* * *
“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 marketplace.
“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
“Novels, novels, alive-alive-O.”
“Novels, novels, alive-alive-O.”
“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, you fool.
“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 perfect fool.
“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 there!
“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 your hands.'
“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.