Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts toward a Self-Publishers Commons


Some thoughts on publishing and self-publishing here, including a promising suggestion from a smart and widely published fellow down Navajo way ...

One of the more painful pages of the internet I've stumbled upon, and I'm not one who goes looking for the bad stuff, consisted of every rejection letter the guy had ever received from a publisher, paired with the malevolent rants he had directed against all the editors who had cruelly failed to recognize his genius and its vast market potential.

I have a very different take on my rejections from commercial publishers. I have now weathered a number of rejections of three different kinds of manuscripts: creative nonfiction about a homeless man with a three-legged dog; a memoir of playing indie rock and collecting amateur folklore; and a novel about the disintegration of a reality TV show about an obese black rapper. Unfortunately for my commercial potential, they are all long, somewhat challenging and weird books.

One of these - the creative non-fiction book - enjoyed a little life of rejections before I had signed a contract with a literary agent, and all three were rejected repeatedly with the services of a highly competent and dedicated industry representative shopping them on my behalf.

The pattern with my work, roughly, has been as follows. Series editor really likes the manuscript but doesn't have the final say. Senior or even executive editor likes it, but not quite as much, and has doubts as to its commercial potential. The manuscript then goes to a third editor (or outside reader or editorial committee) with the final say, and the final say is no - sometimes because the work is judged to be flawed, and sometimes because the economic risk is judged to be greater than the potential reward.

As to the flaws, I must admit that I have come to agree with every detailed rejection letter I have ever received, usually after a period of bitterness and grief (glad I wasn't a blogger during those downtimes!). As to the limited commercial potential, I tended to agree, right off the bat, as I guy who has always worked for newspapers because I couldn't make any money off the records I made. Why should I expect someone could make money off my books?

What is interesting - and what moves us toward my friend, Paul Zolbrod, in the Four Corners - is the change that has come over my agent in the seven years or so he has been reading my manuscripts and pitching them.

When he first recruited me, after I wrote a New York Times profile of a friend of his, he warned me that it might take years for him to sell a manuscript of mine, but when he eventually placed something for me the advance would be better than I could get on my own if I published all of the books he had rejected on my behalf, because he only pitches high in the market. If I wanted to publish books that didn't make any money, he said, then I didn't need him and should represent myself.

Good advice. But it changed.

It changed, as the internet continued to transform how books are bought, sold, read, shared, marketed - and, last but not least (the industry is always the last to know), how books are published. More recently, his advice has been: if I had come along five years earlier, he would have known what to do with me in the industry, and if I had come along five years later, we would have copublished my books together and executed a marketing plan. Unfortunately, I came along at a time when long, quirky, artful books by unknown writers don't have a mass market, yet the micromarkets are not yet in place to be profitable.

(My ego knows that there are any number of long, quirky, artful books getting published these days and possibly even making money; and, yes, I am jealous of those authors. But I am reporting something that has been told to me, not making excuses for myself.)

Enter Paul Zolbrod.

I first sought him out as an expert on Navajo (Dine) culture, when we were scoring Stefene Russell's poem Go South for Animal Index and I wanted to better understand the Navajo underpinnings of her work. Paul was a sharp critic of the poem, and started Stefene off on a raft of new poems reflective of his insights. We then stayed in touch with Paul as one of those smart, well-meaning people it is good to know, and through whom good things come.

Last year, I believe, he self-published a novel, Battle Songs, and sent me a copy (which I've yet to read). I thought it was interesting to find a highly accomplished and widely published writer putting out his own book. It reminded me of what my agent had said. So, even while I start to shop my novel to the smaller presses that won't pay me any money (and which my agent wouldn't trifle with), I figured I should consider self-publishing it. So, I reached out to Paul Zolbrod to ask him about his experience with self-publishing.
And look at what he said:

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Towards a Self-Publishers Commons
Paul Zolbrod on publishing and self-publishing

As a published author of several books - none of them fiction - I'm pleased report that from an editorial perspective I was very impressed and very happy with the way I was treated at iUniverse (a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble). I'd never received better attention nor felt that I had as much control as I did with Battle Songs, my Korean War novel. The result was a much better book than I feel I might have received from a conventional publisher.

The down side of that, however, is that I wound up spending considerably more than the original cost for the optional line editing and the copy editing that I elected to additionally purchase. On the other hand, in both cases I was entirely happy with the results and do not regret spending the extra money. It became apparent to me that the line editor in particular was well selected.

As for marketing, however, I was less pleased, even though I had been forewarned that I was chiefly responsible to promote my book, something that I haven't been very good at, largely because my teaching gets most of my attention. For an additional cost, iUniverse will place ads and even hire publicists, but those services are not cheap, and the purchases I did make never materialized.

The problem is compounded because conventional outlets do not want to review a self-published titles. Even bookstores are reluctant to schedule readings. As a result, I've managed to sell very few books so far, although I'm still hopeful that I can figure out a strategy to get more readers, which is what I mostly want. What frustrates me is that those who have read my book like it, including a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette who wanted to review it but was told by his editor that he couldn't.

As a result, I'm pretty discouraged when it comes to finding readers beyond the confines of my network of friends and acquaintences, most of whom I gave copies to.

But here's an idea that you might want to share with the folks you know with an interest in self-publishing. I continue to believe that Print on Demand (POD, as it's sometimes called) is the wave of the future in trade publishing, especially with quality fiction, since the commercial publishers aren't very attentive to the editorial process and are blind to anything but the potential blockbusters. More and more folks are self-publishing, and those I myself learn about produce worthwhile books but experience the same frustration.

Why can't those of us who do self-publish use the internet to establish some kind of marketing syndicate? We could review each other's books, for example, seek out bloggers who can broadcast their work, or develop other strategies to promote what our colleagues have done? Because I am an old geezer still ignorant of the way the technology can be utilized, I myself lack the savvy to expand the idea, but I'd certainly be happy to join with others to see if self-publishers couldn't form some kind of cooperative.

I'd be happy to "chat" with anyone who might be interested in pursuing it, and for whatever modest contribution I might make, I'd put an effort into helping to get this idea off the ground (if it doesn't already exist). Above all, as someone still pretty badly unschooled in using internet technology to expand an enterprise, I'd do my best to to roll up my sleeves in an effort to make it happen. What do you think?

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You can contact me if you'd like to get in touch with Paul Zolbrod or visit his website. Dude also has been hiding a blog from me!

Image from an Associated Content story about self-pub.

1 comment:

divinebunbun said...

I have self-published two books (Fierce Consent, Island Universe) with very satisfactory results. Of course you have to learn how to market and be willing to keep at it.