Monday, March 29, 2010

Self-Publishing and Your Quirky Novel

A well-respected literary agent, Nathan Bransford, just published a great post on self-publishing at his blog that everyone should read.

I like Bransford's approach to blogging, and his non-pessimistic, forward-looking vision for commercial publishing. Here's my favorite passage from the post:

"These days, with the major publishers publishing fewer titles and mid-tier houses disappearing, great books are absolutely falling through the cracks, especially books that are literary or idiosyncratic or are in genres that the industry does not perceive as currently selling well. Some of these are being picked up by small presses, others languish."

Did you get that? Here's a reputable literary agent who is not saying: "If the commercial publishing industry is rejecting your book, it's simply not good enough. Put that thing in a drawer and get to work on the next one." He's saying, "It is possible that you will write a novel worthy of seeing the light of day and commercial publishing will not publish it."

If that's the case, isn't leaving the fate of your novel entirely in the hands of commercial publishing kind of foolish?

Many self-publishers have known for years that self-publishing isn't just for books that aren't good, and it's validating to hear someone like Bransford say it.

In 2010, the commercial publishing industry can't possibly publish every damn good novel that comes over its transom. It would be nice if it could, but it can't. People would get fired, careers would get sent into tailspins. People in publishing are not hobbiests, they're professionals, and professionals do what's best for the business.

And 99 time out of 100, doing your best for publishing doesn't entail acquiring quirky, literary novels.

It's important to remember that publishing houses, by and large, are owned by giant conglomerates, which are run by shareholders. While I know there are plenty of wonderful, book-loving folks working within the industry, who fight to make sure great literature finds its way into bookstores, shareholders, by and large, don't really care about books. To them, commercial publishers could be selling any product. They could be selling light bulbs, or potting soil, or trips to Bermuda, as long as they keep selling it, and preferably more and more of it all the time. Right or wrong, this is the system we've created for ourselves over the last century or so, and it isn't going away any time soon. In 2010, if someone at a publishing company can't make a compelling argument to her bosses about why your novel is going to sell well, it's probably not going to get published commercially.

So, this creates a problem for what I'll call damn fine, damn unique, but probably not very profitable novels. These books are well-written, idiosyncratic, and they probably would've managed find a house in, say, 1990.

But 1990 may as well be a century ago.

So, what does this mean if you've written a damn fine, damn unique but--by commercial publishing standards--ultimately not very profitable novel?

It means you should throw a vampire into the mix.

Just kidding.

It means you can self-publish it, cutting your teeth on publishing, learning what you can about the business at this micro level, making a few sales and starting a fan base.

And ten years from now, after you've successfully commercially published your later works, you can resell that bad boy to a commercial publishing company and everyone will talk about what a wonderful, quirky classic it is.

Yours in laying down the law,


Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Self-Publishing in the Digital Age

I spend much of my year traveling with my wife, who is a fine art photographer and painter. We do art shows across the country.

There are so many talented people out there in the visual art world. Real craftspeople, with great vision and dogged perseverance. And after they create something, they get to take it to a gallery or art festival, and it often sells for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

As a self-published writer I'm always struck by the difference between the market for books and the market for fine art. Books are also made by real craftspeople, with great vision and dogged perseverance. But, collector's items aside, an individual book is never worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.

There are, of course, many reasons for this disparity, the chief one being that a book is easily reproduce-able, and fine art is not. When you buy a painting, you buy an original work. If it's not an original work, then it's not a painting but a reproduction of a painting. When you buy a book, you (almost) always buy a reproduction.

Indeed, the amount people are willing to pay for art or entertainment pretty much comes down to how easily reproduce-able the work is. If it's extremely easy to reproduce, it's worth less, sometimes much less, than something that is difficult or impossible to reproduce.

What does that mean in the digital world, where pretty much everything is very easily reproduce-able?

I don't think it means good things for the price of your book, especially your ebook.

The good news is this: With the advent of digital (POD and ebook) technologies, self-published authors can get their books in print cheaply, quickly and easily, and the price they get per unit is typically more than what they would get from a commercial publishing company. Moreover, with digital's racy cousin the Internet, authors can choose to eliminate the middlemen of distributor and retail outlet for many sales, further increasing the percentage that comes to them. The Internet also makes it possible to reach audiences a self-published author twenty years ago could never dream of reaching.

No doubt digital cuts both ways for the book-length writer, but we'd be fools to ignore the upside, which is that we can pretty much do whatever we want artistically, and if we can find someone to pay for it, we can keep most of the money.

Worse things have happened.

Yours in laying down the law,


Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Self-Publishing and Literary Fiction

Hey, big self-pub news! A former Pen/Faulkner Award winner and National Book Award finalist has decided to publish his new book of short fiction via the subsidy publishing company Lulu. His name is John Edgar Wideman, and you can read all about it here.

I've always wondered why literary authors haven't embraced self-publishing more readily. It seems a natural fit to me. More artistic control, more money per book sold. What's not to love?

Maybe it's because few literary authors--going back a century or so--have made a mark in self-publishing. Indeed, for a long time, "literary" and "self-published" were about as separate as cherry pie and wind surfing.

My own list of favorite authors--the ones who turned me on to the idea of novel writing in the first place--are an old, male, stodgy, mostly dead, and distinctly not self-published bunch.







Hallowed names, those, and fairly predictable favs for a novelist, I'd guess. There are Nobels and Pulitzers and National Book Awards scattered throughout that list, millions of books sold, dozens taught in college classes. For whatever reason, my tastes haven't strayed far from the "accepted canon."

And surely none of the above names came to me via self-publishing. No, no, no. That's not the way things are done in the dusty stacks of great 20th Century literature.

True, but I have to admit I notice something about the careers of some of those authors that might recommend self-publishing to some of today's aspiring writers.

Saul Bellow, for example. The epitome of the great literary writer of the latter half of the 20th Century, right? Still, it wasn't until his third published novel, The Adventures of Augie March, that Bellow became the kind of writer who would eventually win the Nobel Prize and every other major accolade in the literary world. He published two novels commercially, The Victim and Dangling Man, before hammering out Augie, the novel that would put him on the path to greatness.

Faulkner. Wow. Is there a more respected name in American literary fiction than William Faulkner? But even Faulkner had two novels published commercially before he started to find the style and subject matter that would characterize his great works (Sartoris), and three novels published before he would write his first masterwork (As I Lay Dying).

And John Updike. Updike's first major work, Rabbit, Run, was his second published novel. His first was called The Poorhouse Fair, and by most accounts it doesn't come close to resembling the greatness he would later achieve with Rabbit and co.

So, what does any of this have to do with self-publishing?

I'd venture that these three novelists all got their chance in commercial publishing before they were really doing anything that special in the novel form. Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay, was famously published when Faulkner approached writer/friend Sherwood Anderson and asked the great writer to read it and offer his comments. Sherwood responded, "I'll tell my publisher to publish it if I don't have to read it." Yes, that's how the literary career of perhaps America's greatest writer started.

The stories of Updike's and Bellow's first forays into novel publishing probably aren't as interesting, but I suspect their editors were nurturing their potential as much as hoping to profit from their early books. That's a guess on my part, but the quality of their early works, at least compared to their later works, suggests otherwise.

Maybe I'm fooling myself, but it seems that editors back then were willing to stick their necks out a little more for what they saw as potential in a writer, even though the books they had in hand probably weren't knocking their socks off. This allowed these writers to publish their early works while still developing as novelists, and this nurturing led to some of the great works of American literature.

Can that still happen in 2010? Can we expect a contemporary editor to take that kind of chance on the next Faulkner or Bellow or Updike?

Every indication I get from the commercial publishing industry is that, while they're happy to nurture literary writers, they expect the writer to come to them much further down the road, preferably with a masterwork in hand. In other words, don't bother dropping off your version of Soldier's Pay, or The Victim, or The Poorhouse Fair on their desks these days. That's probably not good enough. (I'm sure they lament this.) However, if you have a Rabbit or an Augie or an As I lay Dying lying around, please do let them know.

So, if there are Faulkners and Bellows and Updikes out there with their early works ready to see the light of day, and they can't get them published commercially, what would we expect them to do? Would we expect them to stuff those early manuscripts into desk drawers while getting to work on the next one?


But what if these future Great Ones had the ability to cheaply self-publish?

They could still see their work in print, which, if published well, is good for any writer's spirit. They could start the beginnings of a readership. They could learn a little about book editing, formatting, pagination and book marketing. But perhaps most importantly, they could see their mistakes glaring back at them in print form, which they could learn from, just like Faulkner and Bellow and Updike surely learned from the publication of their early works.

Of course, the self-published writer gives up first rights to those early books, but if nobody wants them anyway, that's not much of a loss. Once the writer writes her first masterwork, and some lucky publisher sells a million copies of it, publishers won't care if their getting first or 21st rights of those early works. With the writer's name across the top, the novel would be worth money, which means, to the commercial publisher, it would be worth publishing.

So, I refuse to see "self-publishing" and "literary writing" as existing in two different worlds.

And so does John Edgar Wideman, apparently.

Yours in laying down the law,


Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"For" or "Against" Self-Publishing?

As I was searching for inspiration for this week's blog, I came across this blog by Mick Rooney over at Self-Publishing Review (not to be confused with The Self-Publishing Review, a wonderful site too). It's an excellent plea for common sense when it comes to publishing in any form, but especially self-publishing. I want to quote a few highlights from the post and add my thoughts.

Rooney: "There are those in the traditional world of publishing who believe self-publishing has the potential to tarnish an author’s book. Usually there are a myriad of under-the-surface reasons for this view, but, at least as far as tried and trusted publishing practice is concerned, their valid argument is that an author who chooses to first self-publish their book gives up their first publication rights."

That's really the only thing a self-published author gives up by self-publishing--that and the mystique of having already used up first serial rights--which is probably more important than the rights themselves. People in the publishing industry, like people in the rest of the world, want to be "first," and when you self-publish, you take the "first" charm away from your book. That charm never comes back, at least in the eyes of the industry.

More Rooney: "It is simply not true to say a book is done and dusted if it is self-published and that any wide recognition and commercial success is beyond its reach. Self-published books continue to be picked up by mainstream publishers."

I have a list published at my other blog--dated now, but all confirmed--of five self- or subsidy-published fiction writers who went on to publish their self-published works commercially. I'm sure there have been many more since then. I don't know if anyone out there has a more comprehensive list, but I wish one existed.

More Rooney: "As it stands, mainstream publishing is, and should be, the first port of call for any author."

Bravo! Things have changed in the publishing world over the last ten years or so, but they haven't changed that much. Every writer defines her own success, but I'll bet the success you envision for yourself is far more likely to happen if you publish commercially that if you self-publish. Your choice, of course, but there you go.

More Rooney: "There is nothing wrong with self-publishing provided you...understand why you are considering self-publishing and crucially you know what it entails and tailor your expectations to a reasonable and realistic level."

There are still plenty of people out there who just don't like self-publishing. Much of the sting of their criticisms has been taken away with the relatively new abilities to self-publish cheaply (POD/ebooks) and to distribute widely (Internet), but it's still there. Know that they just have different goals from you, and provided they're respectful to you, there's nothing wrong with your or their approach.

What struck me most about Rooney's post is his ability to illuminate something that should be obvious: Publishing is about writers getting their work to readers, and preferably getting paid for it. That's pretty much the beginning and the end of it. The rest--commercial publishing companies, self-publishing companies, subsidy POD companies, agents, editors, printers, print books, ebooks, audiobooks, reviewer, reviews, blogs, literary magazines, etc, infinity--are just ways to facilitate that end, and any attempt to glorify or demonize any aspect of that list is like choosing to love (or hate) a sports team because of the way it travels to games.

*How do I get my work to readers?* That's the only question a writer need concern himself with. We all should be glad that there is more than one possible answer.

Yours in laying down the law,


Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.