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,


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popsicledeath said...

You make an interesting argument, I must say.

Thinking about it, I believe people writing short fiction are in some ways doing a similar thing. Practicing, a bit of exposure, starting to build a readership, seeing their work in print and learning from that process.

All of course with the eventual goal, usually, of finding success as a novelist.

Many people would say writing short fiction is fruitless and a waste of time. But I see it as a similar circumstances as you describe, where writers these days aren't going to see their early novels picked up and nurtured until they've been writing and nurturing themselves for years, maybe longer than ever in the past with the current state of the industry. So why not practice with short stories to start building readers or a name.

Or if one doesn't want to write short fiction, why not practice with self-publishing early novels.

The best argument against it is that one would then have something potentially not-very-stellar published in their name. But, in my opinion, if the writing is eventually good enough, nobody really cares. And if one is good enough to eventually make it anyway, then early works aren't usually that bad, just not that good.

I mean, nobody looked at your list of authors here and decided their later works couldn't be masterpieces because their early works weren't.

Then again, there does seem to be a stigma against self-publishing these days. Is it possible that self-publishing would be looked down on by many publishers, and hurt someone's chances to find later success after self-publishing early? If for no other reason than the snob factor?

Kristie Cook said...

You've made my exact point to why I've decided to self-publish. And I predict that within a few years, publishers, who have already closed their doors to query letters and slush (letting agents take on that job), will one day close their doors to debut authors because they just can't take the risk involved. They will let these authors take on the job of establishing a name for themselves while also honing their writing, publishing and marketing skills. This will make them more valuable to publishers later and they'll be more likely to take on the risk (because it's significantly reduced). And like you said, they won't care if they don't get first rights to the first novel or two or three. First rights for an established author mean something; for a debut author, it just means a huge risk.

Dr John Yeoman said...

Of course, another way that publishing might go would be a reprise on the 16th century. Some publishers might get tired of waiting for that masterpiece to shuffle to them via the agents and commission a committee of hacks to churn out what the market 'wants'.

It's said (by some) that the Globe theatre did that in the 1590s, when it created the brand name 'Shakespeare'. Of course, the man (qua playwright) never existed. He was an invention of the Globe :)

N. Gemini Sasson said...

I agree with Kristie 100%. I believe the day will come when the phrase "the stigma of self-publishing" will be replaced with "the proving ground of self-publishing". Even with all their experience, it's not always possible for publishers to foresee which debut authors have the potential and determination to produce even greater works and which books will sell.

Great post, Art, and an excellent point.

Art Edwards said...

I agree, popsicle. I've said it 100 times but I'll say it again: Writers can use every career path possible.

Kristie and Gemini, a writer who establishes her own readership has to be of interest to the commercial publisher of the future, doesn't she?

John, if that's what led to Shakespeare, I'm all for it.

Ali Cooper said...

Having recently published literary fiction under my own imprint I'm rather biased. I also see no new lit fic authors taken on in UK, where I live, compared with very few in US.

If it's self-publish or don't get published at all then there's nothing to lose. If it stands in your way at any point you can always write under another name.

Mainstream publishers have one agenda; to make money. If, thru self-publishing, you learn to perfect your work and to market yourself then this can only work in your favour.

We should also consider presentation. When typewriters became commonplace, mss must be typed. When computers/word-processors were the norm the required standard of a ms rose accordingly. It's very likely that, with the technology to produce a printed and bound book, that will become expected.

There is one other reason I am very in favour of self-publishing. Most authors come very close to a publishing deal before the book that actually makes it. But what of the ones before? The runner-up is probably equally worthy of publication yet we don't get to read it because, except in the case of a series, publishers don't seem interested in the author's back catalogue. So if you have written a book that has come close to mainstream publication, I say publish it before you move on to the next.

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Marty Shaw said...

Wow! very informative and educational. I learned alot just from this one post.

I think self-publishing is a great avenue to take, especially when your subject isn't following current trends (translation: when publishers view your work as risky because it's not the 'in' thing.

I think if Tolkien tried to publish Lord of the Rings today, it would be trashed. Why? Because it doesn't have teen vampires, werewolves, or today's concept of urban fantasy faeries.

We'd miss out on a great saga because it's not the current popular subject.

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