About three years ago, I began to realize the dual promise of the e-book. I had seen something similar in the ongoing democratization of the filmmaking world. Anyone with an inexpensive camera could become a filmmaker overnight, producing and distributing their work for pennies. People made films with their smartphones and got massive publicity, all for free. For the seasoned, dedicated artist, this meant that the screenplay gathering dust on the shelf had somehow grown closer to being realized. It also meant you would become an even smaller bit of noise in a truly chaotic cloud of new work, an ever-tinier drop in a series of waves crashing on shores that no one might ever witness. The low budget creative and production process lead to bias terms like “amateur” and “untrained” in conflict with words like “real” and “professional”. The greatest downside of this dizzying set of possibilities was this – the “new” filmmakers clung to the old forms, the established devices and constructs, and created nothing but hollow, low-budget mockups of studio films for the most part. The true opportunity to crack the molds of genre and formula had been passed over as quickly as you could upload a Star Wars inspired light saber fight in your driveway to YouTube. The revolution had ripened the chance to give the world a new Fassbender. In truth, it gave us watered down Spielberg and half-baked Lucas.
As I watched the self-publishing boom evolve, I saw the same phenomenon play out. I don’t expect every single writer or filmmaker to be Faulkner or Godard, but the overwhelming volume of writers clinging to over-safe, stale genre formulas disturbed me. The ease of self-publishing also brought no critical process to the work, the same as the YouTube film made in 24 hours. The ease of clicking convert and upload (and maybe auto-spellcheck) has removed the obstacles writers need, and I say without doubt that every writer needs to create a better version of what they set out to create. The obstacles are what makes us, forces us to be better writers. I witnessed countless conversations about how editors and copyeditors are “too expensive”, a nonessential luxury. As a result, an overwhelming number of e-books riddled with typos and errors, with covers created on some sort of template with a stock image became the norm. The possibility for a carefully written and edited self-published book getting attention, a book that was not rushed, a book that did not follow the rules and broke them for good reason – this kind of book would exist in the shadow and the ruckus and the noise.
My reaction to both of these revolutions was to take a step back, and just to work on my second book, and to develop any film I felt held promise. I did not rush. I keep my family first. I am a full time single father, with a seven-year-old daughter that needs all the attention and nurturing and laughter she can get. I run a boutique creative agency and design studio, and projects have been keeping us at full capacity for some time now. I work with an editor when I write. I pay them, and it is worth every penny. I develop treatments for films and test the ideas before I move forward with them. I do not work out of desperation or urgency. For once, I actually get to savor the process.
I keep myself challenged by writing a weekly blog about our bizarre life in Moscow. I follow no format. I avoid every urge to market or monetize a blog that is followed by faithful readers from over 100 countries. I keep it pure, and it provides me with an endless assignment, a struggle that is deeply rewarding.
I am aware of software that will automatically collect your blog posts and create an e-book from it. There is even software that will “write” a book about various topics simply by some auto-searches and some aggregation. I am glad these developments came about, as I am glad that I have an automatic espresso machine that grinds beans and makes a fresh cup when I press a button. I love my espresso maker, but I would rather leave book writing to flesh and blood authors. If I do write a book inspired by my blog, it will have a structure I devise from my own designs, not an algorithm.
I do not worry myself with the end result, and where it will find a public. I just work on making the best I can, putting it down for a few weeks and then picking it up again, sometimes to throw it all away, sometimes to adjust and polish and eventually to leave it alone, to sit with the cold wind blowing through the cracks of the windows and to see the sun on the river below, to know when the book is solid, and something I can not improve. When I wrote my first book, a novel, I kept writing it until I felt my head had hit the ceiling on my abilities. Work until it cannot get any better, I told myself. That took me thirteen years. I do not regret the time it took, but I swore to get to results more efficiently the next time around. I would never tell anyone beside myself that a book should have taken that long to write – but that is how long my first novel took, and I can live with that.
Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick
I witness a lot of writers saying publishers and agents are blind to their magnificent new work, that they just want bestsellers. I hear a lot of unpublished and self-published writers talking about how shallow and callous agents and publishers are. I hear a lot of resentful writers say “I do not need an agent or a publisher if I can do it myself”. These people rarely admit that an editor is a major part of the equation. The first thing I would point out is that there are too many writers trying to write what they think a traditional publisher or “traditional reader” wants, without blood and sweat going into the page, which will of course lead to disappointment. It takes a master of the formula to write a best seller, and chances are we as writers are masters of our own stories, our own imaginations and our own experiences far more than we are of being the next Tolkien or Rowling, the next Wurtzel or Le Carré.
It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.
- Bertolt Brecht
There was a moment about a year ago when I decided to create an independent press. It was my alternate response to the problems with the traditional publisher and agent system. Our offerings will begin their lives as e-books, so the physical cost of getting them out will be minimal. The real energy will be in acquiring great work from courageous writers that are overlooked and ignored. Serious time will be spent editing and revising. I envisioned a press that was highly selective, without genre categories. There is no such thing as pure fiction, as pure nonfiction in our little universe.
Truth lies in words, we said.
Every piece of writing is a confession, a portrait, a voice in the noise. Every author is their own world. They may write a memoir. They may write a novel. They may write a power point presentation that breaks your heart. We do not care what kind of stories they write, only that they are breathtaking, and challenging to readers, but not overtly intellectual.
Islands of unique brilliance was a catch phrase we used.
I did not set out on this alone. A team of editors and industry people offered to help without hesitation. The call for an uncommon anthology went out. The submissions poured in. We went through every single one of them very carefully, and discussed the ones that spoke to us at length. If an author showed promise, but had submitted something we did not see fitting, we asked for other work. The process spread out over months. Some pieces took us a few minutes to decide on. Others took months of editing with the authors. In the end, we made our decisions. Now, the website and mechanism for presenting, selling and promoting everything is underway. It takes months and months to do this right. We could have used a template or two, but that would not do service to the work. There are no shortcuts. Seriously, there are no shortcuts.