The Glamorous Life? (Notes from the Indie Trenches) Part One

August 9th, 2010 · 11 Comments
by Gina Frangello

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:

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello

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:

  1. I do get paid a little, for some of my writing/editing pursuits
  2. “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?

File Under: The Future of Publishing

11 responses so far ↓

  • Lance C. // Aug 10, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Perhaps the problem is revealed in the Richard Nash quote:

    “…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…”

    If you’re trying to do this as a *business*, then you should be going for those 35 sales at the local B&N. Indie bookstores are all fine and good, but the overwhelming majority of people who still buy books in stores buy them at Borders & Noble. Most cities don’t have indie bookstores anymore.

    Paying money to “cultivate relationships” is what happens on, not in a business.

    Of course, it could be said that by choosing to specialize in short-story collections, you’ve already decided to not make any money. The memo you missed was the one with the monthly sales figures by genre. You’ve followed your heart — good for you. Hardly any of us can do that and still pay the rent. And once you make that choice, it’s unseemly to complain about the consequences.

  • Gina Frangello // Aug 10, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Lance, I don’t know if you read Stephen Elliott at all, but he discusses what you say here: that the world does not owe anyone a living for the privilege or choice of following their heart. On this, you are 100% correct, as is he.

    Still, I think the concept of “business” is exactly what I’m interested in exploring here.

    Yes, if writers are in it solely (or even mainly) to make money, not only would it be foolish not to pursue the 35 sales at B&N (over the 8 or whatever at an indie store) but it would be foolish to write short stories, or really even “literary fiction” in general: one would write whatever the prevailing bestsellers of the day are: vampire romance or chick lit or what-have-you. Or, better yet, don’t write ANY fiction at all, since clearly for every bestselling genre writer getting rich, there are hundreds or thousands who can’t even get a book published after spending years writing it, or whose publications–even in popular genre fiction–fail to result in big bucks.

    If one is seeking monetary success, being a writer at all is probably a shoddy way to go about it. There are just no guarantees. If a steady, good income is what one is after, go to medical school or pursue any of dozens of careers where one gets a predictable paycheck.

    So to some extent, any type of writing career (spare, maybe, writing speeches for politicians) constitutes following one’s heart, I think, rather than one’s pocketbook. And so, being a writer has always (not just recently) existed in a kind of realm outside the common sense business model. Clearly, writers write for other reasons. And publishers PUBLISH them for other reasons–both in corporate publishing (at least until very recently) and certainly in indie publishing.

    So why do ANY writers do it–why does anyone take the chance, knowing the odds?

    That’s why what Richard is talking about is something else, I think, which is what I try to cover in Part II of this. Writers write in order to find readers who care deeply (which I would venture to say is not always the same as “in quantity”) about their work. Human connection has always been part of any art form, whether musicians, visual artists, stage actors, writers . . . to say it isn’t or shouldn’t be is to overlook the initial human impetus to make any kind of art at all, isn’t it?

  • Jessica Keener // Aug 10, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I loved what you said about writing and seeking human connection as part of any art form.

    Your book is waiting for me at my local Indie bookstore (Brookline Booksmith). I admit, when I called the store, I expected to have to order a copy and wait, but they had it on hand, which is wonderful.


  • Gina Frangello // Aug 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Hi Jessica! That’s fabulous to hear. I love Brookline Booksmith–I’ve booked authors there several times though I’ve not yet been myself. But if SL is there, I feel like a part of me has been, ha.

  • Lance C. // Aug 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Granted, writing isn’t generally on par with selling credit default swaps as a path for making a fortune. However, there *is* a difference between “becoming rich” and “earning money for your work.”

    Few of us who write expect to get as rich as we would by working for Goldman Sachs. However, it’s not unreasonable for someone writing, say, genre fiction to expect, once published, to be able to make enough money for the occasional undrawn-upon sofa or to help with the preschool tuition. Yes, that does require writing popular fiction (a category that extends beyond vampire romances), which I realize some consider unworthy. And oddly enough, there’s even a market for long-form literary fiction, which garners all the press, awards, and acclaim even if not as many people buy it as they do mysteries, romances, sci-fi, chick lit, horror, fantasy, YA and all the other genres that keep bookstores alive.

    If, however, you follow your muse to, say, poetry or short stories, it’s not going to work out for you monetarily unless your name is Frost or Lahiri. That’s not a flaw in publishing; it’s having made a choice to fish in very poor waters. And it’s nothing new. You wouldn’t have made any money thirty years ago, either, before the publishers turned into megaconglomerates and ebooks threatened to upend the world.

    It may well be that you can reach 100% of your audience by handselling eight copies through each of the few remaining indie bookstores. But that’s your chosen niche, not the entire publishing world. Ultimately, it’s about the choices we make. If you’re okay with your choice, then it doesn’t matter how much you get paid (or not). If you’re unhappy with the results, it may be time to re-examine the choices that led to them.

  • Art edwards // Aug 10, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    What Gina has done here is given us a very frank look at the kind of numbers and money an indie-published book is likely to net. Such glimpses are rare, in my experience.

    Thank you, Gina.

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  • Tamara Sellman // Aug 11, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Actually, Lance, just recently it became clear that Amazon was selling most of the titles via Kindle. That’s where I’m taking my short story collection. I know a handful of writers who’ve done this and made out very well doing it.

    Also, Lance, I think you’ll agree with me here that writing is real work and deserves real money in payment. We should not judge writers for expecting to earn a living wage, no matter what form or genre they choose. It’s all hard work.

    Interestingly, other countries pay their artists living wages and cover some of their expenses because these governments recognize that art of all disciplines is important to culture and politics beyond the corporate bottom line.

    In the US, though, it’s feast or famine and way too many good writers are left to wither on their own.

    It’s a societal thing, though. People don’t understand that it takes an author years to write one book. They think books are written overnight and then they automatically get published and the author then make tons of money.

    Not. Even. Close.

    We should, however, take the industry to task for all the $$$ it takes from the publishing process pool; it leaves the writer with nothing but a pittance after everyone else (but the writer who produced the product) takes their “fair” share of “living wages” which are quite a bit more than that.

    The industry itself has operated on a failing model since the 1970s and it’s about time that it paid attention to the needs of 21st century readers and writers instead of looking only at the bottom line.

    This is largely why they flail now, and largely why I support–wholesale!–the small press and the e-book industry. They exist for all the right reasons, even if they aren’t making blockbuster salaries doing it. (Well, maybe Amazon and iPad are raking it in…)

    It’s the industry, by the way, which has determined there’s no money in selling short story collections, despite the fact that I’m surrounded by ordinary people who read them all the time, and I know many authors who’ve gone the e-book route and made money on their titles that they’d never have seen had they gone the traditional route.

    I believe that is a key blind spot in an industry which exists solely to make money (they lost their vision about supporting art and cultural production decades ago). A story collection is still a book, and if they’re in the business of selling books, they should be able to sell anything, frankly. For me that is an epic fail on the part of publishing, not a reason to denounce short story writers for demanding a living wage.

    This reality is mostly unfortunate for readers, nowadays; the 21st century is making space for deserving authors who can still succeed without the greedy meddling of corporations, thank goodness for self-publishing and POD and e-books, but it still requires that readers accept new ways of reading (electronically, online magazines, downloads), and we’re still in the infancy of that change. Which means readers are still not going to be connected with the writers that could move them because of hardware considerations.

    We’ll get there, though, if Amazon’s reports on e-book sales surpassing print books is any indication. The e-book industry can only survive on the reader buy-in, and it appears to be happening…

    Sorry for the ambling post but we’re at a critical point in the future of publishing and I’m still sorting things out from my multiple perspectives as a published writer, former small press electronic publisher, and independent editor.

    Somewhere in there I believe all aspects of the reading process–the writers, the readers, the publishers, the producers, the distributors–need to return to the idea that literature is not toilet paper to be sold on a pallet at Costco (like Sara Paretsky once described at a writers conference I attended back in 2003) but rather a package of ideas and intellectual property that deserves better.

  • Gina Frangello // Aug 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Tamara, thanks for the in-depth response!

    You’ve certainly put in your time in this community and have a lot of experience and expertise in various arenas. You’ve worn at least as many hats as I have.

    Perhaps weirdly, I don’t feel so much that I want to “demand” a living wage (though I certainly don’t begrudge authors who do feel this way, and I agree that some other countries certainly put a higher value on the production of art in terms of cultural and economic support–then again, some countries value these things even less, or persecute artists.) As I discuss in Part II of the piece, money just isn’t “why” I write, even on a small scale, and I think this is true for so many writers/artists. We in the indie trenches have followed our passions fully–something very few people in the world really do, and that is a luxury in a global sense. So on some philosophical level, while I do grieve our culture not putting a higher premium on the arts, I also feel very lucky to have the life I have, where I do what I love, and have come to terms with this not necessarily translating to financial gain . . .

    But . . . yes, well, “but” . . . of course I don’t mean by this that writers don’t “deserve” to be paid. Obviously, as a writer and editor, I do feel we work hard and I completely concur with your points about how long it takes to produce a book, etc. And to take that further, I believe there is true value to what we produce, which certainly cannot be said of all things that ARE financially rewarded in the culture. So I recognize the disparity in this, even though I’ve come to terms with it, and in no way want to “re-evaluate” what I write in order to make a buck, ala Lance’s suggestion (though again, I do know writers who have made that choice, and who now earn enough money to have quit their day jobs by focusing on work that’s more commercial, so this is a very individual choice . . . )

    Mainly, I agree that the failure to sell short stories is in large part the failure of marketing departments–I think this has to do with the lack of easy marketing tag lines, because collections tend to possess so much variance, and to a large extent publishing’s economy has become driven by marketing departments, not editors or writers. So, I mean, in a short-attention-span society, I’m constantly asked why I think short stories aren’t MORE popular, as they really cater to how much people want to read in one sitting these days, etc.–and I think the explosion of online lit mags proves that people do still read short fiction (albeit for free, online.) But big publishing doesn’t really pursue this because the books are just harder to market and “niche-i-fy,” to completely make up a nonexistent word, ha.

    I don’t have experience selling e-books exclusively, or self-publishing, but I recently ran a workshop in Tacoma with a poet who had managed to make a decent sum of money self-publishing a book, cutting out the middle-man of distribution, and just selling the book online. More and more writers are making this work, though I would suggest that the task is hard in terms of finding readers and spreading the word about one’s book, and people already well-connected in the lit world may have a much easier time than just the typical writer who has toiled in anonymity and then produced a book–without a huge existing online platform, it would be challenging to market and sell one’s own book with no help from a publisher or distributor, I believe. But for writers who can do it, yeah, it provides a financially viable model that allows a tapped-in writer a lot of control and freedom.

    I always like hearing your views on these things. Thanks for weighing in. And remember all those tales about Hemingway and Fitzgerald using short fiction as a way to support themselves WHILE they toiled on those long, years-consuming novels? How different the climate must have been then. I’m fascinated by the major cultural shift in terms of what short fiction is “for” and who its audience is, and what it is economically worth . . .

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