Thursday, January 28, 2010

Some Thoughts on Self-Publishing

About a month ago, one of Spidertangle’s correspondents commented that the American Book Review’s appraisal of my longpoem Emblematic Moon marked the first time ABR had ever reviewed a self-published work and expressed hope that ABR

would review more of them.

Actually, in 2001 ABR reviewed the first section of my longpoem IMPROVISATIONS

and my novel Relic’s Reunions as an example of the positive and negative aspects of self-publishing. According to the reviewer, IMPROVISATIONS represented the positive aspects, Relic’s Reunions the negative. At the time, I wasn’t aware of ABR’s policy against reviewing self-published work, but I’d encountered the stigma almost from the day writing became my life.

I’m not sure I would assume that ABR will open its arms to self-publishers, but I hope their review of Emblematic Moon will open the doors for others. The review came about because one of the magazine’s editors realized the literary world had changed in ways that made self-publishing a necessity for writers whose work had merit but wouldn't turn a profit on Publishers' Row or penetrate the small press networks.

From my own observations, the literary business began to change around 1973, when corporations started to buy out independent publishers and emphasize publishing bestsellers. While publishing opportunities with the major presses have become somewhere between rare and nonexistent for writers outside the mainstream, the situation seems to be much the same as it’s always been: despite the stigma against self-publishing, self-publishers have made the most innovative contributions to literature.

In 1961, when I decided to become a writer, publishers considered themselves the guardians and shapers of literary culture. A best-seller’s profits would subsidize publication of adventurous of fiction or poetry deemed culturally important but unprofitable. “Midlist titles” that sold modestly but steadily also kept the publishers solvent. A writer could submit work “over the transom” with a chance that an editor might read it and even accept it. Having an agent increased your chances, of course, but wasn’t essential.

Publishers dismissed self-publishing, and writing magazines discouraged it. At best, they portrayed it as a bridge to nowhere---except for the totally inept, who subsidized the vanity presses. The only self-publishing author given credence was Walt Whitman, a laughing stock during his lifetime who had the last, if posthumous, laugh, when his work shaped the direction of twentieth-century poetry. Articles in the writing magazines portrayed Emily Dickinson as unpublished in her lifetime, either unaware of or denying her self-publishing activities.

In the mid-sixties, the “mimeo revolution” made publishing easier for writers and editors working outside the mainstream. Literary magazines seemed to explode onto the scene because publishing became more affordable. As with the magazines of the Pound-Joyce-Stein era, many published the work of their friends and closest colleagues, a practice that hasn’t changed over time.

Despite the stigma so prevalent in the literary world, avant-garde jazz musicians self-produced recordings that established their musical reputations and their success drew the attention of record labels large enough to offer better distribution and and increased sales. In the 1960s and 1970s Don Pullen, Milford Graves and Leo Smith received critical attention for their self-produced recordings and other musicians followed their example. Although I was following this development in the music, I wasn’t thinking of doing it myself; I believed my fiction would eventually find a home at Grove Press, New Directions or Dial.

By 1978, when I finally completed a novel, Grove Press and a number of other established publishers had stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts. If you didn’t have an agent, most publishers wouldn’t read your work

I vowed that if necessary I would publish the novel myself. But the cost of publication exceeded my available funds. The equipment of the Mimeo Revolution couldn’t produce an attractive edition of a 430-page work. So I continued to seek publication through whatever press, large or small, I thought would consider it.

By the 1980s, the proliferation of Creative Writing programs and advances in computer technology created an explosion of literary magazines as large as but less heralded than the Mimeo Revolution. Around the same time, I started writing poetry, which got published readily, although my unpublished fiction piled ever higher. In 1991 I found myself on a roll; most of my unpublished poetry and ten years of unpublished fiction found homes in literary magazines. The self-doubt generated by decades of rejection slips diminished greatly; my stories, as well as my poetry, had been good enough all along. But the major presses have virtually stopped publishing non-mainstream literature unless it fits into such niche markets as Beat, Feminist, Gay, and African-American.

In the mid-80s I began my first self-production, fusing poetry with music on home-recorded cassettes, which I sold in the jazz clubs where I spent much of my free time. My first effort at self-producing broke even because my production costs were low. By 1987 I had composed enough poetry with musical accompaniment to produce a full-length recording, Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike. While I was waiting to receive my 1,000 vinyl copies the record stores switched to selling CDs, eliminating any hope for retail distribution. I did circulate the record among the independent labels, receiving occasional praise but no offers.

The following year, I self-published a Slick Set of Wheels, my first chapbook of poetry.

The process involved subcontracting to a printer who couldn’t correct my proofs without making other errors. The price of publication meant that I paid each person to buy a

copy. I decided to do the next book entirely on my own, if I couldn’t find a publisher.

As a self-publisher, I learned that my first choice of distributors, the Small Press Distribution Service, didn’t carry the work of self-publishing authors. Although it made economic sense to deal with a small number of publishers instead of a large number of authors, SPD in effect perpetuated the stigma against self-publishing---in ways that I wold find laughable several years later.

From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s I self-published and self-produced books of poetry and fiction and recordings of jazz poetry. Before I self-published any work, I submitted it to small presses, receiving the occasional appreciative letter. I entered my fiction in the FC2 fiction contest several times, once finishing as a finalist in a contest whose judges couldn't determine a winner. After twelve years of self-publishing, I resigned myself to the reality that the publishing world was a closed shop, whether its location was a big building on Madison Avenue or a basement in Berkeley. Even the literary agents were sending rejection slips instead of personal replies to the work I submitted.

In 1998, I gained my first inside look at into the way the literary world really worked. A small press editor who told me he only published his friends. During the time we were friendly, he published two of my books. Instead of royalties, I received 50 copies, which I couldn't sell. But SPD listed my work and academic libraries bought it.

In recent years, several publishers have issued my books through print-on-demand. But POD publishing creates other problems. With two POD books, I was able to purchase at-cost copies form the publisher and send out review copies. Perhaps this helped the publisher increase its sales. But I didn’t get royalties or free copies. A foreign publisher couldn’t provide me with at-cost copies and paying full price plus postage to send out review copies became the line in the sand that I wouldn’t cross.

Essentially, I self-publish because I see nothing in the present literary situation that offers me a better alternative. If I’m the publisher, I buy review copies at reasonable prices. I can be sure the publisher is promoting my work. And I’m in the position to receive royalties, although I have yet to receive a payment large enough to pay for a small bottle of mineral water.

I’m certainly not the only writer publishing under these conditions. If the corporate-run literary business eliminates innovative literature from its lists and certain small presses

publish only within their circles, self-publishing becomes the only available option. Despite the bias against self-publishing that continues, I remember the long-term successes of Whitman and Dickinson, nothing to mention William Blake, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein and many others. It seems that many of the most innovative writers have self-published before other publishers paid attention to their work.

While I’d love to have a publisher take over all the work I do and pay me for it, I realize that as a self-publishing author, I’m keeping some very impressive company.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pages from RANDOM AXIS

RECONFIGURATIONS recently published several pages from RANDOM AXIS, my most recent book. It also features work from Sheila Murphy, John M. Bennett and many other noteworthy writers. Check it out at: