If you’ve been to Porter Anderson’s weekly Writing on the Ether column today, you saw the comments from Roz Morris (next week’s Indie Interview) about how marketing is winning out over editorial judgement at many publishing houses because publishers are afraid to take risks. Author and ESPN fantasy football analyst Christopher Harris found that out firsthand when his agent couldn’t find a publisher for Slotback Rhapsody, his debut novel, because they basically didn’t think they could market a sports novel. So he decided to go indie, and joins us today to talk about that.
Tell us a little about your book, for readers who aren’t familiar with your work.
Slotback Rhapsody is a novel that’s nominally about pro football, though I’d like to think you don’t have to be a die-hard fan to enjoy it. It’s a story about a small but talented running back who’s always sort of gotten in his own way in trying to make the pros, but has adopted a (rather bowdlerized) Buddhist mindset for one last go-round. He ventures to Detroit to try and make a team, gets hooked up with an HGH dealer, makes compromises and has success. There’s a fair amount of on-field and locker-room action, but also a fair amount of kicking around the question of the price of focus. What does it take to dedicate yourself totally to something? How can you be personally satisfied when your success is absolutely determined by others? Oh, and there’s vegetarianism. Lots of vegetarianism.
You’ve had some short stories published, but you also have lots of sportswriting experience for various outlets. How did the two types of experience factor into writing and publishing Slotback Rhapsody?
I’ve been writing fiction way longer than I’ve been writing sports, but just like Tom Hanks in “Punchline,” have had more success in my “secondary” area of interest. (Hanks is a terrible medical student who’s accidentally a great comedian. Bad movie.) I have an MFA from UMass-Amherst, and upon finishing that degree I was looking for something to pay the bills, and was lucky enough to get hooked up with ESPN. It’s a great job, and it certainly keeps me writing. I think writing any non-fiction gets you sharper and more direct on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Finally, I’ll be honest: I wrote SR because I was writing this other, longer, weirder book, and someone told me, “You’d probably have a much easier time selling something in an area you’re known for, right?”
What prompted you to decide to publish your book instead of go the traditional route?
Frustration with terrestrial publishers. I have an agent, and she did a good job getting the manuscript in the hands of editors at most of the major houses. We had tons of email exchanges and conversations with several of them, and I personally had phone calls with enthusiastic editors with ideas for revision, to which I was eminently open. I’d say on four separate occasions, my agent was convinced an offer was forthcoming, and she’s a pretty level-headed person. But each time, we’d hear back from the editor, and they dressed it up different ways but in the end it came down to, “We don’t know how to market sports novels.” Which made the whole craven, “write what you know” thing feel a little silly. My agent insists that three or four years ago, she’d have had multiple offers based on early enthusiasm. But as it was, nobody’s marketing people and/or review boards would take a chance. So rather than sit on it, my agent (Rachel Vogel) suggested we publish it. She really did all the leg work and was amazing through the process.
What steps did you take before publishing to get feedback on the quality of the story?
Well, I did three entirely separate drafts based on feedback from Rachel, from a couple of the early enthusiastic editors, and from a couple of my close friends who are great readers of mine. The narrative was initially a bit broader, and actually had a geopolitical aspect to it that wound up on the cutting-room floor. In the middle draft there was also an electronic bank heist. What wound up in the third and final draft was much clearer, and wrapped things up plot-wise and thematically so much better, and I certainly never would’ve gotten there without tireless readers.
How did you find an editor to work with for the project? What tips would you offer for others who are looking for an editor?
I guess I didn’t have an editor, other than Rachel. The book was published in November, during the NFL season, a.k.a., my crazy time at work. So it was a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, though again, Rachel did much of the initial uploading work on my behalf. If I had it to do again, I’d probably go a bit slower, but I got excited about trying to capture some readers during the NFL season. ESPN was unbelievably supportive in allowing me to promote the book, but I really only appear on their airwaves from September to December. A few typos made it through in the final draft that an editor surely would’ve caught…but of course, the nice thing about e-publishing is that I was able to go back when I found a few spare moments and make a couple small changes.
What were the biggest surprises you had before publication? After?
I think the biggest overall surprise after is how completely similar the whole thing feels to what I imagine terrestrial publishing feels like. The only difference is that you can’t go to a bookstore and find it. But I’ll admit a cardinal sin among snooty writer-types: I don’t hang out in many bookstores anyway. I buy books online. I read reviews online, I get suggestions online, I assemble wish lists online. I read literary fiction voraciously, and probably spent about 10 minutes combined in bookstores last year. The tactile coolness of getting my first hard copy, the blush-provoking happiness of hearing from friends and family that they’d bought copies, the purring from praise and kind reviews, the bristling from a quasi-negative review…I got ‘em all in this process.
What’s been the most challenging part of the process?
The thing I spent the most time on was the technical side of uploading the correct files. There’s a learning curve there. As I’ve said, Rachel handled a bunch of the initial work for me, but at some point I decided I was taking advantage of her extraordinarily good nature, and did some of it myself. Figuring out which formats require which file types. Making sure the manuscript doesn’t have any formatting deal-breakers. Designing a cover (I have some Photoshop chops, fortunately) to the right specifications. All that stuff. None of the tasks require genius-level computer skills by any stretch, but they’re time consuming, especially for an intrepid day-jobber working at all hours of the night.
Do you plan to continue to publish your own work, or are you looking to get a traditional publishing deal?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I think my agent will be looking to send out my next manuscript to traditional editors, to hopefully build on whatever buzz SR has created. (I do think SR has sold more than a typical e-book with no marketing, simply because I have the ESPN bully pulpit. It’s not like it’s sold tens of thousands, but folks are reading it. Which is immeasurably cool.) But that last trip through the meat grinder was pretty bruising. I don’t know that I’d take a terrestrial book deal just to take it. It would have to make sense, be with a firm who I feel like has my best long-term interests at heart, etc.
What advice would you offer for currently unpublished writers considering the indie route?
Don’t buy into the stigma that self-published works are automatically inferior to ones bought by the cadre in NYC. Many are, I’m quite sure. But traditional publishing — especially literary fiction publishing — really seems like it’s dying. I honestly don’t believe it’s a matter of “people don’t read that stuff.” It’s that they don’t all read the *same* literary fiction titles, because literary fiction is challenging and quirky and individual, and it’s more cost-effective for lumbering monolithic 20th-century publishers to just put a billion dollars into Stephen King. There will always be a need for some gate-keeping, because it’s difficult for readers to know what’s good and what’s not good. But there *is* good e-stuff out there, and there’ll be even better options soon.
The big discussion point lately has been KDP Select and Amazon’s demand for exclusivity in exchange for participation. What are your thoughts on the tradeoffs?
I guess I understand it, because corporations want money, doesn’t matter if they’re lumbering terrestrial publishers or nimble dotcoms. It does feel a little like weak sauce at the moment, though, here in the industry’s nascency. I mean, let’s not establish tons of barriers and walls here at the outset, right? Let’s encourage everyone to publish for any device, and grow the pie before we worry about divvying it up. I suppose that’s naive. I will say that Amazon’s CreateSpace is an awesome site. On-demand print publishing is tremendous. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and maybe this is my ignorance (it probably is), but I don’t know that there are companies doing something equivalent as effectively. If Amazon had required me to stick only with them in exchange for on-demand print copies? I’d probably have done it. (I’m such a neophyte in this industry, I’m quite sure I just made myself sound stupid.)
One of the challenges for indie authors has been the large volume of work out there that isn’t ready for publication, especially since readers have limited tools to search through the pile for the quality books. Do you think this will always be a problem, or is it just a phase in the evolution of epublishing?
It’s a problem. I alluded to it earlier. I feel safer reading the New York Times Book Review or The Atlantic and having a reviewer I recognize tell me something is worth checking out, and right now they’re not writing about e-books. To some extent, the cartel can be useful. But I’ll trade away the cartel for the possibility of finding better, riskier, cooler books that someone in NYC didn’t think could be monetized. As I m
entioned, there will always have to be some kind of gate-keeper, probably, whether it’s Amazon or someone else. There has to be some way to sort through the jungle of titles, if only in an advisory way. But yeah, things are going to evolve way past what I can currently imagine.
Christopher Harris writes and appears on television for ESPN, commenting exclusively on professional and fantasy football. Before workingfor ESPN, he covered sports for Yahoo!, and his sports articles have also appeared on NBA.com and in ESPN the Magazine. He has an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, and has published short stories in such journals as Washington Square, LIT, News From The Republic of Letters and Slush Pile.