BY J DAVID OSBORNE
I tried retail for a while, and that was fun, in the way that puking on yourself at a family gathering is fun: you have a story. After a time, though, it stops being a story you laugh at and starts being one that you cry over. Usually into a beer. Next came moving furniture. For a time, that was good, physical work. I genuinely enjoyed it. And the stories I heard there, man, the meat of my second novel is mostly that. My imagination's not that good. But then here comes nature and that heavy time and all of a sudden my back is in ruins and I got sick of carrying marble armoires up three flights of stairs. Then came restaurant work. That was fun.
Through all of this, I wrote. My first novel dropped in that weird interim before I started the moving job, when I was living in my car. The second hit and I was getting these royalty checks, but aside from the first one (which paid my rent), it wasn't paying my rent. It hit me: "I've gotta find a way to make a living off of words or I'm going to die."
I've been a fan of crime fiction since before I can remember. It started with Ellroy. I read White Jazz and threw my hands up and hollered. You can say this much with so little? I was hooked. I got the classics in, then I got voracious with it: Mosely, Sallis, Willeford, Pelecanos, Westlake, Parker, on and on.
I loved the opportunity crime fiction presented to peer into the human condition, and the (usually) clipped, no-bullshit delivery. What I didn't like were the formulas, the staunch sexism, the rampant racism. I really wanted to carve something out that could represent everything that makes crime fiction beautiful, minus the stuff that made me cringe. That, and I didn't want to sell hot dogs anymore.
I gathered a nice group of brilliant writers, who for whatever reason decided to hook me up with some manuscripts. I started a Kickstarter (pause for groans) in which I detailed five books my new indie press would put out, and—wonder of wonders—people thought it looked cool. I got the money and I was off to the races.
The books were edited and designed and off to the printers. They dropped, and then there I was. Floating.
There were many times I'd go out to my porch and smoke a cigarette and my house would shake as the trains rolled by out across the road, and I'd wonder what I could do to actually get people to look at these titles, to pick them up. I'd gotten a massively talented artist (Matthew Revert) to do all of the covers for them, and they really popped. I'd sent out some review copies to places I thought would dig them.
Still waiting to hear back from most of those places.
I got tired of sitting on my hands. I took the books and grabbed a friend and hit the road. We went from Oklahoma to Wichita to Denver to Salt Lake City to Boise to Seattle to Portland to Sacramento out to the Bay to Los Angeles to El Paso. We performed in punk squats and abandoned warehouses and bookstores and back alleys. At one performance we lit a mannequin head on fire while I paced the floor with paint on my feet, tracing a chalk outline of an eye, rambling about a cyclops. At another I read the audience the end of my first novel and ripped out each page and burned it as I went. Though I didn't sell copies at every stop, I talked to as many people as I could about the books. And I noticed an uptick. We live in an age of social media noise and rampant void screaming. There's only one way to get things going, especially if you live in Oklahoma: you have to get out there and talk to people.
You have to ask them to dance.
There are other things you have to remember, too. Running a small press, it's important to utilize social media, despite my prior assertion that it's a dying medium. You have to be a person online, first. I see folks every day, inviting me to their "book releases,” which are really just Amazon launches of e-books. That's annoying. You're more likely to see me posting pictures of my dog, or complaining about how I could really go for a cigarette (quitting is tough, but, hey! nine days) than you are to see me talking about the books or writing or editing. The first reason is that places like Facebook and my blog are my escapes. The second is that you just turn into a spambot and fade into the background, and good luck swimming out of that lagoon.
Another thing: finances. Be careful. Keep your receipts. Where I live, there are crazy tax breaks for small businesses. Make sure you know exactly what you owe your authors. If you don't pay them right, everyone will know, and you will be ostracized. And rightly so.
On the topic of writers: they are, for the most part, a funny bunch. They care about this stuff. So they'll have things to fix, last-minute requests, bizarre neuroses. You have to learn to bend, to understand that your voice is not the voice. And if they want changes, you make them. Mark Twain once said that a novel is never finished, only abandoned, and I think that's true, but Broken River authors abandon their children with a packed lunch (complete with smiley face note written on napkin), surplus army jacket, mace, a Swiss Army knife, and one of those flashlights you put on your head. And a 'mommy loves you' and a peck on the cheek. God love them for that. They care. And you have to, as well. If you don't, well … you know.
I'm not a father so I don't really know what I'm talking about here, but I'm assuming there's a feeling you get when you hold a baby for the first time. Does it get real? I figure it gets real, then. When you spend months and months eating tuna from a can and pecking at a keyboard and making sure the kerning and keeping and hyphens and headers look right in InDesign, and then you send it to a printer and they send you copies and they are physical, real objects, resting there, looking up at you, you can almost see these big blue cartoon eyes, these helpless things that need you. So, you start to feel an obligation.
When you start a small press, you lack resources, usually. And that should make you hungry. You need to provide for these babies. Your authors, they spent years writing these things, invested their lives into them. Now here they are. Your responsibility. You'll want to quit, lord I know you will, because the whole thing is so big, like pressing your body up against the edge of everything. But you have to get out there, you have to keep your mind right, and you have to make people sit up and take notice. You didn't pull a sword out of a stone; no one ordained you the Chosen One. You chose you. It's your responsibility. So go do it. If you love something, take that big Christmas dinner in your heart and break it down into MREs and dish it out to every person you meet, in small, manageable doses. They'll feel it. They'll know you're down.
And then, you ask them to dance.