MARCH 17, 2012
THE FAMOUS LIBRARY AT ALEXANDRIA, at its largest, housed perhaps as many as 500,000 scrolls, or the equivalent of some 25,000 books. A quaint number: ten years ago, we were publishing, in the U.S., around ten times that a year. Now, we publish that many every two and a half days.
Anyone with access to a networked computer can publish a book, or ten, or a hundred. Anyone with 500 bucks can see their book into print, and the novel that once would have lived its entire life in a drawer is now more likely to be downloadable. A manuscript that might never have found a home in the twentieth century, certainly not at a “legitimate” publisher as they were called, can now, with very little effort, be ordered online, printed in a run of one, and mailed to a buyer in a matter of hours. We used to call them vanity presses, the companies that helped people publish books not wanted by the traditional, commercial publishing world; now such companies are more often touted as the new business model.
We plan to run a series of pieces on the evolving book world, from independent solo ventures to micro publishers to small presses and the new mini-majors to the Big Six and the 600-pound gorilla. Getting us started is Joseph Peschel, a freelance journalist from South Dakota. He interviews a wide variety of people who have self-published, some happily, some less so, some unworried by the stigma, some with their hands bloody, some embarrassed, some victorious.
— Tom Lutz
Editors, reviewers, and many authors believe that if you self-publish, you’re branded a sinner of sorts. You wear a scarlet S-P, signifying that you can’t get published because your work is inferior. If you promote your own work on the Internet, you must sheepishly precede the phrase “self-promotion” with “shameless.” It’s difficult to quantify the extent of the stigma, but we all know that publishing your own work has been frowned upon by writers for decades. Recently, genre authors Amanda Hocking (who writes young adult vampire novels) and John Locke (pulp thrillers) have had so much success independently publishing and selling hundreds of thousands of their own books that you’d think the self-publishing wall would’ve been kicked down and lying in a crumbled mess by now. But the stigma attached to publishing, promoting, and selling your own written word persists. Most writers, like Susan Shapiro, who’s written for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and has conventionally published eight books, including comic novels and nonfiction through St. Martin’s Press and Delacorte, remain convinced that it’s better to get a mainstream publisher. Shapiro, who’s helped hundreds of her students get published, recently told me she would consider self-publishing, but only “if everybody else turned me down.”
No one ever faulted Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino, or Charlie Chaplin for writing, directing, and producing their own movies. No one disrespects musicians for distributing their music without a major label behind them. And poets — think of Walt Whitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the authors of contemporary poetry chapbooks — have long been used to publishing their own work. Why then should independent publishing be regarded any differently? Especially when even established writers, in today’s traditional publication market, can have difficulty getting their publishers and agents behind a book? A slumping economy has pushed already-teetering bookstores into bankruptcy, further squeezed publishers’ profits, and reduced and in some cases eliminated book review space.
One established author throttled by this suffocating environment is Robert Bausch, who modestly considers himself a mid-list writer. Bausch has traditionally published six novels and a collection of short stories through St. Martin’s Press, Harcourt, and Houghton Mifflin. True, Bausch isn’t as well known as, say, Jonathan Franzen or John Irving, but he’s a marvelous writer of fiction. His traditionally published novels include On the Way Home (1982), Almighty Me! (1991), A Hole in the Earth (2000) and Out of Season (2005). Bausch has taught literature and writing for decades; his novels have been praised by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and, in 2009, he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature. He told me by email that he’s recently published his new novel In the Fall They Come Back in print through Amazon’s CreateSpace, and in e-book form for the Kindle, the Nook, and other electronic readers.
In the Fall They Come Back is a fictive memoir about Ben Jameson, a prep school teacher and his relationship with his students: a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale; a mysteriously damaged and mute girl; and a teenaged boy who’s physically beaten at home and bullied by the kids at school. Ben fights with and placates abusive parents, bucks the school system, and soon faces sexual misconduct charges. It’s a masterful job, serious literary stuff and quite the page-turner, too.
Bausch worries, though, about his self-publishing foray. He says, “Folks tell me I’m getting in on the ground floor of the wave of the future. I don’t know about that. Folks who don’t know me, won’t want to read it. And some who do know me won’t.” His previous novel, Out of Season, though praised in The Washington Post and other periodicals, did not sell as well as Harcourt anticipated, so the publisher cancelled the paperback version, Bausch says. “That move, more than any other thing, really limited my chances for publishing another novel — especially during the recession.”
At the same time, Bausch was having problems with his agent, who was then over 80 and slowing down considerably. He was handing his business off to younger agents who were daunted by the numbers on Out of Season. Editors would get In the Fall They Come Back, look up his numbers on some computer, and decide they didn’t want the book. Ten editors, more or less, rejected some version of the novel. His agent suggested that he write another book, and, when they sold that, they’d put the two together. “So,” Bausch says, “I wrote another book — The Legend of Jesse Smoke — and it went to six publishers. Again, the same story. One of the six publishers suggested I could re-write the book and make it a young adult novel. No offer to buy it — he wasn’t even a YA editor — but he said it would appeal to both an adult audience, and a YA audience. That’s why he couldn’t make an offer for it: its ‘audience’ was ‘problematic.’”
That’s when Bausch decided to find a new agent.
Meanwhile, he wrote yet another novel, As Far as the Eye Can See. At the time, Bausch had found an agent who was supposed to be trying to sell Jesse Smoke. Months went by. Finally, Bausch got in touch with the agent, who admitted he hadn’t read the new novel yet. The agent had submitted The Legend of Jesse Smoke to three editors and then stopped submitting it, saying he had just taken on too many projects. Bausch started looking at In the Fall They Come Back again. “As I was reading and touching it up, I got angrier and angrier,” he says. “I realized it’s a good book. Maybe not a masterpiece, maybe not a literary classic of any kind, but it was damn sure as good as almost anything that’s been published in the last two or three years.” A few days after he had started editing it again, he heard on the radio that e-books had surpassed traditionally published books for the first time in total sales. The general gist was that it was the wave of the future; that authors would be able to publish their own work and avoid the market-driven, commercial, dumbing-down going on in American publishing. He decided at least this book was going to have an audience.
Bausch admits that when he first published In the Fall They Come Back online there were lots of typos and errors to correct, and that some may still need correcting. But that’s not much different from the errata found in early printings of traditionally published books, and Bausch can make the corrections much more easily: “All I have to do is open the file, change it, and then it is sold with the new revision.”
As for the paperback version, Bausch designed the cover, the font, and the interior style of the book himself. “I don’t have high hopes yet,” he says. “My audience, however large or small, will not create enough buzz to make much of a splash. But at least it’s out there; at least there will be some readers. I can’t submit the book to the Pulitzer committee, or PEN/Faulkner, or any of the book award committees. It won’t get reviewed in any newspapers or magazines. Almost no one will know I published it. That’s a reality I guess I have to live with.” But it was better than “never publishing it in my lifetime.”
While it’s difficult for authors to get indie-published books reviewed in the major print and broadcast media, it’s not impossible. Alan Cheuse reviewed Bausch’s In the Fall They Come Back for NPR and I reviewed it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, thanks to my editor Jane Henderson, who has reviewed a book or two by local self-published authors in the past herself.
Still, most book editors and reviewers refuse to look at what may well be unvetted and amateurish work. There’s good reason: It seems everybody and their Boswell thinks they can write a book. Around ten years ago, a survey cited in the New York Times said that 81 percent of Americans thought they had a book in them. Current numbers suggest they did, and they self-published it. R. R. Bowker, a publishing industry support company, reports that in 2002 around 32,000 books were non-traditionally published in the US. That number fluctuated little until 2007 when it jumped to more than 123,000. By 2009, non-traditional book sales exceeded one million, and for 2010 sales, Bowker projects an increase of 169%, more than two-and three-quarter million sales in the non-traditional publishing sector.
The Washington Post does not review self-published books. The Post’s fiction editor Ron Charles admits, “We simply don’t have the staff to wade through the torrent of submissions that would come in.” Charles doesn’t see that policy changing, even though more and more professional and traditionally published writers migrate to self-publishing. “It’s impossible for me to imagine a future in which a book section adds staff members.” Thus, he will continue to rely on what he calls “the curating function of professional publishers” and on Publishers Weekly, the Library Journal, Booklist, and other trade magazines to help him winnow the field. If the trade magazines don’t cover a book, it’s unlikely newspapers will, either.
But Greg Cowles of The New York Times says it works far enough ahead that its editors often don’t even see reviews from the trades before sending a book out for review. “And when we do see them ahead of time, they still don’t influence our decisions: many books that get a rave in the trade magazines don’t make the cut here, simply because our space is at such a premium.” According to Cowles, the Times has never reviewed a self-published book, in any format:
But that’s not a matter of immutable policy. The obvious parallel would be to the indie music scene, where you see bands leaving big labels to strike out on their own because the economics are better. And looked at from that angle, we have in fact reviewed “self-published” authors before — the example that leaps to mind is Dave Eggers, whose books What Is the What and Zeitoun were both published by his own McSweeney’s. It does show just how complicated the issue is, and just how much gray area we’re talking about here.
Laurie Hertzel, Books Editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, doesn’t review e-books or self-published books. “I receive about 1,000 books a month from commercial publishers, large and small,” she says, “and it’s all I can do to keep up with them. Adding e-books and self-pubbed books to that mix would quickly raise the number to something closer to infinity.” Steve Paul of the Kansas City Star says, “If it’s not of local interest, I probably wouldn’t look at it. Even if it is local interest, we’re highly skeptical, and if book doesn’t have some semblance of professionalism about it, we don’t mention it. The main problem is that self-publishers think they don’t need editors. And real editors and real publishers serve as a gateway, making the first judgment of whether a manuscript is of interest beyond the author and his family.”
With the rise in independent book publishing, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly have started reviewing independently published books under their Kirkus Indie and PW Select programs. Kirkus will review a self-published book, but charges $425–575, depending on how fast a writer wants a 250–350 word review. For $149, Publishers Weekly will publish a descriptive listing of the book but doesn’t promise the writer a review.
Many editors see a conflict of interest on the part of the trade magazine in that a paid-for review or paid-for mention might influence the opinion of the reviewer. Charles wants manuscripts to be selected by people “who have some skin in the game” (like real publishers) and then critiqued by people who are as disinterested as possible. In his opinion, for-pay reviews of self-published manuscripts scramble that whole process. “I’m sorry to say that those pay-for-reviews or even pay-for-consideration programs are of no use to me — or anyone else I know in the business.”
The idea of paid-for reviews leaves a bad taste in Cowles’s mouth, too. But, he says, “as long as they’re clearly marked for what they are, and as long as the authors are prohibited from citing paid ‘reviews’ as official endorsements from the publications in question, then I don’t suppose it’s much different from any other paid advertisement. And I’m strongly in favor of paid ads.”
Freelancers present another barrier to the indie-published author. Freelance reviewer Mark Athitakis has never reviewed an indie-published book. He runs the blog American Fiction Notes, where he says, “I somewhat testily discourage writers from pitching me self-published books. I get some testy emails in response, but the fact is that reading a book is time-consuming, and while I’ll try pretty much anything, I want evidence that more than one person was excited enough about a book to see it into print before I invest that time.” Freelancers Harvey Freedenberg, who’s written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bookreporter.com, and Shelf Awareness, and Chauncey Mabe, who was book editor for 23 years at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, likewise see no circumstances under which they would currently review a self-published book. “That will doubtless soon change as the digital revolution in publishing matures,” Mabe says, “but it hasn’t done so yet.” Even now, though, many online sites like Shelf Awareness and The Rumpus don’t cover indie-published books.
In the meantime, first-rate writers like Robert Bausch and others with solid track records in traditional publishing, are helping the indie-publishing revolution mature and gain credibility. Humorist and playwright Polly Frost, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Narrative Magazine, and Grin & Tonic, has brought out her books with several publishers, including Rapture House, a company run by her and husband, Ray Sawhill. She tells the story about a powerful agent who got in touch with her when her first humor piece appeared in The New Yorker. “She said, ‘So do you have a novel?’ I was like, no, why would I have a novel? I’m a humor piece writer. I told her I wanted to publish a collection of my humor pieces rather than a novel.” But, she laments, “the book biz has not been interested in publishing [humor] collections in a long, long time. Certainly not since I first started writing and publishing.” So, for the paperback version of her humor collection, With One Eye Open, Frost used Amazon’s CreateSpace.
“As any author knows,” she says, “most mainstream book publishing companies put the promotion on the author these days. Believe me, I had to promote my book, Deep Inside, that was published by a major publishing house, Tor. The great thing about publishing your own book,” she adds, “is that when you promote it, you’re not benefiting the publishing company (as I was with every review I got for Deep Inside) — you’re benefiting your own publishing company! How cool is that? It’s a great feeling.”
Although The Short Review and Blogcritics have reviewed Frost’s With One Eye Open, she understands the point of view of the periodicals and sites that won’t review independently published work. “Many indie-published books are just not professional enough.” To good writers who are going to publish their own work, Frost suggests getting a professional book designer, as she did. She also suggests using a professional e-book designer and getting your own ISBN. And then promote it.
In his 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway claimed that “a writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” But, those days appear to be long gone. Traditionally published novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle says, in a interview in The Guardian (U.K.), that he doesn’t give talks or readings, he “performs”; and Frost sells many of her books by doing live humor performances. Recently, she created a one-person humor show called “How to Survive Your Adult Relationship with Your Family.” She’s performed in New York City, Phoenix, and is currently touring the country. “I love connecting with audiences,” she says. “And one of the nice things about doing shows is that you can sell your own published books at your performances.”
Crown published novelist Nina Vida’s Goodbye Saigon in 1994. “It got rave reviews and film rights were purchased by Dick Zanuck and 20th Century Fox,” she says. “Sales? Not so hot. But, since my contract with Crown was executed before electronic-rights clauses were ‘invented,’ I own those rights.” She decided to make Goodbye Saigon into an e-book. She did the same with Children of Guerrero. It had been published by Bantam “in the most desultory way — made to look like a romance — and got no reviews, no sales, no nothing (you can’t fool a romance reader into thinking they’re reading a romance when they’re not).” She speculates that other published writers are indie-publishing e-book versions of their traditionally published work.
That’s the case with mystery writer Molly MacRae. She owns the electronic rights to her first two traditionally published novels, Lawn Order (2011) and Wilder Rumors (2007), and plans to make them available on the Kindle and Nook. “When I started writing,” she says, “there were no e-books and self-publishing was scarce, expensive, and called vanity press. Call me vain, but I didn’t think I could call myself a writer if I paid someone else to publish my stuff.” She also intends to self-publish an e-book collection of her short mystery stories, some of which originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and a few other stories. “An e-collection will give the stories new life,” MacRae says, “and I can use the collection to help promote my new mystery series for Penguin.”
As MacRae and other established writers have started to change their minds on the indie-publishing question, some book section editors appear to be getting ready to adapt to a new world of publishing. The Times’s Cowles, for instance, says, “We’re keeping a close eye on developments in publishing and have had many discussions about how to handle the rise of electronic publishing and the possible move toward self-publishing among some established writers.” Athitakis could see himself “reading and perhaps reviewing a self-published book if it spoke directly to some personal interest of mine, was written by somebody whose previous works I admired, or came very highly recommended by somebody whose opinion I respect.” But for now, the Star Tribune’s Hertzel is sticking with reviewing “good quality books from legitimate publishers.” But “I think about this problem a lot,” she admits, “as more and more people turn to self-publishing. I may change my philosophy at some point.” Charles asks, “Will we miss some great books by ignoring self-published books? Of course. But we can’t review anywhere near all the good books we want to review now. The last thing we need is another 100,000 galleys to consider every year.”
It will be a long time before traditional publishers go the way of the VHS, but the tide is turning. Established writers-turned-indie-published authors will likely attract more critics and book editors to review their work. As for Bausch: in late November, he indie-published The Legend of Jesse Smoke. He says, “I’m still in search of an agent who can champion my work and me.”