Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jacob Appel On Being Indie

On "Being Indie" is a blog series that introduces us to a wide variety of independent authors, publishers, and booksellers as they discuss what being indie means to them.

Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award and was published by Cargo.  His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2014.  His most recent books include a novel, The Biology of Luck (Elephant Rock, 2013), an essay collection, Phoning Home (University of South Carolina Press, 2014) and a short story collection, Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang/Butler University, 2014).  Jacob’s short fiction has appeared in more than two hundred literary journals including Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly, Southwest Review, Threepenny Review and Virginia Quarterly Review.  His prose has won the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the Salem College Center for Women Writers’ Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award on four occasions, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant.   His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008, 2013), Best American Nonrequired Reading (2007, 2008), and the Pushcart Prize anthology (2005, 2006, 2011, 2014).   In 2003, he was honored with Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003.   He is currently on the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

I imagine most aspiring authors, at some point in their careers, have conjured up similar visions of their literary futures.  In my rendering of this collective fantasy, I prefect my first manuscript and send it off to a handful of high-end New York City agents, who claw each other’s eyes out scrambling to represent it.  A similar battle royal the next day blinds several of the city’s leading editors, but results in a seven or eight digit book deal.  The publishing house then suspends production on several of its best-selling novels—and even diverts resources from its chain of Dutch radio stations and Austrian record labels—in order to print my volume on the spot.  A few weeks later, after my masterpiece appears in bookstores to glowing reviews, the German overlords at my publishing house dispatch me on a book tour that includes the great capitals of Europe and joint readings with Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie.  By the end of my first month of literary stardom, I have a nine-book deal that could bankrupt many African nations, my face is as recognizable as Muhammad Ali’s, and I’m dating a besotted Karen Russell, who pledges to dedicate her future Nobel Prizes all to me.

Needless to say, the literary life rarely follows that trajectory.  Certainly, this was not my path to publication.  (I was just grateful not to have followed in the footsteps of John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces, whose mother was only able to find a publisher for his manuscript after his suicide.)  When my first agent proved unable to sell my first novel, I despaired.  When my second agent proved unable to sell my second novel, I grumbled.  In hindsight, as my fourth agent now attempts to sell my fourth novel, I look back with some relief that those first two agents—both very talented, I must add—didn’t secure me a small deal with a major publishing house, because such a deal was a recipe for failure.  After all, most first novels fare poorly and are rapidly remaindered.  That leads to disappointment and makes publishing a chart-topping fourth novel (my current plan) all the more difficult.

            I am very fortunate to have publishing six books with six very distinct, small to mid-sized independent publishers:  two literary novels (The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up with Cargo and The Biology of Luck with Elephant Rock); a mystery, Wedding Wipeout, with Cozy Cat Press; an essay collection, Phoning Home, with the University of South Carolina Press; and a pair of short story collections (Scouting for the Reaper with Black Lawrence and Einstein’s Beach House with Butler University’s Pressgang).  I have been able to connect with readers and to build up a fan base that will help me promote future books, a painstaking yet rewarding process that would not likely have been possible with one of the big five houses.  Along the way, I have learned that the keys to successful independent publishing are threefold:  generosity, creativity and relentlessness.

            The first step in marketing any book is valuing readership over profit.  Some writers are insulted when a friend or even a stranger asks for a free copy of their book.  I make a point of being flattered.  To the degree that I am financially able, I give away copies to those who ask, knowing that if they enjoy my work, they are likely to recommend it to others.  I make a point of giving copies to salesclerks in shops where I read, to all fellow readers at public events, and to local libraries whenever I visit them for research.  Obviously, few if any of us have the resources to give away tens of thousands of hard copies of our publications.   A hundred well-placed copies, or even a dozen, can generate both sales and long term interest.  There is no pride or value in being pennywise and pound foolish.

            The second step in marketing a book—and particularly an independent book—is to exercise the same creativity in marketing as one did in writing.  I am frequently amazed that authors who generate imaginative plots and highly-original characters prove unable to generate marketing plans that extend much beyond placing their books on Amazon and hoping strangers will invest in them.  Far better to engage in wild and zany guerilla tactics.  I am reluctant to share my own yet—but keep your eyes open and feel free to copy.

            The third step, and this cannot be emphasized enough, is relentlessness.  Make your own rain.  Go anywhere you’re invited.  I once gave a reading for one single patron in a small town bookstore, and sold precisely one book—but that’s one more book than I would have sold without doing the reading.  Relentlessness means reaching out constantly:  to booksellers, reading venues, libraries, other authors and even directly to potential readers.  It also means that you have to keep on writing.  You’ll want to publish book reviews and articles and short stories that draw attention to your byline and continued interest in your work.  While it might be lovely to retire on one brilliant book a la Harper Lee, this is a poor career plan to bank on.

            Finally, a trusting, ongoing relationship with ones publishers is essential.  If you spend your energies scrutinizing your royalty checks for errors, or gripe over typos, you are not using your limited emotional resources effectively.  Never forget that the person most responsible for marketing your book isn’t the publisher; it is you.  However, in my experience, the effort you put in as an author is often met with a matching effort by publishers.  Independents cannot afford to support all of their authors equally, so they devote their time and connections to helping those authors who are already helping themselves.

            I am very pleased with my tiny below-the-radar-screen niche in the world of independent publishing.  I can boast that I am a published author at high school reunions.  My grandmother is proud.  That being said, if you’re a Teutonic media conglomerate interested in offering me an eight figure book deal, or you’re Salman Rushdie and you’d like to do a joint reading, my loyalties to independent publishing might prove reasonably negotiable.

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