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These Q&A sessions with authors have fallen off the map, for a lot of reasons. But as opportunities trickle in, we’ll run with them.

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 ( 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 @ 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.

twitpicKristen Tsetsi’s novel, Homefront, takes on the unsteady terrain of the military deployment, from the perspective of the one who has to wait at home for it to end, one way or another (and it’s the another that’s particularly harrowing — more on that in a bit). Tsetsi clearly has struck a chord. Check out her blog post on the hesitating military wife and her mother-in-law who approached Tsetsi at a book signing. Or see what the readers have to say at And then get back over here and see what Tsetsi herself has to say.

Q: Tell us a bit about “Homefront” and how it came to be. What sparked the idea? How long did you work on it?

First, how it came to be: I wanted there to be somewhere out there a literary approach to the deployment experience, something that would force readers to experience it in a way they never had before: as if they were living it. There is (and was) a shortage of at-home war novels that (a) aren’t a “You Can Do It” book (b) weren’t about someone else’s personal experience with managing a household with a spouse deployed or (c) didn’t have something to do with religion and/or families.

I wanted the focus to be solely on the experience between two lovers. There’s a lot of media coverage of soldiers coming home and hugging their children (those videos are powerful) and of the suddenly single parenthood that accompanies a deployment–both important and relevant subjects. But they’re not the only subjects. You would think, based on what we typically see, that there are only two elements to a deployment: the Soldier, and the Family.

But what about the Couple? It’s not as if someone is simply taking an overseas job for a year. When the service member leaves, they’re going somewhere people are trying to kill them. Joseph Dilworth Jr., who reviewed Homefront for the online entertainment magazine he publishes, Pop Culture Zoo, said it perfectly in piece of his review:

Homefront is ultimately about life and how we choose to deal with loss and grief, even when those we are mourning are still alive.

Of course, that line by itself makes Homefront sound like a manual on mourning, or a grief counseling book, and it’s anything but that. But, essentially, that is a large part of what makes waiting through a deployment so complex, so passionate, so effing unbearable. You do feel like you’re mourning, in a way, because any second, the person you love most could be killed. (This is true in everyday life, in a way… we could get hit by a car, struck by lightning, a small plane could fall on our house … but in everyday life, people aren’t putting themselves in a situation that will make them mortar targets.)

Look at, or imagine, the person you love most, whose friendship you cherish more than any other, and then try to imagine possibly never seeing them again –starting NOW. However bad that feels, multiply it by reality and hold onto it constantly for a year. Or more. You still probably won’t be able to imagine — without reading something that gets inside of it, or without experiencing it first-hand — how that can affect your life. That’s why I wrote Homefront. So you are able to imagine it, and so those going through it know there’s something out there that gets them.

As to how long it took to write: about a year. I started, got halfway into it, and started over completely. Homefront began in third-person, and no matter how long I pressed on and tried to force it to work (it’s really hard to give up 80 single-spaced pages), it was just too distant a POV for such an intimate story.

Q: A writer writes what she knows, and you certainly know the terrain of waiting out a deployment. How did you balance your very emotional attachment to the subject with the need to write with a clear-eyed view of it?

PrintI don’t think I even gave serious thought to writing about it until after Ian had been home for several months. For a long time after he came home — and this was strange, to me — I couldn’t talk about what it had been like without getting emotional about it. It was very, very easy to cry about things for a while. Let’s just say my ability to handle sensitive subjects with the emotional stability of a normal person had diminished substantially during his deployment, and it takes a while for something like that to go away, for a person to build back up to reacting to things reasonably.

Ian had been home for a year by the time I started writing Homefront, which left his deployment far enough in the past for me to be able to separate myself from the factual details of my own life during his absence, but still close enough so that I could, simply by closing my eyes, go right back into that year of … well … back into that year. (There’s really no good “of” word…that year of what? That, too, is why Homefront had to be written … it takes a novel to show someone what it’s like. You can’t tell someone. No adjectives do it justice.)

Q: At what point and why did you decide that you would publish it independently?

After sending out a number of query letters, I heard from a few agents that it would be hard to sell. I think I heard “no market” (which is obviously untrue) from one agent, and another said she absolutely loved the book, but that it was just too risky to try to sell literary fiction from an “unknown.” I didn’t give up on queries — I continued to send them after I decided to take an independent approach — but I did decide that what was important was the book being read. With or without publishers, service members were going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people they left behind continued to go through that hell. I wanted them to have the book, and I wanted everyone talking about the war from a political point of view — and disregarding, or being oblivious to, the very real people involved — to have a perspective that would enhance their opinions. Which is not to say knowing people involved will change political opinions, but there should be as much empathy as possible for those whose lives are affected (or ended) by calculated political decisions.

Q: What sort of responses have you gotten from people who have lived the life as a military spouse/significant other?

The spouses/significant others who have taken the time to write me about it have said … well, here — I’ll let them say it:

“I have read the book three times since it was released. I keep going back to this story because it makes me feel understood. And given the present state of things, it is a comfort to be understood, and to know there is an opportunity for others to understand what they may never experience.” — Beth K., Fort Rucker, AL (Army wife)

“My husband is currently in Iraq and … everything in the book was so incredibly accurate. From coming home after he left and not wanting to touch any of his things, to feeling guilty about any moment of happiness. Wondering every few minutes I didn’t think of him, if that was the moment he died. It’s so morbid, but it’s nice to realize I’m not crazy and everyone feels that way.” — (Anon. – this was a private message sent via MySpace mail)

“As the spouse of a soldier who spent a year in Iraq, I must say that Tsetsi caught the feelings perfectly and I’m amazed that you can translate feelings of that magnitude into words.” — Christina Evans, MT

Soldiers, too, have had strong reactions. One Iraq veteran said he had no idea what his wife was trying to explain to him about waiting for him until he read Homefront. Another, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote, “Homefront’s story, and message, is one that a great percentage of the American Population (at the very least), SHOULD read and try their hardest to understand.”

Q: Like R.J. Keller, you’re part of the collective Backword Books. What is that group about and what are its aims?

The group is made up of a number of indie writers/publishers. (I say ‘a number’ because it’s not static.) The books we’ve listed at Backword haven’t been picked up by traditional publishers, but even so, they’ve received exceptional reader reactions, some decent media coverage, and wide critical acclaim. Our aim at Backword Books is to first present the idea that as bad of a reputation as self-published/indie writing has, there IS good indie writing available. We’ve all seen great indie films, heard outstanding independently released albums, and we’ve seen exceptional artwork by painters who work on the street with their canvas and brush. Why should it be any different with writers?

Backword Books’ other goal is to work together as a united group to market and publicize our work. Without publishers, this is no small task. Publishers mean marketing money, distribution, and automatic clout. We have none of that; we’re left to do it on our own. The more quality writers and creative thinkers we have working together, the louder our collective voice.

Q: What have you learned about book marketing as an independent? And, the more pressing question: Would you do it again?

What I’ve learned: try everything — the worst anyone can say is “no.” Be not afraid! And, be prepared to get sick of yourself and, quite possibly, disgusted with yourself. (Unless you’re comfortable throwing your name and your pitch at a lot of people … I’m not.) Also, expect it to be very, very time- and thought-consuming, this marketing.

As to whether I’d do it again, yes. I’m, of course, hoping for a publisher for the book I’m writing now, but if I don’t get one, I don’t see any reason not to self-publish. What a waste of time it would be to write and edit a book only to stuff it in a drawer because a publisher doesn’t want it. With today’s technology, a publisher isn’t necessary to get a book to people. Indie publishing is limiting (it’s not easy getting in bookstores, and a number of influential reviewers won’t look at self-published writing, which means a huge audience isn’t hearing about your book, etc.), and I’d rather have a real publisher, but I also want people to read what I’ve written. Why bother, otherwise?

Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?

One with no people in it.

Q: What’s on your nightstand? What do you read for pleasure?

For pleasure … hmm. That’s tricky, because I have that nasty tendency to lift styles if I read something while, or right before, writing, so I’m careful about what I read and when. While writing, I’ll read the minimalist writers I love because I’ll enjoy the book and try to learn from it at the same time. If I’m nowhere near writing anything, I’ll read something just plain fun, like Nelson DeMille or Richard North Patterson. In high school, I always had a mystery in my bag — King, DeMille, or Koontz, mostly — and I still think they’re a lot of fun.

Q: What are you working on now?

The Year of Dan Palace, which is the story of a man who, after a catalyst, determines he has to get what he wants out of life while he can. What he wants, specifically, is the love and forgiveness of his ex, April. Unfortunately, he goes for what he wants at the often painful (sometimes amusing) expense of those around him.


Kristen J. Tsetsi’s blog:

Homefront listing at Backword Books:

Homefront, listing:

Homefront, as a free download from Scribd:

TV interview with Kristen Tsetsi:

My Twitter feed