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.


  1. First, nice photo, if (maybe) a little derivative of the Corona commercials with the bottle in some perspective to the ocean. Maybe, tho', the bent over figure (you, I presume) is a bit jarring--tho' that could be deliberate.

    Okay, okay, I'm not an art critic, fer chrissakes, so let me move on.

    One thing you hit on the head is about the number of self-published books sold. Actually, tho', the figure I've most often heard is somewhere between 80 and, maybe, 200 copies when you include the natural audience of family, friends, extended family, and colleagues.

    Where I'd disagree is that, tho' I am not a book shepherd but rather a book designer and page compositor, one doesn't want to "make art without concern for the market". I always parrot what book shepherds tell true self-publishers (as distinguished from those whose publishing their own work really is just vanity publishing) to get cracking on a marketing plan as soon as they can identify their audience beyond the natural audience I mentioned above--even while still writing their opus. I tell them that self-publishing is a business.

    All of which is not to say there's nothing wrong with publishing exactly what you want without regard to anything to do with the market. I'm just recognizing the (I think) usual urge to be read by as many others as possible.

    That all said, I think you've written a good piece that ably raises issues about self vs. vanity.

    Of course, I admit that I have a vested interest as I have worked for a fair number of self-publishers, about all of whom wrote books with some appeal beyond the 100-copy arena. In fact, a few really seemed to have natural niche markets. And that matters to me because, even tho' I long ago lost interest in (and any discipline for) writing great novels, I still like the idea of books with my name in the credits (as designer) getting into the hands of as many readers as possible.

  2. Great post, Vanessa, and good luck with your new book!

    Re Stephen's comment: we find it hard to understand this purported dichotomy between "true self-publishers" and "those whose publishing their own work really is just vanity publishing." The bottom line is, if you are arranging the publication of your own work, you are the "publisher" not iUniverse, CreateSpace or any other self-publishing service provider. The fact that you might outsource some aspects of the process to these companies, does not change the essence of it all that the author is the publisher as decided in the court case v BookSurge in 2008.

    The term "vanity publisher" was coined 40 years ago. A lot has changed in those 40 years, and drastically so.


  3. I've had books published by traditional publishers (starting with Doubleday in 1976). I was never satisfied with the book quality or my income.

    Two years ago I started my own publishing company with the intent to produce on book. Next week book #10 goes on sale.

    My books have always been non-fiction. Several of the books are about self-publishing and I've warned people about the dismal prospects for self-published fiction and poetry.

    For no particular reason, I've recently started writing my first novel. From the first keystroke, I've assumed I will self-publish it, despite my warnings to others.

    Michael N. Marcus
    -- Independent Self-Publishers Alliance,
    -- "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press"
    -- "How to Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company"
    -- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)"

  4. I am really enjoying this conversation. First, that picture was a quick snapshot of a moment of bliss in Manzanillo Mexico--I love Pacifico, that's my journal, and no, that's not me on the beach! I took the pic. I included it here because it's my flawed art, my flawed blog, my flawed journal cover, and I love them.

    I totally disagree with keeping the market in mind as you are writing. I think that is the first wave of censorship, and it's the most insidious because it is often unconscious and more like a super-ego than a marketing savvy. If I had kept the marketing in mind for my novel I would never have written the sexy sex scene that happens 3/4 of the way through the book. I did it, and it's a sort of set piece in the novel that shows in structure what I elsewhere show in expository passages. Of course I want an audience, and I want the book to reach people. But what I most want is to write exactly what reflects my dreams, visions, philosophy, politics, and desires, and then make that available to people who want to engage in conversation about it. The trick is to get the work done right, and then after that, find ways to get attention for it.

  5. Hey V,
    As is the case in most modern revolutions there is room for both sides. DIY self publishing is now almost required for a whole host of books that might have been published by a traditional house a few years ago. And that democratization of the industry is quite amazing in my opinion. One of my clients now has self published and sold more than 11,000 copies of his remarkable little book and going strong. He got great help with it (okay, so I was a part of the consulting team, I admit it) and it shows. The book is very readable, well edited and attractively designed.

    On the other hand I do think there is room for traditional publishers, partly because of the institutional memory that resides in our industry. Especially for those of us who have been in this game for decades. That memory says, we are a part of an almost 500 year creative movement, in spite of the fact that editors don't edit and publishers don't market.I like wading in that free flowing stream even when 1970s conglometerization tried to dam it up. That was a losing proposition in terms of supporting creative new writers even when it was happening and no one wanted to admit it.

    But now, but now! the publishing possibilities for new writers (even one time authors) are multifaceted and more creative than any of us could have imagined. Thank God.

  6. Thanks for a very perceptive article. I'm linking to it on my Facebook page. Allegedly 5000 friends, but probably only three read my ravings. :-)

  7. I love all of this so much my head is GLOWING

  8. Hi Vanessa,

    Your comments on reaching people in ways that were impossible twenty years ago are spot on. I'm the technical/publishing/marketing jack-of-all-trades for an Australian self-published writer who has had very positive feedback from people on the other side of the planet who she would never have been able to reach in the past... not without the backing of a publisher.

    Your comments on marketing also echo my experience. Anyone going into self-publishing either has to go in with a well-developed marketing plan or has to come up with one quickly if they want to do more than entertain their family.

    There's something I'm curious about. What is it about iUniverse that you particularly like? I didn't have a good look at them because of their sizeable up-front fees and their focus on selling services, but there's obviously something about them that works for you. We're using CreateSpace for US distribution (largely because at the time they seemed like the best of the low-entry-cost ones), and have had a local book printer do a run to support marketing events and sales through local indie bookshops, but I'm always interested to know why others make different choices.

  9. Publishers obey the market and the problem with that, as Herbert Marcuse so adeptly argued, is that the consumer doing the choosing is not the 'free individual' Adam Smith envisioned. She is 'deeply captured' (thanks David Yosifon) by advertising and other forms of desire-production endemic to the culture industry. As such, we can't trust that the good books are being published and sold. I think that you are right that self-publishing could help turn the tide. I know that your books and your mind can.

  10. In response to the question about iUniverse: when I was researching supported self-publishing houses over a year ago they were the one with the best distribution and highest-quality book printing. I think there are many options now that are comparable, and probably have less aggressive service-selling techniques than iUniverse, but overall I'm glad to be using a company that is automatically linked up with more sales outlets than just Amazon. That being said, I am doing everything I can to avoid using them for anything other than design and printing. I'm doing all my own marketing, events, trailer, even.

  11. Hi V,
    This is a lovely, thoughtful post. As a writer and very self-______ (fill in blank) artist, I always struggle with the apparent approbation of institutions (even small ones) in terms of the viability/acceptability of the work. I don't believe in it but I desire it as much as most. I am in whole-hearted agreement with the notion of evading a market-driven practice though because if this market knew so much about what is good, just, interesting, and fine we would be living in a different world today. Sales are definitely not a measure of much more than how the work has been presented in terms of the social spectacle. Although I know we produce cultural products because we want to share our thoughts with some kind of audience and hopefully it is more than 10 people who love you and "buy" or attend the thing you are doing just because they feel they should or want to. That said, I still feel that if the market is the bottom line for determining our engagement with our creative practice, we're doomed to the worst sort of banality, the spectacular banal. So I appreciate your assertions about self-publishing and about the ways in which this can be liberating and empowering. Sometimes the budgets and the staff of institutions help us and sometimes (often) they hurt us, hinder us. Thanks again for providing a platform for this discussion gorgeously curious girl!

  12. I had a long talk with the wife of my landlord this evening about writing (which I know very little about), and I quoted this blog entry at least five times (which helped me sound like I knew a lot). She's one of the founders of the Oregon Writers Colony and was super interested in hearing about your path to publishing. They're doing a lot of research right now about self publishing sites so I pointed her in the direction of your blog.
    Thanks for educating!

  13. Wonderful thoughts! I completely agree that self-publishing allows real art to make its way to the market. It is; however, unfortunate that such a large percentage of them are severely lacking in content, depth and editing. Like you mentioned, it creates a stigma.

    Having just spent the weekend geeking-it-up at Comic Con, I saw a similar culture with independent comic books. The culture is a somewhat faster-paced, exaggerated version of what you're describing. These people have this art, but don't even have the luxury of their book "having legs" as the shelf life of a comic book is anywhere from a week to a month at most. As with the self-publishing in the novel world, some of them show real promise and the rest are in dire need of some love and attention. Fortunately the majority of the Comic Con participants are serious about their trade (as evidenced by the commitment to purchase a booth) and it acts as a filter for the higher-level independent titles.

    So I suppose the question is whether art for art's sake is enough reason to publish? As the unfortunate reality is: until more people/authors take self-publishing seriously and take steps as a group to remove the "stigma," books put out this way will still be viewed in a lesser light regardless of their possibly superior qualities. However, as you mentioned, at least you maintain full creative control and thus get YOUR ideas out to the public (even if it's a more limited audience).

    The philosophical question of “what is an artist?” one of my professors posed in college, comes to mind. The reason an artist starves is not necessarily due to lack of talent. An artist starves because by accepting that title, they have made a commitment to their work and artistic integrity and will not sell that down the river to make money. Too many people throw that word around (myself included) without realizing they’re cheapening its meaning. However, this also brings the question of whether you want to speak through your work like an artist (with no concern for the market) or do you wish to sell books? Both mindsets cannot truly coexist, but both of those outcomes can occur independently of one another. To write with no regard for the consumer means you’ve accepted the fact that you may never sell a book as you do not care for their opinion. If those consequences have been realized and accepted then indeed your work will remain untainted as you would like.

    Clearly this is a black and white view of things and surely there can be overlaps, but with those overlaps comes concessions to your ideals. At least by self-publishing, and running all the aspects of your distribution, you give yourself the greatest chance of achieving your goals! Whatever you determine those to be.

  14. Fantasy neon. 4 am. Steel door fills the frame. Sound of metal scraping. Door opens violently. Huge man in black t-shirt, black khakis, black shoe polish, black skin releases the scruff of the neck of a boy. Boy falls to ground. Huge man disappears into blackness. Door closes violently. Boy stands, brushes dust off his overlarge overcoat. Rescues a roll of hundred-dollar bills from the bulge of his pants.
    "No budget."
    He doesn't have any idea what he's talking about.