Why Creative Nonfiction Writers are Scared of Self-Publishing


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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On Truth and Privacy

A while back, I wrote a bit about how nonfiction writers deal with writing about real people. Then, Meg sent me this Cary Tennis column about a man who wants to write about his life and isn’t sure how much he can or should share about the people he’s known, and it reminded me that this is a topic worth revisiting.

This struggle also reminds me of Steph’s argument that what you post on Facebook isn’t just about you. If you post pictures of yourself going wild at a party, you have to consider that those pictures might also reflect on the people you love (say, your husband, wife or children), not to mention the other people in the picture.

What it comes down to for me is actually an old question — older than the CNF genre and far older than Facebook — Where does my life end and yours begin? My righst versus yours? My experience versus yours? My truth versus yours?

The only thing we can totally claim as belonging to us is that which is completely contained in our own bodies and minds. Those thoughts and feelings no one can know because there are no words for them. The inner workings of our cells. These things are completely ours. That’s why we feel betrayed when we get sick, feeling that our bodies are in rebellion against us. That’s why we feel threatened when our stories are in some other person’s hands — some writer’s hands.

I like Cary Tennis’ approach to just about everything, and his response to the question of writing about others is no exception. To begin with, you have to have honest intentions: Are you trying to be hurtful or are you trying to tell what you think is an essential story? Of course, having good intentions cannot absolve you of any crime, but it’s a good start toward not being guilty in the first place.

However, toward the end of his response, Tennis elaborates on the ways you can change a character to protect people’s privacy, and I take a bit of an issue with this. You see, it really is important to keep track of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. Truth matters. (I might have just found my new slogan…)

Think of all the stories that have been debunked as false when they were presented as true. Think of James Frey if you must, but also think of the recent Holocaust memoir that turned out to be false. Or think of our own history, the way we say the West was won when, if we were more truthful about it, we should say the West was stolen. I won’t go on a tyrade about it, but really, lets not get too loosey goosey with the truth. Creative nonfiction is not just about telling a good story. It’s about truth.

The debate, of course, will go on. But I’m going to leave you with this to ponder:

My name is Mary. I’m 26 years old and female. I’m about 5’5″, and I weigh about 148 lbs. I have short hair that changes from black to brown to shades of red, depending on my mood, but what I really want is to dye it pink, which I would do if I wasn’t scared it would interfere with my job. I grew up in a smallish town in Louisiana, went to Catholic schools, and was raised by parents who could be described as “intellectual Catholics.” I went to Texas for college in persuit of a doomed relationship, but I met some amazing people there and began to learn about journalism. I went to grad school at Goucher College just outside Baltimore, MD, and started freelancing shortly after graduation.

Now, if you wanted to tell my story but protect my privacy, which part would you be able to change without damaging the integrity of the story? Would that change accomplish your goal of protecting my privacy or not?

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