When a heart attack left Avery Chenoweth wondering how much time he had left, the author decided to self-publish for the first time.
A Charlottesville resident since 1990, Chenoweth had already published Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity, Empires in the Forest: Jamestown and the Making of America, and the short story collection Wingtips, so he was confident in the strength of his work and his ability to get an agent in the future.
“But I had a sense of immediacy, that this has got to be done now,” he said.
Radical Doubt, a suspense novel about two college kids lost in the criminal underworld of a summer resort, launched in hardcover and for Kindle on Amazon in the summer of 2013. Full of Chenoweth’s trademark dark humor, the book garnered effusive praise from readers (“primarily from strangers,” he mused).
When he began shopping the novel around, though, Chenoweth was shocked to discover that, “New York publishers will not look at Kindles without something like 5,000 unit sales in the pitch meeting.” Radical Doubt retails for $11.42 in paperback ($2.99 for Kindle) and has sold just shy of 2,000 copies so far.
Chenoweth understands the realities of the new publishing industry, but that doesn’t mean he likes them.
“[Publishers] admitted for years that they can’t reach buyers, and now they’ve put that burden on others. They think in terms of bestsellers, not publishing,” he said. “They only want the top 10 percent, stuff about tighter abs, tighter ass, reductio ad absurdum. If you’re not famous they won’t publish you. Now William Faulkner can go fuck himself. I’m not comparing myself to him, but he wasn’t a celebrity.”
A graduate of UVA’s prestigious creative writing program, Chenoweth saw how books that sell well online have set new standards for would-be authors.
“All the genres are getting shorter and tighter and brighter,” he said.
He also believes the accelerating effect of the Internet on readers has changed their expectations of stories.
“If there’s too much attention paid to the finesse of the work, people get bored,” he said. “If someone isn’t dead in the first paragraph, no one cares.”
The rise of e-publishing has been hailed as a democratic revolution, an even chance at greatness for writers who haven’t yet “made it” with traditional publishers. It’s especially appealing in a town like Charlottesville, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer, a bookstore, or a book festival attendee (not in mid-March, anyway). But as Chenoweth discovered, the holy grail of a publishing contract is more difficult to reach than ever—unless a writer is prepared to be a marketer, too.
It’s a puzzle local business consultant Bethany Carlson considers daily. She helps writers produce and distribute their work, “which means doing market research and coming up with a business plan, including a budget,” she said. “We use Kickstarter to raise the funds to produce the work professionally. For books, this means pro editing, cover design, sales and marketing, and distribution.” Given the size of this area’s book-minded community, Carlson believes the city “is in a great position to become a center of independent publishing.”
Chenoweth’s still not sold on the idea that writers should have to be salespeople, too.
“The author’s job is just to write the book, but that seems irrelevant now,” Chenoweth said. He noticed an Amazon newsletter promoting his book when Doubt netted 20 reviews, but support seems to have tapered off. Though an Amazon representative denied it when he called, Chenoweth claims that an industry insider told him the retail giant expects 40 reviews before a book gets promotion. He’s attempted to reach the mark through local giveaways and Amazon advertising, but an ad that attracted “340,000 eyeballs got just a few click-throughs,” he said.
Though Charlottesville has many venues for author promotions, it may lack the volume and diversity of readers to propel local writers to the national level just by word of mouth.
Virginia Festival of the Book Program Director Nancy Damon has noticed that local author events get “a little bit of a bump” over non-local ones, but only if authors have brand-new books and haven’t already done many in-town events. As few as four or five author appearances can effectively glut the market appetite.
But that doesn’t mean locals aren’t hungry for personal interaction with the written word, as fabulist fiction writer Leeyanne Moore witnessed when she was an organizer for literary events at the Bridge PAI. She hosted open annual readings where semi-professional writers (“folks with real talent who were not living primarily from writing”) delivered skillful performances to consistently small crowds.
Participation swelled when new writers entered the mix. “These weren’t your typical avant garde intellectual Belmont hipsters,” Moore said. “They didn’t consider themselves writers, just brave people who wanted support. Clearly audiences want to see themselves in these venues.”
Aspiring writers in Charlottesville have ample opportunity to witness possible outcomes of the writing life. Publishing’s watershed changes have revealed new means for success and altered writers’ expectations in the process. Not everyone needs a deal with Viking to be happy.
“Here, you can see up close and personal how it’s working out for everybody,” Moore said.
She contrasted her VBF encounter with a “glowing” Hugh Howey, self-published sci-fi author whose eighth book made the bestseller lists, and a WriterHouse event with Chad Harbach, the UVA MFA superstar whose novel The Art of Fielding earned a massive advance and a No. 1 Notable Book slot in The New York Times and who, according to Moore, “did not have that happy glow.”
The promise of self-publishing fame is a beacon for undiscovered authors, but the reality of the market is that authors who aren’t writing for a specific online niche readership face a rocky path to stardom. Moore believes there is a relationship, if not a direct one, between developing a grassroots following close to home and making the leap to a larger audience.
“Local networking gets you the big time networking,” said Moore, who’s been volunteering with area groups for years. The Amherst MFA described how a seminar at WriterHouse helped her meet a new friend who then referred her to an agent who read her unpublished short story collection and sent her a list of people to pitch it to.
“I got to number six on the list, and he got back to me in four minutes,” she said. “It’s amazing. I don’t know what will happen next, but I never would have looked at those people if a much more commercial agent hadn’t sent me that list and said ‘Why don’t you try it?’”