8 Tips to Boost your Self-Published Book

This week and next week James A. Rose has very kindly offered to do some guest posts for us about writing and the self-publishing process, specifically as regards marketing. Thanks again James for some wonderful nuts and bolts stuff!

As if the undertaking of the monumental task of writing a book was not enough; marketing the book on a limited budget has the potential to be an even bigger challenge if you let it. There are quite a few marketing tactics you can use to promote your book but you don’t have to use all of them. Some may be more suited to your skills or budget than others. They key is to be proactive. When starting out, just focus on one or two methods.

  1. Build a website. This is vital and priority number one. You need a showcase for your work. The many content management platforms out there make this a very achievable task but if time is an issue, it can be outsourced for a reasonable cost. Your site will not only be a place to exhibit your book/s but will also be a forum where you can build your personal brand, express ideas and engage your audience.


  1. Establish your target market. Your marketing efforts will be wasted on the wrong demographic. You’ll need to tailor your message to this specific market segment. Think about what images and colors would be appropriate in ads. Where do these people hang out online? Your budget is likely limited so this step is important to make sure as little effort is wasted as possible.


  1. Give away some free eBook copies and ask for an honest review on Amazon in exchange. Do this prior to launch so the reviews already exist on launch day. Be sure to get email addresses as some of these initial readers may need a polite reminder about leaving a review. Giving away free copies is also a great way to generate word of mouth. Some of these initial recipients may have a blog or a strong presence on social media. They say word of mouth is the best advertising.


  1. Buy ads on relevant sites. Preferably image ads on independent sites that focus on various aspects of writing or reading. You can also seek placement on corporate sites such as Bookbub.com. The more traffic a site gets, the more expensive the ads will be but a minimum two week run the week before release and the week after should suffice.


  1. Utilize social media. If you are already a social media whiz then you likely have a lot of friends and followers. This existing base is great way to elicit more word of mouth advertising. Actively engage with people on a regular basis. Social media is also a venue for cheap paid advertising. You’re in luck because of the nature of what you will be promoting. People go onto social media sites to be entertained. This is why traditionally some businesses like Bob’s Auto Glass Repair have struggled to see any tangible results from paid social media advertising but your new book is the perfect subject for a social media campaign as it falls directly in line with people’s desire to be entertained.


  1. Write for related blogs. You’re undoubtedly a proficient writer so capitalize on those skills and offer to write articles for blogs targeted at writing and reading enthusiasts. Blog owners are usually overworked and will happily accept guest post submissions, especially from an accomplished author. Include a few links to your book and you’ll have some quality free traffic while building your reputation as a professional.


  1. Seek interview opportunities either on podcasts or in written form on blogs. You’d be surprised at how many people listen to some of these small podcasts you’ve likely never heard of. Most podcast hosts and blog owners will welcome an interview opportunity with a published author.


  1. Set realistic goals and proper scheduling. If your marketing experience and budget are low then don’t take on more than you can handle. Also be sure to keep a calendar to keep track of all your interview dates, ad schedules, posting times, etc. Know what will run in the weeks before the book launch and what will run after.

Hopefully this guide will help set you in the right direction for promoting your next book. It is by no means an exhaustive list but does cover some of the most effective methods. As a self-publisher you will need to learn to think like an agent for a trade publisher. If writing for writing’s sake is your primary motivator then that is fine but if you want to make a living as an author then you’ll have to learn to put feelings aside and look at the numbers. Your book is a product and you’re a business owner. There’s no shame in shameless self-promotion so don’t give up.

James A. Rose is a writer for InstantPublisher.com, a self-publishing company that has been helping authors bring their visions to life for the past 15 years. He has worked in the book publishing industry since 2010 and during that time he has seen pretty much every problem that authors encounter during the self-publishing process. It is James’ goal to utilize his experience at Instant Publisher to help budding authors avoid common mistakes and self-publish the best book possible.



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Roots: The rise of the magazine

In my last post I wrote about the centuries long tradition of self-pubbing that we stand in and the spirit that underlies it. In writing that piece I started to think about the advent of the so-called gatekeepers, those agents and owners and editors who decide what is likely to make them money and by so doing become the default judges of what written works the public has access to, what people are able to buy and therefore able to read. Until the last two decades or so this process also resulted in a form of default censorship, and even to some extent self-censorship as authors trying to make a living by their craft turned to “safe bets” and “sure sells”. How did all of this come about? It seems to have grown quite organically and in the process developed a robust potency that has long since kept the system in place. A disclaimer at this point: I don’t have the time to do in-depth research on the topic and so the following should be considered informed speculation. Still, I think that from what I’ve been able to piece together the real driving force behind these trends was the magazine.

The first example of what we’d call a magazine seems to have appeared in Germany in 1663, although the form didn’t really get underway until the mid nineteenth century. Initial runs were of course small and used moveable wooden blocks in the printing procedures (as was done with all printing) but as the mechanized side developed bigger and cheaper to produce runs became increasingly possible. This led to a need for content, and not just any old content but content that would sell; the more the better, of course. Popular writers were therefore called in to provide material and could claim very nice wages for their work. Mark Twain was an early and well-known example of such. While newspapers claimed to objectively relate the events of the day magazines allowed for much broader topics to be discussed and had no need to pretend to be objective. Indeed, by appealing to a certain segment of the population sales were more likely to be secured, and hence all of the specialization that continues to this day started to take root.

Writers coming of age in a time when magazines had already entrenched themselves began to see the format as a good way to get started. After all, writing a book takes years of hard work and if you are an unknown there can be no guarantees that all of that toil will even remotely pay off (this of course remains the case). Kurt Vonnegut is another well-known example of this later type of writer. Magazines started receiving queries about submitting their writing from authors wanting to get paid, or even the writing proper with no questions asked prior to submission. When any particular magazine received enough of these submissions such that supply outpaced demand a sorting process had to be introduced. The most popular magazines naturally received more submissions than those less in the public eye and could therefore afford to be more selective. Competition became fiercer.

As the available profit to be had in writing increased more and more people decided to try their hand at it, not just obsessive types like H.P. Lovecraft who would have – and did – insist on writing despite never getting anywhere remotely near being able to live off their work (and like many of us, I’d think), but also those who simply had a slight interest and thought the potential benefits such that it was worth giving the game a go. All of these developments started to be paralleled in the book publishing world in the twentieth century as the paperback shot to stardom from the 1930s and the rest, as they say, is history.

Where does that leave us? In a funny place really. The internet has now allowed the dissemination of work at a scale and breadth that could hardly be imagined twenty years ago such that writers wanting to get started in a relatively risk-free way need merely create a blog and see how things go. Or, even more painlessly (in some ways), just post their writing on the blogs and websites others have built up and try to generate name recognition and a fan base that way before offering longer works for actual sale. The gatekeepers are now feeling the pinch in such a way that they’ve begun eating their own arms. Only those books with the very highest likelihood of mass sales can afford to be taken on; otherwise the money earned simply will not justify the labor and staff involved. Dangers must be minimized and proven formulas the only way to do that. In our self-pubbing world we undoubtedly have many more authors trying their hand at it than we should, and I say that because the preponderance of poorly edited and hurriedly written works requires me to leave a note of caution, but we also have new and unique voices speaking with a much fuller freedom than we’ve seen for nearly two hundred years, and quite possibly ever. Like so much else, the trends that the rise of magazines set in motion have been turned on their heads. Where will these new trends take us?

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Roots: The spirit of self-pubbing

This spring I got a new position and accordingly my family moved to the south of the country but Tokyo still is, and will likely remain, very dear to my heart. The city really is something. And so this past weekend I was quite pleased to be there again for a conference. On my way from the airport to the hotel I spent some time at a very good record shop I know where I discovered this beauty tucked in amongst some studio albums (and apologies for the poor quality of the photo; it was taken by my crappy nine year-old flip phone as I refuse (for many good reasons) to get a smartphone):


The record is a fan recording of a show, and although there is neither date nor venue given from the set list and style I’d guess it’s from the late 70s. Taking it out of the sleeve you see that the record itself has nothing in the center section where the label goes and it appears to have somehow been re-etched onto an older record as scratched out type is just barely visible there. The Dead encouraged the “pirating” and sharing of their live shows and even had sections of the floor reserved for tapers so that as they stood there with mics high and magnetic tape running the best possible sound could be captured. It’s scratchy and there are all sorts of imperfections but listening to recordings like this is the next best thing to being there. Wabi-sabi comes to mind. On that, note the errant apostrophe in New Riders – and there’s a song title mistake in there too – but the whole thing is clearly a work of love. (Incidentally, it is considered to be against the tapers’ code of honor to sell such recordings (particularly to a retail place that will jack the price up) rather than to freely share them, but I was still happy to have found one in vinyl.) Now, at this point you might be asking yourself just what any of this has got to do with self-pubbing. On the other hand, if you suspect that I’m going somewhere with this, you might be thinking that I’m about to launch into a defense of pirating and sharing books. In either case rest assured, there is a connection to what we writers do and the control-C, control-V combo will not be lauded.

What I find underlying all of this is the ethos that says art is to be enjoyed, that it’s for the betterment of all of us and that – allowing for variance in taste – what knocks me off my feet and opens up my world might just work for you. No one celebrating this ethos talks about making money for big companies; they focus instead on the music, on the words, on the images, on the feelings, ideas, and experiences that are given and received. An artist ought to be able to live by their work, and given our current economic model this of course means making money, but within this context the many layers of middlemen are thankfully nowhere to be seen. Specifically in the case of the Dead, allowing the tapers and sharers their space and movement made the band immensely more popular than they would have been otherwise (free PR!) which fed back into attendance at their shows and album sales. Our era has downloadable sample chapters, file swapping, Kindle libraries, YouTube videos and the like but the same spirit animates all of that.

William Blake self-published all of his books in his own home, and that should hardly surprise us as prior to the 20th century the process of publishing is better described as printing. Authors, or in some cases their patrons, paid to have their works put on paper and either distributed on the street via any number of practices if the work was aimed at the general public (entertaining stories, theater tie-ins, sometimes political treatises), passed discreetly between known purveyors (secretive texts, intragroup sharings, pornography), or put up for sale at booksellers (academia, medicine, works aimed at the aristocracy). Self-pubbing was more or less the only kind of pubbing around, and even wildly unpopular books like Friedrich Nietzsche‘s still saw the light of day (and look at what’s become of him since).

There is a rich tradition to what we do, and we stand in a long and proud line of creative people who were concerned first and foremost with the production and dissemination of that which was inside them. I think this is the spirit that ought to live within our own writing, and if I someday come across a well-thumbed copy of one of my books in a box marked “FREE” that has had its original cover redone and gotten the title wrong I will grin and grin and grin. What matters most are the words, the music, images, ideas, and what they do for others; any Deadhead could tell you that.

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Write for your audience or for yourself?

Every writer wants to be read, and usually by as many people as possible. There are times when we write for ourselves: notes, thoughts, some bit of poetry, perhaps a whole book that is meant to be largely private or is mainly for practice. Yet at core that which we make the extra effort – beyond what is required for thought – to put down on screen or on paper comes from a place in us that has something to say and that moreover determines that something to be of value. We write out of ourselves and put tremendous amounts of labor and time into our projects, it is only natural that we would wish them to be considered, enjoyed, evaluated, maybe even lauded by others. Our words come from the foundation of our beings in exactly the same way that a musician’s song does or a painter’s images do. But like all too many songs and all too many paintings every sentence we sweat and struggle over has an excellent chance of being stillborn. Yet our voice cries out to be heard and therein lies the question. Should we write in such a way that our works are likely to have mainstream appeal and thereby (hopefully) gain mainstream acceptance and a wide readership, or should we instead write in the way that is truest to our inner voice and vision although it might prove very unpopular?

There is no easy answer to this question and I certainly don’t have one myself. Hegel focused on the historical point of view and thought that an artwork was valuable and/or successful when it could convey its culture’s values; to be quite honest I have zero interest in conveying the values of what passes for modern culture. On the other hand, there is a strong and growing spirit of antiestablishmentism and that is one value that I would like to get across. In fact, if there is any single theme that connects all of my books (both published and in the works) it is that. In my own writing life I have always leaned heavily, almost exclusively, to the side that says to write from who you are and toss all other concerns out the window. I’ll admit that I’d like to have more readers though.

Our readers, whether potential or actual, want and deserve to get something out of what they are reading. It takes effort on their part too, and as creators we should not be so arrogant as to think that we can do what we like with no thought whatsoever for our audience. We’ve all seen that so-called art house movie that does just that and what a stinker it was. It seems to me that some balance must be sought, some fine line trod between concern for our readers’ desires and expectations on the one side and our inner muse and the need to release her and allow her to soar on the other. Every writer must and should struggle with this question, and the experience of that struggle will no doubt inform our words and make them all the better for it.

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Can a book be beautiful?

When we think about beauty these days a large number of potential objects come to mind; anything from a well-executed goal to a particularly difficult math problem may elicit the term. This has not, of course, always been the case. To the ancient world beauty was associated with the good, the true, and the divine. Form, measure, and proportion were considered crucial elements of the beautiful, and the thinking involved famously led to the creation of works of art like this (Venus de Milo from the Louvre):


Symmetry has also long been associated with the beautiful, connected in with order and harmony. Denzel Washington is considered one of the world’s most beautiful people and it has often been said that his features are remarkably symmetrical.


As noted, however, common usage has extended beauty much further from the purely visual; to which it was never bound anyway. It has been argued that beauty is a quality that is possessed and can be recognized, a secondary quality (that is, sensation – rather than fact – conveying, such as a color) that is observable and dependent on response. It has also been argued that beauty is not a quality but an idea, and that something that causes that idea to form in us is beautiful. This raises the question of experience, and on that we may wish to consider Monroe Beardsley’s five criteria to judge whether an experience is aesthetic or not: 1) object directedness; this is a must, and of the following four three must also be present, 2) a sense of freedom, 3) a sense of detachment, 4) discovery, and 5) wholeness. We can perhaps imagine taking this list to an art museum but possibly not to the library. There our approach to a book may be of more importance, and therefore the notion of disinterest comes to the fore. This is an idea developed by Immanuel Kant that connects pleasure with an object perceived entirely for its own sake, regardless of issues of possession or use. Arthur Schopenhauer added that removing oneself from practical concerns when engaged in such perception provides an out from the suffering that seems to ground our human nature. Our interests and desires are suspended and we engage with the beautiful purely for the sake of the beautiful. This is clearly a far more profound way of thinking about the beautiful than that behind the exclamation of “Beauty!” shouted by someone watching a hockey game. Or is it? The same root elements seem to be in play if we look hard enough.

Still, this seems far from our experience of reading. Is the manner in which we engage with a book at all like the way in which we interact with a painting, sculpture, piece of music, or photography (to name but a few)? Consider the two well-known books below; would either of them qualify as beautiful? Perhaps both? Neither?


I would be prepared to argue that Pasternak’s does but Vonnegut’s does not. This is by no means a criticism of Vonnegut’s work nor his oeuvre generally – I am a big fan of the man’s writing -, however as a reader I find that Vonnegut’s novels and short stories are often about the characters and events contained within them rather than being expressions of the characters and events contained within them. I chose Pasternak’s work as a counterbalance here because whatever lyricism it contains such would no doubt be very largely lost in translation; there must therefore be something else to it. What I think sets Pasternak’s work and others like it apart is the way in which we the reader are led to deeply associate ourselves and our own ways of being with the protagonist(s). Even if we think the good titular doctor a romantic fool we find ourselves empathizing with his plight and the struggles he engages in to continue to express himself as a human being, as one human being, in the midst of all the externals raging around him. Even in our most prosaic moments we can feel as he does, and it is that connection that touches us the way a great painting can. Contra Schopenhauer then, or perhaps better put as Schopenhauer with a caveat, when it comes to literature as art I think that the way in to suffering (suffering with, not as) that such can provide is what qualifies the writing as beautiful, and from there, possibly, to art.

I offer the above merely as some initial thoughts on a very nuanced topic. As with all things academic there is a vast literature on the question of literature as art and I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of many of the issues involved. I would be very happy to hear counterarguments and/or other perspectives. Surely the well here is deep.

I referenced the very accessible Key Terms in Philosophy of Art by Tiger C. Roholt (Bloomsbury, 2013) when writing this post.

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Hardware and software

One of the many beauties of self-pubbing is the full control over nearly every aspect of the project that you retain. Want to put a picture of your pet dog on the cover? Go ahead! Think that a nice chapter-long section of stream-of-consciousness rambling from your protagonist is called for? Put it in! Decide that after all you want your battle-weary hero to give in and join the enemy she’s spent the entire book fighting against? Why not! The sky’s the limit as far as content goes, and structurally you have plenty of freedom as well.

It is on that point that I wish to spend a few moments this week. When we, as writers and as readers, think about books we tend to focus on issues related to the relaying of the information that we or the writer wish(es) to get across (whether fictional or nonfiction), and beyond that we only really give a thought to cover design; and even that often enough just as an afterthought. There is more that goes into the making of a book, however, and here I naturally mean the making of real books. To borrow a metaphor from the computing world, books are the hardware and their words are the software; although it is right and good to fret and obsess over the software, why not also consider the hardware? If we are truly interested in giving readers an experience that they can’t get elsewhere it is with this aspect that we may wish to start experimenting.

Areas open to innovation beyond the crappifying effects of just dumping the text into a digital format start with the cover but don’t end there. The book’s size, paper type, image use and method of such use, type font and design, headers, footers, endnotes, appendices, all lie within your range of choice. There are limitations of course (printers will only offer a small number of paper type choices or book dimension sizes), but there is also plenty of wiggle room within those limitations. Images can be made to bleed off the page or to stop within boundaries, the font and/or layout can be shifted however you’d like to any number of times within the text’s body, and the only thing you must include on the full cover (front, spine, back) is the book’s ISBN. Why on earth stick solely with the tried and true? Imagine reading a book where suddenly, completely out of nowhere, the text flipped and then flipped back. Or one character’s thoughts are presented at the top of the page while the character they are conversing with has their thoughts at the bottom of the page and in the middle of the sandwich is the actual dialogue they are engaged in. Or a book sized to fit into your pocket that is a series of images fantastically inappropriate for public display. Such disconnects heighten the experience of reading and are limited only by the creativity and boldness of their creator(s).

It helps with all this not to be (overly) motivated by money for what is new – really new – is often met with resistance. We here at DSB write for the love of it (which is one of the reasons our site is so wonderfully free of ads) but we realize that our day jobs afford us a degree of luxury in that regard that others might not have. Ours is an imperfect world, and the modern artist is only very rarely rewarded and more often used; practical concerns will always weigh in at some point. C’est la vie. Or, if you prefer, a finger in the air and the determination to express yourself come what may. Self-pubbing has made that possible, the rest is now up to us.

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Touring the Garden

We call it “the Garden of Earthly Delights.” But we have no idea what name the artist Jheronimus Bosch intended for it. He died 500 years ago in April, and for all I know, perhaps exactly 500 years to the moment I clicked on the link to enter the new website dedicated to his masterpiece. It was like I was seeing his painting for the first time. I’m guessing that anyone who is reading this brief blog will recognize Bosch’s famous panel painting, called a triptych. Do yourself a favor: take the tour and then feel free to wander around a bit. Zoom in on the three-headed bird. Take a gander at the duck-fish cloaked and reading a book.

Every patch and corner of his paradise, earth, and hell has some eye-catching detail. Throughout the tour the narrator provides some interesting tidbits about the social background of Bosch. But the power of a timeless imagination is testified to here. And I’m wondering, now that I’ve spent a good chunk of time getting lost in Bosch’s figures, if others will agree with me that what Blake wrote about Milton might also be true here. “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it!”

I didn’t have the space in my last blog to clarify what Blake is up to with that quote. He certainly doesn’t mean (just as I never meant to imply similar things when writing about Bowie and Lucifer) that Milton dressed up in dark robes, sacrificed infants and drank their blood. Blake’s lines were intended as literary criticism, explaining why the scenes with Satan in Books I and II of Paradise Lost are so powerful and the counterparts in heaven so dull. So it is clear he meant that something about evil, villains, and hell seems to inspire the best works in great artists.

I couldn’t help thinking this was true of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The left side Paradise panel has beauty and vibrancy. And the center Earth panel has both of those aspects and more. But the scenes of Hell, once seen, are unforgettable. In appreciating Bosch’s painting, we vote with our eyes. So despite our expected and universal claim of preferring heaven, we can’t take our eyes off of hell.


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Mark Twain and marketing

In a very difficult decision my family and I recently moved out of Tokyo and into the southern hinterlands of the country, but before we left that glorious capital I was able to sneak in one last visit to a used books bookstore, and what I found was something remarkable indeed.

In a thin little volume, more of an essay really, I came across a charge that never in a million years would have occurred to me: that Mark Twain (real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was on the take, a corporate shill. The book, published in 1963, is titled 「隠れている真実: トウェーンと資本主義」 (A Hidden Truth: Twain and Capitalism) and was written by a former professor of American Literature at the University of Tokyo by the name of Shuntarou Tanaka. In it Tanaka details his claim that Tom Sawyer was perhaps the very first example of a writer being paid by a business interest to subtly influence the public with the express intent of increasing sales, employing the type of minutiae in support of his argument that literature scholars in particular are exemplars of. It is put forward that the whole book is structured around the famous fence painting scene, and that in fact that scene alone was the point of the entire novel – the company providing Twain with his financial backing was purportedly one Housepaints of America Incorporated. All of the rest of Tom’s adventures, it seems, were put there to be entertaining enough so that the directive of the importance of frequent and thorough home painting would get through without being overtly obvious.

I was shocked. The evidence mustered to support the claim was rich and far-reaching, but it seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew about the man and the messages he intended to put across by his writing. Here was an author widely known for being ahead of his time on a host of progressive issues, even vivisection, and to have championed social changes that could hardly have been said to be popular at the time. I do not mean to say that with every advancing year human society is getting better and better – such a strictly linear view surely misses out on too much of the back and forth a study of history reveals – but most of us would likely now agree that Twain was nevertheless right about issues such as anti-imperialism, civil rights, and a more broad-minded approach to religion. Yet here he was underhandedly hustling house paints. Certainly that must be a mismatch?

Well, perhaps each individual is more than he or she seems, and perhaps what goes on in the minds of even those we hold up to be heroes are mysteries darker and more opaque than we could admit or even wish to know. Twain did have his money problems and it might simply be that he saw penning The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a simple, and maybe also fun, way out of his difficulties. The amount Tanaka has him receiving for his efforts comes to around $50,000 in today’s money; that’s one heck of an advance for a writer in any age. Still, there’s something very disturbing about this master satirist turning a novel into little more than a subliminal message to pad a CEO’s wallet, a great classic turning out to be a billboard.








April Fools!! Did I get you? 🙂

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Postscript: Bowie and Lucifer

“We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” says producer Tony Visconti. “The goal was to avoid rock & roll”


The wings of Coincidence flutter about me again. I had a bit more to say on the topic of Bowie and Lucifer so I decided to prepare a postscript to my previous two-part blog. But first I wanted to look up Kendrick Lamar. It was on my to-do list ever since I read an article about Bowie’s new album Blackstar in December of last year. In that article long-time Bowie collaborator and Blackstar producer, Tony Visconti, dropped the name of an artist I was not familiar with.

Curious about what might have drawn the dying Bowie to a young hip-hop artist, I went to YouTube to have a look. That was about an hour ago. There I clicked on the first Kendrick Lamar video I saw. Around 00:57 of that song I got, what? a kick? a jolt? a gift? Whatever Coincidence dips her arrows in. From Lamar’s “Alright” I heard: Found myself screaming in the hotel room. Lucifer was all around me.

Visconti and Bowie do not mention this song specifically but it hardly matters: Lucy (aka Lucifer) is a recurrent trope throughout Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015). They may have been mentioning his work out of admiration, or a sense of solidarity over the evils of Show Biz and all its trappings, or even as a sly tip referring us back to what’s underlying the lyrics of Blackstar. Maybe all of the above.

Let’s take another look at the title song on Blackstar. As I mentioned last post, there is some evidence which suggests that references to Lucifer, the fallen angel who became Satan, are embedded in the lyrics: “How many times does an angel fall? How many people lie instead of talking tall?” Those lines might also be connected to later ones: “We were born upside down (I’m a star’s star)/ Born the wrong way ’round (I’m not a white star).” Upside down and the wrong way ’round, perhaps not more than mildly suggestive. But we’ll come back to them.

We have to jump to another song, Lazarus, on the same album to see anything more conclusive. That song starts with, “Look up here, I’m in heaven”. Those first two verses bear the weight of terminal illness, private suffering, and the irrelevance of fame to his dire situation. But the third verse struck me at first as a false note:


By the time I got to New York

I was living like a king

Then I used up all my money

I was looking for your ass

Isn’t it jarring to feel it shift from 1st person to 3rd here? Who is he addressing? Whose ass? The immediate impression of sense is sexual. But taking some time away from the song to read other things and reflect back on this verse, I’ve reached a conclusion that is at least satisfying to myself. Remember the famous scene in Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil leads them out of hell through a hole in the lake of ice encasing Satan: “When we had come to where the thigh joint turns, just at the swelling of the haunch.” In other words, in Dante’s Inferno, the way out of hell is next to Satan’s ass. So when Bowie sings, “Then I used up all my money/ I was looking for your ass”, is he referring to the wild days of cocaine addiction, sexual abandon, creative superabundance, and the life of stardom? It’s not much of a stretch to see he is playing ironically with his personal biography here.

The next verse has two lines which lead, where else? back to Satan: “This way or no way/ You know, I’ll be free”. If there is another literary work with Satan in it which is more famous than even Dante’s Inferno, it must be Milton’s Paradise Lost. In that epic poem, specifically Books I and II, the figure of Satan is so majestic, darkly magnificent, and heroic that after reading one is compelled to agree with the famous words of William Blake, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it‘. Bowie’s brief lines work as an apt paraphrase of words spoken by Milton’s Satan in Book I:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. 
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (l. 262)

Finally, and I must be brief because I’m running out of space, there is the issue of Blackstar played backwards. Oh, I could just feel you rolling your eyes! Before we look at what comes up with a backwards playback (recall “Born upside down, born the wrong way ’round”) we should ask a pertinent question: Are there grounds for even considering such a move? Finding secret messages in songs played backwards is a common cultural device. A vast majority of the speculation could be ludicrous nonsense, but the fact is that the speculation is well known. Bowie was certainly aware of the talk about other band’s songs (the Beatles included) being played backwards. And according to the Wikipedia page for Bowie’s album Lodger (1979), “Move On” was lyrically Bowie’s ode to his own wanderlust [and] sonically his earlier classic “All the Young Dudes‘ played backwards.”

So what do we get from a backwards Blackstar? You can listen to one here without commentary. But if like me you are running short on time, I’ll give you the quick and dirty: the line, “At the center of it all”, which is repeated several times in the song played normally, comes out backwards as, “livré à Lucifer” (around 07:00). That’s French for “given over to Lucifer.” Is this hogwash, homage, or literary allusion? Or perhaps it’s the artist’s tip of the cap to his shadowy muse, as a way of saying, so long and thanks for all the songs?


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The book as thought

Prepare for a rambling post.

I will be the first to admit that my tastes are likely outside the mainstream when it comes to entertainment, and particularly regarding pace. I like slow and detailed stories; thrillers do nothing for me, even if I find myself caught up in one I end up bored which is pretty much the opposite of what the writer intended. I similarly have little time for action and find that many action scenes in both books and movies add nothing to the overall plot even if they do succeed in making me feel tense briefly. But then I ask myself why I would want to feel tense briefly and move on to something else. Comedy I do like, especially when it’s smart or very ridiculous, but there we have something different, something that has transcended entertainment. Hit pause.

Modern life is filled with entertainment, to the extent that even our politics has now become little more than that. Aristotle would shudder at what we call “politics” and he was the guy that labelled humans as zoon politikon – the political animal – building it right into the definition of what we are. (What does how we do politics say about the type of creatures we have become since his time? There are good and bad aspects to be found in answering that, to be sure, but rather we continue.) So all has become entertainment, a turning away, a chasing after pleasant distractions. Is that so unlike previous generations? Perhaps not, but there were outlets for previous generations that offered more than just passing enjoyments and they were often called “books”.

Unpause. I think that our approach to books (and to the writing of books) has shifted significantly in the past century, speeding up since the fall of the Soviet Union and the presumed victory of a certain (rather hollow at its core) ideology. Without doubt there has been plenty of pulp to be read ever since writing began to be used for more than just keeping track of how much grain was in a silo but in my view the pulp has now become the vast majority of what is produced with all the rest marginalized. I do not think I’m alone in holding this view. Blame movies if you like, blame the internet, blame smartphones, blame Suzy Creamcheese next door and her outrageous v-neck sweaters; the point is that we no longer look to books to challenge our thinking but rather simply to coddle us as we sit on a bus or train or have a nice long lie-in on a Sunday morning. This does the idea of a book a tremendous disservice.

If we are simply looking for a good yarn there are a myriad options surrounding us at all times, many of them requiring much less effort than it takes to read a book. We might not like who we encounter in books, as I remarked last week we might not even like who are writing when we set about making a book, but in discovering that we find a chance for personal growth as we reflect on the character, their traits and actions, and on our reactions to them. In the best traditions books have challenged social mores and existing cultural practices and/or trajectories, they have made us think and left us different than they found us when we set them down. Pure entertainment will never be able to accomplish that. Instead of approaching books as mere pastimes, then, I suggest that we view them – and select them – as training, as a means of strengthening those important muscles between our ears and in the center left of our chests. If the content of a book can do that then the logo on its spine will hardly matter.

Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 2 Responses
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