Self-publishing: John Ashbery, Czeslaw Milosz… and you

  samizdat journal, Poland, published by Czeslaw Milosz


A few more points, my friends, about why you might consider self-publishing … if/when you're ready.

Here you'll find some statements (in boldface) culled from arguments in a recent Call of the Siren post against self-publishing ("Self-publish, are you crazy?").

Each is followed by a paragraph-length rebuttal that (I hope) provides some understanding ... and maybe some inspiration, too.

  • Publishers have better promotional channels than you.

Ok, publishers do have promotional infrastructures, but they actually can't (and won't) promote every title they represent.  And even when you're one of the lead titles in a publisher catalog, self-promotion still seems necessary.  You'll always be the most passionate advocate for your own work.  It's breathtaking how many mid-tier books appear in catalogs, arrive in galley form followed by the finished hardcover, and then disappear ... without a sound.  Those writers, I think, made assumptions about what their publishers would do for them -- and paid the price for it.

  • If you're published by a mainstream publisher, you're legit.

I feel sorry for the North Carolina six-day poet laureate.  Maybe the rest of the poetry community felt snubbed that a self-published author had been chosen and just couldn't stand it -- even though the publishing marketplace is woefully small even for established poets with some kind of following.  Self-publication isn't a reason to dismiss or discredit someone, especially a poet.  If that were true, then I guess we should add Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and other former dissidents to that list.  After all, self-publication -- samizdat -- was the only means available to them in the Soviet Union.

And let's not forget what John Ashbery thinks about e-publishing.  One of our preeminent American poets today, Ashbery actually likes how his poetry looks on an e-reader.  Years ago, fonts and formatting were terribly bland and impersonal.  But today, as resources have improved, another strike against self-publishing's digital side has been removed.  Ashbery isn't self-publishing, of course -- he's still one of the few poets carried by a major publisher -- but his attitude to digital versions of his work is something encouraging for any self-published writer.

  • The only real money is in mainstream publishing.

I still don't trust the claims made by some self-published authors about their monthly incomes.  You shouldn't either.  But I'd tell you to embrace a little skepticism when it comes to money in traditional publishing, too.  That doesn't mean that writing a book today can't be profitable for you.  It can.  In fact, earning enough to live as a writer seems possible if you start with small expectations, especially when established writers, like novelist Will Self, are reporting in publications including The Guardian a serious decline in royalties (once the bread and meat of a writer's regular living).

  • Self-published vs. firm-published 

There are plenty of other recent posts and articles on this topic -- it's hard for me to keep up.  Consider this post, like the others on this topic at Call of the Siren, as the blogger's version of a starter kit.

Not long ago, above all the noise and chatter about self-publishing, I heard a loud voice that belonged to agent Michael Larsen, a colleague of my friend Jim Rossi who's been assisting him on his own self-publishing journey.  Jim passed along something that forced me to ask myself, Why do you write? I kept thinking about this question as I read through Larsen's "Declaration of Independence for Writers," and I think you should, too.  It will help you keep your focus on what should matter most to any writer: taking advantage of a multitude of media platforms today to share a special vision with sympathetic readers.

Take care, my friends. Onward!

Coming soon: Why you might consider self-publishing your book

printing pressThe term "vanity press" is quickly going out of date -- it has far less to do today with ego or self-gratification than it does with practicality and an awareness of conditions in the publishing industry. Over the years, it's been exciting and encouraging to hear about many authors who have built successful careers and followings based on work that has been self-published. Once upon a time, self-publishing was considered a last resort, but now there are many advantages to this enterprise even though your work won't be attached to one of the big, laureled New York City firms. I recently talked to Jim Rossi, an L.A. Times book reviewer I worked with on many occasions, about his decision to decline a legit publisher's offer in favor of going the self-publication route. Jim's explanation is candid and insightful, and, if you happen to be a writer struggling to find a publisher, his solution might appeal to you.

Our conversation will appear at Call of the Siren once the upcoming U.S. holiday is over. (Sorry for the tease. I'm just too busy right now stockpiling firecrackers and skyrockets!)

Until  then, I'd like to whet your appetite for that conversation with a contrarian view in this embedded article by James McGrath Morris at The Santa Fe New Mexican, "Ebooks Econ 101: Cheaper is not always better." Morris is enlightening on the downsides of ebook publishing in particular, although the arguments contained in his article don't necessarily negate the choices that Rossi has made ... or that you might make one day,my friends.

'You have to want the story': A.R. Williams on writing (pt. 2)

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 9.34.45 AM In part one of my interview with A.R. Williams here at Call of the Siren, she discussed the background of her splendid dystopian novel "The Camellia Resistance."

But something else happened in the process. She provided two interviews: one about her novel and one about the craft of writing. As all of you consider your own projects, you may find Williams' perspectives in(con)structive, too. What is her best insight on the craft of writing? For me, it's this line:

You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes.

That's a point that's so easy, in the frenetic publishing marketplace, to forget.

There's no better inspiration than the perspectives of a writer newly-emerged from a successful project. (Case in point: The letters of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.)  That's what you'll find in the Q & A below, and I hope it helps you, my friends!


Is this your first novel? 

This is my first completed novel. There have been other attempts at novel-writing, but this is the one that insisted I stick with it all the way through to publication. I have a couple of other things out – a novella and a collection of short stories, but those are both decidedly adult in nature.

Non-writers don't realize how labor intensive a story - whether it's a short story or full novel - can be. How long did 'The Camellia Resistance' take to write? 

I started planning the book in the fall of 2009 and wrote the first draft in November of 2009. It took another three years (and the dedicated support of my editor and best friend) to get it ready for publication.

There was a lot of rewriting involved, and the story arc for the (planned) trilogy didn't really settle into place until early in 2012. Once that became clear to me, it was a lot easier to see the first book through to completion.

When did you find the time to complete it? 

For me, wanting to write a book wasn't enough. I needed two things: the first was a story that wouldn't let me go until I'd gotten it right. And by not letting me go, I mean that [the main character ] Willow and her world were always nudging me.

Even when you weren't writing, you were still thinking about the story, right?

Yes, I'd be commuting to work and visualizing some of the scenes that served as anchors to the story - like when Willow and Ianthe ride their bikes through an abandoned and crumbling Chicago. That scene demanded that I replay it over and over again until it felt as real to me as any of the trips I've ever made to the present-day Chicago.

The second thing that kept me motivated were my early readers. My editor and best friend read the first 50,000-word draft and insisted that I keep going. I had three more friends that looked over the first draft and were adamant about wanting to know what happened next. I'm not sure I could have finished it without their investment and interest.

For anyone struggling to write a book and facing a very hectic life, what words of encouragement would you give them?

As for encouragement, there's no way around it: writing is a lot of work. It's not glamorous like it is in the movies. You don't get to the end of a draft, tap in that last period and send it to an editor who promptly sends back an invitation to their house in the Hamptons and an advance check for millions. You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes. No matter how tightly your idea is hanging on to you, there are days when you are going to hate it. But if you've got that story that won't let you go, I  think you have to trust it.

And trust yourself, wouldn't you agree?

Absolutely. Be compassionate with yourself: it's going to take longer than you think to write and it's going to be terrible in its early drafts. Make sure you've got everything you need to write, whether its keeping your book notes on Evernote on your phone so you can always have your "next thing" to write with you or keeping a pen and paper with you at all times.

Be open to surprises and mistakes, they always bring you something you didn't know was there. Write because you have to, not because you think it's going to get you something. Most books are lucky to sell 2,000 copies, so if money or fame are the source of your motivation, you're probably going to be disappointed.

Let it be terrible in the first draft and just keep going. The rewrites will be just as hard as the first draft, but at least you'll have something to work with. You can't edit a book that doesn't exist, and it simply isn't possible to get it perfect the first time around. Show up for your characters (and yourself) with as much kindness as you've got... At the end of the day, if the story needs telling, you'll get there.