Apr/May 2023  •   Salon

Read Local

by Marko Fong

A face in the public domain

A face in the public domain

When I arrived at Fearrington Village for the launch of Marjorie Hudson's new novel, Indigo Field, I had a hard time finding a parking space. More than 200 people had shown up for Hudson's reading, and most had already found seats among the neatly arranged rows of white folding chairs inside the Fearrington Barn. Not so long ago, the structure really did serve as a dairy farm's barn. It now has modern bathrooms, a tree limb chandelier, tasteful ambient lighting, and a raised stage, perfectly reflecting the tension between Chatham's rural past and its gradual absorption into the mix of developments, strip malls, and high tech business parks known as the Triangle. Chatham County sits in the geographical middle of a state that's become a political and cultural fault line. On Fearrington's New South face, it's added a five star hotel/restaurant, upscale shops, and 2,000 mostly non-native residents—or as Hudson called them in her earlier Pen-Hemingway honorable mention selection short story collection "Accidental Birds of the Carolinas." On its Old South face, they've preserved the look and feel of its agricultural origins: goats, cows, and hay bales, with Tudor-inspired architecture also slipped into the mix. Fearrington is meant to look like an English village, though one where the villagers make at least $125,000 per year. If someone were to turn Hudson's novel into a movie or series, Fearrington Village would make a perfect Stonehaven, unless—of course—it actually is Stonehaven.

I've attended a number of book events for literary writers who like Hudson aren't conventionally "famous." It's common for fewer than 20 people to show even for well-planned and publicized events. For famous writers, crowds in the hundreds are still very good showings. Pre-Internet, I attended a free Saul Bellow reading at Stanford shortly after he won the Nobel Prize; it drew a few hundred fans. Bob Dylan would have done better, but even with Dylan's later Nobel Prize for Literature, I'm not sure it would have counted as a book event. Readings I attended by Isabel Allende and T.C. Boyle in Sonoma County drew slightly fewer attendees than Hudson's. To be fair, the organizers of those two events charged for tickets. In his introduction, Pete Mock, the emcee, made a point of mentioning Hudson's years past role in bringing Khalid Hosseini there for a reading, an event that drew 800 people, a McIntyre's (Fearrington's independent bookstore, and host for the event) record. Hosseini's Kite Runner (Riverhead Press, a Penguin imprint) had already achieved "bestseller" status, been reviewed by major publications, and was on its way to being made into a Hollywood movie (Dreamworks, Paramount). Indigo Field was published by a local press (Regal Publishing) with an aggressive media push, but hasn't enjoyed the benefit of anything resembling the marketing machine behind Hosseini's book. Given that, the 200 people at Fearrington for Hudson's reading was arguably an even more impressive feat.


Barriers to Outsider Publication

Does this mean that Indigo Field can expect to enjoy even a quarter of the sales of The Kite Runner? I hope so, but there's a good chance it won't. There's a corporate publishing world, known as "The Big Five," named for Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan, that's as hegemonic as the name implies. If you follow these things, the Big Five was the Big Six not that long ago, and it periodically threatens to become the Big Four or the Big Three. It's coincidentally not unlike college football conferences endlessly merging into a Power Five in pursuit of the BCS payoff. Although the Big Five accounts for just two percent of titles published each year, they account for 65 percent of the sales revenue. While independent publishers occasionally break through as Chapel Hill's Algonquin Books (since acquired by Hachette in 2021) did with Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, almost all bestsellers, national-level award winners, and mainstream media book reviews flow through Big Five houses. Regal, Hudson's publisher, is defiantly not a Big Five publisher, even taking pride in accepting un-agented manuscripts. Independently published books rarely make it upstream, though ironically Algonquin's other hit book was Daniel Wallace's Big Fish.

Speaking of upstream, should the Big Five ultimately—some say inevitably—become the Big One, it might not include any of the current constituents. Amazon overflows its banks with more than 50 percent of all book sales and more than 85 percent of the e-book market, with most of those e-books being read on Amazon Kindle readers. Amazon's horizontal integration includes Audible, the most popular audiobook seller, and Good Reads, the biggest source of consumer written book reviews next to Amazon itself. If the Big Five accounts for just two percent of titles published each year, the 1,000-plus titles a year that Amazon publishes conventionally through 17 different imprints and the 1.4 million authors a year who for various reasons make their books directly available through Kindle Direct, the company's self-publishing arm, account for a significant percentage of the rest. There was a time when a handful of Kindle Direct authors, almost always genre writers and seldom—likely never—literary, broke through to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, more in cases like Colleen Hoover and E.L. James. Still, 90 percent of Kindle Direct titles sell fewer than 100 copies.

Amazon is evasive about the actual prospect of success for Kindle Direct authors.They report that fewer than 1,000 authors sell 3,000 or more copies a month via Kindle Direct. This could be 999 or it could even be none—3,000 copies a month would make you a mid-list author at a Big Five publishing house and at serious risk of being dropped. Corporate or bottom-line oriented publishing has turned mid-list authors into literary Neanderthals, the species that coexisted and even interbred with ours for some 50 centuries before mysteriously going extinct. There used to be a large number of mid-list writers whose titles sold between 20 and 100,000 copies whom the Big Five published alongside blockbuster authors. For many years, this was enough for the publisher to make a profit and for authors to make a reasonable living without a side gig. More than a decade ago, a change in accounting methods and retail distribution practices started to starve mid-listers out of the Big Five ecosystem. The too quirky, difficult, and/or cancellable now have an even more difficult time just getting considered.

Into the '40s, movie studios owned theater chains. The Supreme Court essentially ended that arrangement (though not formally). Apparently, Justice Douglas wasn't accepting free trips or movie tickets from Louis B. Mayer. Since then, technological progress has erased the distinction. Netflix, Hulu, and, no surprise, Amazon, have become both movie producer and movie theater without much concern from the Justice Department. Simply put, the situation with books is worse: today's authors are working at a time when the book business has become increasingly monolithic and revenue focused. While selling a single book in large quantities used to be the end game, the real money now takes the form of serialization (is there any successful YA book that hasn't somehow gotten turned into a cascade of sequels?), movie or streaming series rights, and merchandising opportunities. The aim has gone from "good" money to "big" money for publishers and their media conglomerate parents. Arguably, big-time publishing is beginning to resemble the old Hollywood studio system, with marketing having greater creative control than the artists. Perhaps it's no surprise that two of the biggest influencers for fiction these days happen to be Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon.

This publishing climate change has been especially hard on "literary" writers, those authors who try to get the reader to linger on the page instead of turn it. Before publishing went more corporate, even very successful literary titles sold less than 100,000 copies in their first year of release, aka mid-list territory. The old logic was that a strong literary title might continue to sell for decades. Twenty years ago, a literary writer as good as Hudson would have been signed by a major publisher. Today, the same writers generally wind up with independent presses with limited promotional budgets, no tie-ins, and weaker—sometimes non-existent—distribution capacity. While many independent presses are, like Regal, respectable and legitimate and most at least aim to be, the non-Big Five publishing scene has become a twilight realm lined with inverted ventures where more money is made off the writers than made from their writing.


Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You

One consequence of the emergent publishing reality: fewer titles find their way into bookstores, much less the front table of bookstores. As one might expect, independently published books rarely do. My neighborhood book group recently picked a Harper Collins title that had been a Reese Witherspoon book club selection in 2022; no local book store had a copy. It is, nonetheless, in the process of becoming a series for video and has close to 9,000 reviews on Amazon. I also have an acquaintance whose fine first novel got an initial print run of 100,000 copies. He frequently posts photos on his Facebook page of his book on various bookstore shelves. I have yet to see a copy of his book in a bookstore, and I look every time I visit one. The book was a recent New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice selection. Being able to find an author's book at a bookstore or in the library may be, for non-writers, the traditional way to confirm a writer's legitimacy, yet many writers are enjoying success without a physical presence in traditional retail. Many Oscar-nominated movies now barely screen in theaters, and bestselling books frequently don't show up in bookstores. Instead, writers aim for a top 10,000 placement on—where else—Amazon, or more than 100 reviews on Good Reads. At the same time, the decline of the bookstore has eliminated a source of in-person contact for readers. For different reasons, public libraries—traditionally a place where lesser known books get discovered and read because the librarian recommends them or places them in prominent spots—are often refusing to add smaller press books to their shelves, even ones from local authors.


The Outsider Writer and the Triathlon

Given all that, why publish with an independent publisher, and why do in-person book launches with an independent bookstore? Will even a 200-person showing for a book launch make a dent? Is there a strategy for writers publishing outside the Big Five? Fwiw, publishing with a name agent and a Big Five publisher isn't a sure path to success either—far from it.

The writer's job used to be a marathon: a test of sustained inspiration, focus, and organization, culminating in a finished manuscript. The creative marathon is still part of the deal, but it's now more of a triathlon. To succeed, you not only have to complete a worthy manuscript; you then have to build an effective personal network and use that as a base to engage in a relentless orgy of unembarrassed self-promotion, both in the virtual and in person realms. There simply aren't many people with all three skill sets. Writers often became writers because they're natural introverts. They see the other two legs of the novelist's triathlon as unfair, a demand to become someone they're not.

Sometimes, it works out anyway. Consider Susanne Young's recent experience. The YA author who's successfully published 22 novels held a book launch in Tucson, her hometown. According to Young, the bookstore tweeted out the event in advance and several people said they'd be there. No one showed. The law of unintended consequences then stepped in: she tweeted a photo of the empty chairs, and the tweet got seen by eight million people. Many empathized, and it's currently #280 on Amazon's list of Teen and Young Adult Vampire Fiction titles, which isn't bad in its surprisingly big yet oddly specific sub-category.

One alternative for literary writers is teaching, aka joining the MFA industrial complex.

There are now 350 MFA writing programs in the US, serving some 20,000 students, a figure that easily exceeds the number of individuals who can hope to make a living writing fiction. In the last generation, MFA programs have proliferated as quickly as unaccredited law schools did 40 years ago. The "professionalization" of creative writing raises some provocative questions. The country can use competent lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Somehow, the need for merely competent writers of fiction feels far less pressing. First-rate creative writing generally requires some level of freshness and compelling material. Can those things actually be taught? In their defense, MFA programs can often nudge aspiring writers who have those things in the right direction. The programs also provide writers with a ready made network of support, connections to agents and publishers, and some measure of credibility. In fact, Hudson happens to have an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She also teaches at various writers' retreats, but those connections don't appear to be the heart of Regal and Hudson's launch strategy.


Reading Local

Recently, a poet acquaintance reposted Suzanne Young's empty chair book launch lament on Facebook and asked a provocative question paraphrased here as, "Why would anyone want to attend what amounts to a literary Tupperware party?" I'm betraying my age with that reference, but like AMWAY or Tupperware, the party giver is essentially trying to bootstrap the capital of friendship into sales. Given the inverse relationship between serious poetry and commerce, his somewhat cranky take isn't without merit. He also went on to say he wouldn't expect friends to show should he launch a volume of his poems; he simply felt the text should speak for itself. The Indigo Field launch reminded me that readings aren't just about selling copies.

Hudson's book launch managed to be both professional and emotional. For social media purposes, she posed with her audience, dozens of whom held up their copies of Indigo Field. Hudson herself is a relaxed stage presence who manages personable, funny, and heartfelt all at once. The text of Indigo Field is suited for public readings: the prose almost musical, the characters vivid, and the description of the natural world genuinely poetic. Three relatively long excerpts easily held the audience's attention. She then answered questions. Out of seven people who got a chance to ask one, Hudson knew five of their names without prompting. Before she moved to the far side of the barn to sign copies, a prolonged standing ovation left her and most of her audience clearly moved.

The printed word, whether on page or screen, is generally produced and consumed alone. Even with the benefit of in-person critique groups, the writer ultimately works alone. The reader, in most cases, then consumes the end result as a solitary pleasure. The fact that readers can sometimes decode disembodied text into an engaging, emotionally satisfying, and entertainingly nuanced and complex experience is one of the great human achievements. Bottom line, a book launch like Hudson's wasn't really about selling copies. Michele Tracy Berger, director of the Baker Nord Center at Case Western Reserve and one of Hudson's students, had made the trip from Cleveland and understandably got to ask the first question, one which captured the meaning of the event: "Can you talk about the importance of building a community of writers?"

The audience included a large number of local writers who have known Hudson as a friend, peer, and/or teacher. She also spent time as copyediting chief for Algonquin press, which helped her establish connections with more nationally known writers like Jill McCorkle, who blurbed her book. Sue Monk Kidd, met through a writing workshop, also provided a blurb. It was also an older group, partly because that's who lives in Fearrington, and partly because Hudson waited until her late 60's to publish her first novel. It would be hard to reproduce this large a crowd and this group of attendees anywhere else. Part of the power of the Indigo Field launch came from the event also being an appreciation of Hudson as someone who's mentored others through efforts like her Kitchen Table Writers' Group and someone who's spent 30-plus years supporting other writers in myriad other ways. Bottom line, it celebrated both Hudson and the community of writers in central North Carolina.

Hudson's novel has plenty to recommend itself on its own merits. In fact, I could imagine agents and actors fighting to portray characters like Rand and Reba. As I read it, I found myself caught between wanting to see the plot elements resolve and wanting to reread passages. For this fellow writer there were several "I wish I could write like that" moments. It also led me to engage in that mental exercise so many non-famous writers indulge: "What exactly is the qualitative difference between a manuscript like Indigo Field and the work that gets published by the Big Five?"

There's a tendency to assume books that don't become national bestsellers or win big prizes are somehow inferior to those that do. In the majority of cases, it's probably true, but it's not always the case. It struck me there's been a change in the food and drink world the literary world might emulate. In the last 15 years, there's been an explosion in locally sourced meat and produce along with craft beers and wines, built around the understanding that local is actually superior in ways national or international can't replicate. There's more room for distinctiveness and a deeper appreciation possible for a local audience. Does some farm to table eatery specializing in whatever's grown and raised nearby ever make as much money as McDonald's? Of course not. Do they do well enough to flourish? Yes. Obviously, the economics of restaurants and craft breweries are quite different from book publishing, but some parallel lessons may apply, one of which being there's a place for the personal and unique where access to the writer and his or her world contributes to the pleasure of reading it. As one of the "accidental birds" who came to Carolina like the macaws in Indigo Field, I've come to like the fact that we have consumables here you don’t find elsewhere, like Cheerwine and pulled pork barbeque.

Even though she grew up in DC, Hudson sees herself as a Southern writer. Her novel explores the full history of Chatham county, from the slaughter and exodus of the Tuscarora people, black slavery, and rural folk trying to hold on to their way of life in the face of the area becoming a retirement destination for northerners and westerners and/or a bedroom community for tech workers who still want a country feel. It looks quite thoughtfully at how much unacknowledged blending has taken place there over time. Reba, the older black woman, who keeps a list of white crimes against blacks in the back of her Bible, is also Native American. A seemingly white character turns out to be Native American. A seemingly white and a seemingly black character turn out to be cousins. In the meantime, there've been a number of atrocities committed by one group against another. Other than a scene where a pestle is put to non-conventional use, it's a perfect sort of social studies/language arts text for local schools, at least in schools who consider teaching students the true history of where they live as part of their mission. It's also the sort of novel that will have more resonance for people who know or at least want to know the area.

While I imagine few writers would turn away from national recognition and sales, there are a lot more who struggle to get published, then find that the moment becomes a small death, a pebble thrown into a vast ocean of words sinking to the bottom without a trace. I suspect a number of them would settle for some sense that their work is valued regionally for the way it brings out unique aspects of a place, a people, or a community—not inferior, just more specific to certain tastes and experiences. Instead of reaching a mass audience at a generalized level, it might reach a given audience in ways that can be uniquely appreciated by that audience. I could see it as a way for local independent bookstores to promote themselves. Why should every bookstore stock the same 2,000 or so titles regardless of location? At the same time, could there be some way to sustain writers and their work within their community so that their books have a life beyond the initial three months after publication?

Hudson calls her promotional strategy "Word of Mouth." In the weeks since, she's been engaged in a bevy of reading events throughout the Southeast. One even included musical accompaniment. Based on the photos from her Facebook page, none have drawn the numbers that came to the Fearrington Barn, yet they look to have been successful in their own right. If anyone can make the approach work, it might be Hudson. She's a warm sociable presence who also conveys a sense of passion about her material, mixed with just enough self-effacing humor to keep things comfortably light. She also has the capacity to make her audience feel individually special.

For some time there's been a space in the fiction world between the strictly commercial and the more academic, often less mainstream accessible, realm of University Presses and MFA programs. Not every book needs to be a bestseller, find its way to the front table of thousands of otherwise identical bookstores, or get 500 reviews on Amazon. Within our current publication and writing environment, a lot more voices deserve to stay on the menu and get a fair opportunity to find what may be a smaller but fiercely loyal audience. I suspect some of that may be possible with a more local approach with a community of writers free from the assumption that broad appeal (read generic) is somehow always better. Those of us in the writing world need to recognize our own responsibility to help create and sustain those spaces by nurturing work that deserves to be supported, kept alive, encouraged, and respected rather than abandoned. The same might even be said for online journals like this one.