A guest post by William Kowalski
This is a tale of two worlds, two centuries, two distinct epochs in the history of publishing, and one author–that’s me–who stands with a foot planted firmly in each age, a devil-may-care grin on his slightly-exhausted-but-still-boyishly-optimistic features, doing his best to appear as if he knows what he’s doing and hoping like hell no one figures out he hasn’t a clue. And it contains, at the end, an Amazing Discovery, certainly the most amazing discovery of my authorial career. So keep reading!
Our brave author–that’s me again–is heading out of the familiar and comforting land of Traditional Publishing, wistful for the old days but mature enough to realize that they are gone forever. He is striking out into the frightening wilderness of Self-Publishing, which is not only scary in and of itself but also seems to involve a neverending foray into the even more frightening world of The Internet, that vast space filled with pictures of cute kittens, videos of baby monkeys riding backwards upon pigs, and approximately 1.9 squillion other self-published books.
Wait! What? How did all this happen? How did this come to be? Our intrepid author (Hi!) remembers all too well the luminous glow that surrounded him during what he realizes now were the last days of a glorious age, in the final moments of the twentieth century. When he was just a stripling of twenty-eight, you see, he wrote a book, and some Important Publishing People said to him, “What’s that? You’re completely unknown, have no platform from which to promote yourself, might not ever produce a second book, and aren’t even thirty years old? Well, in that case, we’d like to dump this large bucket of money on your head.”
Well, said our author modestly, you may certainly go right ahead and do that.
He rather thought, in his youthful optimism, that things were always going to be that way. They say the worst thing that can happen to a man is to win a lot of money on a horse race at an early age. A similar statement might be made about young writers who publish the first novel they attempt to write. Our young author moved to New York and took up the business of living just like a Real Writer. It was great fun: cigarettes and smoky bars (you could smoke places then), cool artists, trendy openings, literary cocktail parties. Then came big box bookstores and the home entertainment revolution; then 9/11, George W. and his wars; and then the crash of 2008. All of it was reminiscent of a long, long water slide with no end in sight, and quite possibly no pool of water at the bottom, either. The publishing world, like so many other worlds, was essentially turned upside down and shaken like a snow globe.
Fast forward (that’s a VCR-related euphemism, soon to be meaningless to all but the toothless and doddering) to the present day. Our author is no longer quite so young, but is still incredibly good-looking, and his talent has only matured in the manner of a very expensive French cheese. (Or at least that’s what he tells himself.)
“What’s that?” say the Important Publishing People to him now. “You’ve published nine books, including one international best-seller, you have a global readership, and you’ve just finished a new book that critics and readers alike are hailing as not just Really Sorta Good, but also relevant to the pickle our modern society finds itself in? Welp, sorry, chum. We might be able to cough up a few bucks to print twelve copies of it, if you give us a year or two to think about it first. Then again, we might not. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
That’s the situation in a nutshell. My latest book, THE HUNDRED HEARTS, which is my ninth published title and my fifth work of what I refer to with eternal optimism as Literary Fiction, was published in Canada in 2013 by Thomas Allen Publishers. Just after it came out, TAP was promptly gobbled up by another house, whose job it then became to do all the things TAP was supposed to do–all the things publishers have historically done, such as, oh, I don’t know, SELL BOOKS.
Yet that didn’t seem to be happening. Why not? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. One might be forgiven for getting the impression that publishers buy books these days not to put them out, but to suppress them. “We hate this book!” I imagine them saying. “We hate its guts. We detest it. So we’re going to buy it, and we’ll pretend to publish it but really we’re going to stick it under this rock here, and because we own the rights, the author won’t be able to touch it!” And they snigger and snogger and pat each other on their hunched backs before turning to their lunches of boiled child.
Well, no, they don’t do that at all. But really, when I got my last royalty statement and realized that the number of copies sold in the last sales period was lower than my shoe size, and when I got on the phone with my agent last week and further realized that the chances of an American publisher putting this book out any time before my children become parents themselves were about equal to Sarah Palin’s chances of being made an honorary member of Monty Python, I knew with a great and mighty knowingness that the time had come. If anyone outside Canada was ever going to read this book, it would have to be self-published.
Once I said the phrase “self-published” nine or ten times out loud in the mirror, it didn’t sound so bad. Not nearly as bad as the word “unpublished,” anyway.
Why not, after all? thought I. I know how to make websites. I know, vaguely, how self-publishing works. It’s no longer considered the domain of the hopeless crank, the type of person who still often buttonholes me at social events to explain the sheer genius behind their scheme of writing a ten-volume series of novels in which they never use the letter E. There are plenty of perfectly respectable writers who self-publish, and in fact there always have been. Perhaps it was my own snobbery that needed to be laid to rest. After all, I had nothing left to prove. I could boast publication by the largest houses in North America and the U.K. Even books I’d ghost-written under false names had been published by major literary houses. It was proof, to me if to no one else, that I could really write. That was something I could whisper aloud to myself as I lay in bed at night, staring up into the darkness, remembering the warm caress of the last rays of golden light as the sun went down on twentieth-century Manhattan. I would have to hold that memory close to my heart. Lord knows I couldn’t buy groceries with it.
The most painful thing was to admit that I really had nothing to lose, either. Despite stellar reviews, generous blurbs, and even some most welcome press coverage from the likes of Lainey Lui at LaineyGossip.com, THE HUNDRED HEARTS had only sold a double handful of copies in the land of snowy beaver pelts. If I sold even one copy anywhere else, it would be an infinite increase, percentage-wise, over previous non-Canadian sales, which were zero.
So, here I am. I’ve been wearing this new identity of Self-Published Author for precisely three days. It still feels strange, but is decidedly pleasant. I don’t know what the Other Writers are going to think of me now. Will they giggle into their hands as I walk by? Actually, I don’t care. Other writers don’t buy my books, after all. I strongly suspect they don’t even read them. Well, how could they? They’re too busy writing books of their own.
Most surprising has been the reaction of the people who do read my books. They seem even more excited by this venture than I. I flatter myself into thinking it’s because they are happy to have another book by me to read. Certain friends of mine have been urging me to self-publish for years, and couldn’t understand why I clung to the old ways as if they were a floating matchstick with the name TITANIC printed on it.
The fact is this: readers don’t care who publishes a book. They only care that they get to read it. That’s the Amazing Discovery I want to share. The imprimatur of the publishing elite is growing increasingly irrelevant. Publishers and authors once needed each other to exist. That is no longer the case. People will always want to be told stories. They will never care whose colophon graces the front page of a book. So guess who will still be standing when the dust clears?
I have plenty more to say about self-publishing, but that will have to wait for another post, perhaps. In the meantime, I have to send some emails out to reviewers, I have to finish converting the manuscript to yet another format, and I need to interact with fans on Facebook. Am I busy? Yes. Am I happy? Deliriously so.