Saturday, November 13, 2010

Self-publishing and the Mating of African Lions

Thoughts shared with a friend on self-publishing a short story collection.

Thanks for the opportunity to look at your story collection. Couldn’t sleep, got up at 3 a.m., glad to have your stories to read and think about. Skimmed, mused over what you sent, dug in. Overall, it's a strong body of work, fascinating in its fluidity and discipline. I sincerely hope these comments are useful to you as you plan your next steps to publishing. Writing about them alone, in the dark, was cathartic for me.

Note that a recent survey by the online Web site The Rumpus shows 63% of the active readers of the site are women. A 2007 National Public Radio report on who reads fiction concluded that “when it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.

By this measure, "chick-lit" would have to include Hemingway and nearly every other novel, observes Lakshmi Chaudhry in the magazine In These Times. "Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female," she said.

These reports lead me to conclude that women are the primary audience for your stories. War stories, particularly when written from distant observation, rather than first-hand experience lack authority and possibly appeal to the world's largest body of readers.

About your S&M, rough sex stories, I’ll offer this: the descriptive language is similar to the language used to describe the mating habits of African lions. Here’s an example of the stroking, stretching, licking and biting from the Internet:

Mating Ritual
Photo by Robert Bateman. Free Spirit Art
The mating ritual in lions involves a lot of physical rubbing and presenting leading up to the copulation event. Female lionesses engage in a lot of head rubbing towards male lions and then begin their sexual displays. Lionesses will lift their hind leg with their front paw or roll onto their back and bite at their hind legs. Similarly, females will “present” by lowering their forebody and arching their back and hind legs. The females do the presentation, and the males choose the estrous female they want. However, the choice pretty much means whichever presenting estrous female they run into first.

Your Sexual stories made me think about lions, how the female uses her own body signals to decide on copulating, controls ovulation, instinctively guards the gene pool, toys with the males. Eventually, when it feels right, submits. Males are always the victim of this seduction.

Lions are beautiful, dangerous and vulnerable, the heavy-maned males a romantic and genetic necessity. The stories together seem thematically overworked, repetitive. How many times can one watch lions mating on Wild Kingdom, no matter how brutal, intense or beautiful, before surfing to other channels? There's always a cooking show going on somewhere. (ouch! Sorry. It's dark in here. Get me a flashlight to brighten the insights!)

But, in one your stories, you mention Bukowski. In his new biography of the writer, Howard Sounes points out that basically Bukowski was "pandering to his readers' basest expectations" and seeing how far he could push the barriers. “As a 25-year old aspiring writer in 1976 I was impressed by Bukowski's apparent editorial freedom; I saw him as a freedom fighter and free-thinking writer - which in some ways he was, but not in his work for City Lights, where he was earning a fast buck, writing to titillate.” Sounes said Bukowski’s story “The Fiend” turned him away from the writer at that time.

The story, for me, was a revelation. I felt privy to an inside job, inside the story, not watching from the outside, and felt understanding. What I saw in the story was effective technique, naked honesty rendered forcefully. It worked for me as a benchmark for the kind of power that can be achieved through prose.


Courtesy: Huntington Library
Certainly, your sexual stories approach this and are impressive, but I don’t feel firmly inside the beast as I did with the Bukowski piece. Maybe that’s good given how widely “The Fiend” is reviled. A funny aside – the Bukowski papers are at the Huntington Library in San Marino – a staid institution firmly planted in old-money Republican territory. I recall the national headquarters for the John Birch Society was located there in the 1980s. Seems an ironic resting place for Bukowski’s oeuvre.

Overall, your collection is strong and I hope it will find an appreciative audience. I have a post on self-publishing, that might interest you. I’ve been looking into this alternative, as have many writers I know. I have a collection of stories I’m considering self-publishing, but I’m reluctant to go the Amazon route, tossing stories that represent years of work on the dog pile of inane crap and hoping to be discovered by discerning readers.

What seems important in the self-publishing choice is having some kind of plan for promoting and marketing the work, and tying it in with other work to create multiple revenue streams. As far as I can tell, that means setting the right price point and then letting customers know.

What ticks me off is the realization that I’m going to have to set up a creative writing business to sell my work. I was hoping I could just write my guts out, send the stuff to an agent, get published, get the check and do whatever I want – as long as I keep writing. Seems I’m not Cormac McCarthy so will have to get down in the trenches, again.

Worked as a freelance journalist when my kids were small. It was a grovel for piddly assignments that paid a pittance. I hate hawking my wares to idiots and don’t do it very well. (do I hear you muttering under your breath: “Get over it”?) In the meantime, I hope these wee-hour musings are helpful to you in some way. They certainly helped me in the darkness.

Here's a great link: To find out more about the self-publishing landscape, check out the detailed post by CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy. He just published a piece about how to self-publish an e-book, and goes into the pros and cons of Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad.

In his piece, he notes that the whole e-book market is rapidly evolving, and a lot of self-publishing companies are offering e-book deals bundled into their print book publishing packages, which makes them harder to break out and evaluate. He says, “It's all quite complicated, and in an effort to sort through the confusion, I've decided to offer a few basic tips and present what I think are some of the best options out there for creating an e-book quickly and easily.”

If you've got stories and poems lying around in the computer and want to talk about them and what to do next, leave a comment or submit a guest post. Those of us thrashing around in the charred forest that once was publishing need to hear about it. Leave a message, I'll get back to you.