This is not Lori Ann Stephens' first rodeo. Well, it is in the sense that it is her debut novel that suddenly shot to No. 1 on the Amazon Bestseller List for Top Free Literary Fiction over the Fourth of July. But that novel -- Song of the Orange Moons -- has existed in print since 2010 when it was picked up by Blooming Tree Press in Austin. Like so many small businesses in an unstable economy, the publishing house unexpectedly and abruptly closed. Stephens felt suspended, truncated, in literary purgatory.
And then came a plan. Stephens had already pursued an ebook publication with ASD Publishing online in an attempt to, as she puts it, "keep the book-child breathing," but despite the efforts, it "sat deathly still on the digital shelf." As an experiment, Stephens decided to run a three-day promotion, making the book downloadable for free for a set period. Though she loved and believed in the novel, no one was more surprised than Stephens when the proverbial stone was rolled away and the book began a meteoric ascension over those three days.
A lecturer in the English department at SMU (where I went to school), Stephens has already amassed a number of prestigious honors -- enough to be the envy of most any aspiring writer. But popular success, like Song of the Orange Moons' online reception, was never an immediate goal. We spoke with her this week on the changing face of publication and what that means for fiction writing and writers.
Do you think the burgeoning trend of self-publication has or will reasonably upset the idea of "literary" fiction? Publishing houses are wary of investing in literary fiction and have been for some time. I think the sheer openness of the market has "upset the idea" of literary fiction, mainly because anyone can label his or her work now "literary fiction" and post it on Amazon or iBooks without even knowing what literary fiction is. The novel might be a romance or pot-boiler mystery, and those are flourishing genres for an avid market. But they're not literary fiction.
On the topic of quality, I don't see the market being flooded with great self-published fiction. Not yet. Yes, there are scads of self-published novels available online. Some are really good. The savvy Nathan Bransford wrote about the promising market of self-published literary fiction, calling out Marcel Proust, Ben Franklin, and other self-pubbers. But wade through the ratings of the more obviously self-published material on Amazon, and you notice a trend: Readers are grateful for the cheap (or free) selection, but they're often frustrated at the quality. As an author, I'm grateful that I had the Kindle platform to resuscitate the book from remainder hell. But as a reader, I'm frustrated that there are, frankly, so many bad books out there. And "bad" in self-publishing is so much more dreadful than "bad" in a traditional bookstore.
Do you worry that, as e-publication becomes more prevalent, it will necessarily flood the market with, well, Fifty Shades of Grey? I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey. I know that several of my son's friends' mothers have read it, and from the sales numbers, there's a clear demand for "soft porn for mommies." I get it.
But I've also heard from many sources how appalling the writing is. People who open Fifty Shades, I suspect, know that what they're jumping into isn't quality literature, but that's not what they're looking for. They're looking for a titillating story. We're all aware of the canon (e.g. Hemingway, Faulkner, Shakespeare), but are we going to give up reading To Kill a Mockingbird because of books like Fifty Shades? I don't think so. It does make me a little sad inside when people equate "popular writing" with "excellent writing." But frankly, I'm not bothered by the popularity of Fifty Shades. When I was younger, there was this negative perception of avid readers: They were associated with worms. Now, people everywhere are reading. Voraciously. And people are buying books. That's a wonderful thing for authors and the culture of reading.
Do you worry that the prevalence of e-publication will result in even fewer writers being able to make a living through their work?
I personally know only one author who makes a living writing her books. Everyone else I know (and I know a few), works another job to support the "writing habit." Authors who actually make their living through writing are very, very rare (and boy-oh-boy lucky). That was always so, even before the advent of ebooks. Some people now believe that the open market actually increases your chances of making money through self-publishing because the publishing house, agent, and booksellers aren't involved. It's the new American Dream for writers. But The Guardian reported that half of all self-published writers make less than $500 a year.
I think that, for now, the prevalence of free ebooks might be creating expectations that every ebook should cost about 99 cents or less. So in that sense, yes, readers might be more reluctant to buy the $9.99 ebook when there are a dozen free ones available. That might hurt book sales for both traditionally published authors and self-published ones.
Added to that, it's incredibly hard for most writers to get their book noticed when there are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of books/versions available. Only the books featured in the Top 100 lists get noticed by people browsing for new reads. When I decided to offer Song as a limited free offer, it was an experiment to see if my book could somehow, miraculously, make it to the Top 100 in a category. On the third and last day, it sat at No. 1 in Literary Fiction/Top Free 100 List. It was downloaded almost 13,000 times in three days. After it hit the Top 100 List, people began buying and loaning it from the Kindle Library. I hope the trend continues, but I just don't know. This is all an experiment. Your website discusses how you write books about girls; do you consider your work "feminist," or is that too specific a label? I'm certainly a feminist. I believe in equal rights and equal pay, which we are still, by the way, a long way from accomplishing. Count the number of women in Congress and the Senate, if you doubt that women are equally represented.
But a feminist writer? I don't really know. I don't write about supergirls, single-handedly changing the world or winning televised, violent games. I write about girls with real insecurities, who are struggling with their own identities and responsibilities. Bad things happen to them and they occasionally make bad decisions, but they find a way to solve their own problems. In that respect, my writing is feminist. My female characters don't rely on a man to save them; the girls and women look out for each other. In a way, I suppose that qualifies as feminist?
I understand from your site that growing up in Garland lends a rich sense of setting and that your work has been read as part of the Texas Bound series. Does the majority of your fiction take place in North Texas?
I didn't mean for it to, but yes. I suppose that's because of the "write what you know" motto. (Combined with limited chances to pack up and move to other cities.) I know the suburbs and suburb mentality. I've spent some time in Paris. I'd like to set a novel there.
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Many of the writers I've spoken to have found some discomfit in the trend of self-promotion. Have you experienced any challenges there? I don't know a single author who feels comfortable sending out emails or posting on Facebook, "Buy my book!" But we all have to do it, because how else will anyone know we've written the thing? Several months before my novel's release date with the original publisher, the company was already ailing behind the scenes. I had to wing it. I created my own press releases, mailed my book to reviewers (including Publishers Weekly, who did review my book), and reached out to every possible person I could remember, all the way back to grade school. It was challenging and confusing and exhausting and expensive. It was also invaluable experience for a green writer without an agent.
Actually, after that experience, I was more determined than ever to get an agent. I have a great agent now, and she's very supportive of my first novel's success as an ebook. I think that there are many agents out there just as excited as writers about the changes in the publishing world.
Do you plan to do a new round of readings with its renewed success? I'm doing a few interviews and guest blogs. I think Blog Tours are the hot thing right now, although we don't have reliable numbers how these tours translate to book sales. I, myself, have bought a few books based on the interviews I'd read on blogs, so I think they are a great resource for readers. But other than that, I'm laying low and trying to finish editing my next novel. It's about, well, girls. Dallas girls.
Purchase Song of the Orange Moons, by downloading it here.