Today brings one such opportunity. Henry Baum’s new novel, The American Book of the Dead, just emerged. In addition, Baum has been at the forefront of the self-publishing movement, as the creator of the influential Self-Publishing Review site and the founder of Backword Books, a collective of independent literary authors. (Full disclosure: I was set to join Backword before my novel, 600 Hours of Edward, got picked up by Riverbend Publishing.)
In the questions and answers that follow, we’ll dig into Baum’s new book as well as his views on where publishing is … and where it’s going.
Q: You’re at the forefront of indie publishing, with a book (North of Sunset) that has been hailed as a standout among self-published works and a Web site that is a must-read for those who are going it alone. At what point did you realize that self-publishing had morphed into something bigger than the pejorative vanity publishing?
Actually, as soon as I got the first copy of North of Sunset from Lulu. The formatting of the text was a mess, but I was holding an actual book in my hands. The ability to see myself in print was a revelation. I’d spent years writing a novel prior to North of Sunset, years more trying to get it published — had an agent, etc. A draining, dispiriting experience. I’d published traditionally before in the U.S. and abroad, but when I got that first copy of the book after suffering to be in print for so long, it was like: Finally, I can bypass the madness.
Q: What has your publishing journey been like? Unlike a lot of indies, you’ve had some action in the traditional arena.
My first novel came out with Soft Skull Press, which was up and coming at the time, and is now pretty well-established. Actually, going back I had a novel before that with an agent and that didn’t sell. I hand-delivered my manuscript to Soft Skull myself, along with the demo tape of a band I was in, which the editor, Sander, said helped in his decision. That book’s endured, strangely. I wrote it when I was 20 years old and it’s come out in the U.K. with Rebel Inc. Press and France with Hachette Litteratures — maybe the equivalent of Vintage here. It just came out in another edition with Another Sky Press (anothersky.org). So it’s not as though I don’t traditional publishing. I’ve had many agents — a foreign rights agent, but I’ve had a fair share of bad experiences along the way with both agents and publishers. I think I might be a poster child for self-publishing, which is not something I ever wanted to be.
Q: Your third novel, “The American Book of the Dead,” just hit the market. In what ways are you applying the lessons you’ve learned about indie publishing in marketing this book?
Strangely enough, to not try as hard. What I mean by that is that with North of Sunset I went out of my way to try and find reviews and get the book listed wherever I could. I may run the Self-Publishing Review, which reviews books, but basically reviews aren’t that useful — they’re just kind of fun, to be part of the conversation. But in terms of selling books, it’s some wasted energy. So I’ll try to get some reviews here/there, but I’m not going to go crazy. So much social media didn’t exist when I put out that book — specifically Twitter, but also Scribd and the ebook revolution. In many ways, it’s a lot easier now. I mean, my novel shot up to the top of Kindle’s charts after a brief mention on a forum. Unloading that number of print books just isn’t realistic. But I’m also going to be patient — this is something that could build over time, as people discover the book, read it, pass it on, so I’m not nearly as desperate to “hit it big” as I once was. If it happens, great, but it’s much more likely to happen organically, slowly, than selling a lot of books all at once.
I’m also doing something very different with this book. I’m also a songwriter — I was a musician before I ever started writing fiction, but I’ve always kept it as more of a hobby. Now I’m really going for it and recording a song for each chapter in the novel @ theamericanbookofthedead.com. Something else I’ve learned is your marketing strategy has to be unique; it’s not enough that your book is good. This songwriting project is unique I think, and it also gives me a reason to take songwriting more seriously for the first time.
Q: You’ve gotten blowback from some in the indie ranks for suggesting that it’s not antithetical to self-publishing to insist on editorial weeding-out. What do you mean?
I’m a part of Backword Books — a collective of self-published authors who have banded together. In doing so, we’ve had to turn away a fair number of writers no differently than an agent or publishing house. Which sucks, in a way, because the reason I’ve gotten into self-publishing is because I so loathe the gatekeeping system. But what I loathe about the gatekeeping system is that it is money-driven more than quality-driven. I have no problem with a literary press selecting books the editor likes – that’s his/her prerogative. Gatekeeping isn’t bad by design, it’s just that the design has gotten fairly screwed up by the current system. But there are a fair number of self-publishing purists out there who think even the collective arrangement is anti-thetical to the DIY spirit. I don’t.
Q: What’s wrong with the traditional publishing model? How can collectives like Backword Books find the legitimacy of traditional publishing while also avoiding the problems that affect it?
I have no problem with traditional publishing — I’ve just been rejected (as have many other people) based on criteria that has nothing to do with the writing. My last novel was about Hollywood. I was told by an agent, “A book was just sold about the magazine industry, so that’s what people are looking for.” This is lunacy. Plenty of good books get published, but too many good books get turned away and authors aren’t given the chance to grow should a book not sell immediately. That’s not usually how art unfolds, with overnight success. It can take years, possibly, for an artist to hit their stride. Publishers can say: Well, self-publish and hit your stride, and we’ll talk then. I’m fine with that and I think that’s what’s happening with self-publishing and why it’s gaining legitimacy — because a lot of good writers with a decent track record are getting turned away.
Backword isn’t everything it could be, I’ll admit — not yet. The thing that traditional publishing has over self-publishing is distribution. And it’s not as though Backword suddenly got a bookstore distribution deal by banding together. That’s one of our ultimate goals. If we’re able to achieve that, then it does change the landscape quite a bit because you take away the main issue that makes traditional publishing superior: distribution to brick and mortar stores.
Q: What is your ideal writing environment?
Hmmn, not having a full-time job. Unfortunately, I don’t live in that paradise. All I need is four hours right after the first morning coffee and that’d be great. I read that both John Steinbeck and Truman Capote only wrote full-steam for four hours — even though they had the time to do otherwise. Otherwise the writing started to get weak. I’m a person who writes in bursts, so I’ll write a novel in three months and then be totally drained and not write another word for a while. So, man, if I could have three months to just write half the day and record music the other half, that would be a dream. Right now, I get in writing when I can.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What sort of things do you read for pleasure?
Well, I have so much reading to do for the Self-Publishing Review — so many writers counting on the site for reviews — that I feel guilty venturing out into other territory. Which is sort of unfortunate. Strangely though, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction — esoteric stuff. The American Book of the Dead is about the end of the world, evolution, consciousness, and other such ideas and I still haven’t lost my bug for figuring out just what the hell is going on behind the veil.