Confessions of a “Literary Juggler”

Here’s a bit of shameless self-promotion… It’s an interview I did with Elizabeth Spencer, a member of the writing workshop I moderated a couple of  years back. Elizabeth is a graduate student at Temple University, and she was kind enough to invite me to submit a manuscript to the grad program’s new online journal, Tinge. Shortly after the piece I submitted was accepted for publication, she asked to interview me for a paper she’s working on for one of her classes — which means I’m now the subject of someone’s graduate studies!

The Literary Juggler: An Interview with Marc Schuster

Many writers hold day jobs, but Marc Schuster juggles more than just a working life and a writing life. He wears four titles: author, professor, reviewer, and editor. The author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (The Permanent Press), Schuster also reviews books from independent publishers in Small Press Reviews and is the acquisitions editor for PS Books, the publishing division of the journal Philadelphia Stories. During the school year, he teaches English at Montgomery County Community College. In spite of performing so many roles, my interview with Schuster did not result in a tale of exhaustion, but one of devotion and service to his craft. Over e-mail, Marc answered my questions about WordPress, his work for Philadelphia Stories and PS Books, and his own experience as a small press author.

You began Small Press Reviews in 2007, two years before The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl was first published by PS Books. How did your interest in small presses evolve? What do you see as the mission of Small Press Reviews?

My interest in small presses grew after I heard Curtis Smith speak on the subject at the Philadelphia Stories Push-to-Publish conference. In fact, Smith’s The Species Crown was the first book I reviewed. Initially, I purchased all of the books that I reviewed, but soon publishers found out about the site and started sending me review copies. Once that happened, I really started to gain an appreciation for the wide range of work that small presses had to offer. At the same time, though, I continued to be frustrated by the fact that few of the books I reviewed ever got much press in mainstream media outlets.

This issue became especially personal to me when Wonder Mom came out and I experienced firsthand what a struggle it is to get anyone to review a book that isn’t backed by a massive marketing campaign. As a result of that experience, I became even more dedicated to the mission of serving as a place where independent publishers could depend (time and resources permitting) on at least some kind of acknowledgment. Mainly the blog’s mission is to promote small presses as innovators in an industry whose aesthetic sensibilities are otherwise dictated by commercial rather than artistic concerns.

Why did you choose WordPress? What advantages do you think it has over other host sites such as Blogger, which you previously used for Small Press Reviews?

I originally started Small Press Reviews at Blogger because it was so easy to use, but I moved to WordPress because they had a wider range of templates that looked more professional. I also liked that WordPress had more tools for tracking statistics on my blogs. At the same time, though, checking my blog stats has become somewhat of an obsession for me. I probably check my stats about three or four times a day.

Have you considered moving to to gain more control over your site design? Is there anything you’d like to do with SPR that you’re restricted from doing because you use the free version of WordPress?

I’m pretty happy with Small Press Reviews in its current form. If I wanted to turn the blog into a money-making endeavor, I might switch over to or find some other way to re-design the site, but for my purposes, is fine. I feel as if I’ve found a good balance using—it’s easy to use, it’s free, and it looks pretty good. I’ve never felt as if I wished there were more I could do with it.

In our class, we learned how to put together an online literary journal on WordPress, a business model that more or less costs nothing. Can you describe Philadelphia Stories’ business model?

As a nonprofit organization, Philadelphia Stories relies almost exclusively on donations to stay afloat. In fact, maintaining and growing the magazine’s supporter/subscription list is one of their biggest concerns on a day-to-day basis. Christine and Carla, along with a team of volunteers, also hold a number of fundraising events each year to help with the bills—the workshops you mentioned earlier, and their annual online auction, to name just a couple of examples. Christine is also highly adept at arranging trade agreements for various services—an ad in the magazine, for example, might get her a discounted rate on a space where we can hold an event. I’m not always sure about how the details work. I just know that about 90% of the work that goes into the magazine has to do with raising money just to keep it going.

Philadelphia Stories is a unique literary magazine: it’s free, it’s published both in print and online, and its emphasis on the Philly community has led to an “empire” of writing workshops, readings, and other events. How much do you think PS owes its success to its local emphasis?

The local emphasis can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, Christine and Carla have done a lot to build up the magazine as a “local” brand and, in turn, that’s given them a fairly dedicated base of fans and supporters. On the other hand, having “Philadelphia” in its title lends an air of provincialism to the endeavor. When I was on the fiction board, I’d ask fairly well-known writers if they’d be interested in submitting to the journal, and the response was always lukewarm, partly because of the concern that the magazine, in its print form anyway, only reaches a local audience. Personally, I was very excited and proud to see a short story of mine appear in the magazine a number of years ago, but I also understand why some authors might not be interested in contributing their work. As big as it gets, it will always be a local magazine. Which, to my mind, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Can you tell me about the history of PS Books? What is the relationship between PS and PS Books?

I’d been showing Wonder Mom to a couple of agents to no avail when I started talking to Christine and Carla about the possibility of starting a books division for Philadelphia Stories. They’d already published one book—an anthology of works that had appeared in their magazine—and it turned out that they had been planning to start publishing books more regularly. The first novel they published was Christine’s Broad Street, and then they published Wonder Mom. It wasn’t exactly quid-pro-quo, but somehow their acceptance of Wonder Mom for publication led to my agreeing to be their acquisitions editor.

From there, we published two more anthologies—a second “best of” collection culled from the pages of the magazine and an anthology of works by members of The Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, which is run by Alison Hicks. I was reading a decent number of manuscript submissions at the time, mostly for novels, but editing a novel for publication is such a massive undertaking, not to mention the expenses of publishing and marketing, that we soon realized we lacked the wherewithal to publish novels. As a result, we decided to focus on collections of poetry and flash fiction and to use print-on-demand services to save money on printing and distribution costs. This model has been serving us fairly well since we decided to adopt it last fall.

Can you talk more about the difference between publishing novels versus flash fiction and poetry collections? As a writing student, one often hears that you can’t sell a story collection as an unknown because novels sell better. Do you have any comment on this? Personally, I think flash fiction and short stories are well-suited for the conditions of modern readers, particularly for subway rides, half-hour lunch breaks, and e-readers.

The thing about novels is that they’re so ridiculously long and it’s hard to keep all the details straight. The biggest issue is consistency, and this is a lesson we learned early on at PS Books. Even after we paid an editor to go through one of our novels, we started discovering that the finished product was riddled with little errors that a closer read might have caught. The protagonist, for example, is watching VHS tapes earlier in the novel, but later she’s watching DVDs. The DVDs were a holdover from a previous draft of the manuscript in which the action took place in 2004, but for various reasons, the author decided to set the clock back about ten years for the final version.

In a novel, that’s tough to do. Imagine having to keep all of the details in your head at once. By way of contrast, all of the details in a piece of flash fiction can fit on two or three pages. As an editor, you can see them all at once and spot inconsistencies a little bit more easily. Additionally, since the pieces in a flash fiction or poetry collection are generally discrete, you can edit each one individually and make sure each piece shines on its own and in its own way as opposed to trying to ensure a similar end in an entire novel.

As far as the distinction between flash fiction and short story collections, I’m definitely open to short story collections. I also think that the warning against trying to sell a short story collection as an unknown is a little misguided, but it really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Sure, if you’re trying to land a big deal with a literary agency or a publishing conglomerate, a short story collection will be a very tough sell. But if your goal is to do what you love doing—and what you love doing is writing short stories—then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to force yourself to write a novel. And the good news is that there are a good number of small presses that specialize in publishing short story collections. Press 53 comes immediately to mind. And Featherproof. You probably won’t make a fortune if houses like these pick up your work, but that’s equally true of writers I know who have published novels with big houses. They’re still doing their day jobs. So my point, I guess, is that it’s best to do what you love.

To some extent, I agree with your point about flash fiction and short stories being more amenable to contemporary life, but I also wonder if what some readers like about reading is that it’s an antidote to the fast pace of the world we live in. We don’t often get many opportunities to immerse ourselves too deeply in anything anymore, but a book, particularly a long-form narrative, offers that exact opportunity. Then again, there probably is a segment of society that doesn’t want to spend the morning commute Tweeting or texting or watching videos on YouTube but also doesn’t have the time to invest in reading Underworld, and for that segment, yes, flash may be just what they’re looking for.

How do you think the Internet and electronic reading devices are changing publishing and reading, both of literary journals and books? Do you have a preference for screen or paper?

I think that in terms of delivering content alone, electronic reading devices have had and will continue to have a profound effect on our reading habits. In some ways, it’s tempting to draw a comparison between MP3 technology and e-readers. In the end, however, I don’t think that comparison holds up, mainly because listening to music and reading literature are two very different kinds of activities.

As listeners, we’d been trained over the years to expect our music to be delivered in increasingly smaller packages. As the LP gave way to the cassette or even the eight-track cartridge, an appreciation for album art started getting stripped away from the experience of consuming music; the same can be said for the migration from cassettes to CDs. The focus in all instances was on fidelity of sound, not on the overall experience of buying a “thing.” By the time the iPod came around, we were pretty much ready to abandon packaging altogether. Books, by way of contrast, have been bound to a much higher degree of “thingishness” for a longer period of time. Many people who read don’t just want words, they want the experience of opening a book and turning the pages. They want the LP, not just the music contained therein.

Another big difference between MP3 technology and e-readers is that most of the songs that people listen to are in the neighborhood of three minutes long. The pop song, for all of its glory, is designed to be somewhat disposable, as demonstrated by the fact that we tend to put literally thousands of songs on our listening devices only to skip over the majority of them while scanning ahead to our favorites. You can’t really do that with a book—or a novel, at any rate. A novel invites a deeper, longer-lasting relationship than a pop song. It invites immersion. So while e-readers will certainly change reading in many ways, I also imagine that the book will survive, at least among those of us who like to lose ourselves on the printed page without worrying about the myriad distractions that a device like an iPad has to offer.

All of this, I guess, is to say that I prefer paper to the screen.

From your experience as an author and promoter of small presses, have you picked up on any innovative marketing strategies to sell books? How do you feel about promoting your own books and how, if at all, have your feelings about promotion changed over the last couple of years?

My friend and publisher Martin Shepard told me a while back that good reviews sell books. This was part of a larger conversation in which he was saying that my time would be better spent working on my next project than trying to come up with ways to promote my work. Though this probably goes against the common wisdom, I tend to agree with him—and not just because I’d rather be writing than trying to shill my wares. When the PS Books edition of Wonder Mom came out, I did all of the things that writers are supposed to do these days. I sought interviews, did readings in bookstores, met with book groups, and posted Facebook updates incessantly. None of these things had an impact on book sales—at least not an impact that was commensurate with the amount of effort I was putting into publicity and marketing. When I’d meet with a book group, for example, three members of the group would share a single copy of the book. When I’d do a reading, people would tell me how much they enjoyed the passage I had read, but they wouldn’t ever buy a book. At the end of it all, I felt as if I were locked into a game of diminishing returns. So I’m glad that my publisher isn’t pushing me to do these kinds of things. Based on his annual book sales, his strategy appears to be working – good reviews yield good book sales. It helps that I’m a teacher and that my colleagues like what I write. I’ve never made one of my books a required text for a class I’m teaching, but a couple of my colleagues have. I’ll usually agree to meet with their classes and talk about writing. My experiences in this regard have all been positive. So maybe the lesson is to get your friends to do your work for you. Make them your sales force.

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