I like to think I have my ear to the street, that if there’s an up-and-coming writer with a style that runs against the grain, I’ll know about him/her before that style is being either castigated or revered by my “mainstream publishing” colleagues. This is impossible, of course. There are a lot of talented writers out there that I will never come across, and a lot of small, independent publishers putting them in print, but the volume is massive, and one can only read so much. So as much as I’d like to say I’d read about Shane’s wonderful book on some obscure website and fell in love with it that way, the truth is that I only discovered it when Spike Jonze picked up the film option and Variety reported it. (Penguin has a lot of books on its backlist, many of which have been optioned, and it’s my job to keep tabs on them. I also happen to love film, so it works out well.) This was a few months before Spike’s adaptation ofWhere the Wild Things Are came out, but the hype had already begun.
So I ordered a copy online and then emailed Adam, inquiring about the tie-in edition rights, should the movie ever get made. Adam told me that the rights were Shane’s, but I wasn’t convinced, and didn’t want him getting left out of the equation entirely—after all, it was his commitment to the book that put everything in motion to begin with. He persisted, and then the next told me that Shane had since gotten an agent, and that he (the agent) would be in touch. He was, that same day I believe, and he managed to send me an electronic version of the book in advance of my physical copy, which was still in the mail. I loved it, of course, as I’m a sucker for anything that pulls off that rare perfect balance of tenderness and violence, especially if it’s contained in a fable-like story about men in strange masks and trench coats who start a revolution. ¡Viva el vuelo!
Shane Jones I’ll be honest—I hated the Publishing Genius website so much that I didn’t sendLight Boxes to you right away.
Adam Robinson That’s cool. I was just so proud of myself for learning how to code HTML that I forgot it wasn’t 1995 anymore.
SJ Yeah, but then everyone else rejected the manuscript and I felt like I had no other choice. What was your first reaction when I emailed you about the book?
AR My first reaction was, honestly, that I don’t like the name “Shane.”
SJ Shane is kind of a scumbag name. I imagine a Shane as really weak looking, missing teeth, and a mullet. So it’s understandable that you had that reaction.
AR My second reaction was that I didn’t understand what the “game of prediction” was, so I stopped reading it. Then one night I read a bunch and I thought it was okay, but a little too saccharine for my tastes. Also, a little too loose. But it was the right length, and you were wicked famous, so I was torn. Eventually I decided what the heck, I’ll just reject the book and get it off my plate. I really did want to publish a woman because that was important for where PG was at the time.
SJ It’s kind of funny that I didn’t like your press that much and you didn’t like the manuscript right away. I think after you sent that email about wanting to publish a female writer, and me writing back about how I didn’t punch people, things kind of took off from there. Or maybe they relaxed a little.
AR Yeah. I always appreciated the quickness and informality of your emails. Hey, I just found my acceptance letter.
Hi Shane, bq. I just want to keep you in the loop here on your manuscript. It’s awesome. It’s a great, interesting story and mysterious and I like all the perspectives you use to tell it. It’s haunting sometimes and you really nail it when the moss grows over the horses. Sheesh. Thank you for sending it to me; I want to publish it. So! bq. I see some areas that can be changed a little bit to “maximize impact.” Some things in the story that can just be maybe expanded a sentence or two, or just the sentence can be honed. Are you open to such things? Really nothing major at all … bq. Forgive the informality of this email. I hope you are still interested in working with PG on this and if so we can iron out some details. I think your book is perfect for what I want to do right now. Let’s call it a chapnovel or something. Best, Adam
Ha, “Forgive the informality of this email,” geez! I like how I went from “keeping you in the loop” in the first sentence to accepting the book three sentences later. I wonder if I knew I was going to do that. So were you happy or neutral or what when I eventually accepted the book?
SJ I was really excited. I was at work. I jumped up a little in my office and walked to the bathroom with a big smile. Then I told some people about it and they were like, “What is Publishing Genius? Is that a vanity press?”
So let’s jump ahead a little. Did you have any expectations for the book? Do you think there was a point where it was like “people are going to really like this book.”
AR Even when you did that hilarious interview with Sam Pink in which you imagined my “wife” sneaking copies out in the trash and the garbage men finding them and getting pissed off—”This crap is too short to be a novel!”—even then I wasn’t thinking about sales. I was like, “Well, I’ve got $3000 to make a book. Whatever happens will be good enough.”
SJ I guess my feeling was that we’d print 200-300 copies and maybe half would sell.
AR At one point I had a crisis, thinking, “This book sucks! I’m ruined!” Did you ever feel that way?
SJ I think I was just happy to have the book in a printed format. I had done chapbooks before, but this was something really big—a printed and bound book! I didn’t think anyone would buy it, but working with you was so much fun. It felt like a cool little art project.
AR What were you thinking during the editing stages? I remember the first time I sent you a 4,000 word letter of edits on Friday and on Monday you had a massive rewrite.
SJ Yeah, I do remember doing one really big run through on the book. What I sent you was a first draft, for the most part. I remember editing like 12 hours a day for a few days. Then we did all the little changes and we probably traded close to a 1,000 emails, working one on one with no other distractions. I miss that.
AR I’m wondering what your thought process was when, like, I told you to make Caldor Clemens’s death a bigger deal, or to bring in more blood and violence in Thaddeus’s final fight with February. I remember hating the “physics” of how Thaddeus balloons into the clouds. Did I ever hurt your feelings, or step on your toes?
SJ It was exciting because it was the first time ever that I had someone care about my writing and want to make it better. I just went into this high energy zone of editing. And I don’t think your changes were that huge really. Maybe I’m wrong, but I remember a lot of them were basically making scenes bigger/stronger, and then a lot of little stuff. You never stepped on my toes. I think I took almost all your changes.
AR It was great when, at the end, I was still sending miniscule changes and you said, “I think we’re done, Adam.”
SJ Then we had the whole cover problem. I think I was difficult to work with because I kept changing my mind.
AR Oh yeah, you did. As I look through the emails, so many of them are about that. Not only did I pay two people kill fees, but we also went through a half-dozen other people that you wanted to ask. But it was never a pain because I wanted to get it right and knew that you did too.
SJ Then we did the preorders. How many preorders for the book did we have? Maybe like 50? I do remember thinking, “This poor guy has like 600 copies sitting in his apartment.”
AR You know, I think we only ended up with 60 preorders. So I appreciate your concern that no one was going to buy it, because then you must have gone out and done a lot of knocking on doors, so to speak. Did you feel like you were swallowing your pride?
SJ No. Anyone who is a writer, or who has written a book, has been humbled greatly many times. If not, they should attend a family function and announce to everyone that they have a book out.
AR How did you go about getting 400 people to add it at Goodreads?
SJ I think the Goodreads thing—which was that they named it a Mover/Shaker or something silly like that—was the first kind of big thing to happen to the book. Suddenly people were interested. So all these people on Goodreads (millions?) got some kind of email talking aboutLight Boxes. I think the book was being discussed on blogs and stuff, but nothing too big.
Then the Spike Jonze thing happened. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that.
AR Well, an intern there called me after they read your interview with Laura van den Berg in Bookslut, and I sent them the book. A couple weeks later the Director of Development told me in a fantastically smooth way that they weren’t interested in it. She said she’d give you a call.
I don’t know what you said, but we were back on. A couple days later I woke up to a Google alert from Variety magazine. Suddenly it was everywhere. I mean everywhere, like MTV Brazil reported it. Then I got an email from Tom Roberge at Penguin. He was the only publisher to contact me, and now that I think of it, that seems strange. Right? Like wouldn’t everyone want a chance? Anyway, I didn’t know how any of that crap worked and I was happy when you got an agent and he negotiated all that for us.
SJ Yeah, it was strange because they were interested in the book, then they weren’t, then they were again. I think they just finally thought, “This is a strange little book, we like it, let’s just see what happens.”
Other presses were interested, but when they looked up the book they saw (via Amazon probably) that Publishing Genius had it. Tom was kind of feeling out the movie option, but he was also smart enough to ask what the hell was Publishing Genius and get a copy of the book. It was such a wild month or so because the movie option, getting an agent, and eventually signing with Penguin all happened on top of each other. There were three or four presses that ended up wanting Light Boxes, which is odd because so many little presses had rejected it.
AR That happens. The Quarterly Conversation passed on writing about it when I put it out, but they just ran a review for the Penguin edition.
SJ Then we had the talk about the book going to a major publisher. That was a bittersweet experience for me.
AR Was that the phone call where I basically said, ” I want to sell it to a big house. I can’t handle it anymore”? But why was all that bittersweet? I would think it was just sweet.
SJ Well, I could feel things getting bigger and more out of my control. The book was so small before, just us working on it, and I really liked that. Now there was an agent involved, and a huge press like Penguin, and all that is great and exciting, but I just felt like things were changing. I don’t know. It was weird.
AR Did you ever feel like you were putting one over on me? I definitely didn’t, but I think we were both aware of risk.
SJ No, I never felt that. I think we’re pretty good friends. I think I was a little nervous, because you could have said, “I want to reprint the book.” I was already leaning towards going the bigger press route because of distribution and demand. I mean, with PG, you were walking copies to the post office on your lunch break and making what, a dollar per copy on Amazon? So for me, it felt like this natural step to go with a bigger press.
AR That’s exactly right. I was walking 5 blocks to the post office every day. I was paying, like, $.30 per book Amazon sold, because of the way they fulfill orders. The way I see it is that if I kept Light Boxes, I would have gone crazy and then the buzz would have died in a month and only 300 more people would have read it. Since I love the book, I wanted it to get out there. I am really proud of it.
SJ Another thing I wanted to ask is about the page layout. I wonder if this is something that really bothers you, because I’ve noticed a few new reviews talking (mostly positive) about the layout in the Penguin edition. It’s almost identical to what you did. There were some things that I did with the font sizes, but then you did things too. I’m thinking especially with your choice of different fonts, the way the book starts and ends with the really big font.
AR Yeah, the layout does bother me. They cleaned it up a lot, which is good, but for the most part they kept things the same that really didn’t need to be that way. I mean, they used my “artistic interpretation” of things in places where they could have done something totally different. Like, okay, here’s a small thing—the page numbers. I was surprised that they kept them in the same exact place, with that same little line there and everything. And repeating “The End” at the end—what’s with that? I feel a bit like I designed a book for Penguin. But, I mean, whatever. I’m of course flattered to see that what I did worked for them. And how cool is it to see a big house using that 5×7″ format, which has become a staple of indie press books, it seems.
SJ The page numbers surprised me, and I understand being frustrated and angered by that. That was like your little touch.
AR But how do you feel about the new version?
SJ I’m happy. It’s an odd feeling to see it with a new cover and a wide distribution. I remember getting an email from my editor there, Tom, and the subject read WELCOME TO PENGUIN. That was a really warm feeling.
AR Has it been easier working with them in terms of what you’ll do to promote it? I did give you that $20 for a cab once, which we called your advance, but I suppose they’re going to do a lot more.
SJ I did get more than $20. I think a lot of people think I made some huge killing on the book, or just because it was optioned I made a lot. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, the option was $100 for a year. My advance was bigger than that, but I’m not going to be quitting my day job anytime soon. And as far as sales, I think things are going well. I’m not exactly sure what they expect, but just the idea that a major like Penguin is releasing what I feel is a very indie and artsy book, is pretty wild.
AR Did you ever see your $100 for the movie deal? I never got my $1. What gives?
SJ Yeah, I had to ask a few times for my $100 check. It was pretty embarrassing, but I eventually got it. I’ll send you $1 if you want.
SJ So have you seen any direct attention come to PG because of Light Boxes? (I guess I’m thinking about getting more submissions, or maybe higher quality submissions) Do you feel any pressure to produce another book that will go the route of Light Boxes?
AR I am sure that PG has received a lot of attention directly because of it, but people rarely say, “Hey, I’m contacting you because of Light Boxes.” It’s been important to me not to squander the attention, but I haven’t been clear on how I can use it. I’m not a great businesser. Or, actually, I am, but my focus is necessarily skewed to the editorial/production side of things.
I definitely want all my books to go the route of Light Boxes. Mairéad Byrne’s poetry monster would make a great feature film. I have really high expectations for Rachel Glaser’s short story collection. It’s so new. She has a distinctively different and fascinating approach to storytelling. I am excited like crazy for the response that book is going to get.
AR What’s next for you? Are you freaking out about your next book?
SJ I’m freaking out a little bit, just because I have to work so much harder now. Or at least I feel that way. I’m trying not to repeat myself and I want to do something bigger. Light Boxesis such a small book, which is great, because I can build on it. I don’t feel like I’m in any rush though.
AR Your IAMSO book is really good, what I’ve read. I think it beats Light Boxes.
SJ I’m glad you said that about IAMSO, which I don’t think will be the final title. Anything else you would like to add? Regrets? A shocking confession?
AR I’m trying to think of a shocking confession, but I can’t. I thought my shocking confession was that I thought the book sucked for a while.
SJ Well, I guess the book doesn’t suck after all. Of course, some of the reviewers and comments on Amazon/Goodreads seem to think it really sucks.
AR How about you? Any confessions?
SJ No big confession, other than it looks like the movie isn’t going to happen. The last I heard was that the option wasn’t going to be renewed and they might revisit it in a year or so. But, yeah, it’s dead for now. I can’t really be bummed out about that though, because I set out to write a book, not a movie.