Friday, May 24, 2013

Self-Publishing Delirium

Maxwell Perkins
Two friends with literary aspirations recently voiced desire to escape the publishing grind, dominated by media conglomerates who demand higher profit than drug lords, and print their own books through subsidy publishers. As a reviewer, I receive (sometimes after specifically refusing them) numerous such books. To my friends, and anyone else reading, I request: in the name of all you hold sacred, don’t do it!

People who subsidy publish are nuts. Not everyone, of course; some are sweet people with noble intentions who want more creative autonomy. Some buy into hype without sufficient research. Some think they’ll be the next breakout sensation, like Christopher Paolini. But subsidy-published authors have a disproportionate likelihood to be jibbering, delirious, cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs unhinged. Avoid their company.

Authors who pay to “publish” through Outskirts, CreateSpace, and AuthorHouse choose not to submit to informed scrutiny before turning their words loose on the audience. These companies don’t publish works so much as print them. They provide no assistance on manuscript preparation, physical design, or efficient publicity. Most important, they provide no editing services, which such authors consistently need.

Some people see the word “editor,” think “copy checker,” and respond that their best friend, spouse, or roommate did the proofreading. But editors don’t just untangle grammar; they serve as surrogate audience, carefully anticipating paying readers’ response to a piece of writing. Without such intervention, subsidy-published authors show no sign of awareness that human readers exist at the other end of the continuum.

Legends recall young F. Scott Fitzgerald pushing a manuscript variously titled The High-Bouncing Lover and Under the Red, White, and Blue on several uninterested publishers. Because the book relied on concept more than execution, staff readers bounced it out the door. It took a visionary, Maxwell Perkins, to see Fitzgerald’s embryonic genius through his unfocused prose, and coax The Great Gatsby to maturity over three strenuous years.

Walt Whitman
Many subsidy-published authors refuse such difficult nurturance. I receive inchoate, sprawling books that clearly haven’t seen correction since the outline dribbled off the authors’ fingers. These manuscripts, often formatted with tiny type and little margin to cut costs, look like the first drafts they probably are. Such authors demonstrate overt disinterest in their audience, expecting praise for their every brain dropping.

Several subsidy publishers advertise that classic authors like Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf published their own books. That’s true, they did. Their work stood so far outside the mainstream that they had to take publishing into their own hands. That’s a legitimate reason to publish your own book.. But Whitman and Woolf didn’t just have their books printed; they undertook the full publishing process, which isn’t easy.

Authors like Dara Beevas and Joel Friedlander write on this topic. If you would publish your own book, you must assume full business responsibility, including not just hiring a third-party editor, but also a designer, marketer, and publicist. You must stop thinking like an artist, and become a legitimate entrepreneur. This isn’t Field of Dreams; they’ll only come if you build something worth seeing.

Subsidy publishers discourage such frank humility. Because technology cuts printing time to weeks, even days, the lag between scribbling your first draft and seeing your book on can run remarkably short. But this doesn’t mean you’ve published a book, only that you’ve printed a manuscript. And in pushing an unfinished book onto the market, you’ve stolen time and resources from paying customers.

I’ve read authors who base entire books on half-remembered lectures heard two decades ago. I’ve read authors who recite bigoted stereotypes as contributions to interracial dialog. I’ve read authors who think plagiarizing 1970s pop songs and Victorian quatrains makes them poets. These authors have two traits in common: they paid to publish their own books. And they thought that having a byline entitled them to unstinting public praise.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Again, self-publishing is both possible and noble. My friend Jerry published his first novel with a mainstream conglomerate, who dropped the ball on publicity, letting his book languish. He’s published multiple books since then, going guerilla on contemporary digital platforms. But he has taken the full entrepreneurial approach. He doesn’t just print his books, he publishes them. He pays the costs, and reaps the rewards.

Online retailers are choked with books published without scrutiny, often looking scarcely better than mimeographed liberal newsletters from the disco era. Even if your book shines like silver, it will not emerge from the morass of such books. Save your money for the real grind. Because it may be difficult and dispiriting, but it continues to exist for a reason.

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