Several years ago, an editor asked a novelist to write something for a weekly newspaper.
“I was like, I’m a fiction writer,” said Samuel Ligon, the novelist.
OK, said Jacob Fries, the editor, how about a booze column?
“No,” Ligon replied.
But eventually, Fries got Ligon to write for the Inlander, a 25-year-old free weekly in Spokane, Washington.
So naturally, two years ago, when the editor asked the novelist to write a serial novel for the weekly, “I was like, no way, are you nuts?” Ligon remembered. “That’s a horrible idea.”
And naturally, eventually, it happened anyway.
“Miller Cane: A true and exact history” started running a few weeks ago in the Inlander. The project offers an example of what can happen when a news organization embraces and evolves with its mission of staying independent and local.
The high-wire act
Here’s Ligon’s process for writing a book: He writes it, then he realizes what it’s really about, then he writes it all again. Ligon, who teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, has written two other novels and two collections of stories. He also runs the literary event Pie & Whiskey with his wife, Kate Lebo.
What he’s doing now, with “Miller Cane,” is a scary first for him. That’s one of the reasons Ligon decided to take it on.
Fries didn’t want a full and finished novel ready for the start of the serialization.
“He wanted the high-wire act,” Ligon said, “And so did I.”
So far, he’s written 20 out of 50 installments.
That approach is hair-raising for Kate Parry, assistant managing editor/development and special project at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Strib has published serialized novels from local writers for several years, but those novels are totally done when the serialization begins.
“They’re writing as they go, which is kind of what Charles Dickens did with newspapers in England,” said Parry, who shared with Fries tips on what worked in Minneapolis. “But that would drive me crazy.”
She does, however, think she might try to copy the way the Inlander is making money from “Miller Cane.”
The Star Tribune turns its serialized novels into e-books, which it sells. In the past five years, five e-books probably brought in about $60,000, which, as Parry said, is “not nothing.”
The Inlander got a major advertiser – Sprint – to sponsor the series in print and online. Fries didn’t disclose the money that sponsorship is bringing in, but, he said, “I would say it’s a starting reporter’s salary. Not like crazy money, but actual money.”
The Inlander’s paying Ligon $10,000 for the series, which runs weekly for the next year. The Inlander is also working with Spokane Public Radio with "Miller Cane." Each week, Ligon reads the section that ran in print and online the week before. Eventually, the station will collect each section into chapters and put it in a podcast.
Before the weekly got the sponsorship for the project, Fries gave a presentation to the sales staff to explain the concept. But it’s taken some adjustment for him, too.
The Inlander includes a note in print and online that the sponsor has no influence, no editorial control, gets no advance copies and has no say in the story.
“This is sponsored content, on some level,” he said. “In my editorial space, I’m acknowledging a sponsor. I’ve never done that before.”
This year, the Inlander celebrates 25 years of publication.
“We all mourned … when we saw news about Missoula,” Fries said of the Montana alt-weekly abruptly closed by Lee Enterprises. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia reports online that it has 104 members, and the Inlander is one of them.
But they don’t call themselves an alt much anymore, Fries said. As dailies have declined, some weeklies stopped offering themselves as just a supplement.
“We’re a healthy weekly; we still have healthy print runs,” he said.
Circulation is generally 50,000, Fries said, and 12 people work on editorial staff. They’re also still embracing the power of print, something Fries said he’s heard was dying for about 10 years.
“We are on track for our best year in 25 years,” he said.
“Miller Cane,” which the novelist will revise and publish as a complete novel eventually, is a way to remind people that the Inlander has great ambition, the editor said, and also – they’re still a little bit crazy.