John Lawson is a writer who also runs Raw Dog Screaming Press and an online literary journal, The Dream People, an indie press and an online journal, respectively. Because of his experience as a writer and publisher, he has a lot of interesting thoughts about writing, publishing, and the internet. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him about these subjects. This is what he had to say:
Jamelah Earle: I was looking at your website and it appears that you have a lot of projects. What are some of the latest things you’ve been working on?
John Lawson: Our big June release is Terror-Dot-Gov: Docufictions by Harold Jaffe. It takes a unique approach that blends nonfiction and fiction, covering the war on terror in a way that is both sad and hilarious. Last month we had Spider Pie: Salacious Selections by Alyssa Sturgill. She’s one of the great new surrealists, and we’re excited to be the ones handling her debut book. Our most ambitious work yet is a move away from digital printing (print on demand) to do a substantial press run for the uncouth thriller Play Dead by Michael A. Arnzen, which will be out in August. And, of course, our most challenging collaboration yet: a son due in late July! I guess you’d call that a “limited edition.” Seriously, though, I believe we’ll have released something like 15 titles in 21 different editions during 2005. Of course, that doesn’t count the various eBook editions we’ll be putting out — eight electronic formats for each book. So it’s busy, busy, busy, considering we’re just two people with some volunteers.
JE: What do you think about today’s literary establishment? Did it play a role in your getting into indie publishing? How did you get into indie publishing?
JL: Well, I took the roundabout way. I started off as an aspiring screenwriter, completing scripts between sessions in the studio — I used to be an audio engineer. That ended when I got encouragement from producers, although the final sale continued to elude me. As a writer of “weird” stuff it turned out I need somebody else’s stamp on me before producers would invest. So I began selling articles and short stories, and pretty soon the Hollywood scene didn’t matter anymore. Then, trying to sell my books, it became clear today’s literary climate
isn’t too much different than Hollywood. So I tracked down the most outrageous publisher I could find, Eraserhead Press, and asked how I could help them. My intentions were to help the literary rebels thrive so alternative voices would have a better chance. I started out as editor of EHP’s online ublication, then moved up to Head of Promotions. It was actually Carlton Mellick III, EHP’s founder, who suggested I break off and start my own company. His philosophy is that there can never be “too many” unusual publishers out there, and I agree. Ironically, as a side note, a UK producer is making me an offer on one of my scripts, so my plan worked…it took many years, but I finally made it.
JE: Do you think online writing is a good way for writers to find an audience, or does the fact that there are so many message boards, blogs and personal websites make it harder for unknown writers to have their voices heard above the fray? Is online writing a viable alternative to print?
JL: Online writing is one of the most under-utilized aspects of the publishing industry. The role of the indie publisher/author could really fall under the heading “guerilla writing.” There’s a great essay by Harold Jaffe illustrating how the five tenets of guerilla warfare can be applied to freethinking publishing in the current (corporate) publishing landscape. The major publishing and the midlevel people often have such bulky infrastructures that they can’t respond to new developments until it’s way too late. Our company springs from the advent of the Internet. We started as editors of an online literary journal, and all of our books have sprung from contacts we made there. There are plenty of webzines and message boards, and while traditionalists dismiss it all out of hand it’s worth looking into. For us the zine is not only a testing ground for working with writers, but it’s a free marketing tool. You can’t beat it. Plus, our printer accepts the book files via online upload, sales reports from our distributor are updated daily online, we sell well through the multitude of online shops, we use online chats for promo, get our authors featured at various websites… the potential is endless.
As an author, there are plenty of low-grade webzines and message
boards, and others that put out product better than most “small press” magazines. There are serious readers and publishing professionals watching what happens on the Internet, and there are plenty of idiots too. It doesn’t matter. Make a good impression on them all wherever and whenever you can. If you look at through the mindset of free advertising it would be insane not to put your writing out there in electronic format, even if you’re just talking reprints. From where I sit, relying on the web has accelerated the growth of my writing career by at least five years, if not more. The contacts I’ve made with authors, editors, and readers have been invaluable.
JE: You run Raw Dog Screaming Press and an online literary journal, The Dream People, and I read on one of your pages that you “publish the unpublishable”. How would you describe this so-called unpublishable writing? What kind of gap do you think your publishing projects fill?
JL: All the conglomerates to spring from the wave of mergers begun in the 1980’s, they aren’t willing to invest in authors so much as they invest in categories. What, then, becomes of the cross-genre author? The fringe literature? That’s where we step in. Our focus is on the fringe, whether it’s absurdism, surrealism, offbeat literary genre stuff, Beat-style work… essentially, material that’s hard to pigeonhole, yet is sellable to multiple audiences. A lot of the stuff we’ve leaped at has passed through the hands of other companies because they don’t “get” what the author is trying to do. The answer is obvious: they’re telling a good story! Just because you won’t find a section in the bookstore dedicated to a particular style doesn’t mean it’s an invalid approach. It just means us lazy publishers need to figure out how to sell/who to sell it to. We’re gaining ground quickly, because there are people everywhere interested in all types of fiction, who want to see something fresh, something uninhibited. Despite popular opinion the sales are there, you just need to find a way to get the word out.
JE: Does being published by someone else give a writer more credibility than self-publishing?
JL: Well, that all depends. I know several publishers who do so little in terms of book design or promotion that you’re better off self-publishing. That way you at least have some control over how the book looks and you know up front that you have to handle all promo yourself. Then again, you’ll need to do some self-promotion even with the largest companies — they may have a department dedicated to promo, but each person will be handling four or more books, and their staffs are being cut back all the time. As far as reviews are concerned, it’s nearly impossible to get a reviewer to consider something you published yourself. By the same token, a new publishing company will encounter difficulty getting reviews, even for books by veteran authors, simply because it’s expected that new companies will fail and nobody wants to waste their time on you.
Everything in publishing is a battle of attrition. The longer you stick with it the more people will take you seriously, because the shoddy companies will fail, or the authors who lack dedication will return to their day jobs, and you’ll be left standing when the dust settles. The rules for promo are the same whether you’re an indie publisher or a self-published author. It takes about six to twelve months to get recognized, and maybe a year to three years to see substantial profit coming in from a release. That’s because you’re relying, largely, on word-of-mouth promo, which also happens to be the best sort of promo around.
JE: What kind of advice would you give those who may be looking to get into publishing (either just their own work or the work of others)?
JL: There are plenty of books on the subject, so spend a few months researching the publishing industry to see what’s expected out of you as a publisher or as a writer. When you do something, do something you
love because as I said you’ll be promoting it for a while. Stick with it no matter what. One of the things I always tell myself is “Neither victory nor defeat shall affect me,” which sounds corny I guess, but it’s easy to get sidetracked by a bad review or a successful author signing. As long as you do five things a day for your company you can’t go wrong. And, about bad reviews, research indicates that some people buy stuff reviewers trash to spite the reviewer, so it’s never a completely bad thing. And lastly, right now might be the best time ever to get into publishing. Relying on digital printing means you don’t need a crazy business loan to start up, and as I said the Internet gives you free access to readers on a global scale. Then if things go well you’re in a position to go in any direction you want.