State of the Avocation

First order of business: Some Congratulations to Rebecca Schumejda, a tremendous poet you should all be reading, and the winner of the KEEP BOOKS DANGEROUS totebag giveaway. 

Now, if you're truly heartbroken over not winning, just know that you can get a totebag of your very own over at my Society6 page HERE.

You didn't know there was a giveaway going on? There's really only one explanation: you haven't joined my NOTIFY LIST...often the ONLY place to get word of things like this, plus advance warning for any limited print run/special editions of any new projects. If you wanna be one of the cool kids too, you can sign up HERE.

Now, as for the State of the Avocation: 2017 was a rough year here at Hosho McCreesh HQ. I invested a lot of time banging my head against the wall of a traditional publishing route (read as: searching for an agent) in hopes of finding an industry advocate for my first novel, Chinese Gucci. It didn't go well...which, when you've written exactly the book you set out to write, feels shocking. Of course, the book isn't for everyone -- something I have made my peace with. Still I thought it might be for someone...

In the hard, cold, and sober light of dawn (merits of the book aside) I begrudgingly admit it's not an easy sell...which, in my enthusiasm, I neglected to consider. Because traditional publishing is built around sales, around that fetid corpse of multi-quadrant pictures and cross-promotional whatever-the-hells. The business of this art isn't art, it's business...selling selling selling. In fact, André Schffrin wrote this all down following his ouster from Pantheon years ago. The business of publishing is, now more than ever, only concerned with bottom lines, and bean-counting. There aren't too many folks in New York (save THESE FOLKS, and surely a few others) publishing books for art's sake.

I get it. Times are tough. The competition for peoples' attention is ferocious -- with books (and the hours it takes to read them) going toe-to-toe with Network TV Shows, Cable TV shows, Superbowls, Binge Netflix-and-Chilling, Podcasts, movies in the theater, movies at home, or or or or or... Still part of me dies a little when I think of how important books have been for the civilization of mankind (present uncivilized version aside), and the fact that not everyone is invested in their future survival. 

So what am I on and on about here? Just the future of publishing. Not publishing publishing...but publishing for me. 

There are beautiful things out there to discover, made by people who still absolutely care.

Here's some. 
More still.
Here's some more.
And more.
One more.

These are, for me, the things that matter. These are the things I want to be involved in making. So the future of publishing (for me) is a lot more hands-on, a lot more limited in scope, and I truly believe it'll be a lot more rewarding. I will certainly keep publishing with folks like the aforementioned whenever opportunities arise, but I will also look to bring back out some of my out-of-print stuff, and doing so in a manner more befitting the tastes of small press connoisseurs like you all. After all, this is the thing that small presses can do far better than any big press -- and that's limited, artisan, hand-made projects with personal touches on each and every copy.

For me, it's the only thing that makes sense. I don't want to paint, or make collage that is concerned with margins and bottom lines, market appeal or strong genre indicators. I don't want to write books for everyone. I want to write books for all of you. And I want whatever mad vision I had for each book to be free from the compromise and uglier trappings of commerce. I want to make it, then make it available -- and never have to twist anyone's arm over it.

So, anyway, that's this year's State of a Avocation. No I just need to figure out how to do it all!

Toxic Masculinity

With recent films like Goat, and Moonlight, and so much pre-election discussion of the real world dangers of toxic masculinity, I felt sure that now was the right time for my debut novel, Chinese Gucci. It seemed we were finally on the verge of a meaningful cultural examination.

Post-election, though...not so much.

After the election, I stopped submitting queries to agents, and seriously considered shelving the project indefinitely. It seemed that the mindsets the book set out to indict (toxic masculinity, flippant racism, sexism, white privilege) had not only re-emerged but were once again running rampant. America's history is stained by exactly these same mindsets -- a fact that deeply compromises our nation's otherwise glorious aspiration (however imperfect) of democracy and greater equality.

In short, I didn't feel like fighting.

Hell, it didn't feel like it was a fight that, as a species, we were actually interested in winning. Humans, I think, don't actually care about the "pursuit of happiness," or "liberty, and justice for all." No, no...most just want "happiness" and "liberty" and "justice" for themselves...and maybe a few other folks they know.

And that's dogshit.

I foolishly expect better of us. So, like it or not, feel up to it or not, we have to fight. Not eventually...we have to do it now. And however that fight looks for you, embrace it, do it, push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and help your part. Lock arms with those who share your vision, and stand up for the world you foolishly believe might one day exist.

To that end, I sent out another query last night. I'll keep pushing on Chinese Gucci, and everything else -- hoping to offer up something new for you all to read in 2017 and beyond.


P.S. -- For anyone interested, here's something of a sneak-peek at the kind of kid Akira (the character at the center of the novel) is. Or at least who he pretends to be...

Turns Out We're All Unreliable, Unlikable Narrators...

A confession: I am not an objective voice in this.

My novel, Chinese Gucci, has an insufferable little shit at the center of it, and I think books that use this approach allow for a terrifically dissonant reading experience. You gut-laugh and guffaw, you scoff and scorn...spit-take, if things are working really well. You, as the person reading, look at the character and think, "what the hell are they thinking?!" And yet, like a trainwreck, you don’t want to take your eyes off the page for fear of what you’ll miss. That, to me, is a kind of narrative wizardry: part Schadenfreude; part empathy; part judgment – all from a safe remove. It allows writers to plumb the deepest recesses of the human animal, to skewer cultural norms, and as readers, allows us to live other, possibly dangerous realities without suffering the actual consequences. Which means that stories accomplish their most basic goal: connecting disparate people through shared experience.

There are, however, readers out there who conflate their feelings about a book’s characters with the overall worth of a book, take the narrator as a surrogate for the book’s writer. And, as a way to read, and as a measure of a book's objective quality, that's a problem.

There are PLENTY of GOOD ARTICLES written by folks wiser than me addressing UNLIKABLE CHARACTERS including those many female leads of many recent novels-turned-blockbusters. I encourage you to read the articles.

But it does make me worry, a bit, about our culture at large – the blurring of the line between creator and art. Maybe it's because we’re fairly self-involved, Narcissistic even...because there’s the "selfie generation," or the redemptive/destructive power of social media, and everyone's highly curated digital faces – all carefully scrubbed of obvious flaws and insecurities. Maybe we prefer simplicity...prefer taking things only at face value. Maybe it's because we're all unreliable narrators but don't want to admit it. Ah, but do we want to manufacture a world so perfect that we never see any discomfort, any disagreement, and experience only things that reaffirm our current façades and prejudices?

Or is there still value in willingly subjecting ourselves to the snow-blind blizzards of complexity, uncomfortablity, and imperfection for the many unexpected virtues they will teach us?

Anyway, I think so. Maybe it’s because Banned Books Week 2016 is ending, or because ten years ago, they closed CBGB – where THIS was said. Culturally, it’s hard to say if things have improved in the decade since. Anyhow, go read it, re-read it – take it in. Our cultural vibrancy hangs on these very freedoms and ideas.

Embrace complexity.

Defend what offends you as a stop-gap for our own lazy thinking.

Then go make something beautifully weird.

Chinese Gucci and the Case for Reading Intentionally

File Under: Debating

Here's a decent ONE - TWO punch from The Guardian about why it's important to KEEP BOOKS DANGEROUS. Both articles are talking about Young Adult books, but I say it applies equally to literary fiction. I can't say I agree with the first article’s assertion that books shouldn't be “gratuitous or explicit” — as I think there is value in grit. So long as a reader can be shocked, I think they should be. Not simply for shock’s sake but because at worst it jars the mind of a lazy reader, and at best encourages a deeper internal conversation about the book and the nature of what’s shocking, and why. But the bulk of both articles agreed with me.

It's adorable to think that as long as we work tirelessly enough, we can “protect the children” from the unsavory world and its R-rated (or X-rated) ideas — that nothing will come along and undo it all in a blink. Adorable and unrealistic. I fear more the moment something does happen, and the painful realization that we’ve left them wholly unprepared for the complexity. If given the choice, I'll always take the physically and emotionally safe realm of a book, indeed of knowledge, of imagination, and the world of mind — over the actual danger of schoolyards and streets.

These questions are of tremendous interest to me in the middle of rewriting the first novel, Chinese Gucci, and have heartened me about some of my instincts and decisions. I believe very much in a visceral connection (even if it’s repulsion) with a book, believe that good books and good characters “contain multitudes.” The book is a hopefully clever indictment of a certain brand of adolescent hyper-masculinity, and as such, it has some pretty unpalatable stuff in it. Add to it the largely untested ideas about race and success that many young people start off with, and there are plenty of hot-button issues in the book that may well end up scaring off some readers and distracting from the book's larger intent.

And that's a terrifying concern.

It seems, in our race to never offend, never belittle or shame, never visit microaggressions upon another, we've become hyper-aware to the point of near mental inaction. By that I mean we've lost the ability to accurately parse intent from the larger mash-up of content. Someone says something that, on it's face, seems offensive — okay, yes, offensive ideas should offend. Ah, but why did they say it? Did I even hear it correctly? Did they accidentally tank what they meant to say instead? Is there another way to take it? Are we even talking about the same damn thing? This feels like something we are rapidly becoming either unwilling or unable to do any more. It’s much easier to simply fly off the handle, and launch into our own screeds and tirades. That feels perilous. Ideas, words, world views, differences — these can and should be evaluated — not just on their face, but through the lens of intent. If we lose that, why even bother with language?

So what do you think? What’s worse: a dangerous book, or a painfully safe one? An offensive book or an inoffensive one? Should anything ever be off limits for readers? For writers?

The Unsubtle Forces Aligned Against the Small Press

So, it's small press month (there's a small press month, you say?), and with any luck you've seen a slight uptick in small press related cyber-ink over the month of March. This, then, is my humble offering...a little take on what I see as the three main problems facing small presses. Of course, I'm just one crank blathering here...and I'd love to hear what you think about what the small press can do to expand its audience.

File Under: Bully-pulpit

The Unsubtle Forces Aligned Against the Small Press

Every March there's the smallest little bump in interest, the subtlest increase in chatter, and the small press lands on a few more radars than normal courtesy of Small Press Month. And, so we're clear, I'm jazzed about that...even if it is basically a token gesture towards an every-growing-though-still-ignored corner of publishing. Too pessimistic? Maybe. But "Small press month" is as good a time to reflect as any. So where is small press publishing at now?

Hard to say. When it comes to those spots I'm most familiar with, I say the easy answer is: everywhere and no where. Because unless you know the presses to go looking for, the mostly undiscovered writers to seek out, and unless you take the time to find, buy their books, and post ratings and reviews -- then the sad truth is most small press books don't exist. I mean, the books get made, sure, are usually bought by folks who already know about them (& thank the stars they are!), they're hopefully read...then stuck on a shelf. But among book-buying masses in general never comes in contact with the small press in any way.

How can that be?

Well, to me, it seems to be by design. And for a country and a world that very clearly adores the trope of the scrappy underdog, fighting a cold, uncaring system, it seems the world is terribly late to small press publishing's plight (and by "late," I mean "largely unaware of it!").

Many publishers make and sell their books through their own website, announcing titles to their mailing lists, and sinking or swimming based on those initial sales. That's a workable model, easy enough to maintain, but -- of course, severely limited by the number of actual buyers on said list. Of those small presses with slightly wider sales network, many get a tiny corner on Amazon, but only because Amazon owns their print-on-demand company (and is happy to take a wet chunk of the printing dollars as well as from sales, just for allowing small presses the privilege). Those small press books are left to the whims of algorithms that are designed to sell more of what's already selling, and promote only what's already being talked about. So, unless there are daily sales, weekly spikes, lots of social media likes and shares, that small press book you love basically doesn't exist in the larger apparatus of book selling or book buying.

Listen, I'm not so foolish as to assume that the larger press or its readers give a damn about the small press. They might not. But they also might. And there are some pretty damn significant mechanisms in place that keep the deck is systematically stacked against the small press, preventing great small press books from finding some equal footing on which to compete for book dollars.

From the top down, the small press is restricted access to the larger machine of publishing.
In fact, the only place you'll probably hear about a small press book is from the authors and publishers themselves...something that, culturally, has now become akin to the pushy door-to-door vacuum salesman of yesteryear jamming his dirty loafer in your front door. The mechanisms I see, the ones causing the obvious bottlenecks, are:

1) ISBNs
2) Production lead times (and the cash on hand necessary to survive them) and
3) Distribution. And, probably a 100 more problems I don't see.

First, ISBNs. If you've ever looked into them, you know they ain't cheap. And the sale of them has been engineered to keep out small presses (I think). I'm willing to listen to alternate theories that explain why a single ISBN costs $125, 10 cost $295, while 100 can be had for $575. How many small presses do you know have $575 set aside...just for the right to have their book's info and metadata legitimized by the '70s era ISBN book selling apparatus? To keep out the riff-raff, as far as I can tell. Unless you have six bills, or $30 for every format of every title, you aren't a "real" book in the eyes of the bookselling machine that powers almost all retail. And worse, you aren't a "real" book in the eyes of most buyers, bookstores, and even some libraries. You gotta pay to play, apparently.

Secondly, lead times for production. In order to launch (at least traditionally) a book with a distributor, and with proper time for blurbs and to line up press coverage, conventional wisdom says you need at least 18 months. You send out advance reader copies to folks, or to get a book in the queue for reviews at the kind of places people read to find new books. Again, what small press do you know that has the money to put hundreds of dollars into ARCs, and paper, and cover stock, and then sit waiting patiently for a year or more, earning none of that money back, in hopes of someone somewhere actually reading the damn thing and saying something nice about it? Does it have to be that way? Hell, I don't know. Maybe it does. It seems to work for the big guys (and some really smart small ones like Two Dollar Radio). But I can't help but wonder, with business moving at such pace these least when it wants to...if there couldn't be another way. I don't see too many people clamoring to change it, and until they do, nothing will change. Once again, it's not big publishing that feels the squeeze here (it's their system -- they designed it to work like this!). The small presses, that have dumped every free dollar (and then some) into the new box of books fresh off the UPS truck, and need to recoup those costs if they're to put out their next book...those are the ones left out in the cold by a year+ launch schedule.

Lastly, distribution. This is the one that, much to my chagrin, seems like it could be most easily solved by the democratic checks-and-balances of a robust Internet. I feel like someone somewhere could invent a website that connects small presses, maybe on an opt-in basis, to the interested bookstores and libraries nationwide, based on realistic expectations of the limited sales potential of small runs, of and taking just a humble little sliver of the action in return. I have to believe there is someone out there with the technical know-how and the egalitarian, revolutionary spirit to do this. Because there are great presses out their, making books that should be on shelves, waiting for an unsuspecting read to stumble on to. That one cool bookstore near your hometown university, that edgy coffee shop, hip restaurant, local brewery, or even small library -- I have to believe there are enough folks out there with the guts to gamble on small press stuff. It should be easy for them to get their hands on some small press stuff. Easier than it currently is, anyway. That's my $.02.

I'm a small press guy, have been since my first acceptance letter way back in 1999. I get that this matters to me and that others might not be moved. But if you are moved, if you've read this far, then maybe, just maybe, you have an idea, some scheme that could push small press books further.

Think about it.
Try it.
Do it.

See what happens. I can imagine no better way to celebrate Small Press Month than by doing just that. I mean, what do we have to lose?