“The Trumpiad” and “And the Hummingbird Says”

Twenty-seventeen was a challenging year in many ways. I found myself doing a great deal of soul-searching about my adopted country and how I might (let alone should) respond to the election to the presidency of a man whom I thought was manifestly unfit for the office—and who has proven himself to be so in every way. One way I coped was writing The Trumpiad—a mock-heroic satire in ottava rima, the verse pattern (abababcc) employed by Lord Byron in Don Juan, his picaresque satire of politics and manners, composed 200 years ago.

Each month, I composed a canto with as many verses as days  in that month, and posted them on this website. I then spent January and February editing all 365 verses (and one villanelle) to get the rhyme pattern and meter right. I have now published The Trumpiad (with various glossaries) as an e-book on Smashwords and as a three-dimensional book using Amazon’s Create Space self-publishing program. Publishing in this way has provided me with valuable first-hand insights into a couple of the “alternatives” to publishing that I often talk about with would-be authors. I’m also pleased to offer the proceeds of the sales (beyond the cost of printing) to two charities (Vine and New Alternatives NYC), which you can read about on The Trumpiads page. The epic continues into the president’s second year, and you can read the latest effusions on this page.

After several years of false starts, Japanese composer Mihoko Suzuki and I completed our five-part song-cycle on the life and experiences of the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai. Entitled And the Hummingbird Says . . . , the five-part, 50-minute piece is now available on CD or for download, and you can read all about it and link to the page to purchase it here. The CD contains the libretto, but you can also read them in their entirety on the cycle’s individual song pages (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

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The Serendipity of Publicity

Nathan Heller's "Blood Ties" in The New Yorker

Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties” in The New Yorker

A few years ago, I was fortunate to play a role in helping Gene Baur, the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, complete his first book, which told the story of the organization and the many animals that he’d rescued from stockyards.

Last week, my company, Lantern Books, and I were mentioned in a profile of one of our authors, Jens Soering, by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker. This was a first for us. Three of Jens’ books with Lantern were named—One Day in the Life of Prisoner 179212, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse, and The Way of the Prisoner—as was the individual, Fr. Thomas Keating, who brought Jens to us, and who is another of our authors.

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food was published to modest success by Simon & Schuster in 2008. One of the purchasers of that book left a copy at a bed & breakfast in New Jersey. A visitor picked up the book, read it, and was so inspired by its story, and the tales of the animals who made their way to Farm Sanctuary, that she told her husband about it. The visitor was Tracey Stewart, the wife of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Not only did Jon invite Gene on his show to talk about his latest book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, co-written with Gene Stone, but Tracey purchased a parcel of land in New Jersey that will be her own sanctuary for farmed animals, and which will be run by Farm Sanctuary. She also published a book, Do Unto Animals, that, like Farm Sanctuary, is a rallying cry for less cruelty and more compassion.

In a world where it’s harder and harder to break through the incessant noise of self-promotion, information overload, and multiplying media to reach your audience and make an impression, the story of how one person read one book that changed her life and thereby brought an enormous amount of positive attention to a worthy organization is delightfully analogue, old-school, serendipitous . . . take your pick. No paid consultants; no publicity hacks; no massive media blitz. Just a book on a table that found its way into the hands of someone who was ready to be transformed. It’s perhaps what all publishers and authors dream of: it so rarely comes true, that when it happens there’s something providential about it.

I wish I could say the Heller piece has aroused great interest in Jens’ work/situation or our company, but it hasn’t . . . yet. I like to think that it’s still early days. Apartments around the world are filled with back issues of The New Yorker waiting to be read. Jens is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, The Promise, which may remind that special someone of Heller’s thoughtful piece, and which in turn may stir the Kraken of national attention. Until then, we do our bit, communicating however we can about our books—hoping that that special someone will change her life and change the world.

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Jens Soering, The New Yorker, and Me

It’s a strange thing to see your name written out in the elegant, restrained typeface of The New Yorker magazine—as I, on this Monday morning, discover myself to be (in Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties”). As someone who’s subscribed to the magazine for almost two decades, it feels unreal—as though the “Martin Rowe, a co-founder of Lantern Books,” is someone else entirely. But the thoughtful and conscientious Nathan Heller did come round to my house to interview me; the subject of his piece, Jens Soering, is an author of four books for Lantern; and another of our authors, Thomas Keating (also mentioned), did indeed send Soering’s first manuscript, The Way of the Prisoner, to us.

The story that Heller tells is complex and layered, and, as far as I can tell, accurate. It’s also restrained and judicious, without any of the sensationalism that (one might hope) might draw attention to our publishing program—with all of the risks and rewards that come with intense media interest. But the piece, at least, offers a welcome recognition for Lantern, and I’m grateful for that.

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The Book as Souvenir

Seth Godin is one of those disruptive gurus of marketing, publishing, and connectivity, and I think he speaks a lot of sense. I especially appreciate what he says about the book as a souvenir—with all of the ambiguity that such a word implies. Witness this comment:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

Out of context, a 140 character tweet cannot change someone’s life. A blog post might (I can think of a few that changed the way I think about business and even life). A movie can, but most big movies are inane entertainments designed to make a lot of money, not change people. But books? [. . .]

Books change lives every day. A book takes more than a few minutes to read. A book envelopes [sic] us, it is relentless in its voice and in its linearity. You start at the beginning and you either ride with the author to the end or you bail. And unlike just about any form of electronic media, you get to read the book at your own pace, absorbing it as you go.

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The Fine Writer

A friend who is currently writing a book sent me an email about its progress. She told me she’d started to read H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s award-winning memoir of how she dealt with her grief over her father’s death through falconry. My friend had had to stop reading the book, she related, because she’d been intimidated by MacDonald’s lush vocabulary and poetic style and it made her feel inadequate as a writer. Her own language was much more down to earth, she wrote, and she was trying to tell a story very plainly.

I have not read MacDonald’s book, but my friend’s comments did strike home. I, too, tend toward lushness in my prose. I often ask my sentences to carry a lot of weight—not least by freighting them with dependent clauses, balancing them between several semi-colons, and never allowing a noun or verb to complete their tasks without colorful adjectives or adverbs as chaperones. Once I’ve reached a first draft, I polish my prose to a dazzling sheen, which is not to say that it’s clear, well-written, insightful, or compelling. It may sound resonant; it may be lyrical; it may offer to the reader a veneer that suggests a rich grain of considered thought. But, in the end, the polish can lacquer the prose to the point of lifelessness.

I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first volume of her much-lauded re-imagination of the life and times of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. I’ve no doubt that Mantel labored as mightily over her prose as MacDonald did hers, and I do mine. What’s remarkable, however, about Mantel’s writing is that it feels as unvarnished and sometimes as muddled (who is the “he” in this sentence?) as the times she is describing. Sentences tumble into each other; we move back and forth in time and in and out of Cromwell’s head frequently within paragraphs; names are dropped, kicked around, and picked up again with abandon (and who is this “Thomas”?). Yet it all works. The prose more than breathes; it runs, pants, shouts, laughs, whispers, and has all the energetic vital signs you want in a book. It’s Dickensian in all the right ways: expansive, unafraid, pell-mell, and rich with characters and incidents. And in its own way as plain as day.

My worry as a writer is that my effort to make each word matter and to render each sentence beautiful is my way of avoiding producing sentences over which I don’t have complete control, which is itself a symptom of fearing not that I lack the tools to write a book but that I don’t actually have enough raw materials to make anything worthwhile. My facility, after all, hints at facileness. Yet a little less polish might open up cracks in the story to reveal emotional, intellectual, and narrative depths that had heretofore been plastered over by “fine” writing. The task is not to write plainly or beautifully; the task is to write truthfully. And sometimes that is a harder and scarier prospect than any prose style can fix.

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The Woes of the Author

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society—an august body of writers (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) based in the U.K.—have produced their annual report on the dismal state of affairs for professional writers. (Thank you, Kim Stallwood, for sending it to me.) I reproduce here, for your inspection and circumspection, the salient details from the report:

THE WRITING LIFE AND EARNINGS

  • The career of a typical professional author begins in the late 20s/30s. The optimum ‘earning age’ for most is the mid-40s to 50s, with incomes beginning to decline thereafter.
  • The earnings picture is very top heavy: the top 5% earned 42.3% of all the money earned by professional authors.
  • The bottom 50% (those earning £10,432 or less) earned only 7% of all the money earned by all writers cumulatively.
  • Since 2005 the typical author has become poorer against society as a whole and now (from self-employed writing) earns only 87% of the present minimum wage.
  • Nearly 90% of professional authors need to earn money from sources other than writing.
  • 17% of all writers did not earn any money from writing in 2013, despite 98% of these having had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013. Therefore, at least 17% of writers work without any expectation of earnings.

 SELF-PUBLISHING

  • A quarter of authors have self-published a book.
  • Among authors who have self-published, the top 10% of earners made a profit of £7,000 or more.
  • The top 20% of earners among authors who have self-published made a profit of almost £3,000.
  • The bottom 20% of authors who have self-published made losses of at least £400.

 PUBLISHING ADVANCES & CONTRACTS

  • 44% of authors stated that the size of the advances they had received from publishers had declined over the past five years.
  • 46% of authors said they had signed a buy-out contract (where there is a single payment for use of their work without the further payment of royalties), with 30% stating that the prevalence of such contracts was on the increase.
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The Two-Week Rule

everytime-you-make-a-typo-the-errorists-winWe have a rule in our offices at Lantern Books that no copies of a book newly arrived from the printers are to be scanned for typos, verbal infelicities, or solecisms. It’s hard to do: the eye roves over the page like a klieg-light, casting into sharp relief the typefaces chosen, the leading and kerning of letters and lines on the page, the running-head format, the dimensions of the book, the thickness of the paper, the margins, and so on. We’ve poured our hearts (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) into the book, and it’s beyond disheartening to be confronted with mistakes that somehow bypassed the author, editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader.

After fourteen days, however, we can view the errors with more equanimity than despair; and exasperation and self-loathing have been replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and steely determination not to do it again. Thankfully, technology has helped us experience fewer unwelcome surprises. Not only can we do a dummy run with one or more copies of the book, just so that we can get the three-dimensional item in our hands before committing ourselves more fully to print, but the actual print run can be a matter of only a few copies, allowing changes to be made quickly, with relatively little expense, and with relatively few tarnished copies out there in the world.

I still think the two-week rule needs to be applied—and not just for publishers. An author recently told me that she’d sent her mother a copy of a book over which she’d labored mightily for many years, only for her mother to reply immediately that she’d found three errors—and that was just for starters. Of course, it is the ordained role of parents everywhere to remind their children that, no matter how much they may feel they have accomplished, they’ll always be in the wrong. So, authors: make sure you tell your readers (and especially your supposedly nearest and dearest) that for fourteen days you want nothing but unconditional love and support. After that, one’s fragile heart might be strong enough for the uncomfortable truth.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing