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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Own Your Art. Yes, Art.

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This week I visited my grad school, Goucher College, as a panelist for an alumni roundtable discussion. I volunteered because I wanted to talk with my peers and see who else was writing online or self-publishing, but apparently I am one of a very small number. Instead of networking with fellow writers, I found myself in a position to share my experience of self-publishing with anyone interested (yay!) and to defend my choice to self-publish (awkward). In retrospect, there are a few points I would like to clarify but most importantly, this:

There’s more than one way to be a writer, and I’m tired of “professionals” who don’t get it. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I went to grad school with some highly accomplished writers, and was mentored by some of the top names in creative nonfiction. And I chose self-publishing anyway. Now I want to tell you why.

I see a lot of good writers struggling to get published in the traditional market — smart, passionate people who simply aren’t getting published. They are accomplished writers and reporters, and they care immensely about their work, but they can’t find an agent or publisher who thinks they can sell it.

I also see a lot of books published that are good but not necessarily better than those struggling writers. I see book stores filled with boring books. Often, they contain no big ideas but are just clever in a forgettable way.

I occasionally see extraordinarily good books in traditional publishing and equally good work from independent writers. I’m not saying no one in traditional publishing is doing a good job, but I’m saying getting published by Random House or Penguin or anyone else doesn’t make you a good writer. Just like choosing self-publishing doesn’t make you a bad writer.

Some of us have heard enough times that what we want to do will never sell, and we don’t want to waste our time trying to fit a mold that doesn’t suit us. When I decided to self-publish my manuscript, I wasn’t thinking about book sales (I assumed I would have very few), but I wanted to put this work out in the world because I was proud of it. I didn’t want to dedicate the next two years to getting the damned thing published, though, so I did it myself.

My feelings about traditional publishing are strikingly similar to my feelings about kids: “Not right now, thanks.” Right now, my honest-to-goodness most important work is teaching yoga and writing about what I believe in on my blog. Maybe in 10 years I will have done something interesting enough to write a book about and people will want to read that. At that point, I would consider selling that book to a publisher, but I’d also seriously consider publishing it myself. If I play my cards right, I could have a pretty sweet audience and not need the support of a publisher, so that’s my long-term plan. Alternatively, if I do build that kind of audience, a publisher might find it worthwhile to help me print an excellent book for them, so I’ll cross that bridge if I ever get to it.

Reality is that I don’t have a huge audience because I’m just starting out and still finding my way. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of, and I’m damn sure it doesn’t make me any less intelligent or less capable a writer than my peers. I’m aware of some things I’m doing well and some things I need to improve. Every time I take those steps to improve, I see the benefit in terms of increased audience and class attendance, and I find that extremely satisfying. I don’t know for sure where I’ll be in terms of my writing and my audience in 10 years, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

The other two panelists on Saturday were highly accomplished men, one being a New York Times bestselling author, and the other being the author of several highly praised books. They were both also in their 50s while I’m 30, so the gap in our accomplishments may look like a lot, but I feel certain that I’m on track to be their equal or better. Although I have chosen the self-publishing route, I am not less of a serious writer than anyone else at Goucher. I have however chosen to work from the ground up rather than to “aim high and work your way down” as folks kept suggesting on Saturday night. Aim high, to this crowd, seems to mean getting an occasional pittance from a large print publication and spending months writing draft after draft of a book proposal. That is the writer’s life we were all told to expect. We’ve all heard about the boatloads of rejections received by our favorite authors. So, I guess if you don’t have a scrapbook of rejection letters or a room wallpapered with them you’re somehow cheating. Maybe it’s not fair that everyone else has to jump through all the hoops while I’ve simply chosen not to play that game.

One person who seemed compelled to defend me whether he agreed with me or not compared self-publishing to being in a garage band while pursuing traditional publishing is more like playing big arenas. I guess it’s worth mentioning that I don’t go to big arena concerts very often (they’re usually overpriced and not as fun as I’m hoping), and I do love a good small town punk show or free concert in the park. Anyway, there’s no right or wrong about it, but it’s my preference to start where I am, writing for myself, self-publishing my work, honing my voice, and building my audience a little bit at a time.

The choice to self-publish or not has nothing to do with legitimacy and everything to do with your goals as a writer. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you feel driven to write? Who do you want to reach? How do you want to be remembered? Right now, my entire focus is on doing work that I can be proud of. Some of that work is poetry, essays, blog posts, and even my current attempt at fiction. But I’m also really proud of the yoga classes I teach, the volunteer work I do, and the podcast I run. The decision to self-publish was part of a larger decision to take control of my work, my life, and my own creativity. Self-publishing is part of my intentional and yes even methodical process of building the life I want. It is not for everyone, but right now, it’s definitely right for me.

Finally, there’s one specific comment I want to address. One of the panelists announced on Saturday, “No one in this room is an artist,” just as I finished explaining that self-publishing is all about owning your art. His point was that writers do not produce great work in total solitude. We need editors. We need beta readers. We need designers. We need publicists. This is all true, and it applies to traditional and self-published authors alike. However, if you do not write like an artist … well, now you know why I’m not reading your books.

You go find your audience and I’ll go find mine. In 500 years if anyone remembers either of us, it’ll be a miracle. Meanwhile, I plan on enjoying what I came here to do.

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