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How Should Independent Authors and Publishers Price eBooks?

Just a brief but, I hope, worthwhile follow-up my post earlier today about ebooks from the author’s perspective….

In Friday night’s conversation, and in an increasing number of other forums and conversations, I find that I am being asked for advice about how to price books in the Kindle Store. I generally share my thoughts on this topic quite freely, which is probably a good indicator of what they are worth, as advice.

But here are a few general observations.

Authors deserve to be paid well for their work, but it is a big mistake to equate the price that is set for that work blindly or simplistically with an author’s compensation. Instead, an author’s compensation is based on the following formula:

A x B x C
A=the book’s price (usually but not always the suggested retail list price), 
B=the royalty percentage paid to the author (as opposed to “to the publisher” on the book, and 
C=the number of copies sold.

I realize that many or most of us are English majors, but that really shouldn’t keep us from absorbing and understanding this formula and its significance.

In a highly discretionary market such as the ebook market, where consumers are showing signs of being increasingly savvy and price-conscious, pricing a book too high will impede its sales. Indeed, as a number of authors including J.A. Konrath have pointed out, price sensitivity in the Kindle Store is intense. Konrath and other authors, including my co-panelists on Friday evening’s BookChatter podcast, have been finding out pretty consistently that the lower they set the prices for their books, down to the current Kindle Store floor of 99 cents for most titles, the more money they end up with via the AxBxC formula noted above.

To illustrate the concept, let’s take a hypothetical, fairly popular book with the title The Value of Nothing. It doesn’t matter whether it is a Buddhist spiritual tome, an inquiry into the price elasticity of demand, or a steamy erotic novel. (I made up the title, but of course I found afterward that there are two other books out there now with the same title, so apologies to Raj Patel and Julian Roche). Assuming that the book gets sufficient marketing attention and that there are no special forces at play such as pent up demand or early-adopter frenzy or the kind of impatience premium that is activated, say, with some bestselling sequels, my experience and observations say that the price that is set for the same book will have a dramatic effect on sales and ultimate author receipts along lines like these over, say, the course of a month:

Price    Units Sold    Author Receipts
$14.99    60               $314.79
$12.99    90               $409.19
$9.99    150               $524.48
$6.99    300               $733.95
$4.99    600             $1,047.90
$2.99    1500            $1,569.75
$1.99    3000            $2,089.50
$0.99    7500            $2,598.75
$0.00    30000               $0.00

So, no promises that it will be replicated in any other author’s experience, but I just think it is important to share this rough model that I have seen work again and again. And I am sharing it in spite of the fact that I would rather, personally, see most author and publishers price Kindle books generally at $2.99 and up.

I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why an author or publisher might wish to charge more for a book, and I am not going to extend this post unduly by trying to evaluate them. If you are concerned about saturating your market at too low a price, one thing that makes the Kindle Store — and the aggregate of all ebook venues — stand out right now is the rate at which the “installed base” of Kindles is growing. Even if an author has sold 50,000 copies of a Kindle book up to now, there are still 3 million other Kindle owners who have not bought that book yet, and that base is expected to grow by an average of a quarter of a million new Kindles a month this year, even before we count iPads, BlackBerry phones, and all the other devices that will be able to read Kindle books or other ebook formats.

One thing to keep in mind is that Amazon has promised that by June 30 it will double its Kindle royalties from 35 percent to 70 percent for authors and publishers who price their Kindle editions anywhere from $2.99 to $9.99 and participate in other Kindle feature offerings such as the text-to-speech offering. That’s a powerful lure: it would mean a per-unit royalty increase from 35 cents (on a 99-cent offering) to $1.99 (on a $2.99 offering). It could well be that, when this new royalty structure kicks in, Amazon will succeed as herding all the “cats” who currently have Kindle books priced from 99 cents up to $2.98 into the $2.99-$9.99 corral.

The Ebook Revolution and the Indie Publishing Revolution: Readers and Writers Locking Arms with Comrade Bezos

It was my pleasure to sit in Friday evening with several other authors in a live panel discussion about books, ebooks, ebook prices and the Kindle Store on Stacey Cochran’s BookChatter podcast.

One thing that stood out about the panel was that it was populated by people who are doing very, very well as Kindle authors, and none of our books are the products of major publishers. The other participants were:

  • Elisa Lorello, the author of the novel Faking It and a sequel, Ordinary World, both of which are among the top 25 Contemporary Romance bestsellers on the Kindle;
  • Rob Kroese, whose humorous take on Armageddon, angels and the Anti-Christ, Mercury Falls, is currently #665 on the overall Kindle bestseller list;
  • Holly Christine, whose “chick lit with a twist” novel Tuesday Tells It Slant is a great read that is among the top 2% of all books in the Kindle Store now, and which, with a little more attention, I expect to see rise into the Kindle Store’s top 1,000 bestsellers within the next few weeks;
  • R.J. Keller, whose first novel Waiting for Spring is outselling over 455,000 of the 467,000 books in the Kindle Store despite having no marketing budget or big publisher muscle behind it; and
  • Stacey Cochran, the show’s host, who has several successful books in the Kindle Store including The Kiribati Test, which has spent time in the Kindle Store’s top 100 titles and is currently among the top 1% of all titles in the Kindle Store sales rankings.

I had never spoken with any of the five before Friday evening, but we all have in common a passionate commitment to writing and to connecting with readers, and a willingness to look at the publishing process in new ways. Without the changes in technology that have occurred in book publishing in the past decade, all of these books might still be sitting in slush piles in the offices of literary agents and publishers, still waiting for their first real readers.

Now, thanks in large part to the Kindle and the passion that Kindle readers share for good reading, and of course to the hard work of the authors themselves, the authors on Friday evening’s panel have sold something on the order of a quarter of a million “copies” of their books already, and the future looks very bright for every one of them.

And they — or “we,” I should say, since I am proud to have participated in such an interesting discussion — are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day I connect with more authors who are experiencing astonishing success by publishing their books directly on the Kindle platform, and the result is that there are now thousands of books in the Kindle Store — selling millions of copies each month — that are enriching the reading experiences of Kindle owners while also enriching the bank accounts of the authors and of Amazon.

The Kindle will always be a great device for getting bestselling books into the hands of eager, waiting readers. But the Kindle is also the greatest device that has ever existed to get independently published books in front of the eyeballs and into the hands of engaged, interested, intelligent readers who then have the capacity to spread the word further about books that they value.

Amazon gets this, more and more authors get it, and the smartest and fastest independent publishers get it, too. Authors could not do it without the changes in technology that have revolutionized book “marketing” and taken the up-front capital costs out of ebook and print book publishing. Amazon could not do it without the efforts and courage of thousands of authors with an intense pent-up readiness to cast off the shackles of past subservience to the publishers-and-agents-as-literary-gatekeepers model.

In the Winter 2010 Kindle Nation Citizen Survey, 44 percent of the 1,892 respondents identified with the statement, “With higher bestseller prices, I’ll buy more backlist or indie titles.” It doesn’t matter that it was not a majority. (35% were neutral and 21% disagreed). What matters is that it is yet another evidence that, one and two and a hundred at a time, individual readers are moving dramatically toward a more independent approach to choosing and buying what they read, just as the audiences for music and movies evolved to embrace “indie music” and “indie films” over the past few decades. The stigma that used to cause readers and gatekeepers to sneer at “self-published” books is gradually vanishing, and it is being replaced inexorably by a more just kind of stigma and sneering: at books that lack quality. Some of those books come from independent or self publishers, to be sure, but even more of them, with a much larger footprint in our brick-and-mortar bookstores, come from the large mainstream publishers.

So the ebook revolution and the independent publishing revolution move forward together, with a growing number of authors and readers and publishers, and Comrade Bezos, all locking arms in common struggle. As these dramatic changes gain greater and greater force, other publishers, ebook manufacturers, authors, and petit-bourgeois shopkeepers will have to decide — as revolutions always force the great middle to decide — whether they are part of the problem or part of the solution.

Neither I, nor Kindle Nation Daily, nor my tiny publishing company Harvard Perspectives Press is an objective observer or neutral or innocent bystander here. I wear several hats — author, publisher, reader, reviewer, and chronicler — and while I take seriously the journalistic nature and responsibilities of much of what I do, I hope that it is self-evident that the journalism I practice is advocacy journalism. I hope that it is also self-evident that I would not allow Harvard Perspectives Press or Kindle Nation Daily to publish dreck, and that consequently it is as natural for me to let you know about these publications — whether they are by me or Rena Diane Walmsley or DL Rose or Sue Katz or some other author — as it is for me to share news about the books of other indie authors and publishers. And I may disagree with much of what is being said and done by the Big Six publishers, from their pricing and windowing tactics to their suppression of accessibility features like text-to-speech, but that will not keep me from sharing news about their books. We’re all grown-ups here, and if any of this gets out of balance I’m sure that you’ll vote with your feet.

After the revolution, we’ll all be like that little guy sitting under the tree in Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone graphic: reading and writing in paradise.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll take a good look at the great reads among the Kindle Store offerings of authors like Elisa Lorello, Rob Kroese, Holly Christine, R.J. Keller, and Stacey Cochran. And, oh yeah, that other guy from the panel, too.

Authors are Readers, Too: The Joys of Finding Independently Published Treasures in the Kindle Store

By DL Rose
Author of Shepherds of Terror

So I wandered into my local Barnes & Noble bookstore yesterday to browse the bestsellers.  Yes, I’m a huge Kindle fan, but I also like my hardcover library.  The trouble is, as I was perusing I kept telling myself how many Kindle books I could get for the same price as one hardcover.

Also, what seemed most available at B&N were authors who were well known to everyone.  The beauty of Kindle, for me, is having found treasures by reading books written by authors who I’ve never heard of but are every bit as prolific and entertaining as any of the top ten … and for a fraction of the cost.

I’m sure others, including some who have found and read my novel Shepherds Of Terror, can say the same thing.  For a first-time author like myself, publishing for the Kindle has given me an opportunity to share my book with folks who would never have heard about Shepherds Of Terror And where, you might ask, does one find these treasures?

A year ago, before I even received my new Kindle, I found this nifty weekly newsletter called Kindle Nation. It’s about all things Kindle, including free and low-cost books.  Well, I purchased many books though the Kindle Nation links even before my Kindle arrived.  I was hooked, still am.

Not only do I look forward to my e-mailed version of Kindle Nation every Tuesday, but with the Kindle edition I also receive updates on pertinent issues and links to free books all during the week.  Waahoo!  No, this isn’t a paid Kindle Nation ad, it’s me just telling my story and saying thanks!!!

(Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read Rose’s novel set in London and Basque Spain, you can click here for the excerpt that we featured as a Free Kindle Nation Short last Fall.)

When asking an author if her ebook has also been published as a "real" book will be like asking a musician if her album has been released in vinyl

I recently noticed an interesting Tweet that gets right to the heart of so many issues that authors are thinking about when we try to make decisions about publishing for the Kindle and other new technologies:

kaytee4ever: my gf thinks Kindle isn’t “realpublishing. Help! Know anyone who got a print deal after starting on Kindle?Any good arguments to tell her?

The Kindle is at the forefront of technological change that opens all kinds of new doors for authors, publishers, and anyone who likes to make reading an interactive experience. As with every medium, channel, or form of communication or commerce, there will be dreck (as there is plenty of dreck available from mainstream publishers).

But yes.

First, there have been people who got print deals after starting on Kindle, and here’s one of the most thoughtful and interesting analyses of the most recent big deal: A Kindle Success Story: How to Promote a Kindle Ebook

Second, you may not see it coming yet, but we are approaching a time when a confluence of sea changes in reading habits, consumer practices, and technology will mean that asking a Kindle book author if her book has also been published as a “real” book will be like asking a musician if her album has been released in vinyl. Serious authors from Joe Konrath to, well, me are already making a decent living from the Kindle editions of our books.

Third, all of this will work best when it works as it often works with indie music and indie movies, with readers lighting the way for other readers so that the feedback becomes the filter.

Fourth, just to take it back to the totally understandable vanity issues that are implicit in the original tweet, I hope you will enjoy the bit of dialogue included in my post The Romance of Submission, a chapter excerpted from my book Beyond the Literary-Industrial Complex.

Update: In case you were wondering if the Boyd Morrison book described in the above-referenced post really existed, here’s proof:

Between Morrison, Amazon, and his new publisher, they have endeavored to wipe out all traces of the Kindle edition, but entering the ASIN from Amazon’s main page still gets you this search result that links to a 404-page ghost.

The Romance of Submission

An excerpt from

Beyond the Literary-Industrial Complex:

How Authors and Publishers Are Using the Amazon Kindle and Other New Technologies to Unleash an Indie Movement of Readers and Writers

By Stephen Windwalker

Copyright 2008, 2009, Stephen Windwalker and Harvard Perspectives Press.

What is it to be a writer hard at the work of creating something wonderful, a work in progress that you will chisel away at and breathe life into and perfect until it is published and embraced by a welcoming audience of serious readers who buzz to one another and back to you that you have made something new, something of value, perhaps even something eternal?

In the middle of this faithful process, as you gird yourself against distractions and slave away at MacDowell or Yaddo or Starbucks, or in your garret, or on the Acela, or in your prison cell, there are blissfully intense moments when there is only you and the work. On these days the work is the best of companions.

Such moments may seem to validate Miss Dickinson’s pronouncement that “Publication is not the proper business of a poet,” so that you are inclined to apply it to your particular form of literary creation, whether it is your Dream Songs or your Ulysses, your biography of a racehorse, or your treatise on how to solve Sudoku.

But if you are budgeting time and funds so that you can afford enough daycare to allow you to finish your book, or trying to balance your writing with a day job, or to set enough aside to allow you to escape the day job, it may be difficult to fend off those thoughts of publication. If so, as the Belle of Amherst surely knew, these largely economic conditions may carry some strange elemental power – the power, perhaps, of the wolf at your door? – that puts you at risk of losing the very frame of mind that allows you to create something worthwhile in the first place.

I don’t wish to provoke hand-wringing, hair-tearing angst or to send ten thousand writers running for fee-based therapeutic relationships that they can ill afford. (Shrinks, in my experience, aren’t much good at solving underlying economic problems anyway). There are plenty of activities on the spectrum of creative endeavor where one need not be tied up in knots about one’s literary output and its ultimate place in the world. The conventionally established professional author, whose work reaps nice advances and then sells well enough to “earn out” those advances, is usually well enough inoculated against such dreary and careerist considerations that she needs only to balance her writing efforts with such concessions as she may choose to make to her publisher’s marketing demands or to the claims of celebrity. Such an author may be the fortunate inhabitant of a “zone” where one is so well guaranteed audience, promotion, distribution, and compensation that such considerations may be treated as trivial afterthoughts. And while some of the habitués of this zone may indeed be hacks who license their characters or record half a dozen formulaic page-turners each year with the next-generation iteration of the Dictaphone, there are others who have worked long and hard at good and durable work that extends our literary culture, fills our leisure hours with civilized delight, and illuminates the human experience.

No doubt there are many other writers of distinction who, keeping closer to Miss Dickinson’s dictum, work well and steadily with no regard whatsoever for the business of publication, whether they write only to be writing, for no audience at all, only for themselves, or only against some future time when they will brook their first considerations about what to do with what they have been writing. Perhaps they can work this way because they are the otherwise idle rich, or they combine a good day job with abundant energy and discipline in lives where distractions are scarce, or they are incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized, or they are prohibited for one reason or another from telling their story. But for the vast majority of us who would seek out a place for writing as part or all of the work of our daily lives, neither of these extremes is the reality.

Very few of us are driven by a serious desire to become millionaire authors, but we would like an honest chance to make a decent living writing good books and getting them into the hands of discerning readers. Yet it is in staking even such modest claims for our creative work that we risk subjecting ourselves to a writer’s purgatory.

Want to submit your manuscript through traditional publishing channels? Then those “blissfully intense hours when there is only you and the work” are about to be subjected, like a teenager’s love affair or even the bonds of best friends or blood brothers, to the intrusive, perverse, distorting pressures of societal judgment. You’ve been working privately, passionately, one-on-one with your manuscript, teasing and massaging it into the book you have lived to write, but now you must submit it and then wait passively to see if this relationship passes muster in the eyes of agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, and peers. You have quietly bestowed your passion on this companion, and now you must dress it up and take it to the prom. Even if you have always kept your own creative counsel, lived and worked by your own aesthetic, and been your own toughest editor and creative jury, now, by the simple act of inviting your companion into the glare of public scrutiny, as if assuming fairness in its consideration, you are turning the tables on yourself.

By accepting your role in this aptly named submission process, you are implicitly validating its legitimacy and encouraging its cliques of rather mean-spirited girls and boys. Later, as you open and file away their rejection slips, you will of course be formalizing and finalizing the concomitant process of obliterating your own confidence in your capacity to create, to evaluate, to rethink, and to revise what you are creating. As in most initially blissful high school romances, once they are subjected to the harsh judgments of the reigning popular crowd, someone is bound to get dumped.

It isn’t hard to imagine the famous final scene of break-up dialogue between a fickle novelist and his manuscript – what, your fiction doesn’t talk back to you? – as the pages are about to be consigned to the back of the file cabinet or the hard drive’s least trafficked subdirectory….

“Shit! I thought you loved me. All you wanted was to get published!”

“Well, sure. After I spent every day with you for two years, it would have been nice.”

“I never realized that was the only reason you were interested in me.”

“Oh, c’mon. Don’t guilt trip me. Can’t you accept that I have needs too?”

“If that’s all you were looking for, why didn’t you just pay for it?”

“Pay for it?”

“Sure. Why not? There are plenty of places where you could take your money and your so-called needs and get published without—”

“Without what?”


“Without paying any attention to what’s really inside me.”

“Maybe. I mean, I suppose. But I would never want it to get around that I was paying for it.”

“It’s hard to believe that you’re the same one who believed in me.”

“Oh, come on. Was I supposed to totally ignore the things that Lindsay and Winona and Heather were saying about you?”

“Hah! They call themselves agents and editors. They are nothing more than glorified slush-pile interns.”

“Well, everybody else listens to them. I’m never going to make it as a published author if I don’t listen to what they say. I know they will want to publish me if I can just go back to the drawing board and tighten up the story line a little.”

“Story line? What about my characters?”

“It was nice, baby. You know I will never forget you. Maybe if I can just get published we can get together sometime, in the future.”

Okay, this bit of fun has its limits, but hopefully it has helped to illuminate a worthwhile distinction: too often, it would be more apt to mangle Miss Dickinson’s phrases by noting that it is not publication, but submission, that is not the proper business of poets and other writers.

Is there a choice?

We have ceded to the major publishing houses and their gatekeepers the central roles in determining which written creative work will be widely disseminated in our culture, and in the process we subject ourselves as writers, and to a lesser but still significant degree as readers, to agonies of waiting, wishing and hoping, and quiet desperation. It was not gratuitously that publishers established this hegemony, with its concomitant power over our creative and intellectual lives. There was, especially in the half-century between 1920 and 1970, a golden age of American publishing. Many of the subsidiary “imprints” of today’s global media empires were, then, small, fairly informal shops where editors were motivated by their passion for literature, where an author celebrating the publication of his novel or not quite making it to his next royalty check or advance might well be found, of a morning, sleeping one off on the sofa in one of his editor’s homey book-lined offices. Almost everything about the book industry, from the ubiquitous independent bookshops to the number of books reviewed or excerpted in mass-circulation magazines like the Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s, to the abundance of serious “mid-list” titles kept in print by publishers, was well laid out for a mass culture of readers, and thus, in turn, for the care and feeding of enough quality writers to keep the culture in good books.

Lest I seem to be invoking some nostalgic “It’s Morning Again in America” sepia tone of a glorious past, I recommend Jason Epstein’s thoughtful and intelligent 2001 memoir of that era in the history of the publishing industry, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future. Of course there were market forces, personal ambitions, and intra- and inter-corporate competition at work in the publishing industry between 1920 and 1970, and barriers organized around class pedigree, racism, and sexism were every bit as prevalent in the publishing industry as they were in American society at large. But the fact remains that before the dramatic, power-concentrating frenzy of mergers and acquisitions that occurred in the last third of the century, the American publishing industry was generally keeping up its end of the bargain with the country’s creative culture and its audience of readers.

Writers submitted their work to agents and editors with some faith that it would get a reading, and thus would be given all the chance that any writer could expect. There was an ample array of potential entry markets, including college and literary magazines, the pulps, and even a surprising number of slick mass-market magazines that gave significant space to fiction each month and paid competitively for it. Mass periodicals from the Saturday Evening Post to Time, whatever their politics might be, were self-conscious of a responsibility to guide and broaden the culture, if perhaps not to deepen it, rather than merely to reflect its shortcomings.

In other words, there was a long period in American publishing when one could observe significant correspondence between the best work that was being written by our novelists and poets and biographers and the work that the “popular crowd” of publishing gatekeepers was admitting into its world of published books. During most of this time, our Anglo-American culture did much to promote its own better moments: Epstein notes that authors from James Joyce to James Baldwin used to grace the covers of Time magazine. Today, in a kind of weird apotheosis of the real and metaphorical linkages between high school clique culture and American literary culture, the bestselling author you are most likely to see on magazine covers at your favorite newsstand may well be Paris Hilton.

The reasons why Ms. Hilton is a bestselling author are perhaps more interesting than most of what one will find between the covers of her books. Publishing houses search out brand-name celebrities whose platforms guarantee bestseller status, because both the publishing houses and the retail bookstore chains desperately need high turnover bestsellers to generate the revenue necessary to justify their existence in a world of literary-industrial conglomerates that is, increasingly, all about the bottom line. Such name-brand authors may be genre fiction writers who have identified a certain formula for repetitive mass-market success and are willing to abide by their publishers’ pleas not to monkey with the formulas. But just as often these days the celebrity authors are cross-over stars: people who are cashing in on the notoriety they’ve gained on MTV, Court TV, American Idol, ESPN, Entertainment Tonight, People, their own television or radio shows, or, given its increasing “news” coverage of the icons who become known to us through these aforementioned portals of mass culture, the network news.

It shouldn’t shock us that readers buy a lot of these mass-produced cookie-cutter books. First, they are only one more confirming symptom of the national multi-media fixations that have already been proven for OJ, Wacko Jacko, Britney, Paris, Monica, and so forth. Second, sometimes there is interesting material in these books. Finally, although the range of more interesting alternatives to such books is definitely not narrowing, our public access to them is limited because neither the publishers, the chain bookstores, or the big-box stores whose deeply-discounted offerings of a few hundred bestsellers often drive independent booksellers out of business are willing to make a marketing or space-allocation commitment to books that do not stack up, from the get-go, as bestsellers. If you are looking for something to read on your flight, there are only so many titles available at the airport bookstand, and all of them are there because the corporate buyers or distributors are certain that they will be bestsellers and that “you” are most likely to buy a book by an author you’ve heard about already.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a Spring 2008 piece on niche political marketing, drew a clear portrayal of the largely homogeneous culture that existed in America before anyone had ever heard of niche markets and long-tail economics:

“Fifty-five years ago, 80 percent of American television viewers, young and old, tuned in to see Milton Berle on Tuesday nights. Tens of millions, rich and poor, worked together at Elks Lodges and Rotary Clubs. Millions more, rural and urban, read general-interest magazines like Look and Life. In those days, the owner of the local bank lived in the same town as the grocery clerk, and their boys might play on the same basketball team. Only 7 percent of adult Americans had a college degree.”

Entering the book section of a Walmart, Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, or BJ’s has something in common with stepping into the 1950s in terms of the diversity of culture and selection. If you have written one of the top 500 novels of the year, but it never makes it into the top 300, it is unlikely that it will turn up on the bookshelves in those short-tail book departments.

None of this is great news for readers, but it can be especially depressing for serious writers, because the big cultural picture distills to a very simple message: the mainstream publishing industry, to the extent that it is embodied in the five global media empires that dominate the American book trade at this writing, is not interested in what you are writing, is not going to make meaningful judgments about your work based on the quality or distinctiveness of your content, and is instead much more interested in hooking up with someone who is already “popular,” even if it means hiring someone else (you, perhaps?) to do the ghost writing. The industry’s popular-crowd cliques, it turns out, are not fair, and they could care less about what you may think is special about your “companion” of the last couple of years.

(This book is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions).

It’s the Real Thing: A Meditation on Immortality and Commerce

It’s the Real Thing

A Meditation on Immortality and Commerce

We play at it. We work at it.

It makes us laugh or weep.

It reveals to us

Something divine deep within us,

And something diabolical.

It is sex,

And it is what we build in the absence of sex.

It is beauty,

And it is in the creations that we imagine

As we run in sheer terror from our demons.

It is built upon physics and fart jokes.

It is spoken and written and painted and sung,

And that is just the tip of the ice sculpture.

It is in the sweet smell of morning bakeries,

the tangy tumult of teargassed rebels,

the rhythmic challenges of bass-thumping football paraders.

It is in what we proclaim and what we hide,

In what we share and what we charge for.

Is it still there, we wonder,

When, as we begin to create,

We sometimes allow ourselves the risky freedom

Of using our creations

To seduce,

To intimidate,

To mystify,

To pay for groceries,

To promote ourselves?

There, when we sense

Fuzzy boundaries between our creative energies

And our economic lives,

Our natural self-preserving careerism,

It all becomes so confusing.

After all, we are not only creators

But critics as well.

We are audience too:

We read,

We listen,

We meditate.

We see ourselves

Not only in the brightest mirrors

And stillest waters

But also in the terrifying imponderables

Of Rachmaninoff

And Dostoyevsky

And Van Gogh

And Danielle Steel.

We are audience,

We are organisms,

We have taken drug-addled journeys beyond,

On which we have seen past the seams

That seem to organize the universe,

Water from stone,

Being from sky,

Puppy from Citgo sign,

Sonnet from soccershot from tonguebath,

Sand from breath,

Shadow from nipple.

Our ability to act and to create in the present moment

Is betrayed by our tendency

To be neurotic

About anything related to the questions

Of who and where we will be tomorrow,

Of who will carry our lines

(Our soliloquies and our DNA)

One hundred years from now,

Of how much loot we will take with us

Or pass on.

Trained to think

That our own physical lives are finite,

We speculate about our souls,

But we hedge our spiritual bets

With obsessions about what we might create

That might live, in some sense, another day:

Live to be seen,

To be heard,

To be read,

To be discussed,

Or even to be bought and sold.

Jealously guarding our energies,

And our projected reputations,

We look all around us,

And especially within ourselves,

To judge what in our culture is worthy

Of our time and our reflection.

We are biased

In favor of anything that we create ourselves,

Of anything that comes from a friend

Or lover

Or family member,

Anything that has been created by a member of our tribe,

Our neighborhood,

Our college class,

Anything that seems to be about us,

Or someone that we know,

Or would like to know.

Will we settle for vicarious immortality:

The immortality of a fellow traveler?

We know what we like

We resist what we are told that we should like,

But we don’t want to miss out on anything cool,

Anything that might give us pleasure,

Anything that might lead

To a pleasant sexual connection,

Anything that we believe

We should be the first one in our group

To tell the others about.

Some days we rise in the morning

And wish that the world were limited

To our neighborhood:

That the only players

Were the garage band down the street

And the folksinger on the subway platform.

Then we log on

And connect

With a billion other provincials.

But time and again

We break through the barriers of parochialism and prejudice

And we find the most wondrous works of art,

The most compelling visual and textual and sensual meditations

On our nature,

On our plight,

On something mutually recognizable

In our common capacity for hallucination.

These moments of epiphany drive us

To play, to create,

To hunt down something archetypal

That we acknowledge but cannot quite remember in our past,

To set ourselves aflame

With the intensity of our intentions and our nightmares.

Out of all this comes drivel and dreck,

But also something more,

Something hopeful,

Something that once in a great while

We sense is the real thing.

How do we find the real thing?

How do we know when we have found it?

How do we know when we have made it?

There is no handbook for this moment,

Any more than there is a handbook for love.

(And yet there are so many for love!

Are they all impostors?)

Indeed it is a lot like love,

Or a lot like lust:

Who cares what the difference is,

Or if there is a difference?

Don’t we know it when we know it?

Can’t the quest for love or art,

In its purist moments,

Be polymorphously perverse,

Free of any hierarchy or compulsion to rate,

Yet still and all fixed only on what is beautiful,

On what is beautifully grotesque,

On what may give rise to beauty?

Looking for love,

Do we confine ourselves

To top ten lists of others’ favorites,

Or are we hotly vulnerable

To the taboo thrill

Of looking in all the wrong places?

The answer need not even be spoken,

Neither with love nor lust nor art,

Neither with what others create

Nor with what we make ourselves.

What we love,

What stirs us

To our highest and lowest moments,

Whether it involves

Sound or sight or words or ideas

Or the touch of another body,

Whether it is ornamented and accessorized

Or narrative or naked

Or humorous or monstrous,

Is nobody else’s call.

Can the entire process

Be reduced and distilled

To the synesthesia

That has been engineered in our genes

By generations of aromatic aphrodisiacs,

Cool, syncopated movie trailer themes,

And gender-transcendent, bare-bellied,

Masturbation-miming rockers?

We will love where they lead us,

What they make us think or feel,

Who they make us into,

Who they bring into our bedrooms:

What are you wearing?

What are you reading?

What’s on your night table next to the Chivas?

Wanna screw?

Maybe you will when I tell you my last book read!

Are you you, or “The Brand Called You?”

Is that a swoosh on your manuscript

Or are you just happy to see me?

We are the Indie Nation:

You and me and Bukowski and Eggers and Robert Redford.

I’ll tag your novel if you’ll buzz about my poem,

And Google will send us both a micro-payment.

Stephen Windwalker

June 15 deadline approaching for $4,000 Narrative Prize

The $4,000 Narrative Prize is awarded annually for the best short story, novel excerpt, poem, or work of literary nonfiction published by a new or emerging writer in Narrative.

The deadline for entries for each year’s award is June 15.

The winner is announced each September, and the prize is awarded in October. Notices of the award, citing the winner’s name and the title and genre of the winning piece, will be placed in prominent literary periodicals. Each winner will also be cited in an ongoing listing in Narrative. The prize will be given to the best work published each year in Narrative by a new or emerging writer, as judged by the magazine’s editors. In some years, the prize may be divided between winners, when more than one work merits the award.

Click here to submit your work. (See our Guidelines.) Or go to http://narrativemagazine.com/node/421

Narrative Prize Winners