June 04, 2011
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.