Buck­ing the estab­lish­ment The lit­er­ary world’s bias

[ HOW SELF-PUB­LISHED WRIT­ERS CAN SIDE­STEP LIT­ER­ARY-WORLD SNUBS ]

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Ev­ery year, hun­dreds of books pour into the of­fices of Pasatiempo — and, with limited space for re­views and au­thor in­ter­views, choos­ing which of those to pay at­ten­tion to is no easy task. When it comes to fic­tion, mem­oirs, and po­etry, pri­or­ity tends to be given to books or au­thors with a lo­cal con­nec­tion. An­other way to whit­tle down the pile is to dis­re­gard books that are ob­vi­ously self-pub­lished. It might sound ar­bi­trary or un­fair, but this prac­tice is rooted in two sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges that hob­ble self-pub­lished books. The first is the long-stand­ing as­sump­tion in the main­stream lit­er­ary world that the qual­ity of such books does not mea­sure up to that of tra­di­tion­ally pub­lished ones. The sec­ond chal­lenge re­in­forces the first: Self-pub­lished books are of­ten in need of proof­read­ing, pro­fes­sional type­set­ting, and de­sign help for the cover. And in­vari­ably, even if a book shows great po­ten­tial, it could have used an edi­tor and a few more rounds of re­vi­sions. Self-pub­lished books of­ten feel un­fin­ished.

But with self-pub­lish­ing tech­nol­ogy im­prov­ing over the last few years, and with high-cost van­ity pub­lish­ing quickly be­com­ing a relic, more and more writ­ers who might never have pub­lished their work are up­load­ing manuscripts to dig­i­tal ser­vices, pay­ing a fee, and be­com­ing, in the loos­est sense of the word, au­thors. Some peo­ple just want to see their words bound be­tween cov­ers, but oth­ers want to get dis­cov­ered. Though some self-pub­lished au­thors of genre fic­tion like sci-fi and erot­ica have done rea­son­ably well, es­pe­cially in the e-book arena, break­ing into the main­stream lit­er­ary world with a self-pub­lished book is demon­stra­bly more dif­fi­cult.

The power bro­kers of that world — New York pub­lish­ers and agents for fic­tion, and aca­demic and es­tab­lished small presses for po­etry — are pro­tected by a host of gate­keep­ers, in­clud­ing tenured pro­fes­sors and their stu­dents in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties who staff lit­er­ary jour­nals run by MFA pro­grams. For the last 30 years, mas­ter of fine arts pro­grams in writ­ing have pro­lif­er­ated all over the coun­try and ex­erted what many feel is un­due con­trol over what is con­sid­ered “good,” and there­fore wor­thy of at­ten­tion. Some writ­ers ac­cept the rules set forth by this world, and some don’t.

The qual­ity of mi­crop­ub­lish­ing tends to be so high that at “Pasatiempo,” such books are as­sumed to be from small, re­gional presses. In a way they are, be­cause though mi­cop­ub­lish­ing usu­ally re­quires some fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment from a writer, it is re­paid in printed books that the writer then sells, and the process benefits from ex­pe­ri­enced ed­i­to­rial over­sight.

“I’m not part of the academy, and when I read The Amer­i­can Po­etry Re­view , which I do rarely, the work by uni­ver­sity-con­nected po­ets seems to be writ­ten for each other and for their stu­dents. There’s a lit­tle bit of a wall around that writ­ing — in-jokes and a pri­vate dia­logue go­ing on be­tween the aca­demic writ­ers that doesn’t ex­ist out in Amer­ica,” John Macker told Pasatiempo . Macker, who runs the book­store at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, is the au­thor of nine books of po­etry, the most re­cent of which is Dis­as­sem­bled Bad­lands , pub­lished by Turkey

Buz­zard Press in Kit­tredge, Colorado. (Macker and El Paso poet Lawrence Welsh read from their work at Col­lected Works Book­store, 202 Gal­is­teo St., at 3 p.m. on Sun­day, Feb. 8.)

Macker came of age as a poet in the early 1980s in Den­ver, af­ter earn­ing a jour­nal­ism de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri. His first book was pub­lished by the Bowery Press, which was headed by Larry Lake, a mem­ber of the Venice Beat com­mu­nity. Macker was in­flu­enced by Lake and his friends, plac­ing a pri­or­ity, as they did, on pub­lish­ing jour­nals and putting on lo­cal po­etry, mu­sic, and theater events. “There was al­ways a distinc­tion be­tween aca­demic po­etry and street po­etry. In street po­etry, you take more chances, talk­ing in the ver­nac­u­lar. There’s a raw in­tel­li­gence out there that isn’t so for­mal,” he said.

All of Macker’s books have been pub­lished by small presses — some so small they more ac­cu­rately fall into the cat­e­gory of mi­crop­ub­lish­ing, which is es­sen­tially the top-tier form of self-pub­lish­ing. The qual­ity of mi­crop­ub­lish­ing tends to be so high that at Pasatiempo , such books are as­sumed to be from small, re­gional presses. In a way they are, be­cause though mi­crop­ub­lish­ing usu­ally re­quires some fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment from a writer, it is re­paid in printed books that the writer then sells, and the process benefits from ex­pe­ri­enced ed­i­to­rial over­sight. Lit­er­ary writ­ers with knowl­edge of what is re­quired to en­ter academia and the main­stream pub­lish­ing world can some­times find an in­road with mi­crop­ub­lished books.

“The over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar­ity of lit­er­ary MFAs, though it has been a net neg­a­tive on so­ci­ety and lit­er­a­ture, has cre­ated a larger level of self-aware­ness among the writ­ers who go through those pro­grams,” said Jonathan Pen­ton. Pen­ton is founder and edi­tor-in-chief of Un­likely Sto­ries/Un­likely Books, a small col­lec­tive that pub­lishes so­cially con­scious jour­nals fea­tur­ing es­says, po­etry, prose, and art crit­i­cism — along with some books — in Lafayette, Louisiana. He’s also the man­ag­ing edi­tor at Mad­Hat Press and a man­ag­ing edi­tor of Ful­crum: An An­nual of Po­etry and Aes­thetics . Pen­ton has been work­ing in mi­cro- and small-jour­nal pub­lish­ing for al­most 20 years, op­er­at­ing largely out­side of — yet ad­ja­cent to — the aca­demic lit­er­ary scene.

“The MFA is es­sen­tially a pyra­mid scheme that cre­ates lots of peo­ple with ter­mi­nal de­grees in lit­er­ary writ­ing who have no em­ploy­able skills other than teach­ing ter­mi­nal de­grees in lit­er­ary writ­ing,” Pen­ton said. “So un­less this ex­pands for­ever, the mar­ket will even­tu­ally col­lapse.” This level of com­pe­ti­tion means that such grad­u­ates need to have pub­lished books to se­cure even ad­junct teach­ing po­si­tions, so mi­crop­ub­lish­ing, Pen­ton said, has be­come the back­bone of the MFA in­dus­try. He con­cedes that, at the tenured level, main­stream pub­li­ca­tion con­tin­ues to be a re­quire­ment, so any­one hop­ing for real suc­cess in academia still needs to work to­ward that. This sen­ti­ment is sup­ported by Dana Levin, an award-win­ning poet who co-chairs Santa Fe Uni­ver­sity of Art and De­sign’s cre­ative writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture depart­ment.

“I think there is still a stigma at­tached to self­pub­lish­ing, es­pe­cially where first books are con­cerned. It’s as if the first-book writer needs a seal of ap­proval of some kind from an es­tab­lished pub­lisher,” she said.

“Once you get re­ally fa­mous, like Stephen King or David Foster Wal­lace, the stigma van­ishes. It seems like au­thors or es­tates that go this route are try­ing to by­pass the bu­reau­cracy of big houses.”

Pos­si­bly the most neg­a­tive ef­fect to come about due to the takeover of the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary scene by MFA stu­dents and grad­u­ates is the sense among some of them that writ­ers who don’t fol­low that path are some­how not se­ri­ous or are even un­tal­ented. Sub-par self-pub­lished books do not help the cause of sub­vert­ing this idea. “If you self-pub­lish, you have to be your own best edi­tor,” Macker said. “This is what I tell peo­ple who say they can’t break in, who aren’t af­fil­i­ated with the academy but have a book they want to get out there. I tell them that at least half the po­ems in the book should have been pub­lished some­where else. You should be send­ing them to mag­a­zines, jour­nals, and an­tholo­gies all over the coun­try. Ed­i­tors val­i­date you by ac­cept­ing you for pub­li­ca­tion. Then, once you’ve put in the work — and a lot of what I see self-pub­lished doesn’t re­flect enough work — you can cre­ate your own press.”

The fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment re­quired to start a mi­cro­press is about $300. “The cost bar­rier is so low,” Pen­ton said. “If you don’t feel you can in­vest $300, you can start an e-book com­pany for less, although the only time I’d rec­om­mend e-book pro­duc­tion with­out printed books is for peo­ple writ­ing lit­er­ary porn. That re­ally sells e-books. Even with sci-fi I’d rec­om­mend hav­ing print as well. Most gen­res have con­ven­tions, and you can sell your book at a ta­ble at the con­ven­tion.”

A lack of ad­e­quate pro­mo­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion is the big­gest draw­back to self-pub­lish­ing. How do you get the word out about your book? By way of ex­tremely hard work. You set up a web­site, you draft a press re­lease, you fi­nance and ar­range your own read­ing tour at small book­stores — lo­cally, re­gion­ally, and na­tion­ally. You send your book, with a press re­lease and read­ing sched­ule at­tached, to news­pa­pers in towns where you’re read­ing. You can even pay for a re­view from Kirkus Indie , though there’s no guar­an­tee its re­view­ers will like your book. And, of course, you em­bark on a so­cial-mar­ket­ing cam­paign via Twit­ter, Face­book, and Goodreads. “This is the busi­ness model for peo­ple who un­der­stand their book won’t be mak­ing a lot of money,” Pen­ton said.

For writ­ers, re­jec­tion hap­pens far more of­ten than suc­cess and has tra­di­tion­ally been seen as a badge of honor. The ease with which one can self-pub­lish should not ren­der the lengthy, ad­mit­tedly ar­du­ous process of sub­mis­sion and re­jec­tion passé. If you’re frus­trated by not be­ing pub­lished but can’t yet wall­pa­per a room with your re­jec­tion slips, you haven’t tried hard enough, so the wis­dom goes. Self-pub­lish­ing all on your own might be brave, but it might just be an easy out.

“You have to have the crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence to be able to look at your own work and know when it’s a bunch of crap,” Macker said. “You should have re­la­tion­ships with writ­ers, with read­ers, with other ed­i­tors — with peo­ple you trust — who can look at what you’ve writ­ten and say what works and what doesn’t. You can’t be the free agent all the time in this work. It might seem easy, but why should writ­ing re­quire less dis­ci­pline than any other art form?”

YOU HAVE to have the crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence to be able to look at your own work and know when it’s a bunch of crap. You should have re­la­tion­ships with writ­ers, with read­ers, with other ed­i­tors, with peo­ple you trust, who can look at what you’ve writ­ten and say what works and what doesn’t.

— poet John Macker

The MFA is es­sen­tially a pyra­mid scheme that cre­ates lots of peo­ple with ter­mi­nal de­grees in lit­er­ary writ­ing who have no em­ploy­able skills other than teach­ing ter­mi­nal de­grees in lit­er­ary writ­ing. So un­less this ex­pands for­ever, the mar­ket will even­tu­ally col­lapse.

— edi­tor Jonathan Pen­ton

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