Why self-publish? or The Letters

If you're looking at my previous post and are prone to doing a little mental arithmetic, you're thinking: Graduated from college 1992, probably entered the work force immediately (yes), it's 2011 now--that's like, 20 years of writing for a living! Why couldn't you find a publisher?

Well, the answer to that is threefold. Part of it is the work itself, part of it is my just getting tired of the process, and part of it is the nature of the business.

I started out trying to publish Trang. Now, if you are a publishing neophyte (as, despite my writing experience, I was when I began this process--I was pretty much always either on staff or a regular freelancer, so I didn't have to go through all this before), you should know that there are basically two paths toward publication. Path 1 is, you find an agent, and the agent signs you up with a big commercial house. This has two advantages: It's quick, because the agent can submit to several houses simultaneously, and you get paid more.

The primary disadvantage is that the work needs to be very, very commercial indeed. Big publishing houses want stuff that will sell a LOT of copies.

Does that mean they only want really high-quality stuff? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh my God HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no. Is Mad Men not on network TV because it's just not that good a show? Seriously, please don't be naive. They want stuff that will sell a lot of copies. Quality is basically irrelevant. This is why Paris Hilton is the "author" of two books despite the fact that, if ever she could read and write, she's probably coked away those abilities by now.

As a result, there's a tremendous focus on genre: Romance sells, books about food sell. Science fiction does not sell--not in the quantities a commercial house wants. At this point, for a science fiction book by a new author to be picked up by a commercial house, it has to fit a very narrow set of criteria: The lead character needs to be a super-alpha male, you have to kill someone off in the first 10 pages, that sort of thing.

Now I know if you read sci-fi you're going, But what about THIS book or THAT book by, oh, I dunno, Issac Asimov or Ray Bradbury or someone? And the sad truth is that science fiction has become less popular in the past few years (fantasy has kind of eaten the genre), so a book that could have been published by a big house in 1970 or 1980 or 1990 would not be published by one today. And the other sad truth is that new authors are the opposite of Paris Hilton: She is a known brand (as are far more worthy writers like Asimov and Bradbury--remember that quality is irrelevant here), while a new author is an unknown quantity. The only thing publishers know about a new author is that no one has ever heard of them before, so it's going to be a bitch to market them. Why put your time and trouble into that when you can just repackage Asimov and/or Bradbury and/or Paris Hilton, make more money, and go home early?

There are, however, a lot of small publishers that deal with science fiction; that's Path 2 to publication. The issue with small presses is that it takes forever--you're supposed to submit to only one at a time--distribution is typically pretty limited, and you're probably not going to make any money off them anyway.

Small presses have commercial considerations as well, which brings me to The Letters. People have expressed great interest in The Letters, which is too bad because I threw most of them away when I received them, and the rest I trashed when I decided to self-publish. But I remember some and others I quoted in cranky notes to friends. I started to receive The Letters when I sent Trang around to agents, and since I knew very little about the industry at that point, they were extremely confusing to me--in fact, I once had a dream that agents were sending me envelopes filled with little dolls that I had to join together to form a coded message, which I then had to interpret.

I had been prepared for letters that said, I can't take this, it needs improvement, here's what to fix. But The Letters basically said, This is a great book! I can't represent it! I can't really tell you why! I remember one agent ended a long, vague, "not suitable to our needs"-type letter with something like, "I sure enjoyed it, though." Eventually I found an agent who was honest to the point of bluntness (his letter began, "This is a good book, and you are a good writer"), and he explained that sci-fi was no longer commercial (he told me that ten years ago, he could have sold it, but not today) and that I should probably look into another genre.

I had covered health care as a business reporter, and one of the interesting dynamics about that field is that, although a hospital has to make money to survive, just about everyone who works in health care is VERY uncomfortable with the fact that it is an industry and a business. You're not supposed to want to make money when you work in health care; you're supposed to save lives. I realized that the same thing is true in the field of publishing: You have to make money, but you're not supposed to want to make money--you're supposed to be contributing to the world of letters. That's why so few agents were willing to say, Sorry sister, there's no money here! But it's confusing because the message to writers is, to say the least, mixed. And at times the agent is just being a selfish asshole: I went to a sci-fi convention where a well-established agent told us that, out of the past 2,000 submissions to her, she had accepted ONE new writer as a client (there was no word as to whether or not she actually found a publisher for said client). When I said, OK, so we new writers here shouldn't waste our time and money mailing submissions to you, who should we send them to? she was like, Oh, no! Send them to me! I need to feel all arty and boho!

Anyway, thanks to the more honest agent I at least knew what to do: I sent Trang along to a small press. Remember how I said that takes forever? It doesn't take so long if they don't like your book--it'll get booted back to you right away. As it was, it took two years for me to get...The Letter! I kept a quote from this one: Trang is "very entertaining and easy to read, with some interesting technology...and intriguing alien species." The reader strongly recommended it. And so they're not going to publish it. I mean, I'm not leaving out some deeply critical element to The Letter here--they don't want me to make it better. They like it fine. They just don't want to publish it.

I also I went to work on a proposal for what I hoped would be a more-commercial nonfiction book. This book found an agent, who submitted it to some large houses, who sent back The Letter. I have to say, when editors talk to agents, they are much more open about the bottom line than agents are when they talk to writers. So These Letters are at least honest about why they didn't want the book (if you haven't heard, there's a recession on), but they were also flattering to the point of delusion about the book's future, given that they were choosing not to publish it: "I look forward to reading this as a published book.... It will be a welcome addition to the literature on slavery." "[Mary is] clearly a smart and talented writer and she's on to a particularly rich slice of history here.... [S]he does a marvelous job of historical detective-work in plotting out a narrative of the life and the period (and a terrific portrait of the England in which he lived).... It looks to be a serious and absorbing book."

At this point, my options are 1. to continue sending the sci-fi novel and nonfiction proposal around to small/academic publishers and sit quietly as the years pass by and The Letters pile up, or 2. to self-publish. And these days, self-publishing on Amazon? Easy, free, and thanks to that 70% royalty, potentially as lucrative as anything a small press is going to give. So here I am!