30 September 2011

Self-Publish or Perish; a Writer’s Perspective on Self-Publishing


In this interview Julian Gallo talks about self-publishing as way to reach an audience and about the perceptions of others towards a publishing route that has its fair share of advocates and critics.

Four years ago I interviewed New York writer Arthur Nersesian for the Turnrow Literary Journal. Nersesian self-published his first book The Fuck-Up after it had been rejected by over 30 publishers. He brought out his novel in a small print run and undertook his first reading in a bookstore where, “the book sold out before I could actually get to the podium.” The Fuck-Up has gone on to sell over 100,000 copies and he has since published eight novels. This is a nice example of a writer taking control of their own work, and as Nersesian said of the constant rejections prior to self-publishing, “I decided that I had given publishers far too much power.”

Self-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing) has come a long way since the days when Hemmingway, Twain, Tolstoi and Woolf decided it was better to self-publish than perish. With the advent of free print on demand services and ebooks there is now no need to pay any money upfront, as was the norm in the past, and a commission rate is the usual way for authors to receive payment and for the publishing companies to take their cut on books sold. Utilizing this technology can mean a writer can have their work up and running on these websites and ready to sell to the public in less than 30 minutes.

When I asked Arthur Nersesian if he thought e-publishing had made a difference for unknown authors he said that, “The problem with e-publishing is that the masses are still asses. Instead of giving new books a chance and spending some time perusing unknown writers, most people will read the most hyped book of the day, which is usually what the person in the next cubicle is reading. Those books simply tend to the best publicized. In the future publicists will win the Booker and Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes.”

Having publishing technology at a writer’s fingertips may be half the battle but there is no guarantee that readers will buy or even know about the writer’s work. Publicity is a big part of self-publishing and it will make a difference to a writer’s audience size if the writer is fully aware and can utilize all of the online marketing and advertising methods available. But the recent story of insurance salesman John Locke who sold a million ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing division is proof that this is a viable route towards finding a large readership.

With the above in mind I talked to writer Julian Gallo who has self-published three novels; November Rust, Naderia and his latest Be Still and Know That I Am. In this interview Julian talks about self-publishing as way to reach an audience and about the perceptions of others towards a publishing route that has its fair share of advocates and critics.

From what I have learnt recently there seems to be nothing that publishing companies can do that a writer cannot do in regards to publishing their own work. What do you consider to be the main benefits of a writer taking control of getting their own work into the public eye?
Things are beginning to change, especially with the advent of the eBook. The only thing I can think of that the publishing companies can do that self-publishers cannot do is the amount of publicity they can give you - and unfortunately, in the eyes of many still - that air of “legitimacy.” For some reason, the literary world hasn’t quite yet caught up with the music and film worlds, who seem to see independent ventures as something noble. The literary world still frowns upon authors publishing themselves. They MIGHT get away with it if they actually run their own publishing houses but what’s the difference, really? It’s a debate that still rages from what I can see but I don’t see why it should be looked at as any different than a group of musicians recording and releasing their own material. To me, it’s the same thing. There were and are plenty of writers - some of whom are now deemed “important” who have published their own work - Walt Whitman being a prime example.

Some people claim self-published material is inferior and that is why the authors have to self-publish. Is this a perception you have encountered from others?
It’s an argument I’m tired of, really. A self-published book can be as good or as bad as a “legitimately” published book. It’s really just a simple matter of perception as I see it but some will never come around so why bother trying to justify yourself. If that’s what you want to do, I say go for it. If you want to publish with a major house, I say go for it. I don’t take this stand as a battle cry. I would publish with a major house if they were ever interested in me. But I see it as being proactive. Some call it “vanity.” Whatever. I don’t even argue about it anymore. If one feels they don’t want to read me because it’s self-published, then don’t read me. I’ve never been one to do that. A good book is a good book is a good book, no matter what avenue was used to bring it to fruition. At least read the damn thing before making up your mind. Don’t just dismiss it out of hand.
It reminds me of all those years that the “real” record companies ignored all the so-called alternative bands until Nirvana became huge. Then they opened their eyes and saw this whole thing happening right under their noses all that time. Naturally they threw money at it, enticed a lot of people to sign with them and wound up ruining the careers of most of them. In a lot of ways, they went from being artists to products and when that “product” didn’t sell - see ya! A couple of thousand albums sold independently is quite a feat. For a major record label, it’s a tax write off. It’s a choice to make and to me there’s nothing wrong with either one of them. It’s just another thing to divide people - especially writers - who in my experience are the worst of the bunch when it comes to pettiness and needless competition.

Given the increasing popularity of self-publishing through venues such as Amazon and Lulu it seems people’s attitudes are changing towards it.
I believe things are beginning to change and the whole idea is becoming more acceptable to a lot of people. You will always have those out there who frown upon it though, regardless of the arguments. My feeling about that is to ignore those voices if self-publishing is something you want to do. Eventually, I believe that things will catch up with what musicians and filmmakers have been doing for a long time now. For those who want to continue to see it as "vanity", so be it.
One of the things I learned when I operated a small poetry press back in the 1990s was there were many things that came my way that I rejected too. Why? Well, some of it I thought was really bad - other times it was because it just didn't fit my "vision" of the press, other times because I just didn't have the money to do it. But while doing this, I realized that the very same thing was happening regarding my own work I was sending out there, so I never took it personally, nor did it give me the feeling that it wasn't anything of quality just because someone didn't like it.
Ultimately someone is making a decision as to whether or not to invest time, money and energy into putting out your work, right? Sometimes it will grab someone, other times it won't. The luck of the draw. I imagine editors at major publishing houses work in the very same manner. Self-publishing can be a way to bring the work directly to an audience the way you envision it. No guarantees naturally. Some will like it, others will not. You have no control over that. The reader ultimately decides, right?

Do you think the recent accomplishment of the self-published author John Locke who sold a million e-books through Amazon should have the publishers worried?
I don’t know if they’d be worried but it would definitely make them open their eyes and take notice. Most likely, that author is being pursued by the major houses now to publish with them. I don’t know if he will or not. All I know is that if I were able to achieve something as incredible as that, why would I sign with anyone? If I could sell a million eBooks on my own, who needs a publisher? But his story is definitely the exception not the rule - but I’ve been reading about many authors self-publishing via eBooks selling quite a bit - more than I think they’d thought they would.
Perhaps the perception is changing - and if it is, it’s a shame that it gains “legitimacy” based on sales rather than the work itself. If that author’s eBook sold only 50 copies, it would still be the same book. But since it sold over a million, suddenly people’s perceptions change about the very same work. Otherwise he’d be looked at as just another “vanity” author, self-publishing because he couldn’t “cut it” with a “real” publisher. The whole thing seems absurd to me, really. If people would just open their minds more and just take a chance, they may discover something they truly enjoy.

Do you see any downsides to self-publishing? I’m thinking that commission to the writer is pretty low given that they have done most of the work. (Commission for the writer is usually 30% for lower priced books but can be as much as 70% if the book is priced higher).
Of course, there's a huge downside - the main one being what I touched upon earlier about the perception of legitimacy. There are still quite a few readers out there - and writers as well - who simply will not take a self-published writer seriously. The reason for this is that since anyone CAN publish their own work, not all of it is quality. There's this sense that editors from major publishers are those who weed out the crap from the good stuff - but this is not always true either. For me, personally, I don't immediately dismiss something that was either self-published or published by some small or micro press because I know from experience that there are a lot of talented people out there who have done some very interesting work. People are not willing to take chances because of this perception, which is still alive and well, believe me. But since I come from a place where this sort of thing was done all the time, I'm not as prejudiced about it. Is everything I read from self-published authors good? No. But not all of it is bad, either and for me, the only way I will know is if I explore it for myself and make my own determination.

The other downside is the amount of work involved in publicity and getting the word out. Naturally, with Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites like Goodreads - which is great for writers as well as readers - and others like it, there is a network beginning to build for those who chose to take the independent route. There's also the issue of money - which is not going to come flowing into your bank account unless you're very lucky. It all depends on how you do it and how well you sell. POD (Print on Demand) sites like Lulu, Smashwords, and others, well, you can publish a book for free essentially - or for very little depending on what program you sign up for. The good thing about these sites for self-publishers is that there's no warehousing of books. If your book doesn't sell, you don't have a closet full of them. They way these sites make their money is through taking a little percentage off the cover price, which really isn't a lot. Also through distribution packages which vary depending on the site and the one you choose. But it is a far cry from having to spend thousands of dollars on having your book to be printed and being stuck with a closet full of unsold books, right? For those who chose to self-publish, these sites are no-brainers. With eBooks, well there isn't any physical product at all, it's all digital.

Publishers have an agenda, which is to sell books that are popular and make money, it is a business. The self-published writer who sold a million ebooks decided he wasn’t going to leave the fate of his work to others. I don’t see why self-publishing isn’t seen as credible as any other independent venture.
Absolutely. I never understood that either. One of my favorite writers, a poet named d.a levy, released every book he ever wrote under his own imprint. It was very much the same thinking I had when I did my own press but he was doing it back in the 1960s. It was the same DIY ethic that existed in the early 1980s in New York. When I first started writing seriously one of the first things I thought about was should I look for a publisher or should I just do it myself. A lot of writers don't even ask this question. They immediately seek a publisher. I don't think the thought of bringing something out on their own even crosses their mind precisely for the reasons I mentioned above: too many people have convinced writers that self-publishing is nothing more than a "vanity" project and it shouldn't be taken seriously.

So you see self-publishing as simply another venue towards bringing your work to an audience?
I come out of a background where artists did things themselves - and there was no question, no debate, no moral dilemmas about it. Writers poets, musicians, painters, and whoever else. But the more I looked into it, the more I noticed this attitude - that somehow a writer's work is somehow inferior because it was done independently. In some cases, this is absolutely true but not always. Like you said, you can make a very strong argument that some of the books major publishers print are just as lousy. Slapping a large imprint's name on the spine of a book doesn't necessarily equal quality - and those who argue the strongest against writers who self-publish are usually the first ones claiming how there are so many bad books coming out of the "real" publishing world, right? I think the author of that eBook had the right attitude and for him, it worked out amazingly well. There are a lot of artists out there who don't understand and will never understand what went on back in the early 80s and even into the 90s. It's a whole subculture, I suppose, that some people get and others simply do not - and probably never will.

The writer who sold a million ebooks has now written a book showing others how he achieved this. From what I have read his ‘how to’ book focuses on marketing, using Twitter, Facebook, blogging etc to reach potential readers. Is self-marketing as big a part of self-publishing as the ability to actually write a good story?
This is good but one has to be careful as well. This writer who sold that many eBooks is really an anomaly. I highly doubt most others even come close to this. Some are selling well but nowhere NEAR this number. It really depends on your expectations being realistic. Some writers think all they have to do is publish their eBook (or paperback, etc) and suddenly their work will begin selling. It's not as easy as it sounds and the one downside of this happening for this guy makes it seem that it IS easy. I've utilized social networking sites and have lots of "friends" and "followers" etc but those who actually bought my books are not even close to the number of people I am in contact with. Don't expect everyone on your Facebook or Twitter pages to immediately run out and buy your book. That's not going to happen. It's hard enough to get people you KNOW to buy and read them, never mind total strangers. I've sold some books over the years, made a little money from them but I'm not quitting my day job anytime soon, you know?

I went in with the idea that I will be selling very few of these books and not immediately either. I had and still have no illusions about how many I'm going to sell. But those I DO sell, I'm hoping THOSE readers will enjoy them enough to want to come back again for the next one, then the next one, and so on, slowly building an audience of readers.
Regarding the second part to your question, major publishers do not expect a writer to just sit home and write, submit the manuscript and simply begin another. They fully expect an author to be a part of the publicity process, utilizing the web, social networking sites, etc. I've never dealt with publishers but what I've been reading is that they fully expect you to take part in publicizing your own work and career. They want to see that "web presence" and what YOU are doing to help build your audience.

You recently edited down your first novel November Rust as an alternative to the original. Do you think this is one of the advantages that self-publishing has in keeping creative control of your work?
That is the GREATEST part about self-publishing. You have total and complete control over everything that you do. The new version of “November Rust” came out of this nagging feeling I had about what that novel would have read like had it been dispensed with all the experimental stuff and just read like a straight novel. I had thought about it for years but never wanted to go through the gargantuan manuscript to even attempt it. But I could never stop thinking about it. I always wanted to have it look better as well. I was never thrilled with the original cover art but at the time, there wasn’t much I could do.
So one day I decided to do it, just to see how it would read. I loved the way it came out so I decided to issue it again but in a much shorter, more straightforward version.

The original is still available, of course, if anyone ever wanted to read it. In fact, it’s available as an eBook now via the i-Bookstore. This new version is for those who prefer a more straightforward story. It does change it a lot in some ways - but I think offering the alternative was better than simply replacing it. I don't think many writers would do this but it was that "something" in me that said that it could work on both levels. The original, I always found flawed in many ways. I was conflicted about it at first but then decided to just go ahead and do it. I see it as a different take on the same story.

What would you say to writers who simply dismiss the self-publishing sites as a way of putting out their work?
Believe me, I could go on about this for a long time and I often have this discussion with many artist friends who understand. But I'm starting to learn that some will never get it, never understand, so there's no point in wasting your energy in trying to explain it. I'm doing what I love and I'm doing what I want to do - people are buying and reading the books and if you ask me, that's the ultimate goal, isn't it? To gain readers. It may be a slow, grinding process doing it independently but it's better than having something sit in your drawer collecting dust. I've always been one who believed that any artist has to put it out there. Get over the fear and just do it. You aren't going to please everyone so don't even try. Build your audience with those who do like what you're doing and forget about those who don't.

Now, with all that said, I don't see anything wrong with a writer who wants to go the traditional publishing route. But I do reject the notion that because one doesn't go that way, that they are somehow less of a writer because of it. That's my feeling, anyway.
Be Still and Know That I Am is available now through Lulu.
Thanks to Julian Gallo for taking part in this interview.

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