Carlton Mellick III once told me that if I really wanted to make this career as a writer and a publisher work, I’d quit my job and work at it full time. The stress and the pressure would act as an impetus to get the job done. Mellick is a large man, an imposing figure, but he speaks quietly, and for whatever reason, whatever he says I take as gospel. So I did it. And now here I am.
Where exactly is that?
Several years ago, I wrote a piece for a now-defunct online magazine called “The Low Tide Showcased a Promised Land.” I had just taken a job at a tire shop. Before that, I moved furniture for a living. I woke up early, I lifted heavy shit onto a truck, and I went to people houses or apartments and unloaded that shit with my partner and we hauled it in. The essay that I wrote was about how the world doesn’t care that you struggle, but that struggle is important all the same. That it builds who we are, it thickens our skin. Makes us tough. But I haven’t really updated that, for my current station in life.
A year ago, I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to start a small press called Broken River Books. I started it out of a desire to make a mark on the current publishing landscape, to spend my time doing what I love, but most importantly, to make a life out of the only thing in this world I’m good at. BRB has published 15 books in that time, and I’m gearing up for an even bigger sophomore year, starting with 12 books in the first quarter, on the same day. For all that work, however, I live a very modest, humble life. I eat spaghetti, ramen, sandwiches, pickles, and tostadas. I buy one pack of cigarettes a day, and go through an 18-pack of PBR every three days or so (two if I’m celebrating). My apartment is Spartan; I had no furniture to speak of for the past six months. A writer friend donated a desk, upon which sits my computer. I found my sweet-ass swivel chair in the trash. I slept on the floor until about two weeks ago. My new bed is fucking up my hustle. I dream a lot, now. Last night I dreamt that I traded bodies with Jaden Smith. Shit is weird. But my life is far from difficult. I’ve lived in my car, and I’ve squatted in trap houses, and I’ve broken my back and scarred up my hands to get by. I do none of those things at this time. I have a heater in every room. I have a deck where I can stand and smoke and listen to the rain. I have a wife and a dog and my wife always has coffee and my dog always has kibbles. I’m full of love for everything and everyone around me, and I’m not scared to say this is the happiest I’ve been in my life. But still. I’m just above the poverty line, unless it’s a good month.
I’ve heard the self-published Kindle success stories, the fan-fiction writers given six-figure deals. I’ve heard about the rockstars in New York selling the latest hot thing. But I’ve seen very few articles detailing the day-to-day of the “blue collar” indie presses, and I think I can provide maybe a unique perspective on the whole thing. I’m neither savvy enough to conjure up the next big groundswell, nor am I handsome and connected enough to ingratiate myself into the world of big publishing. Watch sensible advice bounce off me like bullets off Superman’s titties. What I am, instead, is wonderfully wind-resistant, conveniently hard-headed, and perhaps stupidly optimistic.
But please, don’t for a second think that I’m asking for your sympathy, here. I asked for this. One time someone told me that there was a Satanist “Wheel of Desire” (which I picture as being much like Wheel of Fortune, except Pat has a robe on and all the contestants are severed goat heads) that posits if you take what someone says they want, just go to the opposite pie slice on the wheel and see what they’re really after. So it’s entirely possible that I want your sympathy, all of it, though I just Google searched that Wheel of Desire and found zero results so it’s entirely possible I made that up. Anyway, maybe that’s a disclaimer.
Back in the day publishing was all about who had the money. You start a big company, you sign some high-profile writers to your roster, you buy a nice watch. Then, the internet happened, and kept happening, and it’s all fucked up now. You know this. The means of production have been streamlined and laid bare. Any fuckup (holler) with some spare time can take advantage. I cut my teeth for years as a writer, until, much like Zach de la Rocha in the RATM classic “Down Rodeo,” I said, “Fuck the G-ride/I want the machines that are making them.”
I acquired the necessary tools to create books (InDesign, namely) and raised some funds and I was off to the races. That’s literally all it took. The programs, the money, and a small contingent of people who believed that I could do what I said I was going to do. The first batch of Broken River Books consisted of five novels by writers I love, and those five novels continue to do well. So I repeated the process until I had fifteen of those, and now here I am.
So here’s my day-to-day:
I wake up when my wife is ready to go to work. Sometimes I drive her there, if I need the car for something that day. I get home and walk my dog. She likes to sniff stuff. She’ll get all tangled in a bush chasing some scent or another, and I do my best to shake off the pre-coffee, post-booze morning haze. I look at the trees or the hills out in the distance. I take in the fog that I’ve adopted since my move to Oregon. I force myself to love this beautiful place because on the inside things are churning, evil reminders of shit I haven’t done yet, things that have to be done and soon.
I check my email. There’s someone who’s interested in submitting a piece to Broken River. They really dig what’s going on, and can I check their shit. Also, there’s a message from someone I’ve just rejected, telling me to go fuck myself and they hope I feel real bad when they’re the next big thing and I passed. This is like looking at before and after photos where the only difference is that in one someone’s sucking in their gut.
I rummage through my fridge and roll up some turkey with a piece of cheese and put some mayo on it and eat that shit quickly, before my dog becomes privy to my culinary designs and gives me those big eyes and I give my food away like I normally do.
I sit down at the computer and open up InDesign and my internet browser.
Everything comes rushing at me. I have twelve books to design. This entails taking the files and putting them into the program and checking them for widows and orphans and typos and by the way make sure everything’s justified and also make sure you have headers but that they’re in the right spot and dammit everything looks the same now so spice it up and find some different fonts. Oh, and now the program is doing this adorable thing where the indents just do whatever they want. Have fun with that.
Then it suddenly occurs to me that I have a dogshit website that I never update. The books are all there, sure, and there are some fun blog posts scattered about, but it’s not the hub it should be, it’s not the place people come back to if they want information about things they think are cool. You are a symbol and a brand and no one gives a shit because your house isn’t in order. So I research how to build a good website and set about making one because I don’t have the money to hire someone to do it for me.
An email lands from an author: “Hey, where’s that contract?” Shit…didn’t you send that out already? Fuck. Better print some off and drop them in the mail, except I haven’t sprung for a printer yet because I’m an idiot, so here we go to Kinko’s and from there to the post office.
An email lands from an author: “Hey, we’re not doing enough for this book. It should be in more places.” Fair enough, that’s kind of my job, so I research all the different places where I could possibly send the book for maybe a review or an interview or just some fucking coverage, and I work up my email and I send it out and I hit the author back like, “Gotcha, bro.”
An email lands from someone who ordered a book I put out in a pre-order, because again, I am a goober of the highest caliber, and it says “Hey, I never got that book,” and I’m like FUCK because I know I sent that shit but what can you do? So, back to the post office. God help me if the order is overseas.
We need covers. These books need covers. I send a message to the maestro and he says, “Sure, of course,” because he’s a fucking mensch. I detail what I need. He works the magic.
I call an author to see about maybe moving a book from hardback to paperback.
I call an author to see about how the edits are moving along in the book.
I call an author to see about the reading we’ve scheduled in a far-off land for which I haven’t yet bought my plane ticket, because the money…
The money will be there. Eventually. I hope. I’m supposed to be paid by The Publisher of My Stuff here soon, very soon, and then I’ll have some funds to work with, to buy that plane ticket and pay for some ad space, maybe…but ad space doesn’t work, everyone tells me not to waste money on ad space.
I check my mail and there’s a blurb request with an attached manuscript and a dude looking to get me to write him a script. I look at the script email and see if there’s money involved. I look at the blurb request and my dog puts her Kong toy on my lap and I look at her like, “are you serious right now?”
Then I play fetch with my dog.
When I come back, there’s a follow-up email to an email that I meant to respond to but minimized and forgot about and now someone’s upset with me because I forgot that there was supposed to be a feature on x,y, and z in some magazine and now I’ve fucked that one up. Okay, whatever, moving on.
The authors for the new books need ARCs for their work, so I need to get these designs done, and I need to send them their copies, and some of them are going to expect me to send the ARCs to a specific place, which is fine, because a lot of places (goddamn them) not only demand ARCs in advance of publication, they need them from the publisher. That’s not how we work, really. We release, we get people reading, we build buzz, but unfortunately that model closes us off to a lot of promotion, so we have to get the ARCs in those hands, so I need to do that.
Where’s my novel at? I need to finish that novel.
Also, I should work on my screenplays.
Payment is coming up. I need get ready for tax season. I need to go through my receipts. I need to do some accounting. I need a beer.
Shit, it’s dinner time.
Maybe I’ll read a book. Or watch Netflix. Or both. I’m good at doing two things at once, now.
There are fifteen books in my past that I can’t let sink, and there are twelve books in my immediate future for which I need to build a life raft. I need to write, I need to manage all the different personalities of my authors (some are cool with whatever, some staunchly make their way to the nearest bridge upon realization that they aren’t a runaway hit), I need to craft the books, make them look how they need to look, I need to promote them, which involves having my brain go this way and that, to dozens of different publications with dozens of different editors who have dozens of requests for each. and. every. book. I need to keep people up-to-date with the press, via social media or my website. I need to do all of the things. All of the things that big-money presses used to pay people to do, I do every last one of those things. Name it. I do it.
All of this is okay.
What is beautiful about the world we live in today is that I’m able to do this. This is a brilliant, wonderful thing. It is damn hard work and at times I am pulled in every direction, all at once. I’m really not doing this thing justice. It’s wild.
So there are the authors who score big and those who work their way into the system, but I think what both of those profiles are missing are us folks here in the middle, who scrap out a living day in and day out doing the jobs of twelve people, because it’s the only thing we can do. There are a ton of people just like me, who wake up to remembering all the things they forgot, and bless their hearts, forgetting them again as the day goes on.
There is a new caste in the publishing world. The old days had the hack writer, pumping out pulp lifeblood. Now there are hack publishers. I don’t mean our work is “hacky” or that we suck (some of us do, but that’s okay). I mean that we are constantly churning. We grow arms. We go Janus. But we do it because we are brave, and because we understand the nobility of hard work. Never, ever let me catch a fool devaluing what we do.
If you’ve ever asked a pro how to get into this world, they’ll tell you it’s like storming a castle. Once one hole opens, it’s closed for good. What the good ones will tell you, though, is that if your skull is thick enough, and you don’t mind losing a few brain cells, you’ll always have a pretty decent battering ram.