I have a confession to make: I self-published a book a few years ago. I know. I told everyone I wanted a short cut around the corporate stiffs who didn’t share my artistic vision but really I was a talentless hack so vain, conceited, and convinced of my own brilliance that even after dozens of editors and agents told me my book was garbage, I needed to see it in print and was willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. I chose the quick and easy path as Vader did, and became an agent of evil.
Actually, it happened like this: during my 2008-09 circumnavigational kayak trip around Florida, I took about 2000 digital pictures. After multiple hard drive crashes over the years, I wanted to make prints of the pictures as well as enjoy the pleasure that comes from pulling a book of photos off the shelf and browsing it casually. Basic 4x6 prints at Wal-Mart would have cost about ten cents a piece, then I needed to buy photo albums, and of course, some of the shots were amazing and deserved to be larger than 4x6. The project would have cost at least $250. I didn’t want to spend that kind of money, and so instead I downloaded free software from the print-on-demand company Blurb, laid out all my photos, and produced a 400-page, full-color, hardback, bookstore quality book. The cost: $99. Not only did I save money, but the book is beautiful and I love showing it to people. Plus, if I want to give a copy as a gift to a family member, I can order another any time.
In this sense, I’ve never objected to self-publishing. Low-cost, print-on-demand services are great for certain purposes—creating incredible-looking wedding albums, for example. A few years ago I argued with a friend that publishing your novel, however, was not one of those purposes. Even as recently as last semester, I discouraged my students who asked from pursuing self-publishing. There is no short cut to success, I told them. If you want to become a professional writer, you have to follow the steps: master your craft by writing short pieces and submitting them to literary journals. After you have found success writing short stories, finish your novel, query agents, and get the novel published by a traditional press, whether small or large. It will take time, so be patient.
I still believe in writing short fiction and submitting it to journals as the best process by which we learn and improve as writers. There is no short cut to mastering an art and it takes time. There are no fiction prodigies. However, the arguments for self-publishing are becoming more persuasive. Maybe this is not a radical statement for someone at a writer’s group in a Barnes and Nobles. For someone in an MFA program who hopes to remain in academia after graduation, it is.
Here’s what I’m thinking:
Let’s say you get a story published in a literary journal. What do you do with the story after that? Nothing, says conventional wisdom, not yet. Keep on submitting stories to journals and once you’ve had a dozen or maybe fifteen published, you can bundle them together as a short story collection and try to have that published. Good luck with that, however. Agents don’t represent short story collections because publishers don’t want them—they don’t sell. So you’ve busted your ass to get your work placed in respected journals and for what, a line on your CV? An extra line in your query letter so an editor might take a chance on your novel? Well, yes.
It’s not to build a fan base, that’s for sure. Regardless of whether it’s a university-run affair like USF’s Saw Palm, or a relatively large and independent magazine like Tin House, literary journals are not widely read by the general public. With these publications, you may gain the respect of your peers (other writers) and literary professionals (editors, CW instructors, et cetera) but you aren’t creating a fan base large enough to make your next novel a bestseller. If you currently teach creative writing, or aspire to teach at a college or university, the line on your CV is what really matters. Your day job is teaching, and university teaching requires that you publish regularly. It doesn’t really matter that relatively few people read your work. Your colleagues are reading your work, and they are your priority.
But if you’re not an academic, priorities are different. You need fans. You need people who like your work, want more of it, and will pay you for it. Every first-year marketing student knows one of the most important aspects of product desire is product availability. There is no demand for a product that does not exist. No one is clamoring for your novel if you haven’t written one—or even if you have but it’s just sitting on your hard drive collecting e-dust. (Undoubtedly, someone with a high school understanding of economics will disagree with me and want to argue that free markets respond to demand. Bullshit. Apple created the market demand for the iPad when it created the iPad. Demand is manufactured.)
So your short fiction will never be in wide demand if it is not widely available. Many writers have decided to post short stories on their personal websites after placing the story in a lit journal, that way more people can read the story. Isn’t that self-publishing? Of course it is. Is there anything wrong with that? No! Moreover, I believe writers should go one step further—we should make our short stories available on Amazon (et cetera) as 99¢ ebooks. Most of the people who visit your personal website are people who already know you or know of you. Amazon is where you will find new fans and build a fan base.
So fellow writers, let’s take cues from other artists, like musicians: Bands build their fan base by touring and playing small gigs. They don’t expect to land a major record deal right off the bat, and neither should we. The term “vanity publishing,” with all its negative connotations, is disappearing. Replacing it is “indie-publishing,” an expression that evokes the DIY spirit and artistic independence that we respect in music and film—and that will be the topic of a future post.