Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds

A must-see. This is just the first part, but the rest is available on Youtube or on Gaiamtv.com.

Friday, December 19, 2014


8. Is there any part of this book that was most enjoyable to write? Or least fun? 

Well, I already talked about the challenges that presented themselves, so that would be the least "fun"--and that applies throughout. As for most enjoyable, that's hard to say. Since the subject interests me, it was all enjoyable. I suppose if I had to pick a scene, it would be, oddly enough, the crucifixion chapter. Not because that was "enjoyable" to write in the sense of fun and exciting, but enjoyable in the sense that researching and writing it taught me a lot. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die, and the Romans had extending a person's suffering down to art form. Yet here is a man who chose to die in this way because he believed he was doing the will of God.

It raises so many questions for Joseph, who was almost four years old at the time, so he remembers the event although his parents did not let him witness it. He has, since then, however, and as an adult witnessed his fair share of crucifixions. So he's able to describe in detail what happened. And he still can't quite be sure why Jesus' death in this way had been necessary, beyond fulfilling prophecy. He understands the importance of the spiritual Resurrection, but a suffering death like that: why would God require it?

He finds an answer or two, but I don't want to spoil the book for readers. I'll just say it doesn't really have to do with Jesus being a literal sacrifice to God to atone for our sins. To repeat Jesus' words: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He's quoting the prophet Hosea and trying to get us to see God in a different way.

9. How about a couple of easy questions? What are you, personally, reading nowadays?

Well, it's smack in the middle of finals week right now, so mostly I'm just reading student papers! But I've loaded up my Kindle for the break. I've got Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, Dolores Cannon's The Three Waves of Volunteers and the New Earth, and Gag by Melissa Unger. I've already started Michael Tobert's Cryptogram because I just love the Cathars. So far it's been pretty absorbing.

10. Anything in mind for your next writing project?

Not off hand. I'm still a bit wiped out from this last one. Friends who've followed my blog for a few years have said I should do a nonfiction book about recovery, but there are so many of these types of books out there I'm not sure I have anything new to say. I'll just have to wait and see how the spirit moves me. This last time, it happened when I conjured Joseph as a character and then he wouldn't shut up in my own imagination until I finally started writing down what he had to say. It's funny how characters take on a life of their own and become real to you. I actually became fond of old Joseph. I imagine if something like that starts happening again, I'll know it's time to start writing. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014


7. In the Acknowledgments at the end of your book, you list various canonical Scriptures, non-canonical Scriptures and apocrypha, various religious studies scholars, and "streams from esoteric Christianity" as sources you relied upon in writing your book. Most people will easily accept these things except for the last. You list Edgar Cayce, for example, or authors like Dolores Cannon who worked with past-life regressions. Are you willing to believe anything?

I once had a guy tell me, "There's such as thing as keeping an open mind, and then there's such a thing as keeping your mind so open your brain falls out." I got a kick out of that and laughed, but he meant it as an insult, so I know some folks are going to think using sources like that is completely wacky. Things like remembering past lives, or out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences, or physic phenomena, are difficult for scientific materialists. If it can't be proven, then it's superstition. Therein lies the problem: these things are personal experiences, so how does one prove them?

Or, there's the other side of the coin: if it seems to contradict the accepted theology or dogma, if the unexplainable is observed or believed, then it's seen as coming from evil or being caused by a demon.

So it's extremely interesting to me that the Pharisees were forever accusing Jesus of healing or casting out demons in the name of a demon or the Devil.

I'm willing to entertain the idea that perhaps psychic or paranormal or supernatural phenomena are quite explainable: we just haven't found the explanation yet. Today's "magic" is tomorrow's "oh, that's how that's done."

This is one reason the intersection of quantum mechanics and mysticism is an area of interest to me. Physicists are starting to hypothesize about realities that mystics have been hinting at for forever. The spiritual and the scientific are starting to merge in this field. How else can you explain that a person's conscious observation seems to dictate what a particle does? Is that telekinesis, or is it something else? How can one particle seem to know what another one is doing? Do particles have consciousness? Are they telepathic? How can that be?

Is the universe itself a grand consciousness, and is that consciousness what we call God?

In fact, what is consciousness?

I don't have any answers, only glimpses and feelings and speculations, but I'm not willing to set aside a mass of very intriguing anecdotal evidence as a bunch of hallucinations or drug-induced visions or delusions or outright lies. If my character Joseph were to suddenly time travel and appear next to me in this room, and I flipped a switch and turned on a light, he'd call me a miracle worker. So I'd have to explain electricity--or maybe not, depending on whether I can explain it well enough to someone from 75 CE for him to understand it. I suppose what I'm saying is that the possibility exists that Jesus was simply such an enlightened human being that he was able to do things that, to people then and to us right now, seem unexplainable and miraculous.

It is a fabulous and wondrous mystery. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


6. What credentials do you have for writing this book? You're not a priest or pastor or minister, nor even an Anne Rice, whose novels are so popular people were intrigued by the idea of her turning her pen to the story of Jesus. 

Who do I think I am, anyway, writing a gospel? Right? It's a fair question.

Well, the "academic" answer is that I do have an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies (I did a double major in that and in English). Having been brought up in a non-religious household, I totally fell into this by accident. There were distribution requirements for graduation, so I had to choose between either philosophy or religious studies. I picked religious studies for the sole reason that I had a friend, another English major actually, who raved about a certain professor. So, I took her course, and something was awakened in me. I think, now, it was a spiritual craving. But I think back then I would've just said it was an intellectual interest.

I went on to graduate school in English, and then later on I did another master's degree in creative writing. I published here and there along the way, freelancing projects as I got time. I did publish a nonfiction book, a biography, back in 1997.

But the better way to answer this question is to tell a story. It rambles, but I swear it has a point. So here goes. I teach, but I'm an introvert, so I have to admit that teaching wipes me out. Social interactions in general exhaust me. I go home, and I have to take an hour or so to simply recenter myself. Now, I never had lost my interest in religions and spirituality, and over the years I had spent time reading about various spiritual practices, but nothing had ever really stuck. I embraced just about anything as plausible if I saw it helping people--so I have friends who are pagans or witches, friends who are Buddhist, friends who are very orthodox Christian, friends who are Jewish, friends who are Muslim, friends who practice Native American spirituality. There are beautiful things in all of these religions or practices. Still, it was all rather academic to me.

I had never found peace. I knew in my heart I needed to serve others, feel that my work was meaningful in some way, so that need was met in teaching, but I still felt an emptiness, an unsettledness. And the world around me seemed so crazy--get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Live for the weekend. More than half the people I know hate their jobs. They do them only because they have bills to pay. We spend all this time worrying about the future, too--are we putting enough, if any, money aside? Are we even able to? How will we live? Will social security even be there? Is this what life is supposed to be? Others, meanwhile, are screaming dire warnings that the End Times are near. Religious fanaticism had brought down the Twin Towers, yet I saw the sweetest young woman, a student, at work being harassed and her car vandalized for her wearing hajib. The United States is screaming "freedom," but we are invading Iraq. Nothing made sense to me. If there was God, where was God?

I ceased being able to center myself. So I did the worst possible thing a person can do: I let myself fall into a bottle of booze. Pretty cliche, right? I'd been teetering there on the lip of the bottle anyway for years, and I finally just let go. I lived a good three years of sheer hell and anguish in that dark place. Eventually I thought I was probably going to die, either from a fall or from alcohol poisoning. I just couldn't stop. I could not drink away the unhappiness or drink enough to fill up the big, gaping hole that felt like my heart.

You know where this is going, right?

I'm afraid I can't say, "I saw the Light!"

All I know is that I went to bed one night in a blackout, which was not rare at all, and woke up not remembering a thing except that I had decided to check myself into a rehab and get sober. I apparently had had an entire conversation with my wife about it the previous night, but I remembered nothing of it. All I could remember was that I'd made this decision, and to this day, I can't tell you why.

The other thing that sticks with me is another night, when I was home alone--my wife was working late--and I was drunk as usual, and I realized that I'd had too much and was likely to get sick. I was sitting up in bed, sipping water, fighting to stay awake until I'd sobered up some. I didn't want to pass out and wind up choking on my own vomit. Well, I nodded off. Suddenly, as clear as a bell, I heard a loud voice in my ear: "Wake up!" My eyes snapped open and I looked around, but no one was there. I stayed awake a while and then went on to sleep.

I don't know. Perhaps it sounds crazy. But it seems to me now something out there--something not me--was trying to intervene, trying to get me to snap out of it.

So, I got sober. And a part of being sober, at least in AA, which is where I started, is finding a spiritual practice. I didn't want a religion. I simply wanted God. There are as many ways to find God as there are people, I think. I began meditating. And, ultimately, I joined AMORC, which isn't a religion, but more of a philosophy--really a kind of non-religious, non-denominational mystical path. It's not expected that you'll believe any particular thing. It is expected that you'll find the answers if you ask the right questions and seek within yourself. Jesus became, to me, not a god, but a hero of mine, a man who found a way to God in the madness of his times.

Who am I to try and write a book inside the mind of Jesus? Not me, by any means. No, that's yet one more reason the book is from inside the mind of his nephew, Joseph. Being inside the mind of a human being trying to understand it all, and who finally reaches a kind of understanding and peace: that, I am without question, qualified to write about.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


4. Who is the audience for this book?

People who identify as spiritual, but not necessarily as religious. Those who are turned off by dogma and doctrine and religious intolerance of any kind. The modern-day mystic or seeker. Those seeking meaning in a world that seems increasingly absurd, materialistic, and meaningless. Those interested in gnosticism, the esoteric, who sense or know there is more to the world, more to the universe, than this physical, material reality. Those who wonder, perhaps even those who seek to evolve human consciousness.

Consequently, as my publisher says, the book straddles many stools but doesn't sit firmly upon any single one. For that, I'm grateful Roundfire Books was willing to take a risk with it. It's part literary, part historical, part spiritual, part Christian, even part New Age if one wishes to think about it that way. That sounds like a mess, but it all came together in a way that makes sense to me, despite certain challenges that presented themselves as I wrote it.

5. What sorts of challenges?

Well, there's always the problem of showing instead of telling. I worry that early chapters in the novel contain way too much telling. Really, it's the result of the narrator (who wasn't yet born when his uncle was born) not being an actual witness to much of the story. But he's relaying stories told by his grandparents and aunts and uncles, so when he's telling a particular tale, he'll often create a scene or try to imagine for us what it must have been like. He's also pretty chatty at times and will digress to talk about a side issue he thinks is important. Really, I was trying, as a writer, to break the narrative up, slow it down, add interest. If you take one of the gospels of the New Testament, of course, it's straight telling. You can blast through any one of them in a matter of hours. This book, I don't think, is the sort of book a person can--or will even want to--read in a single sitting.

Being written in the first person, through the eyes of Joseph, also means a certain one-dimensionality to the book: everything goes through Joseph's filter. We don't get inside the mind of anyone else. For me, that's not really a problem, though. The book is as much about Joseph as it is about his uncle Yeshua and the early Church. For we are all Joseph: people trying to figure out what Jesus' presence on this earth really meant, and means.

And choosing the first person was also how I got around--I hope successfully--the sticky problem of the supernatural, or the miracles. It's tough to make a scene believable for today's reader when you have a character healing someone, or turning water into wine, or raising someone from the dead. Joseph believes it because his father and uncle James saw it. He personally knows Simon Peter and Mary of Magdala, and they, too, saw it all. He'll say when he thinks some detail has been exaggerated, but if you accept Joseph as a reliable narrator, which I mean him to be, then you have to at least be willing to entertain that he's not telling tall tales or is absolutely off his rocker. These are wonders and mysteries. I hope I've written Joseph believably enough that readers are willing to suspend any disbelief.

Heaven knows, the book cooked in my head for years and years before I finally decided to take two semesters off from teaching and write it. It's an ambitious book. As such, there will always be parts I think are flawed or that I wish I could've done better. But I can't quibble with it forever--it was time to let it out into the world. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


3. We all know the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and that he has two sisters, Mary and Martha, but in your book, those three characters take on a life entirely different from the Biblical versions in a way some people, particularly Evangelicals, would be offended by. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but are you adding your own politics to this book?

Well, we've been politicizing religion and the life of Jesus since Jesus walked the earth. In more recent times, the Bible has been used to justify slavery, to justify the oppression of women, to oppose interracial marriage, and even now to justify discriminating against gay people. Those things don't mesh well with what I see as the "bottom line" message of Jesus: judge not and treat others as you would like to be treated.

My narrator often grapples with what he thinks at times might be a "lax" uncle--he considers his uncle's refusal to stone the adulterous woman, however, and uses that as a benchmark by which to measure his own actions. "God desires mercy," is a line that comes up repeatedly. So Joseph at times struggles to use his uncle's life to guide him in his own actions.

But in his own life Jesus himself was a political character--he was quite anti-establishment, and for this he was crucified. He criticized the Pharisees for forever adhering to the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law. It's okay to heal on the Sabbath, for example, for that's the greater good. Many of the Pharisees--and certainly not the Sadducees--did not like Jesus because, in their minds, he was just another rabble-rousing troublemaker from the Galilee, a place of bandits and rebels.

As a gay Christian, which I know will be an oxymoron to some folks, it saddens me to see a message of love, hope, joy, and freedom turned into precisely the kind of behavior Jesus rebuked others for. But my narrator, Joseph, tries teasing all of this out, trying to figure out what's ethical and moral behavior and what isn't and how one decides. I won't give away his answer. People will have to read the book!

But as I said earlier, there's very little in the book that doesn't have a real source or story or tradition behind it somewhere. Here, I drew on two. First is the Secret Gospel of Mark. (Folks can look that up if they want.) There's an undeniable homoerotic element to one account in that gospel that appears to derive from the Lazarus story, so in my book, I wrote it this way: Lazarus is confounded after being brought back to life and asks Jesus if he can't spend the night with him. At first the disciples just figure, "Well, he's been dead and might be afraid he'll die again, so he wants to be near the Lord in case he needs to be brought back again." But in the morning when the two men emerge from the room together very late, they can't help wondering if something else had been going on. This offers Jesus a platform from which to speak to the issue of homosexuality--because the canonical gospels, of course, don't say a thing. In his usual fashion, he tells them two stories to illustrate his point. He also uses this as one more opportunity to teach about the nature of sin.

The second source derives from well after the time period in question but is still intriguing to me because it does seem to indicate that gay marriage was accepted in the earlier Church. So, Jesus' story in my book, the story he tells of the two Roman soldiers, derives from this. I'll just link to the source itself, here.

I'm aware all of this might anger some people, but on the other hand, I think ethics challenge us to continually ask, "What's the greater good?" in any given situation.  Since homosexuality is a present-day hot potato political issue, it would have seemed cowardly to me to not address it somehow.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


2. This retelling of the story of Jesus from the point of view of his nephew is unorthodox. The narrator denies the virgin birth; the narrator denies Jesus is the Son of God (or a part of the Holy Trinity); the narrator denies the physical Resurrection; the narrator disagrees with Pauline theology. Is it your purpose to bash the Church?

Not at all. If I have an agenda at all as an author--beyond telling an interesting story--it's to try to cut through all the theology we're all so familiar with and focus instead on the message of Jesus. So often the actual message gets lost behind all the dogma.

The earliest Christians--although they weren't then called "Christians"--Bart Erhman would say the "proto-Orthodox" while other scholars say the Jesus Movement--were much more diverse a crowd than most people think. They all believed different things, had different gospels, letters, and writings, and there was such a mix of stories and beliefs that, ultimately, when the Emperor Constantine converted, he ordered fifty copies of a standardized Bible to be put together for his Church, which was the beginning of a series of decisions made over what was canonical and what wasn't.  I'm oversimplifying the matter, of course, but the point is that this was some 300 years after the death of Jesus. Were the books that got thrown out any less inspired or valid or authentic? And there were a dazzling number of them.

So, I asked myself the question, if anybody knew the true story of Jesus, who would it be? The easy answer: his family. So, I then asked myself the question, what would the story of Jesus possibly look like if a member of Jesus' family had written a gospel? 

So many people don't even know Jesus had a family, beyond his parents, Joseph and Mary. But yes, indeed, he had brothers and sisters. Some people don't even realize Jesus was Jewish--(I've been asked that. "Was Jesus a Jew?" Of course he was.) His siblings were James, Joses, Jude, Simon, Mary, and Salome. It seems that Jude had three sons, so I invented one named Joseph (named after his grandfather), and I rolled with it, setting out to answer my own "what ifs?"

What's unfortunate is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus got buried by the later Church--especially James the Just, because he was actually the leader of the very first church in Jerusalem--because, I surmise, they became simply inconvenient. If Mary was a perpetual virgin, then Jesus couldn't have brothers and sisters. So, they morphed into half-siblings from an earlier marriage of his father, Joseph, or got turned ito his cousins. But historically, it seems pretty clear they were full-blooded relatives because a later Roman Emperor, Domitian, had the grandsons of Jude put to death lest they, too, claim some lineage making them the legitimate "Kings of the Jews."

The earliest "Jewish Christians," for lack of a better way to put it, were known as the Ebionites, so I made Joseph an Ebionite. As devout Jews, they were in conflict with Paul because they believed Jesus had not intended the Law to be overthrown, only for prophecy to be fulfilled. They rejected the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ also because they were Jews: God is One. But they fully believed Jesus was the Messiah. "Messiah" doesn't mean "God": it means "anointed one." Like King David, they saw Jesus as a chosen one of God. You can think of it as an adopted son of god. They did deny a literal, physical Resurrection, but they certainly did believe in a spiritual Resurrection. My book, then, imaginatively presents the story of Jesus from this perspective.

Yes, then, it's unorthodox, but I don't intend it in a disrespectful way at all. I certainly don't intend it to be taken as a literal gospel. It is a work of fiction. But, it's grounded in history and research as any historical novel ought to be, although, as with any work of fiction, I had to take some liberties here and there for the sake of readability, or conflate a few things: but I will say this. There is very little in this book that doesn't have a real tradition or some sort of recorded history behind it. But the focus is very much on how Jesus wanted us to act and not on what we should or shouldn't believe about him.

Jesus said the yoke he offered was easy and the burden light. He offered a simple way for how to live life free of worry, free from a troubled mind, and with a heart full of love and joy. That message is so timeless and so especially relevant today.

Friday, December 12, 2014


1. Are you a Christian?

A student asked me this just yesterday. I chuckled and said, "Now there's a question!"

She blinked at me, surprised, because, of course, to the average person, this is a simple "yes" or "no" matter.

So I had to explain.

I consider myself a Christian, but what I think a Christian is and what the world at large thinks a Christian is are two different things. To me, "being a Christian" means following the teachings of Jesus. Thankfully, they can be easily summed up as "Honor God, and treat others the way you'd like to be treated."

(For "God," in my book, you can substitute "Cosmic Consciousness" or "The Divine Presence" or "Love," or however one chooses to define God. It can be Yahweh; it can be Allah; it can be the goddess Isis. How people define or label God is largely irrelevant to me.)

However, if someone put the standard Nicene Creed before me and asked me to affirm it, I'm afraid I couldn't do so because... well, it's man-made theology in my book. (I mean, it was formed by committee(s), after all. Have you ever sat on a committee? I rest my case. And Jesus never said anything like it, anyway, as far as we know.) So I'd agree I believe in the one god, creator of all, and.... then we get to "whose begotten son is Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified and died and rose again on the third day and ascended back into heaven from whence he came and will one day return to the earth to judge us, and that the holy spirit descends from both the Father and the Son, and so on,".... I just can't affirm all of that. That makes me a heretic, and that means automatically (in many people's opinion) I'm not a real Christian, so I'm not saved, and I'll be going to hell. Thus sayeth the Lord.

But let me explain a little further. I think Paul (a human being, after all) might have got it wrong. Now, faith is great--faith can lead people to do wonderful things. But history has shown us that faith can also lead people to do horrible things.  (You know, like persecute or kill others.) I'm more inclined to think James the Just had it right: "Faith without works is dead."

Jesus put it another way: you know a good tree by the good fruits it produces.

So if somebody stands there and rattles off to me the Nicene Creed and says he believes it, word for word, and then that person turns around and owns five mansions but doesn't help the poor, hurts other people, dumps money into the military-industrial complex, is a racist jerk, and beats the crap out of his wife whenever he gets drunk but insists he's saved because of his faith... isn't that too easy? Why should he be saved and not, say, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who walked more in the footsteps of Jesus than most of us ever will?

A life insurance policy.

In short, what a person does speaks a lot louder than what a person says. 

Christianity is not a life insurance policy. At least, I like to think that's not what Jesus had in mind.  I think what Jesus wanted is for us--quite simply--to be good to each other, and for no reason other than that it's the right thing to do.

So that's, to me, what a Christian is. Therefore atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths are invited to the party. And I do try to practice what I preach. It's not easy. I fail. I learn, and then I try to do better. I apologize if I've been wrong. Or I try to make amends and right the wrong if that's possible. But sometimes trying is not enough, and I must willingly accept the consequences of my own failures. I pray for guidance; I ask for help to do better. And forgiveness, I've found, is truly a practice. I continually have to ask for help in letting things go and to love people who've wronged me anyway.

Because that, I believe, is what Jesus would want me to do.

Ultimately, then, the answer to the question is: it depends on what YOU think a Christian is.

Part two: is here.
Part three: is here.
Part four: is here.
Part five: is here.
Part six: is here.
Part seven: is here.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thoughts from Your Friendly Neighborhood INFP Gemini

Now, as an INFP, this is my own personal danger zone. You want an idealist? That's me. Plus, I'm just enough of a rebel to be like an annoying two year-old and want to know "why" we have to do any particular thing.

Why drop bombs on another country when most of the populace has done nothing to us? Especially when there will be "collateral damage"--that heartless Eichmann-ish way of saying "I'm not responsible; I was just following orders; all these dead people are just part of the deal." Who says we can't just talk with whoever is causing the trouble and work out a peaceful solution?

(I can hear the realists snickering at me.)

Have wars ever really solved any problem long-term? Not if you look at the great span of human history. It's the story of one war after another and the rise and fall of empires. Who said it had to always be this way? Aren't we smart enough as a species, creative enough, to figure out another way?

Well, that's a big issue, a global one. All I'll say on this is that if it weren't for the idealists, nothing would ever change.

But there's a flip side to the idealism coin, and that's the continual frustration of shattered expectations. So as I've aged (and since I've given up drinking alcohol), I've also had to face the wisdom of that old AA saying: "Expectations are just premeditated resentments." There are reasonable expectations, silly expectations, and then things that should be relegated to the "hopes" corner. Otherwise, this idealist is going to pick up the tequila bottle and start doing shots just to shut up the disappointed committee of voices in my head.


It's a reasonable expectation that some of my students will try their hardest in my classes. It's a silly expectation that all of them will. It's definitely a hope, though, that I can motivate enough of them to try their best to feel that I've done a good job.

Once upon a time, it was a reasonable expectation that one day I would find a partner I would settle down with for good. It would have been a silly expectation to think that we would never disagree about something, or fight about something, or hurt each other, or go through a rough patch in which we would consider breaking up. Here, I wouldn't even hope for a conflict-free marriage. It's the conflicts and overcoming them that make you grow together, make a history together, invest so much in the relationship that you're not willing to just toss it out like a sandwich that's gotten stale.

My new book that's coming out: I don't think it's wise to have expectations beyond the fact that some people will buy it and like it, and some people won't. It's a silly expectation to think it will sell a million copies and go into ten reprints within the first year and sit at the top of the NYTimes best sellers' list for months on end. That can be a hope, but I seriously doubt it. My real hope is that I'll sell enough copies to recoup the wages I lost taking two semesters off to get it written. And maybe, just maybe, even see a little profit for my effort. But I know better than to count on that.

So here's the thing. Idealism, hopes, are great things. They make us strive for the better. But they're a two-edged sword. If you live your life expecting your dreams and hopes will all come true in exactly the way you've imagined they should be, you're going to live a life of constant frustration. Let life throw some surprises at you. Things that you may not have considered would be good can turn out to be life-changingly awesome. Things that you thought would be heaven on earth can turn out to be hellishly awful. And nobody ever said life should be a state of constant bliss, anyway. Continual contentment is pretty darn good, though.

Try to see the forest despite all the trees. But never forget that, sometimes, sitting and contemplating a single tree is worthwhile too.

Monday, December 1, 2014

For Our Self-Publishing Heroes

I read an interesting statistic this morning. The average number of books sold by someone who has self-published his or her work is--wait for it--a measly 279 copies.

Think of that. Say the book took you two years to research and write, then revise, then edit/proofread. Say it's a paperback, as self-published books tend to be, and sells for the usual $12 or thereabouts. You sell 279 copies, so what you get back for your effort is $3,348. But wait! This doesn't include the cost you shouldered to actually publish it (I have no idea how much money that actually is--printing will always cost money. But even an ebook, which is merely a downloadable file of work you already word-processed, doesn't come without costs. I just checked the cost of publishing an ebook for the Kindle on Amazon, and Amazon takes anywhere from 30% to 65% of your proceeds, depending on how you price the book.) Deduct from this the taxes you'll pay on whatever income you get. Also, any marketing costs are totally shouldered by you. Finally, being self-published, your book is not going to be reviewed by any major publications; libraries, large chain bookstores, in fact most bookstores, aren't going to distribute it either (because you don't have a distributor). The bottom line is, people who self-publish typically don't make much money and may even lose money--unless a miracle happens.

You have to wonder why some people choose, then, to self-publish. Well, unless you're pretty good at making a pitch to a publisher on your own behalf, you have to find an agent. And, an agent will NOT take a book the agent thinks won't sell enough copies to be worth the effort. Or, the book has to be so well-written, so astonishing, so unique, or strike the agent in the heart so hard that he or she decides to stake her reputation on it. And then that agent has to persuade a publishing house of the same. I guess we've all heard the story of how all the major publishing houses in Britain turned down Harry Potter, even though J.K. Rowling had an agent who believed in the book. Teeny, tiny Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the book. The first print run was a mere 500 copies. Even the press didn't think it would sell.

J.K. Rowling's story became one of those miracle stories. She got lucky. Had Bloomsbury not picked up her book, who knows? She may have given up and gone ahead and self-published. Then Harry Potter might've been doomed to oblivion because, unfortunately, very few self-published books get taken seriously. Self-publishing, to way too many people, is like stamping the words "This book is such a piece of shit no publisher would take it" on the back cover.

I got lucky. Roundfire Press picked up my new book, but I'm betting the first print run is no more than 500 copies unless there are tons of pre-orders, which I can dream about, but which I know better than to count on. Frankly, I'm pleased that, to date, about 80 viewers have bothered to watch the book trailer, and the book doesn't even have a set publication date yet. Right now I'm sending around emails to certain people whose opinion holds some weight and asking them if they'd like a review copy sent to them when those are ready. It's like beating the bushes. But so far, one has sent back a very courteous, "Yes! This looks interesting." So, always, I have hope--but I rein in expectations. I'm also glad this imprint, which publishes for a niche market, already knows whom to market to. I'll be overjoyed if the book gets a second printing.

But all of this got me thinking about how tough it is to sell a first novel. Query after query; rejection after rejection. It's like Sisyphus forever rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to go back down and push it up again. A person tires of heaving at a big rock against gravity. Therefore I have to admire people who work so hard and believe so much in their work that they'll risk self-publishing just to get their pages out there. These people are willing to hitch their work to a star and pray, and they are brave souls, for nothing hurts more than seeing your labor go ignored.

So today I'm thinking, let's do these folks a favor. If you ever read a self-published work and like it, don't keep that information to yourself. Go on Amazon, go on goodreads.com, and put up a review of the book. More than anything, it's reviews, along with word of mouth, that sells books when some huge publishing house isn't behind you throwing tons of money into marketing. I'm sure there are hundreds of unknown gems out there waiting to be read. And even just one positive review can make a writer's day: they know someone liked their book enough to take the time to compliment it. Even if they don't make much money for their work, at least knowing it's been read and touched somebody can make the effort worth it. Because more than anything, writers write to be read.