Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's Not Wrong With Self-Publishing

Let's start with a quick breakdown: the credibility of a DIY project varies dramatically depending on the medium one is working with. If you are a musician or a filmmaker, a DIY project can garner instant respect, especially if it turns out well. It is the fruit of a heroic devotion to your dream. If you are a writer, but even more specifically if you are a fiction writer, self-publishing is about as respected as blatant nepotism. Read a bit more about this basic disparity (if you don't get it already) here at the Washington Post.

We've moved from calling them "vanity presses" to "self-publishing" houses. That does seem like some small forward motion. But the stigma that people who pay to publish their own books are (1) less talented writers than those who are already under the protective financial blanket of traditional houses and (2) narcissists, remains. And, due in part to the fact that most self-published titles are nonfiction, the stigma is stronger for fiction writers. (I openly acknowledge here that many self-published fiction titles are in desperate need of editing and don't bear up well under literate scrutiny. However, I also submit: the majority of websites are poorly designed and/or written. Somehow we don't dismiss the internet based on that fact.) 

Another reason why the stigma is strong for fiction writers is that underneath the grand ubiquity of the big houses, there is a thriving and brilliant culture of smaller presses such as Greywolf, Akashic, and Red Hen, plus hundreds of literary magazines in which fiction writers who are "serious" about literature (i.e. hold an MFA, read current literary fiction, go to readings, teach writing, and so on) can theoretically be getting published. So self-publishing a fiction book appears to be the choice for people who have generally failed to write well enough to be chosen.

But here is an interesting fact: of the 750,000 self-published titles last year, average sales equals ten copies. Ten. There were somewhere around 300,000 traditionally published books, and it's harder to find average sales for those, but I'll put a serious amount of money on it being higher--much higher.

This disparity in sales is not simply because self-published books can't find their audience, it's because many self-published writers aren't interested in marketing. They wanted to write a book, they did it, and really they just wanted a few copies for their friends/family/coworkers. The self-published writers who are willing to commit some time and money to marketing their books end up doing very much the same thing authors at small houses do now: they schedule their own events, make their own publicity calls, send out their own books to smaller magazines for reviews, and so on. That at a small press you might have one or two marketing people serving 20 writers means that most authors who aren't getting a big push at Random House are doing a lot of the legwork on their own.

I believe traditional publishing to be a paternalistic, failing business model. What I respect and love about it is the way a team of people all work together to make a book, and to make a book available to readers. What I hate is that it is the publishers (i.e. people with financial interests at the fore) who are the arbitors of culture. With self-publishing, much like the internet, there is a theoretical democratizing of the means to cultural production. As a writer, I am no longer told by Big Daddy Publisher Man what is worth publishing and what isn't. I may be told what will be backed by marketing dollars, what will likely sell to the widest number of readers, and so on, but I have so much more room to breathe when it comes to just making BOOKS. The downside, of course, is that I am not in a close editorial relationship with someone who can help me make my novel better than it was. Oh, wait, most writers don't have that anymore either. It's only a few small presses that do any developmental editing anymore.

The advent of ebooks is another piece in the puzzle--and it is a big one, according to the Wall Street Journal. Authors have even more control in the emarketplace.

So the question I am fielding as I near the release date of A Crack in Everything, my first novel and a self-published title, is: Why would YOU choose to self-publish? The assumptions here are basic: I am an already-published writer in the early bloom of a career, I have the requisite degree, and I'm obviously serious about literary fiction, so logically I should have gone with a small press, if I couldn't get a deal at a big house.

The fact is: even the small presses are flooded with submissions, and as literary agents feel the squeeze of a shrinking traditional publishing field, they aren't taking on a lot of new authors. So let's be clear: I didn't reject any offers from small presses in favor of a self-publishing model. I didn't and don't have an agent. (Yes, I want one.) I simply decided to stop pounding the pavement for a novel that needed to get kicked out of the nest. I love A Crack in Everything for what it is, but I'm done working on it. I'm writing a new book. I'm entering a PhD program. I wanted to give Crack a body, and then turn her loose.

This is the great beauty of self-publishing, and one reason why I feel I'm part of a fiction vanguard, instead of an embarrassed band of self-righteous rejects. Publishing has already changed. Publishers are slow to catch up. Even the solidly creative, truly interesting and wonderful work coming from small presses functions in what feels to me like a rather incestuous clique of cool kids who like to print each others' stuff. I don't much blame them for this--they don't have time to vet the billion new MFA writers sending them manuscripts every day, and what they're putting out is by and large awesome. I'd love to be one of the cool kids with a punk-rock marketing plan and a Brooklyn freelancer doing my retro-chic covers. I'd love this more than I'd like to be a big-list Random House author, because of the great amount of creative freedom and teamwork that is missing at the top. 

I will likely never write a piece of fiction that you can buy in an airport bookstore--mainstream fiction is not how my brain works now and I'm only getting weirder. My first novel is a kind of hybrid erotic-political-literary-twenty-something micro-bildungsroman, and the next book I'm writing is more fragmented, more academic, and has more sex in it. Maybe I'll find a home at a small press in the next few years, and maybe not. What I care about is ensuring that I am in a situation where I can make art without concern for the market, and that is nearly impossible once you've been contracted by a publisher whose main goal is profit.

This is what I celebrate most about self-publishing, small presses, ebooks, and every other force that undermines the New York hegemony: that the capitalists are less and less in charge of what is being bought, and therefore what is being written. Sure, Dan Brown will still sell millions of copies to my few hundred (or thousand, if I'm fortunate), but because of the internet I have the capability to connect directly with readers in a way that was twenty years ago nearly impossible. I know iUniverse (one of the largest self-publishing businesses, and the one I'm using) runs on a business model that emphasizes selling "services" to authors instead of selling books, but a savvy self-publishing writer can still use any one of the supported self-publishing houses for their basic book design, print-on-demand, and distribution infrastructure without becoming a victim of the company's system. In other words, we can use the tools of the capitalists to take back control of the means of production. Are most self-published books just a boring rehashing of existing cultural values? Sure. But the morphing structure of publishing offers greater opportunity for revolutionary work to take shape and become available, and that's thrilling.

Authors at traditional houses (with the exclusion, again, of many small presses) are generally left out of much of the production of a book, and give the rights to the publisher for a specified period of time--sometimes as long as the book stays in print. They are defensive players: constantly fielding attempts to change things that may or may not need changing, having to justify any problems they might have with typesetting and cover design. If they make a certain sales goal with one book and not the next, they can get dropped, even if their second book did very well. As a self-published writer, I retain copyright and could go with a different publisher at any time. I give design input that would never be allowed at a traditional house. As long as I keep my wits about what I invest, and remember not to become emotionally affected by the systemic prejudice against DIY books, I get to enter a whole new game. And in this game, I am the offensive striker, not the goalie.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sweatshirt, Sweatshirt, You Come Here!

This horse sweatshirt is on its way to guarding my arms through a second round of summer chills. I bought it at the Hollywood Ross for less than half of what Hurley intended me to pay in the early part of summer, 2009. It has built-in thumb-holes, custom friendship-bracelet-like hoodie pulls, and no one can tell me for certain if it is red or orange, because it is both. I wore it on Phish Tour last year. I wore it to and from Manzanillo. I wore it to and from Burning Man. I wore it on many sad nights, and during many beautiful days. I wore it on beautiful nights and sad days. I wore it in New York and North Carolina and Washington State and back home again. 

When I was a small girl, I had a favorite green sweatshirt. Deep in my mother's archive of things-we-pull-out-once-every-five-years, there is a cassette tape, upon which I am singing a song I wrote that has a verse about the sweatshirt. I think it goes thusly:

Sweatshirt, sweatshirt, you come here!
You've got a mommy and you've got a daddy

At least, one of the verses goes like that. There is a microphone verse, too, in which the microphone's mother is crying for the microphone to come home. The point of the song, it seems, is that errant objects just need to be reminded they are loved at home, and they will come back from whatever their suspicious wanderings. This level of complexity seems a little farfetched? 

Imagine a small child who loses things constantly. Imagine a small child who loses things that are expensive as easily as she loses things that are cheap. Imagine a small child living in a communal household with her mother, for half the week, and a shared apartment, with her father, for the other half, and imagine this child knows, without being told in any rude or pressured way, that there simply isn't a lot of money around. Things that are lost are not always replaced. Imagine that this child wants desperately to make life easier for her overworked and loving parents, and imagine that every time she loses something she feels a horrible sense of guilt and sadness and also, a certain befuddlement, since she can never remember leaving anything anywhere. Imagine the small step it would take for this small child to conclude that it is the things themselves who behave poorly, since she never intends to.

Sweatshirt, sweatshirt, you come here. I probably said it many times, as I looked around my desk at school, as I ran back to the playground after the bell rang, as I checked in the car on my way to mom's, as I checked in the car on my way to dad's. 

I developed little systems, suggested by various people. Put your things in the same place when you come in every day. Count how many things you have on one hand when you get somewhere, and then count again when you leave. Eventually I started losing things less often. 

Now, something bizarre has happened. I will have the sudden pang of "realization" that I have forgotten something (keys! phone! wallet! sweatshirt!) and then lo and behold, one of my reaction-systems, which are all now totally unconscious, has actually kept the "forgotten" thing in its right place. The panic ends, and I marvel simultaneously at: (1) how incredibly powerful my habit-training to not lose things has become and (2) how incredibly powerful the habit of feeling like I'm forgetting something still is, despite (1).

Maybe my attachment to this horse sweatshirt is just a replay of my attachment to the green sweatshirt of my childhood, and maybe my attachment to that green sweatshirt was the result of that effort I made, knowing I was Someone Who Lost Things, to have something I loved that I did NOT lose, to prove to myself and to Mom and Dad and especially Erica that I could be responsible, too, since responsibility was very much a part of giving and receiving love, and maybe through some psychological process I am loathe to find a name for the sweatshirt itself became the symbol of freedom from my old identity as a Loser and a badge of honor in my hoped-for new identity as a Keeper. A Keeper does not lose things, and therefore a Keeper deserves to be kept.

The orange sweatshirt certainly is symbolic: I got it not long before Louis and I broke up, and I was wearing it the night we did, and that means this sweatshirt is a talisman of sorts. It soaked up my grief, it frayed and grayed a bit along with me as I traveled and healed. I have affection for it, this piece of my uniform during a long year of change. I would be sad if I left it somewhere--much sadder than if I left any one of about four other sweatshirts I own. It could be scrapbooked or framed. Instead I will wear it until it falls apart, or I inexplicably fall off the Keeper wagon, or I loan it to someone who never felt compelled to get on that particular wagon and they leave it somewhere. 

In the last two cases, I will sing the Sweatshirt song, at least once, just in case the sweatshirt feels like coming home.