickets—to Austin and New York. Other legs of my tour would focus on the Midwest (Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Madison, Milwaukee), where I would drive around with several other writers, sharing gas expenses and—whenever possible—returning home the same night so as to minimize costs. I was scheduled to hit Seattle (where my editor lives) and Portland in late July, by which time my book would have been out for two months. My blithe assumption was that, by then, the book would have made enough money that my publisher would be able to cover my costs to the Pacific Northwest . . .
I know, I know: I am a publisher; I should have known better. But hope springs eternal.
Even once it was clear that my fabulous book had not rendered Emergency Press so flush with cash that it would start handing out tickets to Seattle on street corners, no problem: an academic invitation in the Midwest promised a stipend that would cover those costs, and a running workshop in Tacoma would help too. Back on track! Have book, will travel . . .
And so, two months in, I have “worked it.” I’ve read in some of the coolest, warmest indie bookstores in the country, from Bookwoman in Austin to WordWord in Brooklyn to Chicago’s own Book Cellar to Prairie Lights in Iowa City to Powell’s in Portland—my new personal fave being the living-room-like, cozy Pilot Books of Seattle. I’ve appeared at series ranging from Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “True Sex Confessions” at the Happy Ending Lounge in New York, to Stan Kent’s “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” series at the Hustler Hollywood in LA. (Oh, it just strikes me that these last two do not provide much of a range! Okay, also The Nervous Breakdown Literary Experience in Denver, and an upcoming appearance at the Cherry Bomb in Grand Rapids.) To say I have had a blast along the way would be a radical understatement. Writers can be an isolated lot, and while the thriving online community has done much to make this less true than in previous eras, it is still a rare pleasure to get to read with and hang with one’s writer friends from other states. Particularly in New York (where Emergency Press threw me a book release party), and in LA (where The Nervous Breakdown is based), I have had so much fun that there can be no justification for calling this tour “work.” Yep, I am extremely fortunate to have a job that I love so much I would do it for free.
Especially since I actually do it for free.
Still, everyone in publishing knows what book tours are really for, and it’s not money. As indie-publishing-god Richard Nash put it, when I asked him if book tours are worth it: “I wouldn’t separate out the book tour and ask is it worth it. We shouldn’t be doing anything to market books if it isn’t providing a decent return. But we have to look more holistically at the return. For a debut writer who tends write 20 books in a lifetime, to spend $500 cultivating a relationship with a few influential book people in a given town—a blogger, a critic, a local producer and two bookstore staff persons, could provide a superb ROI even if you only sell 8 books that day. But to land in a town, meet no one, sell 35 books at the local B&N, and move onto the next, that might not be worth it at all. It is all about making connections between people . . .”
As Nash alludes to, the hope of local media coverage is a major impetus behind touring. A writer is, of course, far more likely to be booked on a radio show or have a feature written about her if she is actually in town and having an event. And the radio program or feature may ultimately lead to more book sales—or more name recognition that could benefit the writer down the line—than anything that happens in the actual bookstore or reading series where the author is making her immediate local appearance.
Of course, media coverage right now is more of a long shot than ever. With review space shrinking in almost every print publication in the country, an out-of-town, indie writer promoting a short story collection of all things (!), has less hope of traditional coverage than was the case when my first novel came out in 2006. And so bloggers and local podcasters often stand in for the big guns of old. For example, my first novel was reviewed by Booklist, but even though the publication had given me a previous rave and my author “platform” has grown in the past 4 years, this time around my collection was not covered. I admit that, as far as indie collections go, I’ve proven much luckier than most writers: my first moments of obscene excitement came when Slut Lullabies was plugged—all of one sentence!—in June’s Vanity Fair, and recently a lengthier recommendation in More magazine all but caused me to hyperventilate (mainly with happiness, but also because you know you’re really over 40 when More starts touting you!) Still, if looked at on a national level, Slut Lullabies’ coverage—while unilaterally positive to date—has been shorter on traditional review venues like newspapers and print mags, and longer on blogs or other online forums . . . excepting in my hometown Chicago, where the media is very good to its writers. Locally, I’ve been covered by the Sun-Times, Tribune, Reader, Newcity, and on several radio programs as well as Chicago Tonight, to the point that a number of my Chicago friends have enthused about “all the attention” my book is getting, unaware that all this “attention” is mostly happening here, where I live.
In the end, all the “fun” I’ve been having—all the nice reviews and the thrill of hearing journalism legend Rick Kogan read from my book aloud on his radio show—has effectively set me back a couple grand.
Yes, yes, I know: I just got finished justifying how those academic stipends funded my book tour, based on invitations I’d received because of my new book . . . so that’s not really the same as paying for my tour out-of-pocket, right? Well, looked at one way, that’s true. Without the book, I wouldn’t have received those invitations or earned that money. But looked at another way (which I try to avoid), if I’d simply pocketed those stipends—instead of going to NYC, Austin, Seattle, Portland, etc.—I’d have walked away with a nice, tidy little sum that I could have applied to my son’s preschool tuition, or our need for a new sofa that hasn’t been drawn on with permanent marker (or ever vomited on by 3 kids or 2 cats.) Then, had I kept the cash and viewed it as “income,” rather than “tour funds,” I might be less strung out that it’s becoming apparent I may never actually see any money on Slut Lullabies, since my publisher first needs to recoup its own costs so as to keep its head above water and keep fighting the good fight for indie lit—me included, since EP aims to publish another of my books down the line.
And as a publisher myself, I know the score. I know how few of Other Voices Books’ authors have ever actually received checks from us after their original (tiny) advance, because the money we put in—for printing costs, distribution (warehousing, returns), events, travel stipend (unlike most indies, we do offer one)—easily ends up amounting to 10K for any given title. And what it takes for an independently published short story collection (OV specializes in collections, so again, I knew going in how hard they are to sell) to earn out more than 10K could be described not just as “Herculean” but almost “preposterous.”
Who did I think I was, Jhumpa Lahiri?
Well, no . . . but. But. After all this touring, blogging, podcasting, interviewing, and a small but glorious little flurry of nice press—could it be true that my book was just not going to make any money? When I mentioned this concern to my friend Cris Mazza, who was a mentor to me early in my career, I noticed she all but snorted at the crazy expectation that I would . . . get paid. I thought of how guilty I’ve felt every time I’ve been unable to really pay my writers what I believe they deserve, and how every single time—even after all these years—I convince myself that the next book is going to be “the one” that makes some significant money: that Dzanc will be rewarded for all their support; that our brilliant author will be able to go on a splashy vacation; that my co-editor Stacy Bierlein and I will even have a little something left over for ourselves. And every time it doesn’t happen, I wonder what I did wrong—what angle my author and I failed to hit; what hours I spent sleeping that I should have been pimping my writer’s book. Had those worries all been delusional? Was the lack of income—for any of us—a given from the get-go, no matter what we did? After fifteen years in the publishing trenches, was it possible I had simply missed this memo?
Tomorrow: What did Gina Frangello, publisher, learn?