Monday, July 11, 2011

Who Will Save the Publishers?

As a child, I often used to dream (literally) about lost, forgotten, hidden rooms somewhere in our house. Usually, I would be exploring in the attic or basement and find a connected room that had been blocked off. The room was filled with toys that I loved but had lost, or toys I had never seen before. The dream always left me with a feeling like wonder, of hidden potential in the world. When I got older I still had the same dream, but instead of toys the room was filled with amazing books that couldn't be found in any library. I would handle the books and try to read them, but somehow that was never possible. The dreams made me wish for such a room, to find those books and finally read them.

Only a dream, I always thought. But now I'm not sure. I may have found some of those hidden books.

Stories of famous authors and famous books that have been rejected multiple times are a staple on the internet. (Here is an excellent example.) A few from the list:


Stephen King
J.K. Rowling

Jack Kerouac

A Time to Kill, John Grisham (28)
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, (26)

Watership Down, Richard Adams (26)

The lesson commonly drawn from these rejections is "Don't give up! It might be the next query you send out that is the breakthrough!"

I draw a different lesson.

For every beloved Dune or Gone with the Wind or Harry Potter, there is an equally inspired, entertaining, exciting, charming or enthralling book that never got published. For every Rowling or Grisham who had enough hope left to send out one more letter, there is an unknown author who might have entertained or touched or inspired millions of readers--the shadow of a beloved author that might have been. Somewhere, right now, are the yellowed hand-written manuscripts, or the forgotten floppy disks, or long-disintegrated ashes of your favorite novel ever, except you never got to read it.

Eric Felten, writing in the Wall Street Journal, speaks for the publishing industry in "Cherish the Book Publishers—You'll Miss Them When They're Gone." (The article title promised irony that did not materialize--at least not the way I expected.) Worried about the quality of self-published books, he asks, "…what about those of us in the reading public? Shouldn't we be grateful that it's someone else's job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent?" He related the experience of a friend whose job it was to look through the slush pile for a New York publishing house, and "…in two years of sifting she found only one marginally plausible submission she could recommend to her bosses." No doubt there were many poorly-written works in that pile over two years. But one has to wonder how many Stephen Kings or Richard Bachs were in that mix.

There is no doubt that easy self-publishing means that the average quality of books available goes down, and the number of books that any one person never wants to read will go up. But the number of exciting, entertaining, original books will also go up. Way up. The number of books fitting my particular niche of interest and your niche of interest will go up. Finding them may be more of a trick now; it isn't enough to browse through the bookstore to find them. We'll have to invent ways to find those books.

And every time that I find another great story written by an unknown author I feel a little like I did when I was young and I dreamed of finding a hidden room full of unknown books. Except now, if I want, I can finally read them.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

True Indie

Pomplamoose does it all on their own.

Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn make their living as musicians, but they do it their own way. They choose not to sign with a label; instead, they sell their music on youtube (where they got big) and on iTunes. That includes over 100,000 downloads in 2010. How many since then... I'd like to know.

I found them when we were looking for a youtube version of "Mrs. Robinson." As soon as I started listening to their cover, I was mesmerized. Even in a low register her voice is amazing, and Jack's guitar is dead on, but it was her eyes that caught me. (Haters talk about her eyes freaking them out--something about her gaze is too intense for small souls. That's my theory.) I watched the video over and over, wanting it to go on, looking for the meaning in her eyes. Isn't that what great musicians do--make you fall in love with them, a little bit? Then I had to find everything they'd done, and it blew me away.

Individually, as musicians, Nataly tends toward coffee-house pretty (here's her cover of Magnetic Fields' "Book of Love"), with solid guitar work and excellent skills on the bass, and Jack tends toward Radiohead-style rock with true multi-instrumental genius (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, piano, accordion, all kinds of keyboards). But together they do something else entirely. It's arty (some say hipster, but since that's always a negative I can't agree) and original and something like jazz pop or beatlesque lounge or something cooler than either of those descriptions. Plus whimsy.

Nataly sings, mostly--often in layers--and plays bass; Jack does everything else. Their cover of "My Favorite Things," reworked in 5/4 with harmonies never imagined by Rodgers or Hammerstein, is a great example of their originality. Their covers of everything from Lady Gaga's "Telephone" or Beyonce's "Single Ladies" to Mark Owen's "Makin Out" are better than the original in many ways, and often with a hint of parody, but never disrespectful to the original artists or the music. It is deeply affecting to watch "Makin Out," with the two of them face-to-face--Jack on guitar, Nataly on acoustic bass--with Nataly singing:

I'll be the one who keeps you guessing, who swears a lot
I'll be the one that let your colour in the white wash
You'll be the one that knocks the man out I was beating up and you say
Shut up, shut up, every time I say it.

You can't help but see that they are much more to each other than musical partners, and they're sharing more than music with the rest of us.

Their original work, like all original work, defies classification, but it's finding an audience. "Another Day" has 1.8 million views, and captures their sound as well as any song they have; "If You Think You Need Some Lovin" has 2.6 million views; their eccentric but catchy "Centrifuge" has 800,000. (Check out Nataly harmonizing with herself at :43. I don't know anybody else doing anything close to this.) They recorded a video with Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, and another with Allee Willis, who liked how they covered "September" (her song, originally performed by Earth, Wind and Fire).

That's a lot of exposure for a band that doesn't have, and doesn't want, a label. They're making a living doing what they clearly love, and don't owe anybody anything. In their NPR interview, Nataly says "If you can't just do ... the production, the instruments and everything all by yourself, then you do need help. That's something that labels are really good at... But if you're just a band, I don't think we're in an era anymore where you need that sort of major backing."

Good for them. It's a beautiful thing. Liberating.

And true indie.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The ordered chaos I imagine our imaginations to be
Like a lot of people everywhere, I want to create, and share what I've made. The choices, alas, are limited: I'm a terrible artist; I have no idea how to go about making a movie; I'm a mediocre musician; I can't act.

But I can write. Somewhat.

So I keep my drawings to myself, and play music for others in only a limited way, and stay off the stage (as if they'd have me). But I write my books, and edit them, and try to find a way to get them into the hands of people who might like them. I'm encouraged by people who I see--friends and family--making the same effort, and starting to have success. I'm encouraged by the blogs of people I've never met who doing the exact same thing. I'm encouraged when I read some unknown person's ebook and really enjoy it.

But be careful. Nurture your creativity. Protect it.

Inside all of us there is a source of creativity, a point of origination. It is the fount of art and invention. From that point springs all imagination, all inspiration, all beauty, and even joy. It is the home of the faculty Romantic poets called "poesy" for some ungodly reason, and it is the locus of all authentic thought. It is the center of our identity as independent Creators.

It's your fault. I told you.
This faculty, as essential to our creative self as breath is to our physical self, can be destroyed--just as surely as our eyes can be burned out staring at the sun--by reading any helpful advice telling you all you must do to win over a literary agent.

And if you stare too long, it'll suck out your soul.

I'm not kidding.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Artist Creating in the Wilderness

The indie movement in movies, books, music and comics has left a lot of casualties in its wake.

Record labels are losing money; bands are struggling to stay afloat; retailers like Tower Records (where I used to buy all my CDs when I lived in a crappy apartment a block away) are long gone. Thankfully Zia is still hanging in there--part of the indie scene in its own way, and my favorite place to look for CDs--but what does the future look like for record stores?

Publishers are hurting, too, and bookstores across the country are either dead or dying. I love my ebooks, but I also love spending an hour or two looking at stacks of books I'd never heard of before. I don't want brick and mortar bookstores to go away any more than I want paper and glue books to go away.

But I can't regret the change. For music lovers, there are more bands, and more music, available than ever before. It's harder for the bands to make money, which is a shame, but at least they're still making music. Same thing in books--thousands of authors have their books out there that never had a chance before. Many are making no money, or hardly any money--I know all about this--but the sheer number of books available means that there are more books to meet any taste. The quality is uneven, but that was always true. Like many readers, I've found very entertaining novels that would never have been available without epublishing.

The same trend is evident in comics. More people are putting more titles out than any time since the Golden Age of comics, which gives the reader more choices than ever. Print-on-demand publishing at a reasonable price has opened up the market for all kinds of folks.

One group I'm rooting for is over at Phi3 Comics, makers of Spiralmind. They had a table at Phoenix Comicon, where I picked up issue 1, and although it's a rough start, it's easy to see all kinds of potential. I don't love the black and white art, and some of the writing is overblown--but I like this comic for a simple reason.

It's creative as hell.

The story takes place in a modern North American Nineveh (the same name as the Biblical city where the ten northern tribes of Israel were carried off to, before they were called the Lost Tribes). Nineveh is in the grip of evil, fighting werewolves, demon possession and the return of the Nephilim, the descendants of fallen angels and humans. Facing them are Sol Rotblatt, an exorcising rabbi, Spiralmind, the title character, and allies that are hinted at in the "Nineveh News" on the last page. As they explain on their website: "Evolving under the guiding hands of Rabbi Sol Rotblatt and Father Tom O'Brian... Ben Landry [Spiralmind] utilizes his acute mind and manipulates Phi (also known as the Golden Ratio) to duel the Occult and her dominion."

That's a lot of ideas per page. I love that creativity.

Oh, and here's something else I love about Phi3--they're not from New York or California. They're from Texas. And not Houston, or Dallas--their hometown is El Paso. That's indie!

I've ordered the second issue, and look forward to future issues as they're published to see what the authors make out of this world. If their execution comes anywhere close to their ambition, it's gonna be great.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Unforced Confession

I'll admit it.

I love Jane Austen.

There were a lot of authors I read in college that were hard work for me, that I developed no affection for. But I liked Jane Austen right off. Sure, it took me time to learn the cadences of her diction, and sort out the norms of British society, but I liked the characters, and I liked her tone--once I learned to hear it. Jane Austen, as careful readers know, is terribly funny. (Though I'm sure I'm missing a lot.)
My favorite novel back then was Mansfield Park, especially because the heroine was the underdog who deserved better and finally ended up on top. (I've since discovered, re-reading the novel, that Fanny and Edmund are too prudish to remain sympathetic to me, but I still love the movie interpretation with Frances O'Connor as the smarter-than-everyone heroine.) Pride and Prejudice is in danger of over-exposure because of its popularity, but that doesn't make me enjoy it less. I like Emma (though NOT the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version) and especially enjoy Sense and Sensibility, my more recent favorite. I'm only now reading Northanger Abbey, and haven't read Persuasion yet, but I'm sure I'll get there. It's a rule, apparently, when you admit to being a fan of Jane Austen, that you read each novel and see at least two movie versions of each. My failure there may put me only on the fringes of fandom--but I'll accept that.

Recently, I found an author and a series that I should have known about years ago. Stephanie Barron writes an amazing mystery series with Jane Austen as protagonist. The language is dead on, the scholarship meticulous, and the plots are engaging and tight. Jane is allowed to behave in a much more daring way than any of her heroines, but the author doesn't change any of the facts of her life. The sixth novel--Jane and the Ghosts of Netley--is the best so far, though I have a few more to read.

If I'm honest, I'll admit that I enjoy reading Stephanie Barron's mystery series more than I enjoy Jane Austen's own novels. But part of the pleasure is imagining that I am traveling with Jane, meeting her family, learning how she lived. I like her. I like how she thinks. And I want to hang out with her.

copyright Dusk comics
This brings me to a comic I'm very much looking forward to, coming from Dusk Comics in Texas. Written by David Doub, and drawn by Jolene Houser, The Trials and Tribulations of Miss Tilney is the story of a courageous young female journalist in Victorian England. (Hmmm. The heroine in this comic is Henrietta Tilney. The hero in Northanger Abbey is Henry Tilney. Surely no coincidence!) The setting and characters in the preview copy which I got signed by the creators strongly reminds me of the Jane Austen mystery novels, which is what drew my interest in the first place.

Miss Tilney is looking for more challenging stories, and is assigned to  investigate a series of murders. She goes to interview the suspect in jail, the very sort of thing Jane would be doing in Stephanie Barron's novels. The art is attractive, and establishes a sense of place with a palette of browns and grays. And though the story--being a preview only--is incomplete, I found it intriguing, and look forward to its publication.

If the comic lives up to its promise, I may have a new favorite female character, one to rival Elizabeth Bennet, or Elinor Dashwood, or Jane Austen herself.

I hope so!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Awesome Creations

One of the first guys I got to talk to at Comicon was Henry Barajas from Tucson, who writes and letters for Evil Robo Productions, home of Ash-Tray Comics. (Barajas wrote the story for "Dwight Danger: Zombie Hunter" in their upcoming comic shown below.) He surprised me by being friendly and funny when I was half-expecting to get attitude--because, surely, everyone could see that I was a fraud, and didn't know anything about comics…

He showed me the comic preview of "El Loco," his story (inked by Arnie Bermudez) of a migrant worker who gets turned into a hero by the interaction between lightning and pesticides. He uses his power to fight against drug dealers, and tries to stop the boss, a monster known as Chupacabra. Unfortunately, he's picked up by ICE, and interrogated by an eyepatch-wearing old white guy in a suit named Arpaio (surely not Phoenix's Sheriff Joe of the same name). It's tongue-in-cheek super-hero action heavy with Mexican and chicano cultural references. (George Lopez vs. Carlos Mencia--which does Chupacabra favor?)
copyright Evil Robo

As he signed a copy, the author joked that he was setting the cause back years. Of course I disagreed. But I found it easy to agree with something he wrote on his blog: "Phoenix Comicon was a burst of inspiration and the much needed creative jolt.  I think for everyone around me.  Everyone I know that came from the event was just reminded how awesome it is to create."

I felt exactly the same way, and was glad to find it expressed so clearly by a local (well, same state) indie artist that I'm rooting for. It's creators like Henry Barajas and the artists at Evil Robo, and other indie and small-press comic makers, that remind us that original, entertaining and inspiring art is brought into the world by regular people living down the street from us.

Appreciate what other people are doing, and create something on your own.

I like that plan.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Comic Book Summer

I'm not really that much of a comic book guy. Well, I was. Then I wasn't. Maybe I am again.

I read every comic I saw when I was a kid--Richie Rich, Donald Duck, Sgt. Rock, Superman, L'il Hot Stuff, Kid Colt, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four--whatever we owned or could borrow. Once a neighbor kid gave us a bunch of his comics--50? 100?--and that summer still looms large in my memory. It was a magical time, in an almost literal way. My brothers and I read every one of those comic books, then read them all again.

As an adult, I tried a few times to find comics I enjoyed, which led me to Hellboy and a few other graphic novels, but found myself priced out of keeping up on favorite comics. However, the iPad recently (last summer, for me) opened up a new way to read, and I rediscovered the pleasure of comics. They're beautiful on the iPad screen, and still just as portable. Easy to buy, easy to read, easy to carry. I like it, and so do a lot of other people.

Published by Dark Horse Comics, Inc.
This summer, my son and I went to Phoenix Comicon for the first time. Wow. It was not only much bigger than I expected, it had a lot more amazing art and creativity than I expected. Especially impressive were the independent artists and publishers, who I plan to note on these pages from time to time.

In addition, the movies seem to be all about comic book characters. With a couple of hits already, and at least one more to come, it's looking pretty good for the folks who have the imagination to create amazing worlds and fantastic characters.

It feels a lot like that summer, some 40 years ago, when we first looked at that pile of new-to-us comics and felt like something magical had come into our lives...