J. E. Fishman’s Cadaver Blues is a mystery novel about murder, drugs, and economic machinations. Perfectly attuned to our times, Fishman digs into the world of shady mortgages, race relations, and the life of one of the more interesting protagonist’s I’ve recently encountered: a scrappy Vietnamese guy adopted by Jewish parents, Phuoc Goldberg. Over a year ago, coinciding with the launch of The Nervous Breakdown 3.0, we began serializing this novel in weekly installments. After we posted the final chapter last week, I spoke with Joel about his experience with the serialization. As someone who’s been both inside and outside the publishing industry, his perspective is definitely unique, and worth a read.
You were not even finished with Cadaver Blues when we began serializing it on The Nervous Breakdown. What made you decide to serialize the book? Did you consider any other venues besides TNB? Did you feel like it was the right thing to do, or was there any trepidation on your part?
To answer the second part first… I wrote Cadaver Blues specifically for The Nervous Breakdown, in a way. When Brad — through Elizabeth Collins — invited me to write for TNB, he said the site would soon be getting into fiction. It was my intention from the beginning to serialize a mystery on the site, which just seemed like a fun thing to do. I sort of backed into writing essays while I was waiting for the fiction piece of the site to launch. Then TNB decided to go to the gatekeeper model with fiction, so I had to submit it. I was delighted when you all agreed to do it because, no, I didn’t really ever have a Plan B.
As for trepidation, I didn’t feel much of that, honestly. I’d written enough of the book to establish the voice, I thought, and I’d plotted it all out pretty thoroughly. While I knew it might change, I had that outline to fall back upon. So — maybe it was naive — but I didn’t feel that I could go too, too far off the rails. Plus, I had a sharp editor — you. Once I realized there was someone conscientious to keep me from making a fool of myself, that made me feel more secure.
You also changed the chapters to some extent to attain an “appropriate” length for each post. That is, you found stopping places for some chapters, while others you fused together. Is that correct? Did this kind of structural noodling have any impact on the pace of the story, do you think? Did you ever do anything that seemed a detriment to the narrative flow (for lack of a better word)?
It was more the fusing of chapters than splitting them. My original hope had been to post three short chapters per week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday — but that proved unworkable from the perspective of TNB logistics. After I’d posted a few of those original chapters at the pace of once per week, I started to get feedback from readers that the pacing was a problem. Not too slow — too fast. They didn’t mind the hook at the end of most chapters, but they felt that those chapters were ending just as they (the readers) were get back into the novel. It was a function of the time lag between chapters — the effect of a reader picking up the novel once per week and having to reacquaint oneself very quickly. So it made sense to combine chapters and give people a little more room, so to speak, to get back into the story each week.
This may have slowed down the narrative a little bit, because some of the hooks got buried in the middle of chapters, but on the whole I don’t think it affected the pacing nearly so much as the on-line format may have done.
Would that Mon/Wed/Fri update system be optimum, in your opinion? Have you seen this done, or seen any other serialization model that you thought was particularly successful? I’m not trying to slyly bring up my own attempt, here–I actually rather count it, in hindsight, as a failure. Though I’m not sure how I would have improved it, if given the chance.
While I wasn’t aware of your serialization effort when it first occurred to me to do Cadaver Blues this way, I certainly knew about Forecast before my launch. The smart thing about what you did was tap into a community that stretched across more than three dozen websites, which exposed you to different readers and, I presume, created a lot of good will. But I found your serial to be difficult to read on the computer screen, and I got much feedback to the same effect on Cadaver Blues. To put this in context, I am not a Luddite. I do most of my book reading on a Kindle. Part of becoming engrossed in a story is the sense that one is progressing through the story, I think. Paper books do this well, of course, but even an e-book reader tells you where you are in the story and gives you the satisfaction of “turning” the pages. A person doesn’t have that on a web browser scroll, and I think it tries many people’s patience.
The elephant in the room is the attention span of a person surfing the web. There’s a lot of debate around that, but it seems like shorter is usually better, up to a point. Also, not unrelated to that, more frequent is better than infrequent. So I do think that delivering to readers, say, a 1,000-word chapter every couple of days might have been more effective than delivering one 2,000-word chapter per week. I don’t have any data to back up that assertion, however. It’s just from the feedback I heard from friends, combined with my gut instinct.
You’ve been experiencing some frustration with the traditional publishing model, if some recent posts of yours are any indication. How has your experience working online informed your perspective? And how has it affected your goals as an author, if at all?
My experience working online has reminded me of a universal truth, which is how hard it is and has always been as a writer or artist to break into people’s consciousness. In a way, I was too late with Cadaver Blues. Five years ago it may have been a novelty. Today, the web is so crowded that it’s like trying to shout for attention in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. On top of that lies the issue of how to monetize one’s work. With so many writers willing to give away their work product, writing on the Internet has become a race to the bottom. But with the web it’s like what they say about democracy: the worst system invented, except when you consider all the others. In other words, this medium presents as many opportunities as challenges.
As an editor, agent, and author, I always had mixed feelings walking into a Barnes & Noble superstore. On one hand, as a reader, there was always the thrill of potential discovery. On the other hand, as a business proposition, it terrified me to wonder how, among all the “noise,” people would ever find the handful of projects in which I had a financial interest. The web is a lot like that, and it’s a version of Gresham’s Law. Free content drives out paid.
Somehow, against that backdrop, an author has to figure out a way to be heard and, if at all possible, how to make a living. But if you’re a writer, the goals don’t change: to write, to be read, to be loved. And, yes, if we’re lucky, to be paid. It’s all a struggle, online or off. In some ways, the writing is the easiest part. What frustrates me is how slow the business people in this equation have been to adapt. Publishers are running as scared as anyone.
Do you feel like you were heard with Cadaver Blues? If so, in what way did that come? If not, why not? And why do you think business people–oftentimes so quick to sniff out opportunities and run with them–have been so slow on the uptake?
I don’t suppose I was “heard” with Cadaver Blues as much as I’d like to have been, but I certainly reached more people than I might have in any number of other venues. And some of it is hard to measure. I come across people on a regular basis who surprise me by revealing a familiarity with the work when I didn’t even know they were reading.
As for business people…first of all, it’s worth noting that the current media environment is challenging, to say the least. Things are changing rapidly, and when the wind comes up even the most adventurous reach up instinctively to hold onto their hats. I met recently with an agent who’s an old friend from the publishing side during my Doubleday years. Like most agents, she’s running like hell just to stay in place. As we parted she said, “It’s like the Chinese curse. We’re living in interesting times.”
Furthermore, literary types — and book business people, in particular — have two things working against them when it comes to adapting to these interesting times. For one thing, let’s face it: the sharpest, most innovative business minds beat paths to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, not generally to old-line media. For another thing, it’s not that people attracted to the book business are unintelligent, but they do tend to be inherently conservative. They’re not risk takers. They’re people, for the most part, who when the going gets tough prefer to lose themselves in a good story. There’s nothing wrong with them as human beings, but it’s a tough personality trait to carry into a world where business models are under severe strain and even disruption.
So what about you personally. Do you think you’re well-suited for the transition? Or are you biding your time while waiting for the big, traditional book deal, or both? Did you enjoy or were you indifferent to the immediacy of online serialization? You’ve landed an agent since beginning the Cadaver Blues serialization. Was he/she interested in what you were doing? Was he/she wary of giving your book away for free like this? And finally, now that it’s up, are you going to leave it up indefinitely, or do you want to take it down at some point?
No, I had the agent before Cadaver Blues and I still have him, though I don’t currently have a traditional book deal. I’m not averse to one, but I told my agent that I may look back on our failure to sell my last two novels as the proverbial blessing in disguise, since the industry is going through a rough patch, possibly the early stages of a reinvention. Whether I’m suited to that transition depends greatly on exactly what that transition looks like. Like most people of my generation, I’m not as adept at the social networking as younger people are, for example. On the other hand, I’m learning. And I have a nagging belief that, in this new age, authors will have to be more entrepreneurial than they were in the recent past. I’ve been an entrepreneur. Much as I’d like just to sit in a corner and write, if I have to be an entrepreneur again to support my own work, I think I’m capable of doing that.
Biding my time meanwhile? No. One thing I’m not real good at is biding my time. For another of my novels — Primacy — I’m exploring a distribution deal that’s more of a bootstrap model. It won’t pay me an advance, but it will get the book into stores with a much bigger potential payout on the back end than I’d have with a traditional publishing arrangement. There’s plenty of risk with that model, too, of course, but I’m not into writing for the desk drawer.
As for my agent, he was supportive of the Cadaver Blues serialization as a way to build an audience, but he wouldn’t read it on the site. I had to send him the manuscript electronically, which is how all the book pros read everything, on their e-readers. As an aside, it’s funny, when you think about it, that just about every agent and editor in New York is reading submissions on the Kindle while trying to defend the logic of paper books. Anyway, my agent, Paul Bresnick, is sort of old school but flexible. Neither of us worried much about the serialization’s free nature. The fact that it was difficult to read at length on the web scroll was an advantage, in a way, because it would make a book — paper or electronic — a value add, worth paying for because it would be easier to consume.
With regard to the immediacy of serialization, sure, I enjoyed seeing the chapters go up every week. I was surprised not to get more comment feedback. I took it personally at first, but now I see that most fiction on the site doesn’t get much feedback. Whether this tells us something about the experience of fiction, the kind of person who’s reading the fiction versus the non-fiction, or the demographic of TNB readers in general, I don’t know.
To answer your last question, I don’t have any plans to pull Cadaver Blues off the site at this point. The longer it’s up there, as far as I’m concerned, the greater the chance of discovery.