A few years ago, back when I published my collection, I used to argue that doing the same thing with a novel didn’t make sense. The market for a novel is different from the market for a short story collection, I argued–and still maintain, as they’re very different forms. I’ve always preferred writing novels, but never realized just how much I preferred it until I practiced more at short stories and screenplays in grad school.
Grad school was good for me, as a writer. I’d spent years querying agents, moving beyond form rejections to requests for partials, but finally recognized a painful truth: I wasn’t yet as good a writer as I could be. So I sucked it up and decided I was going to learn how to be a better writer, and I applied to USC and got in. I took workshops with great teachers who read like a who’s who of contemporary American writing, and I remember how formative my first ever fiction workshop was. I learned a lot about the marketplace, and publishing, and did so on top of experience actually publishing, albeit in a trade versus commercial publication.
Toward the end of my first year, I realized that the market for short fiction sucked. Honestly, not much has changed since then. There are a handful of publications–like Esquire or The Atlantic or Playboy–that reach a lot of readers, but they’re nigh impossible to break into unless your last name is Moody or McEwan or Franco, and then there are the smaller literary journals, mostly affiliated with university-level writing programs. Easier, at times, but filled with often homogeneous writing that all pretty much sounds the same and is often about middle-class ennui or the dissatisfaction of getting drunk at parties. They don’t pay much, and usually in complimentary copies when they do, but writers who get stories published in them get publication credits, which look good on a query letter.
For me, frustrating. I don’t write for publication credits. I write to get to readers. And chances are most of the readers of those small literary journals are either the volunteer university staff who published them or the writers who hope to submit to them.
Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have played the game harder, written more stories with blank characters nobody cares about who live lives in which nothing much happened. Freedom seems to be doing pretty well, after all.
Thing is, I know I’m not that sort of writer. And I liked the stories I had, so I put them together and made them available to readers.
At the time, I hadn’t thought I’d ever do the same with a novel. I thought the market for novels was still viable. At the time, I think it seemed to be.
Which brings to bear that it’s rather amazing just how much has changed in the past few years. Because now, obviously, I disagree with all that. Which isn’t to say I don’t think the market for novels is viable. Or maybe it is.
What I know, here, is I’m scared, but in that way that reinforces I’m doing the right thing. That way I was scared before I got an apartment in Hollywood before I knew I was accepted at USC. That challenging sort of fear.
In preparing Meets Girl for availability, a couple of people have questioned my decision to self-publish (though not all. The response so far has been generally supportive, and I’m grateful for that). Again.
Here’s the thing. Let’s be clear:
There’s no such thing as self-publishing.
“Self-publishing” is a marketing term invented by corporate publishers terrified by the idea that readers are finally going to realize that they sold completely out and threw wide the gates everyone thought they were keeping to let in insta-lebrities and former strippers with the knowledge they could make a quick buck.
(No. That’s not actually true. Just controversial.)
The Internet renders “self-publishing” moot. “Publishing,” as a term, means making content available and distributing it to a potential audience. Content can include any sort of information, really, and the Internet means not just that anyone can do it but that everyone is. Twitter? “Self-publishing” 140 characters at a shot. Facebook? “Self-publishing” updates to groups of friends. LinkedIn? “Self-publishing” to business associates. FourSquare? Geographic “self-publishing.”
This changes the publishing industry. Culture doesn’t actually need them anymore. Do we need encyclopedias when we have Wikipedia and Google-based fact-checking? If you encounter a magazine that doesn’t offer content online, do you think more highly of the print you hold or less highly of the antiquated means by which it is delivering content?
The big question is whether writers need third-party publishers, be they major corporations or independent presses.
The answer is a resounding: in some cases.
In which cases? Well, look at the functions publishers fulfill. They don’t really keep gates or vet quality; Franco, Snooki, and the Sarahs are evidence enough of that. The argument might go that publishing those sorts of books allows corporations to support unknown authors, but that’s like applying trickle-down Reaganomics to publishing. Seems not to work, or in fact even be the case. They do provide services. Editing, designing covers, formatting, but most of those things can be accomplished more cheaply than authors end up paying, anyway.
As I see it, now, publishing with a major third-party entity is about two things: legacy and monetization. I think it will move in those two directions as we go. Because Scribner isn’t actually claiming Franco is a good writer, just that they can sell a lot of his books, and about that, they’re totally right. In fact, about that, the model makes sense: pay Franco a huge advance so they can piggyback on his name to sell books, cut him in for a bit of profit of the back-end. It’s even a little like getting points on top of initial payment as when an actor does a flick. Tom Cruise gets, like, $20 million per movie and then some portion of the net profit.
When looked at in that way, publishers are right. Because, to be personal, I’m not ready for numbers like that. I just finished my MFA, and I’m close to done my MBA. Anyone to whom the name Entrekin sounds remotely familiar is probably thinking of Morgan, president of Grove/Atlantic. I’m also already a huge amount of money in debt because I went and studied fiction and marketing, and honestly, Harper Collins could offer me a six-figure advance and I might well shit my pants. It’s an advance against royalties, after all, and what I’d basically be signing my name to is the belief that Meets Girl could make more than $100,000 in profit for the company.
At this stage of my career–which is nascent–I can’t imagine being beholden to Harper Collins for six figures. I already owe my universities that much. It’s rare for publishing companies to demand the advance back, but good luck being an author querying a second manuscript when the first never managed to recoup costs. How many authors have had to resort to pseudonyms after their first three books didn’t perform well enough for publishers to keep their names on the cover of a fourth?
I never really queried Meets Girl. A few agents saw it, but never first or directly; a few received the first few chapters after they’d requested partials of The Prodigal Hour, which they tended to reject because, they maintained, time-travel is a tough market. The responses to Meets Girl were positive: “You really are a great writer with good ideas. It’s just a really difficult time for fiction right now.”
It may be. I don’t know.
But I guess I’m about to find out.
- Meets Girl, a contest
- Just a Few Short Days Left