That’s the great American story [laughs]. It complies with the story of immigrants who came through Ellis Island: they were nobodies—half-human somehow. They had potential, but of course they couldn’t do anything with it over there, because it wasn’t America, so they came here, and suddenly they bloomed.
I don’t know the numbers, but roughly half of the people who came through Ellis Island returned home. They came here to make money, not to make history.
I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own.
“I always thought that the films people love the most are the films that are wise, that have simple lives, truths and ideas in them. All my favorite films growing up, like E.T., have that quality. Hollywood tends to dumb down things, and be incredibly formal and simplistic and paint-by-numbers. And I never thought that is what people actually liked. But why those big Hollywood films were so successful—why they make so much money, why they are so universal—is that they have big important issues and essential wisdom in them.”
- Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin
In the Wake of Finnegan: A Q & A with Xujun Eberlein
This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.
I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was a commentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre.
She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me.
Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China?
Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs. I asked the young man how Finnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”
Now we kind of wish they’d start aggressively advertising Finnegans Wake in the United States, too. Imagine a billboard (or maybe a few miles of separate billboards) spelling out this word along the side of a highway: klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot
One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: ‘Aren’t all your books about the same thing?’ My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat — ‘Well, aren’t they all about women?’
“I am also interested in cultivation and wildness in the natural world. Weeds and feral animals cannot come into being without humans. Weeds were just plants before their growth became counter to productive agriculture, and animals have to have been domesticated at some point in order to become feral. So conceptually, weeds and feral animals reclaim the wild. I am also interested very much in the greening, both planned and unplanned, of Detroit and other post-industrial spaces around the world.”
“But when I started writing my novel, it was very much in secret. I didn’t really talk about it. Who was I going to talk about it to? [Laughs. ] I didn’t have any writer friends. It seemed like something very private to do, just to see if I could do it.” Our own Sonya Chung sits down with The Days of Yore.
The booger in the pool is way more important to me than what place I came in at the 1988 or 1992 trials.
In the past couple of years, Adam Mansbach has gone from respected novelist to pop culture lightning rod thanks to a little book he wrote about trying to put his daughter to bed. Having already been a go-to expert for all things hip hop, as well as fiction writing and the politics of race, he unexpectedly found himself answering endless questions about parenting. He’ll probably never escape being known as the guy who wrote Go the F**k to Sleep, but 2013 will put some distance between him and that book with the release of two novels, the first of which, Rage Is Back, delivers readers to New York in 2005, where an old-school crew of graffiti writers attempts to recreate the past.
Yes, I do find there to be an over-emphasis on self e-publishing, and media outlets unfortunately encourage this by featuring the latest, greatest success story who has sold thousands of copies or been picked up by a traditional publisher, often leaving out the amount of work it took to reach ‘overnight’ success. Recommended: Amanda Hocking’s post on her ‘overnight’ success.
That said, I think there’s a reason the vast majority of titles don’t even sell 500 copies (or 100): They’re of poor quality. Of those titles that are of reasonable quality, often the authors don’t have copywriting skills or basic online marketing skills (or even a passable website) to get it noticed.
If you have a quality story that resonates with readers, with the skills to market and promote your work over the long haul (with mad online marketing skills especially), you’ll tend to be more lucky. It also helps if you have more than 1 book to sell—if you have, in fact, a series to sell. That way, you can use the first book as a loss leader (free or 99 cents), then charge more for the later books. But that only works if you prove yourself with readers on the first book. If you read the reviews of many self-published titles, you’ll find that people gave up 10% of the way in because it’s so bad.
In short, though, I agree with you: If you’ve got one title to self-publish and you sell it for 99 cents, the ROI is terrible unless you have a massive following ready to buy once it goes live.