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.