Tuesday, 29 November 2011

To Self Publish, or not to Self Publish?

Those of you who read this blog will know that for me, the above is now a bit of a moot question. I have self published, and I am also (hurray!) now in the process of having a book come out with an independent literary press. Months ago, in response to an entry that I'd written full of fear and despair about the current publishing climate, a friend of mine said, "Some authors will continue to fit into the traditional model and some will fit very well into the hyper-technological era. Many will fall in between, which is where I see you. You have a traditional publishing deal but you also self-published your first book online. What are you afraid of?"

She's a smart gal, this friend. So smart that I wish I had her near me all the time -- it would buck up my spirits in a huge way, especially in the face of what seems to be terminal unemployment on my end of things.

But! I'm not here today to talk about being funemployed. Instead, I'm here to rave about this article, which I read first thing this morning, and which -- as usually happens -- seems to have expressed all of my complicated feelings regarding the self-publishing machine in an infinitely more eloquent, intelligent manner.

Read the article, folks. And keep an eye out for Edan Lepucki in the years to come. Something tells me she's just getting warmed up.
I self-published my first novel in the UK in 2009, at the beginning of the year. I chose this route after two years of submitting the novel to publishers -- two years of receiving encouraging and almost-there responses to the manuscript. Two years of listening to what people had to say about it and making changes based on their recommendations. (Arsenal Pulp Press, in Vancouver, almost said yes. They sent me a very nice rejection letter with some key points about the book that I tried very hard to tackle. Merci beaucoup, guys! :) Two years of almost getting an agent as a result of that book.

Halfway through this two year period, the novel was shortlisted for this UK book award. It was the second year of the prize and receiving that letter in the mail was, let me tell you, really quite fantastic. My roommate at the time had arrived home before me, and she'd bounced around the house waiting for me to come back because the "congratulations you've been shortlisted" package had arrived in a big business envelope.

"I knew it was good news," she said, after I'd come home and ripped open the latter, "because it was a big envelope. Rejections always come in small envelopes, don't they?"

Well. It was indeed good news, and for a few months I rode high on the waves of excitement. But as it happened the novel didn't win, and even though the shortlisted titles were passed to a UK literary agent as a result of getting to the shortlist in the first place, nothing eventually came of that, either. So there I was, back to square one. Frustrating, yes. But also encouraging, because at the very least, the novel had made a few waves. Almost good enough is, in many ways, its own kind of encouragement, especially when you're starting out. (You can also argue that it is its own kind of demoralizing, but today we'll stay positive. Positive! POSITIVE!)

So a few more months went by, and nothing happened. By this time I'd started doing work for a print-on-demand publishing startup in London called CompletelyNovel, and they encouraged me to publish my book on their site. I hemmed and hawwed about it for a while -- this was only three years ago, but Internet time being what it is, the self-publishing Internet wave had not yet come to prominence. We were just on the cusp, and there was still a lot of stigma attached to self publishing. I just wasn't sure. What if I don't format it properly? I thought. What it if looks terrible? What if? What if?

So many questions. So many.

But, as you'll no doubt gather from the shiny Amazon badge on the right-hand side of this site, I eventually did go that route. I thought: this might be a really valuable opportunity to understand everything that goes into the making of a book. First it's an idea, and then it's a polished, revised, better idea, and somewhere in there it becomes a physical thing that you hold in your hand. As everyone knows, when you publish with a traditional house, the amount of control that you as the author have over how your book gets made sometimes varies. So I thought: I'm going to self-publish this book, and I'm going to try my darndest to make it look professional, and maybe when I come out of all this I'll have a greater respect for publishing in general. And believe me, folks -- that's definitely what happened.

Holy smoke, but formatting a novel is no easy business. Proofreading? Ditto. I was self-publishing my novel at a time when I could barely afford to eat, so there was no hiring of freelance editors and copy-editors for me. And the cover art? The design? Figuring out how to wrap text and get it all lined up nicely and tickety-boo and ready in a series of perfect PDF files? Nightmare. Nightmare. Somehow, though, it worked out. And when that first proof copy arrived in my mailbox -- that first copy of my book, with that cover and those nicely formatted pages all lined up easy as you please -- well, the feeling was almost indescribable. I thought it was going to be less than the feeling of getting that first traditionally published ARC in my mailbox, because I knew what the book would look like and, well, it was only self published -- but still, unwrapping that parcel was pretty neat. It did feel like a milestone, in a way. One more step forward on the Alpine Path, to quote the ever-beloved Emily Starr.

Anyway. As anyone who has self-published their own work knows, as hard as it might be to format your novel and get it printed and figure all of that out, marketing your work is an even bigger hurdle. And that weird, murky area of trying to generate sales without sounding like a pushy buffoon (read me! I'm not sanctioned by a publishing house, but read me! I'm good! I promise!) is where I eventually found myself. To some degree it's where I still find myself today.

One of the things that I love about Lepucki's article is the fact that she points out how hard it can be for literary fiction to make it in the self-published world. She also points out, and rightly so, that literary fiction isn't necessarily better than any other type of genre -- merely that it is its own genre, subject to the same kinds of market ups and downs as other more traditional genre works. By now we've all heard (and blogged) about how Amanda Hocking beat the publishing game with her paranormal fantasy YA novels. But as Lepucki notes, Hocking is dealing very specifically with a given genre. She did her market research, and played to that. It is in some ways much easier to devise a marketing plan for a traditional genre book (paranormal fantasy) when there's also a corresponding audience (any of the girls/women who fell for Twilight, say) that you know might be interested in the same sort of thing. Not as easy, on the other hand, to market and find that niche for a book that shies away from easy genre categorization.

And that's where publishers are useful, as Lepucki notes. Perhaps, she says, the small press world is the real proving ground for literary writers. How true. We have increasing numbers of "she-self-published-and-then-went-to-a-bigger-house" stories now, but there have also been decades of stories where authors first got their big break from a smaller publishing house. Those stories still continue today, and I love the fact that Lepucki is putting her faith behind smaller houses, behind the labour of love that smaller presses can bring to a book. Of course you as the author love your work, but it's always nice when you can find someone else who loves it too, and can champion the book on your behalf.

Especially -- and here's the crux of everything, I think -- when that love gets tough, when the championing means an editor prepared to make your book the best that it can be.

Lepucki makes an interesting point about editing, here, which I haven't yet seen widely discussed. Folk have more or less shifted to the freelance editor model now in self-publishing, and most people who self publish (myself included, except that I didn't actually have the money to follow this through when I brought out my first book, and more's the pity) will extol the virtues of getting someone to edit your work. But is there a question of conflict of interest here, even a little bit? Lepucki says this: I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen?

Of course I'm not arguing that freelance editors have no scruples, and might edit a bad book just to get that paycheque at the end of the day. Absolutely not. A good editor will smooth out what's not working in a novel and strive to make it the best that it can be, regardless of whether a book is being self published or not. But. But. I think there's something to be said for having an editor with the strength of a house behind them. They aren't dedicated solely to you as the writer -- they're dedicated to the book, to making it shine and stand out and live, and at a certain point I think this dedication extends beyond the author herself.

A good editor will understand the book as a separate entity from the writer, and will work to make that book as brilliant as it can be. They will do this even if an author disagrees, and while I don't mean to say that an author should come to blows with their editor for the sake of art, I do think that we writers don't always know what's best for our books. I've talked about it before. Oftentimes we're too close to our work to understand that certain aspects of it might not work -- we have too much internal backstory to understand that this character isn't coming through on the page, or we have to much knowledge of what was written and discarded to understand that a reader might not actually get what we're trying to say. A good editor will understand this, and will work to bring these elements out. A good editor will work for your book more than they'll work for you, and that's why they're invaluable.

(Let's just clarify, as well -- we're talking about substantive editing here, at least in this first stage. Copy-editing -- that comes later, and is every bit as essential.)

And here's where my "one-foot-in-self-publishing-and-one-foot-in-traditional-publishing" story wavers, just a little bit. I edited my first novel over a period of years, so that the story itself changed, bit by bit, with me. I took on suggestions that those publishers gave me, and worked to make the book as professional as it could be. But did I have an editor do the substantive edit on the manuscript? No. Do I regret this? Maybe a little bit. Looking back on the book now, do I see things that I would change, or imagine things that I might have done differently? Yes. I do. Would this have been different if I'd worked longer and secured a publisher for the novel so that it came out with a traditional house, however small, as opposed to a self-publishing platform?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Who knows. I could choose, I suppose, to get all bound up in regret over this. But what's the point? So the novel hasn't made a huge splash. Literary novels rarely do. But was the process still useful? That book got me my agent, so yes, it was. And do I understand the book-making process a bit more now? Yes. Do I understand the marketing machine a little bit better? Definitely. Has my appreciation for editors and publishers increased as a result of my foray into self-publishing? Absolutely. 

I hear too many people talking about self-publishing, nowadays, as an excellent way to cut out the "middle man" in the publishing industry. As though publishing houses have, for years, existed solely to fleece authors out of their royalties and run a business that's just about money and very rarely about books. And while this is no doubt true in plenty of cases, there are literally hundreds of publishing houses out there -- not to mention thousands of editors, copy-editors, publishers and bookish people -- who will work and sweat and scream to bring good books to the world. Lepucki interviewed Peter Straub for her article, and he said this about the process (again, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do):

Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can’t, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself?

"The novel that is truest to itself." That, I think, gets at the essence of it all. This is what I love most about Lepucki's article. Despite her open admiration of self-publishing and the authors that have managed to make this model work for them, she's still advocating for a process that seeks to polish and revise books to make them shine. She's arguing for a process that supports the middle man, not because he's a money-grubbing corporate executive, but because he's an essential cog in the bookmaking machine, in much the same way as the writer herself is essential. The middle man, in so many cases, is not evil. The middle man can, in fact, make many books even better.

And so. As someone who has self-published, and is now transitioning into traditional publishing, I think Lepucki's reasons for avoiding self publishing are commendable, and entirely pertinent. I love what she has to say on the process. I do think we're living in a landscape that shifts different ways with the day, and it's entirely possible that some of the points in the article might likewise shift in months to come. (The spectre of the "slush pile" becoming open to the public is also something I find fascinating. It's like we're moving into a giant workshop model, where pieces are workshopped, in a sense, by the general public. As though the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell speaks of -- those 10,000 hours that someone must put into a craft in order to really excel in it -- are no longer the province of a solitary artist, but are put on display so that we can watch artists grow and progress and emerge. Plenty of pros and cons to this, yes. But that's another post for another day.)

But! Today I find it refreshing to see that the champions of traditional publishing are still alive and well. And so I say: long live small presses, and large ones, and mid-sized ones. Long live those people who continually work to champion books and bring them to the world. We have Amazon now, yes. But the old-fashioned way is still alive and kicking. The gatekeepers are still here, still dancing. They still love what they do. And today, I say that's not such a bad thing at all.

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