The heartbreak of indie publishing

I mentioned that I pop onto Twitter now and again. Two people I follow there are the similarly named Jane Friedman and Joel Friedlander, a pair of hard-nosed commentators on self-publishing. Ms. Friedman has a great roundup of business advice for writers which appears monthly, and which I worked my way back through this afternoon. While I was doing that, I couldn’t resist clicking on a question that informed my daily life for many years: “How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?”

I guess I should say (if it’s not obvious from the fact that my Tumblr is subtitled “She hated publicity,” a line from Melly Mockingbird) that I have mixed feelings about marketing my work. More exactly, I have flat-out uncomfortable feelings, and a lot of confusing emotion, about moving my work from the world of myself into the outside world. To write novel after novel, as I do, you need a certain singleness of purpose, and you also need a pretty vast self-regard. Martin Amis has a good take on this in the Paris Review (I had it on my wall for a long time):

Novelists have two ways of talking about themselves. One in which they do a very good job of pretending to be reasonably modest individuals with fairly realistic opinions of their own powers . . . The second train of thought is that of the inner egomaniac; your immediate contemporaries are just blind worms in a ditch, slithering pointlessly around, getting nowhere. You bestride the whole generation with your formidability. The only thing your contemporaries are doing—even the most eminent of them—is devaluing literary eminence. Basically they’re just stinking up the place. You open the book pages and you can’t understand why it isn’t all about you. Or, indeed, why the whole paper isn’t all about you. I think without this kind of feeling you couldn’t operate at all [my emphasis].

Now, the thing about marketing your book, as a self-publisher, is you can’t approach it as though your book is a work of genius. That is, you can’t assume that the quality of the book will automatically bring you readers. At the same time, you have to have the confidence to market yourself in the first place, meaning that you have to believe in “the product” (apologies to the Cathy of two years ago). This seems to be about holding two or more realities in your mind at once. And that causes me cognitive dissonance, which I’ve always hated. When my parents separated, I remember, what bothered me most was that their two realities were suddenly at odds. Which one was I supposed to pick? Yet I’m a novelist, so my trade is multiple realities—itself a dissonance I’ve never reconciled with my instinctive shunning of multiplicity in everyday life.

To the post, though. “How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?” is an excellent article with a lot of truth in it. Friedman’s answer to the question she poses is, roughly, if you’re worthy, keep trying. Here’s how she defines worthy:

  • This is not your first book. “Many first manuscript attempts are not publishable, even after revision, yet they are necessary and vital for a writer’s growth.”
  • You’ve been writing for a long time. “Writers who have been actively writing for many years, have produced multiple full-length manuscripts, have one or two trusted critique partners (or mentors), and have attended a couple major writing conferences are often well positioned for publication.”
  • You haven’t spent too much time on this book (“A writer who has been working on the same manuscript for years and years—and has written nothing else—might be tragically stuck”), but you have written the best book you can (“Every single piece of greatness must go into your current project”).
  • You accurately and realistically understand the market for your book: “You have to view your work not as something precious to you, but as a product to be positioned and sold.”
  • You accurately and realistically understand where your work is positioned on the “spectrum of quality”; that is, you read.

    For the most part, I agree with her. What bothers me is the underlying assumption that when your manuscript is ready for publication, you will find a publisher. Friedman isn’t promising this by any means. In fact, she says:

    I used to believe that great work would eventually get noticed—you know, that old theory that quality bubbles to the top?

    I don’t believe that any more.

    Great work is overlooked every day, for a million reasons. Business concerns outweigh artistic concerns. Some people are just perpetually unlucky.

    Still, the bulk of her article does suggest that if you meet her qualifications (and, as I said, they’re solid), you should keep trying. I’m a little sensitive about this. I tried for a long time, and what changed my mind in the end was not the kind of cool analysis Friedman advises, but the blunt realization that I just couldn’t go on the way I had been—the situation was not working for me. My heart has been broken, many times over, by my failure to get published traditionally. Maybe that’s not the greatest position from which to start self-publishing, but it’s the only one I had.

  • One comment

    1. Jane Friedman says:

      Heartbreak: you’re not alone.

      (I’m sure you know this.)

      Thank you for the careful reading and interest in my post.

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