Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hacks & Hustlers


hack:
noun
a writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work : [as adj. ] a hack scriptwriter.

a taxicab.

Alrighty, only one of these definitions applies.

Jack Clark committed a turrible sin by self-publishing his novel Nobody's Angel in 1996, (he sold it out of the taxi he drives in Chicago), but now Hard Case Crime has re-printed it and it's a good thing. Great read. I fall all over myself praising it at Ransom Notes and still don't quite make the case for why the book is so good. I guess you'll have to read it yourself. And it won't take you long. He brings in the story in just over 200 pages and that's just about the right book length as far as I'm concerned. Turns out, Jack is also a singer-songwriter like former taxi driver Tom Russell, (who's working on a book too). What gives with that?

But getting back to the sin of self-publishing... I've never understood why the practice is so absolutely derided and its practitioners such pariahs. Sure, there's oceans of shit in print and only more of it now that the technology is inexpensive enough, but as far as I'm concerned it's only following in the natural path of other similarly democratically revamped mediums like music and film. No music snob would turn up their nose on a song or musician simply because they were self produced and unsigned. Likewise, the small, maverick and guerilla film makers creating art or dying in the process are treated like heroes even when their product falls waaaay short of satisfying.

Are there tons more shitty music and films available now? Absolutely. But do you only listen to bad music or watch bad films now? Hell, no, you turn it off if it's unworthy. And how long does it take to determine that? And how many personal favorites have you discovered through word of mouth that turned out to be somehow self-generated, released or marketed? Artists create because they have to. The really driven ones find a way to hustle a living or partial one out of it. Should they? That depends entirely on the merit of the work. How long does it take you to decide a book's not worth your time? Why do you have to have the approval of a publisher who's let you down before, before you'll checkerout?

Am I more likely to pick up a book with an attractive and professionally rendered binding, printing and cover? Without a doubt. But that's the self published writer's problem to deal with. If somehow they can overcome the odds and get their book in my hands and compel me to read the first sentence and then the first page and then the first chapter... bully for them.

8 comments:

Keith Rawson said...

I've been having this discussion with more than a few authors over the last couple of months and have heard different variations of the same answer:

Self-publication=Shit

Self publication=no chance of finding an agent or the chance of publishing with major New York house.

Of course, I've heard the same thing about publishing with a small press.

My question is, would you self-publish? Would you go through a small publisher?

jedidiah ayres said...

I don't think the equation holds up as an absolute.

Self publication doesn't have to mean one-man/woman-show. Someone can still enlist the services of editors, publicists, artists etc. Of course the reality is that 99% of the self-published titles are pieces of shit that COULD NOT find a financially responsible and artistically trustworthy company to take them on and attach their name. Of course the same could be applied to the film and music worlds. There's a reason that 5% of films take up 95% of screens...

Still. Philosophically, I am NOT opposed. In fact, I don't rule it out for myself. Not to say it's my first choice, but not to NOT say it either.

Eric Beetner said...

I think with Kindle-only publishing or any variation on e-book self-publishing the stigma will fade away a bit. Not that it will make you any friends in the publishing or bookselling world. But now that books can be self-released and priced accordingly (i.e at $1.99 or even .99 for a Kindle edition) the reasons for self publishing are more than just, "no one wanted to publish my book." To put out a cheap book, keep the profits so you're making the same or more than with a tradition publisher, and have it be worldwide accessible instantly? Why wouldn't you do that? The trick still remains - how to get people to know about the book in the first place, regardless of platform.
Christ, do I sound like JA Konrath?
At the end of the day what a publisher does do is all the other jobs aside from writing that we're not supposed to be worried about. Marketing, getting reviewed, placed in book stores...it ain't easy, especially when it's not your wheelhouse. It sure as shit isn't mine and I've got the sales numbers to prove it.

jedidiah ayres said...

Eric - well said. Of course one other thing a publisher supposedly brings are legal teams who can protect your (THEIR) intellectual property, but ask around and see how many authors feel legally ripped off by their reputable publishers.

Malachi Stone said...

Remember Illegitimi nihil carborundum, the Latin maxim popularized by Barry Goldwater in the sixties? Loosely translated it means “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.” Talk of vanity presses and self-marketing brings the expression once again to mind. When I was in high school and college I often read writer’s magazines containing a surfeit of classified and display ads from myriad publishers, agents and editors. With the naiveté of youth I failed to realize at the time that all the publishers were vanity presses, the “agents” were the play-for-pay variety and the “editors” were without exception book doctors, “book doctor” being a hustle right up there with the pigeon drop and the bank examiner scam in the pantheon of All-American con games.
Jed, I have read your work. I have seen how favorably the crowd reacts to your work at readings. Jed, your writing is too good to throw away to a vanity press. What are we supposed to do after we’ve paid our money? Sit behind a card table trying to peddle a stack of twenty or thirty unsold volumes at some ratty flea market? Leave marketing to the experts.
Rejection is tough, but my attitude is, fuck ‘em. Like that devil Ingersoll “my head is bloodied but unbowed.” Don’t try and bullshit an old bullshitter. I’ve managed to make a living in plaintiff’s personal injury practice for three decades and I know how insurance companies will sing the blues to you at negotiation time, blaming everything from Hurricane Katrina to the bank bailout for why they have no money to pay your claim. Publishing, like insurance, is a multi-billion dollar industry. Both are tough rackets but they like to make money. Two or three hundred thousand books are published every year and that fact is unlikely to change. Before I throw away money on a self-publisher I’ll keep giving the stuff away for free on my blog, which I’m doing at http://malachistone.wordpress.com/.

jedidiah ayres said...

Malachi - Thanks for the kind words. Again, though, it's not an issue of "ideals", though, they have their place in the conversation. It's simply that I don't believe the equation [self publication=shit] can be applied across the board. It's 99% accurate in practice, but, and again, I'm not arguing the attractiveness of the option, I believe the world is changing...

Jack Clark's book is a great example - I have no idea whether he submitted this book to publishing houses and was rejected too often and took matters into his own hands, or if he simply decided he should put the book in print himself - take on 100% of the costs and take in exchange 100% of the profits. Obviously, at some point, he decided he'd like to have Hard Case print it and get it out to a larger audience, but I don't think that means he did "the wrong" thing self publishing years ago.

I do, however, love the advice, I think it was David Simon who gave it, for young aspiring writers to break in. He said, "Be so good they can't ignore you."

Love that. Believe it, but that doesn't mean there aren't alternate routes.

Keith Rawson said...

I think the "alternate route" idea isn't a bad one, I just think that self publishing has been so maligned because of sloppy writing and lack of an editorial hand in most of the work. But I only think the avenue should be pursued if all other avenues have been exhausted.

But even with those other avenues, is there a real editorial hand being exerted? John Mcfetridge has commented several times that with his latest novel there was little or no editorial hand in it's publication. Yeah, it was published by a major house, but there was also very little promotional spin (Other than what the author provided) or major chain book store presence for the title, which seems to be the case for most new writers

jedidiah ayres said...

Keith - I have heard HORROR stories about the editorial process at several major publishing houses. Farming it out to college students, general apathy and worst - office politics torpedoing projects because of the EDITOR attached - not the author, not the work. Uggh. Like middle school or something worse.