13 January 2014

Interview with author Tuna Cole

This week I'm pleased to bring you an interview with Tuna Cole, a friend and fellow self-published author living in Portland. In his interview, Tuna explains why he chose to go the self-publication route, why he chose to publish with Lulu, what the consequences are to publishing a book with two different covers (one on the front and one upside down on the back), and much more.


For those readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with your work, would you please briefly describe the three books you have out so far? 
Sure, I published my first book, Ragnarok: A plausible future, in 2009. It's a speculative fiction in which I project a few trends, such as population growth and consumption patterns, climate change and resource depletion, and widespread environmental destruction, to consider social collapse. It's an admittedly bleak topic which I think I treat fairly, positing a group of people who anticipate the collapse. Because of their plans before the great unraveling, these people are situated to withstand the disruption, and survive at a small but sustainable level.

My second book came out in 2010: Shards: A life in pieces. It's a collection of essays and poems I'd been accumulating for over 50 years. Part whimsy, part social critique, and part struggle for identity and meaning in the "modern" world, Shards encapsulates my take on life. This book is undergoing an extensive revision - expansion and reorganization - to better reflect my aging process.

My most recent book, Voyage of the Yellow Submarine: A multi-voice chronicle of life in a commune, appeared in 2012. Altogether 13 people contributed thoughts on our experience initiating and maintaining the commune we founded in the summer of 1968 in Eugene, OR. I wrote 2/3 of the text and, because of my experience with self-publishing Ragnarok and Shards, I was the editor. This work contains photographs and original art from the period, and provides a trenchant overview of the counterculture's opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as everyday life in Eugene in those halcyon days.

Why did you decide to self-publish rather than go the traditional route with your books? 
After writing Ragnarok over a three-year period I submitted my manuscript to a couple of publishers, who promptly sat on it for several months. I finally got a rejection notification from on saying, in essence, "Thanks, but no thanks," without any sort of explanation as to why my work was unsuitable to their needs. I never heard back from the other, a small publisher out of Seattle who'd encouraged me to submit during a conversation at a Wordstock event. It's that ol' rock and a hard place: If you have an agent, or know a published writer who will pitch your work to one of the few remaining publishing houses, you've at least got a chance someone will read your manuscript. Otherwise, what choices do you have at publication except to go it alone? At 72 (my current age), I am not an especially patient man. I feel I had to self-publish if I hoped to have my voice heard/read in my lifetime.

Why did you choose Lulu as your platform for self-publication? 
Other than the recommendation of a friend, there was no particular reason to choose Lulu over a handful of online publisher/printers. Lulu cost-competitive with their rivals and seem to have gotten more "user friendly" over the years.

Why do you feel it was important to publish your books? 
It's no revelation to say that writing, like any other art form, is an expression of one's ego. If one goes to the extreme effort to say something well, to lovingly and painstakingly construct a narrative after days, weeks, sometimes months and years of polishing, revising, tossing portions, rewriting yet again, and burnishing the whole to a fine sheen, then why not take that final step to offer it to the public? Be it scorn or acclaim, the public's review is the ultimate goal and test of a writer.

In October you gave a reading from Voyage of the Yellow Submarine at Rain or Shine Coffee in Portland, and you were wonderful. From my perspective, hearing you read your work added a lot to it (much like my experience of reading vs. hearing David Sedaris's work), and now when I'm reading your book I have your voice in my head to guide me. But I want more! How's the audio recording coming? 
Sione, thank you for your kind words! I do enjoy presenting my works before an audience; I suppose I've more or less settled into who I am without a great deal of self-consciousness after all these years. Thanks to our mutual friend, Aaron Simon, the audio recording is proceeding, albeit slowly, thanks to his patience. It turns out that I'm not an exceptionally good reader of my own material, and need to pace myself...

What, if anything, do you wish you'd done differently with any of your published books? 
As mentioned above, I've felt that Shards suffered from layout and organization issues. Addressing these concerns and adding several new episodes and poems should make this revised book--due out in early 2014--both stronger and more accessible. I'm still reasonably satisfied with the way Ragnarok and Voyage turned out.

If I remember correctly, you ran into some unexpected difficulties when you published Voyage, didn't you?
Self-publication is not for the faint of heart. There are many steps in the process; some of them are complicated, or at least I thought so. The publication of Voyage encountered some extra difficulties not met in my first two books. For one thing, Voyage has several photographs and original drawings from the commune days, and many of these representations extended into the inviolate page borders, according to the Ingram Book Distributing Company. By itself, this would have been an easy fix; simply reconfigure the pictures slightly smaller so as not to lap over the sacrosanct borders. But there was another, more serious issue that I was unable to rectify. Namely, Voyage has two covers. Not a standard front cover and a corresponding back cover, but two equally valid covers, each 180 degrees opposite the other on a horizontal axis. My part of the composition runs some 2/3 of the way through the text, and is page denominated accordingly. Most of the other contributors appear via the other cover, and that section is likewise paged. It's a hippie book; what can I say?

One might think I was the first person in the publishing world to think of this crazy notion. Lulu.com doesn't care. The Library of Congress doesn't care. However,it is such a gross violation of the established distribution conventions that, despite having paid the requisite fees, Ingram Book Distributors will have nothing to do with my book. Curiously, though, I don't think this issue rises to the level of regret or disappointment. I wouldn't go with the standard formatting, even knowing what I know now just to satisfy the arbitrary whims of a few bureaucratic trolls, even given the enhanced exposure. The silk purse from this sow's ear may be the very "non-compliant and rare" nature of its publication.

It is available in a few PDX bookstores, and can be ordered online via lulu.com both in electronic and hard copy form.

What marketing strategies have you used to sell your books, and which have seemed to be most successful? 

Alas, I don't seem to have much of a marketing strategy for my books. I've tried flogging them to a few book stores to scant success. What can I say? I've devoted most of my attention to developing my writing skills (such as they are!), and suddenly switching hats, being Mr. Self-Promoting Salesman, does not come naturally to me.

What writing project(s) are you working on now? 
I've got a couple of projects in mind, but am holding them in abeyance until I finish revising Shards.

What advice do you have for new and aspiring authors who are interested in publishing and selling a book? 
Write and never give up writing! And when you've squeezed the last drop of nectar and bile from your battered psyche into a piece, and you've got nothing else to say and no better way to say it, then offer it to literary journals and the like. Cultivate patience.

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