While writing about Jon Clinch for Monday’s piece, there were many tangents I didn’t get the chance to explore as fully as I wanted. But one point really did warrant further discussion: his venture into self-publishing—or micropublishing, to use a more specific label. Clinch’s newest novel, The Thief of Auschwitz, was released on January 15, and it’s clear he’s doing something right. Perhaps a few things. And he very generously took the time to talk with me about them.
Lisa Peet: At what point did you realize that sticking with the traditional publishing model wasn’t going to work for you? What kind of reaction did you get from fellow writers?
Jon Clinch: It was more an accumulation of dread than a brainstorm.
As I drew near to shopping Thief to editors, I grew increasingly terrified that what had happened to my previous book, Kings of the Earth, might happen to this one as well. Kings was set up for success: Oprah’s magazine put it at the top of their summer reading list, and it went on to be named one of the best novels of the year by the Washington Post. But the Oprah nod came six or eight weeks before publication date, and Random House either couldn’t or didn’t capitalize on it. By the time the book hit the shelves, it was already forgotten.
I simply couldn’t bear the possibility that The Thief of Auschwitz might slip into the abyss. At the same time, I was having great luck with a sci-fi novel I’d self-published under a pen name—What Came After, by Sam Winston. Ten thousand copies or so, no sweat. Which got me thinking that maybe I should try kicking open a different door.
A few people in the business—mainly writers I know and trust—knew about the Sam Winston thing already. There’s a great sense among all kinds of writers these days that something’s about to happen, and when I told these few friends that I was going to self-publish What Came After, they were all for it. We actually set up a private Facebook group, made up of people who had been traditionally published, and who were either already self-publishing under a pen name, or self-publishing something to which they’d recovered rights, or else just thinking about self-publishing in the near future. We tell each other everything, with absolute honesty—with the bark on, as they say. It’s the only way we can all get at the truth about what’s happening out there.
LP: How did you settle on the press you used, Unmediated Ink, and what were they like to work with?
JC: Clearly, Lisa, my work here is done—because Unmediated Ink is nothing more (or less) than me. Early in the process of bringing Thief into the world, I was trying to invent a press name to put on the spine—something that would suggest the purity of intent behind the whole operation—and “Unmediated Ink” suggested itself. Next up was that intimate little lowercase “ui” logo, which might of course suggest “you-I.” And then the web site, with the tagline “Writing and reading, period.”
Once an advertising guy, always an advertising guy.
One day it may well become something else other than the simple suggestion that I’m doing everything—the writing, the editing, the design, the marketing—by myself and for myself. I’ve already had the beginnings of conversations with a couple of first-rate writers regarding the expansion of the Unmediated Ink brand. How that might happen and what it might mean is a mystery as of yet, but we live in a world of possibilities.
LP: Sounds like it’s only a matter of time before someone approaches you to consult on their micropublishing project. Would you? Which brings us around to the dreaded slush pile question—would you have the time or inclination to weed through and find out?
JC: The slush pile! Aaarrrggghhh! It seems so terrifying, doesn’t it? And entering into that process would make me into the mediator, which would violate the principle behind the whole deal. I do have a dream, though, that a few other writers will show up with these magnificent and completely home-grown manuscripts, and I’ll help them do the routine grunt work of getting them into the world.
Meanwhile, I need to refocus on my own stuff. I have at least three viable projects sitting on my hard drive right now—one of them, a novel called The Infinite Varieties of Loss, more than three-quarters finished. It’s time I moved on.
LP: Why do you think genre writers are more open to self-publishing in general? Do you think a sea change is afoot wherein more literary fiction writers—or historians, or biographers—are going to try doing it themselves?
JC: I’ve given this a lot of thought. And although it may be an oversimplification I believe it’s fair to say that literary writers are loyal to the system—the imprints where their heroes were published, the process of toiling at Breadloaf or Squaw Valley, the approval of one editor or another—while genre writers are more practical, more “show me the money” (or, to be fair, more “show me the readers”).
This is a hard thing to change. Literary writers are so respectful of the system, so much in need of its approval, and so willing to believe its promise to serve them well, that they can become a little gullible. They’ll sign with a big house that has advance money to toss around but no intent of actually marketing their book, or they’ll sign with a tiny house that has no market muscle at all and offers next to no advance money—just to get in the door.
I think I was ready to make the jump myself because (A) I’d been through the big publishing thing twice and come out the other side a little chastened, and (B) I’d always been independent-minded and self-sufficient. I’ve never liked working for anybody, and I’ve never liked having anybody work for me. More to the point, I’ve never liked letting go of control, and that’s exactly what you do when your book goes to a publishing house. You kiss it goodbye, toss it as gently as possible over the threshold, and hope that one day someone will toss lots of money back in your direction.
There’s no question in my mind that nonfiction will eventually go independent as well. So little actual editing and fact-checking is done by publishers these days—the important work is already done by writers’ assistants and researchers. Remember, when you sign a book contract you assert that everything in the manuscript is one hundred percent copacetic, absolving the publisher of all responsibility for its content. No wonder so many houses do so little.
LP: In the same way we’re seeing freelance marketers and publicists, like Kelley and Hall, whom you hired for Thief, do you think the micropublishing industry will give rise to a subset of peripatetic freelance designers, fact checkers, and editors?
JC: That scenario makes a lot of sense to me. There have long been folks positioning themselves as editors and book doctors and so forth, mainly offering to help writers whip projects into shape for presentation to agents and in-house editors. Why shouldn’t they have more opportunity (and more work) as writers who desire to self-publish realize that they need to present as near-perfect a product as they can manage?
LP: You’re a very vocal supporter of independent bookstores. Has your experience using Createspace—Amazon’s self-publishing and distribution platform—changed your feelings toward Amazon?
JC: You have to remember that I’ve been a small businessman most of my life, and that both my wife and I come from families where that’s been the tradition as well. So I believe in that way of life not just theoretically, but from my heart. Plus, it goes without saying that I’d love bookstores anyhow. So from the beginning of my decision to micropublish Thief, I knew that I’d have to make a print-on-demand paperback version that could be sold in brick and mortar stores.
What’s ironic is that dealing with distribution—not actually creating the book—turned out to be the most difficult part of the process. My advertising experience saw me through the production phase easily. And CreateSpace does a good job on their end. But the fact that they’re a division of Amazon complicates things. Indie bookstores hate Amazon. Some of them—and I communicated with hundreds—simply will not stock a CreateSpace book regardless of who wrote it or how good it is, never mind how likely it is to sell. Others totally misunderstand the model and believe that I’m published by Amazon, not printed by them. A great many simply will not deal with print-on-demand books of any sort, since they come with thinner margins and no return policy.
Most self-publishers don’t bother with this stuff, and just go electronic. Part of me can see why. And yet I soldier on, because I believe in small business. For heaven’s sake, I am a small business.
In the end, of course, plenty of independent stores will be stocking Thief in spite of the obstacles. And for that I am endlessly grateful.
LP: How did you secure the rights to Kings for the paperback version? Is this something other authors could build into their contracts or even just consider in advance?
JC: Reversion is always built into your contract. Traditionally, it was triggered when the publisher stopped printing your book. Now that ebooks live on forever, publishing contracts include language defining a book as “in print” as long as a certain number of ebooks continue to be sold over a certain period of time. It takes forever to play out, and even longer to calculate.
Sometimes, if you want to make something happen, you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the court. So the minute I heard that the hardcover of Kings of the Earth was going out of print (a paperback was never released), I began pursuing contacts in Random’s legal department. They were reasonable and efficient, and I recovered the rights very quickly. I’ve released both a corrected paperback and an improved—that is, more carefully made—ebook.
LP: What were you able to take away from your experience with the traditional publishing format that made your self-published projects work? How would you recommend up-and-coming writers who have never, or may never, work with established publishers, editors, or agents educate themselves?
JC: These days, writers have to do a ton of their own publicity work anyhow. And, perhaps in part because of my advertising background, I always contributed a lot to the materials for my books at Random. I always wrote the jacket copy, the author bio, backgrounders about the books, all of that. So when it came time to do it for myself, I knew what was necessary.
As for how folks can educate themselves, they should definitely keep their ears to the ground on the Internet, follow editors and publicists, and join reputable discussion groups. They should also use their imaginations, an act that ought to come naturally, to dream up ideas that go beyond the old standards.
LP: Do you feel that being a bit older and wiser helped make your projects more successful?
JC: You could say that I’ve been working my whole life for this moment. I spent thirty years in advertising, the last twenty of them as half of a two-person shop where I did everything: creative, production, sales, media, bookkeeping, PR. I did months of touring behind Finn, and a few weeks behind Kings. So I’d definitely put in the miles, whether you look at it from a creative or a business or even a performance perspective.
With age comes experience, of course, but you get something else in the bargain. Call it time pressure, call it looming desperation, but the awareness that you’re playing in the second half of the game changes the fundamentals. Big publishing moves at a glacial pace—at least a year between the acquisition of a book and its publication date, unless you’re Snooki—and that’s a long time for a grownup to wait.
So it was either shop The Thief of Auschwitz in late 2012 and pray for publication sometime in the next two years, or do it myself and have it out in the world almost immediately. That’s a no-brainer. I have a lot of work left in me, and the less time I have to spend waiting, the better. Micropublishing lets me operate on my own schedule. The Infinite Varieties of Loss could be out by sometime this summer, if I can ever quit talking about The Thief of Auschwitz. That’s huge.
LP: And I’m still hoping you’ll resurrect that novel on the Oneida Community, so that’s a very good thing indeed.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Jon Clinch.