Self-Publishing for Poets & Literary Fiction Writers?

You may have heard the news. New York Times bestseller, Barry Eisler, has turned down a $500,000 publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press to self-publish his next book. The blogosphere is all abuzz with the news. And I suppose this marks the moment when we start to have this conversation for real.

And by “we,” I mean those of us writing poetry and literary fiction.

Eisler, Konrath, Hocking and the numerous other e-novelists making money hand-over-fist through Kindle sales are genre writers. They write thrillers and YA vampire novels and the like. Genre fiction, let’s face it, is much more likely to have a following than authors of more high-brow literary stuff. After all, we don’t have characters who live through three novels to conquer the aliens, defeat the terrorists, catch the bad guys and…you get the idea. I’m not knocking it – I enjoy a good, quick read as much as the next girl. I’m addicted to John Grisham novels. But there is a difference in readership. The question is: does that difference make self-publishing a good deal for us or not?

Mike Shatzkin makes an interesting point in yesterday’s post on The Shatzkin Files:

A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.

And here you go. As long as scholar-authors, poets, literary fiction writers feel the need to be published in journals (or read: traditional venues), the model will continue to function. And hasn’t this been the argument all along? I don’t know about you, but when I was in graduate school working on an MFA in creative writing, the message that was drilled into my head was this:

  • Publish frequently
  • Publish with reputable journals (preferably those with a distribution over 1,000)
  • Publish books with reputable and established presses (there are about 5 of them)
  • Never, ever, ever publish online, publish with a “new” journal, publish with a “new” press. Never.

Why? Well, because when it comes to poetry and literary fiction – credibility and reputation are everything. The idea is that anyone can get published online – anyone can get published by a new journal seeking submissions – anyone can get published by a new press. But to be published by the establishment. Well. That is the goal, my friend. That is the goal. And that is how you know you’ve “made it.”

But that was nine years ago, and things have changed. Haven’t they?

The fact is, I’m still wary about where I send my poems. I’m wary because I actually want people to read them. Which means they need to be published by a journal that has a solid subscriber base and a readership. They need to be published by a press that can afford to do the marketing and schedule the book tours that are necessary to get the work out there. Scholars, poets & literary fiction writers still scoff at self-publishing. But are we doing so to our own detriment? It may be time to take another look at what’s happening out there. Five years ago, very few of us were willing to submit our work to online journals. Today, at least 50% of my submissions go to e-zines. And, news flash, they have standards too. I’d like to suggest that online journal standards are at least as high (if not higher) than print journal standards. Not every one of them – of course not. Just like in print, there are good online venues for publishing and not-so-good venues. We still have to be discriminating submitters.

Has the time come for throwing away our submission cover letters? Can we reach a wider audience through self-publishing? Probably. Can we make more money self-publishing? Most definitely. The most money I’ve ever made off of the publication of poems is $500. That was one time. All together, in more than 10 years of publishing, I’ve probably made about $1,000. I could self-publish this blog post and make more than that in 10 years. So, yes. Clearly we can reach more people and make more money through self-publishing. The question is: should we? And if not, why?



5 thoughts on “Self-Publishing for Poets & Literary Fiction Writers?

    • I don’t, actually. I haven’t checked out the (many) self-publishing platforms out there. But I should. And when I do, I’ll post the feedback here. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  1. Pingback: Writers Taking on 2011: The Power of the Readers and Social Media (part IV) « BeTwixt: a bibliophile's blog

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