Interview: Fighting With A Broken Sword

During my last visit to Tucson for the Festival of Books, I was interviewed by Music Art Writing Magazine. MAW does both print and digital issues and yours truly is featured in the current issue – I even made the cover! You can order print or digital copies on their site. Please give this one a read as I covered a lot of stuff in this interview including how I came up with the name for BSP, my humble beginnings and transition from EMT to publisher.  Thank you to Greg from MAW for reaching out and allowing me to share some insight with his audience. The press is much appreciated!

– S|J|R

S|J|R

Santino Rivera is an author and the owner of independent publishing house Broken Sword Publications

Fighting with a Broken Sword (originally pubished in Music Art Writing Magazine)

How did you come up with the name for your company?
I named it Broken Sword Publications because, at the time, I felt like a haggard warrior returning home from a battle. I realize that sounds corny, but I had just left my career as a firefighter/EMT, and it was a difficult decision for me. I struggled with it quite a bit. Ultimately I decided, despite being really good at it, that I was no more a firefighter than Hunter S. Thompson was a Hell’s Angel. The broken sword is representative of that turmoil – I still had my weapon, but it was battle-scarred.

What is your background, and how is it reflected in your work?
I started off as a street poet in Denver during college. A group of friends and I would post up just about anywhere and do this crazy, free verse spoken word. We had a portable PA and would do stuff like poems from the car in traffic, at karaoke night, on a busy street corner, wherever. It was fun and pretty wild. This was in the 1990s and during the heyday of “Def Poetry Jam” on HBO. Being Chicano, a lot of material was political, and being young and pissed off made for fun readings.

I also co-created an independent newspaper at the time and learned the ins and outs of that business. From there, I became a freelance journalist and eventually a full-time one, but I started getting frustrated with the way advertisers control newspaper content, and I also did not expect the humdrum of covering local softball games and county commission meetings.

I was starving for action and would often dig as deep as I could into the police blotter for anything with a little substance. Eventually, I left the paper. Shortly after 9/11, I somehow found myself on an ambulance, throwing myself full-on into that world. If my journalism experience was anything like my fandom for Hunter S. Thompson, my ambulance experience was definitely like the film “Bringing Out the Dead.” I did years on the ambulance and saw a ton of nasty things, but I bottled them up and put them on the page. I was good at it and wound up getting hired at two top fire departments. At the end of the whole experience, there was a strong need to pour those experiences into a book, and that’s exactly what I did with “Demon in the Mirror.” I’d be writing poems and stories in the back of the ambulance in between calls, so I had collected all of this grisly shit, but I needed somewhere to put it. That ended up being in my first two books.

– When did you start publishing your own work?

Somewhere in the early 90’s with a newspaper I helped create and also with fold and staple chapbooks that I’d struggle to give out at spoken word shows. My first attempt at an actual book was in the mid-90s and it was ginormous. It was filled with all of these lovesick and heart broken stories, because that’s what I was going through at the time. It was awful stuff. I mean really terrible – thankfully that book will never see the light of day – ha! But it was a necessary failure. I started publishing professionally in 2007. That’s when I started my own company but I’ve been at this a long time. Technology just finally caught up to me.
– Where is your audience (geographically)? Who is your audience (demographically)?

Right now, mostly in the Southwest but I’m starting to reach the Midwest also, which is great. I have readers in most of the US but they’re really concentrated in the Southwest. As for who, it depends on the book. With my first two books, I had this whole mixture of people that would find them and read them and get off on my ambulance stories or some of the horror stuff that I like to write. Those first two books, while totally underground, probably had the widest appeal.

I published a collection of underground comics last year that also had mainstream appeal. But the last two anthologies I did concentrated on Chicano literature so the audience tends to be mostly Latino. But I often tell people that I would like to the audience to broaden because it’s silly to pigeonhole lit. I hate that the bookstores do that. I’d like to think that my books appeal to all.
– How did you react to being rejected by the mainstream?

I was bitter. It was frustrating. Like a lot of writers, I took it personal. It’s a cutthroat business and you have to be able to deal with the rejection because that’s the norm. I still have one my rejection letters hanging on the wall. It was a postcard from Henry Rollins, one of my literary heroes. I submitted a bunch of material to him in hopes that he’d give me a shot. His reply/rejection was simple and to the point. It said: Good luck, Mr. R. I have used that as inspiration ever since. And it worked!

– What are some of the best ways authors can promote books aimed at niche markets?

Social media. I cannot stress that enough. Everything I’ve done has been achieved by reaching out to people through social media and that sounds a little silly but it’s true. But you have to do it the right way…I think a lot of authors either do nothing but pitch their books or have this snobby attitude about us/them. I’ve found that just being yourself and reaching out to people as people rather than putting up this barrier of you’re an author and their fans is pompous and dumb. You can sprinkling in a little bit of marketing here and there and that seems to work.

I would also have to say that reaching out to libraries has been a tremendous help. Libraries and librarians are amazing resources and can help in finding your audience. Libraries are often willing to host readings for authors as well, which is a great place to start as a self-published author. You might only find a few people in the audience to begin with, but everyone has to start somewhere.

There are so many marketing options for people these days to try out and most of them are free – tumblr, instagram, twitter, pinterest, facebook, podcasts – the web has advanced way beyond just blogging. It takes practice but I’d say to just be yourself and try not to bullshit people. Put yourself out there and eventually your audience will find you.

– Do you recommend that every author self-publish?

I’d say it depends on the author’s goals. If you’re looking for a get rich quick scheme, then I’d say no…or at least concentrate on the sexy vampire/werewolf/bondage/wizard flavor of the month. But it really depends on one’s goals. What, exactly, are you out to accomplish? It’s possible now for ANYONE to get their book out there now, which is pretty cool! Does that mean people are gonna make it a best seller? No. The big six hate that anyone can publish a book now and they frown on it like we’re beneath them. But it’s all just propaganda. The term “self-publishing” used to be a slur but that’s not true any longer and they know that.

Some people want to go through the traditional route and some will get lucky enough to do just that. But I really enjoy having complete control over what I do. There’s a great sanctification in that.
– What challenges are unique to publishing raw and controversial content?

You risk turning off certain outlets for publicity and marketing and or painting yourself into a corner. When I published my first book I called a local bookstore owner an set up a meeting to go in and pitch her the book (for possible orders/sales). She took one look at it and deemed it “too scary for her customers.” And that was it. No sale. I was deflated and depressed for a little while after that. But I learned to get back on track with my original goal and publish/write what I wanted, without worrying about the audience. You’re never gonna please everyone so you might as well do what you want/enjoy. So, as far as challenges go, the biggest is always marketing budget. I could publish the most off the wall, raw and controversial stuff out there, but if I had the budget to market it right? The challenges would be minimal. I would say publishing unique stuff these days is definitely more advantageous than it is challenging because the mainstream market is so flooded with run of the mill stuff. They rarely take chances on things they think might be risky.
– What online services for creating, marketing and selling books should authors use? What should they avoid?

For creating, there are a bunch of options. I created my first book just using Word and submitted it to LuLu. It was a pain for format but I did it. These days, I always seek out and pay artists to create the cover art – it’s well worth the investment. I also pay to have someone design the interior now – also very worth it in the long run. You can, of course, pay people to do all of these things for you and several companies now have these as expensive options. But you can do everything yourself if you’re willing to invest the time and learn as you go.

If you can edit and format your book on your own and get your covert art etc. into neat little PDF files? You’re set. That’s all it is these days. You;re submitting files to these printing companies and you have to shop around to find out which one is a good fit for you.

As for marketing and selling, social media is invaluable. You’re automatically gonna get your book listed on Amazon but what you do with it after that is strictly up to you. You have to find a way to market it to people without spending thousands of dollars and without being a jerk. Of course, if you have that kinda money then all power to you but if not, you have to get creative. I have relied heavily on “guerrilla marketing” for my books and that has included different phases of the web, from LiveJournal to MySpace to Twitter and Facebook.

As far as what to avoid, I’d say stuff that has a ridiculous price tag attached to it and stuff that promises you the moon. Again, it costs very little to get your actual book out there on the market (not taking into consideration what you spent on art/design) but once it’s there it’s up to you to sell it. This can be discouraging for a lot of people but this game is more about a marathon than it is a quick race. The life of your books lasts as long as the energy you’re willing to put into them. There’s a lot of leg work involved, which is why people often employ expensive tactics like publicists. Just know that if you have a good idea, everything else should fall into place quite naturally, assuming you’re using social media to your advantage. Asking people to write reviews for your books helps. Being active on sites like Goodreads can also help and you can create ads on there as well for relatively little cost.
– What have been your greatest accomplishments as an author/publisher? Biggest disappointments?

Biggest accomplishment? Hmmm…there have been a bunch. At one time seeing my book on a shelf in a B&N was the biggest. Seeing one of my books for sale in a college bookstore as required reading for a class was another. Probably the biggest was being on a nationally broadcast panel on CSPAN during last year’s Tucson festival of Books. That was pretty mind blowing for an indie book and publisher. There I was, in this huge auditorium sitting next to Luis Alberto Urrea, on TV! And I tell people, if I can go from writing poems in the back of a bloody ambulance to being on TV with a successful book and in the company of literary giants, so can you. That’s what indie publishing is all about. That’s the potential.

As far as biggest disappointment so far, to be honest there haven’t been too many disappointing moments. There’s been a couple of small ones here and there…but they’re all learning experiences. This has all been fun and a great learning experience on the whole so far. Not every book can be a best seller and each book has its own destiny. Some books flop and that’s ok. You learn from each one. For the most part, I have loved every moment being an independent publishing has afforded me.
– Who has been inspirational to you as a self-published author? What other indie publishers do you like?

Definitely Henry Rollins. Though he drew from his fame as a punk singer, he put out his own material his way and grew it into a successful publishing company in an era where “self-publishing” didn’t exist. I loved the attitude that he put into his work, his spoken word and his business. It spoke to me. I have long admired his punk attitude towards publishing and try to encompass much of that into my own business.

– What did you take away from the Tucson Festival of Books?

I think it’s a fantastic event. It’s an honor to be there among some literary rock stars. I enjoy seeing all of the indie press booths and mixing it up with other authors from all walks of life. One of my favorite things is hanging out in the green room and striking a conversation with with different authors. That’s happened spontaneously two times in a row now and I really dig it because you get a sense for what you’re doing and what other people are doing inside and outside of the festival. I’m hoping it grows and continues and brings in more local people and kids. It’s great seeing kids there – books are cool! I’d like to see maybe comic books incorporated and definitely more cutting edge stuff. Horror authors or screenwriters – maybe some spoken word stuff. There’s all kinds of directions the festival could take. It’s definitely cool to see people interested in books again.

– What titles are you currently promoting and what’s coming next?

I just released Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul, which features 50 full color photos of lowrider cars from photographer Art Meza and pairs them up with short stories and poetry from over 30 authors from coast to coast. It’s a killer book and features work from people like Luis Alberto Urrea and Luis J. Rodriguez. It’s never been done before and has been a hit so far.

I’m also still promoting Josh Divine’s Ducktown, which collects the entire comic strip run of Ducktown, which met its demise early, plus a bunch of other exclusive stuff, including a foreword from cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha, Bordertown) and Ducktown fan art. It’s a really dark, raunchy and hilarious comic.

Next up is a book tentatively titled F*ck Cancer! How One Man Kicked Cancer’s Ass by Robert Flores. It’s a story about a friend of mine who was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and how he beat it.He kept a diary the entire time and his pieces were both heart wrenching and inspirational. He reached out through social media and found a support group and friends through his journey and I thought that was really cool and unique. His story inspired me because of the strength he has an I think it’ll inspire others. Some of the things we went through he was was brutally honest about and I think that’s rare. So I’m excited to share Robert’s story. I’ll have more details on my website soon but one of the things we’re planning to do with the book is donate proceeds to kids with cancer.