Known Unknowns #7A: Late at Night, Further Tormented by Self-Publishing

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.”

* I use different numbers than some people

3 Responses to “Known Unknowns #7A: Late at Night, Further Tormented by Self-Publishing”

  1. Dan Nolan says:

    A follow-up comment on the follow-up post. I’m glad you like my “start small” motto, but I probably should have qualified that “start small” in my case meant writing, illustrating, formatting, lettering, coloring, self-publishing, marketing, promoting, distributing, and managing a 190 page graphic novel. Not exactly “starting small”. You reminded me with your comments on all the work involved in getting work out there – I emailed every single independent comic store in the US (hundreds) individually, just to ask them if I could send them a pdf copy of the book for them to peruse. 20% said sure, send it. 20% of that 20% said they’d carry it – and that was on a 50-50 consignment basis, which makes sense for comics but is INSANE for a book that costs $18 to print from an unknown creator. So, again, I refer to what seemed at the time like harsh warnings about the necessary commitment (or as I call it – fierce, deluded obstinance) from Dave Sim: it’s a lonely, discouraging road down which to travel. But well worth it in that you get to pretend you are super hardcore and wouldn’t have done it any other way, which is definitely bullshit since any artist or writer who claims that they’re not writing for an audience is a liar and the best way to get an audience is to get published and distributed. If it seems like I’m straying from my inspirational tone, let me reiterate: do it! Seriously. Hold your arm over the flame like Travis Bickle and do it. It is rewarding in the end. Do it, unless you’re Venezuelan or Chinese, in which case get back to your kidnapping and menial labor and shut the hell up with your artistic pining. USA # 1!

  2. Eric says:

    Ironically, the stigma associated with self-publishing is probably holding better work out of the self-publication market.

    This, in turn, ensures that the market is flooded with people in love with their own terrible work, thereby reinforcing the stigma.

    It will change with time. The central problem is the same in either arena: Finding people who will trade several hours of their life to read your work, and then hoping the work is such that they’ll recommend it to others.

  3. Matt says:

    Eric – Damn straight. I mean, I honestly wonder how many people bought my book because it had been published via “legitimate” means. Of the ones who did buy it, first came the people who knew me and then came a small succession of others through word-of-mouth. (i.e., once people from the first group decided the book was actually good and worth recommending.) So I don’t know how much different this would have been had I self-published. I think the outcome would essentially have been the same, though I imagine some may have balked — maybe — at a self-published book.

    Because of this situation with my first book, actually, I find I have little fear about publication for the novel. When it’s done, I will indeed send it to agents, and I hope I find one who likes it, and I hope that agent will in turn be able to sell my book for me. But if not? I’ll have no qualms about self-publishing a Kindle version and marketing it (for starters) directly to the people who bought my first book. Contrary to common wisdom, we live in a good time for literature.

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