We’ve published nine novels written by Larry
Duberstein, starting in 1986 and ending in 2011. All were interesting over this
span of twenty-five years, my favorites being The Marriage Hearse (1986), The
Handsome Sailor (1998)—A masterpiece
about Herman Melville, and two most unusual comedies: Carnovsky’s Retreat (1988) and Postcards
from Pinsk (1991). Sales,
unfortunately, did not match great reviews and so he decided to self-publish
his tenth novel, Five Bullets. And here is what he has to say about that experience:
“It is a Brave New World in publishing, right?
Self-publishing is no longer a way of conveying that no self-respecting
publisher would want your book. It’s okay now! The Internet has leveled the
playing field, connecting you to a billion readers. Quality will out in the
“Exactly how is the question, I suppose, in any
marketplace. You may grow the very best cabbages, but how do you get anyone to
know your wonderful cabbages exist? How do you get grocers to display them? If
you stood by the roadside under a colorful umbrella, your produce might lure
the odd motorist in for a look, but business would be conducted on a painfully
small scale. One can only imagine how much smaller and more painful if, instead
of advertising fresh vegetables, you stood there crying
“Invisibility is a serious problem where sales are
concerned. Cabbages at least start out neutral, equal to all other cabbages. If
they look good (and yes, if someone sees them) they might have a fighting chance.
Whereas your novel, however good it may look, and whether or not someone sees
it, will likely be dismissed out of hand. Why? Because you self-published it,
“Or me fool. I had a publisher. I stuck with them
(and they stuck with me!) through nine titles, partly because I liked them so
much as people and partly out of laziness. But this new book was important to
me, it was personal, a family matter, and buying into the Brave New World
notion, I decided it would be fun to put the book out under my own imprint and
allow the Internet to deliver books to the waiting masses.
“So what made me such a fool? Beyond a finger in the
wind of cultural shift, what made me imagine I could vault over negative fences
and get this book into the public eye?
“The answer is probably good old hubris, because,
you see, those previous titles were not ignored altogether. While we were never
knocked back by waves of royalties, strong reviews and bracing honors did come
ashore. A New York Times ‘New & Noteworthy,’ a New York Times Notable Book,
a Publishers Weekly starred notice, a glowing treatment on NPR, a BookSense
Notable Book—each novel found its way to such encouraging responses. Wouldn’t
these bonafides—enhanced by a few huzzahs for the new novel—stand in for the say-so
of salespersons and publicists?
“Well, no. Begin with independent bookshops. There
have been bookshops that welcomed me, absolutely, and I have done a number of
well-received readings. But there were as many bookshops who could not be
bothered replying to emails, even though they employ a closed internal email as
the sole approach to the “events” person. Unless you are a name brand writer
you really have to go there, stand there, and hope the elusive events person is
standing there too.
“Most curious was the case of one shop that did
reply, sort of. This was in a city where I had lived for decades and had a
substantial following. In fact I had done a reading for this bookshop that
resulted in a sizable audience, a lively interchange, and strong sales. Recently
they hosted an author who, though he had produced an extraordinary book, drew a
crowd of six. So bless their hearts.
“Except they said there was no room at the inn; that
sadly the month of November was booked. As if the world ended on November 30. As
if there did not lie on the road ahead many months not named November. Clearly
this was just code for No. Given my history with this store, I could only guess
that behind the spoken answer lay the unspoken: the book is self-published, you
“Reviews are the real problem. Not the reviews we
got, the reviews we didn’t get, some of which I had counted on when deciding to
self-publish. I had a friend who reviews books for the website of a large
bookstore chain, so there was that—until there wasn’t. They were not
permitted, I was told, to take on self-published titles.
“Another friend has a books-and-authors show on
public radio and we had discussed my coming on the show to talk about this very
book. But that was prior to my fateful decision. Now there was a firewall: we
only do the books that publicists bring us. More code.
“On to Harvard Magazine, who had treated my books
handsomely in the past and would know what they were looking at with this one.
Except that they would not look. They could not consider the novel, alas,
because there was a policy against covering self-published books. No code
“One editor there felt badly enough about this
outright ban to take the trouble of calling me—kind and courageous on her
part—to deliver this news. 'Had I given this book to my publisher and let them
print it,' I reasoned with her, 'you would be holding the exact same object in
“But her hands were tied. My plaint had the ring of
truth, it was what Mark Twain might have called a real home shot. It’s just
that home shots lack the caliber to pierce the armor of policy.
“The critical organs are the pre-pub stalwarts, the
handful of review services librarians rely upon for recommendations. We all
know their names: Kirkus, P.W., Booklist, Library Journal. Each of these
outfits had reviewed my earlier work and most of their judgments were
laudatory. Looking back, I discovered that PW had reviewed all my previous
books and that all nine reviews were distinctly positive. Many were lavishly
so. But PW did not choose to review this book.
“Neither did Library Journal or Booklist. Neither
did newspapers (The New York Times, The Boston Globe) that had praised earlier
titles. To my astonishment, Kirkus did find space to consider the book and to
my further astonishment (because Kirkus, as we all know, can be thorny)
celebrated its virtues without reservation. I bow to Kirkus, even if I suspect
the book may have slipped through by accident.
“So we are back to the problem of invisibility.
Those pre-publication reviewers are there to tell the world your book is coming
out. Librarians will not order copies unless the book comes recommended; even
safer to say that they won’t order a copy if they have no idea the book exists.
“Meanwhile, there really is a brave new world (lower
case) of online bloggers and webzines giving consideration to independent
presses and the better self-published books. Some of these enterprises have
grown to noticeable proportions. Most, though, have 37 followers, or maybe 178,
though I hasten to say those are 178 people for whose interest you will be
thankful. Five Bullets may not be an NYT Notable, but there is some consolation
knowing it is a ShelfUnbound Notable Book. If the more talented
blogger/reviewers are not quite the wave of the present, they may yet become
the wave of the future. All revolutions start small. How many went with Castro
to the Sierra Maestra?
“This particular revolution has not gone as far as
advertised, that’s all I seek to convey. I’m not saying good things can’t happen;
many have happened for my novel. What I am saying is that you may have to put
most of the brave into this brave new world. Brace yourself. A lot of the doors
you approach will be closed; many will be locked.
“Genre comes into it; genre could solve the
equation. If you issue forth Six Quick Ways to a Better Butt, your chances of
prospering are surely brighter. Butts go viral more readily than cabbages and
kings and literary fiction. And if you must write fiction, try Fifty Shades of
Purple Prose and you might find a runway open. If you are an Internet wizard
capable of throwing your whole soul into these new interactive sites & sounds, you might even achieve pushback and liftoff. You might get airborne.
“Otherwise, don’t expect to see your lovingly self-published
book displayed on a spinning carousel at the airport (to continue with our air
travel metaphor). But if you should happen to see a badly dressed fellow
running across the tarmac waving his bonafides at you like a madman, feel free
to stop and say hello. Buy a copy! My doors are always open.”
STARTING NEXT WEEK (November 25) a series of blogs
from first time novelists that I’m sure you will enjoy reading. You can post comments on this blog to me, to Larry Duberstein , or better yet on this website.