Our press release said it best: John Edgar Wideman is a literary lion. He has more than 20 traditionally published works to his name and a catalog of accolades — including two Faulkner Awards for Fiction. He has received much critical acclaim in his career and can command significant royalty advances.
But he’s not satisfied with where the traditional publishing model has taken him. He doesn’t know his readers. And too often he’s been left in the shadow of blockbuster titles that get publishers’ attention.
So, for his latest work, Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, he decided to experiment. He published the book, which goes on sale today, exclusively on Lulu as our inaugural VIP Service client. I talked to him recently about his decision to publish with Lulu, what he makes of the current state of the industry and what his goals are for this project. An edited transcript follows.
On the publishing industry: I’ve been in the business for many decades. I’ve been very lucky. On the other hand, there are a lot of changes in the industry that have affected me personally. I have a very personal distaste for the blockbuster syndrome. I think in movies and books, drinks and food, the blockbuster syndrome is a feature of our social landscape that has gotten out of hand.
Unless you become a blockbuster your book disappears quickly. That’s a pretty unsettling situation. It means also you have no control over your next publication. Unless you rise to the level of a certain number of copies, publishers lose interest in your work.
It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish. The publisher’s list gets shorter and shorter, and that’s destructive of quality and variety. I think the American imagination has been impoverished by the choices that have been offered as a substitute for what was once real selection.
On coming to Lulu: I’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time. And Lulu seems to represent a very live possibility as the publishing industry mutates. My son works at Lulu, and I’ve had a chance to look over his shoulder and learn about Lulu and Lulu’s ambitions. It was all quite fascinating to me.
I’m very, very attracted to a situation where I have more control over what happens to my book, where I have more control over who I reach. I like the idea of being in charge. I like the idea of being able to speak to people, have a conversation even as the book enters the world.
I also like to think that going with Lulu is almost an environmental choice, a green choice. Instead of being part of a process that overproduces 50,000 copies of a book that sit in a warehouse somewhere, we’re talking about a kind of environmentalism that uses our resources wisely. Give people something good rather than making a promise to stockholders that there’s a blockbuster on the horizon.
On his goals for Lulu: I hope Lulu will sell a bunch of books, but it’s the readers I want. There’s a funny phenomena. I’ve had tremendous critical success, but not the readers one would think would follow. I’m not crying the blues because of my particular case, but I think that can easily happen.
My books suffer because there’s an African American category and they’re sold on a particular shelf. That shelf can become a kind of prison. Readers get into the habit of going to a shelf and thinking that literature is divided in that way. You miss the opportunity to reach new readers.
The goal for me is always to write a decent book. Success with Lulu means a book that I write gets into many people’s normal information flow. Lulu would give me that kind of personal outreach to an audience. I decided to take some time and energy and give it to this project. If it works for me, I know there are other folks who could profit from this model.
And certainly the public could profit from this model.