To say that I’ve had a checkered history in publishing would be like saying Elizabeth Taylor had a checkered history in marriage. In the past decade, I’ve churned through three houses, and twice as many editors. I’ve pissed off half the agents in New York City, and told the other half (with unreasonable glee) to fuck off. At one point, I actually had to be physically separated from one of my publishers.
It would be easy to blame all this on my unique temperament, with its charming blend of acerbic superiority and righteous indignation. But the truth is, most of my writer friends are filled with similar feelings of despair and disgust when it comes to putting books in the world. They just have the good sense to keep it to themselves.
The saddest thing about all this, of course, is that the publishing industry is not trying to piss us off. No, the industry (and the folks who populate it) are the ones trying to help us. It’s not their fault that reading has been shoved to the margins of the culture, or that a typical American teenager now spends 95 percent of her time staring at a tiny screen and frantically thumbing shopping updates to her social network.
But it’s awfully hard to remember that when you’re dealing with an agent who says your novel is “too literary” to sell in today’s market, or an editor who wants to slap a picture of a chimpanzee on the cover of your book, or a publicist who earnestly assures you that your sales “will depend on your use of Twitter as a marketing platform.”
Contrary to the various paid doomsayers of our age, this doesn’t mean that the book industry is going to disappear. But it will continue to contract. The dream of finding a big New York publisher who will pluck you from obscurity and make you a bestselling author – always a long-shot, frankly – has become more like a pipedream.
I’m pretty sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.
The question is: for those of us who believe in the literary arts, who believe in books, what (the fuck) are we supposed to do?
Here’s one solution: make your own books.
Technology often serves as distraction’s most loyal handmaiden, which has been mostly bad for publishing. But it’s also made the means of book production more accessible than ever before.
I know this because I myself – after years of fantasizing about putting out a book myself – finally took the plunge a few months ago.
It wasn’t that tough a decision. The book I wanted to publish consisted of 30 one-page stories and 30 one-page essays on the psychology and practice of writing. Oh, and get this, the book (This Won’t Take a Minute, Honey) would have two covers, so it could be read both ways – stories in one direction, essays in the other.
The book editors I spoke to about this visionary concept were … let’s just say underwhelmed.
For a while, I considered a smaller, independent press.
But I eventually realized that I was tired of the whole shebang: of submitting work to a company that, by definition, expects to make money off that work, of living under that cloud of expectation, with its frequent storms of anxiety and compromise.
So I wrote the thing anyway, over several weeks. It would have taken longer, except that:
a. It was only about 15,000 words.
b. Most of the stories were already written.
c. The essays were an executive summary of rants I’d been inflicting on my students for years.
Then I revised. Then I revised again.
Then I got in touch with an old friend of mine, the brilliant designer Brian Stauffer, and begged him to do me a solid. He emailed me a breathtaking cover design. A week later, I took the subway to Harvard Bookstore and watched the Espresso Book Machine pop out a copy of the book. It took four minutes.
Now the fun part began. Because rather than worrying about moving lots of units, I just read from the book at various readings and sold them for ten bucks a pop.
And the weirdest part was that I sold out at every reading. I’d love to believe that this was because people were just blown away by my incandescent prose. But I think it had more to do with a kind of communal feeling. Readers liked the fact that the book wasn’t available everywhere.
If this were a traditional publishing endeavor, the next question would be how to get the book a “bigger platform,” meaning a place in the great Barnes-&-Noble-Amazon-Kindle-i-Pad-clusterfuckosphere. But because this is something much more personal, I decided – nah.
I was cool with Harvard Bookstore selling it. But other than that, Minute, Honey is available only at readings. My reasoning is pretty simple: I want the book to be an artifact that commemorates a particular human gathering, not a commodity.
It also made no economic sense to seek wider distribution, because I’m basically a “cult author,” meaning that I only have a few thousand fans, most of whom I know and have maybe tried to make out with.
The other super-cool thing about making your own book is that you can do whatever (the fuck) you want. So, for instance, I was also able to convince Brian to design two new covers, one with a haunting skull motif and one with a totally hot ’n thorny nude. I also added new pages to each edition, such as a list of recommended books and music. Didn’t have to check with anyone. Just did it.
I had such a good time with Minute, Honey that (before I could really stop myself) I decided to publish another little book called Letters From People Who Hate Me. It’s exactly what the title implies: a series of sometimes homicidal missives from folks who have read my political writing, along with my responses. To get a flavor, you can read an excerpt here.
Am I suggesting that every aspiring writer should run out and self-publish?
No way. Aspiring writers should spend their time and energy at the keyboard, trying to figure out how to make better decisions.
Am I suggesting that traditional publishing is doomed?
I sure hope not. I have a book coming out with Random House in April, and I hope it sells a gazillion copies.
What I am suggesting is that writers should look to the music industry – rather than the embers of print journalism – for inspiration.
Several years ago, musicians figured out that they didn’t need a big label to put their work into the world. They just needed great songs and the required chutzpah.
That’s now true of literature. Just as bands sell copies of their live performances, I foresee a day when authors will sell copies of the original work they just read. I also foresee a day when best-selling authors finally realize that they can make their own books and, by avoiding the gross inefficiencies of corporate publishing, make a lot more money.
It’s easy to forget – amid all the leather-bound romance surrounding books – that they are relatively young as cultural artifacts go – and that they can and should evolve.
Think about it, dudes: as writers, we now have the means to create books ourselves, and to put them into the world in ways that are more innovative and organic and human than ever before. What are we waiting for?
Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.