BOSTON — The fireworks didn’t come during the panel session, which is a good thing, because every square inch of the floor was covered by attendees. Pyrotechnics in rooms violating fire codes never end well. But the figurative fireworks came that night, assisted with alcohol.
I refer here to the third rail of our modern literary world, self-publishing. Is it good or bad for writers, for readers, for the industry, for the culture? Back and forth, back and forth. I tweet articles and blog posts arguing one side, then the other, while I don’t own any real position other than that anyone should feel free to choose or not choose whatever options are available to them.
Now back to the fireworks. At a noon panel that involved some substitutions because the snowstorm here kept some people from making it, a literary agent and an editor came down–hard–on self-publishing. They used the common arguments. The editor said yes, there is the occasional success story where a great book somehow missed the eye of everyone in the industry and then was discovered by readers when the author self-published. But he said that story was exceedingly rare. The agent concurred, saying that her impression of someone who self-published was somebody who was more focused on vanity than on doing what it took to get a manuscript publishable. The editor said self-published authors seem to think selling ninety books is great; he added you should be able to sell more than that by having people take pity on you.
The overall advice, in and of itself, might not have been so bad. But along with being delivered with a dismissive tone, it followed an insistence that the prospective author have a strong platform. And yes, understandably, some of the attendees did not know what a platform was, and probably didn’t like it when the agent said having “a million Twitter followers” would be one good platform element. It also came after a long discussion about how agents and editors don’t have time to read how good your prose is, so if you don’t lay out everything that might be of interest to them in the first five pages, they’re putting you aside.
Let me step in here and say I did not have an issue with the panelists. They were speaking the truth, at least the truth as it is today with the major publishing houses. But most AWP attendees are not pursuing the type of writing, I suspect, that is in the wheelhouse of what major houses are looking to publish. Not once did the panelists mention the growing number of independent presses, many of which can be found on the Bookfair floor. (But shame on you, Coffee House Press, for deciding to no longer publish memoir. I stopped by your booth because you were on my short list! Sorry, readers, for the digression.) And their one mention of self-publishing did not touch at all on the notion that the work in question might actually be quite good and would have an audience, but that audience wouldn’t be big enough for the major press.
Flash forward ten hours. It’s about 10 pm, and I’ve darted into the Marriott sports bar to wolf down a bacon cheeseburger (I somehow didn’t find the time Thursday to eat lunch or dinner) and watch the end of the Thunder-Knicks game. Three AWP attendees next to me at the bar are engaged in increasingly animated conversation. Finally, a voice breaks through over the bar’s din: “How dare they condemn self-published authors!” Some of the best conversations I’ve had in my life have been with strangers in bars, so I invited myself in.
Fueled by cosmopolitans for two of them and a pinot grigio for the third, the anger and frustration came out. That editor, one of them said, has a cushy desk job. What does he know about the labor of writing? And does that agent have a million Twitter followers? No. So if that’s so important for a writer, why should we listen to her as an agent?
Perhaps it’s because, as a journalist by training, I’m a good listener. Perhaps these women were just looking for a champion. But they all said they remembered me from the panel discussion–shocking, since there were hundreds in attendance–and thanked me for speaking truth to power. I had in fact asked a question, but it was about whether one should leave their agent if that agent doesn’t understand or appreciate the work the writer is doing and the market they are targeting. (The agent on the panel said yes, you must break up, and tell the agent it isn’t him, it’s you.) There was nothing in my question that had been a challenge. But the fury was still so strong in these Marriott bargoers that they had morphed me into David with a slingshot.
I’m not going to pretend I learned anything more about the self-publishing debate here at AWP. I don’t know that there really is anything more to learn. Promoters of self-publishing have their success-story anecdotes, and editors like the one on the panel here dismiss them as exactly that, anecdotes. A major editor or agent may very well hold a self-publishing past against a writer, but that might just mean that editor or agent isn’t the right fit for that writer.
I am asked sometimes what path I might take. I will, within months, finish my travel memoir. I started working on it in the fall of 2010, blew it up completely when I started my MFA in the summer of 2011, and now, two years later, it’s almost done. The thought that it might never be published literally makes me want to cry, as if I had endured a 30-month pregnancy only to deliver a stillborn. So I understand the notion of self-publishing. I may have to look at that if I am unable to find a press, large or small, interested in publishing it.
But I also understand putting a manuscript in a drawer, to borrow from the agent, who said some self-published books should have experienced that fate instead. I wrote a novel about eight years ago that I never truly shopped around. Again in the fall of 2010–when I started work on the memoir–I dug out the novel and read through it. I liked it. I showed it to a freelance editor and she loved it. But, to be honest, when I read it, it is no longer “me.” I’ve grown a lot as a writer since I wrote that book. It’s not that I’d be embarrassed were it to be published, but it’s not really how I want to be known. So it stays in the drawer, even though it would only take me an hour to format it and “publish” it online for anyone to read. Perhaps I will shelve the memoir if I don’t find a publisher.
Of course the simple solution is to find an amenable publisher. First things first.