More than a few times, my father has waxed lyrical about my future appearance on David Letterman. “You’ll tell him how your dear dad is your greatest influence.” In this fantasy, I’m not an movie star, or even someone with a talented pet. I’m a novelist. “Dad,” I say, “why would Letterman have me — a writer — on his show?” My father doesn’t have an answer. He just shrugs, as if to say, Why not? My father also believes Oprah would take his call. And that he can hand-sell a thousand copies of my (as yet unpublished) novel to people who owe him favors. “Make it ten thousand,” he says. “Show those numbers to your agent.” Sure, Dad. Okay.
But wait. If my father can make good on his promise, and actually sell a decent number of copies of my book — over the phone, from the trunk of his car — then why not do what so many other writers have done recently, and self-publish?
In August, droves of self-published authors commented on my essay, “Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?” about the death of my first book. There was that clichéd rallying cry: “Traditional publishing is on its last legs,” as well as cheerful exhortations for me to take matters into my own hands. E-publishing and print-on-demand, commenters assured me, has made D.I.Y. publishing affordable and easy.
After receiving all this feedback, I decided to talk with a few self-published authors to find out why they went that route, and what its benefits and drawbacks have been. I first corresponded with two of my high school English teachers who have used CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing wing. Daniel D. Victor self-published his novel A Study in Synchronicity after he’d queried agents for some time without success. Victor has already published one novel; in 1992, St. Martin’s put out The Seventh Bullet, which was recently re-released in England by Titan Books. Both of Victor’s novels are inspired by the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the former is a “Sherlock Holmes pastiche” while the new one intertwines a Victorian-era whodunit with a modern-day mystery — it’s a clever tale of fiction-coming-to-life. Victor told me he’s been very happy with CreateSpace, both in the process and the results. “People have told me how great my book looks, how professional. And the procedures, once I got the hang of them, were straightforward.” When I asked him about readers’ response, he said, “People have been very receptive and complimentary. Of course, most all of the books have been bought by people I know. What else would I expect them to say?”
Victor’s colleague and friend, Barry Smolin, has self-published two manuscripts: Wake Up in the Dream House, an image-driven book of prose, and Always Be Madly in Love, a poetry collection. Aside from teaching high school, Smolin hosts a radio show on KPFK and makes music under the moniker Mr. Smolin. After self-producing albums for so long, self-publishing made sense. He didn’t even attempt the traditional route. Like Victor, he found CreateSpace user-friendly. (Or, in Smolin-parlance: “I ended up digging it.”) When I asked how readers had responded, he said he hasn’t received any feedback. “But, then again,” he added, “I didn’t publish them for feedback.”
Smolin later sent me a second email, in which he described his life as an artist:
I… have spent the last 35 years making art (music, poetry, fiction) that absolutely nobody cares about. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t resonate with folks. It saddened me more when I was younger; now I just accept it. That reality has had no effect on my creative output whatsoever. I can’t stop doing it. It’s just a burning need in me. It’s who I am. I am an artist even if nobody else on earth thinks so. I’d be miserable if I was not sitting down each night to write or make music. So, I’ve learned to create without the need for any kind of audience. It has just been a survival mechanism I guess. I can’t NOT write, I can’t NOT compose and record music, but I also can’t just create all this stuff 24/7 and stick it in a drawer… I like knowing it’s “out there” whatever that means, that it’s in the cosmos and available to be received if any are interested.
It’s an intriguing contradiction: the desire to publish a book without an expectation for readers. Neither Victor nor Smolin seemed to anticipate an audience when they decided to self-publish — at least not a large one. Unlike many other self-published authors, they haven’t been tirelessly (some might even say obnoxiously) promoting their work. And yet, both Victor and Smolin maintain a hope for readership. In this regard, self-publishing provides the manuscript with a liminal existence — it’s technically available to the world, even if hardly anyone in the world is aware of it. There is potential, and that’s what matters. Neither of my former-teachers approached the topic of self-publishing from the perspective of platform-building or money-earning, as I’ve seen other self-published writers do. They were both quite noble about the process, actually, and their quiet belief in their own work made me want to read their books. I realized, talking to them, that self-publishing provided a conclusion to their artistic projects. Victor and Smolin are writing other books now; their previous ones have been brought to the world, and are thus finished.
Okay, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: At this point in time, self-publishing lacks the cool factor. It’s… dorky. Go ahead, call me a snob (check), call me the mean girl (check). You can also call me someone who loves a well-made, beautifully designed book that makes me shiver with desire. To me, a good-looking book implies an understanding of the marketplace and how to maneuver within it. Most (though not all) self-published novels look, well, self-published. I’ve met enough self-published authors at festivals and conferences to know most of them aren’t doing things right. Don’t wear a baggy T-shirt with the cover of your book screen-printed across the chest. Don’t wear a cape made of crushed velvet. Don’t refer to your “fiction-novel.” And don’t pay some questionable publicity company to spam staff writers of The Millions with press releases.
There are, of course, self-published authors who actively market themselves, and do it well. Two of my peers — Los Angeles-based writer Matthew Allard, and my former classmate at Iowa, Jason Lewis — have both published their own fiction, and made it seem hip to do so. I’ve actually never met Allard; he and I are friends on Tumblr, where he maintains a thoughtful and amusing blog. Last year, he self-published a collection of short stories, To Slow Down the Time, illustrated by the artist Ian Dingman. Allard produced two versions of the book: a limited edition hand-bound hardcover, and a print-on-demand paperback (published by CreateSpace), and made them both available for pre-order. The limited edition sold out in a week, and these sales financed the production costs. “To be honest, we had profit immediately,” Allard told me. “I didn’t make enough money to quit my day job, but I made more than drinking money. I used some of my money to buy a nice new MacBook Pro (to write another book with). I was very surprised.” I own the paperback version of Allard’s book, and it’s lovely. Many a visitor has picked it up and asked me about it, which proves that you don’t need the letters FSG on your book’s spine to woo a reader. Allard did not submit To Slow Down the Time to agents and traditional publishers. “I am impatient,” he said, “and I liked the idea of turning it around and of having full control over our project.” He will most likely self-publish a second collection of stories, which are notoriously difficult to sell these days. Again, he mentioned the swift turn-around time between finishing the manuscript, and presenting it to readers. Clearly, this aspect of self-publishing is seductive: readers get your work while you’re still passionate about it. After meeting a handful of writers who can’t stand their books by the time they’re released, I can understand the appeal of a faster timeline. However, I worry what that acceleration might do to my own work. For instance, there’s a difference between this blog post and the novel I’m writing now, and that difference is time: to ponder, to revise, and to receive feedback. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.
When I asked Allard about his self-publishing experience, he said:
I learned that this is absolutely a viable option for intrepid, Internet-savvy authors. Self-publishing levels the playing field a bit. There is certainly not the same kind of cachet attached to self-publishing as the traditional route. Maybe there’s no pleasure of saying, “Random House is publishing my book in the fall,” but self-publishing does offer the same quality product (providing your product is quality to begin with) and you get to be in charge. The absence of a marketing budget is the other drawback. You made a book! It’s real! Getting it into readers’ hands is a whole other ballgame. In my case, I was lucky to have amassed a decent Internet following that was interested in what I was working on.
Self-publishing is simply cutting a corner and taking charge of your work from start to finish. You don’t have to sit around waiting for a publisher or agent to notice you and believe in your project. If you believe in it, you can make it. There’s less glamour or paycheck attached, though.
I’m struck by how clear-eyed Allard is about the process. He understood self-publishing’s limitations, and the work required of him to render the book a success. He’ll be in fine shape if he sells a book to a publishing house down the line. The publicity budget for a traditional published book usually isn’t huge, and nowadays the writer is expected not only to be an artist, but also a talented promoter of that art. Allard already knows how to tap-dance for his dinner, and to do it gracefully.
Like Allard, Jason Lewis has published an atypical book. His novel, The Fourteenth Colony, comes with an album of songs written from the perspective of John Martin, the book’s main character, a musician who returns to his hometown in West Virginia to try to put his life back together. Lewis wrote and produced all the music, and funded the project via Kickstarter. As with Allard’s, Lewis’s book was financed by readers, and he has a guarantee of an audience, however modest, by the time the book goes to press this month. Any copies he sells on top of this will be profit. This is in contrast to the traditional publishing model which puts money up front in the form of an advance, and sets about building an audience for a work that’s already created. It’s not hard to see which model offers greater risk.
Lewis used to have an agent, but she left the business a few years ago, and he had trouble finding representation for The Fourteenth Colony. He began writing new work as he sent out the manuscript to agencies, but he couldn’t get his first novel out of his head. “In another era, that might just have been the itch I couldn’t scratch while I moved on,” he said. “But in this era, indie publishing has really very quickly become a viable option.” Notice that Lewis uses the phrase “indie publishing” — a smart move, in this fraught moment in books.
Although Lewis has enjoyed the outpouring of support from family and friends, and from strangers who are simply enthusiastic about his unique project, he admits, “It would still be great to have someone else to take care of a lot of what I’m doing for myself.” Allard, too, envisions publishing a novel traditionally some day. “For me and my career as an author, it is a goal to have a publisher take interest in my work and back it. There is a different sense of accomplishment in selling a book that way, obviously. I want that.”
This intrigued me, though I wasn’t surprised. Even writers who self-publish well, who successfully produce books that don’t fit into the publishing industry’s rubric of what’s marketable, let alone categorizable, still want entrance into the established world they initially turned away from. If only for assistance with production. If only to say, “My book’s for sale on the front table at Barnes and Noble.”
Even in 2011 that value can’t be denied.
For some self-published authors, the traditional industry may be dying, superfluous to their needs and success as authors. But many of the self-published authors who commented on my initial essay suggested that I publish my own book as a means to get the industry’s attention. They seem to be saying: Screw the industry… that is, until they recognize my genius!
Matthew Allard self-published a book that probably couldn’t have been produced by a large house, but the story of that book, and the attention it’s received, could no doubt help him get representation and sell another book down the road. Daniel D. Victor might amass a following for his second novel, proving to those gun-shy agents that his subject matter is indeed of interest to a wide readership. In my estimate, self-publishing won’t replace traditional publishing, but it might supplement and influence it. There’s another trajectory for an author’s success; alongside the debut novelist who’s an MFA graduate with publishing credits in The Missouri Review and Your Mom’s Journal, there’s the writer who proved herself with self-publishing and now has a book deal with Random House. But to think every self-published author makes it big is as foolish as thinking every MFA grad does.
In a recent New York Times article, Amazon executive Russell Grandinetti said, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” It’s a good point. Self-publishers essentially cut out the middle man (except, of course, outfits like Amazon…), and in shouldering the burdens of editing, design, publicity, and so on, they stand to reap all the benefits of that work. It’s how Amanda Hocking made her millions. It’s also how many, many other self-published writers spent a lot of time (if not money) putting out a book that no one bought. With my first novel, I suffered rejection from editors. The writer who self-publishes sidesteps that rejection, only to face possible rejection in the form of readers’ silence.
If you self-publish a book and it doesn’t do as well as you’d hoped, does it hurt your chances to sell a novel to a traditional publisher in the future? Maybe in an industry that’s changing so rapidly, it’s too early to answer that question. Talking to these self-published writers certainly opened my eyes to the various reasons why one might try it, and how gratifying it can be. These are writers I admire; how their books came to me doesn’t matter. That was an important lesson for me to learn.
Even so, I’m not running to the press with my first book. In a second essay, I’ll further explore why not. I’ll also examine what self-publishing means for readers, and what traditionally published authors think of all these D.I.Y. developments.