Known Unknowns #7A: Late at Night, Further Tormented by Self-Publishing
Some quick follow-up thoughts on today’s post. I had some really thoughtful responses on Twitter and Facebook, and they got me thinking. But then came this, posted tonight as a comment on Known Unknowns #7:
Count my graphic novel among the glorious commercial failures in the self-published wasteland. If there’s a less lucrative pursuit than self-publishing a graphic novel, I sure don’t know what it is. But I’m glad I did it. I had no luck getting an agent, publisher, or distributor contract, so I was left with the options of self-publishing or letting it go. Never having been good at letting anything go, ever, I trumpeted my DIY ethic, shifted my immortality project from mainstream legitimacy to gestating cult classic, and put it out on my own. At great expense and effort. I can’t speak to self-publishing literary fiction, but my advice to any aspiring comic/graphic-novel artist considering self-publishing would be to read Dave Sim’s “The Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing” and think hard about how committed you are. But if you really want to do it, by all means, definitely do it. Too many people fail to chase their dreams because they can’t do them in the grand fashion that they imagine them. It’s better to start small than not start at all.
That’s Dan Nolan, a friend and artist. Please go here to see his work and order his graphic novel, Business Casual Stag Devil Death Boy. (A book I’d read and loved before I even met Dan!) At any rate, the last two lines of Dan’s comment are especially wonderful and exactly true, and I think they’re completely in the spirit of this blog and this series of posts. It’s better to start small than not start at all should be printed on every MFA diploma and every guitar strap and every camera in the country. (But just this country. We don’t want China or Venezuela getting hold of this kind of inspiration.)
If I was already thinking about things, Dan’s comment now had me SUPER-THINKING. It also caused me to slap myself squarely in the head-region, because it reminded me that I, in fact, have self-published a book. This Kindle version of The Book of Right and Wrong that millions* have bought and loved? I published that. Ohio State University Press, publisher of my paperback, simply didn’t have the resources to do the Kindle conversion, but they were kind enough to allow me to take on the project. And it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t all that hard, either. Furthermore, because I set up the Kindle book with Amazon’s DTP service (now called Kindle Direct Publishing), I’m actually the account-holder: So while sales of the Kindle version go directly to OSU Press every month, I have full access to all the monthly sales information. Which is a great reminder of one of the pluses of self-publishing: When I want to know the full sales figures of my paperback, I have to wait until June 30th of every year, as that’s when OSU Press is obligated to report on my sales and royalties. (That’s pretty standard, by the way.)
When I think about my reasons for being wary of self-publication, there’s the legitimacy thing, sure, but there’s something else Dan hit on in his comment: The work. All the self-promotion and begging people for blurbs and annoying your friends and family with constant social-networking notices. (“ONLY THREE MONTHS TILL PUBLICATION!!!!!”) Then there’s the sending out of copies for reviews and setting up readings and traveling, if you’re so equipped, calling independent bookstores and begging them to carry your book. I’m a person who needs to get a lot better at asking for what he wants in life. I worked for ten years as a publicist and marketer of other people’s products and dreams, but I am my own worst publicist. I don’t relish the idea of having to do all that for a self-published book. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of self-promotion.
But then I remember THIS IS WHAT EVERYONE NOW HAS TO DO FOR THEIR BOOKS ANYWAY, INCLUDING ME. I was published by a university press. They don’t have people to do all the things I just listed. I did them. (They did send out a good number of review copies.) And good writer friends put me in touch with writers they knew, which is how I got to be part of a reading at Housing Works Bookstore in NYC. And other good writer friends let me read for people in their homes, as Corrie Greathouse did for me in Los Angeles. (And another good writer friend, Nina Bargiel, made amazing food for everyone!) Because this is how it’s done. And the thing I’ve learned in the 18 months since my book was published is that this is how it’s done by EVERYONE now. Gone are the days when even a major publisher will do all kinds of press for you and send you on a reading tour, and they certainly aren’t making food for you. Everyone I know who’s put a book out in the last three years has done 90% of the post-publication legwork themselves. Yet they’re still getting the same royalty rate, and advances are shrinking by massive amounts. What was my phobia about self-publishing again?
My only remaining issue with self-publishing may be the idea of a marketplace glutted with DIY books of wildly varying quality. All I can think of is the late-90s era of MP3.com, which was a site hosting thousands of people’s music demos. You had no idea what you were going to find on there, so you either had to know what you were looking for or be willing to settle for some difficult listening experiences. Not an appealing experience. We love the idea of “freedom” in the marketplace, but what we actually want is for someone to at least organize all the stuff we want to buy. This is why iTunes became so indispensable to people: There are millions of songs and thousands of albums on there, but everything’s categorized and there are (relatively) simple ways of finding them.
I can see something like this working for DIY publishing, and I don’t think it’s necessarily Amazon, which is just too big and which is too committed to selling all kinds of other stuff. You’ll always be able to get your major-publisher titles there, but I think for independent literary fiction, it’ll be something else, something which might aggregate books and eBooks from a variety of publishers as well as authors themselves. Dzanc Books is doing something along these lines, offering their own books as well as books by other publishers, all in one online store, and with each purchase giving you a variety of format options so you can read their eBooks on virtually any current device. I don’t believe they have any self-published books on Dzanc, but perhaps that’ll change. Then again, you’re right back to square one, aren’t you, with the need for a gatekeeper to determine whether or not something is worth selling? Damn. Well, as Phil Donahue used to say after a show debating some massive social issue (feminism, pornography, racism), “We’re not gonna solve all this in an hour.”