This week for my Metro Column I wrote about Kiana Davenport and her struggle with a prominent New York City publishing house, which hopefully has now come to an end since she signed a deal with Amazon. If you’re new to this story, check out my column.
Since I was not able to use the entire interview in my column, I decided to publish the full text here. In addition to providing some more details about her the publication of her forthcoming novel The Spy Lover, she also discusses her views on e-books and on writing short stories vs writing novels.
1. What was your primary motivation for publishing “Cannibal Nights? (e.g., how much of the decision was financial and how much was based on your desire to have your work accessible to the public?)
The story collections Cannibal Nights and House of Skin, were published for two reasons.
I had always wanted these stories to be accessible to a broad range of readers. And suddenly I was hearing about self-published e-book successes on Amazon’s Kindle, and I wanted to see if I could master it. Most of the stories had already been published in small literary magazines and had won The O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prizes, and the Best American Short Story 2000. I had submitted them as a collection to all of the Big 6 publishers in New York. But their response was uniform. “Story collections don’t sell.” So these prize-winning stories sat in my files for a couple of years. It was utterly depressing. And I know many writers share this experience. I had never thought of self-publishing but then I heard of Amazon’s Kindle, and how ebooks were taking off and how even established writers like the brilliant John Edgar Wideman were self-pubbing their work. So I decided to try it.
The second reason I decided to publish them was out of Financial Desperation. I had a book contract with Penguin, but advance payments with legacy publishers are generally doled out. A third on signing contract, a third on final acceptance of ms. (which can take up to 6-8 months) and a third on publication of the hardback and paperback (up to 18 months into the future).
This is how writers are traditionally kept poor.
2. Do you consider “Cannibal Nights” to be your best work?
Writing short stories is much harder and challenging than novels. A novel is like a baggy suit, you can digress, indulge yourself, dip into historical events, throw in sex, or food orgies just for the novelty. A short story should be like a rapier, edgy and sharp, all extra fat excised from it. Any extra word is verboten! I think they are the best exercise for learning how to write well. Some of these stories took as long as a year to hone. I kept cutting, tightening, pulling my hair out. Maybe that’s why the stories won so many awards. So, yes, I would say House of Skin and Cannibal Nights are my best writing to date. Although I think my second novel in my Native Hawaiian Trilogy, Song of the Exile, comes very close. Its about World War II in Paris, Asia and the Pacific. And the writing and researching of it almost killed me.
3. How did the Amazon deal come about?
Penguin Publishing terminated my book contract for my upcoming Civil War Novel, The Spy Lover, because of the two collections (above) I self-published on Kindle. The editor accused me of ‘betraying them with their main competitor, Amazon.’ If I did not take the collections down, they threatened to terminate me. I refused to capitulate, so they did terminate my contract. As a warning to other writers I wrote a long post on my blog entitled Sleeping with the Enemy: A Cautionary Tale.
I thought maybe 20 people would read the blog. Instead, The response was overwhelming, the posting went viral. Within days the media (including the NY Times- 9/17/11) was requesting interviews about my termination by Penguin. Somehow I had landed on the front lines of the publishing wars, a place I did not want to be. At the same time Amazon contacted me, said they had read my blog posting, and would I like to consider having my novel published by them.
4. Why did you choose to publish with Amazon?
Several other NY publishers stepped forward to ‘rescue my novel, and my reputation,’ but they were offering the same old royalties for print books and digital books that have been unfair to authors for years. Their contracts have not changed for decades. I decided on Amazon because the Senior Acquisition Editor, Andy Bartlett, was articulate, a lover of books, with a PhD. in Literature, and he took the time to read my ms. and discuss with me why he loved it. And how he envisioned it being marketed. And just as important, Amazon’s rates and royalties especially for digital books were twice what NY legacy publishers offered. In short, Amazon made me an offer I could not refuse.
5. Has this experience changed the way you look at the publishing industry and your career as a writer?
Yes, until this fiasco happened with Penguin, I was incredibly naive. I looked upon writing as a ‘holy calling,’ forgetting that it was also a business, MY business, and my only source of income. Now I look upon publishers, even upon Amazon, with a wary eye. For even Amazon can be threatening; its in danger of becoming monopolistic and needs competition to keep the industry healthy. We’re in a massive tectonic shift, writers are getting caught in the cracks. We can either adhere to the outmoded, anachronistic terms of legacy publishing contracts which have kept authors in bondage for decades, or we take the leap and become innovative and independent with self-publishing and setting our own rules, and/or publishing with the ‘new paradigm’ offered by Amazon publishing.
Let me say, I wish all legacy publishers, the Big Six, well. I do NOT want to see them collapse, as many people are predicting. Instead I would like to see them adapt to the new demands of consumers, and authors. I would like to see them REFORM, improve their advances, and royalties for authors so they are more equable. I would like to see them radically edit and alter their book contracts so they no longer run to 15-20 pages of illegible, incomprehensible Urdu that leave authors completely uninformed. Improve their digital royalties to authors, give authors control of more business decisions, including packaging and pricing of their books, and approval on their titles and book covers. Amazon already does this. In short, I would like to see the Big Six give Amazon a run for their money. We live in a democracy, we THRIVE on healthy competition.
I have always loved bookstores. They were an oasis in every city I ever lived in or traveled to. I deeply mourn their passing. I love printed books, curling up with a novel swollen with age and weather. I love highlighting passages, and writing in margins, arguing with the author. I cherish a particular first edition of JANE EYRE that smells of my mother’s perfume and transports me to the happiest years of my childhood. But when I need a book or a reference fast, I turn to my electronic reader. It grounds me, and swiftly informs me, and places me solidly in this digital time-warp called the Present. You could say I’m a hybrid. (As opposed to twenty year olds who don’t remember printed pages.)
That is what I have learned through my recent and daunting experiences in publishing. Perhaps books as we know them are passe, and electronics rule. This is a scary concept for many (especially publishers.) But books and electronics are only delivery systems. The important thing is still content. And writers are the ones who provide content. Business wise, we need to be quicker, shrewder, warier. But in terms of bringing beauty and humor and hope to mankind …THE WORLD WILL ALWAYS NEED WRITERS.
That is what we need to remember.