Why Creative Nonfiction Writers are Scared of Self-Publishing

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I’ve been thinking about the place of self-publishing in the creative nonfiction (CNF) world since last summer when I participated in a round-table discussion on publishing in which my perspective as a self-published blogger was not well received. Granted, I was flustered and may not have represented my point well, but it seems that while fiction writers are embracing self-publishing a little at a time, the CNF community largely rejects it and sees any writer who pursues it as naive, vain, and delusional.

There’s a belief among CNF writers that association with a traditional publisher lends us credibility. Obviously, credibility is essential to anyone who writes nonfiction. Additionally, we believe that being accepted by the publishing establishment proves our worth as writers. I don’t know why we still believe this because I’ve seen plenty of truly awful books published the old fashioned way, but we cling to this idea like a middle schooler trying to believe in Santa Claus.

The flip side of our over-valuing of traditional publishing is that we believe self-publishing devalues our work. We believe if it were any good, an editor would have picked it up or that if the writer were not so lazy, she would have shopped it around. These are self-defeating assumptions rooted in intellectual classism, which tells us someone Up There, some overdressed academic in a sky scraper is a more qualified judge of our work than we are.

This may be vain of me, but I disagree. It’s true that writers get attached to our favorite sentences (no matter how awful they are) and everyone can use editorial help, but if we decide what’s good writing based on what’s popular, then it’s no surprise mainstream literature is going the way of pop music. Hint: Incredibly innovative and beautiful music is still being made every day, but you’re not going to hear it on your top 40 station.

Some writers will say, “aim high and work your way down,” a piece of advice I heard repeated many times at Goucher last summer. I get it. Everyone wants to publish big. Everyone wants a book deal. I want to be paid an advance and have a publisher finance my trip around the world so I can write about it, but those opportunities are increasingly rare. So you can pursue that, and that’s great because sometimes that path works out for people. But it very often doesn’t work out, and even traditionally published authors suffer from low sales numbers and awkward party conversations in which you have to explain your book to people who have never heard of it and are only pretending to be interested. So if that path looks miserable to you, pick something else.

Self-pub is equally difficult and lacking in guarantees, but it’s no less valid. Yes, there is a risk of entering a flooded market, but there’s also the possibility that your audience will find you where a publishing house wouldn’t have reached them. Maybe they wouldn’t have given your weird book a chance. Maybe “that’s not selling this year.” Maybe they just don’t think anyone cares about your story. But if you care enough about your story to write it, you should write it. And if it’s important to you to publish it, you should publish it.

If you want to be a famous writer and sell millions of books, I can’t tell you how to do that. I’m not even sure I’d want to do that if I knew how. What I do want is the ability to write what matters most to me and reach people in a meaningful way. Self-publishing gives me the opportunity to do that and the control the do it in a way that’s sustainable for me. And by sustainable, I mean it doesn’t make me hate my life. That’s goal number one.

At the end of the day, it’s up to writers to decide the future of publishing. The more we cater to “what sells,” the more mainstream literature homogenizes just like pop music. Independent musicians, film makers, and fiction writers have taken it upon themselves to do their work and publish it regardless of the nod from on high, but for some reason, the CNF community can’t do that. The only reason I can see is fear:

  • fear that you lack the credibility and validation supplied by a publishing house.
  • fear of being seen as a lesser writer by your peers.
  • fear of having to explain self-publishing to people.
  • fear that you’ll never sell enough books to make any money.
  • fear that you will publish something terrible and no one will have the heart to tell you.
  • … or that they will.
  • fear that you will negate future opportunities by marring yourself with the sin of self-publishing.

In other words, the CNF community still believes that self-publishing is not for serious writers, so I think it’s time we clear this up:

If you write and you’re serious about it, you’re a serious writer. If you write and you laugh about it, you’re a humorous writer. If you write and you’re a judgmental jerk about it, guess what that makes you. 🙂

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couldn’t write

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I couldn’t write last night. I put on my headphones and tried, but it didn’t work. I kept staring off into space, space being the window in front of my desk which was transformed into a creepy mirror thanks to the dark night outside and the lamp on my desk.

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my sketchy night

 

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I’m a little embarrassed because I know these are not good drawings, but I had fun trying and I’m totally doing it again.

I went to Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art school in Baltimore last night. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I moved here and haven’t done for the usual bullshit reasons. Since the Junkyard Dolls had a fundraising event there last night and since that’s my league big sister’s team, it seemed like a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and try something fun.

I don’t technically know how to draw, but that’s OK because a lot of the people there were very good at it. I like being an amateur surrounded by experts. I like to let them teach me, and they like to teach. I was intimidated by this one girl whose art work was really fabulous, but when we had a break I mentioned that I really liked her drawings. She immediately opened up and wanted to share — “This chick lost 10 pounds when I added the background color!” She held up her drawing of Suzy Pow’s muscles, and it was basically perfection. People shared their supplies and encouraging words, and though I don’t see myself joining a competitive art league any time soon, I’ll probably go back for another round.

Here are some things I drew last night. In case it’s not clear, I’m not requesting a critique from the internet at large. When I look at what other people drew last night, I feel a million miles away from them, but I was happy enough with these to share them.  Also, no one is allowed to be mad at me if they don’t like the picture I drew of them. I get amnesty as a shitty artist whose only merit is that she draws with love.

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Pornographic, Offensive, or Just a Naked Body?

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Last week, when I posted this article on Facebook, a couple of my guy friends expressed their discomfort with the art work I used. Several of my girlfriends defended the image. There was a debate about whether Facebook’s terms of service explicitly forbade all nudity or just pornography and whether this piece of art crossed the line into being pornography. You can read all the comments here.

As I pondered how to respond, I scrolled around clicking “like” on my friends’ clever witticisms and taking personality quizzes (I’m Bjork, according to Buzzfeed). And then I stumbled across a photo of a man I’ve never met naked in a bathtub eating a burrito.

Now… let’s talk about what’s pornographic and what’s offensive. The idea of pornography is that it’s intended to be used as masturbatory material. That is the supposed difference between porn and art. Of course, it’s also possible that a piece of fine art could arouse the viewer, and maybe the artist even created it with that intention. In those cases, the quality of the work is often what determines the difference. If the artist is good enough, the sexy painting ends up in a museum. If not, it goes in a closet.

For something to be offensive, on the other hand, is more serious. I’m not offended by things I simply disagree with, though. I am offended by sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of hate. Hate is the only thing I find truly offensive. Everything else is usually a matter of taste.

If you label something offensive just because you don’t agree with it, what you’re engaging in is not morality, it’s censorship. You are not “protecting the children” by shielding their eyes from a perfectly healthy image of a woman looking at her body in a mirror. Our society largely invalidates brilliant art work because we’re uncomfortable with the fact that it turns us on, or might turn someone on, or maybe just reminds us a little too much of sex.

To be clear, the picture I posted was of a woman looking at her vulva with a mirror. As my friend Krista said, “our necks don’t bend enough to see all the good stuff.” The woman is learning about her body and admiring it. She is smiling into the mirror. She loves herself. I don’t find anything offensive about that idea or the picture, and in fact the whole damn thing makes me happy.

As for the guy in the bath tub photo, that I didn’t want to see. I’ll admit I’ve posted a dorky selfie or two, but what the hell man? Actually, the photo was taken and posted by bathtub guy’s friend (who is my friend, hence me seeing the photo). I can’t quite imagine the circumstances that lead to this photo being taken, but I’m sure it was hilarious for the two of them. However, if any of my friends posted something that unflattering of me on the internet, we wouldn’t be friends anymore. But I’m still not offended by the photo. Furthermore, I doubt anyone will complain to my friend about the picture because we know him and his weird sense of humor. Everyone will roll their eyes and laugh about it. Facebook will not take down the post. It’s just a naked guy in a bathtub eating a burrito.

What’s wrong with that?

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What I’m Reading: I Love Trouble, 1

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OK, so I mostly picked it up for the cover design. You know you love that typeface and those colors.
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I don’t know how to take a picture of paper quality, but I really like this paper and the art style.
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The main character, Felicia, is someone I can at least relate to a little bit, what with being female and liking to drink on planes.

I’ll probably buy the second issue when I go to the comic shop again. It’s like $3. Why wouldn’t I?

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