Thisbe Nissen has published two acclaimed novels, The Good People of New York and Osprey Island, a collection of stories, Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night, and The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. She is currently teaching at the Workshop, filling in for Frank.
When an Earth Goat thread about publishing and publishers began swerving into territory Ms. Nissen is known to have thoroughly mapped, a search party was dispatched in the direction of her home, two blocks down Bloomington Street from the Earth Goat home office. Sadly -- perhaps because it was so heavily laden with rum and cigars -- it never returned. A substantially lowercase interview was therefore conducted over email:
EG: You are legendary for self-promotion. The story I heard involved your piling everything into a car and hitting the road, going to bookstores, setting up readings, visiting libraries, and so forth to get the word out about your book of stories. Could you relate a little bit of what you did to promote that book?
TN: legendarily shameless: it's my lot in life, i think... my story collection came out in '99 from U of I press as part of the award series where the prize is publication (no money involved), the print run is small (2,000 copies, i think), and the budget/staff for publicity small. my novel (what had been my mfa thesis) had already been rejected by every publisher in north america, and determined not to let this book go straight to the remainder tables, i spent the spring and summer before the book came out on the internet (to which i was very new then) and the phone essentially tracking down an address for every person i'd ever known in my 27 years of life on this planet. literally. shameless. I figured out where in the country i knew lots of people and then tracked down the bookstores in those places and cold-called them saying "i know enough people in your town/city to fill a bookstore audience--would you let me read?" and some of the places said "have your publicist call our publicist" and i hung up dejected. but some places said "awesome--how great you're doing this yourself! sure come on down!" and of course those were the small independent booksellers and feminist bookstores...
before the book came out i made postcards with all the readings i'd set up and sent them to boys i'd kissed at summer camp in 1984, my parents' college classmates, my friends' friends' friends... i borrowed gas money from my folks, got in the car and did a book tour. i stayed with friends and at hostels. u of i press was great about sending materials wherever i'd set something up (i don't think they'd had someone come at it quite like that before, though i think they've seen much more of it since). and i spent like 3 or 4 months driving around doing readings. my friend cathy's girlfriend at the time owned a ben and jerry's franchise in DC, and i hadn't been able to find a bookstore to host me in DC so i read at ben and jerry's--a guy behind the counter even bought a book. oh--and the books i just had in the back of my car. i can't remember if i bought them from the press, and then sold them, or if they gave them to me on spec. but when it wasn't at a bookstore where they could ship the books i just literally sold them out of the back of my car. and i guess the coda, or whatever, to that story is that a woman named jenny minton, who had been an assistant at some publishing house where my novel has gotten rejected had since gone on to become an editor herself at another house. jenny liked my story collection and brought it to an editorial meeting saying "this came out in this small, expensive, paperback original run from u of i press--could we release it from vintage/anchor in a less expensive, more widely distributed and publicized edition?" and they took a look and said no.
THEN i did the whole tour and went to all these independent bookstores and those booksellers got the book onto the booksense 76 list, which had really just started, and was gaining some momentum as a means for smaller booksellers to have some banded-together leverage power in competing with the chains. that list made it BACK to a vintage/anchor editorial meeting where someone said "thisbe nissen? that sounds familiar... jenny, didn't you show us something of hers six months ago...?" and of course what she'd shown them was that same book, which they then bought, that second time around, for three thousand dollars--fifteen hundred to u of i press, fifteen hundred to me. i get a royalty check every year for about 50 bucks...
EG: Writers often complain that publishers don't do a good enough job promoting the average first novel or story collection. Why do you think publishers spend so much time carefully creating products, only to let many of them wither on the vine?
TN: sadly, it works like anything else would: an editor at a house buys a book, works on it with an author (if you're lucky and your editor doesn't switch houses mid-book and you get passed on to someone else who has authors of their own and maybe would never have bought your book in the first place, but that's another story...) and then every season all the editors essentially come to a big meeting with all their books for that season and tell everyone how great they are--and then the company has to decide how they're going to try to sell each of those books. there's x amount of money to go around, and it gets divided according to someone's ideas of what's going to sell, what's hot, what's not... so your editor could work lovingly with you on your book for years, but the house as a whole, or the publicity folk could decide that yours isn't the one that season that they're going to put their money and manpower behind because there's another book that they think could be big...
or WHATEVER, point being, your book either gets championed by the house at that stage, or not, and your editor's enthusiasm for the book certainly matters, and her ability to sell the rest of the house on it, but there are so many other factors that come into it that you're just at the mercy of the business machine at that point. that's when some people then opt to put their own money and energy into promotion, if they feel their publisher is letting them fall by the wayside. or if the author doesn't have the time or money or energy to put into it, then there's not a lot that can be done... (it seems clear that my every answer will end with ellipses, fading off into the nothingness that is the fate of literary fiction, at least within its author's lifetime, most likely.)
EG: Do you think self-publishing or starting a new press is a viable idea right now?
TN: haven't thought much about self-publishing, as i don't think i'd ever have the chutzpah it would take to champion myself if i were laboring in the face of having had the book rejected by every publisher who might possibly put the book out for me, for pay or not. i DO often think of starting a new press--the mcsweeney's model, we might call such dreams--and publishing books i think are worth publishing, going at it in the grass-rootsiest way possible. it feels a hell of a lot more like ME than being part of a huge publishing industry. but A) there's no money in it, and we're all already dedicated to one career that's got no money in it, and B) it would be an enormous time commitment, time away from writing, and a monetary commitment, and energy commitment, and much as i'd love to do it i'm no dave eggers and i don't have the kind of energy, money, and entrepreneurial wherewithal it would take to get something like that off the ground and keep it flying. i wish i did...
EG: What do you think about trade paperback originals, such as the Mariner line? Would coming out in paper first draw in more readers willing to risk perhaps half the money of a hardcover on a new writer? Why do publishers insist on expensive hard-cover first editions?
TN: i think paperback originals are the most sensical idea around! i mean especially for young writers, first time authors who are most likely going to appeal to young audiences who don't have 25 bucks to shell out for a hardcover. i wish they didn't have this stigma of being not as important as hardcovers. i feel like if more people were willing to publish first edition paperbacks, then it would catch on. i had lots of hope for the mariner line--i mean they put out peter orner's book, esther stories, and it got a ton of great attention--a huge ny times book review, finalist for the young lions award. i wish writers would see a book as wonderful and beautiful as esther stories come out as a paperback original, and think: if it's good enough for peter orner it's good enough for me. i wish publishers could find a way to make it work...
EG: (Lifting diction liberally direct from the thread) What would you think about a kind of publicity co-op where writers starting out help each other with grassroots marketing by amassing a database of contacts and media outlets, brainstorming ideas for promotion, working local angles together one by one, doing indie publicity, using targeted database mailings (retail and consumer), and coming up with imaginative cross-promotions in key markets?
TN: sounds awesome. sounds like a more organized form of what writers i know are doing already. i mean: now i know all these booksellers all over the country, and when someone i know puts out a book i love i send them to those booksellers to try to set up readings. it's hardly going to change the world, but it's very small scale people putting people in touch with other people that makes me feel like we live in a world i can understand on some tiny level at least. (and she stops, strong, with a declarative period.)
EG: What can be done to increase readership in literary fiction when, according to one study, half of all Americans don't even buy or read one book a year? How do you find the international sales of your books? Is that a market segment with potential for expansion?
TN: pretty much the words "market segment" make me want to curl into a hole and shrivel up. i guess i don't really have any hope that people can be made to read, or to like reading, or to be intelligent or interesting. i kind of think we have to make peace with small esoteric readerships and be grateful there's even that. be grateful for each other--i mean: we ARE the people who buy those books, and read them.
here's what i know about international sales: good people of ny was translated into german and dutch, and it seemsquite clear based on the fact that no one bought any of those translatedbooks that i will never sell the foreign rights to anything i write everagain. i'll be grateful to sell american rights to the next thing i turn out! OR i'll buy a farm in the middle of nowhere with the money i have left from the foolish people who once thought my books might sell, and i'll start subsistence farming, and doing SOMETHING to bring in enough money to get by and then i WILL start my own press in an old barn and live a life that at least i find romantic if nothing else. expansion of the market of literary fiction? i don't have enough faith in the human race to think we're going to have a planet to live on for much longer...
EG: What about getting one's name out through writing nonfiction pieces in magazines? Is that a good strategy for a new writer? It would take time away from writing The Work...
TN: i think it's a way to make money if you can bear it, but there are other ways to make money too... honestly, i think the number of people who read non-fiction pieces in magazines or newspapers or whathaveyou who actually notice who the author of the piece is and who then remember that name long enough to notice when you publish a book and to go and buy it will probably sell three extra copies worldwide. but maybe i'm getting way too cynical now. i guess my instinct is to say that if you get something out of writing nonfiction for magazines, great, go for it, if that enables you to do the work you really want to do. but there are other, less brain and
soul-draining ways to support your real work, and the tradeoff of name-retention with a handful of readers isn't worth it if writing for glamour makes you feel like slitting your wrists.
EG: What general tips do you have for getting your publisher to pay more attention to your book after it's published/rolling up your sleeves and doing promotion yourself?
TN: in a way i'm really THE wrong person to ask this particular question of. i'm not confident enough to demand attention if it's not coming from people's own free will. it feels too much like having a crush on a boy who doesn't pay you much attention. you can try to get his attention and hope that when he gets to know you a little he'll like you and want to know you more... but if you try to talk to him and he keeps blowing you off or just doesn't even register your presence, then, if you're me, maybe you make one last-ditch effort to show him how great you are, but if he still doesn't see then you just go home with your tail between your legs and think that maybe he's not all you thought he was, or maybe it just wasn't meant to be, or maybe you'll meet again years from now and fall in love and it'll be great, and for it to be great, then, years from now, it has to feel horrible and shitty right now, so you'll live with horrible and shitty because maybe feeling horrible and shitty about this guy not liking you back is is exactly what you need to feel to lead you in to the next phase of your life, in which you will learn things that will make you a stronger and better person, in which maybe you will meet someone who loves you for who you are and sees that immediately and isn't dumb like that dumb boy who didn't like you back who probably is not a nice person anyway, or is a nice person but would have made you miserable anyway, or something else...
which is all my pathetic and longwinded way of saying that what's important is you, doing your work, living your life. maybe not getting a publisher's attention the way you wish you had it, or the way jonathan safran foer had it, is exactly what's going to make you go and write your next book. jonathan safran foer has problems too, and having a publisher's attention for a little while doesn't change who you are or what's important to you or what going to happen when you sit down to write. it seems to me that what's important is finding a way to live and write and do whatever you feel you need to do with your time on this planet. mazel tov if someone notices. but mazel tov if no one notices and you still lived your life and did the work you had in you to do and spent your time as well as you could. the difference that a good publicist or a 40-city book tour or an extra hundred thousand dollars of marketing funds makes seems so profoundly negligible in the long run. if your work's good it'll get read. or not. there's no template for it. find a way to live your life and do your work. yell at a publicist. don't yell at a publicist. ultimately how much difference does it make? i'd rather spend my time not-yelling at a publicist. i'd rather be writing. somehow it seems like that's what'll make me feel like i've lived a productive and fulfilling life. or at least tried to as best i know how
... and on that depressing, existentially angstful note, i will go drink a glass of cheap pinot grigio and continue contemplating the infinite abyss, as usual... (ellipses forever...)
i wish you all good work,