Is Publishing a Purgatory? A Conversation with Robert Kloss
Self-publishing has long been utterly taboo in the fiction world. Embarrassing, awkward–it’s long been the sign of a rank amateur, unable to interest a press or an agent. But the internet has bulldozed the old shame spot self-publishing used to occupy. Some of the most interesting writers to emerge in the last ten years have been self-published, at least, initially. And that’s where writer Robert Kloss’s current project is so fascinating. Usually a writer starts out self-publishing, gains a following, and eventually publishes on a bigger press. But not Kloss. Kloss started on small presses, moved to a medium-sized press, gained a devoted following along the way — and then moved on to self-publishing in careful, illustrated, and extremely limited print editions. We talked about influence, the difficulty of writing experimental fiction and trying to sell experimental fiction in a traditional way, and the hazards of publishing in any format or medium.
Amber Sparks: Let’s talk of books and publishing and things. You have a book coming out and literally nobody has read it, right? Is that crazy? Scary? Tell me a little bit about why the cone of secrecy and what that’s like.
Robert Kloss: I don’t know if cone of secrecy is the right term–I’ve been pretty open with this book, as far as sharing fragments on my Instagram and a PDF of an earlier draft on my website. But it’s also true that nobody has yet read what this book became–and I haven’t either. Probably that last part is crazy, and it should be scary, since I plan on having the thing published in the next month or two. I feel like I could keep writing this book for years and years more, and it would keep reshaping itself and devouring itself–which is partly why I’m publishing it now. And now I’m in the process of designing the book, which goes far beyond the text itself, so I probably won’t know what I have on my hands for a little while yet.
But I don’t feel any need for outside readers, at least while the work is in process. I know we’ve debated this before–I don’t like the idea of any outside influence. I’m focused on creating something that is entirely my own, and hopefully other people enjoy it.
AS: Ha, yes, we’ve debated this many times, because we’re both on such opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to outside influence. I’m a big believer in it, of course – I relish creating something and willingly letting (the right) outside forces shape it during the process. I know you don’t – but don’t you also feel it’s inescapable to be influenced? I mean, you’re a voracious reader and listener of music, film buff – everything that you read, listen to, watch also shapes your art to some extent, right? No editors, yes, but couldn’t one argue that if you watch The Mirror and rewrite your draft, that Tarkovsky becomes in some small way an editor, or a shaping force at least?
RK: Okay, let me revise my answer–I don’t want an active outside influence. (And I’m glad we’re doing this over email because I did have to think about this a bit to sort out my feelings.) I do think there’s a large difference between being inspired by a text and having the author of that text actively comment on or edit your work. David Lynch for instance has undoubtedly been a key influence on me, particularly over the past two years, but I wouldn’t let him comment on my manuscript. There’s also the truth that Tarkovsky, for instance, is using a different language in film than I use in writing prose fiction. People do read my work and say it’s cinematic, but it’s not cinema–it doesn’t use the full tools of cinema. It attempts maybe to capture movement and light and time the way Tarkovsky did in films like the Mirror, but it never can. It can only misunderstand and fail in a way that starts to break open a different way of writing. And then it’s just a jumping off point–inspiration. You can’t take Tarkovsky’s tools, you can only be inspired by Tarkovsky in a way that allows for a personal misunderstanding and failure. Even Tarkovsky though–and Lynch–are deadly however and here I do agree with you. However, the tools of narrative cinema are close enough to the tools of the prose writer that the influence can be translated at times, and so here I advise writers to watch documentaries and non-narrative films as much as possible. The films of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage and the documentaries of Agnes Varda and Chantel Ackerman and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog instead. Or Tarkovsky’s Polaroids, or Lynch’s paintings and photography instead.
Partly for this reason I don’t read much fiction anymore. I don’t read many novels. The novels I’ve read this year are mostly by Thomas Bernhard and Shirley Jackson, I think, and mostly by Bernhard. I find them both inspiring and interesting–I like how Jackson captures consciousness in particular and how she blurs subjective and objective realities–but I’m mostly drawn to how they developed as artists from text to text. I advocate an approach to inspiration in this way–learning about the deeper movements, the way a writer progresses and develops, and what drives them and why, rather than the surface stuff. The so-called craft or techniques.
It bothers me that writers spend so much time developing similar ways of approaching their art. I don’t understand the allure of craft essays, or writer’s groups, or conferences, panels–as you know, I find being in the same room as most other writers incredibly alienating. It’s a terrible torment. We would be better off if we were the first writers on the face of the earth, trying to articulate something in our self-invented rudimentary ways.
Very likely people will read this answer and think that’s absurd. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.
AS: That makes sense. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how failure can break open a different way of writing, like you say. I love that idea – can you elaborate on that in your own work? How has failure through experimentation broken open writing for you?
RK: I’m not sure how I can elaborate. I try to not work with intention, if that makes sense. So I might have a sound or atmosphere or image in my mind that I want to capture, or some other quality, that is derived from a film or piece of music or painting, but by the time it gets to the writing, it’s pretty removed from the source. I don’t sit and study technique. I try to not think about it, if I can. I see the effect, and I have an inclination of the artist’s hand, but I try to not see it. And I work the same way. So it’s difficult for me to point to something and say, this was me trying for a particular effect and failing, which led to this and this. I will say that it’s all failure, right? Nothing ever come off the way you want it to–and that’s for the best. Sometimes you try to capture a quality or moment and the way you attempt to capture that quality fails, but in an interesting way. Again, I apologize that I can’t be specific here, but this is why focusing on artists working in mediums outside your own is so nice, because the failure is all the more certain. A quality in Tarkovsky, for instance, could filter down to a quality that I aim to capture in writing–but there is no way to accurately capture the effect of the sound and movement of wind that is so haunting in Mirror for instance. But even more than that–trying to describe something outside your window is doomed to fail because it will never have that effect on the reader that it had on you. And maybe three months, four months, a year later you go back over your manuscript and you find that section where you tried to capture the effect of the wind and you don’t remember why it was there, but there is something in how you attempted to capture that moment that jars you out of your way of thinking. No matter how revolutionary we try to be in our thinking we are, I admit, doomed to fight against a million conventions that we’ve been indoctrinated with. I don’t see anyway out of those conventions but through accident.
AS: I know exactly what you mean. I love that failure is certain – especially in medium translation. How could it be otherwise, right? But there’s such freedom in that. It’s like Beckett says. Fail Better. Let’s switch to publishing, which I very much want to talk to you about. It’s no secret you’ve made some bold decisions about publishing/self-publishing in the last few years. Have they paid off? Where are you now on your thinking about publishing your work?
RK: In some ways they’ve paid off and in some ways I’m very much finding myself yet, which is good. It certainly has given me more freedom for failure, and it has allowed me to manage every aspect of a book, which is something that I realize now that I need. I no longer feel alienated from my published work–I feel a satisfaction with the process that I never felt before. So, artistically, it’s been good. But it’s also true that the model I’ve been using–paying for publication through preorders–has run its course. Part of my goal was to keep the emphasis on the work, as a work of art–not as a product. I didn’t want to do any kind of promotion, or pander to reviewers, or get an ISBN, or beg bookstores to stock the book or any of this stuff. I just wanted to create a book as an object, a work of art, and hopefully people would be interested enough that I could afford to create this art-object. I’ve never had a large audience, which is partly how I’ve been able to make this jump in the first place, but it’s dwindled now to mostly nothing. And I have no faith that the next book would find enough people to pay for even the smallest print run. So for me this has forced me to ask if this means there isn’t enough justification for me to publish my work? If I’m generating less and less interest, rather than the opposite direction, then maybe I should do something else. And if that’s the case, then what do I do next? Because I’m pretty wedded to the idea of creating book-objects but maybe this means that I should just learn binding and bind a copy or two for myself. Or maybe this means that I should go the opposite direction–create something super cheap and give it away. That’s the model I used as a freshman in college when we had no funding to publish our literary journal–we just did the thing using school copy machines and staplers and it was fun and rewarding. I kind of like that idea. Just leaving it lying around town, and maybe someone picks it up and it fucks them up a bit. And maybe not! So I don’t know. I do know the book I’m publishing in a month would never have been published had I not done it. And the next book is going to be written without any limitations either. I’m just going to do whatever I want with it and to hell with the rest.
AS: I definitely hear from lots of people in the publishing world how hard it is to sell a book these days. And this, truly, seems a valid approach for an artist – at least, it seems no less valid than doing the opposite and publishing with one of the big houses, doing a book tour, etc. If the work is the emphasis than why not, right?
Here’s what I see as the conundrum, though, and I’m curious what you think. For instance, if you’re self-publishing, it’s going to become much harder to sell copies because you don’t have a publicist, no distribution in bookstores, almost impossible to get reviews, etc. And you say you’re generating less and less interest, and that’s a part of why you may just bind a few copies for yourself, stop publishing en masse. But is there really less interest? Or is it just that fewer people know that the book exists and have a chance to buy or find it? In which case, is it worth taking on some level of publicity for yourself, as well – buying ads on Facebook or something – or is it more than that piece of it, the audience, is not important enough to worry about that?
In other words, I think there would be a lot more people interested in self-publishing (especially given how relatively easy it is to do today versus twenty years ago), but they rightfully worry they won’t be able to tell enough people the book exists all by themselves – that they don’t care about making money, but they also want the people who are interested in their book to be able to know about it and buy it. What would you say to that? Would you ever be willing to be more of a publicist, or would you rather go the other way entirely and leave the audience out of the equation, if push comes to shove?
RK: I honestly don’t know. I’ve done some of that in the past–I bought Facebook ads for some book or other–maybe it was the Alligators of Abraham reissue. I don’t think much comes of it. The best thing that can happen for a book, in all honesty, is that people read your work and like it and share the word. And hopefully when something new comes out they are excited enough that they buy it.
But I think it quickly becomes about the wrong things, and that’s my concern. The moment I become worried about enough preorders or sales or whatever then I’m not thinking about the book. I’m concerned about promotion and publicity and drumming up support. Some people do this stuff so naturally and easily that maybe it doesn’t affect their work, but–you know, I hardly have enough mental space on a given day to compose a sentence, and that’s without worrying over promotion.
There’s also–I suspect the audience that would be into my book isn’t the audience that is most easily tapped into. It isn’t that traditional book buying audience, or I hope it isn’t, since I abhor the books that tend to do well with those crowds.
I’ve also been thinking about producing work very cheaply–is there a way to print books for next to nothing? I don’t know. I want to find out, and maybe rather than sell these books I can give them away. Or people can pay me what they want, if they feel like they want to pay. I think there’s something to someone standing on a corner, playing music or ranting about something, with everybody passing by. But you keep doing it, because you have a conviction in what you’re doing. Maybe you don’t believe anyone will stop to listen or whatever but you keep doing it anyway because the belief isn’t in finding an audience–it’s in the creation of the work, or the work itself. And to anticipate maybe your follow up, yes I’ve thought about bringing a box of books to a public square or sidewalk and reading aloud. The key then is to truly reach the point where you don’t care if anyone stops. It’s weird. It’s like the reverse of being a storyteller or an entertainer.
AS: Okay yes yes and YES. The last thing you said – it’s like the reverse of being a storyteller! I think that’s maybe why I have such a hard time thinking about this process, because I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a storyteller. So the audience is everything – the only thing. It can be small but the story, to me, is still made for them as much as for me.
But I also very much like the idea of the absolute purity of doing it for yourself and only yourself. And I agree your kind of book tends to find readers through a deep network of people who really love what you, Robert Kloss, are doing.
Do you think we’ll get to a place where it’s cheap or free to produce? I do worry, though, that in this very very capitalist society that might cheapen the work itself. Then again, look at Spotify. People respect an artist and pay nothing for their work – though I’m in pretty strong disagreement to that. Maybe that’s part of why the idea of giving it away worries me – that people will say, oh, well, all writing should be free then, if enough people start to do it. I don’t know. Working in this consumerist society with an inherently non-mass-consumer-friendly product (if I may so crassly refer to a book that way) is so difficult that I’m not sure anyone knows how to do it anymore.
RK: Well, the PDF for my last book is up at robert-kloss.com, as a free download. I’ll eventually do that with this book. I go back and forth on this–I know people who make handmade stuff tend to charge much more than mass produced stuff, partly because of the labor that goes into it, and partly because there is more inherent value in it. And that philosophy does make sense to me. Yet if there’s a choice between not making books because I can’t afford to make them and sell them, and producing something cheaply and giving it away, I will choose the later. I seem to be there.
I think we’re at a place where you can sacrifice quality and arrive at something. Then you’re just standing on your words and images, and that’s appealing. You think about everything that goes into publishing a book at a medium to large house–all the people who work on it–and at the end of it, there’s the words, right, or whatever is the essence of the book. What if I strip away everything but the essence? Would anyone be interested? Maybe in a year we’re having this conversation again and my attitude is “what a disaster, a total failure!” Probably, right? But why not try?
AS: Why not? And I’d love to just ask one more question, if you don’t mind. What advice would you give someone who want to create a book the way you have – to self-publish in a way that doesn’t cut corners and creates a true art object?
RK: It helps to have someone who knows what they are doing to answer your questions. My wife is in publishing, and I’ve leaned on her for a lot of this. Little questions–just small stuff about how to set up a document in InDesign–to having her work with the printer. Making a book like I’ve done requires a certain amount of ignorance, but you have to know the line where not knowing what you’re doing could be a disaster.