The literary great Samuel Johnson once quipped, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but he also ascribed to the pejorative term of “hack writer” for those who set down words as an income. It makes for an impossible bind. After all, he was a stickler for quality literature.
That perspective could generate guilt among some of us who did our best to defend the language in what Johnson would have considered grub work – in my case, daily journalism, with its effort at an anonymous style and universal voice. And yet, for me, at least, there remained an aspiration for something loftier, more lasting, more artistically and intellectually demanding but which, as I’ve found, had no monetary value.
Do I regret the effort? Not when I sit down and reread the published but largely neglected fiction and poetry. Pointedly, it has come at a heavy personal cost in time and foreclosed opportunities, no matter any satisfaction I feel.
CURIOUSLY, I DOUBT that anyone has felt the pain of this dichotomy more than novelist Stephen King, even though I’m certain he’s never heard of me. He has, though, articulated the gap between the writing for wide readership and for critical acclaim better than anyone else. Writing under pseudonyms, he has demonstrated a mastery of the craft, and under his own name, some deep insights into the art of crafting a novel. He deserves great credit for getting a public reading books, against all odds.
MY CURRENT QUANDARY comes in trying to decide which course to take regarding my latest – and likely last – manuscript. I’ve found researching it to be exciting; my findings, provocative and original; and the current voice that’s resulted, lively and entertaining. I get animated just talking about its content, and the listeners catch on. The problem is that it’s still a niche product, as far as marketing goes.
I mean, a history of the Quaker Meeting in Dover, New Hampshire?
Yes, it has the freaky potential to break out, but that’s a gamble.
The book moves novelistically. There are some big villains, a contrarian take on New England itself, a long period of frontier violence, historical surprises, a look at a subculture something like today’s Amish, and political dissent. What a volatile mix!
I’ve approached a couple of regional publishers but heard nothing from one. Not that I’m surprised. They survive by being conservative and cautious. Still, it would relieve me of a lot of effort in production and distribution that I just don’t feel up for. I’m more optimistic, cautiously, about the other. As I posted earlier, I’m ready for a break. Let them keep some of the change.
Plan two would be to issue it as an ebook, like my novels, and via Amazon’s KDP, where it would also be available as a print-on-demand paperback. I’m not sure how to include the maps in those formats, though, and the work wouldn’t be available in bookstores. Much of the sales of the paper edition would be, as they say, from the trunk of my car – after readings and talks, essentially. As for libraries? Marketing of an ebook remains, from my experience, very difficult. People want something physical to examine, even if they buy otherwise.
The third option is through one of several self-publishing programs that distribute to bookstores. (The stores won’t touch the Amazon editions, since they would have to sell at a higher price to cover their added costs.) For reviewers, it’s more respectable than Amazon. You might even pick up some book clubs. The bigger problem is that this route would require me to invest some big bucks. At this time, I have no way of knowing whether the investment would be offset by sales in bookstores, mostly in New England. Or, put another way, I’m feeling way out of my league or field of expertise. Yes, I would have a product I could feel proud of. But could I make the numbers add up? My wife advises me to consider it like joining a country club. Hmm. One involves dropping balls into holes.
A fourth alternative is to shelve it altogether, maybe even taking the money I would have spent and finally traveling off to Europe. Let myself be content with the overview I’m presenting in weekly installments here at the Barn.
One thing I’m not doing here, contrary to Johnson, is being mercenary.
What course would you suggest pursuing?