Sunday, January 9, 2011

The current state of self-publishing

Our friend Jason Lewis, an Iowa Workshop grad and author of the tech blog Stuff I Don't Need, recently wrote a post about his novel The Fourteenth Colony,
...that took me five years to write, and has been done since November 2009. And by done, I mean that I wrote six drafts of it (a few completely from scratch) and when I put the final period on the last draft, the book was the book that I wanted it to be, maybe not perfect, but the book I wanted to write.
He's got an agent, and the agent sent the book around, and it didn't sell.  And now he is asking himself the very reasonable question of whether it is time to self-publish.  Or, specifically,
in a world where the publishing industry is failing according to many and the means of production are available at a high level to everyone, should I release my book into the world to see how it fares and move on with my new projects, or is there a reason to keep pounding away at the traditional structure in the hopes of acceptance?
And that is a very good question.  I suspect that Jason has many novels in him, and eventually one of them is bound to find a home in the conventional publishing world.  What it comes down to, though, is whether the stigma of self-publication harms the future chances of a new writer in that world.

There was a time when one might confidently say that yes, it would.  But I'm not sure it does anymore, as the link between good writing and institutional stewardship of it grows weaker and weaker.  And it's becoming possible to question, quite reasonably, what value that world has in the current climate of enthusiastic DIY publication and distribution.  People are already getting used to the idea that small presses are as legitimate as their commerical counterparts; the major awards have been trending towards the indies for several years.  If small presses are the new big houses, then who's to say that going it alone might soon be the new small press?  We have a few readers who've been going it alone fairly successfully for some time...I wonder if any of you are thinking of following suit, and how you're choosing to do it.

Note: the photo is of Jason's last record as Sad Iron Music, available for download on his website--it's a good album, check it out.


Pete said...

I think the idea of indies being the new big houses, and self-publishing being the new small press is a valid one. When the majors are churning out dreck like Snooki's "novel" and The Situation's self-help book, there should be absolutely no stigma about going it alone.

jon said...

It's a complex decision. I know for me trying to figure out what 'they' will or will not take, or how 'they' will regard self-publication becomes a loser's game. Having readers is more important to me than money, for instance, much as I would like to have money and recognition. I assume if an editor or agent thinks they can sell a book by an author who has self-published they will not care, but if they aren't interested anyway they might use self-publication, or previous publication on the web, to ding a book.DH Lawrence self-published Lady Chatterley's Lover; Ezra Pound's first book was self-published, etc. In music and film self-production is the norm. In music, these things have been cyclical, but in publishing it has been a little different. Still, there are periods for poetry and short fiction when 'zines and handmade journals were the only way to read new works considered to be unpublishable by major journals or simply because there is such a limited number of pieces the established places can print. You can read John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara poems in ditto'd, stapled journals with crude drawings of genitalia produced on the Lower East Side in the early sixties. No one knows where things will end up, so it seems like a perfect time to set off on your own and do what you want.

jrlennon said...

"No one knows where things will end up, so it seems like a perfect time to set off on your own and do what you want."

I like that, Jon!

Z Cole said...

As a reader, most self=published books don't appeal to me. Some authors I like do self publish (like Wil Wheaton) but I avoid most because either a) they look shoddy and/or b) there are some obvious hilarious spelling and grammar errors in the first chapter.

And to me, that's the major difference. Even the smallest of smallest presses has an editor who can hopefully vouch for the book's quality, and a designer who knows how to wield Photoshop better than your average scribbler.

Dylan Hicks said...

As I read Jason’s post, it sounds like he’s shown the manuscript to agents but hasn’t gotten one to represent him, and has meanwhile been submitting it himself to some publishers. Since he’s only been doing this for slightly over a (no doubt anxious, even excruciating) year, it seems early to consider self-publishing. Well, not early to consider it, but early to do it. As a reader and sometime book reviewer, I’m welcoming toward self-published chapbooks, or strange little art books, or what might be called secondary works by folks who also publish with a small or large house, but I’m still pretty circumspect around self-published novels. I’m sure this is snobby and outdated of me, but I’m already unable to get to all the small- and big-house books I want to read, so there’s not much time to sort through the overwhelming number of self-published novels. Of course if a friend handed me one I’d take a look.

It’s a good sign that there are quite a few new indie presses, usually run by one to three people, that are taking advantage of print-on-demand and other smart self-publishing procedures. I suspect that some of these houses will grow as some of the small presses founded in the ’70s and ’80s did, and already they’re helping compensate for the increasing narrowness of the big houses. Of course there are a lot of great books, David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” for one, that were turned down by some crazy number of houses, but as a (maybe too self-doubting) writer I guess I’d feel that if the rejections started reaching that forty-to-fifty range, and were coming from folks who seemed like intelligent readers and had worked with books I admired, I’d probably think, well, perhaps this trend reflects the quality of the manuscript after all. And that’s when I’d reinsert the racy convent scene.

jon said...

Thanks, John.
The thing is, even with small presses, they don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. I search small presses constantly and few if any will take a query even. It is hard to maintain this opinion, but I do think 40-50 rejects from agents doesn't mean a thing at all. The fact is very little gets taken by anyone on a genuinely cold submission. There is nearly always either a recommendation or personal connection of some sort (conference, workshop, teacher referral etc.).

jrlennon said...

It is true that those connections are a lot more important than we tend to give them credit for. It's understandable--the mass of manuscripts is huge, an editor or agent is going to listen to people she trusts, first. But it sucks if you don't have that kind of social or institutional support.

Franz Neumann said...

It's probably safe to say that self-publishing print novels is not doing yourself any favors.

E-books, however, seem to be another story. See:

While the e-book numbers listed here do focus more on genre writers, the numbers are still pretty astounding for unknown, unrepresented authors. What'll be interesting to see is whether these sales numbers reflects a temporary enthusiasm due to the Kindle's novelty, or are a strong shift that favors self-publishing long term.

JTL said...

Hey all. A little Google bird told me you were talking about me, so I thought I'd join in. Dylan and John are both partially right. I did have an agent, but she retired from agenting as I finished the book, so I've been trying to find a new one ever since. And it's true that I probably haven't let the book run the full course of submission and rejection. I am going to send it out to some more places before I go the self-pub route, but my bigger question lies in the idea that, once I get into the really small presses (many of which won't take unsolicited manuscripts any more), what can they do really that I can't? I've worked in print for going on 15 years. I'm the managing editor of a lit journal through my work. I have a job and I'm not really looking to make my living off the writing. I already have the art, the design, and the wherewithal to do it. Heck, I could just start my own press and be done with it, right?

And then there's the argument that if the industry isn't accepting for what I'm doing right now, then doesn't it make sense to try and find my own path? This echoes what some others have already said. Of course, the counterargument is that the book just isn't good and that's why no one's taking it. that's not really for me to decide, ultimately.

The ebook numbers are really encouraging and I t seems like ebooks are a low-threshold entry point for the self-published. With a little marketing and elbow grease, it seems like the opportunity might be out there.

Is it time for folks who aren't writing for vanity alone to embrace the new paradigm and run with it before someone else does? it's a question worth considering and considering it I am.

Dylan Hicks said...

I think you're probably right that publishing with a very small press wouldn't be wildly different from self-publishing. As a musician I put out records with small labels and put out a few little things on my own. Working with a label I liked having someone else do some of the work, meet some of the expenses (not as many as promised, usually, though no one made any real money off me), and speak here and there on my behalf, but there were frustrations too that might have been solved by doing it myself. I also loved how quickly the self-released stuff could move from completion to release I don't know why I've been slow to embrace the DIY aesthetic with novels--cowardice, in part, I'd say. Anyway, good luck, Jason, with the book. I'll be watching for it.