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).