I went to San Francisco in March 1998 to attend the Webby Awards. Literary Kicks was a nominee in the Print/Zines category. I was up against Salon (a well-financed new content venture), the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (exciting stuff!), a compendium of electronic literature known as Labyrinth, and, finally, alt.culture (my friend Nathaniel Wice’s site, hosted by Pathfinder).
It felt strange to be up against a site edited by my friend and hosted by the company I worked for, but Nathaniel and I both agreed that alt.culture didn’t have a chance, and neither did Litkicks. Salon, a darling of the new media industry since its highly publicized introduction, was the clear choice to win.
I flew out to California to attend the awards ceremony at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, bringing the Enterzone crew, Christian and Briggs and Martha and Rich, as my guests. We showed up to the event in an ironic mode, enjoying the hyped-up red carpet atmosphere though we knew my site would lose, and feeling dubious about the crowd of fashionably dressed dot-commers that filled the auditorium. It wasn’t until the Print/Zines category was presented and I saw an image of the Litkicks front page on the large theatre screen that I suddenly realized I wanted Litkicks to win.
This sudden epiphany that I wanted to win was quickly followed by the announcement of the winner: Salon. Dammit.
Of all the sites that won awards that night, the only one I even liked was “Bert Is Evil” a parody news site about Sesame Street that took the “Weird” category (and got the biggest applause of the night). Christian, Briggs, Martha, Rich and I then endured a lame after-show party where mimes costumed as digital fairies served chicken tikka masala on skewers and nobody talked to anybody they didn’t show up with. I would have been more exuberant at the party myself, but I was mad about losing.
Nobody cared who won a Webby Award in 1998 anyway. Later that year BobDylan.com got nominated for a Yahoo! Best Website award and actually won, and Dan Levy thanked me from the stage at Webster Hall. Nobody cared about that either. The whole hectic new media content craze that had fired up the web industry in 1996 and 1997 was now going through a lull. In the web’s earliest years everybody was obsessed with pageviews and advertising, and the big companies were content sites like Yahoo, HotWired, Slate, Salon, CNet, NYTimes and (choke) Pathfinder. Now, the stock market was obsessed with electronic commerce, and the big companies were Amazon, CDNow and EBay. Even award-winning Salon, the most venture-capital-friendly site on the dot-com scene, was considered a minor venture next to the big e-commerce plays, as far as the investment community was concerned, The sudden lack of interest in content publishing was especially a shock in New York City, traditional home base of the advertising and media industries.
“Remember when everybody used to say ‘content is king’?” I heard a clueless and laid-off young web worker pout over a Sambuca on the rocks at one of our Silicon Alley hangouts in Little Italy. “Now they say ‘content is dead'”. I don’t remember anyone ever saying “content is king” either, but it was a fact that nobody cared who won the Webby in 1998 (and I’m not sure if anybody cares who wins it today either).
I spent the spring of 1998 doing my Notes From Underground final cut in Adobe Premiere, mastering the CD-Rom with Macromedia Director, designing a CD sleeve with Adobe Illustrator, and building an e-commerce site with Authorize.net so I could sell the movie online. At this point, I was definitely ignoring other parts of my life because of my obsession with the Dostoevsky project, and I don’t think I was showing my best self either at work or at home.
Meanwhile, around this time I realized with disappointment that I had allowed my working relationship with a literary agent named William Clark to lapse. William Clark of the William Morris agency had earlier contacted me, and he liked the manuscript I sent for a novel called The Summer of the Mets.
I became William’s client and he began sending the novel out. Waiting for an agent to sell a book is frustrating for any hopeful author, but I found the experience particularly bitter because I’d been through it once already, several years before, when an agent named Deborah Schneider had represented a different novel for me with no success. During those earlier years I clung tightly to the client-agent relationship, desperately hoping and believing the novel would sell. This time, I felt gripped by a cynicism so overbearing that I couldn’t even enjoy talking to my agent over the phone. I found I was angry at William Clark even before he tried to sell my book.
I was torn: I wanted to sell a book with a major publisher, but I also could not relish putting myself up for the humiliating process aptly called “submission” once again. My working relationship with William Clark never really took off, though he was a perfectly nice guy and did his best to represent me. The first editors he sent the novel to all passed, and then he asked me about some revisions, and I never did them, and we eventually started forgetting to return each other’s calls.
Maybe it’s because Summer of the Mets is the story of a vulnerable person’s struggle to assert himself in the world that I felt so skittish and defensive about the fate of the manuscript. It’s a short novel about the awkward attempts of a friendless and extremely shy high school kid (who, during the course of the tale, meets a girl, loses the girl and watches a lot of baseball) to break past his limitations, confront his anxieties and make contact with others in the world. I guess it’s the same story I’ve been writing, in one form or another, ever since.
I didn’t want my deepest thoughts hanging around in anybody’s slush pile anymore. Notes From Underground was going to be my next big project, and I decided at this point that I would create a company called Literary Kicks Publishing to produce and sell this movie myself, and possibly to publish books in the future too. It was only at this point that I finally registered the domain name “litkicks.com” for my main website, and began using it in place of “charm.net/~brooklyn”. It was really only at this point that I began to think about Literary Kicks as having any kind of business potential.
As I began to think about what Literary Kicks Publishing would be, I thought of two smart independent publishing figures in New York I could learn from. One was Bob Holman, who’d been an early figure in the slam poetry movement and also published books and CDs under the name Mouth Almighty.
Bob Holman was one of the most positive and gregarious people I’d ever met. He clearly lived the principles of the “spoken word” aesthetic, because he was always either talking or listening or prodding or wisecracking, and often his sentences actually rhymed. I ran into Bob often around St. Marks Poetry project or the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe or KGB in the East Village, and I appreciated that he always had something nice to say about Literary Kicks. What I could learn from Bob, I decided, was to go balls-out in promoting myself, because that was the way he approached everything he did.
Another well-known indie publisher around New York City during the late 90s was Sander Hicks, a charismatic young activist who created Soft Skull while working in a Manhattan Kinkos. Soft Skull’s anarchy-flavored books of poetry, politics or prose looked more like pamphlets than actual books (but then, so did Howl by City Lights) and could often be found near the counter at independent bookstores.
What I could learn from Sander, I decided, was focus: he was intensely dedicated to the cause of independent publishing and worked very hard on everything he did. Sander also had a chip on his shoulder the size of Avenue A, and had a way of alienating people without meaning to that reminded me sometimes of myself. At this time in the late 1990s Soft Skull was small and healthy and growing; the company would face an enormous crisis in two years after Sander dared to publish a controversial biography of George W. Bush called Fortunate Son that would put him directly in Karl Rove’s line of fire. Sander ended up yielding control of Soft Skull after the complex ordeal that ensued, but the spirit with which he built this company would remain long after his departure.
There are hedgehogs and there are foxes. As a publisher, Bob Holman was a fox and Sander Hicks was a hedgehog. I knew, as I got out my pads and pencils and sketched out my early plans for Literary Kicks Publishing, that I was also a hedgehog — determined, single-minded, stubborn, and not a fox.
I was a hedgehog– not because I wanted to be, but simply because that’s who I was. I had a feeling most successful book publishers were foxes — open-minded, curious, flexible. But I couldn’t really change who I was. And I had a movie to put out.
I finally had the Notes From Underground package ready to go in August 1998. Meg and the kids and I celebrated with a family road trip to a Beat poetry festival in Cherry Valley, New York where poet/novelist Charley Plymell lived, and where Allen Ginsberg had kept a country farm. This was a great gathering of poets like Ray Bremser, Herschel Silverman, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman, along with friends from the Beat scene like Attila Gyenis, Bill Gargan, Bob Rosenthal, Bill Morgan, Peter Hale, Rani Singh, Raymond Foye, Laki Vazakas, Jeff Weinberg, Breath Cox and David Amram.
I’m not sure what my kids thought of Anne Waldman’s poetry, but it was nice to get away from Queens for a few days. The thing they all remember most today about our road trip is that we passed through a town called Breakabean on the way. We all thought that was hilarious.
From the Webby Awards to Cherry Valley … that was the width of my circle in the world of media as I got my resources together and plotted my move into indie publishing, a move that would amount to nothing in the end. But it would take a while to get there.