Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
One thing that has developed over the last few years that could be an elemental game changer is self-publishing.
In its present form, it doesn’t quite answer the call, but I think that’s mainly because writers of literary fiction are, for the most part, steering clear. Instead, it has become the go-to platform for writers of almost every popular genre, from sci-fi to romance to YA to Bigfoot Erotica. In a way, it’s something of a cross between the old vanity press and fanfic, attracting authors — and readers — who are into their genres in a big way. But in the vanity press days, authors had to pay a huge sum of money to produce their books, and there was no convenient distribution channel. You ordered five hundred copies and stored them in your garage, schlepping them around wherever you went to sell on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Now, with Amazon for Kindle books and Barnes & Noble for Nook titles (along with Apple and a number of other outlets), writers can, in theory at least, reach readers directly without the middle man of the traditional publisher getting between them and without paying a vanity press for the privilege.
The advantages are clear and have been outlined over and over. They include, perhaps most significantly, authorial control. From conception of the story to cover design, the author makes all of the decisions, for better or worse, and answers to no one but her readers. It’s possible to experiment, to change text or cover image, to manipulate pricing to accommodate market conditions, and to risk failure. The readership is so large and diverse that there’s almost no fear of alienating a significant portion of it, which means that writers can be bold if they have the inclination.
So far, though, as this essay has suggested, it seems as if most writers are playing it torpefyingly safe.
It’s the perfect time, then, for literary writers — or writers of any stripe — to use self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing to try the things that traditional publishers are afraid of.
Unfortunately, there remains a stigma on self-publishing, and to a lesser extent on the ebook format, that is making literary authors reluctant to use it. There’s also the sense that traditional publishing, in its role as gatekeeper, serves to brand a writer with something like a badge of quality or seriousness that’s missing from self-published books. When FS&G publishes a novel, it means the book is art and potential readers can trust that it meets certain high standards. A self-published novel, maybe even one by the same FS&G writer, carries in the reader’s mind a risk that it doesn’t rise to those standards — otherwise it would have been published by a big house.
In the last couple of years, writers like David Mamet have dabbled in self-publishing as a way of retaining more control over their work and keeping more of the money as well. Traditional publishers are famously stingy with advances and royalty rates, especially for unknown or mid-list writers, so going “selfie” is a way of circumventing the old system. On top of that, as in indie music where artists often form their own labels and release their work on the internet, the author becomes the complete brand — a small self-contained corporation that projects whatever image the author wants. For writers who already have a strong reputation, it would seem that the risk isn’t very great that they’ll lose their cachet. More well-known writers should take the plunge. Only when the general perception changes and readers on a large scale understand that self-publication isn’t synonymous with bad will innovative work begin to show up.
But here’s the real problem. We have to admit that so much self-published stuff is just plain bad. Truth-telling Chuck Wendig has preached it, and we can’t deny the truth. Much of this stuff has the mark of the amateur, like thrift store paintings. It’s rushed into virtual print before it has been fully fleshed out and revised, often before it’s had decent editing. Typos are rampant, but worse than that, a preponderance of self-published writers have no apparent understanding of story structure, scene-making, pacing, thematic motifs, or other more esoteric devices. Many authors are also obsessed with the idea of publishing four or five or six books a year in order to keep their name in front of readers hungry for titles in whatever genre, who devour series like so many Ho Ho’s. It means more to them to have a bunch of covers on their Amazon pages, screaming out to readers, “I’m prolific enough to satisfy your appetite!” They think quantity is more important than quality, in part because their readers reinforce that.
Yet there are plenty of writers out there — like me, frankly — who may have had their shot at traditional publishing and got bad breaks, didn’t understand the stakes, or simply beat the odds once and couldn’t do it again. They, we, have a lot of books in us. We’re capable writers, we have talent, we’re driven, and as you’ve heard many times and will hear again and again, we can’t not write. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of the new technology and try to have an impact on readers if not on literature at large?
I’ve found, in my own trek through the land of self-publishing, that it isn’t geared toward literary fiction, making it difficult to categorize my books in a way that represents them accurately but also offers opportunities for good sales. More often than not, “literary” is missing from the list of genre choices on promotional sites, and I’m forced to select something like general or commercial fiction. In marketing my novel, Occasional Soulmates, I usually had to pick between romance or chick lit when it’s really neither of those. Women’s fiction is a basket that includes so many different types of books that it doesn’t fill the bill either. Sure, I’m partly to blame too — for writing a book that’s hard to classify — but this is the nature of work that traditional publishers have turned away from. They don’t know how to sell it.
Odd, because publishers have found innovative ways to market everything from Thomas Pynchon to Go The Fuck To Sleep, so it’s not that they don’t know how. It’s just not as easy as selling a market category like YA dystopian.
But self-publishing can be so much more flexible and independent — that’s why it’s called indie — and there’s no reason why category-busting books can’t find eager audiences.
The personal costs to the writer can be easily affordable, so hesitation on that front isn’t reasonable. Instead, I’m afraid that the combination of traditional publishing’s prestige and self-publishing’s (current) low esteem in the eyes of many prevent talented writers from testing the waters. They’d rather go through the time-tested but usually futile process of querying agents, re-crafting their work for the marketplace, accepting a small advance in the hopes of breaking out and earning royalties later, and essentially promoting their own work with their own money. Most agents accept less than one percent of submissions, and the rate at publishing houses is equally dismal. The odds might be better than those of winning the lottery, but in a practical sense they’re not; it takes a ridiculous level of legwork and perseverance and immunity to lame criticism to get through the gates the sanctimonious gatekeepers have erected. All to achieve the publication of a book that’s soon lost in the crowd and more or less forgotten.
A lot of writers have good reason to believe they’ll succeed this way. Some of them will. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them will grind away during what could be the happiest and most productive days of their lives, wishing for something that happens to a painfully minute segment of the population. It’s not good for anyone to fail, but it’s worse when writers with genuine talent and unique vision are excluded from participation in their chosen art form.
They should take matters into their own hands and show the world what they can do. Publish their work on their terms.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan