Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why I won't self-publish

It's as inevitable as heartburn after a pepperoni pizza. Some mainstream newspaper or magazine runs a piece about self-publishing, as the New York Times did yesterday, and someone among my family and friends refers me to it and urges me to hook up with iUniverse or a similar outfit. Get over your foolish pride, they tell me, and get the damned book published. And, foolishly prideful as I apparently am, I sigh and say no and explain why yet one more time.

Even if I could afford to pay a vanity press to manufacture a product from my manuscript and call it publishing a book, which I can't because we live paycheck to paycheck and can't spare a dime, I wouldn't. And yes, Virginia, these are vanity presses. The only difference is that nowadays, thanks to online booksellers, when you get your book produced by what are now called self-publishers you don't necessarily have to mail it to your several dozen nearest and dearest all by yourself; you can point them to the product listing on and they can order it themselves. Just like the real thing!

Except it's not. No editor has read the manuscript; selected it to publish based on its literary quality, commercial prospects, or combination of the two; or edited it. There's only me, the writer, to vouch for what a great book this is. Once I fork up the money and get the thing printed and bound, based on my own unconfirmed but deeply held belief that this is a great novel, it gets no review, gets ordered and onto the shelves in no bookstores, is read by more or less no one.

Don't bother me with the one-in-a-million stories of self-published books that later get picked up by real publishers. Mine wouldn't be one of them, believe me. Because, right, political lesbian literary fiction is oh so very hot now and would undoubtedly be snatched right out of self-published online obscurity, especially now in the midst of the publishing industry's massive layoffs, restructuring and compression.

So no. I mean no offense to those who do go the self-publishing route. If you can afford it and it suits you, and especially if you're young and have the time and energy to peddle your product at street fairs or in the subways or at schools or to vampire lovers, hey, more power to you. But this is not for me.

Even though my novel has been ignored or rejected by just about every reputable agent (ignored, mostly--exactly one agent read the whole thing), I shall soldier on, making my case to every independent press that might be a likely fit. At this point I'm working my way down a list of presses that do have national distribution deals so their books do get into bookstores and even sometimes get reviewed. If this quest proves fruitless, I'll contact some even smaller presses I know of that don't have distributors, which means their books are only available online. Even those, at least, have some slight shot at getting reviewed; even then, if it were picked and published by some tiny press it would mean that someone with an editorial eye, someone other than its author, found my book worthy of publication.

It is, I still believe. Worthy, that is. Enough of the rejections thus far have honestly referred to it not being commercial enough while praising its quality that I hold out the hope that some press will see its merits and take a chance on an unknown first novelist. If not, ah well, I'll be in the same boat as thousands of others. And there's always my second novel, which I started last summer--and which, believe it or not, agents have already been contacting me about because it does have an undeniable though unintentional commercial hook.