Recently a blogging pal and a real pal (though we haven’t met in three dimensional life yet) wrote a post about her discouragement having been unable to sell a book she cares very much about to a conventional publisher. Up until now, that hasn’t been her story (ha ha). I wrote her a really long comment about that, probably too long, but ANY-hoo…
It started me thinking (again) about independent publishing which is, simply, publishing a book with a small press or on one’s own.
I’m in the middle of judging independently published books right now for a contest. It’s a complicated thing for me because I was a writing teacher for more than half my life. Very, very, very often I want to instruct these writers.
What the eyes of the writers don’t see are the hard-working judges looking at their book against the judging criteria. What makes a good book in the eyes of this contest, anyway? Many writers don’t seem to consider what they have to say to their reader and they save the important message for last. Good for a mystery, maybe, not cool in a non-fiction book.
Sometimes it’s grammar. One of the most important books to come into my living room this time has really atrocious grammar. I don’t care that much but OTHER readers will. Sometimes it’s really simple, “This is only cute in your mind.” I have all kinds of reactions, but since it’s not my job to teach, and none of that appears on the rubric the organization has developed for judges, I don’t have to deal with teaching these writers. Things that do? The appearance of the book. Its physical readability. Most important, the book’s value to the intended audience, a criterion that saves me from my own personal reaction/response which, sometimes, is, “I don’t care about this, and you’re an idiot.” I am not controlled by those feelings. Some of the best books to come my way have stimulated that initial response, like last year’s winner. I saved it for last because I was not at all interested in the subject, but once I opened it, I became interested. THAT’S good writing!
This is different from being an agent for writers who are looking to see if he/she can sell a book to a publisher. That person is worried about his/her bottom line and the market. I just have to worry about whether a book is good or not.
One that’s physically attractive, approachable and readable, meaningful to its audience, and shows respect for readers by being well edited. To be a finalist or a grand prize winner the book needs to stand out from the others in all categories. I have one right now, and it’s one of the most beautiful and important books I’ve ever read. It’s obviously something very special, and pretty much everyone would see that.
My point (I’m changing my daily schedule so I get up when the dogs do in the morning so I can put Teddy’s “boot” on his little hurt foot so he can go outside, meaning I’m a bit out of it) is that the criteria for independent publishing is NOT the same as the criteria conventional publishers use to decide to publish and promote a book. Many of the books I am reading now were written by people who just wanted to “write a book someday.” Others are meaningful projects that no conventional publisher could imagine selling millions of copies. One of the books I have now that I can’t wait to read for real, not with a judging sheet in front of me, is one of a trilogy of travel/history books. It’s IMMENSE. It’s door-stop worthy. It was obvious to me from the very first moment that no big publisher would want to publish this book, but it’s beautifully written and edited, illustrated with photos, has good maps and the writer has an authentic voice. Most of all, I am, personally, interested in the subjects covered by the tome.
So why write a book at all if no one is going to publish and sell it? I had to answer that question for myself years ago. I realized that, for me, the big deal isn’t sending out 900,000,000 queries to agents in pursuit of success and fame. In fact, after historical novel number three, The Brothers Path, and two close calls with small publishing houses (one went out of business, the other accepted then rejected the manuscript) I decided my life was too short to screw around with that. I also entered contests back in the day and my books have garnered a few awards, but ultimately none of that meant as much to me as writing the books. The entrance fee for these contests is upward of $100, and I don’t have the kind of money, so… Not every talented athlete will go to the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean that none of those talented athletes aren’t good enough.
And, something we don’t think of, before publishing became a big business, all books were independently published. One such writer was…
Song of Myself, 52
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world...