Self-Publish or Perish

By John Harris | November 2, 2012

The May 2012 “Onwards Conference and Annual General Meeting” of the Writer’s Union of Canada in Vancouver featured four panel discussions about how digital technology is changing things for professional (more on that later) writers. The four were, “Is Technology Changing Craft and Audience,” “Not for Profit? Writers and the Downloadable Universe,” “Buy! Sell Borrow! Read,” and “Going Digital in Your Own Backyard: A Workshop.”

These discussions amounted to half the panel offerings at the AGM, and were sequenced so that a writer could select the four and sit through a full day of learning about eBooks — their promotion, sale, and creation along with ancillary matters like copyright protection and payment. Many chose to do so, including me. In the spirit of “Onwards,” we wanted to get a glimpse into the future, to find out what would be required of us, to hear about the “how,” and to listen to motivational stories of “indie” writers like Martin Crosbie, Paul Lima, Paula Todd and Bill Freeman who gave up working solely through conventional publishers and, by their testimony, gained no end of coin and attention.

What I learned is roughly this. First, those of us who decide to stand and wait might yet be served. Some established publishers like Random House are experimenting with eBook originals. If they sell, these publishers could rebuild and maybe even expand their publishing programs. And second, new publishing ventures are arising from the digital wreckage – Byliner, Atavist and Amazon in the US and, it seems, coming soon in Canada, Linda Leith Publishing and an as-yet-unnamed enterprise run by Derek Finkle of the Canadian Writers Group (Finkle recently served as Paula Todd’s agent in the publication of Finding Karla as a Kindle Single, and for Apple iBook and Barnes and Noble Nook). There is promise, in short, that the present publishing chill will soon be made glorious summer by the sun of digital technology.

But how soon? No one seems to know. Meanwhile there is the more immediate promise of self-publication — the new opportunities to design, publish, market and sell your own eBooks. What I learned about that is this. You download Sigil at no cost, which allows you to lay your book out as an ePub, which is the format required by various tablets and readers like the Kobo and Sony. Once your book is laid out, you put it onto your website and acquire PayPal, or you find a site, like Amazon, that will sell your eBook for a commission.

What about distribution? With self-published print-on-paper books there is none unless you can afford to spend thousands on advertising. But millions of readers graze the digital savannah every day, so all you have to do is make sure that your eBook’s title contains some words that are most likely to be in people’s heads as they Google your subject. When you put your book on your website to promote and sell it, your layout page will ask you to provide meta-tags for searchers. Journalists like Todd have it made, of course. Enough people would be looking for Karla Homolka to enable a book to go viral, which Todd’s book did.

Mid-list fiction writers won’t be Googled much by name; you need key words in your title. Those who work with genres that acquire cult followings, like science fiction, can use more impressionistic titles because their audiences are obsessive and knowledgeable in their searches. Author-funded-and-operated Open Mic Press (humor) and Icon Empire Press (gay fiction) are making good money on The Best of Drunk Texter and The Gay Icon Classics of the World, selling them through Kobo, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and Amazon. Drunk Texter, 20 pages at $2.99, was downloaded 50,000 times in its first year, and the author-publishers get from 40 to 75% from their distributors.

Other than designing your titles and promotional blurbs around key words, you build a listserv of libraries and of bookstores that sell eBooks. You chat about your book, you friend, and you tweet.

I could tell by the sighs and the strained looks on the faces of many in the audience that, as with Eliot’s Magi, few were eager to rush into this new and evidently complex world, many inclined to bide their time, short as it may be, and cling to whatever laurels, however dusty, they have acquired. For one thing, most TWUCers have or have had jobs, mostly as teachers of English or Creative Writing, or as children’s writers. They don’t need to earn money. For another, many are cotton-toppers still struggling with Microsoft Word. Tech-talk is scary for them. Finally, since the invention of the book, writers more and more have been able to work at arm’s length from the audience, and have become comfortable with this. In fact, some have even come to think it crucial to true inspiration.

And then there are grants, at TWUC meetings as much an item of gossip and discussion as publications. They are a substitute for publication. In the past decade or so, it seems that it’s been easier to get grants than to get published. Applying involves much the same process as submitting a book proposal to a publisher, and overall an approval means that you get more money than any publication would get you. As well, you get a third-party confirmation of aesthetic viability that you can cite to your friends and on your resumé.

Most TWUCers think self-publishing is demeaning, that it’s not much better than wanking, an activity associated with immaturity and best left behind once artistic consummation has been achieved. This of course is the wrong attitude. Self-publishing can be an indication of front-line creativity — think William Blake etching his poems and illustrations onto plates and printing them, Barry McKinnon designing, printing and circulating award-winning chapbooks that are eventually collected into trade publications, or the “many” authors who have seen a niche, drawn up a proposal, submitted it to a publisher, had it rejected, self-published a book, and acquired money and fame.

The presumption of professionalism is the problem. TWUCers define themselves as professionals, not in the absolute sense of being a society of literary geniuses nor even in the generally accepted quasi-legalistic sense of earning a living from their talents, but in the sense of, as Webster’s has it, “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” In other words, TWUCers are professionals relative to non-TWUCers. Membership in TWUC, elevation from the squirming mass of literary aspirants, is based on “having had a trade book published by a commercial or university press, or the equivalent in another medium.”

The fact is that, despite their presumption of professionalism, most TWUCers do self-publish. They may not have forked out or be forking out money to a vanity press or have chanced or be chancing their jobs or the privileges attached to their jobs by entering the company or school print room in the dead of night and duplicating their own books and chapbooks. But they may have accessed the privileges of their positions as, say, English and Creative Writing teachers, to get institutional support for literary periodicals in which their own work and the work of their colleagues and maybe students appears. That’s self-publishing. And/or they may, on the strength of such magazines or the reading series that their department necessarily operates, push manuscripts into the faces of writers and writer-profs who also run periodicals and reading series and owe and pay favours. That’s self-publishing, really. And/or they may, as profs or lay-writers, attach themselves to collective organizations — structured around some cause or ideology (feministic, gay, ethnic, avant-garde, localistic, or nationalistic), or around just plain friendship — that publish their own members. That too is self-publishing.

There is some comfort, in connection with the more subtle variations of self-publishing I’ve just described, in the fact that your manuscript has at least ostensibly been examined by others, and that, on the grounds of solidarity, they would defend it. Still, it’s clear to everyone including yourself that in these cases one or all of friendship, seniority, sex, ethnicity or ideology has been the fundamental consideration in the decision to publish, not aesthetics. There’s a feeling that one’s professionalism has been compromised, a residue of guilt.

With a trade publisher, on the other hand, that feeling is absent. Even if the company is known from time to time to produce a lemon by indulging favorites (like maybe you) or getting cheap with editing, there’s a kind of insurance. If your publisher is large, you will get respectful notice, at least, from the CBC, the Globe and Mail and, a couple of years down the road, the academic periodicals. Advertising dollars are at stake. And you will sell at least some copies just on the strength of your publisher’s name. Accordingly, any accusations of creative impotence or premature ejaculation can be deflected. If your publisher is small, the academic periodicals, which try to review most publications of poets and fiction writers of any repute, will still at least notice you with positive words. Most such periodicals, in this age of Bolshevism in the academy, have policies against negative reviews. Your book will be allowed to die quietly, and a few pleasant if formulaic words will be uttered over its final resting place.

I don’t see how any ambitious writer can settle for this false sense of security. I think writers, and TWUC itself, should, as Conrad says about swimming, “embrace the destructive element.” Rush, even if you are likely to appear foolish, to occupy the new space offered by digital technology. Membership in TWUC ends only in death, so you can’t lose your professional status, and the organization will figure out ways to admit those who self-publish so their (and soon your) special concerns will be dealt with. Membership for self-published writers could be based on any or all of a Creative Writing degree, a certified account of dollars earned, or (my recommendation) the approval of a committee of TWUCers who need the work, and whose consideration would be compensated for by a hefty handling fee paid by the applicant.

I’m open to self-publishing because I attribute my modest success as a professionally published writer to self-publishing of most of the sorts listed above. I parlayed experience gained in running a high-school mimeographed magazine of parody and satire, the Underdog (see “For the Record” on this site), wherein my own works appeared, into (once I’d finished my schooling in English and acquired a degree, a Rolodex of literary/academic friends and a job) editing a community-college and Canada-Council-sponsored literary magazine wherein my works appeared, into running a Canada Council-sponsored literary press that published local-literature anthologies for sale and for school use wherein my works appeared, into favour with (I didn’t know this until I was informed by feminist postcolonial critics) a gang of testosterone-afflicted, alcoholic, sexist, BC writers who recommended me to a “trade publisher” who, being a person of genius, saw the sensitive and talented guy beneath the brutish exterior.

My acquisition of sexual love was if not assured at least furthered by self-publishing. I like to think that my wife, whom I met long before I ever published a trade book, being a woman of quality and genius, recognized my quality and genius in broad (including sexual) terms of course but also to some small extent in terms of my mostly self-published oeuvre (not the poetry) and my literary connections — starting with a high-school colleague on the Underdog who had become the city editor of our local paper and at a hint from me recommended her to the general editor as a writer of travel columns. I subsequently proved useful to her as a convenient if over-enthusiastic editor, a situation that could have destroyed our relationship had I not also become her first publisher.

My current eagerness to publish my own eBooks is based not just in happy experience but also in my studies of literary history and theory, particularly Frye and McLuhan. These studies led me to hold the theories that members of the panel “Is Technology Changing Craft?” were tossing around. First, that the book wasn’t always the dominant way of sharing ideas, stories and anecdotes, which is basically what all writers do. It’s only natural that it would be replaced or at least displaced, like the cave wall, the stone tablet, the papyrus scroll, and the illuminated manuscript, by new technologies. Second, that the book resulted in the evolution to prominence of prose genres and the marginalization of poetry. It has its limits, in other words, that may have to be escaped or transcended if you want to excel aesthetically. And third, that authors and audiences are inspired and entertained both by stories and the technologies by which the stories are told — the words, the genres, and the mediums. Changes in these technologies stimulate the imagination.

For these reasons I think it a privilege for an artist to be alive in a time of technological upheaval. This could of course be a rationale coming out of my struggles to write better fiction, my evident slowness in mastering, (despite, I can admit it now, surreptitious glances into A Passion for Narrative) the basics of plot, character, and style. However, the technology is upon us, and history indicates that it’s wise both financially and aesthetically to learn to deal with it as quickly as possible. As for fighting it, all I can say is that the Luddites, for all their courage and the justice of their cause, didn’t fare too well.


It was the quiet intimacy of the book, I think, and its offshoot the periodical, that led writers and readers towards the novel with its exploration of character through inner monologue. The meditation (a popular genre in the 16th century) got folded into the narration (history, myth, reportage); the personal essay, diary, and novel evolved. By the time another century had gone by, the novel had snuffed poetic drama and forced poets to live off jobs, status or patronage, the jobs moving in the nineteenth century from the church to the university. In the English Department, through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, a book of poems netted you more in terms of advancement and qualifications for sabbaticals and professional development funding than it could ever get you in royalties.


Likely, the digital universe will be better to poetry than to prose, reversing the movement away from the local (dialect, figure and solipsism) towards the international (standard, logic and theme). Poetry will no longer have to struggle to fit itself to the book, which up to the twentieth century has had the most prestige in the marketplace and the academy. The American poet/critic Donald Hall, speculating on how poetry at present necessarily lives at the university, has said that poetry suffers because of academic demands for regular and credible publications. These publications have to be real books, not just chapbooks. And they have to appear regularly enough to satisfy tenure, professional development, and sabbatical committees. Also, because their roles as instructors of Creative Writing and/or literature include the assumption of a certain aesthetic authority, writer-profs nurture an unacknowledged wish “to forestall the possibilities of growth and change.” They have to believe that they have reached the acme of achievement. Hall sums it up: “We learn to publish promiscuously; these premature ejaculations count on number and frequency to counterbalance ineptitude.”


The result is that no one buys books of poetry anymore, certainly not at full price. In Canada, poetry anthologies are still marketable, as they were in Elizabethan England, though it may be that their purchasers now are mostly university students. Books of poetry don’t sell. Their publication is heavily subsidized by the government that, a generation ago, was convinced by its arts bureaucrats that poetry was vital to cultural health. This argument was also made by the poet-profs, and acceded to by lay poets, many of whom depend on writing grants. I recently harvested a crop of Canadian poetry books from my local bookstore. They were by Ann Carson, Pat Lane, Dionne Brand, John Pass, Fred Wah and Lorna Crozier. Each acknowledged government support in the publication of the book, and most acknowledged it in the writing too. They were discounted at a dollar each.


The digital world is likely to be kinder to poetry. There are problems like that of formatting “composition by field” for readers, but the overall digital “scene” is more stimulating. I’m a regular follower of Ron Silliman’s Blog, where readings can be watched, and new poetry, poetry news and commentary can be read. Also the “singles” eBook may be a better format for poetry than the book. It is more like the chapbook, the only form of the book, I think, apart from the broadside and the anthology, that is congenial to verse. The poetry reading has long included a gloss or “patter,” probably for the very good reason that the audience likes it (when it is well done, of course). Poems need to be contextualized; novels contextualize themselves. The context of the poem can be included in the single, as a video or audio-tape maybe, and the single could also include snippets of readings of the poems along with taped and printed commentaries by other poets and by critics.


As for the novel, its crisis came with the moving picture, also a mighty fine way to tell a story. The novel is still duking it out in the market with the movie. Novelists lacking stamina or knowing a losing battle when they see one are more and more sheltering in the groves of academe among the poets, but others are finding creative (though some are not yet successful) ways of appealing to an audience focused on movies.


Photographs appeared on covers to good effect, though when Carol Shields placed pictures of her kids and relations in the center of her novel The Stone Diaries, ostensibly to help readers visualize the characters and to augment the sense that “this really happened,” the response was not good. Faulkner dreamed of a time when different colored inks could be used to mark leaps backward and forward in time. His idea has recently been tried, the idiot Benjy’s time-addled narration in the Sound and the Fury printed with the time shifts marked in 14 different colors. For easy reference, the purchaser of the book gets a bookmark (I hope it’s attached) that matches colors to the times of the events that Benjy covers. So far there’s been no critical commentary on the effect.


Brian Fawcett’s “split text” collections of short stories, Cambodia and Public Eye, are admired by many critics, including me, as a successful sort of “news plus commentary” exchange. Fawcett posited his split-text books as a direct challenge to television, subtitling Cambodia “A book for people who find television too slow.” Split texts fit into the tradition of self-consciously innovative literature that incorporates its own gloss. The tradition goes back to George Gascoigne’s Poesies, a collection of poetry and prose pretending to be an anthology (because anthologies were in demand) and presented by an editor, printer and publisher (all Gascoigne himself) who provide a running commentary.


Spenser used Gascoigne’s postmodernist experiment in The Shepherd’s Calendar and Coleridge brought it into literary criticism and theory in Biographia Literaria. Satires on academia like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 are in this tradition too, using as models academic textbooks or “teaching editions” of classic texts with their elaborate notes, lengthy appendixes, and original source materials in the forms of diaries, maps, notebooks and letters. The satire makes fun of academic pretensions but also indicates that the academics have succeeded in producing mixed-genre books that are interesting and even popular.


Contemporary postmodernist critical meditations, modeled on Derrida’s Glas, also feature split text, in Derrida’s case columns that are meant to comment on one another. Other academic features like marginalia, footnotes and extensive quotations add other perspectives. And Derrida’s followers, in Canada at least, have come up with what I’ve call the “biographia academia,” books similar to Coleridge’s that feature mixed-text meditations — literary criticism presented with autobiography and autobiographical documents so the reader can see where the critic is coming from. Fred Wah’s Faking It and Stan Dragland’s Apocrypha (see my review on this site) are the most innovative examples of the genre.


All of these experiments would be more easily experienced through digital publishing. My wife’s travel eBooks will soon include video clips: why describe special events in Bolivia when they can be seen directly? If Joyce were young today, what would he do with Ulysses? I see an eNovel with links (readers now have Wi-Fi) so you could go to assorted places where Joyce’s characters would be Facebooking and Tweeting and where Google Maps would show you their movements around Dublin. The play would be a video clip, the news items would include video clips, and the catechism would be audible.


Excited by these technological possibilities, I ran home from the TWUC meetings, downloaded Sigil, and dumped one of my oft-rejected books of literary criticism into it. It turned out that the freaking program accepts only text and translates quote marks and hyphens into question marks. These, like zombies, have to be zapped one by one. This took many hours and just about put paid to my enterprise. The experience reminded me of my days of hand-setting type or collating sheets, the sort of thing that I imagine inmates in psyche wards do for therapy.


But I persevered, vowing to get something better than Sigil even if I have to pay for it. Adobe InDesign is the layout-artist’s favorite, I understand, but for that I will have to save my pension cheques. I have formatted the text and am now about to prepare some photos in Photoshop, which my wife mastered long ago since she earned twice as much for a travel book if she did her own photography. I’ll save the photos in the prescribed JPEG format, and insert them. Then I’ll put the book onto my Kobo to see how it will look to any customers. I’ll get my website manager to arrange for PayPal and put it and the book on the site that he designed for my wife and me a few months ago, being careful with my meta-tags.


I hate to do this, but in the self-promotional spirit that seems essential to success on the digital stage, I have to tell you that my website is here, and that my eBooks will begin appearing there in the near future. Check out too my wife’s excellent photos, available for sale at the address provided. And, if you’re still into paper, use the links to our publishers to read reviews and commentaries on our trade publications!



3809 words October 31st 2012




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