Off the Leash: PW Talks to Daniel Donatelli
"The sad or inspiring fact of the matter is that I’ve been rejected in almost every way a writer can be rejected."In November, Daniel Donatelli self-published The Great Anti-American Novel via H.H.B. Publishing. The book received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer saying, "Donatelli somehow melds an action-packed view of a dystopian future with reflections on the dilemma of a decayed modern-day America." We caught up with Donatelli to chat about everything from self-publishing and corporate prisons to marketing and individual liberty.
Why did you decide to self-publish The Great Anti-American Novel and Jibba and Jibba before it? Did you attempt to publish traditionally or did you decide to bypass the gatekeepers entirely?
The sad or inspiring fact of the matter is that I’ve been rejected in almost every way a writer can be rejected. But to be fair, I have also shied away from many of my realistic writing opportunities -- for instance, the chance to write ad copy for a multi-level marketing cult, or 200-word stories about yarn trends in regional hipster e-zines, and I’m also fairly certain that some mid-level university would have gladly taken my money in exchange for an MFA -- and consequently I have done my share of rejecting as well. Frankly, I never wanted to force an ill-fitting professional leash on the relentless labrador of my literary imagination, and alternatively/unfortunately most of the professors I encountered in college were self-sniffing narcissists I didn’t look forward to having as colleagues. So after graduation I let the labrador run free in gmail drafts, while I otherwise spent my time shackled to proofreading responsibilities in various corporate prisons in beautiful Southern California.Then one night at a party in Venice, my childhood friend and current business partner approached me and said, “Dan, I honestly don’t understand how your writing abilities haven’t been discovered yet, but I think we should take advantage of that and start a publishing company.” I am diffident by nature, so the thought of self-publishing probably would have never occurred to me without his prodding, but the logic made sense: My writings have always generated a response out of seemingly everyone but the gatekeepers, and my journalism education included classes on print-layout and such, so I knew that he and I could combine forces to launch books into the marketplace, and it just came down to doing it. Soon thereafter, I quit that cultish proofreading job and moved back to Ohio to live cheaply and dedicate nearly my entire existence to the (potentially dubious and quixotic) goal of creating a literary career for myself.
What was co-founding H.H.B. Publishing, LLC and your the self-publishing process like?
Three years ago, when we officially co-founded H.H.B., I sent my business partner my several-years-old manuscripts for what would eventually become our first offerings: the flowingly spiritual novel Music Made By Bears and the humorously angst-ridden novel Jibba And Jibba. He responded very favorably to both manuscripts, which I had written while proofreading at various companies after graduation -- I was very good at my job(s) and had plenty of downtime at my desk(s). But I had never sent the manuscripts anywhere because they were part of a three-step process I had challenged myself with back in college: 1. Write A Book. 2. Write A Better Book. 3. This Third Book Will Be The One That Might Actually Interest Publishers.
Anyway, my business partner wisely suggested that my first two practice books as a writer would also be pretty perfect to serve as our first two practice books as publishers. So, I spent a year hammer-editing them both into acceptable literary sculptures, and then I spent months painstakingly laying out the manuscripts in mass-printable (and also e-readable) files, and we quietly added them to the marketplace, where they can currently be found on a very thin and distant section of “the long tail.” The next year, we released a book of my short stories -- Oh, Title! -- which has actually surpassed the first two books in terms of commercial futility. Nevertheless, I am internally satisfied with the quality of the products we have put out there, and they’ve all been well-reviewed by the thumbful of people who’ve read them. But I’ve darkly joked that the fact of the matter is that there is an Excel sales spreadsheet on my computer that could also serve as a suicide note. Anyway, undaunted, I wrote and laid out another book -- The Great Anti-American Novel -- and so far it has generated approximately nine-billion times more interest than the others.
Your novel is about a sort of Anti-America -- can you elaborate on what that means and how it shaped the book?
I believe that the bulk of America’s past successes can be attributed to the fact that, of all the nations on Earth, America’s founding governing philosophy was the most in touch with reality. It’s not that Thomas Jefferson invented the idea of individual liberty, but rather that Jefferson saw that individual liberty inherently exists, and we might as well design a government that keeps that in mind. I believe America’s governing philosophy has changed over time, and it is pretty brutally out of sync with reality these days, and we are all seeing the consequences everywhere, as the rot spreads. All I did in my latest novel was to take all those troubling trajectories a little further down the line and try to imagine what that place would be like. Then, within that context, I started writing about a disparate, desperate family that I came to care about deeply.
What's the reaction been to The Great Anti-American Novel since you self-published?
I have a friend who is in the Marines, and she lamented to me that she couldn’t recommend the book to most of her Marine friends, because she believes they would never be able to get past the title and cover. I can understand that -- I would hope that Marines love America and the flag to a blistering degree -- and I am just endeavoring to sit patiently with the hope that time and reviews will ultimately reveal that I have created enjoyable art and not anti-American propaganda.
When I finished the first draft of the book, I was nervously certain that I had created something of an opus, so I sent it to my business partner and a few other people I consider good readers (including a captain in the Army Rangers) who could provide useful feedback, and everyone, independently of each other, including my business partner, responded so favorably that they all suggested I try to sell it for as much money as I could get, following the logic that a major publishing success would be a rising tide that could lift the boats of my otherwise independent publishing efforts. In fact, I was able to get the attention of two fairly prominent literary agencies, and both houses praised the book up to God’s lap and then jabbed cold rejections into my heart. It hurt bad for a bit (in April, no less—the cruellest month), but ultimately I consider myself a discerning bibliophile, and I know what a good book is, and I felt that, despite the usual rejections, I had something that was more than merely good, so I started laying it out myself, like before.
Now it’s all done and released and official reviews are coming in, and so far the response has remained incredibly positive. Nevertheless, there is at least one negative review out there -- which of course the woman managed to post everywhere it’s possible to post book reviews -- that ultimately says the book was much too unrealistic for her tastes. To me, a negative review (or even the slightest criticism in a positive review) feels like someone is calling my baby ugly, and for a while after reading that review I was just human lava, but it’s irrational to think that literally everyone will respond favorably, and I’ve even heard that people don’t trust positive reviews until they see a negative one, too, so I’ll survive. And I respect her right to her opinion, but my brief response -- my defense, if I am allowed such -- to that reviewer’s criticism of my novel is a quotation by Stanley Kubrick that I agree with wholeheartedly: “Real is good; interesting is better.”
You helped fund The Great Anti-American Novel via Kickstarter.
My business partner and I realized that our lack of success was at least partially the result of a lack of publicity and marketing -- something neither of us brings to the table; in fact, pretty much the opposite. Additionally, neither of us can afford to bring a ton of money to the table, either, so we decided to try our luck with a Kickstarter campaign, to then be able to fund some publicity and marketing efforts by professionals who actually know what they’re doing.
The Kickstarter campaign ended up being a ton of work (still ongoing), but it also turned out to be rewarding in a way that went far beyond financial aid, for not only was money being donated, but with it there were also corollary psychological strokes of love. I did not anticipate how almost spiritually rewarded I would feel to see the names of all the people who, in difficult economic times, decided to love/support me in something that I’ve been working towards, largely alone, for at least two decades. We ended up receiving approximately $6,000 in donations, which we used to hire a publicist (Jennifer Tucker, at Smith Publicity, where everyone did an exemplary job), and we have been using the rest to fund some marketing efforts and entries into book competitions and such. And clearly our submission to PW Select has turned out to be very beneficial.
What's the biggest challenge facing writers self-publishing?
Trick question. They’re all the biggest challenges. First off, how does one write something that is actually good? How does one make a living selling books in a culture where most of the people I know actually brag to me about how they never read books? How does one get people to care about the art in one’s heart if the art in one’s heart doesn’t conform to popularly trending genres? How does one get people to pay money to buy books written by someone they’ve never heard of in a culture of people who feel like they already know everything? How do I get my aging parents to turn down the volume of the TV upstairs before I suffer a nervous breakdown? These are all incredibly difficult challenges to try to overcome.
What do you think the political climate in the U.S. will be in, say, 10 years?
I was tempted to cynically reply, “Probably just further down the frown,” but I’ve been alive long enough to witness the dynamic glory of human free will. Consequently I believe human events are so infinitely complex that I don’t even play fantasy football. Nevertheless, based on current trajectories, I think my initial “frown” impulse is correct, but I also believe the Chinese are right about crises being the same as opportunities, and I guess I hope that one of these times it won’t just be the military-industrial complex who realizes that.