Saturday, June 22, 2013

Notes in a Bottle: On Publishing

“Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.”  - Margaret Atwood
Not long ago I came across an article in The Guardian (one of my favorite newspapers to which I've recently become addicted to reading) about John Green and self-publishing. As "to publish or to self-publish?" a big debate amongst writers right now, I happen to be self-published myself, and I quite like John Green, I was curious about the article. But when I read it, I came away feeling a little...well, hurt.

I love John Green and his writing and I wholly agree with him that writing and authorship is not a single, individual effort made in a locked room by an individual genius (as auteur-style thinking has led us to believe) but a collaborative effort. Writing - and any cultural form or medium - does not occur in a vacuum. And I respectfully disagree with Mr. Green that self-publishing completely promotes this.

Not that Mr. Green is wrong to make these comments. In certain ways, self-publishing absolutely can promote this idea that writing comes from a single genius and needs no editorial team or promotional group or agency to sell it. It creates a space where you can publish your work just as it is without recommendations or changes made by others, and send out your manuscript in a "pure" sort of way, untouched by anyone else. I don't agree with this way of thinking about authorship - sure, I might have put the words down on the page, but the ideas are solely mine - I was inspired by something or someone (and likely many somethings and someones). And my writing could certainly benefit from proofreading, questioning of the storyline and plot devices, and general constructive criticism. I don't disagree with this at all.
However, I feel like there's a slight assumption in this article that worrying about how working with a publishing company might change your novel is a bad thing, or people only self-publish so they don't have to be criticized work with others and so they can leave their manuscripts "pure" in the way that they envisioned it. Perhaps my media history class in college tainted my mind in this way, but after diving deep into topics regarding the MPAA for film and debates about authorship, there is some trepidation on my part about ending up with a publishing company that doesn't like the sort of stories you tell or the sort of characters you portray and forces you to change them. If you get a good match with companies, this likely wouldn't be a problem. But that's the part that's troubling to me - how do you find a good publishing company? So much of what we discussed about in my media history class was about how areas like self-publishing are becoming popular because of how little the author profits off of their work. While certainly agent and publishing firms should make some part of the cut - it is a collaboration, after all - some of the returns authors make verses certain individuals in the companies is pretty troubling. The realm of copyright is also confusing, as some firms control the copyright more than the authors, and when this comes down to distribution and how books can be accessed, this gets problematic. I like Creative Commons and copyrights that allow for rather open access and distribution but some publishing firms are very against this and want absolutely no access unless it is granted by the publisher. Neil Gaiman has some very good thoughts about this on speaking about the Open Rights group, which you can see here:

I have very unclear feelings about copyright - one one hand, I hate plagiarism. On the other, I love fanfiction, I write fanfiction, and I'm totally cool with people writing fanfiction on my stuff (not that I'm at all on a level of prestige for that. Ah, maybe one day...). I like what Gaiman says about allowing authors to have the ability to say yes, allowing people to do what they like with their works. But at the same time, it isn't just the author that creates the work - it is in part their agents and editors and companies. Authors are also influenced by the culture they are apart of and how culture reacts to their books. I could dive off into a very long debate about fanfiction and authors who are very much against it, such as Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, and (of all people) E.L. James and how this view of writing and characters as personal property that belongs entirely to the author baffles me. However, that's a topic for another time. What this gets at is how complicated ideas of ownership are when it comes to something like a book that is both physical entity but also a collection of ideas and influences. It's messy and there's no one sole person it belongs to. So who should have the most rights over the material? Honestly, I don't know.
Which is where self-publishing comes in. While I have had limited opportunity for collaboration (I did have someone work on the presentation of my ebook and make BookStubs for promotion), I at least have a clear idea of who makes the profits on my book and have quite a few liberties with my book. I created a Facebook page and a Tumblr for it this morning, which was really fun (but is going to be a ton of work to maintain and I completely understand why people hire marketing and social media experts to do this for them). But the main reason for me to go the self-publishing route is how difficult it is to make it into a publishing firm. Unless you want to end up in a slush pile somewhere, you pretty much need to have an agent in order to get published. However, agents cost money and many agents now are not accepting authors who are not already solicited - something that publishers request that you are in order to accept your manuscripts. Which is why you need an agent. But if you need an agent in order to get an agent... well, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It doesn't help that many publishing companies are being bought out by larger ones and providing fewer places for new authors to be published. And there's also the time element in publishing. While I was in no hurry to get published, I did want to put myself out there to see my writing would do and what it would be like and I didn't have the time, means, or resources to go through the traditional routes. Breaking out into the publish world is difficult and if I want to test the waters and go through a means of least resistance, why not self-publish? I actually want to use this as a stepping stone, as perhaps a means to be picked up by a traditional publishing company so that I can do collaboration and find a group that respects my interests and whom I can grow and develop with as writer.

I reacted to this article pretty strongly and perhaps I took the whole things personally rather than reading it as Green's critique of self-publishing firms, not self-publishers themselves. Maybe he's frustrated at constantly being labeled as someone who's revolutionizing the publishing market when really he wants to emphasize that he's not doing this on his own and that collaboration is important. But I wish this article had incorporated how difficult it can be to go through traditional publishing routes. Self-publishing is usually portrayed as something that well-off people do because they have the monetary ability to indulge and publish their own works. But I went through a group that publishes ebooks really cheaply because I DON'T have the monetary ability to self-publish through other firms, I don't have the budget to hire an agent, and I haven't had the time to research on my own what sort of publishing firms would accept unsolicited manuscripts in the genre that I write.

I'll segue into an attempt to pull this all together with the book I'm currently reading, Virginia Woolfe's A Room of One's Own. This is a wonderful read and gives a very interesting perspective of gender in writing. While I'd love to discuss that, it's not entirely relevant here and is a topic for another time. Woolfe overall premise, however, is important to writing and being able to be published. She argues that one needs a room in which to write in order to do so and if you do not have these means, writing will be difficult. Many of us now have spaces to write in - and computers make this so much easier - but we still have difficulty finding ways to get our writing to an audience. We want that audience not because we are interested in profit or making money, but for the same reasons that John Green illustrates - storytelling. We want to tell our stories and we would like people to read our stories and give us some feedback and maybe a little bit of money so we can eat and think and write more stories. That's it. That's what writing is. Why publishing in general makes this difficult boggles my mind.
But hell, writing itself boggles my mind most of the time. I realized how important seeing myself as a writer is to me in the past month or so and, while talking and drinking with some friends, the topic of what's a "deal breaker" for you in a relationship came up. It occurred to me pretty quickly what mine is: not taking my writing seriously. When I tell someone that I'm a writer and they react like, "Oh, that's cute" or downplay it, it makes me pretty upset. Worse yet, if I feel like I can't even tell someone I'm a writer because it seems they won't care at all, I'm even further frustrated. Why is writing so difficult to talk about? Why is it seen like less of a career option? This comic that my friend Sarah sent me implies how other professions would sound if we spoke of them like we do of writing. It's funny and yet too true.

Not that writing is the only field met with such frustrations. I'm looking into dramaturgy right now as well, which is mostly only volunteer work. Between that and my blogging and my limited book sales, everything I do doesn't make money. Which is why I need writing to start working out for me and why I need to find something else to do besides theater work and writing that will make money so I can at least eat and pay rent. Now I finally understand why people become lawyers and doctors because of the stability and clarity involved. Not so for my muddled liberal arts path.
But yes, back to publishing - it, as so many other things I've discussed here, is complicated. While I have gone the self-publishing route, it's too early to tell whether it's outcome is more beneficial than just ending up on the slush pile at a publishing company. While I am at least published - which is better than a slush pile - I'm also missing out on all those awesome rejection letters to pin to my wall (though do rejection letters only come if your manuscript is solicited? I think if you just end up on the slush pile, you just get uncomfortable silence. Alas...). I'd really like to go the traditional publishing route because I would like to have physical copies of my books and I would like to have readership and - oh, what they hell, as Sarah and I have both said, we'd like to be required reading. I'm no auteur, but I do want my writing to reach an audience, not to be hidden away or lost at sea. And it's very difficult to know where your note in a bottle is going to go or how it's going to be read when it's hard to see where the waves lead.


  1. amanda palmer has an awesome ted talk about copyright. the issue of property is certainly one society does not seriously discuss. likely because it adds another bottle to the mix; not only do you not know who will see your work, you don't know what return you'll get for it. and yet it seems so much better.

    1. Ooh, I'll have to check out the Amanda Palmer Ted Talk. Excellent point and thank you for reading!