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Vanity, Thy Name is PublishAmerica

In an ideal world, a new writer would write a thoroughly polished manuscript, the writer would send off the completed book to a reputable publisher, the publisher would judge the manuscript on its quality, and if published, booksellers and librarians would help the book on its way to the hands of the people who would enjoy it the most.

In such a situation, everyone would be happy, but obviously this doesn't always happen. Volumes have been written about publishing, and the institutional reasons for the business being the way it is—and by people more knowledgeable about the process than myself. I would like to offer a few observations, with an open invitation for comments or corrections. I'll also be taking a look at two writers who did things a little differently. Two case studies if you like.

A truism: more writers want to be published than there are spots at publishing companies. It's partly simple math, but other reasons exist since some new names break in every year while others don't. Some of the writers might not have found their voices yet, which makes it a matter of further practice. Other writers might never be worth reading.

There also seems to be a segment of the aspiring writer demographic made up of people who are appallingly ill-informed about the publishing process. Cross this with a desperation to break into the business, and voilà, the "reputable publisher" part of the ideal world quickly becomes disreputable as unscrupulous people rush to rip off the desperate. Check out this recent post at Charles Stross's blog about what it was like to go to a writers' conference and see the scamsters circling the newbies like scavengers.

Stross reiterates the number one rule of writing: the money flows to you. If you're paying to get your book published, then you are being scammed. Get educated! If you're unsure about something, take a look around online to see what real writers and publications are saying.

For example, is PublishAmerica worth submitting to as a writer? I use this as an example because there was a great deal of hubbub over the company earlier this year. It's something like a vanity press and something like PoD (print on demand), both of which have their functions but when combined in this particular package had many of the warning signs that flashed, "Avoid! Avoid!" I'm not an expert on the company but the beauty of these here internets is that someone out there certainly will be. Check out Steely Pips for a summary of the situation, extensively footnoted.

Other scams are out there too, and learning to recognize them is a crucial task for a new writer. Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog is a good place to watch for this kind of information. Thankfully, not all of the news is depressing! Check out her post about the at-long-last successful attempt to write a poem so horrible that the International Library of Poetry—another notorious scam—wouldn't publish it.

There. I've established that this column was not written in ignorance of the history of vanity presses and similar scams. One of the things that seems to get left out of this discussion, though, is the crux of what I want to talk about: publishers aren't always that great. There are upsides, but there are also downsides. Is it possible that the ideal situation I described at the beginning could be closer to reality without the functions, good or bad, of a publisher?

Breaking in is again the thing. A publisher, whether a big conglomerate or a small press, doesn't necessarily have any advantage in knowing what will be the next thing. Success in publishing seems to be a funny mix of timing, taste, hard work, fashion, and pure luck. Science fiction in particular routes around this uncertainty by way of a long-running short-fiction market, letting new writers test out their skills and get their names out there, but the problem still remains.

There are also ideological reasons for not being swallowed up by a huge corporate entity (if that is what the option is). This is probably best discussed by way of example; more on this later.

So, if you're willing to learn a whole lot about the business end of publishing, then why not put up the money and/or time yourself, and cut out the middleman? Why not act on the confidence you have in your work?

On the other hand, if you're putting the money up yourself, isn't this just another variation on the vanity press? It's not anything like an organized scam, but it's still money out of pocket. And how does a DIY operation get the subsequently produced books out to the public? After all, my earlier truism could be restated as follows: more writers want to be published than an ordinary reader has time to read. How to make your book stand out?

Bust Your Butt

A few words to introduce my two case studies, Jim Munroe and J. FitzGerald McCurdy.

Jim Munroe's first book, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, was published by HarperCollins, part of the media conglomerate owned by Rupert Murdoch. Subsequently, Munroe set up his own imprint, No Media Kings, and published three novels, Angry Young Spaceman, Everyone in Silico, and An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil. Munroe is quite open about the running of No Media Kings, and his website acts as a kind of clearinghouse for DIY publishing information.

J. FitzGerald McCurdy's first book, The Serpent's Egg, was published by Saratime, an independent imprint set up by her son Gregor McCurdy along with several business partners. McCurdy completed a trilogy for Saratime, the second and third books being The Burning Crown and The Twisted Blade, then sold her latest book, The Fire Demons, to HarperCollins. McCurdy has sold about 50,000 copies of the Saratime books, which is a tidy number for a small press, never mind a small market like Canada, where Saratime is based.

So, two writers, two tales of success. One left the conglomerate, while the second left the indie life. That's some strange symmetry, so naturally I wanted to investigate. What were their reasons? And what were the stories of No Media Kings and Saratime?

First of all, for projects like this to succeed, expect to work hard. As hard as the task of writing is itself, add to that the jobs usually outsourced to a publishing company which does these tasks every day.

In the case of Saratime, at least the McCurdys had a division of labor that would be familiar to writers selling to a publishing company.

Gregor McCurdy: "Basically, we would all meet once or twice a month to strategize and plot out our course for the upcoming months. Joan would attend the promotional and some of the strategy meetings. She spends a lot of time writing and can not often spare extra time for meetings. I was the one doing most things from setting up school visits and tours to coordinating any artwork and doing taxes."

But this didn't mean that McCurdy was on easy street; for example, she has gone to 600 schools in the last three years in support of her books.

Gregor McCurdy: "We tried to promote Saratime's books through word of mouth as much as possible. One of Joan's biggest assets is her ability to totally capture the attention of any group of children while visiting a school. We used this to great effect. The kids would spread the word, not only around the rest of the school, but around their respective neighborhoods."

Munroe, meanwhile, runs the different aspects of No Media Kings himself. And he's open about his working methods. Check out his popular Flash presentation, "Time Management for Anarchists: The Movie."

He also thinks that things have gotten easier. Munroe (with a few general comments first): "My latest perspective on the whole spectre of vanity press is that the perceived shame of it is mostly a lit-crowd thing—average readers and general folk wouldn't really know what the phrase means.

"Secondly, self-publishing used to be what you did if you were really desperate—without a publisher it was HARD to get either the skills together or the skilled people necessary to get a manuscript into book form. These days, since the technological barriers are lower, lots of people are self-publishing for a variety of reasons other than desperation. Also, the cultural template of indie music makes it much easier for self-publishers to explain why they're doing what they're doing."

Ah, the perfect segue. Yes, things have gotten easier, but doing the publishing work yourself is still a diversion of time from the actual creative project that ostensibly is the reason for all the fuss. As a counter-example from indie music, take the matter of Le Tigre. Le Tigre is a post-riot grrrl band—the lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, is formerly of Bikini Kill—a band noted on the indie scene for as much do-it-yourself as possible. But the DIY crowd got upset when Le Tigre went major label and got some big-name producers for their latest album. Quoted in Venus magazine, no. 21, Fall 2004, Kathleen Hanna: "Instead of working on business 90% of the time and fulfilling commitments and doing music 10% of the time, now we're doing it the opposite way."

That's an astonishing time sink. If you're doing business 90% of the time, that is time taken away from your craft and, with writing as with music, practice makes perfect. Add on to this the fact that many authors have to do other full-time jobs, take care of their families, and so on, and suddenly the situation is out of balance.

This is almost precisely why McCurdy chose to go with HarperCollins for her latest book. Joan McCurdy: "I think that maybe I became more serious about wanting the book to get out there. To get into the U.S., maybe. It's hard to be a little publisher. Do the tours and pay for the promotion. Do everything. It gets to the point where you can't just put it all back—you have to start living."

But what if you are DIYing for reasons other than economizing on time?

That's the case with Munroe's decision to create his own imprint after publishing his first novel with HarperCollins. As it turns out, this move was due to a collection of things, including Munroe's discomfort with media monopolies, as well as some editorial shuffling that affected his book (and was due to HarperCollins downsizing and/or acquiring other imprints). For the full story, check out Munroe's website.

Looking back, Munroe has no regrets: "It became a story unto itself, and I'm happy that it's engaged people and also allowed me a better quality of life. I make about the same money, which is very little, but it comes down to being more comfortable stuffing envelopes and going to the post office myself rather than bugging someone to do it."

Some closing words from Gregor McCurdy: "As to self-publishers, I do not consider Saratime to be one. We had outside sales and distribution and were incorporated. We did not print 500 copies and sell from the back of a car. There is definitely a large and growing self-publishing market—just look at Eragon (which I thoroughly enjoyed). That said, I did find a lot of attitude in the business. There seems to be an element of the business that is a little stodgy and does not like change. It is also interesting that with all of the grant money, there is virtually none for small start-up publishers."

In other words, there might be bumps along the way, but doing it yourself is a road worth exploring if you are motivated and want to work hard at something out of the ordinary.

The author would like to thank Dave Switzer of Challenging Destiny, for allowing him to quote from his recently published interview with J. FitzGerald McCurdy.




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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