Some thoughts on self-publishing

Till quite recently, I regarded self-published work with Wodehouse-like scorn; it was synonymous with slim volumes of verse (never chunky novels) printed at a rich aunt’s expense and then pressed into the indignant hands of friends and family on Christmas morning. Of course there were exceptions (Leaves of Grass!), but like most readers, I made two assumptions about the practice: one, that authors resorted to self-publication when rejected by more ‘legitimate’ presses, and two, that the rejectors–the agents and editors and publishers and store owners who act as the gatekeepers of publishing–knew what they were doing. Over the past five years, though, my second assumption has been repeatedly challenged, thanks to the trash that many mainstream publishing houses shove our way, and, more importantly, because so much self-published work comes from the margins; as a resident of these margins, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to believe that rejection is based solely on the marketability and/or quality of a manuscript. While I do think the chaff currently overshadows  the grain in self-publishing, I also view it as an organic, technology-enabled response to the systemic exclusion of certain types of writing (and writers) by mainstream publishing.

It was in this spirit that I attended a talk on self-publishing last Thursday at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. The event featured three authors. Neesha Meminger‘s first YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon was published by Simon and Schuster; she then self-published her second YA novel, Jazz in Love (links go to my reviews on this site). Musician-writer Vivek Shraya self-published a  collection of illustrated short stories titled God Loves Hair, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Award.  Zetta Elliott is a traditionally published poet and playwright who self-published a YA novel A Wish After Midnight. I’ve read work by two of the three and had very fruitful interactions with them in the virtual world (check out Zetta’s great essay on Women Doing Literary Things here), and I was keen to hear them in person.

Zetta, Neesha, Vivek, and host Annemarie (Pic credit: Victoria Moreno of TWB)

The talk, titled Changing the Face of Publishing, was excellent; I have no plans to publish a book but found myself intensely invested in the authors’ journeys to publication. I was particularly struck by two issues. First, the past proven successes of these writers meant little to the publishers they queried. Zetta, for instance, has a PhD from NYU, teaches African American literature at Hunter College, and is a very successful playwright and poet, and yet, she couldn’t get a foot into the door when it came to mainstream publishing (I was truly chilled to hear of her ten-year long rejection period). You really have to wonder what’s going on with the publishing industry here. And second, publishing and writing books wasn’t an end in itself for these writers. All of them had a bigger vision, an agenda if you will, and they believed it was important for younger readers to have access to their (sort of) work–Neesha’s writing deals with South Asian immigrants, Zetta’s with African American narratives, and Vivek’s with queerness and immigrant identity. In the greater scheme of things, the method of publishing did not matter to these writers as much as their writing being  available to those seeking, and, in a sense, needing such alternative stories.

So, knowing what sort of place you’re writing from seems to be critical when evaluating whether or not to self-publish. I also think self-publishing seems ideally suited to foster two sorts of writing in particular–genre fiction, where markets are very crowded and competitive and pricing is key, and writing dealing with historically marginalized topics/groups. It makes perfect sense that these extremes met in self-publishing; these are the two areas where the obvious penalties of non-traditional publishing–mainstream reviewers ignoring such books, and the ineligibility of such books for many awards–do not have as much significance.

The audience questions at the event came from aspiring writers, and consisted of hard-edged queries about the business–e-books versus hard copies, profit margins, print run sizes, returnability clauses and the like. If you are interested in self-publishing, you must check out the video of the talk. And even if you aren’t, do spend a few minutes watching some intelligent, informed, articulate, and um, very good-looking writers talk with passion and generosity about their work.  You can view the video of the talk and the subsequent Q&A here (link credit: Facing Out).

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13 responses to “Some thoughts on self-publishing

  1. Self-publishing is definitely changing. At present, I think you are quite right to say that there is more of dubious quality out there than brilliant books, but so many good authors are having trouble getting interesting work published that doesn’t fit the ‘elevator pitch’ or concerns topics considered uncommercial that self-publishing becomes the natural route. Also, a lot of recently dropped mid-listers are making their way there, as well as the odd few successful authors who hope to make more money. It will be intriguing to see what happens next. Proust was a self-published author, as was Anais Nin – there are some good precedents!

    • I’m really interested in whether self-publishing will work for literary fiction. In its current avatar, the answer seems like no, but as you say, things are changing so fast that it just might become possible. I’m intrigued too!

  2. Hi Nina,
    Very well written. Being self-published myself it is was really heartening reading your post. This May I’ll complete a year since launching BRIGHTER RED and have sold about 700 copies – never imagined I’d reach that number. I’ve done book signings in every large Chapters/Indigo store and the folks at these stores are some of the greatest people I have met in the literary marketing world.
    I would have loved to attend this event but will check out the video.
    Thanks for lending your powerful voice to the self-published world .

    Regards,

    Kevin Lobo

  3. Very interesting, Niranjana. Like you, I, too, had scorn for the self-publishing world. But things are changing – largely for the better – and there are some really good self-published books out there.
    Funnily enough, I read two articles just today, on topics closely related to what you have written. One, in the New York Times, is about Book Country, a website set up by Penguin, that endeavors to create an online writing community where writers can workshop their work and also allows them to self-publish for a fee. The second, in the Wall Street Journal, is about writers resorting to various commercial arrangements, like incorporating product placements and including advertisements in their books, as a way of covering the costs of self-publishing.

    • Thanks for the heads-up, Kamini! I’d read the NYT piece but not the WSJ. I think chick-lit has been doing product placements for a while–the genre is , in general, so obsessed with consumerism that this seems but the logical next step.

  4. I held similar view but I changed long time ago. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter what you are writing. What matters is how marketable the book is or you the author is. I have read stories whose titles have nothing to do with the stories but they are meant to attract. It’s that bad and I am glad that you have found that out. I know of a writer who’s also a scientist Fred McBangoluri. He self-publishes because he has not the time to go about chasing publishers and as a scientist who has worked with Siemens and others, it affords him the chance to write at his own pace.

  5. The authors at the talk mentioned speed to market as one of the bigger advantages of self-publishing–I think many traditional publishers take upto a year to respond to query letters. That is pretty crazy!
    The current state of publishing seems pretty chaotic, doesn’t it? I think everyone’s holding their collective breath and wondering what’s going to happen next….

  6. Great post! When I think of self-published books, I have a tendency to think the worst but then I remember books that have been so positively reviewed like A Wish After Midnight and Jazz in Love.

  7. I’ve always been rather dubious of self-published works too, for the reasons you articulate. However, I remember reading about Jill Paton Walsh’s resorting to self-publishing for an adult novel (which was later taken up by a mainstream publisher) – and she was a well-known and highly-regarded writer of children’s books. And Virginia Woolf’s books were originally published by her husband’s press, which he’d set up specifically for that purpose.

    I wonder if the abolition of the net book agreement has had anything to do with publishers chasing the big sellers at the expense of quality? From what I hear, the big chain booksellers now demand huge discounts which may or may not cover the costs of publishing the books.

  8. Interesting about Walsh (I didn’t know she wrote for children; I’ve only read her adult fiction). This is one of the things that confounds me–why are publishers so skeptical that writing expertise won’t transfer across genre/form?
    And yes, the chain bookstores apparently wield enormous power–Memeinger mentioned that her S&S novel wasn’t stocked by the biggest chain because they didn’t like the cover.

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