Jennifer Barnes in conversation with Finn Harvor
Finn Harvor recently caught up with Jennifer Barnes, an author and the co-founder of Raw Dog Screaming Press. Harvor’s ongoing discussions on the vagaries of publishing can be found at conversationsinthebooktrade.blogspot.com, where an extended interview with Barnes is upcoming.
Finn Harvor (Rail): Literature is in trouble—that is, more trouble than usual. Why so?
Jennifer Barnes: It’s my opinion that quality art of all forms has been under attack in this country for years and the arts have taken heavy casualties. Not only literature but music, film, theater and visual arts have been affected. The entertainment industry has suffered from one corporate merger after another. But the corporate model simply doesn’t work for developing talent. For instance, musicians used to have several albums to build up a following, to hone their sound, but now if the first album doesn’t hit big, the record company tosses the band aside. Unfortunately, it’s all about quarterly profits, but quality art can take years, even a lifetime to develop. Also, something that is really worth creating probably isn’t going to appeal to the whole mass of Americans. Constantly dumbing art down and editing it for political-correctness is almost guaranteed to reduce it to bland, unmemorable pap.
However, all is not gloom and doom! I think the forced homogeny and mediocrity of corporate projects has fomented indie ventures of all types. More people are making their own movies, starting their own publishing companies, bands are releasing their own CDs. In fact: it’s why we began Raw Dog Screaming Press, no one was releasing the books we wanted to buy, or supporting the authors we wanted to read, so we decided to do it ourselves.
Rail: Does an author published by a small house have a fair chance of winning an audience?
Barnes: I’m not sure of the cause, but I think there is very little correlation between the quality of an author’s writing and the size of their following. I’d say a writer has virtually no chance of winning an audience based on writing alone. There is simply too much competition for the attention of the audience. It may not be fair or right, but these days an author needs to be a bit of a showman to win a following. Publishers don’t sell books, authors sell books. When people meet the author, read an interview or see a post from them online, that garners more interest than any print or banner ad can. I’ve read PR people from the major publishers saying the same thing; if the author doesn’t get involved in promoting, the book stands little chance of selling.
Rail: Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
Barnes: New publishers are springing up everyday but they go out of business just as fast. I know from experience that starting from scratch is extremely difficult. There’s a lot to learn and very little support. It seems like each publisher has to blaze their own trail. Often the quality suffers and a lot of works are released without adequate editing. What the scene needs are more mid-sized publishers with a solid track record and a clear audience. We need less huge conglomerates and less tiny upstarts.
Rail: Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
Barnes: RDSP would not exist without the Internet. In fact, our company grew out of an online zine that we used to run, The Dream People (www.dreampeople.org). We have since turned it over to another editor but starting online gave us the chance to meet a lot of writers and get our feet wet without a major monetary investment. The Internet allows us to locate the type of reader that is interested in our titles.
Rail: What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
Barnes: Well, we’ve just released an expanded edition of John Edward Lawson’s novel Last Burn in Hell: Director’s Cut. The story contains themes about the media, so this edition mimics a DVD and contains an alternate ending, stills from the ‘movie’, deleted scenes, a soundtrack listing and other bonus material. So far people have really responded to the concept, so we may do more editions like that. We’re also releasing the first novel by D. Harlan Wilson, who previously has only done short stories. It’s titled Dr. Identity, or Farewell to Plaquedemia and will be the first book in the Scikungfi trilogy. It’s a crazy ultra-violent sci-fi adventure packed with kung-fu action and riddled with ironic commentary on our culture in general and the academic system in particular. I am also looking forward to seeing where the bizarro movement goes in the coming year. It sprung out of some blog conversations with like-minded authors and publishers last year and spawned a collection, The Bizarro Starter Kit. But I think the authors have only begun to test the limits of where such a movement could go.