Friday, November 18, 2011

Publishing Van Gogh

Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, a novella about two women who died and became legends in the historic seacoast town of Marblehead, MA, available now on Amazon. She is also the author of Atlantis, political poems about the United States being another Atlantis.

It began in the early 1970's. I was on campus, a hippie wearing a Native American headband, floppy bell bottoms, and a halter top, when someone said, "Coca Cola just bought a publishing house. Publishing just got f_d."
In the next few years, I watched helplessly as socially conscious hippies morphed into crazed disco dancers. In the midst of the pounding tinny beat of disco, I cried out, "What happened? You mean music isn't going to keep getting better? It's over?" It wasn't just a hairstyle and a way of dressing to me. Values had changed.
In the 1980's, I wrote with my infant safely tucked behind me in a large wicker chair, sending short stories out to magazines. One by one, the magazines stopped accepting short stories - Mademoiselle, most famous for its short story contest, won by Truman Capote and Sylvia Plath. (Okay, the truth about that short story contest is in Capote's Answered Prayers and it ain't as pretty as the tale he told of pretty Mademoiselle employees fawning over the pretty boy writer, but the contest was real and so were the short stories.) Viva, sexy short lived feminist answer to Playboy and Playgirl, published incredibly sophisticated short stories. I was thrilled to get an encouraging rejection slip from Viva. It went out of business right out from under me as I worked on sending them something new. Redbook, I never was right for Redbook and I knew it. Marilyn Monroe and I would never be on the cover. Suddenly Redbook accepted only solicited short stories from Rosamund Pilcher and Barbara Cartland. Then, it was over. Nothing. The 80's. Publishing wanted something it never had wanted before - not a good short story, or a great short story, but a mediocre one. A safe one. Values had changed.
When Coca Cola bought into publishing, publishing became a profit driven business. But, maybe it really began in 1956 with the quiz show scandal when socially privileged academic Charles Van Doren disgraced himself by cheating at Twenty-One, thereby disgracing the elite, intellectual realm. Maybe this scandal left such a bad taste in the mouth of America that they had to cleanse it with a good swish of Coke. Shakespeare, exit stage left. Enter the rabble.
Enter the Heathers and Melissas. A new phenomenon. Every publishing house and literary agency hired two girls whose names were Heather and Melissa. Heather and Melissa had only one job between them. They opened your manuscript envelope, took out your SASE, and without reading the ms, stuffed it into the SASE with a standardized rejection slip form signed Heather or Melissa. I took so much pain to make these envelopes perfect; I obsessed over them to the point of tearing them open to re-do a signature or some other detail. It wasn't till Todd sent a rejection slip back from The Paris Review with an actual shoe print on it that I stopped obsessing.
My daughter is a painter. When she was about twelve years old, she wrote an article and sent it to a prominent children's magazine. She was rejected. Here's why - her story was too sophisticated for "the uninitiated reader." In high school, she was editor-in-chief of an award winning literary magazine. Now, she has a great painting site with an insightful blog about painting. 
Believe me, I get it. Writing is hard work. I didn't sign up to be a writer. God help me, I was born a writer. I write. Every day. But, do writers have to suffer as Van Gogh suffered? Should we write as Van Gogh painted? Alone and unknown? Should we immerse ourselves in faith and love and keep writing in hopes of achieving actual communication, perhaps in the next life? I've heard from those who study these things that writers who die actually keep writing after death. Typewriters type by themselves in the night. Spouses are gripped with automatic writing. And, there is even a real life case   of a dead writer, Patience Worth, who dictated her novels, poems and stories to a housewife, one letter at a time, through a Ouija board.  You can buy Patience's books on Amazon right now. (I can hear you with your ghostwriter jokes!) Writers are dedicated and obsessed. Our determination obviously comes from outside of ourselves and, in some cases, continues long after we do.
Writing is pure, but publishing is whacked. Someone once said to Gertrude Stein, "There are readers for you, but no publisher." We are there, and we didn't need to write like we were on LSD to realize this nightmare.
I just heard of a writer, Sarah Stonich, who, after two reasonably successful books with critical acclaim, was rejected because her writing was "too good." Apparently, Stonich's prose was distracting the editor from the story and the characters. You may check out her so-called offensive prose for yourself here. Who could not market this stunning writer? Sarah gave me permission to quote her: "I've had many rejections regarding this [new] book that everyone loves and no one will publish, Vacationland - most editors say they would snatch it up in a heartbeat if it was by a first-time author, or, if sales of my second book had been better (a horrible cover killed it regardless of the stellar reviews.) My agent agrees that if I used a nom de plume this book would already be on shelves."
What kind of nonsense is all that? Sarah's readers are WAITING!! Hello!!
Sarah, take heart. Van Gogh was dismissed from his priesthood by the Presbyterian church for being too good. Apparently, he gave away his official cassock to the poor and did not make a respectable enough presentation to represent the church.
I'm beginning to think something is off with the literary education of editors. I began suspecting this gap when, while browsing in a bookstore, I picked up an edition of Oscar Wilde that had been severely dumbed down. Here's what I found: In the play Salomé during the attempted seduction of John the Baptist, Salomé is supposed to hiss in John's ear, "Suffer me to kiss thy lips." It's one of my favorite lines. The idea that John the Baptist would suffer from such a kiss!  Here is what I read instead: "Kiss me." No, way. I read it again. Yup, that's what it said. "This is a terrible translation." I said to myself. Then, I realized. Oscar Wilde was English.
I think editors and agents are trying to pander to the highest numbers and the lowest common denominator, the rabble, who really are much more interested in watching The Amazing Race, getting more cheese into their pizza crust and playing video games than reading. These folks would not even buy Snooki's book! Don't get me wrong. I like Snooki. She's self-made and cute. She's a success in a tough crowd. I don't have to watch her TV show if I don't want to. But, Snooki's book is getting a pyramid in the bookstore and bookstores are wondering why they are failing.
Here's another story: When Terry McMillan published her first novel Mama in 1987, she was told by her publisher (Houghton Mifflin) that she would have no 20-city book tour, no review or ads in The New York Times or other publications and no book store window presence. So, she set out to promote her own book.  Terry knew a little something called "mail merge", which, at the time, was the hard copy equivalent of Facebook. She went to the library to photo copy mailing lists of authors, bookstores, publications, African-American women's orgs, etc. These lists she painstakingly entered into her word-processor. She wrote personal notes to her publisher's sales reps. None of them had ever received a personal note from an author. In short, Terry McMillan created Terry McMillan, and without her own efforts, she would not have written Waiting to Exhale or How Stella Got Her Groove Back. We'd all be waiting to exhale and get our groove back. Her whole career would have been a disappearing act. No joke.
Sarah Stonich is not alone in regretting a cover choice by a publisher. One of the best selling Kindle authors, Barry Eisler, dropped his New York publisher, St. Martin's, when they gave him a green garage door for the cover of his exciting crime novel that killed his sales. Wanting more control over the marketing and packaging of his books, Eisler passed on a $500,000 book deal and turned to Kindle self-publishing.
Obviously, the answer is self-publishing online.  Amanda Hocking, who made a few million dollars from her Kindle e-books, was referred to by a publisher on the private Reading2.0 mailing list who said, "There is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own." Ironically, Amanda got a $2 million book deal from St. Martin's, the very publisher Eisler left. Time will tell which works better for her.
Meanwhile, we know from Terry McMillan's experience that marketing and promoting are now in the hands of the writer - even for writers with agents and publishers! That's fine. Especially if you can afford an ad campaign, or a book tour. Many published authors, especially with small presses, schedule and pay for their own book tours and keep boxes of their books packed into their car trunks. I have heard it from the horse's mouth (a Boston literary agent) that many major publisher book signings in bookstores are scheduled, advertised (not very much) and UNATTENDED! Marketing one's own book is such a huge topic, that I've only touched upon it in this article. Briefly, authors need a good graphic designer they can work with to design their book covers. Authors need to learn how to edit, proofread and format their text. Book trailers are a new essential. Online promotion through e-blasts, blogging and websites is the new way to reach people. Most independent musicians, for instance, simply send an e-blast to their fans for their concerts.  Like any new freedom, self-promotion is a scary, but great opportunity. Van Gogh had his faithful brother, Theo to promote and support his work. You can read more about my own process of self-publishing and promoting my e-book When Two Women Die at SeacoastNH, click here.
Must we all become Van Gogh? Hopefully, only in the sense of being great, creative, innovative and vibrant artists. Let's hope our Van Goghs can self-publish online and not be lost to the afterlife, where, apparently, we will continue to pursue our mission. After all, the internet is simply energy. This flow of our life's blood becomes more and more vital to the communication of people. We can't wait for approval from academics or NY publishers. And, we can't allow anyone to take this freedom from us. Self-publishing has become more political than it ever was. Self-publishing has become survival.

©Patricia Goodwin, 2011

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