Self-publishing: John Ashbery, Czeslaw Milosz… and you

 

samizdat journal, Poland, published by Czeslaw Milosz

samizdat journal, Poland, published by Czeslaw Milosz

 

A few more points, my friends, about why you might consider self-publishing … if/when you’re ready.

Here you’ll find some statements (in boldface) culled from arguments in a recent Call of the Siren post against self-publishing (“Self-publish, are you crazy?”).

Each is followed by a paragraph-length rebuttal that (I hope) provides some understanding … and maybe some inspiration, too.

  • Publishers have better promotional channels than you.

Ok, publishers do have promotional infrastructures, but they actually can’t (and won’t) promote every title they represent.  And even when you’re one of the lead titles in a publisher catalog, self-promotion still seems necessary.  You’ll always be the most passionate advocate for your own work.  It’s breathtaking how many mid-tier books appear in catalogs, arrive in galley form followed by the finished hardcover, and then disappear … without a sound.  Those writers, I think, made assumptions about what their publishers would do for them — and paid the price for it.

  • If you’re published by a mainstream publisher, you’re legit.

I feel sorry for the North Carolina six-day poet laureate.  Maybe the rest of the poetry community felt snubbed that a self-published author had been chosen and just couldn’t stand it — even though the publishing marketplace is woefully small even for established poets with some kind of following.  Self-publication isn’t a reason to dismiss or discredit someone, especially a poet.  If that were true, then I guess we should add Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and other former dissidents to that list.  After all, self-publication — samizdat — was the only means available to them in the Soviet Union.

And let’s not forget what John Ashbery thinks about e-publishing.  One of our preeminent American poets today, Ashbery actually likes how his poetry looks on an e-reader.  Years ago, fonts and formatting were terribly bland and impersonal.  But today, as resources have improved, another strike against self-publishing’s digital side has been removed.  Ashbery isn’t self-publishing, of course — he’s still one of the few poets carried by a major publisher — but his attitude to digital versions of his work is something encouraging for any self-published writer.

  • The only real money is in mainstream publishing.

I still don’t trust the claims made by some self-published authors about their monthly incomes.  You shouldn’t either.  But I’d tell you to embrace a little skepticism when it comes to money in traditional publishing, too.  That doesn’t mean that writing a book today can’t be profitable for you.  It can.  In fact, earning enough to live as a writer seems possible if you start with small expectations, especially when established writers, like novelist Will Self, are reporting in publications including The Guardian a serious decline in royalties (once the bread and meat of a writer’s regular living).

  • Self-published vs. firm-published 

There are plenty of other recent posts and articles on this topic — it’s hard for me to keep up.  Consider this post, like the others on this topic at Call of the Siren, as the blogger’s version of a starter kit.

Not long ago, above all the noise and chatter about self-publishing, I heard a loud voice that belonged to agent Michael Larsen, a colleague of my friend Jim Rossi who’s been assisting him on his own self-publishing journey.  Jim passed along something that forced me to ask myself, Why do you write? I kept thinking about this question as I read through Larsen’s “Declaration of Independence for Writers,” and I think you should, too.  It will help you keep your focus on what should matter most to any writer: taking advantage of a multitude of media platforms today to share a special vision with sympathetic readers.

Take care, my friends. Onward!

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9 responses

  1. Pingback: On writing: The wounds of revision « Call of the Siren

  2. Having spent part of my writing journey in a formal Master’s program for creative writing, I started out fully committed to the idea of traditional publishing. Forget selling books, having an agent and a publisher seemed like the pinnacle of success. Since then, I’ve gotten immersed in the arguments for and against. The trouble is that any one of them, taken on its own, seems conclusive.

    The statistics aren’t encouraging. There are something like 3 million new titles released on Amazon on an annual basis, a number that is only growing. The publishing industry offers itself up as a filtering mechanism. Not every one of those 3 million books are going to be worth reading. At least if you go for a traditionally published book, you know someone edited the thing. At least you know several people looked at it and believed in it enough to push it through to publication. There’s an argument for traditional publishing: the taste makers.

    Yes. The same people that brought us books by Snookie, Paris Hilton, and Nichole Richie, to name a few. They aren’t in the business of good taste, they are in the business of what sells. So unless you’ve got something proven by way of track record, followers, already established sales, or you’ve written something bankable like 50 Shades of Indigo or whatever, the business model isn’t going to allocate funds for something unknown or unproven. No one is taking on risk right now.

    Marketing Reach. Yes. Penguin has an incredible marketing budget. The average book sells no more than 2,000 copies. That’s traditionally published too. You’re going to be in charge of your own marketing either way and unless you’re one of the break outs (and there are few enough of them that you know their names, or the names of their books – as a proportion to the number of books released each year, you’re odds are only slightly better than they would be with a lottery ticket), you will be selling books one by one, relationship by relationship, and you’re going to have to fight for every one of those sales.

    I could go through the arguments one by one – I won’t. You’ve covered them more than adequately. Instead, I’ll say this. It’s a mess. The publishing industry, like the music industry of 15 years ago, doesn’t want to give up its old business model. It likes the profits. It likes what it knows. It likes its corner offices and its NYC mystique. Unfortunately for them, the world has changed. They aren’t changing as quickly as they could (arguably, should). The committed writer is left with two flawed options: Trying to compete with 3 million titles of dubious quality, or trying to win the successive levels of approval to win traditional publication, only to be left with the responsibility for the bulk of the marketing anyway.

    What it came down to for me was a question of what I could do that didn’t require someone else’s permission. The independent route puts all the responsibility on me, and it’s a lot of responsibility when you’re committed to doing it right. But it also means the approval I’m out trying to win is from the audience. And in the end, they’re the ones that count the most.

  3. Nothing’s riskier than writing a novel, and, as you wisely say, A.R., the publishing industry is extremely risk averse. I guess when older writers talk about “the golden days,” they’re looking back at a time when a certain amount of money was invested in unknowns and experimentation that was guaranteed to fail. No room for failure anymore — which is why all the titles in the seasonal publishing catalogs look more and more the same.

  4. To be fair, audiences like the tried and true. 50 Shades of Grey didn’t lose any sales over being a re-working of Twilight. It isn’t *all* the fault of traditional publishing. But that still leaves any writer who falls outside of the safe box with three options: give up on finding an audience, continue to beat your head against the wall of silence from the “establishment,” or go looking for an audience on your own. Legitimately wonderful artists have done it: designers through Etsy, musicians through Soundcloud, movie-makers through youtube. There’s no reason why writers couldn’t/shouldn’t do the same.

  5. It’s true, A.R., which is why I’ve found the blogging community to be (not trying to sound hokey here) such a blessing. It can be genuine feedback — not all the time, of course, but sometimes.

    It’s interesting what you say about audiences (and publishers) wanting the tried and true. I’d risk saying that, even in your work and mine, as wonderful as we of course are, our works probably bear enough of those familiar qualities to reassure any audience or potential publisher. We just have to figure out how to club them on the heads.

  6. Well, assault and battery is always good for a headline or two… 🙂

    I think the challenge is in clawing your way to the attention of enough of the right people. Unfortunately, the skills that make for good writers don’t make for good self-promotion.

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