Over the last couple of months, I’ve made allusions and hints to “something” that I promised would be announced “soon.” It’s something that came about alongside the ALT 2.0 project on Kickstarter, something that I’ve long dreamed about giving a shot.
Well, I think I’m at a point where I’m ready to pull the trigger and let everyone know what I’ve been up to. I’m going to go ahead and warn you now: this is a long one. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this story I have to tell you.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a devout follower of Trent Reznor. I make no secret about it. Everyone has their idols, and I have my own, in various areas. Specifically, everyone has their particular band. My sister-in-law follows Creed (for reasons that confound me). My best friend idolizes KISS (again, for reasons that confound me).
For me, it’s Trent Reznor, for reasons that confound others. Say that name in a crowd and there’s a 50/50 chance someone will know who you’re talking about. The name will also fall on deaf ears. Say Nine Inch Nails, however, and most people will acknowledge the band. They’ve heard the name. Most of them have seen the logo. Some probably even know that “Fuck you like an animal” song.
Reznor is synonymous with Nails, and rightfully so, but more recognize the band than they do its founder.
In 1989, TVT Records released Pretty Hate Machine, an album written, performed, and recorded by Trent Reznor. It was released under the name Nine Inch Nails. The liner notes state “Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor.” It resonated with a lot of people, became an underground hit, and rocketed NIN to success. Last week a re-mastered version of the album was released, about a year late for its 20th anniversary. I’m listening to it right now.
Reznor successfully created a mask for himself, allowing him to toil behind the curtain like a mad scientist and release his works under the moniker of an entity much larger than himself. When I was a kid, and specifically, a teenager, I marveled at the fact that he did most of it himself. Sure, there were others who helped him—his manager, his producer, his band mates whenever they went on tour—but when it came to actual creation, the presentation, and the driving focus, he was the one who led the charge. None of it would exist if he hadn’t put pen to paper and fingers to synthesizer.
This isn’t about Nine Inch Nails. It’s not about Trent Reznor, even. I wrote the last five paragraphs to provide a little insight. I’ll come back to it shortly.
I finished my first novel on March 3rd, 2001. I was seventeen years old. The night I finished, I went online to look up ways to publish it. What I found was daunting. There was this thing called an agent, and this person would solicit your work to publishers for a modest 15% of the final take (20% for international rights). I remember thinking what a bullshit process that was, a system facilitating a middle man, but if I wanted to play the game, I had to play by the rules, right?
I don’t remember how many queries I sent out in the following months. It was at least five or six. I heard back from three, and all rejected me. That was fine. I kept writing. When I enrolled in college, my counselor told me about a writing contest the university held every year. It was called the Oswald Research and Creativity Project, and it covered a number of areas, including fiction. I submitted that first novel. It won second place, and I walked away with $200. It was the first time I earned money from something I wrote.
When I told my best friend that I won, he remarked, “I guess that’s it, then. You’ll be doing this forever.”
He was right. That summer I wrote a number of stories and a second novel (don’t ask—it was terrible). I kept submitting my stories and collecting my rejections. I had my first official “publication” in an online zine called Art Underground. It was established by a classmate, and it lasted approximately one issue before vanishing forever under a tidal wave of electrons and apathy.
I kept writing. I submitted my stories and collected my rejections. I developed grand dreams about revolutionizing the publishing industry, changing the game, creating a new option for people stuck in the same rut as myself. The temptation of vanity publishing was always there, but the idea of paying a company like AuthorHouse over a thousand dollars to do what a traditional publisher would do for a percentage just seemed crappy.
At the same time, the more I tried, the more it seemed the cards weren’t in my favor. Agents wanted the next big thing. They didn’t want new, experimental work; they wanted derivatives that would sell, make money, and so on. You know the rest of this story. If you’ve paid any attention to the publishing landscape (or your bookstore’s top ten list) over the last five years, you know how things turned out.
Regarding queries, I started to give up. The more I played, the more it seemed like a rigged game. To be published, I needed to write what they wanted me to write—not what I wanted to write, and to me, that just defeated the purpose.
In late 2004 I was accepted into an internship for my university’s literary journal, Limestone. It was there that I gained vital insight into the publishing process, from submissions, to layout work, to choosing a printer and binding. A seed was planted in those late months, and it sprouted over the holiday that year. In early 2005, I decided I would follow in the footsteps of the wonderful Limestone staff, and publish something myself.
The result was a collection of short fiction titled Written in Red. Only 101 copies exist, and all but four or five were sold. It has no ISBN and you won’t find it on any bookshelf. They were printed by a small offset printer just outside of Philadelphia, and the venture was funded by several generous donors. In return, their names appeared in the book, and they received free, signed copies. Chris Vrenna, ex-drummer and co-founder of Nine Inch Nails, has a copy. He emailed to say so.
The process of getting that book to print within a three-month time period was stressful, intimidating, exhilarating, and—most importantly—liberating. It gave me a taste, a bug, whatever you want to call it—it put me in touch with the very thing I wanted to do. Writing, yes, that’s what I live for, but what is the point of writing if no one will read it? And what is the use of publishing if not to make what’s written available for inquisitive pairs of eyes?
I envisioned a publishing landscape much different than the one I know. One in which writers are given a chance to explore the depths of talent, are encouraged to try new things. A “publishing utopia,” if you will. It was 2005. I was 22 years old, with big dreams, and not the slightest idea of what the real world had to offer.
A year later I did it again, this time through Lulu, with a book called A Life Transparent. It was initially offered through Lulu; later, with the help of a friend, I purchased an ISBN and made the book available across the globe. For the last three years, until I took it out of circulation this past summer, the first edition of that book read “Published by R. Todd Keisling.”
I never liked that. Maybe it’s an inherent throwback to the stigma of “self-publishing.” It’s the idea that you’re cheating the game. You aren’t playing by their rules. Even now, looking at an old copy of it, I can’t help but cringe. It’s enough that people know I wrote the thing—but to know I published it? Please.
On the other hand, though, why should I feel such shame? I’m damn proud of the book. Sure, some people hated it (and were vocal), but a lot of people genuinely liked it, too. Never mind that I published it myself. So what? Why not let the work stand on its own merits?
I say these things now, but in 2008, I walked away from it. It’s a rigged game, after all. The book didn’t sell. People didn’t read it. I felt like I’d jumped the gun, that if I’d given this book a chance with the submission game, it would’ve had its day. Embarrassed and defeated, I put a PDF of the novel on my website as a free download, and walked away to live my life. Then, in early 2009, I discovered that over 3000 people had downloaded my little book in a year’s time. Zero advertising.
I started writing a sequel around the same time. I discovered that a vast community of independently-minded writers had taken charge in my year-long absence. Self-publishing had transformed into indie publishing. The ebook revolution of 2007 had paved a way for the indies, and they were back with a vengeance. I was surprised. I was thrilled. I was a year behind everyone else.
So, in 2009 and half of 2010, I started doing my homework, preparing for something I wasn’t quite ready to admit just yet.
Soon, I told myself. Soon.
In the last year or so, it’s become apparent that what we know as the traditional publishing industry is slowly going the way of the music industry, but in a much different way. Whereas the music industry died by way of its inability to adapt to changing technology and treating its customers like criminals, the publishing industry is changing due to its alienation of the very ones who have kept its gears turning: namely, the writers. When successful mid-list writers are dropping (or are being dropped by) their publishers and releasing their work independently by their own means, it signals a change in the waters. It’s not that the rules of the game are changing; it’s that the game itself is changing. What it changes into is now in the hands of writers. We are free to shape our own futures, our own careers.
It’s a matter of control. Some writers would prefer to leave 90% of the decisions concerning their book in the hands of others. All they do is write, you see. They don’t want to be bothered with the details. Personally, if it’s my name going on the cover, I want my hands in every part of the process. As an independent author, I intend to make use of my freedom, and control my own destiny.
In recent days, with the re-release of Pretty Hate Machine, I find myself reflecting on Trent Reznor as an artist and a businessman. Through Nine Inch Nails, he established a front for himself, an umbrella under which he was free to create whatever he pleased. Any number of collaborators were welcome to join him under a single banner, ready to wage sonic war against the conventions of the music industry. In 2007, Reznor announced that his contract with Interscope was fulfilled, and that he would not be renewing. He struck out on his own, forming the Null Corporation, a parent label to serve as a home for his various projects.
Thinking on it now, I realize that even if I’d kept querying, if I’d kept searching for that agent, it would’ve only delayed the inevitable point at which I find myself. I think that, had I achieved that coveted publishing contract, I would not be happy. It’s not in my nature to give up creative control—not even in the name of money. In my eyes, that’s cheating. Doing it yourself is the only real legitimate way to play.
Earlier this year, after a mishap with a re-release of ALT in preparation for its sequel’s publication, I struck upon the idea of using Kickstarter as a means of facilitating its release. Much like I’d done with Written In Red years before, I would seek donors to fund the project, providing them with rewards for their support.
There was still something else, though. When I put together the initial re-release, I was faced with the decision of publishing under a different name. The thought of publishing my own name did not sit well with me. Someone like Alfred A. Knopf can get away with it, but Todd Keisling? No, not happening.
I took several weeks to think about it. It wasn’t something I could approach lightly. After all, this name I chose, this entity, this mask, it would become a front for my work. A home, a house, a place for my things—and maybe, if I could find the right model, the right balance, it could become a home for others as well. A place for creative freedom, with a focus on digital publication and the potential for limited, special edition print runs. A place where the author is nurtured and encouraged. A place where an agent is not the way through the door.
My wife and I spent weeks thinking of a name. We came up with a lot of possibilities, all of which were already claimed by other companies. Domain name availability was a large factor. It also needed to symbolize what I’m about, what my work is about. A writer’s mantra, of sorts, or maybe even a manifesto. It needed to sing.
At the time I was in the home stretch of finishing ALT’s sequel, and as I neared the end, a theme crept into the narrative. In the book, Donovan Candle must make a pivotal decision. The scenario reminded me of something I read during my college days. Soren Kierkegaard wrote about a “leap of faith.” In his specific case, he referred to the leap a man must take in order to accept Christianity despite its many contradictions. I exercised my artistic license, twisting that into a metaphor to suit the story.
So, like Donovan, I found myself at the edge of something. I had an idea of where I wanted to go, what I had to achieve, but there was a very, very large gap between the two points. To get there, I would have to leap.
The name came to me one morning while contemplating the possibility of taking that leap. I was at the precipice of decision. Do I stay, or do I leap? The name came to me, then. I liked it. I could see it on a copyright page, on a book’s spine, and it would make a great, ominous logo that’s easily recognizable. And, thankfully, the domain name was available.
Back in August, I stepped back a few feet, took a breath, and ran full speed toward the edge. I took my leap.
And this is how Precipice Books came to be:
So that’s the big reveal. I have established a publishing company, with a focus on digital releases. Print editions will be made available in limited quantities, as very special editions. My work will be the litmus test for the business model. ALT 2.0 is the flagship title, and TLM will follow later in 2011.
It may not go anywhere, but if it does—if the model proves it can turn some sort of sustainable profit—the doors to submissions will be opened to the public. I hope it comes to that. I don’t want to be the only one under the Precipice name.
There are a couple of folks who’ve helped me along to this point. Generous collaborators, supporters–my wife, Erica, and my dear friend (and editor!) Amelia Snow. They believe in this project as much as I do, and I have to say that, with them, it’s not as scary looking into the abyss.
For now, Precipice Books is Todd Keisling. Come watch me take my leap. Let’s hope I don’t fall flat on my face.