Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Decision to Self-publish

For most of my life - I have been a writer. For some of that life I actually got paid for it.

But it was always in me - it has always been a way I have defined myself to myself. It makes sense to who I am. The ultimate dream for me has always been, and I think shall always remain, to write for a living.

That is danged difficult though.

My first book, "The Hand Behind the Mouse" was a 'successful' book by most qualifications. I got paid a nice advance, it sold a fair (if not huge) amount of copies, it got mostly favorable critical reviews (minus a couple of fellow animation historians with their own competitive and contrary books to sell) and it even won a pithy award (voted on by animation professionals and beating out one of my heroes - the legendary John Canemaker for that wonderful honor). But it was certainly not successful enough in any of those realms to make it a full-time gig.

That book was published by Disney Editions and despite some challenges posed by offering a counter-Walt Disney thesis during a challenging 9-11 year, they promoted it well and it got out there.

For me, that process mostly fit the model of what I expected the book publishing business to look like:
  • it was written,
  • it was shopped around to agents (okay - in our case Roy Disney and Leonard Maltin served as the agents)
  • it was edited
  • it was published
  • it was marketed (by both Disney and ourselves)
That's the paradigm of what publishing seemed like it should be to me. By contrast, to me, self-publishing always sounded smarmy. It was a desperate move by the literarily inept. Over and over again writers communities and magazines and books warned of Vanity Presses who would charge to publish your work. It was all scam artist stuff of the highest magnitude.

But the publishing world has changed and is changing yet. The challenges are becoming more extreme for any writer to come fresh from the street with a novel to sell - even a novelist who had a modicum of success in the non-fiction realm.

Nonetheless, I tried going it the old-fashioned way. I shopped "The Missionary and the Brute" around to various agents for years. Based on simple queries and the opening chapter - I was rejected with form rejection letters time and time again. Understandable. It is a complex book and the fun of the novel lies in the twists and turns it takes as it tells its tale. This is hard to explain in a couple of paragraphs and frankly, I am a bit woeful at that entire aspect of the business.

The few folks who requested more chapters to read ultimately rejected it by stating the standard boilerplate response - 'It is not exactly right for us at this time. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere.' One agent respond that it was "disturbing" and not her cup of tea (since she had only the first two chapters - I quiver to think of how her tea would've been a-boiling had she read the real disturbing parts later on!)

So the manuscript sat.

And sat.

And furthermore, sat.

Yet, I never wavered in my belief that the elegance of the writing and the myriad surprises throughout the text made it easily - in my mind's eye at least - the best work I had ever done. In fact, it may be the best book I can ever possibly do. I believe that to the bottom of my soul. I know it's good and well worthy of finding an audience. The right audience. It won't ever be mainstream. It won't ever be a best seller. But it can be read.

Rather than let the book languish in a dusty bankers box for my boys to find when I am dead and gone and leaving the poor lads to wonder what the heck to do with that formidable stack of papers, I decided I wanted to get it out there. However I might. Writers write to be read. Not to provide kindling for some future fireplace fire.

Furthermore, I got to thinking that because of the complexity of the book, I would love to be able to be involved in the peripheral discussions surrounding it. I wanted to divulge some backstage secrets, give some of the history of what I was thinking and why, and to share my thoughts on the philosophies espoused within.

Hence my idea to do this blog and to publish the book myself. It cost very little to get it out there actually. By only selling a handful of books, I have already earned back the publishing costs. If it sells a great deal more than that - it can maybe help fund a school in Africa or two...

But most importantly it is out there. I have had control over all aspects of publishing from concept to design to execution. No one to blame but me. And by it being a POD (print on demand) book published as it was, there is simply no waste. There are not going to be stacks of my books languishing on forgotten bookstacks, or being sold to bargain bins as seconds only. If there are copies extant, it is because somebody wanted them to be so.

That's a pretty good model to have.

As the industry continues to evolve, I believe more and more artists will go this route and take their books right to the readers. They can retain control over their work, and are beholden to no one but themselves. Perhaps that is a selfish way to think of it. But perhaps it is merely that we want to share our unique visions with the world as simply and as directly as we can.

1 comment:

Zac said...

Good luck with the book John, currently going through the emotional turmoil of self-publishing myself and understand totally the decisions that need to be made. We do write to be read and as the industry changes so must we. I liken it to how the music industry appears to be more independent.
All the best, catch you on Linked In.