The word “disruption” is used frequently these days. Its used in regard to journalism, to the publishing industry, to a variety of occupations which have melted down because of the internet changing the way previously stable professions have become precarious. Neoliberals and market dogmatists love telling us that the race to the lowest wage is simply a market adjustment.
So what happens to those with talents who are devalued in this “marketplace”? All the kids graduating with a journalism degree in a world that no longer wants to pay its journalists? Or the writers of fiction who work for years with a dream of breaking into what used to be a traditional publishing career?
Gordon Haber is one of the people trying to respond to these changes, and trying to answer those questions. He’s moved through a series of creative and academic careers, and is finding new inspiration in digital publishing and the seismic shifts in our economic landscape. Not only has he been doing his own digital publishing, but he has established Dutch Kills Press on a business model of paying all his writers.
DS: Can you talk a little about yourself? Your background and what you did before establishing Dutch Kills Press?
GH: My first career was in graphic design and marketing. Then I chucked it to write. I got an MFA (God help me) and since then I’ve been writing fiction, criticism and journalism. I also taught college. I had a great run for a while. I was in a groove, writing about religion, publishing short stories, polishing a novel, and I really loved teaching. Then I got worn down by adjuncting. So I was looking for the next thing, which was digital publishing. As it turns out all this experience—design, marketing, editorial—is a great background for e-books.
DS: What was the inspiration for establishing the press?
GH: I had this novella, False Economies, loosely based on my time in England on the tail end of the Thatcher years. I wrote it in grad school and it had been gathering dust on my hard drive, as it were. There are one or two nice outlets for novellas these days, but generally they are almost impossible to place.
Then I submitted it to Amazon’s Kindle Singles program. They published the novella and it did pretty well. They published my next novella about the adjunct life, Adjunctivitis. Both times it was a really enjoyable process. My editor was deeply interested in helping me improve the stories; they hired great cover designers and copy editors. And remarkably, within weeks I was earning money from fiction.
That started me thinking. There’s been a wonderful proliferation of literary journals, both online and in print, but most don’t pay their contributors. In fact too often the business model is predicated on not paying contributors. A lot of editors will tell you that they don’t have any money, which isn’t true. There’s money for web hosting. Sometimes there’s money to pay the editors. But there’s no money for writers. Because paying writers is not a priority. It’s just not in the budget.
I realize that a literary journal is almost always a labor of love. I’m not suggesting that editors are preying on naïve writers (except for the people at Narrative Magazine, who overcharge for submitting, and then, after rejecting a story, offer ludicrously overpriced editorial services). But I do think it’s fair to say that more often than not editors don’t prioritize paying their contributors.
So that was the inspiration for my press—first, to combine the editorial expertise of traditional publishing with the flexibility of digital publishing. I can publish short stories and novellas, even novels. I can publish collections of street photography or drawings inspired by Modernist architecture. I published an outstanding writing manual. There are all these constraints in traditional publishing that I don’t have to worry about.
And second, I wanted a business model predicated on paying writers and artists. This is how it works:
- I acquire an e-book.
- I edit the e-book.
- I publish the e-book.
- I market the shit out of the e-book.
- Every 6 months, I send the contributor 50% of his or her e-book’s profits.
So a contributor may end up with a check for $20 or $200. I hope it’s the latter, but I can promise my contributors that they will be paid something.
DLS: Why did you decide to go exclusively digital? Why not establish a small press and go print on demand AND digital?
I prefer to master one thing before chucking something else into the mix. I probably will do POD at some point. Actually it’s more likely I will do an actual print run of a book, but not right now.
DLS: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned since starting the press?
GH: People are hungry for the editing process. The publishing business has become like the movie business, only without the money. Often editors are more like producers, “packaging” a book without actually helping the writer improve the work. From the stories I hear it seems clear that some editors don’t give a shit about the quality of the work. So when someone really pays attention to a story, when someone wants to help the writer realize his or her vision, they’re just delighted. The same goes for the visual artists I’ve worked with—culling images, arranging them, structuring the e-book—they love these discussions.
DLS: Which delivery platforms are you using?
GH: Amazon, iBooks and Atavist. When it makes financial sense, I will hire someone to make a DKP app so that contributors can get a bigger piece of the pie.
DLS: Do you have preferences? Why or why not?
GH: E-book buyers don’t care about my preferences. E-book buyers care about their own preferences. They like buying e-books through Amazon and iTunes, so that’s where we sell them. Atavist has a great web-based platform that makes it easy for people who don’t like to fiddle with apps—they can pay and then read the e-book with their browser.
DLS: What has been your favorite part of this experience so far?
GH: When you’re a writer and your work gets accepted and someone values your work enough to pay you, even if it’s only a few bucks, that’s just the best feeling in the world. I give people that feeling. I love that.
DLS: What are your hopes for the press over the next few years?
GH: Like Conan the Barbarian, to crush my enemies and see them driven before me. Kidding! Right now I have one goal: don’t fuck it up. I want to publish 2 or 3 e-books per quarter, build a customer base, figure it out.
DLS: What advice do you have for writers hoping to understand the various options for publishing?
Treat writing and publishing as two distinct stages of the process. Get your story done and then decide if you want to send it to the New Yorker or put it on Amazon or publish it on your Tumblr. Of course we all have fantasies of wild success when we’re writing and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I meet people who keep themselves awake at night wondering if they should try to get an agent or if they should self-publish—and they’ve written maybe 17 pages of their first novel. Just get the work done and then worry about how to publish it.
Then when your work is polished to a high sheen and ready to show to the world, more often than not the piece will lend itself to a particular outlet. So you’ve got to consider which one to try first. If it’s an erotic novel about lesbian werewolves, your best bet is to self-publish. If it’s a literary novella, try the Kindle Singles people or Nouvella Press. If it’s a well written spy novel, by all means look for an agent. If it’s a novel-in-verse, have a drink, because you’re fucked.
By the way, you don’t need an MFA to find an agent. Nor do you need an agent. You do have to (a) get the work done and then (b) consider the most fitting outlet for that particular work. The Council of Literary Magazines (CLMP) has a searchable member directory to help you research potential publishers. I’d also sign up for Submittable’s weekly newsletter. Get a sense of the landscape, of the journals or publishers with the right sensibility for your work. It takes some time but it’s worth it—I’ve placed a couple of my own stories in respectable literary magazines that I learned about from the CLMP database. There are tons of quality journals and small presses out there and you can increase your chances of publishing if you don’t mind a little drudgery.
DLS: You have a marketing background, and I’m sure that helps. Most writers don’t have the stomach for marketing, don’t know how to do it, feel vaguely nauseous about the idea of “sales”… so what can you tell them that might help to re-conceptualize this part of the process?
GH: The absolute first thing that any serious artist needs to remember is that the best of yourself must go into the creation of your work. There’s always going to be Andy Warhol types, those guys whose flair for self-promotion equals or even surpasses their creative talents. The rest of us are plodding along just doing our best to be creative and keep a roof over our heads. So it’s totally okay if you’re intimidated by sales and marketing.
Instead ask yourself this question: How can I get my work out into the world? You don’t need to have an MFA and an MBA. I reject this whole notion that every artist must also be a branding expert and maintain a perfectly coordinated social media presence. But, as I said above, you do need to have a plan for your work. It’s less about marketing than it is about improving your odds.
DLS: You’ve worked as a journalist. Are there differences between journalism and the world of fiction you can talk about?
GH: It’s more the similarities that trouble me, in that getting paid for journalism is becoming as difficult as it is to get paid for literary fiction.
DLS: Is there anything else you would like to say?
GH: Yes. If you want to read something really interesting and not spend a lot and help an artist make a few bucks then buy an e-book from Dutch Kills Press. While you’re there, please sign up for the mailing list. And by all means, drop me a line.