The Dream goes like this:

You write a book, a great book, and you send it out to whomever and a few weeks later, out of the blue, someone calls from New York City and says your name. Then the book gets printed and reviewed in the holy places and someone else calls, this time from Los Angeles, and says another name, one you’ve heard of, a movie star name, and the call gets put through and pretty soon there’s a major motion picture in production and your book is suddenly number one on the great list of What Matters. Then a third call comes from Chicago…

As Americans, we’re trained to think like this. It’s how we construct reality. We once were lost, but now we’re famous.

What this model conveniently elides is the publishing industry’s fundamental flaw: it weds an artist to a corporation.

Sometimes, this marriage is a very happy one indeed. More often, there’s tension from the start. This tension isn’t anyone’s “fault.” It arises from an inevitable conflict of motives. The writer wants most of all to make art. The corporation wants most of all to make money.

*

My own experience with publishers has been, to put it mildly, mixed.

On the one hand, I’m grateful to those corporations who have been hopeful and foolish enough to invest in my sorry ass. On the other hand, I’m inevitably reminded of their ultimate motive.

My debut story collection, for example, was originally titled The Body in Extremis. When it was accepted for publication, the big cheese at Grove renamed it My Life in Heavy Metal. He figured this title would give off a hipper, sexier vibe, and lead to more coverage. It also misrepresented the collection, which, for all its graphic content, was really about the suffering of desire.

My next book, Candyfreak, was a memoir chronicling my obsession with candy. Early in the book, as I revisited candy bars of my youth, I mentioned The Marathon bar, which had a ruler on the back of the package. This lead to the following insight: “If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of the package, he will measure his dick.” The publisher leaned on me for weeks to get rid of this line, fearing it would limit the book’s audience. She also lobbied me to drop much of the book’s darker content.

Over the past few years, as the market for literary work has contracted, the pressure applied to editors at big houses has become even more intense. More and more of their time and energy is given over not to editorial concerns, but to marketing. It’s no longer just their job to midwife great books. They also have to worry about how to generate sales of those books.

This is probably the appropriate time to mention the note I found scribbled atop one of the essays in a recent manuscript of mine. It had nothing to do with the piece I’d written. Instead, it urged me to write about Lindsay Lohan.

*

Any published author can tell you similar tales of woe. But in the past few years, something pretty cool has happened: the means of producing books has become far more accessible. A decade ago, self-publication was an esoteric and maligned pursuit. At this point, it’s the only growth sector in publishing.

I’m not suggesting that self-publication is some unvarnished triumph of the human spirit. But I’m generally in favor of democratization when it comes to the creative process.

Because in the ideal world, books – any form of art, actually – would move directly from the artist to those who might want, or even need, it. We would all be spared the various layers of financial bureaucracy: the agent, the publisher, the distributor, the chain bookstore.

It’s not that any of these entities is inherently evil. It’s that they’re inessential to the basic human transaction.

Which is why I started making books on my own.

*

Your chief duty as a writer is to make good decisions at the keyboard, by which I mean those decisions that make you think and feel more than you did before, that allow you to summon attention in the midst of distraction. How you publish a book has nothing to do with whether or not you meet this goal.

The question of how you publish has more to do with the sort of experience you want to have. When I write a non-fiction book that aims at a common cultural artifact – such as candy or rock music – my hope is that the book will reach lots and lots of other people who obsess over these same things. That’s much less likely to happen if I put out the book on my own. I need the support of a bunch of talented people.

But when I decided to write a book that consisted of 30 short shorts, and 30 brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing, it was quite clear to me that the audience for this book would be small. So small that it simply didn’t make sense for me to seek the patronage of a corporation.

I briefly considered sending the manuscript (it’s called This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey) to one of the many small, indie publishers who have – joyously! – proliferated, even as the bigger houses have struggled.

But even this seemed unnecessarily complicated. If my intention was to sell books directly to readers, then why not just print the fuckers and have at it?

*

The printer I settled on is the Espresso Book Machine at Harvard Bookstore, two subway stops from my house. It’s more expensive than other printers. But printing the books there is a way of supporting what great indie bookstores do, which is to create a community around literature and reading.

I certainly could have slapped an ISBN number on the book, and tried to get it distributed via the usual channels. But that wasn’t the sort of experience I wanted. I wanted the books to move out into the world in a more organic and personal way.

There are only two ways to get This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. You can order them from Harvard Bookstore, or you can get them from me, in person. I don’t keep records, but I suspect more than 90 percent of my sales are in person.

I’ve basically moved from a vertically integrated, multi-platform model to a Drug Dealer model. (Note: the books cost ten bucks and I only take cash.)

Is it sometimes a drag to schlep around books? Yes. Do I sometimes feel pathetic? Yes.

But it’s also incredibly liberating. I was able to make the book pocket-sized, and to include a list of my favorite books and records. It’s beautifully designed, by a friend of mine, Brian Stauffer, who’s one of my favorite artists in the world. Because there’s nobody to tell me I can’t do such things, the book is actually read in two directions. I was even able to convince Brian to design three separate covers, so readers can choose their favorite.

I had so much fun with the first book, that I’ve since made two others, Letters from People Who Hate Me, which is filled with hate mail I’ve received, along with my responses, and Bad Poetry, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Are these books ever going to sell tens of thousands of copies? No.

I don’t want them to. I just want them to find readers who might dig them.

*

The fact that I’ve published books with corporations makes selling DIY books much easier for me. I do readings and teach at conferences. I have a small but extremely cool audience.

But the decision to go DIY really isn’t about where you are in your career. It boils down to the kind of experience you want to have with a particular project. This, in turn, hinges on your temperament, and your ambitions.

The DIY approach probably isn’t right for you if want a shot at the bestseller list. You’ll need the imprimatur of a traditional publisher. You may also be leery about having to hawk your own wares, and assuming the many other duties that go along with putting a book into the world yourself.

So fine. Be patient. Work hard. Grow a thick skin. Find a patron.

But if you can live with the notion that your book is probably going to find fewer readers, in a more personal way, the DIY option is now yours.

We’ve moved beyond the Dream or nothing.

There’s no right way to publish a book. There’s just the way you choose.

 

Note about the Skylight Books reading:

For those TNBers in the Los Angeles area, Steve Almond will be reading from his DIY books and discussing the new publishing landscape at Skylight Books, on Sunday, June 12 at 5 pm.

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STEVE ALMOND (www.stevenalmond.com.) is the author of three short story collections, most recently God Bless America.

16 responses to “The Artist and the Corporation: A Brief Meditation on the DIY Publishing Experience”

  1. Sara H says:

    “There’s no right way to publish a book. There’s just the way you choose.”

    Amen. The mister and I hand-make art books through what we call a “micro-micro-press” called Nouveau Nostalgia, and we use it for smaller projects like you describe — things that might have a smaller audience, but that we want out in the world anyway.

    But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still like to do a more traditional route with a novel. It just depends on what you’re doing, I suppose.

    Also – I bought This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey when I saw you read at Powell’s around a year ago. It’s great stuff.

  2. Sarah says:

    Well said. The line about the Marathon bar was worth fighting for; it’s regularly quoted in my household.

  3. Art Edwards says:

    “If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of the package, he will measure his dick.”

    Authors try to tell the truth. The truth is often funny, and sad, and hard to disseminate for reasons ranging from the author being afraid to tell the truth, to the author unable to find the words to tell the truth, to the reader never getting around to buying and reading the author’s work. We do not need a third party, a corporation–with the heeby-jeebies of scores of CEOs, employees and shareholders worried whether or not their children will go to Sarah Lawrence–also having a say in whether the truth gets disseminated. I’ve self-published for about a decade, have argued it various merits and demerits with scores of folks. The near death of the above sentence is the best justification for self-publishing I’ve ever read.

    I’ve changed my mind, Steve Almond. I’ve decided I am obsessed with you, as evidenced by my briefly looking into a plane ticket to L.A. for the 12th.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I love the idea of self-publishing, for all the reasons outlined in the article. But as an aspiring novelist, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do it. I’d like to think that writers don’t need heartless corporations to get their work out to people who want to read it, but big-time publishers do serve an important function I didn’t see mentioned: if your book doesn’t sell, they take the risk. In the event that a publisher accepts the work, they pay the artists, the editors and proofreaders and printers. They even pay you, the author! Yes, they are interested in selling your book. To them, it’s a product, not a work of art, and because of that, you may have to compromise your artistic vision. As Art pointed out in his comment, this is the best reason to simply do it all on your own. But if they don’t think they can sell it, what makes me think I can? I admit, this does concern me. Not because I want to become the next Stephenie Meyer and make millions (though that would be nice, I suppose), but because I want to support myself with this work–or at least not go into debt for it, which is a reality for many (most?) self-published writers.

    • Art Edwards says:

      So true, Rebecca. All of it.

      Despite my Almond-influenced euphoria above, I’ve always seen self-publishing as simply one more option to get a book from A to B. It’s an option that’s always been there, but it’s really only been in the last decade that it’s not been poo-pooed by most in publishing. It’s nice to have watched the walls come down.

  5. dwoz says:

    Steve, (or anyone who cares to chime in)

    What about the need to “be available” to actualize this model? I mean, the traditional publishing model allows a certain amount of arms-length between the author and the audience. Apparently, the new model doesn’t.

    Your thoughts on that?

  6. J.E. Fishman says:

    Steve makes a very interesting point that in the age of author empowerment, if you will, how one publishes can be viewed as an artistic decision as much as it is a business decision. As anyone knows who has been following my series (“Publishing Primacy,” right here on TNB), I believe some of us can publish ourselves as well as one of the Big Six would or better, but this model isn’t right for everyone under every circumstance.

    The nice thing is that the great wall that the industry once constructed to distinguish so-called legitimate publishing from “vanity” publishing (oh, the moral contempt dripping from that word!) is showing serious cracks — and why shouldn’t it? When publishing houses insist on editorial changes not to make a book better but only to make it more marketable, they have lost the authority to assert that the self-published are by definition cranking out inferior product. The crumbling of that wall, as Steve implies, does not mean there is no place for mainstream publishing, but it does create a space for greater artistic freedom. Long live the Authorial Spring!

  7. jmblaine says:

    What you mention in the first paragraph
    happened exactly
    to me
    except instead of New York City
    the call was from Shebogyan, Wisconsin
    & I am waiting for the second
    which should originate from
    somewhere in the Ozarks.

    These are my people.

    I like Steve Almond’s books
    a lot
    except for that Heavy Metal one
    because I was so ready for
    stories about Krokus
    & got let down.

    I will buy this Honey book
    & would best prefer
    to purchase it from the author
    from the trunk of his car
    in the side parking lot
    of the 7-11 off MLK.

  8. It’s true that the author needs to be more involved, available, when you go DIY.
    And, as noted in the piece, that’s not how some authors want to do things. Which is fine. Authors owe us nothing more than their work.
    For me, though, it’s a pleasure to read from the books and discuss them. I love the idea that the books are an artifact that commemorates a human gathering, rather than a commodity that rents space in a store.
    Again, that’s just me.
    Other authors will feel other ways, and find different paths.

  9. Paul Clayton says:

    I wish you success and happiness, Steve. I too am doing DIY publishing with both hands. After twenty years I’ve gotten soul-sick from people who don’t care about my books or me ‘managing’ my career. Yeah, marketing is all. I remember my dad telling us that if we got a dog we’d have to take care of the back end as well as the front. Well, the marketing part is taking care of the back end. Sometimes you’re overwhelmed at how impossible it is to stand out from the masses now waving their books in the air. But, taking care of the front part myself, that’s nice. Being able to drop into a short story or novel some little truth that’s gonna infuriate some folks and delight others… that makes dealing with the other part more than worth it.

  10. Hey Steve–are you in Palm Springs right now with Goldberg? Not sure if you’re doing the residency this time around. But this was great stuff. I think about all this constantly. I’m not sure I have the right temperment for DIY publishing, precisely, but I do believe that it’s taking the indie spirit to its natural conclusion, and I’ve been part of the indie publishing world for more than 15 years, as you know, so I want to see this more as a celebratory thing than a cause for alarm.

    I didn’t know Grove had made you change your title. Now, given your overall body of work, Heavy Metal makes a certain cosmic sense, but speaking only about THAT book, the original title was far more apt, to an extent that I want to go back and reread it while telling myself the new title.

  11. I think it’s important to have a range of options on the table for the manipulation and dissemination of work; I can appreciate that big houses want to make returns, because, hey, I’m sure as shit not walking up to their doors with bags of money saying ‘Hey! Pay your staff’s wages, courtesy of me!’ They have overheads to meet, rent to pay, distributors and retailers to give a slice to.

    At the same time, I’m incredibly wary of the loss of the value add that can be brought in by houses who have decades, if not centuries, of experience under the belt when it comes to printing, editorial, cover, etc. Sometimes you need a Maxwell Perkins, and those don’t come standard with a Kindle.

  12. I met Steve once at a conference. He & Tim O’Brien gave the best readings. I told him so, and immediately, networker that he is, asked if I wanted to review his next book for some journal. And that’s how it goes.

    A novel of mine was published by Viking-Penguin years back, and nothing happened. Same old same old. I spent the next 10 years in business publishing and writing, and had agents, and nibbles, and same old same old all over again. Two years ago, went the self-pub route.

    Here’s the bulletin: It is slow and it takes time. I work with professionals all the way down the line, from proofing to design. Things don’t happen, things happen. Last Christmas, a communications company bought 50 copies of one of my novels to present to their clients as a gift. When they gave it to some German CEO of a multinational Distributor of Stuff, I was told he said, “Hey, I read this guy’s stories on the net. Now I have a book. Great.”

    So who knows. You write it, you make it, you send it into the world, you work the angles, you check the progress, you work the angles some more.

    Steve’s only problem is, I’m based in Europe, can’t make one of his readings, would probably buy one or more of his locals-only books. So, now he has lost sales. Now, maybe his figuring isn’t done on this matter.

    Now I’ll post this article on Twitter & Facebook, and, like an unknown German CEO, who knows where it’ll go, who it will reach. But the thing is, like the books, its out there.

  13. Steve thanks much for writing this. There are fine points throughout, and several moments I’ve shared, including what punch lines to remove because my publisher didn’t want me to offend Canada.

    What you said toward the end, “It boils down to the kind of experience you want to have with a particular project.” needs to be printed and framed and perhaps sold in greeting card stores so we can be reminded about the notion that this self-publishing debate is not a duality but a continuum.

  14. […] “There’s no right way to publish a book. There’s just the way you choose.” […]

  15. […] addthis_config = {“data_track_clickback”:true};This week at the KR blog Maggie Smith linked to a piece by Steve Almond on DIY publishing. Almond (as you may know) has published fiction and nonfiction […]

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