I guess it's easy to see why I'm not giving James Patterson a run for his (boatloads of) money.
I'm trying to change that, though. Not in a "Jimmy P. better watch his back!" kind of way. More like "I want to keep making stuff up for people and then sell it to enough of them directly to justify avoiding the headaches of traditional publishing." Which isn't exactly pithy, but it is a business plan several writers I respect are making a go of these days.
One of the things that's always given me the creative heebie-jeebies is the idea of "writing for the market": looking at what's hot and churning out a sexy variation that'll get agents and editors and suits enthused. Ick. (There's my non-trepreneurial spirit shining through again.) So I've been particularly inspired by people who've used the new tools technology has given us — easily formatted and released ebooks, print-on-demand paperbacks, web marketing, etc. — to pursue their own idiosyncratic literary visions. They're entrepreneurs who keep their love of genre entrepre-pure! (Oof. Sorry. I thought "non-trepreneur" worked pretty well, and that encouraged me to take it too far.)
Case in point: writer David Cranmer, the editorial one-man-band behind publishing house BEAT to a PULP. David puts out hard-hitting crime fiction, offbeat SF and fantasy and action-packed Westerns (such as Blood Moon, the latest from friend-of-the-blog Eric Beetner). I wanted to know why David decided to become an indie entrepreneur and how that's worked out for him so far. So, you know...I asked him. And he answered me. Et voila — a Q&A!
Me: I'm curious about how someone becomes an indie publishing mogul. Is it as simple as "I was a writer and I didn't see enough outlets for the kind of stuff I like, so I created one"? Or is it more like "My friends and I have so many fun, wild ideas someone had to start publishing them...so I became that someone"? I guess this is sort of a chicken-or-egg origin question: Which came first, the writer or the publisher?
David: I was a mogul at birth — stamped with independent publisher across my forehead and the rest was easy-peasy natural, Steve.
Closer to the truth, around late 2007 I began submitting my short stories to online independent magazines and was accepted by a few and rejected by others. I should have been vetoed by all because those first scratches were atrocious. Over the next year several of these magazines where I had placed pieces suddenly closed shop and I said to my wife, Denise (a.k.a. Little d), that if I did it — online publishing — I'd be in it for the long haul. That coupled with the fact of the places I was aware, they catered to crime fiction almost exclusively but I wanted to branch out and do Westerns, science fiction and what I like to call WTF fiction. My charmer said she could build the site if I wanted to go in that direction, and so we did. Frustrated writer came first with the BEAT to a PULP publisher trailing shortly behind, and we've been in business for eight years.
Me: How has the branching out gone? The Westerns, SF and WTF? Has it been a challenge finding and marketing to those audiences?
David: Westerns, WTF and our crime novels have been much easier to market than the sci-fi. I was already part of the crime and mystery community and word of mouth — which is essential — came in generous heaps from my peers and a few generous legends wheeling higher up in the sky. You can have ads on all the social networking sites and have your books in the bricks and mortars but unless there's a vibe reverberating throughout the community it's going to be an uphill battle. An example (and he's probably already forgotten this because he does many kind things for everyone) from a few years back, Lawrence Block on Twitter said he was off to read some Cash Laramie (one of our Western series), and the very next day saw an immediate surge in those sales. The science fiction has been a tougher nut to crack. IMHO BEAT to a PULP has published some incredibly imaginative books in that genre, yet the needle barely registers. I chalk it up to being the stranger in a strange land (he says, trying to fit in). I just continue to do what I can, learning from each experience: slow down and take time to publish quality, send out to contacts who'll strike a spark, and then run naked through the virtual streets screaming praise.
Me: That's a bummer about the science fiction, especially since, from what I've read, it seems like the SF community has really embraced indie writers and publishers. I get the feeling that there's a healthy, though largely under the radar, audience for indie-produced Westerns, too. Do you know who's buying your Western series, such as the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles books and "The Lawyer"? Is it people from the crime fiction community giving Westerns a shot because of the BEAT to a PULP connection, or is it traditional Western fans who are perhaps branching out to indies because New York publishers have been moving away from the genre?
David: Crime and mystery readers embraced the Western books, in particular the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series. Those cats love noir, and our early forays into the Old West landscape dipped heavily into that well, and having respected crime writers like Heath Lowrance and Eric Beetner scribble for us only added to that success. Traditional Western readers came on board when they saw Wayne D. Dundee and Nik Morton also writing for the brand, both being well regarded within the Western, and crime, genres.
Me: When I first started writing my "Holmes on the Range" series, I didn't embrace the idea that they're mystery-Westerns. I was like, "They're historical mysteries that just happen to be set in the Old West." Which seems really silly in hindsight. But there seemed to be such a stigma against Westerns I was reluctant to fly the flag. A lot of readers — particularly women — told me "I hate Westerns but I love your books." I think maybe it's a generational thing. Baby boomers grew up in a time when there were tons of Western movies and TV shows and books, many of them fairly formulaic. So I can understand burning out on them. And for Gen Xers and Millennials, Westerns have always been passe. Grandpa stuff. Have you run up against those attitudes? Or are the noir readers you've cultivated actually pretty open to Westerns as long as they feel it has the right edge?
David: Noir readers have been very enthusiastic about our Westerns because in part they appreciate that admixture of Sergio Leone cool edge factor with the social justice narrative. Films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West are just as popular with traditional Western and crime aficionados, and, also, current Millennials. One of the reasons, I'm assuming, films like The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk get green lighted is because they're not the classic (and, to me, stale) standard "Cowboys vs. Indians" or some range war conflict that's been done to death. But, admittedly, like you, I also was unsure if my Cash Laramie, a.k.a. the outlaw marshal, would be successful and hedged my bets with the noir crowd — that opened the door.
Me: It's great that we live in a time when there's a door to be opened — the opportunity for anyone to start telling whatever stories they want and maybe, just maybe, find an audience. What advice would you have for writers or would-be publishers who set out to do that?
David: For writers, I'd say take your time before submitting your work. Write, polish, rewrite, and then send it to someone who will serve up a healthy dose of constructive criticism. Rework your piece, forget about it for three months, and then take another look with fresh eyes. Too many new writers make the mistake (I certainly did) of thinking they have something the world has been longing for, and it may even get published, but editors worth their chops will realize when it's only half-baked.
And for publishers, diversify wherever possible, or keep your day job. It's time-consuming and can be a financial drain. I launched BEAT to a PULP in 2008 and still have freelance/contractor jobs on the side to keep money coming in...one minute the books may be floating you and the next they're not. Stick to your dreams but be smart about it.
Me: That seems like a good note to end on! So I'll just hit you with one final bonus-round question. If you could pick just one book to represent your sensibility, what would it be? It could be one you've published or one you read that has influenced you over the years. Any genre. What's the holy grail for you? The "That's what I'm talkin' about!"?
David: Tough question. I have so many I could point to...books by Thomas Paine, Marcus du Sautoy, Larry McMurtry, Agatha Christie, etc. Ten years ago, I would have told you The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. Today? Hmm. Let’s go with Herzog by Saul Bellow because I return so often to the title character in his futile existence, yet he spins beautiful prose in these convoluted letters that he’ll never send, balanced with a hectic personal life, and that last line that ties it all together: "At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word."