I suspect most feel the same way that Jaimy Gordon, whose Lord of Misrule recently won the 2010 National Book Award for fiction, does. The initial printing of her book, by publisher Bruce McPherson, was 2,000. Those copies have a full cloth cover and a stitched binding -- craftsmanship that you're not going to see produced for the mass market anytime soon.
In a profile in yesterday's New York Times, Charles McGrath quotes Gordon as telling her longtime friend McPherson: "What I want right now is to see my book in an airport. Then in a couple of years everyone will figure out that I'm too esoteric, and I'll be back to you again."
The story's protagonist works in menial jobs at small racetracks in rural America in the 1970s and the book has been praised for the way it portrays the seedy side of horseracing. Reviewing it in the Daily Racing Form, Andrew Beyer writes that he was "intrigued by the accuracy with which the author captured the idiom of the racetrack, the dynamics of backstretch society and the nature of the animals -- both their physiology and their personality."
That verisimilitude was crafted out of Gordon's own experiences at the Charles Town (West Virginia) and Green Mountain (Vermont) tracks between the time that she graduated from Antioch College in 1996 and attended a graduate writing program at Brown. She has for 30 years taught at Western Michigan University, turning out a few finely wrought books and writing for small presses.
Gordon tells McGrath that her first book, also published by McPherson, was an underground classic. "That means about 25 people have read it. But those 25 really love it."
Mainstream marketing has a lot of similar stories, of course.
Hippie entrepreneur Mo Siegel launched Celestial Seasonings tea with his wife and two friends in 1972 with $10,000 he borrowed. A dozen years later, he sold the brand to Kraft for $36 million. They not only imposed a dress code, they insisted on things like market testing before launching new flavors. And extensions. Suffice to say it was not a good fit.
More recently, Coca-Cola has had difficulty integrating J. Darius Bikoff's Vitaminwater vision into its distribution system following a $4.1 billon buyout. One grocery buyer who says he started carrying Vitaminwater "back when nobody would drink it," does not believe that getting bigger has helped the brand. "I don't think the brand got better," he tells Beverage Spectrum. "They just made it for what people wanted."
Gordon tells Chris Fusciardi of the Kalamazoo Gazette that Lord of Misrule is about "trying to figure out what the shape of your luck on Earth is and, one way or another, come to terms with that. It's very much about courting that message from the gods that you were destined for something special, and most of the characters of the book have to settle for what they get."
It's always nice to see someone dedicated to producing a good product get more than perhaps even they expect, isn't it? Let's just hope the gods have a better ending in mind than they did for brands such as Celestial Seasoning.
Gordon has sold her next novel to Pantheon Books. While it is indeed a very small gear in the global media wheelhouse that is Bertelsmann AG, Pantheon is as close as you can get to a chapbook sensibility in mainstream publishing. Gordon may, indeed, see her next book on display at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport while still enjoying the ministries of editors who care about words and craft.
But Gordon's marketing really needs to start at home. Her page on the Western Michigan University website leads with her third novel, Bogeywoman, which it says was on the Los Angeles Times Best Books List for 2000, and ends by telling us that "she is completing a fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, about the racetrack." That race is run. Now it's time to sell, sell, sell.