Since I began writing novels over fifteen years ago, much has changed regarding the options available for artists’ to share their work with the world. This is not only true for writers but also for musicians, comedians, photographers, painters, film makers, etc. No longer do artists require the representation of a connected agent or manager nor is a golden ticket from an a editor or an A and R man necessary to share one’s work in the public domain. This newfound freedom is, however, a double-edged sword for both the artist and the public. The good and bad news is that the amount of available artistic content has exploded. Some of this content is very good; much is not. All of which makes it difficult for the consumer to locate that which is worth their time to read, view, listen to, etc.
The greatest benefit for the independent artist is the near total control they possess over their project. For example, when my first novel, So Shelly, was published in the traditional manner with Random House, it became their property and within their rights to ask for numerous edits, including cutting nearly forty pages from the original manuscript, that, as the writer, I wish would have remained in the story. Random’s purpose was completely understandable and honorable: to create the highest quality and marketable finished product possible. As an independent author, such drastic edits can be avoided and the manuscript remains true to the author’s vision rather than the editor’s.
Contrarily, a major drawback faced by an independent author– but one that is rapidly diminishing in significance — is the loss of prestige that accommpanies being signed to a major publishing house. Independent authors’ books are often pejoratively referred to as “vanity” projects, an assigntion that, I must admit, does possess some ring of truth. After Shelly’s release I was invited to a number of prestigious national and regional book fairs, and I’ll never forget the “cool kids” clique of traditionally-published authors in which I was included due to my affiliation with Random House, nor will I forget the overt, meanspirited attitude the members of that clique displayed toward the independent writers in attendance. Their hardheld belief was that independent authors didn’t deserve to be there or to be published at all. Their disdain was palpable. I probably acted and felt just as resentful and arrogant as my fellow “mean girl” authors. Middle school had nothing on that experience. It may be a simple matter of semantics or maybe even hypocrisy, but I now like to think that what some call “vanity” may just as easily be considered conviction and belief in oneself and one’s art.
For what it’s worth, however, I have to admit that I still get a charge out of receiving emails and royalty statements from what is now Penguin-Random House. I’m beyond flattered that they still include me in their stable of authors, and if my current circumstances were different, I would prefer to pursue the traditional route to publication. My affiliation with Penguin-Random House remains the greatest professional honor of my life.
Perhaps, an even greater and more practical negative of publishing independently is the loss of a large publisher’s deep pocketbooks for upfront advances, pre and post publication promotion, and their ability to place their books in brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries on a national, even international, scale. For example, the rights to So Shelly were sold to publishers in both Mexico and Brazil, and it appeared in the libraries of several English-speaking countries. Such expansive reach is lost by the independent author.
It is true that some originally independent titles have been picked up by mainstream publishers and met with tremendous success: Andy Weir’s The Martian, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey to name a few. Even a number of classic texts by such canonical authors as Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings, and Marcel Proust were originally independently published. The dream of being embraced and legitimized by the publishing establishment is cherished by most independent authors. The fact remains, however, that such authors/books are the rare exceptions to the general rule of relative obscurity faced by independent authors, and I have no delusions of adoption by a mainstream publisher, achievement of bestseller status, or of reaping a financial boon.
So, with the understanding that, in a perfect world, I’d have never left the realm of traditional publishing, why did I bypass that route and choose independent publishing for my soon-to-be-available novel Belfast, Ohio? Let me list the reasons:
- As already explained, I have complete artistic control. Whether the novel is positively or negatively received, I have no one to credit or blame but myself.
- I own complete rights to my work.
- Acceleration to the market. The majority of works of fiction take anywhere from eighteen to twenty four months to make it to publication and/or a bookstore shelf. And that is after spending God-only-knows how much time an author devotes to querying agents in pursuit of representation. At my current stage of life and career, that’s too much time.
- I am not pressured to squeeze my novel into a partiular genre for marketing purposes. In my experience, the best works of art are often those that defy such easy categorization, and I prefer to cast as wide of a net as possible for readership.
- Sixty-year old, white, male authors are not exactly a hot commodity in contemporary publishing trends. Trust me, I’m not complaining. Writers of my demographics have had more than their fair share of opportunities. If the pendulum for signing and publishing authors has swung in the direction of those from underrepresented groups, I’m all for it.
- Another strike against me with agents and publishers is that, with So Shelly, I already had my chance, my cup of coffee in the big leagues. The novel earned some critical praise and award nominations, but it didn’t come close to being profitable for Random House. Therefore, my sales record does not inspire much faith in me from publishers. All things being equal, they would prefer to take a chance on a debut author. Again, I understand their thinking. I like to console myself by comparing myself to Bill Abernathie, a player for the Cleveland Indians who on September 27th, 1959, played in one major league game. Although it was just one day in the big leagues, it is one day more than most authors/ballplayers ever experience, and it was magnificent.
- Just as I’ve come to accept that I’ll never be a bestselling author, I’ve also accepted the liklihood that my audience will most likely remain regional and relatively small. My stories are all set in northern Ohio and appeal especially to that unique audience of fellow Buckeyes. It’s a niche I’m comfortable in and proud to represent.
Since so few readers are aware of the “inside baseball” of the publishing industry, I thought it might be of interest and helpful for me to share my knowledge and experiences with that world and important that I be as up front as possible regarding the publication of Belfast, Ohio. If you feel its independent origins disqualify it from being worthy of your time, effort, and twenty bucks, I understand. For my part, I believe it represents my best work, and I am extremely proud of the finished product.
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