Host Ben Hess breaks down the business of writing into three categories - number one - patronage and support, number two - publishing, whether traditional or self, large press or small, and number three - distribution & promotion. Authors and teachers Steve Almond, Greg Glazner, Tanya Chernov provide perspective and insights. Greg Glazner closes the episode with a hilarious, touching reading of a personal essay.
• Steve Almond - http://stevealmondjoy.com
• Greg Glazner - http://www.gregglazner.com
• Gary Ferguson - http://wildwords.net
• Tanya Chernov - http://www.tanyachernov.com
• Pam Houston - http://pamhouston.net
• Season One Partner, Writing By Writers - http://writingxwriters.org
• Episode Sponsor - Talking Book - http://talkingbook.pub
• Produced & Hosted By: Ben Hess - @BenHess
Story Geometry Ep7 - Business of Writing, Volume II
Steve Almond: Well you know for me, I have like forty different 1099s at the end of the year. ... I just try to hustle. it's a freelance hustle and that's not for everybody….
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, THE podcast about the craft & community of writing with insights from leading published authors of our day, like writer, teacher, and journalist Steve Almond. I’m your host, aspiring novelist and filmmaker, Ben Hess. This is episode 7, our volume two of the oft-dreaded but oh-so-necessary exploration of the Business of Writing.
Through ongoing research and interviews with Steve, Pam Houston, and many others, I’m breaking down this nutty, evolving business into three high level categories:
- number one - patronage / support / the funding of your art
- number two - publishing, whether traditional or self, large press or small
- number three - distribution & promotion … and regardless of #2, much of which is left to the author.
Coming up we’re going to explore these three areas from the diverse experiences of poet, writer, teacher and musician Greg Glazner, creative nonfiction writer, teacher, and memoirist Gary Ferguson, publishing trials and tribulations with poet and memoirist Tanya Chernov, and of course, there’s much more from Steve Almond. As if that’s not enough, I’m thrilled to announce a new sponsor, Spoken Word Inc, more about them soon ... so stay with us.
Do the holiday shopping blues have you down? Are you surfing and scrolling in vain to find THE gift for the seasoned or aspiring writer in your life? Look no further - simply visit writing x writers dot org to see a mouth-watering array of 2016 literary workshops, adventures and conferences. This is the online home of my literary partner Writing By Writers, and they’d love to have you join them for their 3rd Annual Generative Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, April 8-10th. Whether a new student or alumni, save $100 off tuition by using code GEOMETRY when you register for the workshop before December 25th!
Steve: Every artist in history has had to find a patron. Unless you're just born into wealth and then your inheritance is your patron.
Ben: Again, Steve Almond. We chatted outside on a gorgeous Fall day in Tomales Bay, California as small planes buzzed overhead and a breeze blew in off the water.
Steve: But you've got to find a way to make the work sustainable and you’re most successful when you uncouple artistic creation from financial expectation or I have been.
Ben: Almond’s books include the short fiction collection My Life in Heavy Metal, the creative nonfiction Candyfreak, and the researched, thoughtful book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. You’re dancing between different genres, different forms: Essay. Memoir. Fiction. Short Fiction. … 39:30 how does that work for you …
Steve: It’s tough. … At this point in my life, like, I've got three kids. My wife's a writer but she's a serious literary writer who I want to have time to pursue that without the pressure of having to make money. If she wants to make money and have a job outside the house then she can, but we've got three little kids. We're trying to really be present in their lives. I'm always also working on or either have just failed at writing a novel or just I'm preparing to fail at a novel. That's my white whale. I'm doing that as well and I'm trying to make money and I'm trying to be good husband I'm trying to be a good dad and I'm trying to be a good teacher and you know. It's pretty busy and I'm trying to steal enough time or earn enough time you know doing the money work, and other stuff too, you know, write some good short stories, and kind’ve re-enter that world of fiction, where things are run through that artistic unconscious and your imaginative combine.
Ben: In case you’re not aware but as you can probably hear, Steve’s an audio pro. He co-hosts the wonderful, honest Dear Sugar advice podcast with writer Cheryl Strayed in partnership with WBUR in Boston.
And yes, this provides Steve another one of those 1099s, those freelance income streams. I opened my chat with Steve asking about the origins of his latest book:
Steve: The genesis of Against Football was this. I well … I've been thinking about being a sports fan. And what that means. Why it has such a hold on me, my own masculine identity, what's happening in the culture at large, our attraction to violence and just, sports has gotten so much bigger and bigger and bigger. …. As a human being, a dude in America at this time trying to figure out, how and why, you know our culture is going haywire. Sports is a part of it.
Ben: And you chose to go with a traditional publisher?
Steve: The traditional publisher wrote me and said would you want to write a book about football?I read your piece in the New York Times. And I said yeah. You know, often times that's what happens. I’m a former journalist, still in the journalism and that's partly how I pay the bills, so I'm used to somebody saying,’ I'm interested in this, would you like to do it?’ Now if I had it to do over again, honestly I think maybe I should have under my own steam figured out that this was a book that I wanted to work, on but I'm not very organized in my career.
Ben: As I’m earlier in my literary life, here’s what I wonder … can a freelancer, an artist, a writer have an organized career? Or is planning and organizing the proverbial fool’s errand? Teacher, musician, poet, and novelist Greg Glazner also spoke about the challenges of income and freelance work while pursuing publication of his first novel, Opening the World. This after publishing two books of award winning poetry with WW Norton, From the Iron Chair and Singularity.
Ben: You excerpted parts of Opening the World in different publications in it I guess is couple of years now. Can you give an update on where where you stand with the novel in terms of its kind of publication journey?
Greg Glazner: The novel’s completed. At least until somebody tells me I have to work on it again. You know. Um, a couple of that editors have expressed pretty enthusiastic interest in it. I mean it's been out there for a while and you know with enthusiastic interest and three dollars and fifty cents you can get a cup of coffee. So … it's not under contract. It is on the desk of somebody interested in it and we're going to have to see you know. So just on the objective stuff that's where it stands … currently in limbo.
Ben: Right now you're balancing teaching at UC Davis, you’re a musician, you're writing. Are you … carving out that time. So what has worked for you or or has something worked for you consistently?
Greg: I've had different streams on this you know. For for several years there after my college closed, I didn't have enough work. I've plenty of time to write, I needed time to make money,. And now I have I have a full time work and so I'm back to the question that you just raised where I do carve the time out for writing. I've always done that I've often taught a pretty heavy load and still and still found time to time to write, so the way I do it is simple. There crunch times when I can't write, you know when I just have to do my work. But when it's not a crunch time. I say alright, I write. Tuesday Thursday Friday mornings from eight A.M. to eleven AM. That's my writing time. … But I recommend that strongly that that um if you let the day just be what it is, everything else has a way of taking over.
Ben: Isn’t that always case? I’ve found over the years I use time much more efficiently when traveling - limited time in a given country or city forces productivity! Also, deadlines are crucial to drive toward, to force the creaky cogs of creativity along the track. We’ve heard from both Steve and Greg about issues with pursuing the patronage of their writing, I also asked Greg … And given that we're in twenty fifteen, e-readers, self publishing have you thought about just taking it back and thinking, ah I’m just going to do it myself?
Greg: I have thought about that or or go to a really indie style publisher is another another possibility. Just kind of taking my time with this. I don't see any pressing reason to decide right now, you know? It's at ... it's at a good press right now and I agree with the spirit of your comment that the literary world is going indie in a big way I mean that's where it's going there's there's there's a new press every five minutes that's just started up and some of those small presses are great. I'm not currently thinking about the routes that you mentioned, I'm just going to let this go for a while and just see where it goes.
Ben: I admire Greg’s patience, his long view of the process. I’m far too impatient I fear. And Steve offered added perspective …
Steve: What I caution people to do, is to think about what they want out of a publishing experience. Since you do now have a choice. If you want the imprimatur of a New York publisher, …. [I want] their editing and their having selected me, and I got it. I then you have to - to the extent that your talent and patience allows it - make that happen. Don't self publish and pretend that the world's going to suddenly be aware of you... Just because you can press print on a machine and a book comes out doesn't make you quote unquote, a great writer or an author. It makes you somebody who can use technology to produce something, right? So. So I really caution people on this, to think about what is your intention with this project?
You know, when you publish a book with a publisher it's an arranged marriage between an artist and a corporation. And no matter how benign those corporations are - and they are very benign, they're in the business of publishing books, good on them, they're still a corporation. They still have a commercial motive and the artist has their own agenda and their own motive and in the felicitous circumstances those two collaborate and everybody's happy and it's a good marriage. But my experience was that many of the marriages were, you know, kind of like short lived and not that happy.
Ben: Before we spiral any deeper and darker, a brief pause to say you’re listening to Story Geometry, Episode 7, The Business of Writing, Volume II, I’m your host Ben Hess. Back in Episode 4 you heard from my Spring chat with creative nonfiction writer and memoirist Gary Ferguson. We talked about alternative forms of distribution, and he said:
Gary Ferguson: I do think that people are always going to be hungry for story and those who produce good stories and figure out the system by which to get them into the hands of the people who need them and want them, will, will survive in one form or another; I think audiobooks is another area that’s exploding right now ...
Ben: Now perhaps Gary pierced into Story Geometry’s future because today’s episode is brought to you by our inaugural sponsor ... Spoken Word Inc, the Independent Audiobook Publisher. Spoken Word will produce your audiobook and get it pumping through the largest distribution network available to authors anywhere. Audiobooks like the wildly praised F 250 by New Jersey poet and novelist Bud Smith. With Spoken Word Inc authors call the creative shots and receive the highest share of royalties. That means more control of your work and more money in your pocket. Go to Spoken word inc dot com and turn your story into your audiobook. Coming up, a first person tale from poet and memoirist Tanya Chernov in the traditional publication trenches, more thoughts from Steve Almond, and a delightful reading from Greg Glazner .. all when our program continues.
Tanya Chernov: Hi I’m Tanya Chernov, I’m a writer living in Seattle, Washington. I’ve written two books, the first is a memoir called A Real Emotional Girl, and the second is anthology of poems on illness and loss called The Burden of Light, and I’m working on a novel right now. 22:11 I got my MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop. It’s on Whidbey Island just off the coast of Seattle, a pretty beautiful spot.
Ben: Tanya and I chatted via Skype and for you loyal Story Geometricians, you may remember that she was mentioned in our first look at the Business of Writing, back in Episode 4. Here’s her agent, Gordon Warnock, with Fuse Literary Agency:
Gordon: Well, I sold a few projects early on - a cookbook, a business book and various other things like that.The first one that really stuck out in my mind though, called A Real Emotional Girl by Tanya Chernov and it's one of my favorite projects that I've worked on. When it came to me it needed a bit of work but I could tell the language was just amazing and so I worked with her to edit for about a year.
Ben: So I wanted to get your perspective from the author’s point of view but first of all congratulations. When I first reached out to you, ironically it was your wedding week, like the middle of chaos so …
Tanya: Thank you! It was yes, I started a new job the next week .. so it’s been crazy.
Ben: Over what period of time, from getting introduced to Gordon to the actual sale of the book. What was the duration of time and how was that revision process for you?
Tanya: We revised together for about a year. Then it took two years of pitching before we got an offer. I think we broke the agency record for the most number of rejections. To Gordon’s credit, he kept trying. There aren’t alot of agents out there who would do that. Some of them, you know, maybe after 5 rejections will move along. I think we had something like, close to 60. [Ben: WOW] Yeah, and we kept getting these wonderful, very kind, encouraging rejections which were terribly heartbreaking … Gordon was kind enough to pass along some of these notes saying ‘the book was incredible, you’re incredible … but we’re not going to take it.’
Ben: After all that time, all the revisions, all those rejections when ... tell me about the moment you got the phone call, that Gordon tells you there’s interest and an actual offer?
Tanya: You know this was 2011, the self publishing landscape was quite different than it is now. So for me, as a literary author, as someone who hopes to publish many books in her career, I felt that self-publishing would be sort of a career kiss of death. So I had decided and Gordon and I had talked about it together, that I would go ahead and put this manuscript in a drawer for a while and maybe go on to write some other things and come back to it if I needed to. So we had really at least I had let it go … Then he calls on my 30th birthday and says we have an offer and I was …
Ben: That’s quite a birthday present.
Tanya: It is quite a birthday present! It felt … triumphant and very satisfying and you know I just felt a lot of appreciation to my father for having planted that seed in my brain that you can do this. You can write books. And then another, then a second offer came in and for a short time the book went to auction and there was a little battle over the book and that was quite fun …
Ben: What a perfect result after such an incredible journey … given all this, what advice would you give unpublished writers?
Tanya: I would like to say, for writers out today, maybe 20% of your writing career is the actual writing. Sitting butt in chair, in front of the computer, pen and paper. The other 80% is promotion, curation, and education. Um. I think that’s the reality of this industry ...40:40 This is a long, a hopefully long career and you’ve got to pace yourself and live with what you’re doing so you’ve got to navigate this new world and figure out what works for you and don’t feel pressured to do everything.
Ben: Promotion, curation, and education. [Yes.] Words of wisdom. It’s a little .. it’s interesting to hear the breakdown, the 20 / 80 breakdown … it’s um probably quite accurate but also quite discouraging.
Tanya: It’s hard and that’s why you have to uh really have a conversation with yourself about what you’re in this thing for. Do you write because you want to make money? Well, might wanna try something else .. If you’re writing because you want to get published, OK great, let’s figure out how to do that. If you’re writing because you love to write and you have this undying compulsion to do so, then understand that and come at it from that place. Just having that foundation will really help drive how your career manifests.
Ben: Or as Steve Almond said ….
Steve: You know my dad said to me years ago, you know, “sorry kid time really is money and he's right. So I say to a lot of, you know, younger writers. You do have to face that you want to make it sustainable. And you know you have to do a self inventory of what your needs are and that changes over the years.
Ben: Not only has Steve seemingly conducted his own self-inventory around his intentions with writing and publishing, he’s also pushing the boundaries on distribution and promotion.
Steve: I wanted the experience, since the technology existed, of making a book that was a weird little idiosyncratic book, that would move into the world in a much more personal way. And that rather than it being a commodity that would rent space in a bookstore or on Amazon, it would be an artifact that would commemorate a human gathering like, I read last night ….
Ryan Horner: And definitely, It is my pleasure to introduce: Steve Almond.
Steve: I’m going to read alot from these crazy little drug dealer books of mine, which I’m happy to sell to you. They’re not available on the internet, they’re just through me in cash like a drug dealer. Now I’m gonna read from Letters from People Who Hate Me, which Pam had mentioned is a book full of letters from people who do hate me.
Ben: Just in case you’re offended my naughty language, I suggest skipping ahead a mere 49 seconds … for the rest of you, well,in true Story Geometry spirit .. turn it up! Here’s Steve …
Steve: Steve, you are such a pussie … And that is from Brian Holmes. Brian, a couple of things:
First the word pussy is spelled p u s s y not p u s s i e which I think would lead most people to conclude that I suffer from an excess of puss. I do not … so I read from these little books and people go “that was funny” or “I enjoyed that” or that was meaningful, I like that guy's writing. And then they can walk up and hand me money. And I, the artist, will hand them a book and it just cuts out the middleman and it cuts out … and it forces people in a way to recognize that books matter. And they can move into the world in all sorts of different ways.
Lidia Yuknavitch was saying you know we've got to find new ways of telling stories and it's also true that you know you got to get outside of the standard box of what's acceptable. And if the book is personal and idiosyncratic then it makes sense for it to move into the world in a way that's more personal and idiosyncratic. And that the artist who labors to produce that book deserves some money. Because I got to support myself. I don't like the feeling of hawking them because it's a little humiliating but I like that it's sending the message to people that this is possible. It's possible to put art into the world in this way.
Ben: Before Steve’s reading and having not met him before, I did feel he was hawking his small books, those ‘drug deal books.’ And I felt … not embarrassed exactly but discouraged. With the thought that after several book deals, countless columns and assignments, teaching gigs, and a podcast, this is the path he’s on. And that I’m not even close to that level of output and storytelling. But I love his unabashed honesty of ‘here are some things I wrote that are affordable and only available in person.”
Ben: I want to close our somewhat heavy discussion on the Business of Writing with a walk on the lighter side. Here’s a reading of Greg Glazner’s essay Foul Ball which is included in the new anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. As you’ll hear, it prompted quite a bit of reaction and laughter from the faculty and student at the recent Tomales Bay Writing By Writers conference. This is in large part due to the care Greg took to construct the retelling of a real event ... the structure, the pace, the humor. And also because of his personal, self-effacing delivery. This one seems so well written for the spoken word, I just had to share to share it, with much appreciation to Greg for the permission.
Greg: 16:28 through 30:15 Don’t look at me funny after I read this, OK? You’re gonna see what I mean …
We climbed into Pam’s car on a cloudless May afternoon headed to a Sacramento Rivercats baseball game, and I was thinking about the word ‘community.’ I have no idea why. Pam’s new novel was out and she’s just gotten back to our part-time California home after an Oregon reading so this was our first outing together in a while.
and the haiku came flooding forth:
spring’s full blossom in
older foul ball poet dude
proud swell, belonging
[laughter and applause]
Ben: We’ll have another look at the Business of Writing in the new year but first, coming up in the next episode, Filling Your Toolbox. here’s award-winning author and teacher Pam Houston talking craft outside on a fall evening on Writing By Writer's inaugural Literary Adventure - kayaking in the San Juan Islands.
Pam Houston: A couple things about dialogue in prose in fiction and in literary non-fiction ... Well the first thing to say about it is is … We were just talking about the second person in the way it invites the reader into the story, dialogue does the same thing. And this is why I encourage people who are afraid of it to try and write it.
Ben: Of course, visit Writing by writers dot org to see where their 2016 adventures, workshops, and conferences could take you! Thanks so much for listening to the Business of Writing, Volume II, I’m your host and editor, @BenHess on Twitter and Instagram. Warm thanks to Steve Almond, Greg Glazner, Tanya Chernov, and Gary Ferguson for candidly sharing their insights, challenges, and perspectives. Don’t forget to visit today’s sponsor SpokenWordInc dot com to explore audio book magic. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin and additional tracks are from Greg Glazner’s band, The Responders. Be sure to rate and review Story Geometry in iTunes, send feedback via StoryGeometry.org, and sign up for future Writing By Writers events and conferences at Writing X Writers .org - psst, use that promo code GEOMETRY for the 2016 Boulder Generative workshop before December 25th. Thanks so much for listening.