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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Infinite gestation

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 07:10 AM

Colorful Chicago characters await within
  • Colorful Chicago characters await within
On March 27, 1981, a young Chicago writer named Michael Kiefer published a short story in the Reader called "Doesn't Anybody Speak English Anymore?" Kiefer liked his characters—Rudy, Hungarian super of a string of north-side apartment houses, and Harry, a kid from Wilmette who helps him out on maintenance runs—and used them again in 2000 in a short story he published in an airline's flight magazine. Now they're back, in a novel Kiefer brought out just three months ago. Creativity marches to its own drummer.

The novel is Speaking English, and the Reader story, somewhat revised (Harry, renamed, is now the narrator) is chapter two. The other short story is chapter five. "The book is pure Chicago," says Kiefer, now 59, who moved to Arizona in 1992. The delay in publishing Speaking English shouldn't be mistaken for an equal delay in writing it. In 2000 Kiefer quit his reporting job at New Times in Phoenix; "I didn't feel like writing anything for anyone else," he tells me, "so, nostalgic for Chicago, I sat down and wrote about 40,000 words for myself." That was his first draft of Speaking English, and he thought he had it sold. But, says Kiefer, the New York house that intended to publish it backed out when another Kiefer book, his first, did poorly despite good reviews.

That book was the nonfiction adventure Chasing the Panda: How an Unlikely Pair of Adventurers Won the Race to Capture the Mythical "White Bear," set in an era when Chinese pandas were exotic game, not cuddly emblems of detente. Kiefer did a lot of rewriting when a London editor showed a serious interest in Speaking English, but then she changed jobs and dropped out of the picture. Eventually Kiefer decided to join what he calls publishing's "brave new world."

He'd publish his novel himself.

For good measure, he'd republish his panda book. And he'd publish a couple more. He'd do it all using Amazon's CreateSpace, which lets authors design and load up their own books, to be sold as e-books for Amazon's Kindle and as paperbacks that Amazon prints and sells on demand. Kiefer chose as his paperback imprint Ni Modo Press, ni modo, he tells me, being a Mexican expression meaning "what the hell, move on."

"Does this lessen your interest?" says Kiefer as he explains the situation.

I tell him it compounded it. When the view outside your window becomes a brave new world, consult a map.

Kiefer says he wouldn't mind if I linked to his books on Amazon, so here's the link.

"People who have published books look at this more favorably than people who haven’t," he says. I'm sure that's true. Mere readers can hang on to fantasies of the dashing life of the author. Writers who struggle with agents and editors for a decade or more before their book is finally printed (or isn't) and then see it fall off the face of the earth six weeks later offer not only sympathy but a cheering section for authors willing to try another way.

Amazon lets authors like Kiefer promote their books by offering them as free downloads for a few days. He tried it with Speaking English, with so-so results. But he also tried it with Chasing the Panda. It was promptly downloaded about 5,000 times—bringing it a lot more readers than than it got from being commercially published a decade earlier—and actual sales followed after the promotion expired. "It doesn't really take money out of my pocket because it goes to readers who might not have seen the book otherwise," Kiefer reasons, "and then it generates sales and reviews and such, at no charge to me."

There's nothing about this brave new business model that would induce an author to give up his day job. Kiefer, fortunately, has one again. He covers the courts and legal issues for the Arizona Republic—"I've got a steady diet of serial killers and executions," he tells me. It's the kind of diet reporters once upon a time swore off to write books, but the world has changed.

We don't care how our writers do it. Here at the Reader there's a virtual shelf of books we claim as our own. We're adding Speaking English to that shelf.

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