Who: J. David Osborne
What: Publisher-in-chief of Broken River Books, a small press dedicated to publishing strange, left-of-center, transgressive fiction. He is also the author of five books, including the Wonderland-Award-winning BY THE TIME WE LEAVE HERE, WE’LL BE FRIENDS and his most recent, BLACK GUM. He lives with his partner and their dog.
Where: Portland, Oregon
I just finished reading BLACK GUM and was blown away. As a reader who writes reviews, I thought I’d ask your opinion of my review:
I think that’s a very kind review that does a good job of articulating how the book made you feel. You also provide punchy details that would pique my interest. 5/5, would read again.
We all know that reader reviews are a valuable tool for writers and publishers, but is it a double-edged sword? Do you even bother to read the reviews? When you do, do you read as a writer or a publisher?
I usually take about an hour out of the month to dig through Goodreads and Amazon and get up-to-date on what people are saying about the BRB catalog, or my own stuff. It’s kind of thrilling in its way. But I think balance is key. You can’t check that shit every day, because for one it’s a suck on your time, and secondly it creates manic, impulsive, obsessive behavior. I’ve seen writers go nuts, checking their Amazon page over and over. That’s like dropping your kid off at kindergarten, then hovering around the school, worrying. It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the kid.
On the other hand, you have to take the temperature. You have to get a sense of what’s working for people, and what’s not. And also, folks take the time out of their day to write those reviews, so I think within reason it’s good manners to take a look at their feedback.
Outside of my personal relationship with reader reviews, they are objectively important to the success of a book. And I value the fact that a lot of folks out there take a minute or two to give their opinions. Authors work long hours and live inside strange bubbles, and to put all that work into something and then sell it for incredibly low prices (I mean, think about it…these books occasionally take years to write…and then they’re available for a buck online). So, if you’re getting a little piece of someone for dirt cheap, I think it’s the right thing to do to at least pass the book on, whether it’s to a friend or to strangers on a website.
I discovered BLACK GUM when you briefly posted free downloads on the Broken River Books website one night a few weeks ago. What results did you get from taking this feedback/review strategy?
It’s hard to say. It’s all a long game. You won’t know in the first week, the first month, sometimes even in the first year. Books have to have time to grow and click and actually be read before you can really tell whether or not something worked, or didn’t. That said, a significant number of people downloaded it within that hour, so I have my fingers crossed. The results so far have been wonderful.
In your opinion, how does BLACK GUM differ from your previous novel LOW DOWN DEATH RIGHT EASY?
BLACK GUM is a much more personal novel than LOW DOWN DEATH RIGHT EASY. LDDRE took a lot of elements from my time getting into trouble in Oklahoma, and it was a catharsis in a way. But I had this nagging feeling that I hadn’t really dug into what made me so terrible for that point of my life. As the years have passed and I’ve had time to deal with the guilt and depression that came with that bad time, I felt like I needed one final jettisoning of those bad vibes. So in a way, the book is a dark, evil thing. But I also tried to make it funny. I wanted to be honest. LDDRE was much more of a straightforward crime novel, and in a lot of ways it felt like me searching for the moment where I went wrong in my life’s path. BLACK GUM is pretty confident as to where exactly that occurred. It’s an exorcism. It’s me writing down my sins and folding up the note and stuffing it in an orange and tossing it in a river. However, it’s still a fictional account of that time. It’s not all true, not by a long shot. But the feeling of it is very real.
You also published the screenplay THE PRINCIPLE one day after publishing BLACK GUM. How many writing projects do you generally have going at a time?
I usually have about four or five projects going at the same time. It’s the best, because I can take breaks on tough stuff and go write something a little lighter. For example, I have a novel called ELKHOURY that I’m putting out later this month, which I wrote during breaks for a giant-alligator novel that I’ve been commissioned to write. Then I’m writing the rest of my huge bizarro novel GOD$ FARE NO BETTER (which is actually huge, like 500 pages) on the weekends. I wrote BLACK GUM during the crunch time of our March releases. I was so busy that month, very close to something resembling a nervous breakdown, and then I started taking breaks and writing that novel. I’m working on a webcomic called TOUGH PUGS now, which is funny and goofy. It’s just good to fill your downtime with more work. But maybe like, silly work, where you write about pugs who think they’re badasses. It doesn’t actually feel like being busy, though.
In addition to your novels, you also write and publish short stories. How does your approach to that medium differ from your longer works?
The things that I write are getting shorter and shorter. Seems to me that writing novels is like telling jokes. The longer the work, the more you’ve explained the joke. Explaining jokes is never funny. So my short stories are now close to flash fiction, and my novels are the size of long short stories. Which makes them novellas, sure. But I call them novels because kiss my butt, I’m calling them novels. But the process isn’t different at all. There are just some stories that need a lot less time than others. It’s a tough thing to unpack. Sometimes the ideas aren’t as deep as those in the novels, other times they’re way deeper. Some stuff just lets you know it’s done way sooner.
As a publisher, you have taken a unique approach to publishing and marketing—including Kickstarter campaigns and releasing 12 books on the same day. Is this kind of thinking necessary to succeed as an indie publisher in 2015?
I’m not sure if the way I choose to market the Broken River catalog is necessary per se, but I do think that it’s important to not get lost in the shuffle. I take each and every book I publish very seriously. These folks have trusted me with their children, and it twists up my guts when I feel like I’m failing them (and I do, often, but we’re all human [that’s a thing that I’m coming to terms with: you won’t do the right thing every time; you have to pray that your authors understand and are willing to stick with you]). I utilize strange tactics because the main rule of marketing on the internet is that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person seeing your bottled messages and really wonder why they should give a shit. This is not a slight to any of the books I put out, it’s just a fact. Posting ceaselessly on Twitter or Facebook is shouting into the abyss. “This book exists, and it is good.” Okay, why should I believe you? Why should I take the time to investigate further, when all I have is your word? Instead, you have to be bold. You have to experiment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you do something like put someone in a black sheep costume outside of Powell’s Books and have them stand silently with copies of your book, that’s going to attract attention. If you release 12 books in a day (which ended up being 12 books over the course of a week), you are doing something to catch people’s attention. Then, they can investigate further. Perhaps they will read an excerpt. And then they’ll make a choice. But you’ll get nowhere by nagging people. I’m very very conservative with how often and how loudly I simply shout about a book, because you run the risk of being relegated to the spam folder.
There are ways to do it, and I’m not always going to find the right way, but I also won’t take my chances with a way that I’m convinced is mostly wrong. That’s for other people’s books, though. For my own self-published stuff, I don’t really market at all. Maybe one Facebook message, a couple tweets, a giveaway. I’ve been intensely focused on recapturing the fun of writing. You see so many people who seem very unhappy with the act of writing a novel. That’s a bit mind-boggling, but I understand it. They’re going nuts because they don’t actually like writing, they like getting high off of little dopamine drips of praise. I love writing books, and writing now, for me, is a Zen practice. It is its own reward. Then, you tell people that a thing you loved creating is available, and it’s kind of like asking a friend to go play pinball. If the friend says yes, then great! We’re going to have a blast. If not, I’m going to go play pinball by myself, and be fine with it. Because pinball is awesome.
When you and I met at Left Coast Crime in Portland, you mentioned that Broken River Books might switch its focus to publishing novellas. Is that still the plan? What are the benefits of shorter-form fiction? Is this a “golden age” for the novella?
The explosion of content created by the Kindle and Createspace revolution has led to an intense oversaturation of content. Therefore, it makes sense to make books shorter and less expensive. I do think there is great novella-length work being produced right now, but a “golden age” is only that in hindsight.
So far, I have read three novels from Broken River Books:
- JUNGLE HORSES by Scott Adlerberg
- BLACK GUM by J. David Osborne
- THE LEAST OF MY SCARS by Stephen Graham Jones
Do you think that those three books would give a reader a good understanding of who and what BRB publishes?
I would say that THE LAST PROJECTOR is the boldest representation of the Broken River aesthetic. But that’s a tough question. I’d like for folks to peruse the catalog and see what catches their eye.
Your blog post from last December, “Blue Collar Publishing,” was one of the most honest and inspiring pieces I have read about indie presses. What have you learned since then?
I’m not sure if I fully articulated this in the original article, but it is important to love working for the sake of working. I believe I positioned work in the context of that essay as something that is abundant and difficult, but a necessary obstacle to overcome. I’m thinking more and more that obstacles have inherent value. Therefore, you have to take pleasure in the difficult stuff. You might not enjoy it, but you have to learn to love it.
Also, it’s massively important, as one grows, to learn how to delegate and receive help from others. No one person can do this all on their own. Publishers typically have a staff. They are almost never just one person. So I’m learning how to do that, too.
You will also be teaching a LitReactor class called “The Art of Subversion” starting May 12. How did you choose the subject for the class? What can people who sign up expect?
It was definitely difficult to come up with a subject for my class. I looked at the Litreactor roster and felt very humbled and intimidated. They have some heavy hitters doing great work over there. I decided on “subversion” as my theme because that’s what I come to every project intending to do. I love working in genre, but one of the things I love the most is taking a trope and turning it on its head. What I hope the folks who sign up will get out of it is a method for digging deeper into their work. I hope that they’ll come out of it with an eye towards twisting convention in order to stand out for the crowd. It’s a class with an eye toward publication, which is what I think aligns me with my fellow instructors and the Litreactor website as a whole.
Do you have any other advice for newer writers who are trying to get published with Broken River Books? Does your advice differ at all if you are giving it strictly as a writer instead of as a publisher?
I’d say read some of the books, get a feel for what I’m looking for, and then fire away. But please do get some kind of read on what I’m looking for. I don’t want cliché. That’s my biggest no-no. I don’t want anything that I’ve seen before. You can work within genre or outside of it, but do something neat with it. Happy writing!
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published in 2015. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.