Being an Independent Author. Self – Publishing.
Eighteen hundred and twenty-seven days ago, 1827, or five years and one day, this year being a Leap Year, I set out, once again, to become a published author. I knew nothing about the publishing business as it functions today. One could reasonably argue that I still don’t know that much about it.
Twenty years ago I put together a collection of poems and stories that ended sweetly, after what I thought some serious grit in places, with my first little poem about a flower, written in 1977 at the tender age of nine. I then set it aside.
That was back in the days of typewriters and copy machines, stuffing a copy or your manuscript into an envelope with an accompanying professional quality business letter and mailing it off to a publishing company/editor who was more than likely a stranger to you, and, perhaps more importantly, you were a stranger to them. Your work was your representative. You’d send along, perhaps, a notice of receipt to be returned to you along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and possibly return postage for the manuscript itself because making copies was expensive, though I had invested in not only a good electric typewriter, but also a copy machine, and then you’d wait.
I went through the process several times back then, a few of my poems had been published prior, and the responses that I received were not wholly discouraging. However, I was going through a divorce at the time, mother to a three-year old, working, and writing the book itself had left me exhausted. Though I never stopped writing, scribbling in some notebook or another, I set the manuscript aside and went on about family life.
I imagined a publishing world of integrity, filled with sophisticated, intelligent, honorable, if not noble, people, committed to the work, the writing, and that world as art.
Someday, I would have an agent, perhaps a publicist to refer you to, and the luxury of just turning out my stories and poems and many novels, saying, “Here you go!” Handing them off to my editor while all of those other people in the publishing process did whatever the heck they do. I’d be able to really only concern myself with the creative part. I didn’t think about millions or money at that point. I didn’t think about fame or signing autographs. I just thought about the writing, the creative part, about doing that, and being able to get that done. What I thought about at that point was that it would be my life, my job, my career, like any other job, I’d be paid for it. I knew nothing of writing or industry conventions, I did not like giving readings or being on “stage,” as it were, still don’t, and have always been comforted by the fact that writing- novels, poems, stories- generally isn’t a group activity. I am from the days of writers generally only being of any further interest if their work was of interest, and that still then being the focus of things.
It is a lovely dream.
I’m going to guess that perhaps the top three percent of writers in the business have something close to that situation, James Ellroy, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Danielle Steel likely runs her pages through a noodle maker in the kitchen and straight to the presses from there at this point, people at the top of whatever their writing game is.
That dream was all way before the internet.
The internet has given way to a glut in the market of several professions, keeping things clean and legit for the most part for the sake of this discussion, everyone wants to be a writer, or a photographer, or have something to do in the writing and/or publishing business these days. Writers and photographers have become the proverbial buses of the internet, there will be another one along in five minutes.
“I imagined a publishing world of integrity, filled with sophisticated, intelligent, honorable, if not noble people…”
Well, there’s a good chance there are some people in the business reading that and laughing at it, hard.
There are some truly decent people in the writing world, just really cool, decent, awesome, completely wonderful, people.
But I did mention that were talking about “people” and “business?” Here is where I have to say that I completely reject the seemingly pervasive notion that everyone in the publishing industry is somehow completely noble, saintly even, and harboring nothing but good intentions and the want to help. What on earth sets these individuals apart from the foibles of regular people in every other industry? We know of the many stories of those in the music industry who were not given their due in some way, whether financially or when it came time to give credit for the work. We know of the corruption of the Hollywood casting couch. We accept the idea of there being a level of “dirty business” in every other area of the entertainment industry or the arts, and yet when it comes to the literary world, suddenly we are expected to believe that everyone is really just there to help you and with your best interests at heart, an idea that is ludicrous and lacking in logic or common sense. This, the publishing business is very big business, just like any other big business, and with people and big business you often find… what?
Corruption at worst, perhaps pollution of the process, in some way or another, at times, at best.
No! Surely it isn’t so! Yes, sadly it is very so.
Some people are there to “help,” while others are there to “help themselves.”
(I’ve since become aware of the level piracy of manuscripts that goes on as a result of unscrupulous people on the internet, those who are lacking in any kind of pride in themselves or concept of morality or self-respect.)
As I’ve much discussed here on this very web page, I write some of everything, across several genres. I never thought about it before the last five years in those terms. I sat down to write and I wrote whatever I wrote and that was that, it was whatever it was when I was finished with it. I never thought about the fact that most writers do not write in a variety of genres. So, I thought that all writers were simply writers, in this great big ocean of writers, regardless of what they wrote, they were writers. There are horror writers and Noir writers and crime writers and sci-fi writers and fantasy writers, etc., and that is all that they write, in that one genre area. Then of course there are poets. It’s enough to make a gal quake at the question, “What do you write?”
Stammering the nervous answer, “I’m a Cephalopod. I write some of everything.”
The general response to that answer is simply, “Oh.”
To help clarify it somewhat, perhaps it would help to think of those genres as each one being a designated table in the cafeteria. The horror writers table, the Bizarro table, the Noir table, and so on. I didn’t think that it was like that, because as I said, I really hadn’t thought about it much at all, but it really kind of is like that. Now, I will say that I do see that changing, somewhat, here and there, and hopefully more and more, but for the most part, people sit at their group table, and that’s normal, people find their people.
The glut in the markets has created a super intensified level of competition, at all levels of publishing. There are varying degrees of envy, jealousy and cattiness, at all levels of publishing, as well as cliquey-ness and cronyism. There is something of a class system at work. There are editors who only, or usually, publish solicited stories from certain writers ( specifically asked for material, stories requested specifically from that writer or group of writers) writers that they know, have worked with before, perhaps for years, with whom they have a rapport, a reliable working relationship, perhaps no time or interest in messing with instructing new talent. So that super cool anthology that you’re hoping to get into, it could take you years, unless someone wants to help you. This creates a vacuum of talent, another kind of exclusive clique if you will, of the same mishmash of authors on one table of contents after another. There’s also, I’ve gathered, some bizarre balance of the right amount of sycophancy involved, because if you are perceived as having some kind of special “in” or “privilege,” then that really may not help you in the long-term anymore than not having any “in” at all. But, of course, everyone is there to help everyone, of course, at least on the surface of things. Quality work from “unknowns” not only often goes unpublished, but it doesn’t even get read. Relegated to the slush pile never even to get a response. The other factor that figures into that is formal education. If you can slap some educated initials after your name, you’ve got a better shot at having your stuff read by someone, underling or not. You’ve also likely got a better shot at having it be taken seriously or treated with respect, this is a terrible truth, your work might be better than that of the person who has the Master of Fine Arts, or whatever other degree, but the educated person has a better chance of being published.
“Oh, have you read Slarser Goppengop? She’s got an MFA, a PhD. in Humanities, and a Bachelors in Ancient Sanskrit. She went to Harvard.”
“What’s the story about?”
“What it’s like to be a high school drop out and be a completely independent woman at a young age. She really captured the authenticity of the thing. Great imagination!”
There are as many different kinds of publishing as there are genres. Publishing houses of all sizes and configurations from self publishing to Mom and Pop operations to Indie presses, right on up the food chain to the big five publishing houses. Overnight success stories are incredibly rare, it takes most people at least a decade to get anywhere near that kind of thing. A decade of working to get stories published along traditional publishing lines, networking, making connections, friends, and so on. But, there are those who get the agent, get the book deal, and then that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success either. Hundreds, if not thousands, of authors get their book deal, receive their initial advance, and then for whatever reason, or reasons, the book languishes, does nothing, goes nowhere, and chances are, it could be years before they see another royalty check, if they ever do, that’s why everyone wants that advance on future sales. Book publishers are in business to make money. ( The Truth About Publishing, by Ian Irvine.) (Please note, I don’t have ten thousand dollars lying around, what I have is a loving husband who is a Teamster, who works his ass off driving a truck. We do, occasionally, play the Lotto.) Ever see former best sellers or main stream publications on the shelf at the Dollar Store? Here’s an article on how that happens.
At other levels of publishing, email and electronic submissions, the internet, can make it too easy for those who are unscrupulous to, shall we say “borrow,” from the work of others, and worse than that, depending on whatever process is at work, an author dealing with a crooked editor might not even know better than to adjust their work too much or take too much “specific” direction. I believe that my work has been stolen from a couple of times, at least. In one instance, it resulted in me having to forgo publication of my own novel, a book deal, or risk potentially causing a lot of problems at the time. At that point that isn’t just stealing someone’s work, it’s stealing their dream, and doing it knowingly. I wonder how common an occurrence it actually is, as people are perpetuated by greed, perpetuated by their own narcissism and desperate need to be perceived as whatever it is, not to mention sometimes being motivated by what is simply flat-out envy when they see someone who has talent or any kind of spark. I would guess that in this day and age, there could be any variety of motivations. Personally, I don’t understand how someone could feel good, in their souls, knowing that they were receiving undeserved recognition for work or an idea that they stole. But, psychologists say, we’re all deluding ourselves about something. Sometimes that’s a big deal, work or ideas being stolen or borrowed from, sometimes, really not so much. Writers in the same general talent pool, are going to have some effect on one another, and, that’s a good thing, a cool thing even. Look at the writers of The Lost Generation, or The Beats, for example. None the less, it can be galvanizing to realize that you came up with something unique, something that you worked hard at, were excited about, perhaps even suffered for, and you can’t use it, or you can’t use it unless you change it, something that you shouldn’t have to do since it was yours in the first place, or can’t use it without a fight, and to realize that if you can’t prove it, where are you at then? Several authors right now are in dispute with publishers and editors, because several authors are always in dispute with editors and publishers because, in some way or another, it happens all the time. Then you’re risking damage to reputation, yours and others, and whose knows what else. It reminded me of reading many years ago, like decades, that Anne Rice had it stipulated in her contract that her work was to be published exactly as she had written it for some of these reasons, that grammar and spelling could be corrected but that no re-writing, restructuring, rewording, of any kind was to be done to her work by anyone other than her, thus maintaining the unpolluted integrity of the work as hers. Editors sometimes suggest things, or have to me, a change of location for a story, or here, “Add this in right here, it’ll do xyz for your story.” But where did they get that bit from? How do you know? It isn’t at all an outlandish possibility, though, hopefully, it is rare. I might have set a story in one city, and the editor might have wanted it moved to another. I think, with things like that, you pick your battles but I learned, finally, to ask, “Why? Why do you want this changed?” To ask, because it’s my name on the story.
Along those lines the internet also lends itself to an atmosphere of distrust because there are so many imposters out there. I would guess that charlatans submitted work to publishers back in the dark ages too, but the fact is that the internet makes that too easy for some people. But back in those days, if you mailed in a story about drug addled dragons swooping in to be killed be Aztec Warriors and Roman Gods, all anyone cared about was whether or not the story was good, and not whether or not you were “authentic,” pardon me, whatever the hell that means. No one was going to call you up and ask for your pedigree.
When I started submitting horror stories to horror publishers, I started getting rejection notices. One female horror editor, who I had not as yet submitted any work to, commented about me in a thread on a social network, “Who is she? She’s irrelevant.” The tone of it was disdainful in such a way that I had the impression that I’d been further discussed, and that what had been discussed had nothing to do with my work. I’m not saying that crying in my corn flakes, because as far as comments on the internet go, that’s pretty tame, obviously. But what I’m saying is, that the tone was, “Who is she? She’s NOBODY.” And worse, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS? Straight up, I’m not holding a grudge, but I’m not ever going to forget it either. I thought, “Who the hell are you?” Point being that from there it seemed not to be about my work, but about who I was, or who I am. That should not be the case. I’m going to say that again, that should never be the case. Your friends, your enemies, your politics, your opinions,your religion or lack there-of, the color of your hair, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, your gender, who you are sleeping with, or speculation about any such matters, should have no bearing on whether or not your work is considered to be good or of value.
“She’s a diva. She’s a dog. She’s a woman. She’s an Atheist. She’s a Christian. She’s crazy. She’s a prude. She’s uptight. She has gender issues. She’s got opinions. She wants to sleep with so and so. She is sleeping with him?! She thinks she can write in every genre? She listens to disco. She’s friends with them? She isn’t friends with them? She isn’t friends with us? She won’t let us look up her sphincter. Well, she’s so white- Anglo-Saxon- Upper- Middle-Class. Well, she comes from a trailer park, what do you expect from white trash? She can’t make up her mind. She’s too pretty. She thinks she’s pretty? She’s not that pretty anymore. She thinks this is about being pretty. She’s irrelevant. She’s speaking her mind.” —– That’s what is irrelevant or should be. Whatever, Is the work/story good? (And if it was good enough to rip off, I’m going to go with it was good enough to pay me for and publish. To that end, and this is something of an aside, my work has been “appropriated” both from my web page and through “proper” channels, meaning that it hasn’t mattered and I’m certainly not the only writer that has happened to. What I’m saying is that in any such situation, at some point, you’ve ever only as much protection as is provided by the scruples of whoever you’re dealing with.)
Gone are the days of those mostly anonymous envelopes sent off to publishers where only your work would be judged. When that editor said that about me, that I was irrelevant, it wasn’t about my work or whether or not my work was good or important, or might be, it was about whether or not I personally was somebody she felt worthy of noticing, it was a personal judgment, not a professional one, as to whether or not I was personally someone worth treating professionally with common decency, and respect.
Make no mistake, when someone does that to you, that is NOT about you, that is about them and how they treat people, which, make no mistake, is UNEQUALLY. It’s kind of tough to maintain a sense of professionalism when you’re at the bottom and a lot of the people above you with a tiny taste of power can’t keep themselves from wielding it like five-year-olds on the playground. Which led to a feeling that I had not expected, and that was that the gloves were off from the start and that even common courtesy was out the window. Like I said, that’s really the least of it, this isn’t a nice business at times, and nearly no one ever starts at the top. That door into the horror writing community seemed to keep getting slammed in my face. For every bit of ground I gained, it was one step forward, two steps back. I could get stories published in other genres, and for each one of those, there would be the rejection of a horror story. There have been highlights, of course, but you start to think that your being relegated to a certain area, pigeon- holed. Not something that I’m a fan of, it’s stifling to creativity, for starters. Needless to say, there are a lot of egos involved in this business and if you don’t have something of an ego one way or another, you’re probably not going to last long.
I took a step back to try to get some perspective.
Was it just me? Was it the work?
I published pieces on my web page that had been rejected, some of them had been rejected several times. They were good enough stories that people liked them, enjoyed them, and asked, Why didn’t you sell those?
It can be very difficult to find the right publishing home for your work. By then I had become leery of submitting work because I was seeing a lot of things that I didn’t like and that didn’t sit well with me, getting stolen from will do that. Recent controversies and scandals within the horror community speak for themselves. ( You can catch up on all of that particular situation if your interested at the webpage of author Brian Keene.) As someone who was still something of an outsider, this has all been quite the learning curve and ultimately, I’m glad that I didn’t get involved in some things, though obviously there are good people within that organization ( the H.W.A.) and they’re trying to clean things up.
Then there are all the things that are part of the general course of doing business. People who aren’t writers don’t quite get the time involved in the publishing process, never mind the time it takes to write. It could be months after submitting a story before you hear anything back. I submitted a story to a major market over two years ago, haven’t ever heard a word, that happens all the time, implied rejection. Other things fall through. Several times in the last two years something has been basically looking like it was ready to go only to have communication cease for no apparent reason, then you try to find out. In once case the magazine had been bought but no one would even say as much and so eventually you hear it through the grapevine or find something on the internet on your own. On another occasion, a contract was unceremoniously terminated by the publisher, the story released back to me, no explanation was ever given. But that’s all part of the regular course of things as you write the story, you send it out, you wait. And you wait. And then you wait.
In the meantime, the internet has created a public forum where it seems more a personal popularity contest than anything else. Writers tend to be a somewhat odd, strange, solitary creatures, given to bouts of moodiness and sequestering themselves away to do what they do, that is write. Social networking often has an “office politics” atmosphere mixed in with real politics, among other things. Gone are the days of your manuscript being free of the specter of your recent vacation photos, your personal opinions that you lost your shit about and took the ever plentiful bait on, your religion, your squabbles with whoever, the gossip that isn’t really happening but it is, and whether or not you still looked good at the last whatever it was and “Are you one of us?” While I am certain that it likely helped if you knew someone back in the day, you still had a shot if you didn’t. A good deal of the time, the last few years, it has often seemed like less of a professional business involving some of the most intelligent people around, than a free for all food fight in a high school cafeteria, or a flat-out popularity contest of about the same maturity level, will the quarterback and the prettiest cheerleader be Homecoming King and Queen again this year? If not that, then tokenism, or a knee jerk presentation of a statement in the exact opposite direction. All of which is polluted.
I loathe such nonsense. I always have. I always will. I’ve no interest in it. It is a waste of time and doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t get any work done either. This is supposed to be about the work, the writing, getting the job done. You show up, you do your job, you go “home.”
You realize and learn very quickly that you could be the most talented writer who ever lived, and that that in and of itself, still might not be enough.
For me, this has always been about my work itself, regardless of what anyone thinks of me. I’ve been writing all my life at this point. I write because I love writing. All of the rest of it is just distraction and bullshit that keeps any work from really getting done. I don’t feel the same way about any of it anymore. I don’t feel the same way about my writing as I used to. I have to fix that for me, and I don’t much care what anyone thinks of that at this point. I’ve always been one to think for myself, as much as I sometimes think that I want to fit in or belong. I’ve always been one to kind of go my own way.
I want to write, publish my work, and be paid for it. I’ve got bills to pay just like everyone else. There are things that I want, not just material things or needs, but I have goals for my writing. I happen to have a great deal of integrity about my work, it matters to me. I want people, fans, potential fans, to be able to read and enjoy my writing without me having to always, completely, give it away. I want the amount of time from the completion of a piece of writing to its publication and availability for purchase by the reader, to be a reasonable amount of time, one that I have more control over.
I’ve learned a lot and no doubt, I still have a lot more to learn. Having given it a great deal of thought over the course of the last year, thinking about what I want to accomplish, what my goals are, I have decided that I will be going the route of self-publishing my work. I may still occasionally submit stories here and there with other publishers if something interests me, or I may not. Perhaps, someday someone may even ask me to contribute work, and I may want to, it could happen. There are a lot of really great, decent, talented, people within the writing and publishing business, and communities, a lot. I have gotten to work with some of them, and there are those whom I still hope to work with eventually.
I have composed and self-published my own work before, for personal reasons, and I did a good job with it too. So this is not an idea that is new to me. I’m not unaware of the amount of work involved though this is a different endeavor in so many ways. Not getting anything done though, not getting anywhere, and being reliant on the approval if not the validation of others to the point of being at a stand still, doesn’t sit well with me. Everything that any given writer creates, isn’t going to be the best thing that they ever did, but I know that I am a good writer. If you’re a writer and you don’t know that you’re good, or think that you’re good, what are you doing writing?
I believe in my work. I care what I think. I believe in myself.
Is it more of a risk to self publish?
In some ways, yes. Publishing with others provides a built-in support system. Your publisher obviously has an interest in seeing your work, you, succeed, other authors within a publishing house tend to be supportive of the other authors as their “co-workers,” after a fashion, and their friends, especially at the Indie publishing level, so yes, there’s that. By that same measure, however, sometimes mediocre work gets elevated. But yes, it is more of a risk in those terms. I’ve read several other authors and publishers takes on the subject, I have my own comprehension of such things.
I guess I’m as prepared as anyone can be for the possibility that it could all go terribly wrong, that once available to be purchased, the work won’t sell, or that it will and it will be hated, panned. There’s the possibility that that could happen even if it’s great work, for all the reasons why I’ve made this decision in the first place. There are a lot of variables. If I make twenty bucks a month at it, that’s more than I’ve been making, and my work, my writing, will be published and in the world as art. Though I’m hoping to do slightly better than that obviously. If things had gone differently the last five years, I probably wouldn’t have made this decision. This wasn’t the route that I wanted to go or intended to go. But, things have happened the way that they have. I have a lifetime of writing available to me so I certainly have plenty of work to publish, writing new things too, I am still thinking about that.
Though I haven’t decided which book I want to publish first, or whether it will be a collection of poems, or stories, I hope to have one book out before the end of this year.
Who knows, it could all go very well.
Thank you, so much, for reading!
Best wishes and warm regards.