Sunday, May 22, 2005

A note on self-publishing ...

Last month, in a post titled The blogging saga … I discussed, in connection with the reported decline in reading, the obvious increase in writing. I mentioned Blogit, which hosts some 25,000 bloggers.
That post got quite a response. Dirk Lenaerts of Brugge, in Belgium, who joined Blogit in March, wrote to say he found it a lot of fun but cautioned against doing it “for the money, as you put in a lot more than you ever can earn. … No, your only motive must be the joy of writing and reading, otherwise you become depressed pretty soon.”
Dirk’s post reminded me that the word amateur means “lover” and we might all do well to remind ourselves of those many amateurs, especially among the British, who pursue an interest not for fame or fortune, but for the sheer love of the subject or activity.
I, of course, do write for money — which is to say I have a job that involves writing. It also involves publishing what I write, so I have a lot to be happy about. True, what I write is largely of an ephemeral nature, but much of life is ephemeral.
Still, what about all those other people who are writing away? They’d like be to read, too. Which explains why the self-publishing business is booming, as Sarah Glazer demonstrated in The New York Times Book Review last month. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this phenomenon. Suppose someone starts a blog and it catches on. Readers like what the blogger writes and like the way the blog is written. I imagine if that blogger put together a book and advertised on it on the blog, fans would likely want to read it.
For a book review editor, the growing number of self-published books poses a particular problem. As it is, not even many commercially published books get reviewed. But it seems dumb to completely ignore the self-published ones. Recently, I ran a review of one — James A. Freeman’s Parade of Days. Inquirer staffer Marc Schogol voiced one reservation, but otherwise rather liked the book, saying that characters’ “stories stay with you.”
Freeman may have published this book with Xlibris, but he’s published quite a few books the old-fashioned way and is a tenured professor of English — in other words, he’s really a pro who just happened to choose this time to do the publishing on his own.
I put another self-published book out for review also, but the results were less encouraging. I had read the first 50 or 60 pages of the book and found it intriguing and thought it had possibilities. So did my reviewer — after reading the first 50 or 60 pages. But ultimately, he didn’t think the book worked and thought it wouldn’t serve any purpose to review it.
The problem, obviously, is figuring out which self-published books are worth reviewing. The self-publishing houses themselves could help, by differentiating between books aimed at a specialty audience and those aimed at the average reader. After all, Random House doesn’t go out of its way to promote every book it publishes. It focuses on the ones it thinks have the best chance to sell.
I think in the long run it will be buzz in the blogging community that will bring certain self-published books to wider attention. Another reason for people like me to pay attention to what is going on in the blogosphere.

8 comments:

  1. The rebel or perhaps more accurately the anarchist in me hopes that the self-publishing business does grow and gain acceptance. Let a thousand flowers bloom, many if not most of which had slipped past the blinkered eyes of agents and mainstream publishers. Then the schoolmarm in me wonders who will tend this wild garden of verses? We all know that even mainstream publishers -- yea, even newspapers! -- grow steadily more negligent in editing, so that publications come out in shockingly sloppy shape. How much worse will that aspect be in self-publishing? I realize that this, to mix my metaphors, is to yearn for the gatekeeper role. Ah, for a bohemian writer with a Republican editor!
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  2. Ah yes! A bohemian writer with a Republican editor. Sounds like Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins. But we agree. Come one, come all. Most of which will be problems. But the Internet is showing an admirable capacity for self-organization. So there may be hope.

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  3. Willis Wayde makes good sense. I, too, recognize the need, perhaps more than ever, for good editing, when an author goes with self-publishing of any kind. With my Parade of Days novel and Xlibris, owned in part by Random House by the way, I had to, willingly, go with a POD publisher because the novel was grant funded by the institution where I teach in return for all royalties going to a worthy student scholarship fund. My previous trade books had shown me the value of working with a dynamic editor, cursing at the time but later seeing the wisdom of numerous cuts and wise savings from unfortunate excesses, so with a POD pubisher I worried about working alone. That is seldom wise in manuscript preparation. With an outfit like Xlibris, one can pay extra for such editorial services: I have no idea how efficient they are, but the advestising brochures do look slick, and most Xlibris produced books I've bought seem professional in quality and sometimes superior to trade books in design. Luckily for me, I've had the sage mentoring of Dr. Christopher Bursk, a poet of some renown, for years hear at Bucks County College. He's been reading my stuff for years, excising many passages as "too tooey," helping me re-vision fiction and poetry. He read those late draft passages of Parade of Days in need. I would advise all POD authors to either insist on professional contracted editing or equalivalent mentoring. If we do that, then I say, with Frank Wilson, "come one; come all," and, with Willis Wayde, "Let a thousand flowers bloom." Let's just not let those flowers grow wild and unattended so that POD publishing can continue to grow to be more than a niche part of the publishing biz. Someday soon, I can see POD becoming as much as 10% of the publishing market, and this democratization, if coupled with quality (nods to Persig and his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence), will make that a good thing. As Voltaire said in Candide, to paraphrase: tending one's garden is a good thing.

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  4. From longtime personal knowledge of the book publishing and newspaper industries I can attest that not even a tenth of the general interest trade books, either fiction or non-fiction, gets reviewed -- or, what is worse, reasonably promoted by their publishers. Books are being canned like soup as never before, and only those few with the brightest labels and biggest ad budgets, regardless of their "nutritional" value, get pushed to eye-level on the front shelves. The rest, many equally as valuable in a literary sense, see only the remainder shelves. Frank is to be commended, then, for not only seeking books from that remaining nine-tenths issued by mainstream publishers, but for beginning to consider that emerging vast pile of self-published works -- again, many surely equally as valuable in a literary sense -- that don't make it through the doors of the publishing houses.

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  5. I'm interested in the blogger turned self-publisher angle as well, and although I've heard of it happening, the stories have all come from NYC. Had my own site mentioned on another one of the Philly.com blogs this week and it boosted my site stats immediately.

    I visit Philly.com regularly and never even saw any promos for the blogs you guys have started - I hope that changes soon because the content being covered is great!

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  6. Pink Lemonade Diva: Initially I was a doubting Thomas, but more and more I think something like what you hope for will happen. It will happen for some of the reasons Frank and others have been citing. Here, for instance, is a telling report a couple of days ago in Publishers Weekly magazine's online edition: "Viking spokespeople call it 'surprisingly difficult' to get reviewers' attention and note the effects of the larger winner-take-all phenomenon. 'There seem to be less reviews in general and everyone seems to review the same five books week in and week out,' says Paul Slovak" (who is publicity director at Viking). Of course, someone should tell Slovak (and other publishers) that they should promote more than the "same five books," but essentially he is on the mark as to what goes on. And the more it keeps on going on, the more self-publishing will break through.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  7. Willis Wayde says it all (or almost) about POD books, the trade industry, reviewing, etc. Well-said.

    James A. Freeman

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  8. Parade of Days (POD, Xlibis)has now been reviewed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Bucks County Courier Times, The Princeton Packet, The Patterson Literary Review and The Texas Review. This is partly a testament to my tireless self-promotion (for the student scholarship that the novel benefits) and, more so, to a new openness to POD books. Xlibris, for instance, is partially owned by Random House and has been for several years. My biggest concern in all of this brave new world is that of editing. Of course, I don't worry about my vain self (I have a longtime mentor, Dr. Christopher Bursk, himself a renowned poet who is brutally honest, often calling my stuff "too, tooey" when overdone), but I worry about weeds (unedited work) in the garden of self-publishing. I suspect that the free market will take care of my concerns: those weedy books, and, unfortunatley, a lot of well-weeded ones, will vanish into the great yaw of unconcern (Stephen Crane's "Universe" in his poems), while vanishing literatti text-message each other on cell phones about reruns on T.V. I do find the renaissance of spoken poetry (the weeded stuff) and oral tradition to be exciting, weeds out loud and all...And I do see some of my young students at the community college reading serious fiction for fun, restoring my faith somewhat. Now if they could just get their hands on the fiction that trade publishers have decided is unworthy commercially (98% of it) and/or the books that the trades, my old friends, have decided to publish but let die on the vine with no marketing (90% of those pubished?)... Could be Katy bar the literary door. Interesting times.

    James A. Freeman

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