Sing Your Barbaric Yawp!!

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
Walt Whitman

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...

6 thoughts on “Sing Your Barbaric Yawp!!

  1. I’m convinced. My mother has her book and I’m happy for that. As for the publishing, I have no visions of grandeur. There are no publishers who are begging to publish a book of poems and essays. My goal is to have it printed and made available as a gift to friends and family… Selling it would seem odd as I have no desire to have to have it printed in mass quantities (and to deal with shipping and sales tax and all that business).

    • You don’t have to deal with shipping, sales tax and all that business if you self publish through any of the online platforms these days. It’s pretty simple to put together a lovely book on Amazon and the books are printed as they are ordered (POD, print on demand). I’ve used the platform to “publish” (read print) a few books I never intended to sell. It’s pretty cool.

  2. My novel and short story collection (“Ochoco Reach” and “White Ravens,” respectively) were published by a small press in South Carolina (Word Hermit Press). I went round and round trying to find an agent, with no success. So, marketing and selling really fell on me. I hired some help with both and sold a few copies, but nothing much. There were a couple months where I made a few bucks, but that was the exception, rather than the rule. I’m not a sales guy, so the books have languished for quite a while now. Was it worth the experience? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Yep. I’ll give it a shot. The people who read it fell in love with the characters (especially Bucket, the dog) and all of them want another iteration. I’m trying to accomplish that. Writing a novel is not for the faint of heart and, in my view, it is the overall experience that is most important.

    • Yep. For me the big prize are moments like that when my neighbor Elizabeth came to my house to return my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I barely knew her at the time. She held it against her heart and said, “Oh, I loved it.” The three awards on the cover of that book don’t mean as much to me (they mean something or I wouldn’t have mentioned them ha ha) as that spontaneous gesture of love for the story.

      • When I did the bookstore things to introduce the novel (one in Portland and one here on the north coast), friends from all over the country magically showed up. Blew my mind. Totally. I will carry that emotional response treasure for the rest of my days.

        • I know what you mean! I did a reading in fall 2019 of my China book. There weren’t that many people there (which is OK with me) but it was a wonderful experience. Then I did another at the local museum, and that was even sweeter. For me writing is all about serving the book, if that makes any sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.