Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Learning Curve

The last few weeks have been interesting since I put the book out in early November. As I learned at that time, being your own copy editor isn't a good idea.  (I’ve revised the manuscript five times since publication, finding small grammatical glitches each time I re-read chapters. I probably still don’t have them all, but I took care of roughly two dozen.)  Everything involved with putting out your own book is rough work!

What have I learned?  Let me put it this way: I couldn’t possibly envision Hemingway, Steinbeck or Kerouac on Twitter or Facebook hyping themselves.  Well, I could imagine Hemingway on Twitter, but no one would grasp what he was doing.  In the modern world, you’re supposed to hype yourself, shamelessly, endlessly, chase after popularity, page views, re-tweets, “likes” in double- or triple-digit numbers, “friends” galore, touting these digital triumphs, building your online self-mythology, regardless of depth or sincerity, for the whole world to gaze upon in envy.

I can embrace that to a certain extent – anyone putting a book out must endorse his own cult of personality – but not to the level where I’m going to use social media to sell this book.  I’m convinced that unless you’re well-versed in a given social-media platform, already using it for personal reasons and comfortable with the time commitment and lack of privacy, it’s pretty much a waste of time hyping a creative endeavor you’ve undertaken, be it a book, album, paintings, etc.  People aren’t going to flock to your social-media site from the pure power of your creative work, or your personality.  Like anything else, social-media identities are carefully constructed and nurtured, over time, generally on the premise of feeling a sense of self-actualization.  Some people are great at that, and I surely don’t hold it against them.

People create works of art for the same reason.  I recognize social media as a separate structure from what I’ve done with the book, where I’ve put a lot more time, space, effort and consideration into creating something that will last, as opposed to the constantly-running meter of social media. I want this thing to stand, next week, next year, decades from now. Whether 50 people read it or 50,000.  Sure, putting it out there and selling it is a popularity contest of sorts.  But not why I wrote it.  I wrote it to define a time and place in my life that not many people have done, that part of Pennsylvania, rural America by extension, in the 1970s.  That’s not fully accurate.  I already had about 80% of the book written and simply recognized this.  So, I compiled those pieces, revised a few, ordered them chronologically, and added about six more pieces that added to the whole.

It helps to go back to the first post I wrote here back in 2006.  It surprises me now how much of that post rings true and applies to what I just did in terms of putting out a book.  It’s simply what I do.  Back then, my father’s death two years earlier had blown my mind to the extent that I felt no urge or need to write.  In my mind, I created a half-assed tribute to him in terms of seeing the world with his stark clarity, i.e., seeing right through any sort of creative ambitions.  I hadn’t made it big by then … be practical … why go on?

But I’m not my father.  As much as I’ve adopted from him over the years, especially in terms of temperament and personality, this urge to write is something that existed way outside his frame of reference, Mom’s, too.  I remember the one time I got under his skin as a writer, when a story I had published in the college newspaper, a satirical piece on how I was raised in the Coal Region, was picked up by a local paper, re-published verbatim with a sidebar editorial positing the piece as a non-satirical insult to where I was raised.  It was far from the truth, but the sort of thing a bad editor would exploit.  Dad fielded a few nasty phone calls from outraged friends who didn’t “get it” – which was fine by me, the whole point of satire is for a lot of people not to get it.

Not fine by Dad.  He was pissed at first.  I made it clear to him: I’m your son. These jackasses calling you on the phone, threatening me with physical violence, aren’t well-versed enough to know they’re being played by a small-town newspaper editor.  You don’t need to like what I wrote or even take my side.  But you either need to hang up on these jackasses or tell them to go fuck themselves, because no friend of yours would ever do something like that.  I could understand Dad being angry that idiots were calling the house and assuming he was somehow responsible for this, but if I had a son, and you physically threatened him in my presence?

He got it, fairly fast.  I made it clear to him it was irrelevant to me whether he got it or not: this was happening, and I wasn’t backing down.  He should have known from the way his mother raised him and he raised me: I was not going to be intimidated.  From that point forward, he had no grasp of what I was doing as a writer, which was fine, so long as he respected my choice.  I’ve learned, don’t expect family to treat you like a rock star, or something special.  They know me so much better than that!  It’s reassuring to have people see you for exactly who you are, good and bad.

When you leave the working class, which is exactly what I was doing by going to college and writing, you head into a world that makes very little sense outside that context.  I learned how to work in offices, get used to the corporate mindset and understand the value so many people place on money as a source of self-respect.  In terms of the “writing” world, I’ve only existed on the fringes of that, which suits me fine now.  Seemed like failure at some points, but if you’re reading me now, or have ever read my stuff, and I’ve communicated something worthwhile and memorable to you, there is no failure, whether money has been part of that exchange or not.

In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money.  Boy, he didn’t have a clue!  The white-collar ways of life I’ve encountered would have blown his mind in terms of pressure, arrogance and the bizarre lack of self-worth that I’ve seen drive so many “successful” people.  He was over-joyed that I was making good money in non-working class settings.  And in his practical mind, if writing pays you next to nothing or nothing, you shouldn’t bother with it.

That was my only real rebellion against him.  That incident I noted above was the only time it ever got discussed.  I understood he didn’t place much value in that aspiration of mine.  I wasn’t hurt at all.  I could see in his mind that whatever I did, preferably for more money than he made, in a place that wasn’t clanking machinery, grease and dirt, was fine by him.  Whether it was getting paid for writing or punching an office clock.  Mom?  I don’t think she ever got that part of me either, but god damn, just like the picture on the back of the book (if you buy it!), she was teaching me how to write when I barely knew how to walk.

That piece I wrote back in 2006 was before Facebook and Twitter were ways of life.  Facebook was around a year or two; Twitter was just getting started.  Smart phones didn’t exist; people were painstakingly clicking miniature QWERTY-style keyboards on Blackberries.  All social media did was underline the tenets I put forth in that piece.  Self-promotion may have been more the domain of artists trying to hype their work back then, but social media made it acceptable for everyone, an addiction for many.

I do want to hype and promote my writing. But not like that, not in ways I’m not comfortable with, that I’ve always found questionable, full of empty promises and false values.  Just by poking around the Amazon message boards for publishing, I’ve seen so many people desperate for that level of financial success and acceptance as writers.  I think that even if they’re lucky enough to find these things, they won’t be as fulfilling as the illusion.  When I read all these missives and hard-wrought wisdom (generally from people who have sold 2,000 books at $0.99 per book about dog grooming) aimed at “first-time authors” … I guess they mean people in their 20s who’ve never published anything?  Sure, this is my first book, but far from my first brush with publishing or minor fame, or thousands of pages into a life of writing that, in this case, culminated in a book.  I worked through that mindfuck by 2004 and walked away from any vestige of it for two years.

Some people are going to get what you do.  Some are going to hate what you do.  Most aren’t going to know or care, one way or the other.  The goal seems to be tapping into the “get what you do” group and exploiting it for all it’s worth, whether that means dozens of sales or hundreds of thousands.  I can see now, after jiggering ads on Amazon for enticing keywords to pull potential readers in, trying to reach as many as possible … even when you do reach them by the tens of thousands, 350 will click on the book to actually look at it, maybe read the first few chapters online … maybe 10 will go ahead and buy it. Thus, you keep re-thinking the next set of ads and throwing the net out again.

Social media would be much the same concept, save there’s usually a meter on the site to let everyone know how well or poorly you’re doing.  And that’s where me and social media part.  No one has to know that but me.  There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity.  Tell it to Van Gogh or The Velvet Underground, who would have had about 26 followers a piece on Twitter during the course of their greatness!

Beyond that, I can see that the only reason to put out a book through a publishing company is to have their marketing department work for you, hopefully have you tapped into a good agent, both of whom can arrange promotional tie-ins, appearances, reviews in major media outlets, etc.  And that’s nothing to scoff at.  While these things won’t make or break a book, they could go a long way in terms of influencing thousands of potential readers.

But even then, I can see, that’s not it.  I’ve had friends put out books with publishers, major and minor.  Good books, too, well worth reading.  And even with all the marketing and promotional muscle behind them … no big commercial breakthrough happens.  Successful books, especially today, are like lightning in a bottle.  So many different forces need to converge at roughly the same time to push the visibility level so much higher than before, as there so much more out there now.  You can launch an all-out assault on social media, arrange appearances on talk shows and reviews in major worldwide newspapers, even with a great book … and if the stars don’t align, it won’t happen. The way I’ve done it, if my book under-performs, all I have is a bruised ego. You do the same with a publishing company, you get the heave-ho, generally after being made to feel like a failure by people whose livelihoods depend on selling as many books as possible.

Is that solace? Hardly.  But it helps that I’ve been around long enough to see these varying levels of success and failure occur, even see a few people I know break through and make some kind of living as writers, however tenuous and insecure that job position tends to be.  In the end, you just do what you can, what you were put here to do.  That’s where I began, and it will be where I end.