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Kevin Fanning on Jennifer Love Hewitt and the Stigma of Self-Publishing

Have you ever felt like maybe there’s something superhuman about Jennifer Love Hewitt? Like behind those bright eyes, shiny hair, and hit TV shows there’s a mystical force driving her along?  In Kevin Fanning‘s beautiful new story collection, Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity, Fanning presents us with many variations on this theme, creating different worlds in which Hewitt is, in fact, magical. The result is a bundle of myths that escape the trappings of fan fiction and reads more like an epic lullaby than a name-dropping pop-punk song.

Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity, despite its charm and highly-marketable title, can’t be found in bookstores, nor will you encounter an advertisement of it engineered by anyone but Fanning himself or his many online fans. That’s because Fanning, a recruiter by day and writer by nights and weekends, publishes it and markets it himself through an internet-fueled one-man operation he’s been building since 1999. “I think in our culture we have this warped view of artistic success as not being real unless it’s how you earn your living,” Fanning told us, “But I find this mind-boggling. I think it holds a lot of people back from creating cool things.”

Fortunately, it hasn’t held Fanning back — and his latest, which is available in print and for the Kindle, is a testament of the widening book marketplace that Fanning is helping define by skipping the market and going straight to the online places where fans value the craft and buy books. In this exclusive interview, we talked to Fanning about his angelic protagonist, Tumblr, and the stigma of self-publishing.

What’s so special about Jennifer Love Hewitt? Could it have been anyone else?
I’ve written stories about a lot of celebrities, but there was never any question that this collection would be about anyone other than her. I’m really interested in the idea of celebrities as our modern mythology, and as far as a celebrity you can imagine alternate histories for, a celebrity you can attach different motivations and meanings to, she’s perfect. She’s really famous, but she’s not a lightning rod for controversy the way a Britney or a Lindsey Lohan is. We know a little bit about her personal life, but not terribly much, compared to a lot of other actors. She has fans, but nothing approaching the rabidity of Team Edward. The type of fame she’s carved out for herself is the perfect backdrop for the stories I want to tell. I would be happy writing about her for a long time.

Tell me about your publishing process. You have a lot of different websites, all with different names and brands — is this all a one-man operation?
I started my first website, whygodwhy.com, in 1999. I knew I wanted to use the internet as a way to find an audience for my writing. Along the way I started wanting to make things for people to read offline, but I didn’t want to follow the traditional route of editorial and publishing gatekeepers. Everything has just grown from there. It’s all me, there’s no real budget and no real plan. I’ve been figuring it out as I go. Sales of each book fund the one that comes after it. I stamp the envelopes, I sign each copy. I get excited seeing a new name I haven’t before; I’ve discovered new websites and made new friends through the process of selling my books myself. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

I first heard about this book on Tumblr. Did you consciously decide to focus your marketing efforts there? If so, what do you think of the medium?
I love Tumblr. It’s a very aesthetically-focused community, and there’s instantaneous feedback between publisher and audience. I have an all-or-nothing approach to spreading the word about my books — I post to my websites, my email newsletter, Facebook, Goodreads, Flickr, Twitter, anywhere that I normally spend part of my day anyway. Tumblr is easy to use, there are tons of people there, and with everyone reblogging and “liking” things, small marketing efforts have a nice ripple effect, so that ends up being where I concentrate most of my efforts.

Were you worried about whether people would be able to get past the initial shock of the name and truly get into the details of the stories?
I was worried that people would think the stories were “funny” but not engage with them in a deeper way, or that people would assume my intent was mean-spirited in some way. But my fears were totally unfounded; people’s reactions to the book have been far beyond what I’d hoped. It’s been amazing to see so many people posting about it on their blogs or emailing me to tell me how much they loved this collection. It’s been great.

Do you consider writing your main profession? You’ve achieved what many writers dream of — a following, continuous publishing, and a paycheck.
I consider writing a part of who I am, but just one of the things I do. I have a day job that pays the rent, and that I happen to really like. I think in our culture we have this warped view of artistic success as not being real unless it’s how you earn your living. I find this mind-boggling. I think it holds a lot of people back from creating cool things.

Why don’t you do that much press? Is there a conscious effort to self-market?
Marketing is a job in itself, and ultimately I’m more focused on whatever my next project is. I think there’s a stigma attached to self-publishing, i.e. if it’s self-published, it must be that no one thought it was good enough to publish. So there’s a challenge in not only getting the word out to people, but getting them to take the work seriously. It would be a fun problem to have if my books found an audience that was so large I couldn’t handle self-publishing, but for now I’m happy to just focus on the work.

Do you hope Jennifer Love Hewitt reads your book?
I hope everyone reads this book. But yes, it’d be great if she did. I can’t imagine she wouldn’t like it.

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