Today we’re talking with author Stephen Elliott. In case you don’t already know his work, here’s a little about him:
He is the the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. His writing has been featured in Esquire, The New York Times, The Believer, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006.
He is also the founding editor of the popular online literary magazine The Rumpus.
BP: How did you get your first book published? How did you promote your first book? I think it was out through a small publisher, so did you set up a tour?
My first publisher, Boneyard Press, didn’t really promote my first book. It was a very small publisher and the book, Jones Inn, was mostly only available in comic book stores. I did two or three readings, mainly as a featured reader at open mic nights. Also a radio interview at KUSF.
SE: When did you feel like you were gaining traction as an author?
I had written three books— Jones Inn, A Life Without Consequences, and What It Means To Love You. I’d published Jones Inn with Boneyard but they’d misspelled my name so I was treating A Life Without Consequences as my first book. I sent them to the slush pile at MacAdam/Cage and they offered me $18,000 for each book. So that was a big deal. A month or two later I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship for emerging writers at Stanford. So it all really happened very quickly. Suddenly I thought I was a writer and this was something I could do with my life, which I had not thought before.
BP: Any noteworthy successes/ roadblocks in your career? For instance, if you got rejected a lot of times or when your publisher went out of business, or if people said mean stuff to you about your writing.
You can’t publish a book without people saying mean things about it. If nobody says anything mean about your book then very few people are reading it. Since I didn’t use an agent and I didn’t do an MFA I wasn’t well connected and was frequently rejected. I had to rely on/have faith in the slush pile.
The biggest success might have been Happy Baby, my fourth novel. It was edited and designed by McSweeney’s but distributed by MacAdam/Cage. That turned out to be a really bad idea. The book was basically not marketed at all, with very few reviews. You couldn’t purchase it at Borders if you wanted to, you couldn’t even order it (that used to matter). To make matters worse I was writing a book about the 2004 election and wasn’t available to do readings or really promote the book.
But it kept gaining momentum. There weren’t many reviews but the one’s that ran were pretty over the top. People that liked the book really liked it. At the end of the year it made a bunch of best of the year lists. I learned so much. I learned the importance of writing someone’s favorite book, and how that’s different from writing a book that people like. And I learned that if you do that you can break through the noise.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t work to get their stuff out there, but you’ve got to create a piece of art that at least some people love. If you don’t do that then all the marketing in the world won’t help. I’ve written books that a lot of people like but nobody is deeply passionate about. Those books have a limited lifespan.
BP: You have an organized presence online: a website, stephenelliott.com, Facebook fan page, twitter account, the Rumpus daily email. What’s your overall philosophy on marketing?
I think you should approach marketing the way you approach writing. You have to be creative. There’s no point in doing something that everyone else is doing. Also, play to your strengths. Don’t start a twitter account if you hate twitter. Don’t try to sell your book to people you don’t respect.
Q: Advice to authors just getting started?
Write every day, but don’t beat yourself up. If you write every day for at least 20 minutes you’ll become a good writer and people will want to publish your work.
Q: Any advice to people going it alone, i.e. self-publishing or going with an indie publisher so they’ll need to do all of their marketing themselves? You seem to do a lot of readings/ signings. Do you set those up yourself?
I’ve set up a lot of readings, definitely. Mostly because I like being on a stage. On my last book, The Adderally Diaries, I chose a smaller publisher, Graywolf, over a larger publisher, Norton, because I liked the editor at Graywolf. He seemed very real and he wanted the book more and we had similar viewpoints. Graywolf gave me $10,000 less than what Norton was offering ($20,000 instead of $30,000). But if I believe the book is the best it can possibly be then I don’t regret leaving money on the table. I do think The Adderall Diaries is a better book for having worked with Ethan at Graywolf, though part of me feels he owes me $10,000.