Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

To self-publish or to not publish at all?

I woke up this morning to an NPR piece about self-publishing. Like most writers of my generation, I still tend to think of such publishers as “the vanity press.” That’s why I was surprised to hear that Mark Morford, a popular columnist on the San Francisco Chronicle website, decided to go the self-publishing route:

[Morford] has a forthcoming book, The Daring Spectacle, a collection of his columns. Initially, Morford did meet with agents, and he had a lot of interest from traditional publishers.

“I encountered a lot of excitement for the book,” he says, “agents and publishers alike said, ‘Yes this is a great idea. We like it.'”

But the book deals they offered were not what they once were. There were no more big advances, and national book reading tours with stays in swanky hotels. Morford says he was told, “that whole idea has sort of vanished, has sort of gone away. There is no more marketing money.”

Morford began to wonder if he even needed a big publishing house. He looked around and discovered a burgeoning industry of companies that help authors publish their own books in any format they like, from the traditional printed book to e-books and the Kindle, and now for the iPad. Morford decided to publish with a company called Bookmaster.

Part of what surprised me about this piece was the statement about money and book deals. In the ’80s, I received a contract from Harper Collins to write a book, Good Country People, about what remained of Flannery O’Connor’s world in the rural South. For several reasons I’ve recounted elsewhere, I never finished the book. One of those reasons was utter depression over the matter of marketing. I was paid a $10,000 advance fully up front — considered generous for a new author in those days — but I was told that I should expect to make no more money.

“It’s all controlled by marketing,” my editor at Harper Collins told me. “They won’t be willing to spend a lot of money promoting this book, but they might for your second or third book. But don’t think that you’re going to live entirely off royalties and an advance while you write your next book.”

I did not find the process of writing a book at all pleasurable, so knowing that I wasn’t going to make any money — while I probably offended my family with the book’s sexual contents —  resulted in a creative block and I never finished the book. As I often tell people, “I wish I had finished it, but, as an occupation, writing books seems very overrated to me.”

In subsequent years, I received three inquiries about compiling my magazine stories or the “Headcase” columns I wrote for Creative Loafing for 20-odd years in book format. This sounded like a tedious editing job to me and the inquiries were during the years I was studying for my PhD. I didn’t want to spend my little spare time doing that. (And I’ve made a vow to myself never to undertake a book with an advance again.)

In recent years, several of my clients and friends have successfully self-published their books. Unlike me, though, they are very self-promotional types. Despite my longtime work in media, I do not enjoy public attention. That’s part of the appeal of being a dining critic to me. The effort to maintain anonymity is a great excuse for avoiding the direct public gaze.

There’s also the question of publishing in digital format — for the Kindle or the new iPad. People I know have stuck to self-publishing physical books. Personally, I read more online than I do in print now, so I wonder if my brain isn’t better programmed for digital books. I’m also personally fascinated with the mixed-media capabilities that the iPad offers.

It’s interesting to consider how the literary establishment itself could be affected by this change. Call me crazy, but I’m guessing the folks at the New York Review of Books don’t routinely pick up self-published or digital-only books. How will the literary hierarchy preserve itself if publishing is radically democratized?

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