I’m pleased to share a conversation I had with Debra Di Blasi, a powerhouse in the experimental writing world. Debra Di Blasi is an award-winning multi-genre, multimedia writer and visual artist. She is author of seven books and hundreds of short works, with fiction published in leading anthologies of innovative writing, and in prominent journals and reviews. Her writing has been adapted to film, radio, theatre, and audio CD in the US and abroad. As a former art critic and founding publisher of Jaded Ibis Productions and Jaded Ibis Press, she became a noted speaker on the intersection of literature, publishing and technology and continues to write as an independent scholar on topics related to the aesthetics of narrative as it intersects with technology.
When Debra was at the helm of Jaded Ibis Press, she published two anthologies that have my work in them: Dirty : Dirty and Mutilations on a Theme: An Anthology of the Best Innovative College Writing. I approached Debra to discuss the complicated relationship between book review bloggers and self-published authors. Recently, I conducted a poll on Twitter to get a read on book bloggers and self-published authors:
Though “No, never” got the most votes, 58% of book bloggers have had at least one negative run-in with self-published authors. Book blogger Fiction Fan had this to say:
I have even been threatened by one who somehow managed to track down my personal email address. And another who took to leaving nasty comments on my reviews under an assumed name. Both of those got three star reviews – you have to wonder how they’d react to a one-star…
I wanted to learn more about someone who has self-published successfully and where she’s coming from, so I reached out to Debra DiBlasi.
Grab the Lapels: Could you share a bit about your re-released novel, What the Body Requires? What is it about?
Debra: First, thanks so much for your kind words about the book, Melanie, and for inviting me to talk about it.
What the Body Requires can be read on one, two or three levels. The most basic level is plot: An Italian policeman’s desire to escape his depressing life collides with the desire of an American painter who has come to Italy to kill her philandering husband, the spitting image of the policeman. The results are sex, madness, obsession, and questionable behavior by all characters.
On a second, deeper level, What the Body Requires is a psychological exploration of possessiveness — love’s antithesis — and the sometimes excruciating passions that inspire art.
Thirdly, What the Body Requires is based on the symphonic form, and the often over-the-top emotions in opera. I intentionally turned the book’s leitmotif — What is a life without music? — on its head by loading the book with as many music associations and references as I could. Characters are professional musicians, or ones that hum, sing, listen to music… Each chapter is titled and written as a musical movement, thus you’ll find quite a bit of intentional repetition or restatements of themes in the writing, just as you’d find repetitions and embellishments in a nocturne, for example.
Unlike the first edition, the second edition of the print and e-book defines the music terminology to give readers clues to each chapter’s subtext. These definitions influenced the respective chapter’s pacing, emotions, actions, and plot points. The second editions also include a list of all music compositions referenced in the book; there are thirty-three.
The book took five years to research and write, and is based on some real events.
GTL: And you’ve just re-released this novel yourself. You’re not alone in this; I’ve encountered several authors at Grab the Lapels who re-release books that came out years ago. Maybe it was the wrong time, or the audience wasn’t “ready” for the content. What led you to re-releasing and self-publishing?
D: What the Body Requires has a history. I first submitted it through an agent to a number of publishers. This was in 1999, right after The New York Times Book Review ran a nice piece on my previous book, Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press). Agents called. I bit one, who directed some rewrites and then began sending out. Some positive chatter swirled around the novel, initially, with some comparing the writing to Patricia Highsmith’s. Then came serious talk about adapting it to film, communicated to my agent’s assistant while my agent was in Ireland having an illicit affair. When my agent returned with a sore crotch, she put the kibosh on selling the movie rights first, stating that she thought the novel should be published in advance. I was dubious; she convinced me because I was also naïve and too deferent. The publishing and film industries can be fickle, with short attention spans. By the time it became apparent that the movie rights would be the best route, all interest had died.
My previous publishers, New Directions and Coffee House Press (and later, FC2/University of Alabama Press, who would eventually publish a later book) politely declined What the Body Requires. (Well, FC2 publisher R. M. Berry wanted to publish it, but the press has an editorial board that must decide unanimously.) So I shelved it. Moved on. When Print-on-Demand (POD) technologies were advancing, I thought that it might be the right time to become a publisher so that very smart, original writing by people I knew could find a home. But I wanted to test POD quality first. I published What the Body Requires on Createspace with surprisingly good results. Thus, the book became the first title of my publishing company, Jaded Ibis Press. After I sold the Press in 2016, I felt the new entity’s marketing was not up to my very picky standards; plus, I wanted more control over paperback and e-book sales revenues if I was going to do all of the hard work.
After my eight-year tenure at Jaded Ibis, I find it much less exhausting to self-publish than to go through the publishing paper-shredder. Some publishers don’t respond for over a year; others, don’t respond at all until you contact them after a year has passed. The amount of research required just to submit a book is daunting.
Another reason: I seriously doubt a medium or large publisher would take on this novel, not in this publishing climate. And, frankly, as a poet-friend and I recently discussed, we don’t need to publish anymore — not for career or income or fame or whatever of those elusive pursuits irrelevant to the art of writing. I’ve “archived” (that’s how I refer to my self-publishing efforts these days) two other books, Ugly Town: The Movie, a novel, and the heavily illustrated, full-color collection, Skin of the Sun: New Writing. They exist. Somewhere beyond me. And exactly as I intended them to look. That’s comforting.
GTL: I first picked up What the Body Requires when you published it through Jaded Ibis Press. I have both the e-book and the paperback. Both are professional looking — I never would have guessed you hadn’t published through an established press because the product was so polished. Even though Jaded Ibis Press is a press, did you feel like you were self-publishing What the Body Requires because it was a “tester” book, so to speak, for your new press?
D: Thank you for your comments about the quality of the first editions. (I found some typos when re-editing the book. As most writers know, it’s difficult to put out any tome without some typos, even from the “Big Three” publishers. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed by some of the errors and was glad to get a second chance to correct them.)
I did, and still do, think of the first edition as being self-published, primarily because no editorial process was required; i.e., no one decided to publish it but me. I was not, however, interested in book sales. As I’d already abandoned the effort of publishing this title with a traditional press, I decided to use it to test POD quality; I did not want to risk another writer’s creation on my investigation.
I’d just published The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions with University of Alabama Press/FC2 Books, and felt the quality of the POD paper, cover stock, and print + image clarity was equal to that collection. I should add that another reason I founded my publishing company was because of frustrations I’d felt with University of Alabama Press. The Jirí Chronicles was intended to explore not only how Systems Theory manifests in literature and society, and to chronicle socio-political issues, but also to chronicle trajectory of DIY technologies and platforms and illustrate the expanding and multiplying tentacles of a narrative. Thus, the last short stories in The Jirí Chronicles should have been published in four-color. (They allowed me one color – blue — because it was critical to the interpretation/subtext of “Machine Ghosts,” the ultimate story in the collection.) Because the University was chained to a traditional printer, the cost of producing a four-color book was beyond their promise. Yet, I could have self-published the book in full-color for thousands of dollars less, with no worry about up-front printing, distribution or warehousing charges. The publishing world had changed — for the better.
I recognized that Jaded Ibis (which would also produce music and spoken word albums, apps, and limited edition artworks) could thereby offer writers a much broader range of creative choices and tools. That was my ideal as a writer, and I knew plenty of innovative writers who would also appreciate and take advantage of that ideal, if offered. And they certainly did!
GTL: The reason I approached you about having this conversation is because you shared an article on Facebook about French bookstores refusing to stock a novel that won the Prix Renaudot — because the novel was self-published. What is your reaction to the booksellers, both as a reader and a self-published author who has been in the publishing and writing business for a long time?
D: I should first say that I love bookstores, preferably dusty ones with obscure titles and old, used books. It’s a vacation for me, roaming the stacks, touching and smelling old leather and pulp, reading first pages, scrutinizing illustrations. Nevertheless, some bookstores have lost sight of who they were or should be. Those that used to stock primarily small press books and, in the days when “Random Penguin” didn’t own and police the great medium publishers like Knopf, now try to compete by stocking a higher percentage of mainstream titles.
I recall that when the now-deceased Borders Books first opened in Kansas City it held an enormous poetry section. Enormous! Its art and architecture section was likewise large and rich. I spent hours there, and many impulse-buy dollars. Then, month by month, year by year they downsized those sections, also reducing more adventuresome fiction, until there was virtually nothing left but discount mainstream and genre books, and those that headed every “Bestseller” category on Amazon. It was death by suicide. They tried to compete with ebooks and the massive warehouses of Amazon instead of focusing on zealous bibliophiles by creating a niche market of books difficult or near impossible to find on Amazon because the latter’s algorithms (as I was told by an Amazon engineer) were difficult to bend to the more eclectic readers.
The “protest” by French bookstores — We refuse to stock Marco Koskas’ Prix Renaudot-winning book because it was self-published on Amazon — is the same stroke of short-sightedness that dead Borders made. Who loses? The bookstores. Who gains? Amazon. It’s ridiculous. Know your market, know your competition, create your niche.
As a reader, I want it all, of course: instantly downloaded e-books, 2-day shipments of print, hardback, or rare books only found on Amazon, and the pleasure of spending hours (and money) in physical bookstores. And in libraries, too, when I know I don’t want to add a certain book to my private library but do want to read it or listen to it as an audiobook. Likewise, as a traditionally published- or self-published author, I want my books available in all of those outlets. No doubt, Koskas would wish the same for his award-winner. He’s is right in telling bookstores that it is publishers which refused to publish Bande de Français that should be blamed, not him. A writer’s voice cannot be heard from the bottom of an empty well.
GTL: As time goes on book bloggers play a significant role in drawing attention to books that may not have been noticed, ones that aren’t carried in Barnes & Noble these days. They’re voracious, noisy readers (especially of Young Adult literature), but will also revitalize forgotten Classics and self-published authors trying something the Big Five in New York won’t take a chance on. After I reviewed the self-published Fat Assassins, several of my followers bought the e-book and the follow-up novel on my say so. However, most book bloggers aren’t reading self-published books. We’ve been stalked online and yelled at. Authors tell us we are ruining their career with one bad review — those are authors who feel their books deserve praise because they did every part of the writing and publishing process on their own. Do you have any advice for book bloggers on how we could change the stigma that self-published authors are putting out poorly-edited stories that weren’t good enough to be traditionally published? What about advice for self-published authors, who feel they should be treated differently?
D: It’s ridiculous to stalk a reviewer, whether blogger or journalist for traditional media. Ridiculous to stalk anyone. And criticizing a reviewer is likewise futile, unless their attacks are personal attacks rather than competent, professional reviews of the book. I’m aware of a couple of traditionally-published authors who had reviews taken down on Goodreads because the reviewer launched vitriolic attacks on the individual. I, too, had to notify Goodreads Librarians because a young and, let’s say, unsophisticated reviewer who attacked me as a person on NetGalley (a site I would never recommend for more innovative authors, by the way) apparently posted my book, TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions, under a name similar to mine (Debra Di Blasi), and under a name similar to the small press that published this title (Black Scat Books). The result was me left unable to control any of the title information or link the book to my account. There are some crazies out there, no doubt, and also those who, under the cloak of anonymity, feel entitled to assault an author’s or reviewer’s integrity as human being because of something they themselves lack. Those folks should be prepared for a return volley.
I suspect there are hundreds of thousands of books that indeed were not good enough to be published by traditional publishers, whether because the writing itself was terrible or less than mediocre, or because the quality of the physical book’s design made it difficult to read. (Frankly, 50 Shades of Gray is a poorly-written book, even after it went through professional editing. I couldn’t get past the first few pages because it was like listening to fingernails down a chalkboard; but I take no umbrage toward those who enjoyed it.)
So many of these writers do not understand the basics of publishing, nor the technical requirements, the marketing, or the etiquette. True, the industry as a whole has changed since the advent of Amazon reviews and social media. I know a few well-published authors who complained on Facebook about their negative Amazon reviews and wanted a way to eliminate them from the public eye. You can’t. It’s the nature of the world we live in now. You must take the good with the bad, even when the bad are uninformed and may deter readers. The fact that you self-published does not give you carte blanche to whine. You made the decision; it’s your responsibility. You reap the rewards and the penalties. Ideally, you learn from your mistakes and then move on to your next book, or stop publishing, or stop writing.
The history of authors and reviewers sniping each other is long. Some of it is amusing. I think of the famous feud between Marcel Proust and his reviewer, Jean Lorrain, that ended in a real gun duel. Fortunately, no one died. I actually wish some of those witty debates would return, because they are delicious to read and they help develop a more educated readership. Alas, the intellectual quality of today’s debates is so loaded with childish vitriol, adolescent syntax, and three-word summations, that I’d rather eat broken glass than witness one more Facebook “conversation” about a bad review.
As for bloggers today: It must be immeasurably difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, especially considering the vast quantity of books published each year. Statistics:
International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) for self-published titles have climbed 218.33 per cent since 2011, according to the latest report from ProQuest affiliate Bowker. Some 786,935 ISBNs were assigned to self-published titles in 2016; in 2011, that number was 247,210. (Source)
I don’t envy you. How do you do it?!?
GTL: There’s some sighing involved.
I know that bloggers like you are becoming increasingly vital in the book world, and not just for self-published books. The total number of annual reviews published by traditional review media (like The New York Times Book Review, e.g.) is significantly smaller than those published by bloggers. And I’d wager that 99.9999% of those books reviewed by traditional media were published by the Big Five (HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and their imprints. It’s only been in the last few of years that Publishers Weekly allowed self-published authors to submit their books for review. Also, Andrea Jamison, a librarian and scholar, has written a great article suggesting that public libraries reconsider their position of not stocking self-published books. Their argument against stocking resonates with your experiences:
Self-published and desktop publishers produce works of varying quality and are seldom reviewed. These items are generally not purchased unless the subject is in high demand, and the book is examined and found to be of merit.
Source: Intellectual Freedom Blog, The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association
I think that, in the same way publishers and authors must market their books, bloggers must continue marketing themselves as viable on social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as finding other ways of promoting the quality and focus of their reviews. If they want to elevate the status of self-publishing, then they should focus the majority of their reviews only on those of the highest quality — and articulate why. The exception would be reviewing a book that received a tremendous amount of attention but is overall a poorly written, poorly edited book. A blogger’s exploration of why they think such a book garnered undeserved attention would help educate readers and indirectly confirm that good self-published books do exist. When I accepted a position as art columnist for a weekly newspaper, I did so, stating that I would not cover an art exhibition that I did not like but would only focus on educating readers about art. I love fine art and thus did not want to waste one column inch on art I found weak, boorish, or otherwise not fit for attention.
For me, Grab the Lapels has a very clear and concise mission statement in its FAQ. It would be great if all of those English language newspapers around the globe who list “Best Book Blogs” every year (e.g., Scribendi, Lounge Books, Feedspot Blog) received a personal email asking them if you can put them on your newsletter list, and include a nicely-penned description of your blog that would include why it — and you — are unique. As you are!
GTL: Debra, thank you so much for your time — and kind words. Your history as a writer, publisher, artist, and so much more has been invaluable to this conversation. Check out What the Body Requires, her re-released and now self-published novel, available in paperback and e-book editions.
Are you interested in reading some compelling self-published books? They may not be 100% perfectly proofread, but I thoroughly enjoyed:
- Hometown by Michele Feltman Strider
- Fat Assassins by Marita Fowler
- Saints in the Shadows and Jolie is Somewhere by Alana Cash
- How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch by D. Bryant Simmons
- Chicken Scratch by Kelly Chirpczuk
- Our Own Orbit by Anesa Miller
- What the Body Requires by Debra Di Blasi — read in 2009, four years before the birth of Grab the Lapels. I gave it 5 stars.