Friday, December 10, 2010

Justifying self-publication

Originally posted April 7th, 2010 by Davus

Although I am what is called "established" as a writer, I am unknown to the inner world of publishing and resorted to self-publishing rather than spend months and years sending my manuscripts to publishers, who, when they have accepted submissions, asked me to cut the length because they disliked the expense of printing a longer book. I know other writers who feel they are getting on in age and cannot wait years for publishers who have accepted their manuscript but wait for an opportune time or put it in a long line to wait its turn. Also my writings have been anti-establishment in some cases or championing the unfamiliar in others or elucidating the unrecognizable-by-mainstream-thought by others—in other words non-commercial by instinct and choice. 
 My compulsion to write this about self-publishing, in self-justification, comes from my wife’s enjoyment of Robert Gover’s On the Run with Dick and Jane which I chanced upon. She wants more of his writing. I met him in the early 60s in an apartment of friends on east side Manhattan at a small party in which his agents were present. He had just published The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding and told me that every publisher in the US had turned it down, that his agents found a French publisher where it became a best seller and thereby put pressure on an American publisher to issue it. It became a cult classic. 
The stories of authors being turned down by publishers scores of times are legion—and the success of their books when published are just as legion. But one never hears of the publishers regretting their bad decisions. I had the utopian idea that a publisher acted for all publishers in assessing a manuscript and that it was the fault of the manuscript if it was rejected, thus I did not persist. I  went for years before I wrote something that found a publisher because of its topicality. Eventually with the advent of word processing and digital publishing and the confidence in my writing gained from the few of my books issued by established publishers. I issued my mss from my own press, which was much more fun than having a mss taken over by a publisher. 

Distribution is a problem for small presses but if you are not commercial to begin with [and rarely is a commercially written book a work of art] distribution is of small significance. Moreover, with ebooks and the decline of bookstores, self-publishing will become even more worthwhile. We may reach our readership some day.


  1. It has been an apothem that we owe modern English and American literature to two editors: Ford Madox Ford in England and Maxwell Perkins in the United States. Were then only a dozen or so poets and novelists worth reading? the ones these men published? The fact that Ford was a good novelist who knew good writing and Perkins was patient enough to edit the ramblings of Thomas Wolfe and graciously accept Fitzgerald’s recommendation to publish Morley Callahan speaks loudly in their favor. Were the other editors useless? I have been reading Ezra Pound’s Literary Essays in which he suggests as much in the excerpt I cite below. Of course Pound says one is a bumpkin not to know foreign languages, the classics and the poets and craftsmen in world literature, which considerably widens the field. Pound’s concern, however, is proper education and the superficial and misleading teaching that undermines comprehension. Decisions taken by the mass of bad editors weakens the intellectual discourse of a country.

    Pound ranks six levels of authors—inventors, masters, diluters, men who do more or less good work in the more or less good style of a period [the bulk of all writing], belles lettres, and the starters of crazes, fashionable for a few centuries or a few decades and then subside. I suppose the majority of editors can recognize the value of the lesser ranks which is why we have so much of them. I recall Thomas Costain, still remembered by some as a good historical novelist or at least a popular one, telling me that when he was editor of the Saturday Evening Post he published in serial form the novels of Kenneth Roberts, for which I am eternally grateful, for that led to Roberts’ work in book form and everlasting fame. At another time Costain mentioned that he “discovered” J. Philip Marquand, who would rank in number four of Pound’s hierarchy.

    Yet one forgets that Pound himself was acclaimed by fellow writers for advancing their careers; one thinks of his editing Eliot’s The Waste Land, [a facsimile of the edited manuscript was published by the New York Public Library from the original in the Berg Collection]. When I was a young man I revered the writings of Percy Wyndham Lewis, whom Pound praised for his painting as well as his writing, though the middling mass of editors took no notice. In the following excerpt Pound mentions Robert McAlmon, whom John Glassco immortalized in his book on Paris in the late 1920s. My friend Clay Spohn, who was in Paris then, recommended Glassco’s book as the truest depiction of what it was like. McAlmon married into money and published struggling writers of his acquaintance as well as his own works, which is one reason I put this missive under ‘self-publishing’. Pound’s reference to paideuma is taken from the German mathematician Frederick Frobenius. "Frobenius uses the term Paideuma for the tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period. . . . I shall use Paideuma for the gristly roots of ideas that are in action." --Ezra Pound.

    Thus I quite Pound in the following blog:

  2. In aiming at a new paideuma, . . . my criticism . . . has been for some years the attempt to ascertain the relations of at least a certain number of literary phenomena . . .

    English and American criticism of the generation preceding mine, and the completely contemptible and damnable activity of the literary bureaucracy in power (materially in power in the editorial offices, publishing houses, etc.) has been occupied chiefly with the inane assertion of the non-existence of the giraffe, and magari not of the giraffe alone, but of whole tribes of animals, the puma, the panther, the well-known Indian buffalo. Sheep and gelded oxen they had seen, but no W. H. Hudson was to be let back from the Andes with reports of birds 'antient upon the Earth', . . .

    That these cuistres have been shown up for fools time and again, has yet had almost no effect on the book trade. One piece of evidence against the whole cockeyed system is the signal incapacity of the 'ploot' to do anything for the enlivenment of letters. Seven blind men to pick the company's rifleshot. Sterile incompetents charged to spend the income of millions no longer even in monuments, where the facts are comparatively easy to discover, but magari in CHOOSING the paladins of tomorrow, in PICKING the rising talent, which is so subtile a process that even the best player attempts it with diffidence.

    Demonstration has not availed. Capacity to pick the winner has, most signally, NOT affected these domains of material action. Men who have been wrong steadily decade after decade, who have persistently at intervals of five years, or ten years or even less than five, printed vast blurbs about authors now relegated to desuetude, still decree what books shall be printed, what books the vast congeries of American Carnegie libraries shall purchase. No 'regular and established publisher' has yet printed a new author's book or indeed any book on my recommendation (unless a couple of anthologies are to be counted). An analogous condition of affairs would doubtless be comic in the higher intellectual circles of pugilism or greyhound racing, but so is it gravely and solemnly on ... well I suppose they aren't the slopes of Parnassus .... The mountain is still intact, the spring water still excellent. The Palux Laerna has always existed....

    Let it stand that the function of criticism is to efface itself when it has established its dissociations. Let it stand that from 1912 onward for a decade and more I was instrumental in forcing into print, and secondarily in commenting on, certain work now recognized as valid by all competent readers, the dates of various reviews, anthologies, etc., are ascertainable.....

    In another thirty years perhaps the gross idiocy of two decades of publishers will also be more apparent. I mean their short-sightedness; and particularly their policy of debasing the literary coin to a point where it no longer deceives even the gulls. Trade bad save in
    inferior imitations of Edgar Wallace, because greed of immediate profit blinded them to the necessity of keeping alive just a wee bit of inventiveness, of fostering just enough good seed corn for new crop, of cherishing just that little bit of extra perception, just that bit of unwanted honesty that divides say McAlmon from Sinclair Lewis, and makes the latter so acceptable to the boob, whose recognized limitations he portrays, without pulling the gaff on something that affects personal vanity. . . .
    America is now teeming with printed books written by imitators of McAlmon, inferior to the original. So far as I know no volume by McAlmon has yet been printed in his own country.... lacking any decent organization, lacking any sense of responsibility toward letters, lacking men having any such sense and at the same time any power or energy, the economic factors (trade control, etc.) became increasingly capable of forcing the degradation of books. Culmination perhaps in withdrawal of overdrafts of London publishers who didn't behave . . . .

  3. I am about to have some of my books as ebooks available from my web site. As such they will be available to read anywhere in the world. A reader may download them and print them or read them on an ebook reader. The bane of self-publishers and small presses has always been lack of distribution. Now technology has overcome that problem, just as it overcame the problem of publishing one's own books. The publishing conglomerates will try to corner the market by controlling the ebook readers and rejecting ebooks that don't come from them. Already certain book chains reject ebooks from their ereaders that are issued by small presses. But there will be methods of overcoming these practices. With the internet the reader has an almost overwhelming access to new books; to be able to test a few pages from them at will is a necessity if one wishes to find the writing style and sensitivity suited to one's tastes.

  4. In the Spring 2012 issue of Write; the magazine of the Writers' Union of Canada, are articles dealing with self-publishing, in particular one by Bill Freeman "Why I Self Published." Some years ago Freeman was one of the strongest critics of self-publishing and vehemently disagreed with my efforts to bring the Union members around to countenancing it, if not supporting it. Is the union membership finally able to overcome the old sticks who side with the established publishers who monopolize the literary prizes, the retail outlets, etc and can we persuade the Governor-General Awards, Trillium Awards, and other lucrative prize-givers that self-published books should be considered? [see my letters on the subject elsewhere on this site]. Publishers will put up a fight and writers are not sufficiently organized to overcome them as yet, but there is hope. Unfortunately Freeman began his article with the words: "I have some 18 books to my credit..." which established that he is a recognized professional and not to be confused with these self-publishing amateurs who do not have the blessings of the gate-keepers. Yet change comes inevitably and maybe faster than we think in this case.

  5. It is heartening to hear that the Writers' Union of Canada has voted to accept self-published authors as members. The trick is to vet the self-published books submitted for membership without bias and diplomatically. Since established presses have issued books of very low standard at times, their example may serve as a warning or object lesson.

  6. On the main page of my web site one may click on to remarks I made on self-publishing—I quote one paragraph: COMMENT MADE ON THE WRITERS' UNION OF CANADA in a message to a writer:
    "I joined the Writers' Union when I returned to Canada in 1993. Then it was vibrant [so different from the Authors' Guild of which I was a member in NYC]. There was a kerfuffle over the representation of minorities. Many members resigned. The Union has not been the same. I have been very disappointed in its grievance power, etc, but since I am an old union man [I organized the library workers union in NYC and was its president] I stick with it in hopes that it can do something more for writers. What I dislike is the attitude of many members who want to use it as certifying their professionalism as a writer. When they deny self-published authors membership, they are lining themselves up with publishers against other writers when all writers should be unified."
    I recently returned from the Union's general meeting in St John's, Newfoundland where I enjoyed the meeting as much as the first one in 1993. It seems to have been energized, possibly by its resole;union to include self-published authors [although some writers still confuse them with vanity-published authors]. I give the union's resolution on the issue in the following entry.

  7. I have excluded some of the Whereases for reasons of space permitted:
    WHEREAS new information technologies and innovations such as online bookselling, digital ebooks, online print-on-demand services, mobile computing (smartphones and tablets) and crowd-funded creativity are fundamentally transforming the publishing industry throughout Canada and North America;
    WHEREAS the traditional trade-publishing model based on a contract and royalties is undergoing change, including a growing number of authors paying for publicity, book websites, book tours, book design and even editing and production;
    WHEREAS the restructuring of the publishing industry, including bankruptcies and mergers and a reduction in royalty advances, has significantly reduced the opportunities and financial rewards to publish with established trade publishers;
    WHEREAS in a survey of TWUC membership in 2011 some 58 percent expressed interest in services like Amazon and 47 percent expressed interest in ebook self publishing;
    WHEREAS given the limited opportunities and poor contract terms being offered by traditional trade publishers, many successful writers are turning to self-publishing and alternative business models for monetization such as pay-wall protected websites and crowd-sourced funding;
    WHEREAS self-publishing is making up a growing percentage of professional authors and a disproportionate number of new and young authors will be self-publishing given the limited opportunities and poor contract terms of traditional publishers; . . .
    WHEREAS The Writers’ Union of Canada will likely face dwindling and ageing membership if new and young self-published professional authors are not admitted into its membership; . . .
    THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the National Council with the assistance of the Constitutional Review Task Force take into advisement the recommendation of the membership present at the 2013 AGM to hold a referendum on expanding the Membership criteria as described in bold font as follows:
    2.1 Membership shall be open to all writers who satisfy the Membership Committee of their compliance with the follow- ing requirements:
    (a) that the writer has had a book published by a commercial or university press or the equivalent in another medium;
    that the writer has self-published a book and satisfies all three of the following conditions:
    I. that the book is registered with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
    II. that commercial intention is demonstrated
    III. that the Membership Committee select three
    TWUC members, who shall remain anonymous to the applicant, to review the self-published book and attest to the applicant’s professionalism
    (b) that the Membership Committee has at its discretion and by a majority vote decided that this book is a trade book; and
    (c) that the writer is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada or identifies himself or herself as an Aboriginal or Indigenous person born or resident within Canada.
    2.2 No society or corporation shall be a member of the Union.
    2.3 The Membership Committee shall:
    (a) accept or reject all applications for membership by majority vote;
    (b) solicit new members;
    (c) make recommendations to the National Council concerning rescission of the membership of any person for non-compliance with this by-law; and
    (d) be empowered to waive any of the above criteria by unanimous vote.
    2.4 Following a decision by the Membership Committee:
    (a) a rejected applicant may appeal the decision of the Membership Committee to the National Executive, whose ruling shall be final;
    (b) a rejected applicant may re-apply for admission to the Union each or any year thereafter; or
    (c) a member of the Membership Committee itself may request a review by the National Executive of an acceptance or rejection.
    Approved by referendum.

  8. Having just read Michael Korda's Another Life about the publishing world in New York city from 1960 to 2000, I see how hopeless it was for me to find a publisher in the early 60s when I was a young hopeful. Korda edited for Simon and Schuster and gives sharp descriptions of the personalities, compettitveness and intrigues in the business and the often superficial way in which manuscripts are chosen. Much depends on the taste of the editor and after him the Board for a book to be published. Even then, many of the books are failures. Those that are successful are a surprise to the company. In the 1980s and 90s when amalgamations and marketing gimmicks took over the publishing houses, the commercialization of the book in the search for large profits led to the junk books dominating the market. I am grateful that I avoided that scene. Eventually my work has reached the public—admittedly in a small way but satisfactorily to me—and I have kept my integrity and can say that my books are mine rather than a mish-mash of editing by one or more editors shaping it to sell well in a market the company has interpreted, often wrongly.