It’s the week after the annual publishing industry extravaganza Book Expo America, and all I keep hearing from friends in the business is just how terrible of a time it was — how many free drinks they consumed, how much big publishing gets wrong, how the expo itself is behind the times, and a number of other grievances that are all a degree removed from me, since my job is to write about the books, not get caught up in the semantics of how they’re marketed or sold.
Yet there was one publishing house from the Midwest that took what I feel was the most pragmatic approach to the annual trade festival (which, I’m told, charges anywhere up to $10,000 for tables). “We just flew in and figured we’d just go to people instead of them coming to us,” says the indie publisher, who didn’t want to be named in this piece. That, to me — as, admittedly, someone who isn’t part of the book industry — sounds like a better idea than simply paying an employee to stand around and hand out free products at a table you spent a ton of money on. And it’s just one small example of an indie publisher doing a different, more sensible thing than its larger competitors. You can always count on them for that, right?
“It’s really insane. Please don’t judge me,” Michael J. Seidlinger of Civil Coping Mechanisms says when I ask him about his daily routine as publisher-in-chief of the indie upstart. The press has been putting out a number of good books as of late, and show no signs of slowing down with a stellar lineup of releases set to come out in the future. But it isn’t just CCM that takes up all of Seidlinger’s time; he’s Electric Literature‘s book reviews editor, author of a few books of his own, and anybody who follows him on various social media channels knows he’s a tireless promoter of other indie authors and publishers. “There’s more to me than just writing and publishing,” he says. “I swear.” Although I’m inclined to believe him, it is a bit tough to imagine how much more one person can handle.
Seidlinger is a perfect representative of the literary personality in 2014: the do-it-all type who thrives on doing too much, tirelessly promoting and working with others while trying to find the time to write his own stuff. This is something I recently explored in a piece about Roxane Gay, who you might know better as an essayist than you do as an editor, or maybe you her better as a novelist than a publisher; but the thing is, you know her because Roxane Gay is out there pounding the (virtual) pavement on a daily basis. To hijack the title of Colson Whitehead’s latest book, to be a writer in 2014 is a truly noble hustle. You have to work your ass off and you need to be able to be flexible and willing to do more than just write. The writers who show that are the ones whose examples we should try and emulate. You don’t need to cop their style, just respect the work they put in day in and day out.
“I place boundaries and limitations to my days so that I can get work done,” Seidlinger tells me when I ask him why he decided to leave New York in 2013 for Virginia. Seidlinger is a writer living off the literary grid, so to speak, by not being too close to New York City and the publishing houses, agents, editors, magazines, and parties filled with free booze, and he’s making the best of it. While writers will always live in and around the Big Apple, what’s happening in literature outside of New York is often just as interesting, if not more. Seidlinger, who makes good use of social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, points out that location hardly means anything these days. “Authors are engaged with community now more than ever,” he says. But he’s quick to point out, “During the best times, it can almost feel like a party where no one has to invite anyone: it’s open to everyone looking for a good read. It’s reassuring for the entire trade-publishing world as a whole.”
Seidlinger recently published his newest book, The Fun We’ve Had, not long after announcing his press’ new lineup of books, a process he tells me he’s usually involved in every time. He says doing everything from editing to getting the book covers done for other people’s books helped him become “ruthless” when it comes to his own writing. “I used to be afraid to criticize and critique my own work,” he tells me, “but now I look at my own work right from the start, during the planning stages, with the objective idea of whether or not the book will be something thick or thin.” Working with other authors is also good for, as he puts it, “forcing me to rethink how I write.”
The thing about the people who make up the weird ecosystem known as the literary world — the writers, the editors, the publishers, the publicists, and everybody else who make stories and books happen — is that it takes an indefatigable combination of practicality, tirelessness, and idealism. The indie publisher who didn’t want to dole out the cash for a table and Seidlinger’s do-everything approach are both examples of the kind of characteristics that are redefining how the industry works in ways that aren’t always even noticeable. Seidlinger assertion — “I just publish what I like” — isn’t really a money-making scheme, and his work day, which he says starts around ten in the morning and ends well after midnight, isn’t the healthiest plan of action. But Seidlinger just keeps working. He keeps publishing, keeps editing, keeps tweeting, and keeps writing, because if you want to get anything done these days, that’s what you’ve got to do.