Monday, December 27, 2010

The Self-Publishing Class

I keep track of what I read--I use that "Living Social" service somehow connected to Facebook to log books I'm reading, books I've read, books I want to read. I adopted the service sort of on a whim; I'm reasonably certain that there are better alternative services, with more utility at least. But in any case, I've found it useful and, at times, gratifying to be able to click on a button announcing "I'm finished" when I turn the final page.

One of the apparent shortcomings of Living Social is that it doesn't access self-published books--at least not all self-published books; it's not clear to me which it lists and which it doesn't. I discovered this because lately I've been reading a fair bit of self-published books. Right now I'm reading two--one by three friends, one by a "friend" whom I've never met--and I'm reading about a third (a friend just released his self-published book, and it's generating some buzz around his core networks). I find it mildly frustrating that my reading some of these books will go unannounced, unarchived--this despite the fact that I work for a conventional trade book publisher, which one would assume ought to feel threatened by the self-publishing industry. We make our money, after all, not only by selling books but by signing authors:

no authors to sign = no books to sell
So when authors choose a route that doesn't require us, well, that feels less like a snub and more like a shot across the bow.

We're not generally threatened by self-publishing, however. I'll be honest: most of what gets self-published is not saleable. That's not to say it's not good (though I'll be honest: much of it is not good), but the otherwise good author may not be able to attract a crowd, and a trade publisher needs a crowd as much as it needs an author.

no author to sign + no crowd to buy = no job for Dave

I thought about publishing my next thing--The Parable of the Unexpected Guest--through a self-publishing outlet. But I started researching it and got bored + lazy, so I sucked up to the right people at my employer and got them to sign it. Now I just have to find a crowd . . .

But I digress. I thought about self-publishing because I've started to really get it: it's not merely the vanity thing I had once made it out to be--or, at least, it's not necessarily more vain a move than publishing with a conventional trade publisher. In fact many of the self-published books I'm reading strike me as a new kind of humility, or what passes for humility in an age of living online--a kind of humility that doesn't denigrate the life of the mind and the creativity that's inherent to being human. These folks self-publish because they write, and they write because they think, or they write in order to think, or they write because or in order that they can be creative with words.

I'm coming to the conclusion, actually, that for a particular class of people writing a book is a sort of rite of passage. It's a discipline, really, a way of synthesizing, processing and communicating what they have come so far to understand. It's like a dissertation for the student of a particular life, an intellectual travelogue for a postmodern pilgrim. Whether the book itself is broadly read is ancillary to the act of writing itself; in a world where publishing has become a working-class utility rather than an aristocratic luxury, it's enough to have written. You can then go on with whatever's next.

Some self-publishers go on to write books for publishers like my employer; some others continue to publish "off grid" as a sort of conviction, even though they have the attention of publishers like us. Some others will never write another book. Not everything any of them has written is great or even good, but for this class of people it's good nonetheless that they've written. God bless them: they honor a tradition older and more profound than publishing. They honor writing, and thinking, and creating. May their tribe increase.


Kurt Willems said...

David, Very interesting take on the self-publishing market. As one who is finishing up a book proposal I continue to toss around the idea of going with a 'print on demand' type option... but, then I am feeling like this writing thing may turn out to be something I continue to do rather than a 'fleshing out of ideas' or as you say - "a rite of passage." Very interesting to hear your take on this shift in the book production world...

- Kurt Willems

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

This is really helpful for me to understand. The first book I ever wrote will never see the light of day (after all, who wants to read a 220 page Christian fantasy novel written by a 15 year old?); my second book was with a small publisher, but utilized some aspects of the print-on-demand system and my next book is (as you know) with your employer and you as my publisher. So I have a bit of range in my experience.

The rite of passage (which really was a combination of the first two manuscripts) made the third book possible and the hope for future books deeply rooted. Of course, how my third book will do remains to be seen!

Great thoughts, David.