Monday, June 1, 2009

Kevin Smokler: Everything You Wanted to Know About Publishing, But Were Afraid to Ask

The following is a reprint from our website about our April general meeting.

Guest reader Carylon L. Alexander shared a piece of writing about the underground railway and anti-slavery. The segment revolved around a female social activist, Ms. Frances Harper [1].

Following Alexander’s compelling excerpt, Kevin Smokler took the stage and talked about the state of the publishing industry and then shared some ideas on how to go about getting published in the changing world of book publishing. Part of his talk was based on his book, Bookmark Now [2].

Smokler began his talk by warning us that he would not dwell on the blues of the publishing industry. The focus would be on “what is” and not on “what used to be.” He insisted authors wanting to be published should focus on what we can do going forward. Smokler told us to challenge ourselves by reflecting, “What does it mean to succeed in the Amy Tan sense of the word. What does success mean to us?” He suggests that our personal narrative about success is passive. We expect someone to discover us. No, that won’t happen. This is a fantasy. This does not exist. The book industry of the past that finds a new author and trots them out and promotes them and their work is extinct. The culture of a willing audience waiting to come out and see you is gone. You have to fight for their attention among the myriad of competing sources of information and entertainment. Furthermore, the economic model of paying large sums of money up front for an unknown author is obsolete. For example, Houghton-Mifflin had announced it was taking no new manuscripts in one of its divisions [3]. In this area, they were living off their back catalog. This kind of action sent chills throughout the publishing industry in 2008.

Smokler believes this is the worst time in decades to try and get published. You must have a name, and failing that a compelling platform where you can assure sales of 60,000 copies out of the gate. But do not despair. Opportunities will arise. Smokler suggested that “when times are bad, people become uncomfortable.” They become more community oriented and “volunteerism goes through the roof.” People want to improve society and therefore, new opportunities are created. Such is the case in the publishing world. Four things in publishing to be aware of or take advantage of include:

1. The old publishing model has vanished. Smokler quipped that it would finally be gone at the passing of Phillip Roth (b. 1933).

2. Publishers are currently wrestling with new models, which is difficult for them. “They don’t like ‘newness’ in their own business.”

3. Publishers are experimenting with 360 deals. In this model, they want a little bit of everything, just like a talent agent does. They want the book, the lecture tour, the library readings, the film deal, and so on. Is it any wonder they want an author with a name.

4. The author is a public figure and must compel attention.

Today’s author/writer is a public figure. An author cannot be a recluse. He or she has to get out there. Think of yourself as the product. This is so important in the celebrity-driven culture that evolved during the second half of the twentieth century. Books as the “dry product” in isolation are disappearing. People want to hear from the author too. Each writer must figure out how to build a following. Smokler suggested that Twitter [4] can be used as a social networking tool to build a following, literally, 140 character bytes at a time. Such micro-blogging sites ensure a self-selecting group will seek you out. Another tip offered was the use of e-mails. Establish short, compelling bits of info that people will not only want to read, but will forward to others. Here, the idea is to establish a platform from which you can launch your writings and establish your brand.

The attending Redwood Writers were teased with coming up with some definitions, such as, “Define book.” Smokler suggested a book is no longer just defined by bound paper, but a book is Kindle [5], Vook [6], and iPhone applications [7] too. The reading public has found ways to consume good writing in ways that suit them, through technology. Authors must therefore establish new ways of delivering their work. It is imperative that writers invest time to learn the tools.

Smokler also suggested there is a renewed interest in reading since the Internet leveled the playing field and removed the stuffiness of east coast publishers. He cited how consumer feedback almost crippled a lock company [8] and how Napster [9], an on-line music distributor, brought the music industry to its knees. The book industry must similarly change. “Change is the currency of our lives” and writers “are the people who should be on the front edge of change.”

“How do you live in public as a writer,” was another challenge laid before us. Do you volunteer or mentor others? [10] Smokler suggested everything is public these days. “Rock stars don’t trash hotel rooms anymore. Why?” It is because of YouTube and a watching world would shun such behavior. “Be the best representative of your craft – the writing profession.” Writers need to shift the perception that they’re all “coddled and spoiled.” Smokler went on to say, “Be honest, true, and dignified. Lead by example. Act as if the literary world of the future is here. Live it and it appears.” Time to start living.

Submitted by R.K. Koslowsky with edits by Persia Woolley and Linda McCabe

An audio podcast of his talk can be found here. Please note, Kevin mentions that Houghton Mifflin stopped acquiring new titles. While this was disturbing news in the publishing industry, it was only division and not the entire company that temporarily halted its submissions process.


[1] More on Frances Harper:

[2] Smokler’s book, Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times: A Collection of All Original Essays from Today's (and Tomorrow's) Young Authors on the State of the Art --and ... Hustle--in the Age of Information Overload (2005, Basic Books, 304 pages.

[3] Editors told to stop buying books, November 24, 2008:

[4] As of April 6, 2009, ‘Redwood Writers’ is on Twitter, trying to establish a larger following:

[5] Amazon is the world’s largest bookseller. Amazon’s Kindle:

[6] Vook:

[7] One iPhone reader application:

[8] Video of how a Bic pen can open a Krptonite lock:

[9] Napster challenges the RIAA:

[10] Redwood Writers is all about “writers helping writers” and the set-up of public readings and establishing critique groups are a couple of ways this is done by our organization.

Kevin Smokler and Juanita J. Martin

Kevin Smokler and Linda C. McCabe

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