Tag Archives: nonfiction

Self-Publishing: A Quandary

I used to have a firm, unshakeable opinion on self-publishing. “Don’t do it,” I would say, when writer friends asked my opinion on the matter. It seems like every Joe(sephine) Shmoe and his/her mother is self-pubbing lately, leading to a flood of “OMG MY NEW BK IS OUT BUY NOW ON AMAZON ONLY $2.99 THIS WK!”-esque nonsense overtaking my Twitter feed. I still hate that, for the record–but it’s an issue that extends to writers with traditional publishers, as well as the self-pubbers…and that’s a marketing conversation for another day.

via Flickr user Rach (Rachel Sian) @ http://flic.kr/p/qe8Vd

via Flickr user Rach (Rachel Sian) @ http://flic.kr/p/qe8Vd

The main problem with self-publishing was, and continues to be, a lack of curation in the process. Without the traditional pipeline of agents and editors, a ton of sub-par and unintelligible writing makes its way to the public eye. The success of platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace has eliminated the hierarchy of the publishing world. While browsing the internet for a new read (And let’s face it, that’s where people are looking nowadays. Not that I don’t love and prefer local indie bookstores, but this is a truth-telling space), there’s no pre-purchase guarantee that a self-published book has been read and vetted by someone with a trustworthy opinion about literature. There may be grammatical errors, distracting structures, incomplete characterizations–but here’s the big takeaway, my friends: traditionally published books have those, too. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. Most publishers are professionals who work with authors, editors, production gurus, and proofreaders to ensure an end product that at the very least reflects the cleanest version of its content. There are, however, also a huge number of writers without publishers who work to achieve the same effect. That’s the realization that lead to my change of heart. Today’s publishing industry is a corporate feudal system, where the majority of writers serve as peasant farmers and payday reigns supreme. The focus has shifted from harvesting and distributing quality books–beloved by editors, publishers, and readers alike–to bulk production of whatever the masses are willing to ingest at any given moment. The great acquisition question is no longer, “Is the work good?” Now, from the bottom of the slush pile all the way to the tippy top bookshelf, the literary powers-that-be are asking themselves, “Will it sell?”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s even marginally interested in reading. And in a way, we have the fluffy-melodramatic-romances-that-shall-not-be-named to thank for keeping money rolling in for the book people. Still, the fact remains that publishing houses put out crap sometimes. And agents and editors pass up fantastic, heartfelt, well-written manuscripts all the time–usually out of necessity more than greed or ignorance. It’s the nature of the game, and for the time being, it’s simply a survival tactic for the industry. You can only fit so many people in the lifeboats; women and children get dibs.

The result is a slew of ultra-talented writers who are unable to find homes for their work within the typical channels. As the stigma of self-publishing weakens, and the appeal of greater profit shares grows, more and more of these bards are taking matters into their own hands. So why not read them? In another time and place, these are the books that would have been picked up by the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world. The authors are serious writers, many of whom work with private editors and book doctors, writing groups, teachers, and literary-minded friends to polish their prose until it reaches a standard that readers expect. They know their craft, and they’re not messing around. Great writers can click the “publish” button just as easily as terrible writers.

The current state of the literary world is such that, no matter where you shop for books or how those books are being published, some effort is required from the reader in order to weed out the undesirables. If you want mindless bubblegum pop literature, that’s certainly not hard to find; feel free to ignore anything with a thought-provoking synopsis. If you want something meaty and layered, with complex characters and an engrossing plot–those are out there, too. In any genre, any sub-genre, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or that weird dusty shelf in the corner where the books defy categorization, there is something to satisfy everyone. I promise you can find whatever it is that you’re looking for. It just might not be where you expected.

So here’s my final proposition: read the books that interest you. If you love them, recommend them to friends. Write Amazon reviews. Tweet about them. Do whatever it is that you do when you come across a piece of literature that you enjoy. Don’t give a damn about how that literature made its way from the author’s computer to your eyeballs. Just be grateful it found its way.

And if you’re a writer? Choose the path that makes sense for your work. Do what works for you, and try to do it as well as you possibly can.

What are your favorite self-published books?
Send me your recommendations in the comments!

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Real Character #1: The Woman with the Carrots

New York, NY

I saw a woman on the subway a couple months ago during my morning commute, pulling baby carrots out of her purse and eating them.  She popped them into her mouth whole, chewed, and then reached into her bag for another as she swallowed.  Purse, pop, chew.  Purse, pop, chew.  Over and over again as I steadied myself against the grimy, fingerprinted pole.  I hoped that woman had gotten a seat immediately upon entering the train car, that she’d never had to touch this pole.  That she at least had a mini bottle of good, strong hand sanitizer tucked into her purse beside the carrots.

What kind of life must a person lead to compel her to keep carrots in her bag, hidden from view the way high school girls hide tampons, buried deep in the fabric like something shameful? She was not elderly, so senility had nothing to do with it. Nor was she odd or remarkable in any other way. I can’t remember what she was wearing, but I imagine it to be the dress trousers and sweater ensemble that’s typical of women during the weekday rush hour; I can’t remember the color of her hair, but I imagine it to be a dusty sort of blonde.  Her shoes were undoubtedly nothing special–black, round-toed, patent leather flats.  She stared ahead, looking at nothing in particular, popping the carrots into her mouth.  Chewing.  Reaching into her purse for another.  Purse, pop, chew.

She may have had kids at home, perhaps a boy around eleven years old and a girl about eight.  Maybe two boys.  They could have been twins.  She made their lunch every day, spreading peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on another before slapping the two together and cutting off the crusts.  She did this twice every morning, one for each child, and placed it in a sandwich bag, which was later placed in a brown paper bag, and complemented with a pudding cup and a juice box and a handful of baby carrots.  Never mind that the twins think they’re too old for juice boxes.  They’re perfectly content to let their mother make their lunch, so they’ll take what she packs them whether they like it or not.

And she saw them out the door, watched from the window until they turned the corner in the direction of the school that sits three blocks away.  She had to rush to get to work on time; sometimes she feels like she’s always rushing.  On her way out, she grabbed the torn plastic bag with what was left of the baby carrots.  There was a cartoon rabbit printed on it, chomping on a carrot like a knock-off version of Bugs Bunny.  It’s terrible marketing, she thought.  Unless they’re trying to sell carrots to rabbits, and really, what’s the challenge in that?

By the time she got to the subway platform, she felt a little winded.  A bead of sweat slid down her back.  She could feel it under her jacket, like a phantom fingertip tracing the line of her tailbone.  Everything looked duller than usual that morning:  the concrete floor, the garbage on the tracks stained with rat urine, the fading graffiti on the cracked tile wall.  Her own coat was gray, ordinary enough that she could feel it swallow her with its ordinariness, its grayness.  A man with a purple mohawk walked by, cast her a quick look as if he pitied her, and took a seat on the wooden bench a few steps away.  A train screeched at the far end of the platform, just as it all started closing in–the concrete, the trash, the cracks in the tile big enough for her to fall into and disappear.  The gray, the overwhelming gray, consuming her like it would never consume the man with the purple mohawk, like he never would have let it consume him.  And when the train doors opened in front of her, she bolted through them, collapsed into the nearest open seat, and pulled out a piece of brilliant, perfect, orange.  Pop.  Chew.  Purse.