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If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Self-Publish? No, But Hear Both Sides

1.  Don't Do It
The whole matter of self-publication is a delicate, tricky business.  Say you've written for years with very little success, and you're feeling a desperate.  Your family (husband, wife, partner, etc.) is beginning to give off odd vibes about all the time you spend writing "with nothing to show for it."  They don't say that, but you know that's what they're thinking.  Then you read in the paper about some 17 year-old high school kid who has just published his fantasy novel, and the local newspaper has given him the front page.  Key word there is 'local.'  You don't recognize the publisher, and, after Googling, you still don't find this publisher–which means the kid has created his own imprint, that is, used the local printing company which also does the Chamber of Commerce brochures as well as anything that arrives on its desk as long as it's for pay.

You know in your heart that the kid has jumped the queue, rushed the line, punched his own ticket ahead of you, a hard-working writer who is playing by the rules.  For God's sakes, look at all the publicity he's getting! Who knows how many books he'll sell, but this is 21st century post-modern America, and who, anymore, really cares who the publisher is?  So why shouldn't you self-publish your novel?  You've work-shopped it, you've revised it, you've slaved over it for years.  It's ready.  The bastards in the New York publishing industry are all on the take, and too busy publishing their friends to bother with you, so now it's your turn.  Why not self-publish?

For a whole bunch of reasons.  First, you haven't sold your novel or published your short stories because they're not good enough.  This has to be said, and I say it with the best of intentions.  Your writing is not quite "there", and it's up to you to understand where "there" is.   In other of my "Write Right" entries I talk about that (style, structure, voice), and make that case that at some point (probably right now if you're thinking of self-publishing) you need to lay a page of your prose alongside a page of a writer you admire, one who speaks to you, and closely examine how his/her writing is different from yours.  This will take you back to the sentence level, where writing flourishes or withers. 

Some writers, nonfiction ones in particular–Joan Didion and John McPhee come to mind– could write about making the morning coffee and keep our interest, and that's solely because of their sentence style.  So take another look at your sentences.  Do they carry a reader continuously and energetically forward?  Do they have balance, rhythm?  Are they pleasing on the tongue (the mind has its own ear)?  Do they sound good read aloud?  Are their images fresh and precise--though not so much so as to draw undue attention at the expense of the paragraph?  There's no end to the ways to see your sentences and to make them better.

One last note:  I can assure you that there is no conspiracy out there to keep you from publishing.  The publishing industry is just that--a for-profit business.  Editors' jobs are on the line on a daily basis.  They need to find and work with writers who can sell books, and being kind to and publishing their writer friends is not going to do that.

In the end, I think writing and publishing is one of the purest forms of democracy out there.  If your writing is good, someone will take notice; if it's not ready, they won't.  If it's close, they'll tell you.   
Now get back to work.  You've spent enough time here

2.  Another View
 I received this note by email from a young woman, and asked her permission to publish it:  

 "About your latest blog entry: Walt Whitman self-published.  So did The Celestine Prophecy guy.  Blogs are self-published--the very blog you write is self-published.   It's possible that publishers are over-booked with projects or that they have specific ideas about what they want to invest in.  You were a little harsh, and you were speaking from a position of privilege, already having a publisher.  Verily, I say unto thee, you have your reward.  Some people go into business for themselves.  They have their hardships.  But they probably come out of it knowing what it takes at every step to publish and promote their own work.  And they're probably barred from some bookstores because they don't have big-name publishers to get their feet in the door.  Why do you make it your business to put these people down by saying their writing isn't "good" enough?  At the same time that you're speaking about publishing, you could just as well be talking about independent musicians--are they not "good enough" to get record deals?  Some of them are amazing, motivated, and absolutely opposed to getting taken on the money end.  The two industries are distinct, but they are similar in that the artists want to control what's happening at every stage.  I know you're passionate about publishers, but please don't lump everyone into one category.       
from:  "Over the Transom"
3. Two Writers, Two Different Opinions
Below is a conversation among two writer friends about self-publishing.  The first is Marsh Muirhead, essayist, poet, short story writer, and  author of Key West Explained.  He loves to take breaks from chilly Minnesota and head down the Florida Keys.  The second is Susan Hauser, poet and nonfiction writer.  Her  many books include Full Moon (poetry), You Too Can Write A Memoir, and Wild Rice Cooking.  I'm WW, the interviewer....

 WW:  Lots of aspiring writers track me down, searching for help with “getting published.”   When they understand how much work  (heart, spirit, focus, revision and persistence) it takes, they often ask me about self-publishing.  What are your opinions?

 MM.  Self-publishing means more books than ever (quality not a factor), while we have fewer readers by the hour. However,  I do not think this is the end of civilization as we know it–for two reasons. If you self-publish you need to sell the books via an effective distribution system, and you need to reach your specific readership with a quality book. Nobody but the writer will spend much time and effort in distribution; so that puts a limit, I think, on unreadable books.

My two favorite example of the latter: a friend’s aunt "found a publisher" ( a vanity publisher) for her novel. The publisher "placed" it on Amazon as part of the package. The Auntie does all and any other distribution of the book herself (a dubious endeavor since she and her husband, in their late 70s, find the cocktail hour taking up increasing portions of the day).  What to say about the quality of her novel?  It is well punctuated.  Sometimes it is told in the first person, often the third, shifting as if much of the writing consists of notes by the author to herself while she sketches out her imagined life story where very little happens. Today it is ranked 1,760,000 on Amazon -
 zero sales.

 I published my Key West Explained with the idea that it has little competition, a very focused readership, and the best way to sell that kind of book is on Amazon. Today it's ranked 39,800 over-all, and #2 in books (it sold 5 copies yesterday, a very good day) in the category of  "books about the Florida Keys."  It is almost the only book about Key West exclusively, is the only one heavily illustrated, has a map, a 2008 (C) date, and the word "Explained" in the title–a diction choice I thought was crucial to its appeal. Sales continue to slowly increase; it's at about 60-70 books per month now. The printing of 2000 copies should sell out late next year (I have one other distributor in the Keys who supplies the bookstores - they sell a few copies a month as well). The book is over-priced at $21.95 so I still clear $9 a copy after Amazon takes its cut and I pay for mailing the cases to them. When all 2000 sell I will realize a profit of about $6000, unless I totally deduct 4 trips to Key West, at which point the book will break even -- and I get 4 free trips to Florida.
The key to sales was me, and a particular technique:  I reviewed all the other books (25) on the keys so that my review directs anyone browsing Key West books on Amazon to get my pop-up tab directing them to KWE.

Since creative work –poems, collections of stories, novels– compete with hundreds of thousand of like books, self-publishing would be a dubious effort for that, and I would never consider it unless I had very strong artistic, critical, and editorial support AND a distribution system.

WW:  Susan, what’s your reaction to Marsh’s comments?

 SH: Here's the thing about self-publishing, that Marsh acknowledges that he does: you have to package books and mail them. When they are selling well, as KWE is right now, Amazon will take a whole box. If they sell less well, as most literature does, Amazon does not stock any copies. Instead, when they get an order, they send you an email and a mailing label and you package the book and send it out. Eventually, Amazon deposits a payment in your bank account. I have done this (as you can tell) with Full Moon. When I started, Amazon took a dozen copies at a time. They shipped them and as they sold they paid me for them. After a while sales declined to a dribble. Now I get occasional orders, in spurts. I think someone gets one as a gift, buys a few more for gifts, then the impetus peters out. I find it is not worth it to me to keep packing materials and postage on hand (weigh the package or put out money for the postal carrier). I'd rather spend my time writing.

 Of course, self-publishing starts with the production of copy for the printer. As Marsh knows, this can be time-consuming. Even if you hire a company that does that, you still have many decisions to make. I have a friend who paid a well-known company to do that and she had no end of trouble. In addition, she has not sold enough books to recover her costs even though the book is a good one.

Publishing is like writing: if you haven't done it, it looks like it can't be too much trouble. But in reality, it is. I occasionally self-publish things because I like figuring out the placement of text on the page, etc. But I would not want to do it with the intent of providing income. Marsh is being smart about KWE, writing reviews on Amazon, etc. For me, all of that would be time away from writing.

All that said, I have a couple of mss. I have not been able to place with publishers and I plan to self-publish them when I retire. Maybe. The decision in the end is about how one spends one's time.


[this "debate" piece was published in the Huffington Post]


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