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!

Self-publish, are you crazy? The cons

They just can't believe it.  

Why on earth would you ever want to self-publish your book? Are you crazy?

Here, my friends, are some reasons why you shouldn't.


garbageReason 1: You might have a very good story to share, but do you know what will happen if you self-publish your book?  It will get lost.

It will disappear, says George R. R. Martin, in the mountain of  "crap" that gets self-published all the time.

As Martin sits comfortably on the Iron Throne of bestseller success, he says in a recent profile in The Independent that self-publishing is still mostly unmonitored, unvetted, non-certified. Editors are the great gatekeepers, he says, who hold back the crap so that only worthy works will reach readers.

For him, it seems, the term "self-published" is synonymous with "untrustworthy" as well as "crap."



Reason 2 why you shouldn't self-publish: Publication with one of the big NYC firms gives you legitimacy as an author.

Did you hear about what happened to that poor North Carolina poet, the one who was laureate for just six days this summer?

The selection of the state's new poet laureate was officially announced … and then, a few days later … another announcement was issued when she decided to resign from the post.

What happened?  Critics said the normal channels of appointing a laureate had been short-circuited by the state's governor. But aside from complaints about the process, what also kept getting mentioned was the fact that her output was limited to just two books, two self-published books.

Many people, this suggests, still regard self-publishing like that cake that your eight-year-old made for your birthday -- so wonderful and great for you, but please don't share it with anyone else.

At the book section of the Los Angeles Times, we routinely received about 400-500 book galleys per week (and that's a conservative estimate).  The first titles to get winnowed out of the pile were the self-published ones.

Sure, there might have been some impressive jewels hidden in these works, but no one had the time to look for them.  The imprint of "Simon & Schuster" or "Random House" on a book's spine was a very helpful, efficient guide -- a publishing version of quality control for editors scrambling to assign reviews and keep that news-hole filled.



Reason 3: Publishers have established channels of promotion and support that are more extensive than even the savviest self-promoter's network.

This is related to the preceding point about quality control.  Publication with an established firm may mean that the book will get considered for review by a newspaper or journal (although that review news-hole is shrinking).  If it does get reviewed, and reviewed favorably, the benefits of such visibility could be incredible (although that's not guaranteed).

Publicity reps usually maintain good relationships with periodical editors.  Book publishing is still a business that depends on such established personal relationships even though technology provides plenty of shortcuts around that.




Reason 4: We haven't even talked about money yet.  There's no money in self-publishing.  Wait, there's no guaranteed money in self-publishing.  That's what I meant. Plenty of people seem to have beaten the odds (Hugh Howey is turning into the patron saint of self-publishing success) but it's all anecdotal.

You can't base your own decisions on them.   So, consider: Choose to self-publish and you miss out on the chance of a nice advance from an established publisher (never mind that those advances are getting smaller and smaller all the time).

"Don't quit your day job" is the advice of one self-published author in a Daily Finance piece about self-publication that appeared this summer. Read it, but be forewarned: It is a very candid, sobering account.



Reason 5: Self-publishing throws a wrench into some writer-agent relationships.

If you already have an agent who's handling a new manuscript, but you also have an old, out-of-print novel that you'd like to bring out again by self-publishing it, your relationship with the agent may get tangled.

That's what the Writer Beware blog points out about a gray contractual area, "Self-Publishing and Author-Agent Agreements: The Need for Change."  This is a scenario for a select few to consider: Most of us are just trying to get out of the gates.


Next: Why you SHOULD self-publish.

Books, books, books: It's time to show us your shelves!

A few of my favorite things: But watch out for the gargoyle... So what's on your bookshelves? Jilanne Hoffmann and I would like to know. What you see (above) is a corner of my decent collection -- decent, but definitely not crazy. I followed a strict diet a few years ago and passed along multiple boxes of books to a very grateful local library.

photo(4)I know, this post is supposed to be about pictures, not words, but forgive me for adding just a small bit of commentary. See those three large volumes, the ones in brown and blue? They're from the Nonesuch Dickens Collection, and they reproduce Dickens' novels in the exact format, with illustrations, that Ole' Boz saw in his lifetime. There's also a signed reader's galley of "The Unknown Terrorist" by the wonderful Tasmanian novelist, Richard Flanagan. And, what bookshelf wouldn't be complete without a gargoyle? He's on guard, night and day, to protect my collection from browsers who want to become borrowers! (If any other titles intrigue you, let me know and I'll give you more information than you wanted.)

So, just to repeat, what's on your shelves? Drop Jilanne a note at her blog, or leave one for us in the comments field and send us to your page for a look!

The Dogpatch Writers Collective is already on board. We hope you'll join us, too!