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? Of course! The pros

She's so relieved by your decision.  

Why should you self-publish?  To answer that question, you need to answer another question first.

Why are you a writer?

If you're in it for fame or money, well…  You might receive one of these -- maybe even both -- but I think you're better off getting a real estate license or starting a Youtube channel to reach those goals.

Good grief, I'm about to do the thing that I usually can't stand: preach.  For anyone who doesn't want to hear this, kindly exit the church while I'm climbing into the pulpit...

What I've learned from my own continuing journey is that writing a book requires willingness to be genuinely vulnerable.  In the past, my fragile creations have been handled by publishers with less delicacy than a UPS guy  in a hurry.  I didn't think I could survive it.  It hurt immensely.  But I'm still here.  Still struggling, still working like all of you, my best beloveds, to give expression to my narrator's experiences of  1880s London and the far edges of Europe.  I crave the work.  Every day.  And when I'm not at it, I get grumpy, like an ex-smoker on Nicorette.  That's why I write. That's why I labor by singing light.  So…

If you can secure a deal with a big official firm for your manuscript, by all means go for it. But remember: self-publishing shouldn't disqualify you from the traditional route in the future.  For some, I think, it's a way station until the big deal happens -- a first step, a chance to see their work in another light, all dressed up, ready for the show.

Most people's perceptions of self-publishing are still very immature. But all of that is changing. Who knows? You might be one of the people who leads the change, if you're willing.


Here's something else to consider: Have you heard about what is happening between the conglomerates? Did you read anything about the big, ugly war this past summer between Hachette and Amazon? In these battles, authors' works have been moved around like pawns on a chessboard.  You read about that big full-page ad from writers against Amazon in the New York Times, right?  (Writers used to band together to free Soviet bloc dissidents, didn't they?)  Self-publishing provides a measure of control and independence in an environment that's increasingly devoid of both.

Call of the Siren's previous post on self-publishing ("Self-publish, are you crazy? The cons") presented some of the biases and criticisms that continue to persist -- but every position has its opposite, of course, and I find far more persuasive reasons to consider self-publishing than not -- or, at least, to keep an open mind as you seek an agent.

One of the most persuasive cases for self-publishing, for me, comes from author Jim Rossi, who isn't trying to market literary fiction -- his manuscript examines solar energy and its future implications (usually, self-publishing seems to be the resort of fiction writers).  He has a simple desire: He wants to reach readers.  That desire makes sense to me -- nothing feels better than good exchanges with other bloggers in the WP universe.

So what do you do, as in Jim's case, if a publisher wants your book, but doesn't want to provide any kind of digital version to reach those readers?  Before the advent of the internet, you took the card you were dealt.  You were stuck.

Next: More responses to the cons.

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.

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.