WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Is Self-Publishing His New Novel

Gatecrash — Conclusion

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I keep waiting to hear about a self-published literary novel that makes waves. For that matter, I’d like to hear of a whole raft of self-published literary novels other than my own! Maybe they’re out there, but they need our help to get noticed.

Because most writers still crave traditional publication, I suppose that any significant work that might change the game to any extent would get plucked out of self-publication and hyped by one of the big houses. It’s like the boxer or ballplayer who claims he’ll never forget his old neighborhood, but once the big money comes along his buds never hear from him again. Most of us were groomed to pursue traditional publication. We can’t get it out of our heads, so that the idea of being offered a contract by one of the Big Five is an agreed-upon measure of success. It’s hard to replace it with something like “Hey, I have 50 reviews on Amazon!” The truth is, most writers who take their craft seriously are longing to see that hardback with their name on it, displayed on the front New Releases table at the best independent bookstore in town. We can’t help it. The money’s not that great, but prestige goes a long way.

But since traditional publishing is fossilized, writers with tenacity and unique imagination need an outlet for their work. They need to take the spirit of samizdat and the commitment of chapbook poets and get their stuff into the hands of people who will appreciate it — readers looking for something new, something different and exciting that breaks through the limits of genre and print publishing and punches a hole in the effing roof.

This presupposes, obviously, that Amazon and the other major indie platforms keep things as they are now. It’s not hard to picture Jeff Bezos concocting a way to extract more profits from his multitude of self-publishers, most likely by introducing a new fee structure, cutting royalty rates, or requiring authors to use Amazon design and marketing packages in order to access the wide audience available. It would be bad news if that happened, because the freedom afforded by the current system and the modest costs of it are the high-octane fuel of the indie movement. Better if it becomes even easier to publish. But also if there evolves a better way to rate and review self-published books so readers can trust the content. It would help if big-name critics and national publications would review indie books occasionally. Their seal of approval would elevate some indie writers to a level that catches the attention of mid-list and literary readers. A well-publicized movie deal would be colossal.

Once it sheds the stigma, self-publishing can become a launching pad for authors who don’t want to write what the publishers are selling. Plenty of us are out there. We don’t want to write inside the confines of a particular niche or category; we don’t want to use stock formulas that offer no opportunity for experimentation or true self-expression; we don’t think catering to a large readership by giving them nothing but what they want is productive or satisfying; and we don’t want to play the same old game anymore. As Hugh Howey, self-publishing advocate extraordinaire, has suggested, writers who were raised on digital technology (“digital natives”) are coming of age and trying new things that would either intimidate or trouble the old-school types. They’re going to create new things, and they’re going to seek out readers wherever they can find them. It’s not something that can be corralled. It’s happening.

Says Howey: “Digital natives… might post the entire work on a blog. They might text the entire work to strangers, one line at a time. They could craft these works on WattPad for public purview. They might typeset the work at a book crafting workshop and bind the pages into a jewel of stitched leather to be read by no more than one person at a time. They might distribute their masterpiece on thumbdrives. But they will write. It’s what we must do.”

Watch Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. She sings the truth. We need a revolution, and the profit motive doesn’t usually produce revolutions. The spark often comes from — writers.

Exciting work can be produced with the tools we have at hand today. It can, and must, have a massive effect on the culture and the direction of our literary evolution.

Why wait for permission from the Big Five?

Write your creative truth and put it out there to be discovered.


Read the full series, “Gatecrash: Liberating creativity in the age of boilerplate fiction” here.

You can also download the complete essay as a pdf.

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45 comments on “Gatecrash — Conclusion

  1. islandeditions
    January 25, 2016

    Kevin, I realized while reading this final post that I do know of a literary author who had been traditionally published yet decided to self-publish so he could explore a new type of fiction he hadn’t previously written. Thomas Wharton graduated from the University of Calgary Creative Writing program and now teaches creative writing at the University of Alberta. He is an award-winning author who came onto the writing scene in Canada with a bang (literary fiction) and continued to sell well with subsequent publications (fantasy series). But he decided to self-publish his most recent novel, Every Blade of Grass (which he calls eco-fiction) and a children’s picture book covering the history of Edmonton. Here are the two links about these books on my Reading Recommendations blog. https://readingrecommendations.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/thomas-wharton/
    https://readingrecommendations.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/thomas-wharton-an-update-on-a-new-childrens-book/
    He does now give public talks about his experience of self-publishing. I know he did well with his novel locally in Alberta, but I’ll need to find out from Tom how successful he found his self-publishing experience to be.

    At the moment, I can’t think of any other examples of self-published literary fiction. Most authors I know who write the “genre” still publish traditionally.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      I think that’s the perfect use of self-publishing for literary writers. To try something new that might be deemed unmarketable by the trads.

      I hope Thomas has had a good experience with his self-pubs.

    • kingmidget
      January 25, 2016

      As I read the opening lines of your comment, I thought you were going to say the author was Kevin Brennan.

    • kingmidget
      January 25, 2016

      So, maybe I don’t know what literary fiction is but I think my second novel, Weed Therapy, fits the bill. And if I ever finish The Irrepairable Past, that will be literary fiction as well. I’m actually pretty sure there’s plenty of other literary fiction out there that has been self-published. Problem is that it is impossible for us to really know about it unless we already know the author.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        It’s hard to find, based on the categories they force on you. And often what’s listed as literary is really just a genre novel with a classier looking cover. (snark!)

        The editor in me wants to alert you to spell it “irreparable” when the time comes… 😏

      • kingmidget
        January 26, 2016

        Here’s the problem … I know that Irrepairable is the incorrect spelling, but I much prefer the incorrect spelling to the correct spelling. It’s a massive problem should I ever finish the thing and publish it. I can imagine a lot of readers may be turned off by incorrectly spelling a word in the title of the story.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 26, 2016

        I wondered if you were onto something like that. You’d definitely have to signal the reader that you’re doing it on purpose. Maybe messing with the font, like Ir-REPAIR-able… But then, since it’s in the title, that implies repair is going to happen.

        Tricky, m’man!

    • Audrey Driscoll
      January 25, 2016

      Well, there was Terry Fallis. He first published The Best Laid Plans via podcast, then through iUniverse. It won the Stephen Leacock Award, was republished by M&S (not what they used to be, but definitely a “real” publisher), was the 2011 Canada Reads choice and had all sorts of adaptations and spinoffs. Success by any measure. I haven’t read the book and don’t know how literary it is (political satire), but it certainly began as self-published.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        I can’t say I’ve heard of him, down here in the hinterlands, but I sure wish we had a Stephen Leacock Humour Award down this way! We’re really behind on our literary awards…

  2. kingmidget
    January 25, 2016

    In my ideal world, there’s a platform out there that allows me to sell directly to the reader via my blog or some other website that I control. What I’d love to do is go back to the days of the serialized novel. Post a few chapters, if the reader wants more, they pay a little bit. And keep going until the story is done. Or be able to sell the entire thing as PDF download that can be read on electronic devices. I know there must be a way to do this, just haven’t got there yet. The problem with my ideal world is how to attract an audience big enough to my publishing source to make it worth the effort.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      Attracting the audience is definitely the tricky part, and I’m not sure the average blog is the best outlet. Maybe if you have a pretty good existing brand and you announce, “Now you can buy my stories directly from me,” you’ll get a decent response, but for most of us you’ll hear a bunch of crickets. Truly, I’ve learned that I can’t even give stuff away!

      But as Howey says at the end of the essay, writers who are hip to the techno are going to find ways to get their stuff out there. Maybe they aren’t going to be concerned with numbers. Maybe they put it out and move on to the next thing. Reaching readers one at a time might be more rewarding, who knows?

      • Audrey Driscoll
        January 25, 2016

        That’s where I am right now. The only thing I can change is my expectations, once I’ve polished my books and published them as competently as I can. Infinite patience is necessary, especially for my mashup of psychological, supernatural and literary rooted in a pulp horror story by H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve seen signs (minuscule ones) recently that my creations are creeping into the popular consciousness. With such small things I reassure myself.
        I know what you mean by not even being able to give stuff away, and I agree that the average blog isn’t the best outlet. And your blog has ten times the followers mine does!

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        I’ll take a minuscule sign any day!

        And by the way, I think 80% of my followers are robots…

    • curtisbausse
      January 25, 2016

      Don’t know if you’ve come across Channillo – they do serialised books to which readers sign up and pay. The site could be better but it’s a bold initiative.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        I hadn’t heard of Chanillo. Thanks for the tip, Curtis. I wonder how many readers they’re attracting. Also whether, like so much online publishing, they’re mainly an outlet for the usual genres…

      • curtisbausse
        January 26, 2016

        Mmm, yes, difficult to know the numbers. I do a humorous column there for a very few (select, discerning) readers – but that’s because I do nothing to promote it. And yes, it’s classified by genre, but there’s no ‘literary fiction’.

      • kingmidget
        January 25, 2016

        I have heard about it and it’s an option but it doesn’t have much exposure yet.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        I’m not sure serialization is going to work when there’s so much competition for our eyeballs. Sure, it worked for Dickens, but there was a lot less media then. He had everyone’s commitment. Now I bet a lot of serials would just…trail…off….

      • kingmidget
        January 25, 2016

        Not if iT IS THE BEST STORY EVER!!! I’ll have them begging, begging I tell you, for more. BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!

        But I think you may be right.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        I think you’ve crossed over the cuckoo bridge, my friend… 😜

      • kingmidget
        January 25, 2016

        Wha????

      • curtisbausse
        January 26, 2016

        No, it’s not yet 12 months old so I guess it’s early days. Authors still have to promote like crazy, obviously…

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 26, 2016

        That is a problem. The noise of too many authors promoting is not very appealing…

      • curtisbausse
        January 27, 2016

        Well, the promotion isn’t on the site itself, which is fairly well done visually. It’s just that unless you promote in the great elsewhere, you’ll get no one knocking at your door. Same old….

  3. Karen
    January 25, 2016

    I think I’ve read most of the entries in this series, and I’m still not sure what you’re proposing to replace the gatekeeper role that traditional publishing provides. As imperfect as it is, the publishing houses do provide a necessary service to readers that is lacking in the self-publishing market.

    I guess what I’m asking is what do you see as the logistics involved for, let’s say, the NYT Book Review to write about an unknown, unheralded self-published book? How do you imagine that process even taking place? It seems an insurmountable task, given the volume of self-published books that are marketed every single day.

    As frustrating as the gatekeeper role of the publishing houses is to those of us trying to publish, the lack of a gatekeeper in self-publishing is at the root of the stigma attached to the movement. Right now I suppose the free market is serving that role in self-publishing, and I guess that’s as good a gatekeeper as it needs.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      I’m not proposing a replacement of the gatekeeper system. I’m imagining alternatives that might exist alongside it.

      Two main points I wanted to get across in the essay:

      1) More writers of literary fiction should use indie publishing as a way of trying things that the gatekeeper system finds “unsaleable.” (What a nasty word that is; just look at it!) Literary writers should feel free to take chances.

      2) Publishers should be more audacious. Though there are a few notable books each year that push boundaries, most novels are variations on whatever’s been hot.

      That’s about it.

      As far as getting mainstream outlets to review indie titles, I can imagine some ways it might happen. You don’t think the NYT reads every book that’s published, do you? No, they select from the tried and true, or from the titles pushed hard by the big houses. No doubt they get thousands of press packets every week, and most of them wind up in the recycling bin.

      But if the Times book review editor wanted to, she could say, “Hey, let’s do something wild. Let’s have a contest for indie writers. We’ll weed through the entries and review the top three. Then each week we’ll review one or two indie books (in the back of the issue, of course). Why? Because the new influx of literary writers in the indie market are doing cool things!

      I know, I’m a pie-in-the-sky optimist…

  4. Diana Jackson
    January 25, 2016

    It seems an insurmountable task but I’m ever the optimist and always willing to try new paths. My latest (and fifth publication) is written and designed to appeal to bookshops and I’m going on a mission to visit as many as possible – because I’ve found in the past that leaflets and flyers get lost in the piles each bookshop receives. (a bit like magazines and newspapers for reviews) I’m encouraging readers to order from bookshops too. This will not get me loads of reviews on Amazon but we’ll see how it goes. Local publicity is getting harder to find now too – there are so many self published authors out there. Mine is with a small cooperative indie press. Would I say yes if one of the gatekeepers of the big four came knocking on my door. Of course I would, but I’m not seeking it out or longing for it to happen anymore.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      Let me know how your bookstore experience goes, Diana. I’ve had lousy luck with them, so if you have an approach that works, I’ll steal it!

      Having been published by one of the gatekeepers in the past (HarperCollins), I definitely have mixed feelings. I’d say yes again too, but I’d go in with my eyes wide open this time, knowing that you don’t get much support. At this stage of things, I’m not seeking it out either.

    • curtisbausse
      January 26, 2016

      That’s brave, Diana – you’ll actually visit them in person? I look forward to hearing about the experience – good luck!

      • Diana Jackson
        January 31, 2016

        I’ll let you know on my blog. All the best D

  5. Parlor of Horror
    January 25, 2016

    The same thing happened in the music industry some years ago. While there are very few music artists that can break big without the aid of major label money, some established bands have gone without a label and have self-released with great success, most notably, REM. The problem with that is, since the CD/releases are not in the hype machine of the labels, they are not really heard about from those outside of their own fanbase, which makes it more difficult to get new audience. The labels today set up disposable artists, tell them what song they will record and how they will procede – this way the band/artist themselves don’t have much power in the long run and can be replaced in a moments notice by the next band/artist the label has in the pipeline. Don’t know how this will relate to the publishing model but figured I would relay the outcome of the Record Label/Indie shake up of the early 2000’s. I’m sure a top selling author could do well without a publishing co. but why would they want to do all the work themselves and wait for sales when they can just accept an advance and let the company recoup the costs. However, I think we may see an author or two do some special projects outside their publisher if the company isn’t crazy about the story/style/approach of a new novel. I guess that is what we are all waiting to see. And if that happens a few indie authors in the same style can piggyback their way to great success.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      Great observations, and I think you’re right on point. “Disposable artists” seems to be the desired model for publishers, and there’s definitely enough supply.

      This doesn’t make for a lot of innovation, though, unless one of those established writers can push the envelope independently and start something new that takes off. Otherwise, we all swim in our own tiny universes and do what we do.

    • kingmidget
      January 25, 2016

      While there are some similarities between music and literature, the reality is there are differences that make it difficult to compare the two. The most basic difference is that people listen to songs they like over and over and over again, while most readers read a book once and then move on to the next book immediately thereafter. Yes, there are some books we read multiple times over the course of our lives, but the vast majority of books we read, we read only once. Streaming services like Spotify have completely changed the music industry because of this difference. The number of artists who can get their music to listeners because of the streaming services is stunning. And really couldn’t be duplicated when it comes to books. But, yes, I would love to see something develop that would do just that.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 25, 2016

        So true that it’s a different kind of experience and a different kind of consumption. I’m not sure what kind of technological changes could affect that difference, but it does seem like the earlier Oysterbooks model (where you pay a monthly fee to read as much as you want) isn’t taking off. That was said to be the Spotify of books.

        Strange times in the book biz!

      • kingmidget
        January 26, 2016

        Oysterbooks and I think there was one or two other companies that have given the model a shot. At least one has already folded and the others aren’t doing well.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 26, 2016

        Yeah, Oyster went belly up. Seems like a concept that’s either ahead of its time or too late…

      • Parlor of Horror
        January 26, 2016

        I do think that the same has happened in publishing. 15 years ago I could only get my book release to a handful of friends, relatives and maybe on local indie store in my area. Plus it was so expensive to get a publication out. Now with Amazon, it has leveled the playing field in that aspect but people still need to gain interest in your book from some other source. But its no different with music. I’ve had songs in the Spotify, Rhapsody and other systems and got no more than a few bucks for the plays I’ve received. So there is really no advantage to music distribution over book distribution. Unless you get an audience very interested, the distro isn’t making a big difference in either field.

      • kingmidget
        January 26, 2016

        Can’t disagree that the fundamental problem with any artistic endeavor is with how to go about attracting an audience. But I think the different ways in which people consume music versus books requires a different look at how to go about attracting those audiences and monetizing their interest.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 27, 2016

        Sad but true…

  6. John W. Howell
    January 25, 2016

    Was a good series Kevin. You inspired some excellent thoughts and should be proud.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      Thanks, John! I hope it makes some people dig in and think about what’s possible…

  7. christineplouvier
    January 25, 2016

    How about if we post info about our novels on a cooperative Indie bookseller blog, dedicated to Literary Fiction and Fusion Fiction?

    The front-page blog post would be used to publish new listings, while the other pages would be set up to index the titles, authors and keywords. Participating authors would upload their promotional materials and retail links (including PayPal-enabled direct-from-author sites). They would also display a blog badge for the site on their own blogs, and when another book is listed, they would re-blog the post and spread the word through their other social media connections.

    This would be one way for us to get our big, fat books out there (and find more of the kind of reading material we like). I’ve reserved a blog domain name (masterpiecemarketplace.wordpress.com) and designed a logo.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 25, 2016

      Hmmm, pretty great idea. I hope you’ll write up some kind of prospectus on your blog and flesh out some details. The skeptic in me wonders why someone would buy books via that sort of outlet when they don’t tend to do it via the author’s blog or Twitter promos & so forth. We’re dealing with a fickle readership who don’t like to be sold to.

      Still, the Masterpiece Marketplace has potential! Can’t wait to see the logo… 😛

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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