I’m writing books at a time when all the old conventions of how to have a writing career have been blown to smithereens. But while these changes can create confusion about how to proceed in the publishing world (what rules do you follow? which suggestions are worthwhile?), only one idea seems to really hold true: publish or perish. If you want readers, you have to give them some-thing to read. So, when presented with the opportunity to publish two different books with two different publishers at the same time, I took it.
And then the adventure began. Colleagues played devil’s advocate: “Isn’t it a bad career move?” “Won’t it reduce sales for both books?” “Aren’t you competing against yourself?” “Isn’t it double the work?”
Fans were confused: “So what’s your new book about?” Which one? “I love the protagonist in your new novel.” Who? The two books couldn’t be more different. A Horse Named Sorrow is a love story and a road novel set in the most devastating years of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, while Faun is a contemporary tale of a young boy morphing into a satyr in East L.A. One is heavy, reflective, and poetic, while the other is lighter and more plot-driven.
There are also two different presses involved, with (generally speaking) two different approaches to publishing. The University of Wisconsin Press, which published A Horse Named Sorrow, is traditional, putting the book out in hardback, complete with press release and chain of command, from editors through marketing and publicity. It’s amazing at promoting the book, hitting all the right reviewers, setting up events and brainstorming ideas. Lethe Press, which published Faun, uses print-on-demand and is operated by a jack-of-all-trades publisher whom I can find most days on Facebook, where we bounce ideas back and forth, swap requests, argue, and make jokes. We hashed out the cover and discussed the text via Skype and IMs. When Faun came out and the press release wasn’t yet ready, Publishers Weekly serendipitously published a great review. An e-mail from Lethe soon followed: “You don’t need a press release. This is better!”
As for marketing, I find having two books out together actually advantageous. There are economies of scale in book promotion, like anything else, whether it’s updating a Web site, reaching out to reviewers and fans, or lining up events. And despite my colleagues’ warnings, I find that many readers are buying both books and think the two-book presentation curious, even enticing.
The books were written at different times, or rather one (A Horse Named Sorrow) was written over 15 years in stops and starts, while Faun emerged almost fully formed in about four months. But I did happen to finish them around the same time. They’d both been difficult books to complete. So much so that they precipitated a sort of crisis, which lasted until I made up my mind to forget about both books, my job—my whole life, really—and go to Argentina for a year, where by some miracle I finally made sense of both. Which just convinced me all the more that in writing there really are no rules.
Like the one that says you’re either a writer of popular or literary fiction. I’ve been living a double life. I’m treated as both a serious-minded chronicler of history and culture, as well as a slightly wacky guy with a crazy story to share. And while I sometimes feel I’m being pulled in two different directions, just as often I feel that new media increasingly do not make the popular/literary distinction. I can be both, which is not only fun, but good when sharing my work. I can talk about the comedy in my literary fiction and the serious issues in my popular fiction. All this is liberating, and, I think, easier on the psyche. Just when I feel I’m taking myself too seriously, I can move on to some lighter subject, and vice versa.
So, when I do readings, I read from both new books. Which means there are tears and laughter—and when I’m lucky, I reach a kind of synthesis of the larger common themes of my work: family, socialization, monstrosity, redemption and transformation. While it’s not the traditional way of publishing, that just may be the point. We have to set aside the rules and dive in and open ourselves to all possibilities. When we try something new, we learn something new about ourselves, about the world, and, ultimately, we create something new and different.