Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Self-Published Man

The following story is reprinted from an article I wrote for the Boulder Weekly. Robert Dresner is signing at the Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, Feb. 25th at 7:30 p.m.

Everyone Agrees Robert Dresner's Sci-fi Novel is Great.
Why Can't He Get It Published?

Robert Dresner, with his short, tough-guy haircut, Bronx accent and agitated mannerisms seems an unlikely person to write an emotionally resonant and thought-provoking novel. Words flow easily from him in conversation as he anticipates questions and speaks extemporaneously on just about any subject. Words aren’t the problem. It’s just hard to imagine him sitting still long enough to compose much more than a paragraph.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Dresner’s self-published Astral Imperative begins as a simple science fiction narrative about the first manned mission to Mars before revealing itself as an insightful meditation on relationships, heroism and human foibles. Writing in a direct, unadorned prose style, Dresner creates a space ship that is large enough to carry not only his diverse group of astronauts but also the reader’s imagination.

I first met Dresner a few years ago on his day job as one of Boulder’s best house painters. He showed up at my condominium in dungarees and a crisp button-down shirt to advise my wife and me about paint colors and provide an estimate. He was blunt in his vision of eliminating our clashing colors and shook his graying head a few times, asking us if we were sure we wanted to keep the canary yellow in our living room.

He exuded confidence and competence as he paced the four rooms of our home like a caged panther, turning off and on lights, holding up paint swatches to the wall, eyeing the high ceiling of our staircase and explaining just what a pain in the ass it was going to be to get our house painted. He so fully inhabited his role of professional painter that it never occurred to me that he might harbor secret writing ambitions. He was simply “the painter.”

I should have known better. Ever since becoming the head book buyer for the Boulder Book Store in 1997, I have been besieged by writers. Manuscripts have miraculously appeared from locked draws, stapled poetry collections have been pulled out of coat pockets at parties, and bizarre plot summaries have ruined football games at local bars. It’s so bad that I’ve told people that I am a ballet dancer (that always silences them when they view my doughy 5-foot-4 frame) or claimed to be a sports reporter in town to cover the big game. I’ll say anything to avoid the awkwardness of hearing about all of those unpublished books from needy authors.

I let my guard down with Dresner, however, and in a conversation at the end of the painting job I mentioned my position at the bookstore. His eyes lit up, and he told me that he’d written several novels. I tried to change the subject and had almost forgotten the conversation when he showed up at my office a few days later to pick up his check.

“You were the first stranger that I’d asked to read a book of mine in my entire life,” Dresner said to me in a recent interview. “It was very hard for me. I had left the bookstore and was in the alley when I decided to come back in and give the book to you. I knew that I had to do something. People were telling me I had to make it happen.”

The novel that Dresner delivered to me was on 287 manuscript pages bound in a hardback clamshell black binder. It weighed nearly four pounds. He nervously extolled the virtues of the binder that he’d picked up in New York City, rather than of his book, and told me to please return it if I wasn’t going to read the book because each binder cost $40. When he left I noticed that the price tag from Lincoln Stationary was still on the inside cover -- $33.95.

After a month and a few guilt-inducing follow-up visits to the bookstore from Robert, I began reading the novel with great trepidation. Gradually my hesitancy disappeared as I became absorbed in his tale and enthralled by his characters.

These characters include the heroic but isolated astronaut, Captain Adam Sietzer, the second-in-charge Russian, Vladimir Sussenko, and crew members from Japan, Germany, China, India and Africa. There are men and women as well as people of differing religions. It is a miniature United Nations hurdling towards Mars.

Dresner’s astronauts are deeply flawed, all of them hiding some psychological weakness. One is probably criminally psychotic. It is fascinating to see how these people react to each other in the confines of a space ship. The Astral Imperative is really an old-fashioned chamber play. The setting, the mission and even the plot fade into the background as the complexity of human relations move to the fore.

Dresner uses a remarkably creative device to help expose the relationships between the astronauts. Also on board the ship is a computer game called “the Dream Machine,” created by the Japanese astronaut, Makoto. The game creates a holographic image of Mars that every member of the crew views and can change. The image of Mars morphs based on the game entries from various crew members. It’s a way for the bored crew to pass the long flight, but also a way to work out the emotions and expectations of their historic mission.

“The Dream Machine came out of thin air,” Dresner said. “I didn’t even have a point of reference for it. As I wrote the book, I created it. I wanted to know if it was possible to get 8 or 12 players and play a SimCity-style game to the max. Instead of just ideas I wanted ideas and emotions. The Dream Machine gives them a physical component. What happens in the game when seven people are angry and three are happy?”

As the novels progresses, the game evolves into something quite unexpected. At first the color of the planet changes based on the moods of the astronauts, and then structures begin appearing on the surface, someone even hacking into the program and turning the whole thing into a sexist joke that creates a lot of tension between the astronauts. Eventually, the Dream Machine begins exhibiting the traits of a sentient being.

By the time I finished reading I was stunned by how compelling a vision Dresner had created. How could this not be published? Each week more than 25 advance reader’s copies of published books come across my desk. I told Dresner that I’d be surprised if even three of them were the equal to his novel. Surely, he should be able to get it published. Little did I know of Dresner’s lack of expertise in marketing himself.

“I think I write the worst cover letters anybody ever wrote in human history,” Dresner said. “People read them and just start laughing. I think there is an underlying resentment that I have when it comes to publishing. It should be simpler to sell a book.”

I put Dresner in touch with Larry Yoder, my sales rep from St. Martins. Yoder, who has an exuberant personality that more than matches Dresner’s, knows St. Martins’ top-selling science fiction line, Tor Books, better than just about anyone in the country. He’s the only sales rep that I’ve had in 12 years of buying that actually reads most of his books. Not only did Yoder read 100 or more science fiction books a year, he was unusually honest in his assessment of them. Often, his booming voice could be heard in the upstairs ballroom of the bookstore as he ordered me to skip a book while aggressively motioning to me with his hands to turn the page in the catalog.

“I don’t know why they publish this crap,” he’d frequently bellow. “No one’s going to read this because it doesn’t make any sense,” he’d tell me as I pondered a jacket illustration of a fire-breathing dragon riding a space ship.

I thought Yoder could tell if Dresner was truly onto something better than I could. One of Yoder’s most highly touted authors was the Nebula-award-winning Robert Sawyer, whose novels are often set in the near future and are based on current scientific research. Sawyer’s novels, like Dresner’s, also delve deeply into human relations.

Dresner’s ambitions seemed to follow along the lines that Sawyer was taking. The Astral Imperative is meticulously researched and the science all seems feasible. Given the scientific bent of Dresner’s novel, it’s not surprising that it is dedicated to a Boulder scientist, the cofounder of The Case for Mars, Tom Meyer.

“Tom grounded the science in the novel and gave it shape,” Dresner said. “This is his vision of a manned trip to Mars. It’s all very realistic science. These are things that will happen, might happen or someone’s researching the possibility. By being na├»ve, I’d come up with an idea that is unusual and then Tom would put me in touch with people.”

It took awhile for Yoder to read the book, but when he finally did he believed he’d found a jewel. “My first reaction was that his novel was better than some of the stuff that I sell,” Yoder said. “He was bringing a component of general fiction into a science fiction story. That’s what made Dune great. His characters were developed and you cared about the people.”

Yoder’s opinion of his novel came when Dresner was at a low point in his writing.

“It was a hot day in the summer and I was bogged down in writing book two, feeling discouraged when I got a phone call from Larry,” Dresner recalled. “I’d left him a little message saying I understood he was busy, and if he couldn’t read the book could he send back the manuscript. ‘You want your manuscript back?’ he said. ‘Are you kidding me? It’s the best manuscript I’ve read. I’ve never read anything like this.’”

Finally, it looked like Dresner just might get the break he needed. It was hard for him to get his hopes up too much because of his close calls in the past.

“I was with the William Morris agency, I had a screenplay with Universal, it goes on and on,” Dresner said. “I’d get a phone call about how much they loved it and how they thought it was unusual and then the next call never came.”

Despite Yoder’s love for the book and my pushing and prodding of St. Martin’s editors, Dresner was right not to get his hopes up. The call never came from Tor Books, despite Yoder’s strong endorsement.

“Sometimes they don’t hear what you are saying in publishing,” Yoder said. “I took it to them and said, ‘I can sell this.’ But they don’t want to listen. Editor after editor kept telling me that this wasn’t what they were publishing. It’s like we weren’t speaking the same language. I never would have sent it in if I didn’t think it would sell.”

Now, Dresner has decided to publish the book on his own. He doesn’t have the patience for the publisher dance any more, and if anything, his disdain for having to sell himself has only grown with time.

“I feel frustration – rage -- when I think about the effort it takes to get published.” Dresner said. “I have six books. The process to get published is at least a year or two. I just felt, as I was getting older, that time was compressing. If publishers in New York don’t recognize that it’s good why should you be punished for that?”

Dresner’s impatience with publishing extended to his self-publishing venture.

“We were a little too fast in getting this published,” Dresner said. “In five weeks we had a book. I gave it to a talented editor and only gave her a week to get it ready. We had a thousand little things to correct. The cover also looks too heavily masculine (a phallic space ship in front of a nebula background.) It’s a book about self-discovery and relationships -- women love it.”

Dresner is learning how to handle being an author instead of a painter writing in his spare time. The transition hasn’t come as easily as expected. His voluble nature has been stymied when he has encountered his readers.

“The experience of being an author is not what I expected. I’ve become the center of attention at parties. I feel embarrassed. They really think I have something. Being embarrassed is the exact opposite of what I expected to feel,” Dresner said.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I'm Tweeting My Life Away

Tweeting is what you do when you are on the social network website Twitter. I'm not sure why it isn't twittering, I'd prefer twittering. It sure feels like I'm twittering (to speak rapidly and in a tremulous manner) when I'm furiously typing my hopefully pithy comments, responses and questions. Whether it's tweeting or twittering is irrelevant in the end because I'm sure in love with those little 140-character jolts I get each day.

What started as a once-a-day habit in the fall (after a tip from a fellow bookseller at the Mountains and Plains conference) has turned into a full-blown addiction. I can hardly imagine life as a book buyer without my Twitter lifeline. I check in when I arrive at the office, I leave a note telling my 197 followers what I'm doing in the middle of the day, and I read and write a few tweets at the end of the long work day. Simply put, it's my blanket, my teddy bear, my hot soup on a cold day.

The following pieces in homage to Twitter are all exactly 140 words to pay respect to Twitter's 140-character limit. My Twitter identity, like my blog, is Kashsbookcorner.

Love Letter to Twitter

Oh, Twitter where would I be without you? Each morning you bring me news from dozens near and far. One is stuck in snow, another has a dreadful meeting to go to, a third tells me Harper is laying off its stars. Sure, it takes 10 minutes to decipher some of the messages due to your minimalist language, but who else will provide me with obscure links about Norwegian websites declaring war or perfume companies' diminished profits?

Twitter, when I'm down you send me word of a wonderful novel from my publishing friends, when I get too high you give me balance with desperate tweets from frantic booksellers. And sometimes you have just a hint of mystery with your oblique comments starting with @this or @that. What's wonderful? What's incredible? Are you keeping secrets? Please tell me, my beautiful Twitter.

Twitter, Thanks for Doing my Job

Thanks for bailing me out on Wednesday when I didn't look through the publisher's catalog in advance. In the past, I would have just made guesses and let the rep spoon feed me titles. Instead, you saved the day. I tweeted, "Anybody buy Grove/Atlantic yet? What did you like? Anything that is a must have?" The responses came pouring in. Suddenly, I was an expert, a prepared buyer.

Oh yes, we are excited about Wetlands, a couple of booksellers wrote in. Another recommended The Earth Hums in B Flat, echoing my rep's sage advice, and there was even more enthusiasm for The Whole Five Feet. My rep claimed a few books were getting great buzz so I typed the titles into the twitter search to see who was tweeting about them. Wetlands had tons of buzz, Richard Flanagan none.

Twitter Understands Me

It's hard to feel lonely with Twitter. Some days, I used to feel that nobody really knew what I was going through -- the endless catalogs, the rep's hyperbole, and tedious photocopied add-ons. My colleagues saw the lunches, the free books and a comfortable day spent sitting in a chair, while they stood behind the register.

Now, I have a community that I can tweet with everyday. Some have paged their way through the catalogs, some are stuck selling publishers that I can't stand buying, and some are experimenting with Edelweiss, the electronic catalog. Many respond to my tweets with supportive words. I tweet, "It's hard to see so many reps when I don't want to buy." They respond with, "That's how it is with us. Too many books, tight budget." All day long we talk. I'm not alone anymore.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Cutting the List of Nominees


A few weeks ago, I got one of the more surprising calls of my bookselling career. The caller wanted to know if I'd be interested in determining the nominees for the Indie Choice Book Awards. At first, I wasn't quite sure what she was talking about, but then quickly realized that the Indie Choice awards given out by the American Booksellers Association at Book Expo America are the new Booksense awards. Wow! I've come to the realization that I'm never going to be able to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but now I would have a chance to influence a book award.

Sure, I'd love to nominate a few books. I was about to start rambling off titles when she informed me that the process was a bit more complex than shouting out a few of my favorite books. The ABA would send me a long list of nominees from this year's Indie Next Lists in four categories and I would work with a handful of other booksellers from around the country to whittle the lists down to five books each. ABA booksellers would then vote for the awards from our short list.

I started sweating. I have a two-month old baby at home. I can barely get through a Dr. Seuss book right now. The caller was talking about a total of 60 or 70 books on the long lists. The panic was setting in and I was about to get my shrink on speed dial on the other line, when the caller mentioned we'd begin discussions in a week or two. That was too much, "I don't think I can read all the books in time."

She chuckled. "That's why we need people like you. No one can read all the books. We need people who know the industry, know about these books and can discuss them so we can get the right finalists."

What a relief. They needed a natural bullshitter. No problem. I do that everyday. In fact, I once had a sports talk show in Maryland and one of our features was rating movies that we hadn't seen. It was the most popular part of the show. "Sign me up for the Indie Choice Awards," I exclaimed.

This morning I completed my form and have selected my five books in each category. I thought I'd share my picks and my convoluted reasoning with the readership of Kash's Book Corner.

Fiction
  • Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb. Gottlieb's book contains echoes of The Great Gatsby, he lives right here in Boulder and I interviewed him for my blog.
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The best short story writer working today. An absolutely magnificent collection.
  • Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A quirky novel featuring cricket players in New York and odd energetic characters that reminded me of some of the great Saul Bellow novels including Humboldt's Gift.
  • Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A marvelous look at adolescent friendship, written in a gorgeous style. Nina used to work at the Boulder Book Store and I interviewed her for my blog.
  • Peace by Richard Bausch. My favorite novel of the year. Bausch's intense look at a group of Americans trying to climb an Italian hill on a snowy night in World War II was a gripping tale of survival and morality.

I must admit that I really didn't follow the spirit of my task in this category. I actually read all of the books I put on the shortlist. There were two books on the long list that I read, but I decided against nominating for the short list. Garth Stein's Art of Racing in the Rain which I thought was too lightweight for an award. Also, Stein's book zoomed in popularity after Starbuck's featured it. Nothing says independent like a title that Starbucks makes. Dennis Lehane's Given Day, which had the best galley package of any novel this year, was a great lark of a story, but in the end I felt at 720 pages it was a bit unwieldy and somewhat sloppy.

Other favorites in the fiction category that I dismissed included The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. One of my fellow buyers said she liked it but it was too slight for an award. I also have difficulty with co-written fiction although I would have made an exception in this case. Toni Morrison's A Mercy also missed my ballot. It seems to me that you should be disqualified for winning further literary awards after garnishing a Nobel Prize. The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb was simply too long to consider.

Nonfiction

Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace.
Waiter Rant by The Waiter.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.
American Buffalo by Steven Rinella.
Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg.

Unlike the fiction nominees, I didn't read too many books in this category. Hurry Down Sunshine, a title that I'm writing in because it didn't appear on the long list, is the only one I've read of my nominees. Greenberg's book is a personal, beautiful memoir depicting the year his teenage daughter had a psychotic break. Greenberg came to Denver to meet with independent booksellers before the book came out and was quite charming. Hurry Down Sunshine was published by Other Press and I don't think they'd survive without independent booksellers.

The other four books were all books that sold well at our store and seemed to speak to the kinds of readers that independent stores attract. They are smart, thought provoking and none of them were huge hits nationally. Considering their attributes almost makes me wish I'd taken the time to read at least one of them.

One book that I did read on the long list that I didn't nominate was Bonk by Mary Roach. I thought Roach's romp through sex research had it's entertaining moments, but it just seemed a little slap dash, lurching from one topic to another without much flow, and overly reliant on goofy footnotes. I also didn't think Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World should make the cut. Dewey has already enjoyed more fame and better sales than any feline should expect. Besides, I'm allergic to cats.

New Author

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
The Little Book by Selden Edwards.
In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld.

I haven't cracked open any of these books. I've admired their cover art, I've read the descriptions on the galleys, I've been awed by the blurbs, but instead I wiled away my time this year with old authors like P.G. Wodehouse and John Updike. Don't worry, I'll read Mudbound after Jordan proves herself with another 20 or so excellent books. I'll crack open Miles' tome when he's got a bit more... mileage on him.

Why these books? Hinnefeld (Unbridled) and Jordan (Algonquin) were published by small houses that consistently do excellent work. Their novels were favorites of people on the staff and I'll take any opportunity to award these small literary houses for their efforts. White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize, pretty darn impressive for a debut. Selden Edwards came to Denver for a dinner and wowed one of my co-workers (not that she finished the book). Jonathan Miles had the best premise of any novel (a scathing complaint letter that rises to great art, I'm told) this year.

I didn't select the most obvious choices on the long list. David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was clearly the splashiest debut of the year. Wroblewski lives in the Denver metro area and I feel bad in not nominating a guy from the home team, but not that bad since Oprah gave him her blessing. Oprah's seal of approval is basically the sales equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Wroblewski simply doesn't need an Indie Choice award. I also skipped on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, because with translated fiction I'm never sure if the translator or the author deserves the award.

Childrens

Savvy by Ingrid Law.
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, Helen Oxenbury.
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Lind, Shaun Tan.

I'm a guy in an open-air office with five women. These are the books they told me to nominate. What could I do? Ingrid Law, a local author, is a true favorite among the staff and she had a great signing at the store. I believe that short stories are underrepresented in teen lit and Pretty Monsters is a marvelous collection of tales that also takes up residence in our Science Fiction section.

Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book did not make my list simply because he won the Newbery Award. Gaiman gave a wonderful signing at the store that had me flummoxed as to how many books to buy. Still, he doesn't need an Indie Choice award. It's time to spread the wealth. Whatever wealth is still left in the book world.

The next step is conversing with everyone else on the committee as we try to come up with those short lists. Hopefully, someone out there uses more rational logic than I.