I love root canals. I love relatives. I love the fact that I got both at the same time! The only good that came out of this Labor Day holiday (besides Jerry Lewis) was that I got to do my emergency root canal at my local dentist instead of going out to Hell (a.k.a. Ave. P and Ocean Parkway, a.k.a. Black Hatville) to the orthodontist. Dr. B. did my root canal in three sections and I got my final filling in a couple of days ago. Thanks again for your patience Doc, and hope you had a Happy Rosh Hashanah.
BUT putting all that drama aside, I have spent a way-cool week or so with author (and journalist) Muhammad Cohen rapping about his inaugural novel, Hong Kong On Air, and his take on mainstream publishing and self-publishing. Here is the interview:
ME: I realize that you’re a busy man but as a big fan of your book and a journalism student who has dreamed of living in HK since childhood (from a steady diet of Bruce Lee movies), I have to ask you for a little insight behind the publishing of your book. I have been involved in a debate with naive (delusional) people who champion self-publishing/vanity presses. Since your publisher Blacksmith Books truly lives up to the name “indie”, agents and publishing houses do take a considerable financial risk whenever they sign up a first time talent. I am also aware that publishing a book of 454 pages for a first time author is also something to be avoided in the mainstream industry. I can only suppose that BB was using you as you were using it with your experience as a TV journalist and citizen of Britain’s last Asian outpost to generate tourism since the Asian economic collapse in ’98 and the SARS outbreak in ’03 (and BB specializes in HK tourism books does it not?).
MC: Thanks so much for the note and for being a fan. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying your blog, even if my third decade is a rather distant and sketchy memory.
Your interest in self-publishing vs. traditional publishing is very timely in any era when anyone can publish anything. It’s also timely because Hong Kong On Air is being released in bookstores in the US this month. [YES!!!]
I’ve got experience with both self-publishing and traditional publishers. But no matter how you do it, the bottom line is getting read. (And before you even worry about that, you have to get the work written.)
When I was in graduate school, Apple offered students a special deal on its newly released Macintosh. I bought one as a substitute for my typewriter. Once I had the Mac, I realized I could use it to make headlines, and that meant I could publish a newsletter. I’d started doing some baseball writing for a local weekly and had more material than the paper could use so I had content for the newsletter. In this era, I would have started a blog.
No matter the form, two key points. First, I had a reasonable goal: get noticed for bigger and better projects. Second, I had a plan to get the newsletter read, though a combination of free distribution and advertising to attract (paying) readers. It took years and thousands of dollars to begin to see meaningful results. But it did work, and I made a living as a baseball writer for several years, propelled into the profession by the newsletter. The takeaway is that it may be worth spending some time and money to promote your work if you want to get noticed.
Remember that 25 years ago, the publications universe was a lot smaller, so it was infinitely easier to get noticed if you were moderately clever and could pinpoint contacts that could help you move ahead. Now, there are thousands rather than dozens knocking on the same doors, so it’s a lot more difficult to get on anyone’s radar.
My novel Hong Kong On Air was a completely different story from my newsletter. I don’t know if I would have considered self-publishing if I hadn’t found a traditional publisher. In retrospect, I think self-publishing the novel would have been a huge mistake.
First, about my publisher, Blacksmith Books: it is a Hong Kong publisher but doesn’t specialize in tourism books. It focuses on Hong Kong and China, and that’s a tip for finding a publisher and an audience. If you or your book have connections to affinity groups, use those links to generate interest. Hong Kong On Air was too long and too leftfield – a tale of love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie – for many publishers, but it fit Blacksmith’s catalogue, and the publisher thought it was a good story.
While I was a first time novelist, I’ve had non-fiction books published (under different names) along with a couple of ongoing professional writing gigs. I also do know the TV news business inside-out (that’s less true of women’s underwear) and I brought a unique perspective on Hong Kong (to your interest in the Fragrant Harbor, I once lived around the corner from a Bruce Lee tribute bar run by a Westerner who played a villain in one of his movies). But the main factor was that Blacksmith liked the book.
The challenge with any book is finding readers. Having a traditional publisher made it far easier for Hong Kong On Air to get reviews and other forms of publicity, at least on home turf in Hong Kong. (You can see some of what we managed on the website Blacksmith set up and maintains for the book www.hongkongonair.com) A traditional publisher also gets your book into bookstores, Amazon, etc, and deals with all the bookkeeping that involves. Yes, if you self-publish, you can do all of that yourself, but that’s the key – you have to do it all yourself. Besides the time and effort involved – and as a writer, you didn’t sign up that stuff for when you joined the club – you also need to establish credibility.
The writing universe is divided in many slices: writers, published writers, published fiction writers, published novelists, produced playwrights, anthologized poets, etc, and each category is sliced further. Having a non-US publisher puts me around the midway point on the published novelist scale, and that means I get more opportunities than authors lower on the totem pole. Of course, you have to take advantage of those opportunities. Unless you’re with one of the very top publishers, you won’t get reviewed unless you push, and no matter who your publisher is you’ve got act as your own publicist (or hire one).
I do have friends who have published themselves successfully. Both are overseas. One is a novelist who does literary and genre fiction as well as occasional non-fiction. He already had a publisher and a following, but thought he could do better himself. His wife set up the publishing company and runs the business. The other is a self-employed professional who is an inveterate social networker and self-promoter who published a how-to book with a very specific, targeted market.
My blog is syndicated at www.SpeakWithoutInterruption.com, a site that attracts a lot of aspiring writers as both contributors and readers. There’s a lot of talk there about self-publishing and no shortage of stories of disappointments and some outright scams. So if you do self-publish, you’ve got to be very careful about who you deal with.
What’s amazed me about my experience is that you can get published, get good reviews, publicize tirelessly – I mention Hong Kong On Air in virtually all of the 150-plus times I’m published in print or online – and still barely make a rippled in the ocean of books out there. When you publish yourself, you’ve just made the task of getting noticed and read even more difficult and you’ve got less help to make it happen. It’s not impossible, but the odds are against you.
Hope these thoughts are helpful. To reinforce the point about publicizing your work, I hope you’ll include my tag line below. Again, many thanks for asking.
Fucking A, right? I want to congratulate Muhammad on his US release of HKOA, and would the bar owner be Oharra by any chance? Well here’s to the return of quality writing, but with the fad created by the waifish self-deluded and indulgent Eat Pray Love, I’d say we have still a ways to go.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow Muhammad Cohen’s blog on the media and happens in Asia. His work also appears regularly in Asia Times, The Guardian, and Macau Business magazine.