Robert Lamb has taught writing at the University of South Carolina since 1991, when his first novel was published. He is now an adjunct professor in the university’s journalism school. Not only is he an experienced writer, but he’s a publisher who years ago recognized self-publishing as the wave of the future.
1. Tell me briefly about your books – what are they about and what motivated you to write them?
My first novel, Striking Out, is a coming-of-age story set in the South of the 1950s. It was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and, though published in 1991, is still in print. My second, Atlanta Blues, is about the search for a missing coed by a newspaper reporter and two cops. The search leads through the underbelly of urban Atlanta to murder and heartbreak. The book was a Southern Critics Circle Selection and cited in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer – and maybe the best.”
My third, A Majority of One, came out this past September and is about a high school English teacher who gets into deep trouble when she resists an effort by local preachers to ban some classic American novels from the classroom, foremost among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Six of One, Half Dozen of Another (Stories & Poems), also only recently published, represents my writing life (thus far), with stories and poems virtually from yesteryear and yesterday, with an afterword on their origins.
I am motivated in everything I write by the glimmer somewhere in my mind of a good story that wants to be told. I will never live long enough to write all that petition for a hearing – which is strange because until I was about 40 I had not a single idea for a good novel, and no idea how to write it if I did. I’ve often said that I knew how to write long before I knew how to write a novel. Novel-writing does require some know-how, which means it is a craft. Get good enough at the craft and you might elevate what you write to the rarefied level of art.
2. How have your sales been?
Puny. But I’ve had a couple of high watermarks. Sold and signed more than 200 copies of Striking Out in two hours during a book signing in my hometown. The buyers probably were just as disappointed as were those Asheville folks who rushed to get a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Striking Out was about wanting to get away from all those people. I have, however, repented, though I’ve yet to recant – and don’t hold your breath. I hasten to add that I’ve never given a thought to money from my writing, but I hasten, too, to add that my ornery, penny-pinching grandmother would have snapped, “Good thing, boy!”
3. How does self-publishing compare with traditional publishing?
I think self-publishing is the wave of the future. I thought so about five years ago and, lo, it has come to pass. This development tracks closely what happened to the music recording industry and the movie industry in my lifetime. Call it the democratization of the arts. Call it the liberation of the creative spirit, liberation from the shackles of corporatism. Call it what you will. It’s here and it’s not going away.
4. How have you liked self-publishing so far?
Like other writers, I want to be read. I began to see that the traditional publishing model was dying (and is now among the walking dead). Thousands upon thousands of writers simply could not find the way to publication through the traditional doorways. So, like musicians and filmmakers before them, they said to hell with the hoops you want us to jump through. You can’t get read if you can’t get the book out there. I like self-publishing fine. A lot about it is yet to be sorted out. But that will come.
5. Tell me about your background and how it shapes your approach to writing.
I sometimes think that I am simply defining and redefining my life through the art of fiction. Ben Blake, who seems to be my alter ego, seems to show up in nearly all of my work. But because the literary novel is my model, and my favorite genre by far, I’m in good company if indeed I am mining my life for material. Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Pat Conroy, Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Willa Cather – they all did it.
6. What sort of marketing techniques have you used to sell your books, and which ones have been most successful?
I try mainly to get the word out, in any way I can, to let people know I have a new book out. I loathe the whole practice of self-promotion, but I accept it as going with the territory. I can’t say that any of my efforts have been strikingly successful.
7. Are there any marketing techniques you intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
Well, the first I ever heard of Norman Mailer was when he broke into the news because of a fight with his then-wife, a fight so fierce that he was arrested for stabbing her (though luckily not fatally). I have tried again and again to persuade my wife to let me stab her, just a flesh wound, mind you, but so far she is cool to the idea.
8. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started out?
Nothing about the procedure itself. In another role, I am an actual publisher. I started Red Letter Press strictly to publish the short stories of my fiction workshop students. The Class Menagerie was the first offering, in 1998. Another volume followed in 2005. Then, in 2006, one of my wife’s friends showed me a children’s story she’d written – but couldn’t find a publisher for it. (Where have you heard that story before?) So I figured, why not, and Red Letter Press published it in 2006. Since then, she has become probably the best-selling author in the Carolinas, day in and day out, and RLP has gone on to publish about 20 titles by some 40-odd writers, counting about 30 students and former students.
9. Independent authors face the obvious challenge of marketing their books without the resources of traditional publishers. What advice do you have for an indie author just starting out?
I’d shout to the rooftops: “Learn your craft, learn it from A to Z.” Stephen King says in his book On Writing, the language is the writer’s toolbox, grammar and all. Learn it or find another vocation. You cannot expect to market successfully an inferior product.
10. What projects are you currently working on?
I have completed my next novel and am in the homestretch on another.
11. If you could market your brand – not just one particular book, but your overall brand of writing – what would it be?
My thing is the literary novel. Alas, I often suspect that the literary novel is in decline. One or two more novels about vampires might indeed drive a stake through its heart. I know a lot of writers and I meet many more at book shows, etc. They all (I can’t think of a single exception) seek fame and fortune as best-selling authors. Well, to each his own. Very few truly outstanding novels ever reach best-sellerdom. Only one of John Updike’s many novels hit the best-seller lists. So I detected early on that all these other writers were into something very different from what I was interested in: literature. Actually, I consider fame a curse, chiefly because it signals the end of privacy, and I would run from it if I saw it coming my way. Fortune, I could adjust to, but I’m simply not materialistic. I count my blessings every day (and I loft a prayer for those in our society who have so little – and whose prospects of getting much more are so few).
As to brand, I know it’s a hot buzz word nowadays, but I never give it a thought. I do, however, appreciate what callers, often strangers, have said to me after reading something I wrote: “Mr. Lamb, it was just like that in my own experience. I couldn’t have said it better myself.” It gets even better if they say, “Boy, you can write.”
12. How can readers learn more about your books?
They could go to boblamb.wordpress.com or Google Robert Lamb, Author.