Our New Author

Posted 08/01/2011 by jameystegmaier
Categories: author event

We had a delightful lunch with our newest author, Steve Wiegenstein, last Wednesday, so I thought I’d share a few photos of the moment directly preceding Steve signing the contract. This is Steve with his lovely family (and Kristy grinning on the right–she’s just as excited as I am about Steve’s first novel and future as an author):


I’ll follow up soon on how you can follow Steve on Facebook, Twitter, and his blog.



Posted 07/24/2011 by jameystegmaier
Categories: independent book stores

Anene just wrote a fantastic blog entry about why Borders went bankrupt (there are other reasons, but she touches upon the big one). She talks a bit about all the effort that Borders made to draw people into their stores: The coffee, the food, the free wi-fi, the comfortable setting, etc. And she discusses how, unfortunately, many people abused those perks instead of buying books at Borders.

Now, Borders closing might have a positive impact on independent bookstores…if those bookstores learn from (a) human nature and (b) Borders’ mistakes. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t give away wi-fi. But also don’t charge for it. Give people access to wi-fi after they buy a book or coffee.
  • Same thing with author events. Don’t allow people to attend author events for free, but don’t charge them directly. If people buy a book before the event (any book), they get access to the event.
  • Work with e-retailers. It’s easy for anyone to walk into a bookstore, browse for a book, and then hop online on their Kindle or iPhone and buy the book or ebook for cheaper. So make deals with the major online retailers so that when someone uses your wi-fi to buy a book, you get a cut of the profit on the back end.
  • Anene points out that some people bring books and magazines into Borders to read, then they leave. I don’t know how you prevent that without looking like an ass, but frankly, that’s not cool, and there needs to be a way to cut down on it.

Overall, though, I think we need to remember that books are entertainment. Us publishers can’t simply expect people to buy our books because they’re there. We need to publish books that exceed the entertainment value of the alternatives–books, movies, music, etc. That doesn’t mean that we stop signing literary authors. It simply means that we need to publish books that immerse people into a world in a way that movies and TV cannot.

If you think about it, it takes two hours to watch the Captain America movie (which is actually quite good). But it takes 6-8 hours to read your average book. In terms of hours of entertainment, the book is the clear winner. So let’s keep publishing books that make people not want to put them down for 6-8 hours. If we keep doing that, people will go to bookstores to find those books, and bookstores will survive.

Donald Ray Pollock & The Devil All The Time at Subterranean Books

Posted 07/21/2011 by blankslatepress
Categories: author event, book review, Fred Venturini

Tags: , , , , , ,

I have a soft spot for Donald Ray Pollock. As a new (completely unknown) publisher, I asked Fred Venturini, our debut author, to make a list of his dream team of early readers to see who we could approach for writing a blurb for the back cover. He came up with seven names and I set about to find contact information for each of the authors. I wrote and rewrote (multiple times) an e-mail just to initiate contact, give a bit of background about BSP and about Fred and ask whether or not the author would be willing to accept an ARC from us and, if he liked it, consider blurbing it.

Then, nervously, I hit send.

Right away, I got a note back from Don saying that Fred’s book sounded right up his alley and that he’d be happy to give it a read. (I eventually was contacted by four of the seven authors, two blurbed the book, one said it was a little too far outside his traditional genre, and one was a little late on replying but has been a big supporter of BSP and Fred ever since publication.) The others I never heard from. After the ARCS were ready, I sent the book out to the readers and in no time at all Don had read it, written a fantastic blurb, and had given BSP and Fred an adrenaline rush from which we haven’t quite recovered. (And talk about adrenaline, have you seen our new trailer for The Samaritan? Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V7sIYki_Eo&feature=related.)

So…when I heard that Don’s new book was coming out and that he would be reading at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, I knew I had to be there. And I was not disappointed. (By the way, the folks at Sub Books are awesome.)

Don is friendly and gracious (even when a fan girl–a.k.a., me–barges through the door and starts blathering on and on about how much we loved his book and how excited we were to meet him and thank him in person for giving BSP and Fred a chance, yada yada yada…) in a quiet, unassuming way. His soft, southern drawl is pitch perfect for reading the tight, spare and yet rich, descriptive sentences that characterize his writing. Sentences like these that set the stage for book:

Willard eased himself down on the high side of the log and motioned for his son to kneel beside him in the dead, soggy leaves. Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn’t know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.

Don read several passages, each one shedding a little light on one of the narrative threads woven through the book. The Devil All The Time is populated by characters who are sad and pathetic, misguided and deluded, or even downright evil, but he somehow imbues them with flashes of humanity that makes the reader care about even the worst of them.

As an admiring reader (and as a fan of the guy as a plain ol’ person), I think part of his ability to make the reader care about these hard-luck cases is the down-to-earth sense of humility that comes through in his writing. He’s not judging his characters; he’s simply telling their stories. He never lets his authorial voice intrude, never tells the reader, “Hey, watch out for this guy, he’s a son of a bitch.” Instead, we see each flawed character struggle with love and hate, fear and longing, and we come to understand something about their motivations, how they came to be so fuc*ed up. We get to know these people on their own terms. And once you know someone, it’s not so easy to dismiss them.

Don’s work isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Pick up a copy of The Devil All The Time and see for yourself.  As Willard says, “They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there,” and all we can do is hope that Donald Ray Pollock keeps writing their stories.

Review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Posted 07/19/2011 by blankslatepress
Categories: book review, must-read books, reading

Tags: , , , , , ,

by Elena Makansi, BSP Summer Intern

I had the privilege of hearing author Laini Taylor’s editor speak about this book at BEA, during the YA Editor’s Buzz panel. She sold it as an exciting, beautifully written, engaging book with a kick-ass, beautiful heroine. A sort of Angels and Devils tale, set in contemporary Prague. While most of that sounded great, I was a bit turned off by the whole “kick-ass beautiful heroine” part. Of course I love reading about powerful women, and I think it is awesome that young readers, especially young women, can look up to and be empowered by these characters. However, after reading many, many YA novels with kick-ass, beautiful heroines, the idea became a bit annoying. They’re all beautiful, yet perfectly flawed in the luckiest ways—they’re stubborn or arrogant or socially-awkward-but-not-really. They’re the Chosen ones, Marked ones, Unique-in-every-way ones.

Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone is indeed beautiful. And she kicks her fair share of ass. She’s sneaky, mysterious, artsy, and dutifully fulfills many of the YA genre’s stock heroine’s characteristics. But this novel surprised me in a wonderful way. Karou’s characterization—indeed the characterization of all of the main players including Akiva, Zuzana, and Brimstone—goes above and beyond stock and wedges a stake right through the reader’s heart. Karou feels as if she’s missing something; she is lost, lonely, confused. The reader cannot help but just feel deeply for Karou. Through graceful and empathetic writing, Taylor takes her readers into the hearts, not just the minds, of her characters.

The premise in a nutshell: angels and devils are at war, and neither deserve to win. The plot, to a seasoned but growing older by the day YA reader, seems at first glance to be trite: an angel falls in love with a devil, but they can’t be together because they’re at war. How many different angel and devil stories have gone wrong? Many. But prepare to be wondrously (pleasantly is an understatement) surprised. This world is incredibly creative, layered with fascinating details and back story.

The seraphim and the chimaera (They’re not actually angels and devils, and they don’t actually live in heaven or hell. Those are mythical words created by naïve humans.)  have familiar attributes and characteristics, such as wings, but their personalities, histories, myths, and magic are so richly imagined as to dance off the page in a flutter of blood-spattered sparkles. And yes, there is blood. This war is brutal to the core. Taylor is unafraid; while I wouldn’t call this book an epic, the story certainly has a wide wingspan. It’s an urban fantasy set mainly in the streets of Prague, but towards the end of the book we get a glimpse into the fantastical Otherworld. The entire otherworldly realm is at war—and has been for thousands of years. In order to save their race, the chimaera and the seraphim must sacrifice…well, a lot of things. You’ll see.

Taylor’s story is gorgeous, exciting, knock-your-socks-off surprising, and so creative and just damn fun (not to mention, funny) that I’d recommend it to fantasy-loving teens, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers alike. In fact, if it wasn’t for my mother’s own insistence that I give Karou a chance, I would have wrongfully ignored Daughter of Smoke and Bone. This book’s got magic, Moroccan marketplaces, Parisian subways,  teeth, romance, myth, gorgeous world-building, loss, mystery, wishes, and art. The only problem I have now is waiting for the sequel–especially since Daughter of Smoke and Bone itself will not be released until the end of September.

Review of Damascus by Joshua Mohr

Posted 07/14/2011 by blankslatepress
Categories: book review, small press

Tags: , , ,

by Elena Makansi, BSP Summer Intern

I had the opportunity to read Damascus as an ARC after picking it up from the Two Dollar Radio booth at Book Expo America 2011. I began reading it on the road home, and finished it somewhere between Wilmington, DE and St. Louis, MO.

The characters Mohr weaves in Damascus are quite wonderful and wonderfully strange. The owner of the bar, Owen (my personal favorite) has a birthmark on his upper lip that makes him look like Hitler. To hide from his own self-consciousness and escape the judgment of others, he dons a Santa suit he buys for twenty bucks on the sidewalk. His daughter, Daph, is a writer, poet, and lesbian. Her friend No-Eyebrows is suffering the very last months of cancer, hairless and sagging, grasping for hope, feeling, escape. He becomes a loyal and rule-breaking client of Damascus’ own sort-of-whore, whose office is located in the bar bathroom and whose nickname is Shambles. Then there is Daph’s friend Syl, the artist whose live show seizes two sides of a political battle and forces them together, unwittingly and with meaningful consequences.

Mohr’s firm grasp on characterization is clear. His characters are broken but shimmering, just like the shattered-mirror constellations Owen glues to the ceiling of his bar. They’re mean, vaguely gross, crass, and misguided drunkards, artists, and war veterans, yet they have a gentle, glowing core that’s soft to the touch. The reader wants these characters to hope, to feel okay, to be okay. Heroism, triumph, success—these grand concepts are perhaps even grander at a small scale, more deserved for the down and out, and even more meaningful for characters we can believe in. They remind us that the arc of one’s triumph does not have to be large to be significant, and that anyone can be a hero in their own small way. Just like the stars in the sky, Mohr’s may seem small from where we are standing, but by the end of the novel we can feel their heat and light in full-force.

My biggest beef with Damascus was the portrayal of the characters acting the pro-War side of the conflict. These on the “other side” seem stupid, violent, quick to judge, and flat. Perhaps this is an attempt to exaggerate and personify Mohr’s feelings about the war (it is part protest-novel, after all), in which case I think it would have benefited from a more compassionate outlook. Mohr uses up all of his wonder and character-insight for his Damascus-goers, and leaves very little for the art-show protestors. All of the characters in this book are misguided, but the difference is that those on the pro-War side are only misguided. They are not misguided but beautiful, or misguided but compassionate. They are simply wrong.

The book seized my heart at the very first paragraph, in which we are introduced to the Mission district bar at the core of the novel as a “planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.” This first paragraph is a portent of what’s to come. The writing is potent, poetic, and beautiful in a rough-hewn, worldly way. Some bits are pure stargazing, while other bits are a bit more down to earth, such as thorough descriptions of handjobs for an almost dead man. Damascus is graceful at heart, but full of stumbling characters and stumbling lives. Mohr’s ability to mix humor and grief and sympathy together is enviable and brilliant. I hope this book does not remain his “most accomplished novel yet” because I believe there is still lots of potential for growth for Joshua Mohr, and I hope to read more from him in the future.

Collaborative Publishing Thoughts from Kristy

Posted 06/26/2011 by jameystegmaier
Categories: small press, the business of publishing, the future of publishing

So…lately I’ve been thinking about publishing. About the business of publishing. We’ve put out two wonderful (and very different) debut novels and we’re getting ready to sign one more. But we have a very restrictive form of publishing with Blank Slate Press and I think we’re limited in what we can do with BSP’s regional focus.

In the NYTimes a couple of weeks ago, there was a piece about artists and the studio model where assistants do all the art….where pieces can sell for a gazillion dollars even when the “artist” didn’t even touch them. This is the same model that James Patterson uses…he has an idea for a book and puts his minions to work writing the actual book. The infamous James Frey is doing a similar type of thing with his studio.

I think that is inherently disingenuous…but, if no one really cares and the books and the art is still selling, then obviously the people buying the work don’t really care. The brand name is all that matters and it connotes a certain style or art or a certain style of writing.

Also, in the visual art world, there is the artists’ cooperative. Where artists band together to rent space together and show together but whose work is very different.

And in the film world, there is (was) United Artists which was founded by four film stars. Granted, I (and nobody I know) am not a film or a literary star, but the concept is the same. And because technology is breaking down barriers to publishing, the only thing that remains in the way of getting a well-written book out there is the system of gate-keepers called agents. Some agents are already responding to changes in publishing by starting their own e-imprints. But this is beside the point because you still have to jump through all the hoops to get the agent in the first place.

In the professional world, doctors, dentists, and lawyers get together to form limited liability partnerships (basically cooperatives) where partners own the company and split profits according to ownership percentages.

So, back to publishing. On the one hand there are the thousands of people who are taking advantage of Kindle/Nook/Smashwords to self-publish. Some of these writers are putting out high quality work and are having great success – including the now famous Amanda Hocking and John Locke, who were never traditionally published before they self-published. On the other hand, established authors (J.A.Konrath stands out) have turned to self-publishing (often starting with their backlist of books that never got published) after success with a traditional publisher. Now, Amazon has started its own publishing house with imprints for literary fiction, romance, mystery…all the established rules are in flux.

What I’m interested in is the idea of an author’s cooperative like an artist’s cooperative/professional limited liability partnership. I’m interested in charting a middle course between a publishing house and self-publishing. Where a group of authors gets together to curate each other’s work. Where an author can come to the group with a manuscript, have the group vet the writing and decide whether or not the author “fits” into the sensibility of the group, and then have two or three other authors help edit the work and get it in shape for publishing and then put it out there under the moniker of the single publishing house brand. When an author joins he or she invests a certain amount of money and then when the author has a title that is ready to go, so to speak, funds will be allocated to cover the cost of the book production (proofreading, cover art, printing/mailing ARCS, etc.) and then an agreed upon split of the proceeds will return to the author and to the cooperative/publishing house to support marketing efforts to promote the brand/house. There must be a consensus between the author and the author/editors as to when the book is “done” and ready for release.

It’s an author-owned and controlled publishing house. While there are/would be still lots of kinks to be thought through, I think it is an intriguing idea. What do you think?

An Oral Tradition

Posted 06/13/2011 by jameystegmaier
Categories: author event

On Saturday, the three BSP co-founders (Kristy, Jason, and I) joined Fred Venturini and three other writers for Noir at the Bar at Meshuggah Cafe on the Loop.

The concept is that local writers read their most noir-ish short stories or novel excerpts. I have to say, I was pleased by the attendance–there were about 30 people crowded into the tiny Meshuggah loft. It’s encouraging to think that so many people would choose a reading on a Saturday night over the myriad of other events available on weekends.

Live performances are something for which musicians have a distinct advantage over writers. A live concert is an experience, an instant memory shared with hundreds or thousands of fellow fans. The place is shaking with excitement.

But what I realized on Saturday is that live reading is a unique animal of its own. A good reader–and many of the readers were good–bring new life to a story. It’s like the days of yore when people sat around campfires and told epic stories all night. Every reading in 2011 is a proud echo of that tradition, of stories passed from one to the other, generation to generation.

With beer, of course.

Thanks to Subterranean Books for sponsoring the event. It was a great night, and great to see Fred entertain the masses (can I say “masses” about 30 people? I think that’s fair).

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