March 19, 2012
“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.
“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.
“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”
“Yeah, well, then I went on Facebook, and saw my mom’s status update, ‘just bought five copies of Susie’s new book!’” She simultaneously laughed and groaned.
“Oh, buddy, I’m sorry. That blows.” I had to chuckle a little bit, though I hurt for her, too. Susie can sometimes seem like a caricature of herself, in a charming way: a loveably Eeyore-ish punk-rock-poet, she’s a dog walker and trainer with discerning tastes, but a penchant for low-brow culture. A sort of reality-TV-loving Walt Whitman, she’d make a good graphic novel heroine; her slouched 5’10” frame cuts a distinctive silhouette, and it’s easy to imagine thought bubbles rising over her gray-streaked head. Like me, she sighs a lot, thinks too much, cracks a lot of jokes, and is much softer inside than she seems.
“I can’t help feeling discouraged,” she said. “I got a lot of traffic on my blog when I posted the entry about paying off my M.F.A. students loans by walking the dogs, so I released the book early, but I wonder if that was a mistake.”
I moved to the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2007, and promptly called a listing for a local dog walker – someone who could handle my neurotic but loveable pit-bull. When Susie showed up to meet my dog for the first time, we quickly figured out that we were both writers who didn’t drink – a rare combination in our borough. We were both trying to finish manuscripts: me, a memoir about my four-year experience as a professional dominatrix; and her, a book of poems inspired by her experience of walking dogs in the neighborhood. Turned out she lived directly across the street from me, and was just coming out of a serious writing funk filled with a few years of screaming and playing guitar in noise bands instead of writing. I started dragging her to readings on weekends, and we began meeting regularly at various coffee shops to work on our respective books. Weekday mornings, we’d plunk ourselves down on either side of a small, teetering table, put on our headphones, and start typing. Every once in a while, one of us would tap the top of the other’s laptop.
“Will you listen to this sentence?”
“Have you seen this video?”
“Go back to work!”
“Are you hungry?”
In this manner, we both had completed drafts in about a year. Susie was one of the first people to read the original manuscript of what I ultimately called Whip Smart. In the following months, she watched me stumble through the process of getting an agent, seeing the book rejected by scores of editors who praised my prose but couldn’t convince their higher-ups to greenlight a literary memoir about getting paid to pee on people. It was a scorching summer, and for weeks I shuffled around the neighborhood in dark sunglasses and sarongs, sweating and weeping like some kind of old Hollywood widow.
Ultimately, my book got picked up by an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, and was released in March of 2010. I couldn’t afford a bigger apartment, but the book enjoyed critical success, sold a respectable number of copies, and, most excitingly, I got to tell Terri Gross what it felt like to tie someone up. My childhood dream became real, and like most, felt nothing like I had imagined. But I knew I was lucky.
Most poets don’t have agents, agents being people who seek to make money off of writers’ books. But while I was querying agents and crying behind my sunglasses, Susie was submitting her manuscript, called Dogs of Brooklyn, to first book competitions (the most common way to get a debut collection of poetry published), and building a readership for her blog, Dog Poet Laureate. Still, the rejections kept coming.
Now, this isn’t a book review, and my impartiality isn’t required, so I feel comfortable admitting that I find Susie’s poems to be really good. From “a thousand sparrows scream/hatched and hungry” to “I slept, circle of fire surrounding sheets slit-lit carefully..I’ve paid the price for anything that ever moved me. I burnt the house/down for the third time,” they are brimming with Brooklyn streets and the characters of her dog-walking beat, sad and rhythmic, lyrical and funny. The kind of lines that lull you with cadence and then quietly split your heart open. But publishing is an ugly game, and poets, I’m afraid, are on the bottom of the pile. I hear a lot of writers complain about not publishing, but often, these writers aren’t typing as much as they’re complaining. Susie isn’t one of these. She writes her ass off. But no dice.
Eventually, she started investigating the option of self-publishing. We had many conversations about the grunt work it’d entail, the potential stigma associated with “vanity” publications, and why on earth no one had yet offered to print her manuscript. Slowly, she started the process of editing and designing her own book, and about a year later I purchased Dogs of Brooklyn from Amazon. It just arrived.
So, how does it feel to have the book out, finally?
Equal parts excitement and horror. Everyone keeps saying congratulations and it does feel good to have something tangible out there to show for all my work. However, I have this brain that just skips to the next thing I have to worry about, which is promoting and selling the book and all the work that entails. I’m sure you remember that and the anticlimactic moment of “I published my book and it didn’t fix everything!”
Oh, yeah. As much as we intellectually know otherwise, I think a lot of writers privately suspect that everything will be just great as soon as they publish a book. All humans, maybe. “If I just ______, then I can take it easy for a while. Stop feeling so insecure.” We pick some point up ahead and decide that when we get there, we will have arrived. We think this about getting into the MFA program, about getting our first lit mag publication, about getting an agent, getting a book contract. Getting a nice apartment, an iPhone, a boyfriend. It never ends. There’s always more work, more people to compare yourself to, more ways to feel you haven’t quite gotten there yet. I wish I knew how to help people avoid learning the hard way that the writing part (the living part) really is the best part. I wish I could help myself remember it, on bad days. Also, that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Speaking of which, can you talk about your decision to self-publish the book? What were your hesitations? Was there a deciding moment?
I was sick of hearing myself whine about rejection and not feeling like I fit in to the literary community. I realized that I was going about this whole thing wrong. I grew up a punk rock zine-making riot girl championing Kathleen Hanna and crew, so I don’t know why suddenly in my adulthood it seemed like I needed to be accepted by a major publisher? I guess I thought I’d be seen as a more legitimate writer if an established publisher published me. It’s easy to compare and despair in New York. There are so many famous writers and artists who live in your own neighborhood. I realized, though, that when I started writing poetry in middle school and playing in bands in college I wanted to reach the outsider kids in Jacksonville, Florida or Peoria, Illinois – not just the literary scene. Poetry and music helped me survive growing up in a place with very little culture by letting me know there were others out there who were sensitive outsiders and artists. Also I had a good friend, Kate Travers, who has worked in publishing for years and encouraged me to self-publish. In some ways having a few people who believed in what I was doing, particularly in the industry, gave me permission to self-publish.
I know! I was such an anti-establishment kid, and somehow, ironically, being a professional artist can really easily funnel you into needing the approval of somewhat arbitrary authorities. I am so bothered by the overall mentality of scarcity among artists, this anxiety that there’s not enough to go around. I have to remind myself a lot that I write because writing saved my life, because books are the love of my life. Not because I crave the approval of any one person or industry.
So, once you decided to go for it, where did you begin?
Well, at that point it was 2011. I had edited the manuscript to death and sent it out to so many first book contests in the back of Poets & Writers over the years that I couldn’t bear to continue to pay them to reject me. It just seemed insane. I had been researching self-publishing options and Create Space on Amazon seemed the best deal royalty and distribution-wise.
It does seem insane, doesn’t it? We all know early on that being a writer means girding oneself against an infinite onslaught of rejection, but when is a good time to say enough? I think never, though I guess everyone must have a limit. When we were sitting at that coffee shop, how did you imagine the publishing process eventually happening?
I dunno. I thought at some point from doing readings and sending out submissions that someone would understand what I was doing and want to publish it. But the literary world was a little afraid of the whole “book about dogs” thing and the dog world was a little afraid of poetry (even narrative poetry that tells a story in addition to being linguistically fun). I was in this weird crevice. I knew, though, that this book had an audience, particularly when Dog Fancy magazine actually paid us [Susie & photographer Dennis Riley] for a poem and a photo. The editor Susan Chaney actually said in her email to me: “Typically, I don’t get past the first line or two before marking an “x” for the assistant who sends out our reject letters. Couldn’t put yours down.” I also had a lot of clients and dog owners who loved my work. I really started to like the idea of appealing to people who normally hated poetry.
I love that. I mean, isn’t that part of our job, to reach the unconverted? If not ours than whose? I hear a lot of writers despair about how people don’t read anymore, or don’t care about poetry, but sometimes there’s a tinge of preciousness to it. Writers are incessantly talking about how the publishing industry is fucked up and dying, all while trying to work the system at the same time. It’s like a bad parent whose love we still crave. What’s your perspective on this?
I think it’s more important for me to write, not to think about publishing. Obsessing about publishing never does anything good for my brain; it only takes me to some very dark places. Publishing continues to change, yet very few writers actually make a living off publishing their books. Writers usually make money off teaching or some other profession. I think the best thing a writer can do is get a job that affords them time to write. That’s why I’m so grateful for dog walking and training. Dog training particularly is amazing because I get to help dogs and their people have better lives together. Hopefully, if one continues to write, publishing—self or otherwise—will follow.
It seems like, with the decline of corporate publishing, and the rise of bloggers, self-publishing, and one-person presses, that the field is getting more even, and a lot bigger. I see it happening in all the arts. Well-known performers (like Louis CK) are streaming video from their personal websites, and making movies on their flip-cams. It seems both exciting and overwhelming to me. Do you see this as a good thing? Is self-publishing the future?
The Internet and technology have done this really cool thing and made everyone all D.I.Y! Shit, even the actor James Franco, who could probably get any major publisher to take his novel, just sold his book to Amazon publishing. I totally think it’s a good thing and that self-publishing is the future. I think readers should be able to decide what they want to read, not just a few people at publishing houses telling people what they can read. Blogs, self-publishing, etc. makes this possible.
I agree, in that I don’t want my choices strained by people whose concerns aren’t congruent with mine, though I do have to admit that it helps to have someone straining all the dross. It just needs to be someone I trust. I guess that’s what social media is for, and the advantage of having a lot of friends who are committed readers. There’s just so much out there now; a part of me fears that some of the truly excellent work will get lost in the multitudes. I sort of have faith that what needs to find its way to the surface of our cultural consciousness ultimately will, but I also suspect that to some extent, that’s just wishful thinking.
The book looks beautiful, by the way – actually a lot more impressive than many of the books put out by small (and big) presses. Like a lot of authors, I often wished I had more control over the design of my book. How did the design process work for you?
I wanted the book to look as professional as possible so Kate Travers hooked me up with a great freelance book designer named Claudean Wheeler. I hired her and we started going back and forth with design ideas and edits. I had a few friends look over the manuscript and design elements to quadruple-check everything. One of the things I went back and forth on a lot was whether to have photos in the book or not. Dennis Riley had collaborated with me taking copious amounts of photos of the dogs and Brooklyn. I wanted to make sure if we included them that it didn’t drive the cost up and also wanted to make sure that they looked good, like they really belonged in the book. We wound up including only a few, the rest will be posted online on the Dogs of Brooklyn Facebook page and other places while promoting the book.
I think the photos are a really great complement to the poems. That’s a great example of something a major publisher would most likely laugh at a writer suggesting. I was allowed a lot of input in the cover design for Whip Smart, and I think that that was more the exception than the rule. A major pro of having a traditional publisher, for me, was getting a kick-ass editor who helped me make the book better. For some people, however, it’s a disaster. Do you feel like you got to choose your own editors, in peers? Do you wish you had a single editor?
I liked having an array of friends and family members, writers and non-writers look over everything and give feedback. My mentor, the poet Barbara Hamby, helped a lot with the layout of the book and gave it one of its first major edits. Towards the end of the process, Nathan Strobel, a brilliant young writer who works for me at my dog walking company, helped a lot with editing. He laboriously went over every page. I cannot emphasize enough how important having a few people around you who support and encourage your work is.
Agreed. I’ve had a lot of students who are fixated on getting an agent, and while an agent (sometimes) can be instrumental in getting your work ready for editors, as an editor can be in readying the manuscript for publication, your work will rarely reach the hands of those people unless it’s first been scoured by lots of other studied eyes. The most important thing any writer can cultivate, aside from diligent writing habits and a thick skin, is a stable of peers with whom to trade work. I trust these people implicitly. And I trusted my editor, too, though it occurred to me early on in the process that it’d have been catastrophic otherwise. Being able to choose your own editors is definitely lower risk, because you also know what aesthetic taste you are choosing.
So, what are the main pros and cons of the experience so far?
The huge advantage of self-publishing is complete control of the process, but with that comes a lot of responsibility. I had to pay for the design and initial copies of the book and postage to send to various reviewers etc. Thankfully, the book is print-on-demand so I don’t have tons of boxes of books in my apartment. The major disadvantage is that I don’t have a publicist or publishing house pushing the book for me. Distribution in bookstores may or may not be an issue. In addition to Amazon.com, Create Space has an extended distribution channel which distributes through Ingram and Baker and Taylor after the title has been out for a few months. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
It definitely sound like more out-of-pocket expenses, and less resources for publicity, although I know of so many writers whose major-publisher publicists couldn’t even remember their name. I had a pretty great publicist, but I also totally dogged him, and worked my own ass off to get the book out there. A lot of people hire private publicists in addition to their assigned publicists. I think that in most cases, the writer is going to have to bust ass to get any attention, publicist or no publicist. This might be one of the disadvantages to having such a crowded market. We are selling ourselves so much more these days than was required in the past. I’m not sure Hemingway’s agent was talking to the guy about making himself a brand.
Overall, what’s the best advice you would give someone considering self-publishing?
There is no deadline, so just make the book as well written, designed, and edited as possible before you put it out there.
Good advice all around; everyone is always in such a damn hurry to get their shit out there (myself included). What are you working on now?
I’m working on a Young Adult book about a punk rock alcoholic teenager who gets sober and has to deal with all of the changes that come along with that, good and bad. I felt like there were a lot of books out there glorifying teenagers drinking and drugging, but not really delving into the experience of being a sober teenager and how awkward, yet awesome that can be. So that and walking and training dogs—business as usual.