Shot of Fiction with Your Coffee?

I’ve been a fan of Kristen Solecki’s art ever since it started appearing in Philadelphia Stories magazine a few years back. In fact, I’m such a fan that I asked if I could use one of her pieces for the cover of To Befriend a Fox, a collection of poetry by the late Richard Pearce that I edited and published with PS Books in 2010. Little did I realize, however, that she was also working as the art director for a new publishing venture called the Sips Card.

According to Solecki, the Sips Card is basically “a business card with a QR code, that when scanned, will give customers a short story from an independent writer that will last as long as a cup of coffee.” In other words, if you’re fortunate enough to stop into a coffee shop that offers the card, you can scan the QR code with your iPhone or other “smart” device and download a free short story to enjoy along with the beverage you’ve purchased.

In addition to providing reading material for the masses, the Sips Card is also a potential market for writers who are trying to find an audience. According to the Sips Card submission guidelines, the editors are looking for short works of fiction (under 3,000 words). Their goal is to select three short stories by April, when the first Sips Cards will be shipped to participating venues.

If you’re interested in submitting your work (or if you run a coffee shop and would like to offer the card to your patrons!), drop by the Sips Card website for more information.

A Setback Circa 2004

I was paging through an old journal recently, and I found the following entry:

August 14, 2004: Well, it’s beginning to look like I’ll have to publish The Grievers on my own. We came home today after house-sitting for my uncle, and there were eleven or twelve rejections in the mail. These were the results of my 3rd round of queries, and they always say the same thing — it isn’t that the agents don’t like my writing, it’s that the market is so tight… Oh well. One heartening thing, though: We were watching the bonus disk that goes with the Office DVD, and someone commented that the show’s characters were unsympathetic — which is exactly what one agent said was the problem with my book. And The Office is one of my favorite shows!

For me, it was interesting to stumble upon this entry for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that I’d actually forgotten how close I was to self-publishing The Grievers. If not for the fact that Chuck Palahniuk convinced me not to, I probably would have published the novel on my own, and it probably would have gone nowhere.

I say this, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I thought The Grievers was as good as it was going to be. But since I decided not to publish it on my own, I was unknowingly giving myself some much needed distance from the project and, in turn, giving it a bit of breathing room. As a result, I was able to be much more objective in my approach to the project when I returned to it a couple of years later.

All of this is to say that getting the novel rejected when I did was probably good for the novel and good for me as a writer. It forced me to start a new project (The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl), and the experience of getting that novel published in two very different editions taught me a lot not only about editing but about the book industry in general.

When I eventually returned to The Grievers, I understood things like pacing, plot, and character development a bit more solidly, and that allowed me to make some major improvement to the novel. Perhaps more significantly, I had a better understanding of some of the realities of the “market,” which helped me to understand why agents were rejecting the book.

To wit, The Grievers probably wasn’t going to be a “blockbuster” in the Harry Potter or Twilight sense of the word, so even if agents did “like” my writing, they weren’t really going to get much money out of any deal they could get for me. Like Wonder Mom, it’s probably more suited to a small press that appreciates my quirky and admittedly dark sense of humor than to a big press that wants the next Da Vinci Code.

Needless to say, finding the right small press was no cakewalk. I had to do a lot of research — by which I mean reading a lot of books from a lot of different presses — before finding one that matched what I was doing. But this work eventually payed off in a lot of ways. It made me realize that writing isn’t a solitary venture, and that writers need to figure out where they fit into the bigger picture of the publishing landscape if they want to find the right publisher.

Additionally, all of that reading helped me look at my own work from a new perspective. I wouldn’t say that I specifically wrote The Grievers to suit the needs of a particular publisher, but it is fair to say that reading works by certain authors I admired helped me to understand how I might do a better job of making it the kind of book I wanted it to be.

Yet while rejection was ultimately good for The Grievers, there was no way for me to know that at the time. It still stung, and I still feel a bit of a sting any time something I’ve written gets rejected or a bad review. But that brings me to the second point that struck me when I read my journal entry from 2004: I wasn’t willing to give up, and I wasn’t going to write a more marketable brand of fiction just because agents were having trouble figuring out how to sell my work.

Based on that journal entry, I’m guessing that the most specific feedback I got from any agents at the time was that my characters were unsympathetic. A rational human being probably would have responded to this criticism by making sure the characters in his or her next novel were highly sympathetic. But the decision to write fiction isn’t exactly the mark of a rational human being, and my next novel was about a drug dealing soccer mom who gets high around her children and frequently puts them in danger. Characters don’t get much less sympathetic than that.

Which isn’t to say that Wonder Mom isn’t engaging (at least by my standards), and it also isn’t to say that my protagonist isn’t an interesting if highly flawed character. It’s just to say that she does a lot of things that the average person would disapprove of. But my comment about The Office tells me that that’s the kind of story I like.

David Brent is as flawed as an office manager can be (apologies to Michael Scott!), and that’s why I’m drawn to him. And I’m drawn to flawed characters in every medium. Max Fischer in Rushmore. Grady Trip in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Lear in King Lear. Bill Clinton throughout his tenure in the White House. As Elvis Costello once said, “If the failure is great, then it tends to fascinate.”

The lesson, if there is one in all of this, is that I didn’t need to abandon my fascination. I just needed to find a publisher — and an audience — who shared it. And that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d jumped into the fray and published The Grievers on my own in 2004.

“Hey! This Is Cool!” (Or: How Books Happen)

I don’t talk about it much, but I’m the acquisitions editor for a very small press called PS Books. It’s the books division of a journal called Philadelphia Stories, which publishes, as you might guess, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by writers with at least a loose connection to the City of Brotherly Love and its outlying communities. We publish three or four books a year, and I usually take care of book design in addition to seeking out titles for publication. Tomorrow, we officially launch our first title for 2012, a collection of flash fiction titled Stripped.

To give you a sense of what the book is all about, here’s the copy I wrote for the back cover:

Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identities stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randal Brown.

As interesting as the collection itself may seem, the story of how it came to be might also be worth considering.

About a year ago, I read a blog post about depictions of gender roles in flash fiction. In the post, blogger Nicole Monaghan marveled at how well some of her favorite authors could write from the perspective of the opposite sex. Eventually, Nicole wondered aloud about whether she’d be able to identify the gender of an author if the story were stripped of its byline:

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period–I don’t know, we’ll say a year–flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman?

As soon as I read this, I thought it would be a great idea for a book, so I emailed Nicole and told her so. She wrote up a proposal and sent it to a couple of publishers who specialize in flash fiction. Though they liked the idea, the publishers turned her down, mainly for financial reasons; the kinds of publishers who work with projects like this one are also the kinds of publishers that are perpetually strapped for cash.

Given the circumstances, I couldn’t help volunteering to publish the book as a PS Books title. I mean, I thought it was a really neat idea. I’d also gone to grad school with Nicole, so I knew she could complete the project in a timely and professional manner. And if she could convince some of her favorite flash fiction authors to contribute works to the collection without having their names attached to said works, then who was I to stand in the way of this book’s publication?

Granted, we published the book on an extremely tight budget. As PS Books has been doing for the past year or so, we used a print on demand service rather than going the traditional route of printing a large number of books, and we were also fortunate enough to get permission to use a painting by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter, for the cover.

It also helps that I’m working within the framework of a larger organization. I’m okay with the technical aspects of this job – e.g., finding titles, putting the books together, making them available to the public – but I’m glad that there’s a team at Philadelphia Stories who was willing to put together a launch party and help to promote the book.

My point in all of this is to say that books can come into existence in the least expected ways—and that publication, though a reasonable goal for many writers, doesn’t really validate a piece of writing. Rather, publication only means that one person (or committee or corporation) decided to put some resources behind a project. In some cases, the calculations behind the decision to publish are purely commercial and a bit like betting on a horse. In other cases, the motives may be artistic, philanthropic, or philosophical. Chances are, all of these issues come into play in one way or another, but in no instance does publication confer some kind of objective “goodness” upon the written word.

It just means that somebody somewhere said, “Hey! This is cool!”