The Publishing Model of the Twenty-Fourth and a Half Century

Mark and Dave rocking the merch table at the Loft (photo: Todd Wardrope)

The June 6  launch reading for David Oppegaard’s AND THE HILLS OPENED UP at the Loft in Minneapolis was a huge success.  We had a great turnout, sold a bunch of a books, and had a solid contingent of the crowd come to hang at Grumpy’s Bar afterward.  Special thanks to Todd Wardrope, Dawn Frederick, and Brian Beatty for putting on a good show.

Below is the transcript of the introduction speech I gave for Dave.

Burnt-Bridge-High-res-LogoI’d like to thank you all for coming. This is a big deal for us—for Dave and I, especially, and for my publishing partner, Jason Stuart, who founded Burnt Bridge and lives down in Mississippi with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Together, Jason and I run our pulp-revival, author-forward imprints, Burnt Bridge and Blastgun.

We were pretty blown away and humbled by the feedback we’ve gotten in regard to AND THE HILLS OPENED UP. Publisher’s Weekly said some really kind things. The Pioneer Press and Star Tribune featured it as a summer read. And the support on social media has been amazing. We didn’t really plan on this or expect this. We really didn’t think we’d be here at the Loft, the finest organization in Minnesota for writers and readers alike.

I, for one—and Dave would probably agree with me—wasn’t entirely sure we were going to pull it together. It was a strange ride—still is—and one that has been filled with more twists and turns and WTFs than you could imagine. Mainly because our publishing model doesn’t exactly make sense to most who have been in this game for a long time. It doesn’t really make sense to us either, by the way.

What sets us apart is that our authors take a majority of the royalties. And by “majority,” I don’t mean 50/50, I mean basically all. This is a business model I don’t exactly recommend if the word “business” is important to your business model … but it does fulfill an ideal that Jason dreamed up awhile back and one I agree with. We believe writers should have the majority share of the work they create. What an idiotic dream, right? What kind of nut would do something with so little self-interest? In America, no less. No wonder, we’re often fighting criticism for destroying the publishing industry; we’re destroying the very foundation of American corporations. We’re downright unpatriotic.

I guess the issue is—so the Facebook preachers say—is that our model flattens the historical publishing model. Thing is, the one we use happens to be the only model accessible to us, so we use it. We have no money, and when you have no money, all you have to offer are possibilities—in this case, the chance for royalties. Plus, we’re only two guys, trying to maintain our careers, families, social life, while continuing to write our books and stories and cope with our addiction to Netflix. We don’t have interns, publicists, or a vast network of highly influential opinion swayers—but we’re open to talking with highly-influential opinion swayers, if you’re out there. Oprah, are you here tonight?

With profits removed from the business plan, our goal strictly becomes the promotion of authors whose work we like and whose work we want readers to enjoy. This is not an ideal. It’s the basic fact underlying the entire publishing industry, but it gets clouded by discussions about whether literature is alive or dead, whether print is irrelevant, whether Amazon is a friend or foe to writers, indie bookstores, or Big 5 publishing, etc.

Thing is, right now, publishing is a pretty easy thing to do, too. In fact, our publishing logistics involve owning Adobe Creative Suite, doing a little amateur design, creating a 20 dollar website, knowing every print-on-demand possibility out there, and having a connection to a handful of other enthusiastic writers who may blog about a book. We’re small-time. When you’re small-time, what else can you offer, but all you have?

So that’s what we did.

I called Dave in late August of last year and against my soberest advice, Dave said he had a horror western that might work with Burnt Bridge. When Dave sent me HILLS, I was halfway through Stephen King’s THE STAND. On my bus ride to work, I opened up Dave’s file on my iPad and I have yet to return to one of King’s most touted works, and now we’re all here. Amazing.

Dave’s been a good friend of mine for the last ten years, since we first met in Larry Sutin’s Teaching Practicum course at Hamline. Larry had a broken leg, or recently had knee surgery, or something, so I imagine our first conversation was about Larry’s leg, and I imagine our grand meeting involved such lofty exchanges as, “Man, that looks like it would suck.” “Yeah, dude, I think he like fell down a flight of stairs.”

This place has a three-beer special and occasionally serves pterodactyl wings.
This place has a three-beer special and occasionally serves pterodactyl wings.

Shortly thereafter, we found a certain kinship, deepened through our love for Liqour Lyle’s 3-beer specials and Dave’s unending patience in teaching me how to play fantasy football.

We email each other when we get something published or if we finish a work that’s been especially long and difficult, most of those emails coming from Dave. The guy has written fourteen novels. He’s personally emailed me early drafts of a lot of them. I’ve read every one.

What I’m saying is that I’m a fan of Oppegaard as a writer and I love Davey as a friend.

Which is what makes HILLS so special. But as great as HILLS is, I want to show you another little, yet immensely important work from Dave.

THE FARMER, 3 of 9
THE FARMER, 3 of 9

I call your attention to this work because it was created in a manner rare in this digital age, an age full of that scoff-first, think-later mentality that trolls all lit-blog message boards.

This work is above that, beyond that—it subverts that, because, hey, it’s made out of paper.

And, if you look close, you’ll see that Dave designed it himself using the latest Microsoft clip art technology. He signed it with an ornate, cursive D, and included a personal message: “Happy Spring!” it says. And this work is rare. It’s number 3 of 9. Says so on the back. I suspect the other 8 recipients are possibly here tonight.

We are a lucky few.

From the publishing side, what I like about THE FARMER is that there is no work more pure than this. It was created by the writer, front cover to back, and personally sent to a small and committed audience of readers who had no idea this was the work they were truly waiting for. It came as a surprise, as a gift, unhindered by notions of pride or profit. It exists as is, a story told, so that we the readers could meet the writer somewhere on that astral plane of literature, where the writer is wiling away the hours at a desk in Midway, with a cat named Frenchie lazing nearby, and perhaps an artisan beer or cocktail within reach—or, so I’m told, kale juice these days. This is publishing and writing at its purist. It’s an example for us. It’s a writer showing the world how it ought to be.

And I agree. This is how publishing should be. Burnt Bridge and Blastgun aspire to be this.

Comet_(PSF)From an artistic side, what I like about THE FARMER is, well, it’s a perfect story. Deep and true with no words wasted, typical to Dave’s style. It’s about a farmer named Cal who’s tired of a long, hard winter. He feels the cold weight closing in on him, but it’s clear that it’s not just the weather that makes Cal feel cut off from the rest of the world. There’s something else within him that grows colder every day. He finds an old flare gun one night in the barn and he fires it off over his field. And he thinks of the old bachelor farmer, Old Elmer, who lives across the way as the flare burns above his fields. The next day, Cal goes about his business, alone and bored, having trouble getting the beauty of that flare burst out of his mind. It blossomed over his empty white fields, a gentle frumpff breaking the winter silence, a tidy hidy-ho to the void. So, the next night, Cal goes back to his fields and fires another flare, and it fills that emptiness within him the entire time it burns, and just as quickly it dies away, so too does his fleeting moment of joy.

Then, in Dave’s words now:

Cal turned back to look at the field. An incandescent pinkish-white light appeared in the west, hovering over Old Elmer Jorstead’s place as it burned in silent amity; so bright it was hard to look at. Cal watched the flare a moment, feeling his chest swell with neighborly goodwill, before hustling back to his house. He wanted to be inside before the flare’s light died out completely.

Now, I apologize for ruining the ending, but this is also allowing you to look in on the secret life of writers. You’re witnessing our darkest nights and latest evenings at their barest and most true, and all of it is revealed within this slim chapbook, created by the author and for no other reason than to entertain a few folks who might enjoy it.

And it’s no lie to say all books ever created work this exact same way. A lot of other stuff gets in the way of this simple truth, but it’s still there, alive and well—literature living and breathing in the bones of humanity.

Dave has always made this writing life make sense to me. I’ve never exactly gotten it, so I’ve always looked to Dave and his work ethic to help guide my own. He always has a novel in the chamber. I’ve always had a novel idea in the chamber. And I always thought Dave as this unstoppable machine when it came to writing. A writer fighting back that void through sheer force of will, with loads of God-given talent. He’s Cal in that field, firing his flare gun and watching it blossom and die away, telling the long reach of darkness HERE I AM … for a brief while, anyway.

So I guess that makes the rest of us, his readers and fans, just like Old Elmer, as we brave the dark loneliness, hoping to commune with that same bright fire, returning our call on a cold dark evening, saying HERE WE ARE with fiery tail.