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Guest Post by Joe Konrath: Depression and Writers

(Ed. note: This post by author Joe Konrath first appeared today, Friday, March 25, 2011 at his excellent blog. — S.W.)

I get a lot of email, and though I try to read it all, I can’t reply to everyone.

Here’s one I replied to, reprinted with the author’s permission.

I think it’s important for reasons I’ll disclose afterward.

So here’s Kiana Davenport

“Dear Joe Konrath…this may never reach you. You must have millions of fans. Nonetheless, I need to write and express my gratitude to you.

My last three novels were pretty good sellers. Scribners, Ballantine, you know the drill. A few years ago, sales dropped drastically, no more royalties, the recession hit and I started living on my meager savings. Other than that all I own are 3 acres of land here, which in this market no one wants to buy. I don’t even own a house.

I studied Creative Writing at university, but for years I was a fashion model in NYC, lived it up and never saved a dime. Then I went back to writing, prepared to scale down and live modestly. But as you know, things got even worse with the economy. It took me four years to write the most recent novel for which a NY publisher offered me less than HALF my previous advance. A depressing figure, to be paid out in fourths through 2013! By then I could be dead, and it won’t even pay my bills. I was so desperate I accepted. Now I have to wait another year for the book to be published.

Agents and editors were admitting we’re in a ‘dying industry.’ With dwindling publishers, rock-bottom advances, I didn’t see any reason to write anymore, which is what I LIVE for.

Unemployment is staggering here, I couldn’t find a job. I sold my good clothes and jewelry, made out a will leaving the land to my daughter. I felt I’d rather die than scrape and starve. (I’m a good swimmer, I’m half Hawaiian, I know how to swim to exhaustion, then unconsciousness.) If I couldn’t make a living at what I love to do – publishers and bookstores folding left and right – I felt I’d rather pack it in. I was dead serious, I’ve never been afraid to die. Its a Hawaiian thing – we always have one foot in the other world.

At first friends thought I was kidding, but then they saw me making plans, they watched me begin to withdraw. Then one day a friend came to my house and said two words. “JOE KONRATH.” That’s what she said. “This man is going to save your life.”

I had never heard of you. She forced me then and there to sit down and start reading your blogs.

I read for two days straight.

You were my epiphany. You were telling me there was life beyond print publishing. In fact a WHOLE NEW WORLD in digital. You led me to the revolution. I started reading your books. So far I have loved SHOT OF TEQUILA and TRUCK STOP. They’re tough, fast-paced and humorous, and now and then poetic. I’m still reading.

Most importantly, within one month, following your example, I had uploaded onto Kindle my first indie ebook, HOUSE OF SKIN – PRIZE-WINNING STORIES by Kiana Davenport. All the stories I could never get published in NY as a collection. I kept my price low as you suggested, $1.99. Reader reviews have all been 5 stars.

Its selling well. I may never be a bestseller like you, but I am a HAPPY WRITER AGAIN. In fact, I’m ecstatic. My book is mine. My cover is mine. I can write what I feel, not what a publisher demands. I’m now working on my second collection of stories and a new novel. I am digital for life!

Joe, I hope you can go to Kindle and check out HOUSE OF SKIN…I owe it all to you. I kid you not, you saved my life. I am your fan, and have never said that to anyone, not even Norman Mailer. I read everything you write, I take your advice. I thought your recent interview with Barry Eisler was brilliant, shocking and prophetic as hell. I have recommended it to everyone, everywhere, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m just building a website and will highly recommend you there as well.

Again, I want to say a million Mahalos! Thanks! For giving me back my deep joy in writing, and my life. I so glad I didn’t take that swim. With my alohas from Hawai’i…”

Joe sez: Well, first of all, I’m not deserving of her gratitude. I’m just a writer sharing what I’ve learned, which is something we all should be doing. I don’t have millions of fans, and though she said kind things about my writing, having bought and read a few selections in HOUSE OF SKIN she’s much better than I am.

And of course I didn’t actually save her life. Kiana did that all by herself. It’s a nice thing for her to say, but it was her own inner strength that kept her going, not the stuff I blog about.

As you might expect, I was humbled, touched, and ultimately concerned by this letter. Artists by nature are temperamental, and depression is common in this business.

When Hyperion dropped my Jack Daniels series, I was pretty much a mess. I’d worked like a dog to make sure those books sold. And they were selling. Still are. But I was counting on that next advance to feed my family, and when it didn’t come I felt devastated. Worthless. Helpless. It made no sense (still doesn’t) and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

There are few worse feelings than trying your best and it not being enough.

I wound up getting another contract a few months later, for much less money. And I kept a brave face in public, downplaying how badly I felt.

I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one who had to go through something like that.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with writers who had similar experiences to Kiana and me. Tales of rejection. Of bad luck and stupid publisher decisions. Of getting the shit end of the stick, over and over and over.

It got me thinking. For every writer popping open the champagne because they just got a new deal, there are dozens who have gotten screwed. And no doubt some of them thought about swimming out to sea. While my depression never got that severe, I certainly wouldn’t want to relive those dark, depressing, frightening months without a publishing contract.

But I never have to feel that way again. None of us do. We don’t have to rely on a gatekeeper’s “yes” or “no” to dictate how we feel about ourselves. We don’t have to put all of our eggs into the legacy publishing basket anymore. Hell, we don’t have to put any eggs in there at all.

For the first time ever, writers have a choice.

Choices are empowering. Having the ability to control our futures, even with something as simple as self-publishing an ebook, means we aren’t helpless anymore.

That’s a very good thing.

Kiana’s latest advance for her upcoming novel is a shame. And though she says her self-pubbed ebook collection is selling well, her current rank is so-so.

HOUSE OF SKIN is $1.99. I already bought a copy.

I’m asking you to buy a copy as well.

Let’s see how low we can get her Amazon ranking. Right now it’s #134,555.

I’d really like to see it crack the Top 1000.

Help me spread the word.

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.

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