More artists following muse down independent road

Craig

Casey Page

Billings author Craig Lancaster’s latest novel is “Edward Unspooled.”

When I pitched my new novel, “Edward Unspooled,” to the publishing house with which I’ve been in business for five books, I was struck by a profound difference in our focus. I’d followed passion and emotion—that fire to get up every day and dive into the manuscript, maybe the only thing that makes the enterprise bearable. Here it is, I’d said. I wrote my whole heart into this thing.

My publisher talked about the numbers.

The first book in this series, “600 Hours of Edward,” had been a High Plains Book Award winner and had sold many thousands of copies worldwide, certainly more than I ever imagined. The follow-up, “Edward Adrift,” had sold about half that. (But still: tens of thousands! More than I ever imagined! And I’m an imaginative fellow!) No. 3, I was told, would halve that number again. They had the data. Not just on me, but on every literary series there’s ever been. (Genre series, alas, have more durable audiences. People dig their action-adventure and suspense and crime and romance.) My editor, whom I adore, implored me: When you have another standalone novel, please talk to us. We love you. We love what you do.

My reaction to all of this was split. I admired the discipline of the decision-makers to look at cold, hard figures, see the pattern and take a pass on something that has been, by any measure, a successful series. And it’s great to be loved. But admiration of the publisher’s math acumen went only so far.
In the end, these two thoughts shoved to the front of my deliberation:

1. The rejection wasn’t rooted in editorial matters. I have plenty of stuff in the archives that will never see the light of day, because it stinks. In this case, though, the craftsmanship—what I consider most important—didn’t even figure into the decision.

2. A lot of readers were being left on the table. Even at half of half of the audience for the first book.

I intend to give those readers this story. They’ve been very, very good to me.

How I went about making that happen is not a particularly new or notable endeavor. I hired the designer who’d built the cover for the first two books and commissioned work on No. 3. I hired an editor to work my story—and me—over. I formulated a marketing plan and brought in allies on that. I reached out to the independent booksellers who’ve been crucial to the success of the series and made sure they have access to “Edward Unspooled” paperbacks at terms that sustain their businesses. They’ve been very, very good to me, too.

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In short, I acted as project manager for my own book and tried to spread the benefit around to folks who are also pursuing their work in an independent way.

And when I got beyond myself, I realized that this idea of going independent with art—creating it and finding audiences for it and making those who stand between creation and reception justify themselves—is happening all around us, here in Billings and in the wider world. I wanted to talk to some of those people, to find out what independence means to them.

I needed to hear Patrick Wilson cut to the heart of it: “I don’t need to ask for permission to make the art I want to make.”

‘All Together Now’

Wilson is the co-founder of Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Co., which takes the audacious position that a theater company doesn’t need a home base to present challenging works. Indeed, Sacrifice Cliff plays have been performed in bank lobbies and backyards as well as on more traditional community stages. Wilson and his husband, Shad Allen Scott, have helped incubate new works by emerging playwrights and have latched on to heavyweight plays as well (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

Wilson

Patrick Wilson

Wilson says Sacrifice Cliff Theatre grew out of two things: a broad-based education he received while working with what was then Venture Theatre (now NOVA) and the ways in which that experience shaped his idea of what theatre could be.

“Shad and I worked the box office, assisted in marketing, directing and producing, we were janitors, running crew, handymen, essentially anything that needed done I or the rest of the staff made sure it got done,” he said. “There was no ego about what job belonged to who. Stuff needed to be done or it wouldn’t get done. It was that simple.

“I worked under an artistic director at Venture who had a very strong aesthetic. In many ways this helped the theatre achieve artistic success because all the shows had a similar look and feel. You knew they were Venture shows. However, as an emerging director it was often challenging to discover my own voice without it coming to odds with the established brand. Coming out from under that shadow has allowed me the opportunity to explore what makes me tick and what gets me excited about performance.”

This past spring, Sacrifice Cliff Theatre reached something of a high-water mark with its production of “All Together Now,” a drama written by Krista Leigh Pasini that fused the traditional theater form with dance and drew capacity crowds to 2905, the Montana Avenue venue that hosted the production.

While Wilson says he’s “not crazy about putting a box on us as we’re still growing,” the experience with “All Together Now” has clarified the way he intends to pursue art.

“People here are hungry for the work we do,” he said.

“I strive, and I know Shad does, too, to create an environment where we hope to empower the artists who collaborate with us to be just as much a part of the creation process, thereby creating an environment where everyone fully brings their best self to the work.”

‘We don’t get to sit back and watch it happen’
Anna

Anna Paige

If Billings has an artistic conscience, it’s probably Anna Paige, proprietor of the Pen & Paige website, a passionate advocate for culture in the city, a gifted poet and writer, a champion of arts in the schools, and an organizer of cultural events, such as the Pulitzer Out Loud poetry series.

She also walks her talk. A little more than a year ago, she left a career in corporate communications to pursue writing full-time.

She sees great promise in the artistic scene in Billings.

“Billings is a scrappy town filled with people who understand that they are the creators of culture,” she said. “We don’t get to sit back and watch it happen. We’ve have to fight for every audience member, every set of eyes on the art we’re creating. Nothing is a given in Billings, which makes the arts and cultural scene so much more authentic.”

These days, Paige tries to maintain a self-pleasing, self-sustaining mix of endeavors as she pursues her writing. She takes work on commission. She tends bar. And she keeps her focus on what’s important to her.

“To leave a stable, well-paying job to write full time, I had to let go of the power money had over me,” she said. “Money is as powerful as we make it. I recognized the power I was giving money, and when I decided it was no longer going to be my main motivation, I started to seek out work because I wanted it, not because I needed it.

“That’s also why I bartend—it’s completely different work and puts money in my pocket. At the brewery, I know exactly what’s expected of me. Writing is anything but predictable. That kind of work affords me the ability to write pieces that I may not be paid for right away, affords me the ability to write because I want to, not because I have to. However money comes to me, I try to ensure that I’m in a place of choice, not in a place of need or want.”

OK, let’s talk about money

No, really, let’s. Because it’s the one thing we all need to survive, and the one thing most artists are loath to discuss because it diverts attention from the work and the reasons most of us pursued it in the first place.

Books don’t get published without money. Shows don’t get off the boards without money. A band doesn’t lay down tracks without money. Independent bookstores, like This House of Books, coming to Billings this fall, don’t open their doors without capital.

When my first book was published seven years ago, I thought I knew a lot about how publishing works. Each year has shown me how ignorant I was, but it’s also crystallized some lessons that I’m carrying forward with this independent release of “Edward Unspooled.”

Here are a couple of them:

Nobody but me is looking out for me: My first book, “600 Hours of Edward,” was originally published in 2009 by a small Montana publisher. I signed a standard industry contract and was happy to do so. Three years later, that publisher (at my behest, to be fair) transferred the publication rights to a bigger publisher that has, in four years, made the book into an international bestseller. Which is truly wonderful.

Lancaster-EdwardUnspooled-CV-FT-final_LrgHowever …

The current publisher pays the original publisher royalties, which the original publisher then divides with me. When this publisher proposed the split, it was 65 percent for the publisher and 35 percent for me. I countered at 50-50. We settled at 60-40.

Think about this. The original publisher has no responsibilities for printing, distribution or marketing—no outlay, no risk, just pure profit—and yet takes 60 cents of every dollar the book brings in. I have seven books in print, and the biggest seller—by far—makes the least amount of money for me. Now, I’ll grant you that it’s my own fault. Seven years ago, I was so eager to be published that I didn’t consider scenarios like this. I’ll further grant you that it can’t just be about the money; that, in the end, I am grateful for the experience I’ve had with this book, because it has truly changed my life. On the other hand, when my electric bill comes due, NorthWestern Energy likes to be paid in dollars and cents. So, whether I want it to be or not, it’s kind of about the money.

When the original publisher suggested the 65-35 split, he justified it by saying, “We need the money.” As you can imagine, I didn’t find that a particularly persuasive argument that he should make nearly twice as much as I did while bearing none of the risk.

He was looking out for him. I have to look out for me. The ethic I have to bring to it is this: How can I do what’s right for me while supporting the culture I want to live in? That’s why I pay designers and editors. That’s why I strike deals with independent bookstores. I want those folks around.

This is my life’s work: A standard publishing contract works like this: The author retains the copyright. The publisher retains the right to publish the work for the life of that copyright. (Yes, there are factors that can cause books to go out of print and the publishing rights to revert, but in general, you sign with a publisher and that’s that. The book, for all intents and purposes, is out of your hands.)

Copyright is the author’s life plus 70 years. Three generations or more. That’s a long time.

I’m never again signing a life-of-copyright contract. Why would I? Twenty years ago, only a visionary could have seen technologies like electronic books and print-on-demand that put the mechanics of publishing within reach of anybody with a desktop computer.

(We can argue about the merits of democratic publishing later; the upshot, thus far, has been many, many, many more books than ever before, and proportionally more crap. Some authors bemoan this “tsunami of crap” and contend that it crowds them out of the marketplace. I think they’re a little hysterical. But, like I said, that’s a whole ’nother can of worms.)

Who knows what’s coming next year, or three years from now, or five years from now? I’d rather sign contracts for a specified period, then have the opportunity to renegotiate terms that better fit the terrain or move on. This, I predict, will be the next big battleground between publishers and writers. Control of copyright didn’t mean much when finding a publisher was the only way a book saw the light of day. It means everything now.

Macro and micro

When my publisher passed on “Edward Unspooled,” despite a sales outlook that would have made pretty decent money for the publisher and me, it did so because big book and music publishers and movie studios like the home run. Blockbusters bring in the big money that keeps the publisher flush and fortifies the smaller gains (or losses) by the many, many, many books and albums and movies that aren’t blockbusters. It probably makes some sense from a business perspective (that’s not my specialty), but I don’t know that it makes particular sense for the people who create the work. Anyone who’s ever created, for pleasure or for a living, knows that the true joy and, usually, the best results lie in following one’s own inspiration.

As it turns out, this macro view of the world—whether in publishing or music or movies or anything else—leaves a lot of room for an independent creator.

Consider the newspaper industry and this site and their connected, yet divergent, relationship.

As newspaper companies deal with dwindling profits from print without an equivalent rise in online advertising, their publications pull back from their core missions. Staffs are cut to the bone. Regional stories of interest go unreported. There’s less time and fewer resources for niches, for slices of life, for the undiscovered, for the whimsical. (An old editor of mine once OK’d a front-page poem. The next day he said, “Well, I’m not sure we’ll do that again. But it didn’t hurt anything.” No newspaper today would be willing to risk even that.)

Enter Ed Kemmick and David Crisp, two veterans of the Billings Gazette who are now at the helm of Last Best News and who are happy to pick up those stories and break new ground, too.

“I started thinking about the possibility of an independent online newspaper in the late winter or early spring of 2013, nine months before actually launching,” Kemmick said. “I can’t remember now exactly what sent me down this trail, but I started reading about ‘hyperlocal news sites’ all over the country and it dawned on me that I could probably make it work in Billings.”

By any measure, he has succeeded, although there are certainly challenges. In the final analysis, what Kemmick and Crisp do isn’t altogether different from what drives Patrick Wilson or Anna Paige or local musician Parker Brown (who funded creation of a forthcoming album through crowdsourcing). Or me.

“The biggest challenge is staying afloat,” Kemmick said. “Now that there are two of us, the challenges are magnified. We have to sell a lot more ads. But the opportunities are endless, especially now that there are two of us. We want to be able to free each other up for longer, investigative pieces and for traveling around Eastern Montana to find and write great stories. Other possibilities include multimedia projects. Neither of us has any background in film or audio, but we’ve got some smart, talented people who’d like to help us get there. And then there are all the great things we haven’t thought of yet that we will be free to do—stuff that wouldn’t fit in a traditional newspaper format. Because we’re more of a newspaper/magazine, we’ve got the freedom to be a little quirkier, a little edgier, a little more personal. Sky’s the limit.”

There’s a similar story playing out down the road in Livingston, where the Montana Quarterly, an award-winning magazine, is flourishing under independent ownership by Scott McMillion, who’s been with the publication since it was created in 2005 by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Forced a few years back by its parent company to cut costs, the Chronicle ditched the magazine. McMillion bought it off the scrap heap and reinvigorated it. (Full disclosure: I’m the Quarterly’s design director.)

“As far as I can tell, Pioneer News Group (the Chronicle’s corporate parent) sees all of its products as a venue for selling advertising,” McMillion said. “I saw it as a venue for storytelling, an outlet for writers and photographers as well as for the people they write about.”

Corporations aren’t inherently good or bad, current political bickering notwithstanding. But they have common, institutionalized behavior: they serve to enrich their shareholders. McMillion, like any business owner, needs the money to keep flowing. He just flows it toward the magazine and its central mission.

“For Pioneer, the Quarterly was something of a red-headed stepchild, a magazine in a family of newspapers, and nobody took it to raise,” he said. “There were problems with circulation, subscription renewal and budgeting.

“I haven’t solved everything, but I’ve improved a lot. The subscriber list is up by 70 percent, new software helps get magazines where they need to go, and I’ve learned that when you’re working with your own money instead of ‘the company’s,’ you tend to watch it pretty closely.”

The ethics of going indie

Kemmick and Crisp draw on their hard-won credibility to create an online news source. McMillion, with a long history in journalism, can establish a publishing company and assemble an editorial team and be legit. Musicians have done this for a long time, setting up studios in the garage and recording their own albums, all with great fanfare and indie cred.

Publishing a book is different, in its perceptions and its prospects. I can’t zero in on a single reason for this; I suspect there are many. There’s the idea that if a publisher doesn’t want a book, the work is no good—an idea that is often correct. There’s a romantic nobility in the slog, in writing and revising and sharpening, in getting slapped down by eighty agents before one finally takes you on, in getting shopped to publisher after publisher and hearing “no” dozens of times before you hear “yes,” in waiting those long months or years between acquisition and publication. There’s a breed of author who reveres the eccentricities and practices of publishing and publishing houses, and views acceptance by them as the gold standard. I get it. I don’t share that view, but I get it.

But let me posit this: What if, instead, the gold standard were actually writing the good book and publishing was merely the means by which it was made available?

Because I suspect that’s how many of us who’ve been through the wringer view it on the other side. We aren’t looking, as Wilson noted, for someone to give us permission. We’re looking for partners in our work and an audience for it, and some of us are willing to form our own alliances with other independent-minded people to get there. If you’re an aspiring author, or even a thriving one, I urge you to read this post by bestselling novelist Dana Stabenow and especially this quote about her decision to part with her publisher: “I wanted to write an historical novel about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west between the years 1322 and 1327. Again, zero interest. ‘We don’t want to have to re-invent the Stabenow brand.’ A direct quote.”

It makes you wonder: Whose career is it, anyway?

It’s about the work. It’s also about the experience.

A musician friend who signed with a big label back in the ’90s and was dropped when his album didn’t perform to expectations responded to the setback by forming his own record company and releasing his own material. I remember well what he told me: “I’ll have a longer, more satisfying career doing it this way.” He knew he was probably saying goodbye to the possibility of platinum records and Grammy appearances. He decided that what he gained was worth more.

That’s where I am. I’ve worked myself into a comfortable spot, where I can take each project as it comes and decide what I’m going to do with it. I can revisit my publisher—there are certainly huge advantages to that relationship—or seek another one. I can congregate a team and do it the way I’ve done with “Edward Unspooled.” The most important thing is that choosing what to write and what to do with it rests with one person: me.

Or, as Anna Paige put it: “Artistic independence for me is being able to create without the result being co-opted.”

Amen.

Q&A with Jon Clinch

Self-publishing in the fiction world has moved beyond the days of early adopters and literary misfits who couldn’t catch on with established presses. Now, many genre writers are self-publishing exclusively, and even some folks who came up through what’s now known as the “legacy” system have dipped a toe into the water by publishing out-of-print novels from their backlist.

Clinch

Jon Clinch

What self-publishing has lacked, thus far, is a steady influx of writers of serious literature. This makes Jon Clinch, the acclaimed author of “Finn” and “Kings of the Earth,” such an interesting study. Those two books were celebrated by the Washington Post as top-10 novels the years of their release. In 2012, Clinch surprised the literary establishment by deciding to self-publish his novel “The Thief of Auschwitz.” He was kind enough to field a few questions from Craig Lancaster about what he’s learned and where this movement might be headed:

Q: Your decision to independently release “The Thief of Auschwitz” caused some ripples in the literary world. What were your takeaways from the experience?

A: There were ripples, all right, but the tsunami never came. The Washington Post, which had called both of my first two novels their years’ best, covered my decision to self-pub as a big literary deal, perhaps the dawn of some new day in publishing, but when the book arrived they didn’t review it. Almost no one did. Newspapers and magazines simply don’t cover books that aren’t from the big houses. I knew that going in—a paper like the Post gets about 150 new books every day from the big houses alone, all angling for review coverage—but I’d hoped that I could be the writer to break down that taboo. In the end, I wasn’t. And because my readers find my books in stores and through reviews instead of by clicking around on Amazon, most of them never even heard about “The Thief of Auschwitz.”

The lesson of that book (and the book that preceded it, a sci-fi novel called What Came After that I’d published the year prior under a pen name, and which sold like hotcakes), is that genre fiction has the edge over literary fiction in the world of self-publishing. Let that be a lesson.

Q: The do-it-yourself ethos that’s become so well-established, and praiseworthy, in music and film has been slower to develop in literary circles. Why is that?

A: Thanks to differences among the three businesses, independent creators in music and film got an earlier start than independent creators in literature. I believe that’s because film and music became “tentpole” businesses—thriving on a few big releases per season, and to heck with the rest—earlier. Authors didn’t have that to worry about when publishers routinely used profits from their big books to fund smaller, more idiosyncratic stuff. Since the big houses are now global entities more responsive to Wall Street than ever, those days are gone.

One more thing: there are lots more writers in the world than there are bands and filmmakers. Now that the machinery is turned on, the signal-to-noise ratio is well-nigh impossible to overcome.

Q: Those of us fortunate enough to follow you on social media get your insights into what’s happening with art and those who make it. What are the challenges/opportunities for independent artists right now?

A: A few years ago, when ebooks first came on the scene, there was a huge burst of interest in self-publishing. It was possible for some of the earliest arrivals to make quite a killing when the medium was new. But the landscape soon grew crowded, and the pricing model went from cheap to dirt-cheap, and a giveaway mentality fostered to sell hardware soon filled up people’s e-readers with an endless supply of free, largely unread, and certainly disposable books.

I’m well acquainted with two of the big winners from those early days. One of them is still out there with blog post after snarky blog post, promotion after desperate promotion, hoping to game the system into producing sales again. The other was courted by the biggest of big publishing houses into a multimillion-dollar deal that ended badly when sales of the new book didn’t take off all by themselves. These days, that poor soul’s editor won’t even return his e-mails.

Finding an audience and gaining a profitable toehold is increasingly difficult no matter what you write. There’s just too much noise, too much product, and too little opportunity to stand out.

Right now, it seems to be that the future of serious literature may be in the hands of a few smart and sophisticated small presses. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.

Craig Lancaster is a Billings novelist. His new novel, “Edward Unspooled,” was released on July 23. His 2015 novel “This Is What I Want” is a finalist in the fiction category of the High Plains Book Awards.

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