When I first began to be serious about writing for publication, I attended Fishtrap Writers’ Conference in the Wallowa Chief Joseph country. I thought it would be about my speed at that time (199?) and I was right. It splits the difference between the sophisticated professional writer and the local writer who just does it for the love of doing it. Not afraid to be local, not afraid to sit around the campfire and sing, not afraid of youth.
That’s where I met Willa Holmes, who was a little bit ahead of me, a little bit older. (Ten years.) Her first book, “She Who Watches,” was published by Binford & Morts. This story is a classic referring to a petroglyph of a face that might suggest an owl or some say scary enough to be death or others claim is Bigfoot. (They see Bigfoot everywhere.) The official legend is about a female chief whose village was down below the petroglyph and when she died, she took this shape in order to watch over them. The pessimists, as Ed Edmo says, suggest she watched the diseases come from the white people and wipe out everyone.
This is Ed Edmo, a favorite Indian storyteller in Portland, telling the legend. He and his family used to attend Rose City UU Church -- maybe still do.
Willa’s book cleverly evolves from a conversation between Tsagaglalal, who is a chief and an abiding figure, a “Stays Put Woman,” and Coyote, who is always “going along” because he is a Trickster figure and must keep going to escape from trouble. (He gets into trouble anyway.) The two figures could be seen as adversaries because they are so different, but in truth they are complementary or perhaps even two sides of the same coin.
People are always wanting powerful Indian old people to be shamans. Maybe Tsagaglalal and Coyote are shamans and maybe they are not. Technically they are not because a shaman goes over to the Land of Death and then returns. Tsagaglalal never leaves her people and Coyote, though he constantly has narrow escapes, is never quite dead.
I got to thinking about Willa, the author, and Googled, of course. But she was only on Facebook and I don’t “do” Facebook so I just called her on the phone. She’s fine, as stable and clear-headed as always, still following writing issues in the writer’s magazines, but not so eager to write another book. “She Who Watches” sold 6500 copies and Binfort and Mort were talking about another printing, but then things just faded away, Willa has written another book, “Sodbuster’s Boy,” but no publisher has been interested. Self-publishing is a little much at this point.
There are so many worthy books out there, sort of in limbo, neither published or not published. Amazon plays games with the prices, Originally published at just under $15, today at 4:30 PM from this location (that’s how specific their algorithm for pricing is) the price for a new copy of “She Who Watches” ranges from $2.59 for a used copy to $69.21 -- with many stops in between. The high-end seller is Brookebooks in Georgia with 9417 ratings that average out to 4.8. (5 is perfect.) One buyer was pretty angry. Blind transactions are kinda “tricky.”
The problem of the angry buyer was with the quality of the book rather than prices but they say that prices like $70 for a 37 page book, even with color illustrations, comes from computer generated algorithm pricing. The amount is determined as much by the characteristics of the buyer as the book, so I must be listed somewhere as a rich buyer of Indian books. Prices are different for different regions, different times of the day, or whatever some Amazon manager stipulates as the percentage of the day.
Both Willa and I see clearly that there are two problems with ebooks: “curation,” meaning evaluations by an experienced reviewer, and “distribution” meaning how on earth does a person know what’s out there? How does a writer find the readers who would welcome, even celebrate, this book? If you figure that one out, you will make a lot of money. Forget stars and thumbs. Amazon and Google are as close as anyone has gotten so far, though everyone talks on and on about “word of mouth.”
But I don’t think that Willa, for all her reading “Writer’s Digest” and other paper mags, has run across the electronic practice of pricing by formula. She IS boiling mad about the fight over who sets the prices at all, the publisher or Amazon. It IS maddening that they keep experimenting so much: special deals for Walmart, different policies for ebooks that wander all over the possibilities, including ebooks for libraries. There are electronic restrictions to a certain reading machine (Willa uses Kindle because her eyes demand big print now) or legal deals no one knows about until the print simply disappears. They don’t seem to know that unreliability is bad for sales.
Binford and Mort were once the biggest publishers in the PNW and a service to the region since they specialized in history of the area. I tried to google it, but they have no website and I could only find reference to a printing company which is no longer at the old printing plant.
Willa was savvy about the political situation when a white woman writes about tribal people and headed that off by consulting elders and hiring a Native American illustrator. Both strategies were well-advised and effective, even enriched the final product. The ethnic wars have died down a bit now, partly because the youngsters are busy trying to get jobs, the universities are quietly closing out all their ethnic studies programs, and -- now that “brown” people are just barely in the majority of the population -- they are less rare and exotic.
So much a writer deals with is NOT about writing. But Willa says she took the writing classes offered at Fishtrap, benefitted greatly from them, and found the whole experience worthwhile, including the friendship networks. She had not expected a sudden phone call out of the blue and was glad to know I still valued “She Who Watches.” We’re both watching with our old eyes. We’ve seen things like this before. It will settle. Maybe not in our lifetime.