Sometimes you set out on a path with high hopes, only to be stopped by an unexpected gatekeeper. I ran into this problem earlier this year on a little-known trail on the Big Island of Hawaii when an incredibly vocal cow refused to let my party proceed.
We were at first tempted to turn away. This cow seemed mean, or at least determined, and having heard a number of stories about cows assaulting people in the open ranch lands of Hawaii, I didn’t want to push her buttons. But I also wanted to go on the hike we’d planned for the day, and I wasn’t about to let some dumb old cow keep me from achieving my goal. So we stood for a while at an impasse, the cow bellowing her rejection of us and we three humans hiding behind a conveniently located telephone pole, laughing at the frenzied bovine we named Isabella (the only famous cow we could think of was Ferdinand, who was a bull), while still respecting her power and strength.
Isabella reminds me of whole herds of agents and editors who have rejected my writing work over the years. They stood in my path, asserting their authority about where I could and could not go. As the rejection letters poured in, I tried to assure myself that I wasn’t alone in the world; even Stephen King wrote about all the rejections nailed to his wall in his famous memoir/craft book On Writing. Rejection is the name of the trail you have to take if you want to be a writer. It builds character. It makes you re-examine your writing and hone your craft. Rejection separates the true writers from the wannabes.
But enough is enough! At some point, if you’re committed to your craft, and when you feel you’ve done everything you can to perfect a piece of work, you want to get it out of the bowels of your computer and into the world so that someone might enjoy the story you wanted to tell. Maybe it won’t be a New York Times bestseller. Maybe it won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But still, somebody might like it and say it’s pretty cool, if only you could find a way to get it to them.
We commiserated in Isabella’s formidable presence, like writers whining at a conference about their failures, until another group of hikers came along. We explained the situation to them, and we all decided to approach her as a larger group. Safety in numbers, we thought. Sure enough, once we started toward her with confidence and en masse, Isabella began to back off, and when one of the other hikers picked up a few pebbles and threw them at her, she turned and loped away.
Authors are now circumventing the gatekeepers of traditional publishing en masse, too. Last year, a half-million titles were independently published in the US, up 17% from the year before and 400% from 2008, according to Reuters. The time has never been better, the experts say, to do it yourself. Still, making the decision to go indie is tough. The stigma against self-publishing continues to exist, especially in the literary/mainstream genres. When I shared my independent publishing plans with some of my MFA contacts, the reaction I got was far from supportive.
The reluctance of the literary community to embrace self-publishing is not unlike Isabella’s reservations about letting us cross her land. It comes down to self-doubt, fear, and misplaced logic.
1. When good authors bypass the gatekeepers, it makes those who’ve followed the traditional path feel like they’ve been bypassed too. It’s like when you know there are two lanes merging ahead, so you merge into the dominant lane, and while you’re obediently waiting for the traffic to move forward, some jerk from behind you speeds down that lane you’ve just cleared to get a few spaces ahead of you. You’re mad at that other driver, and at the same time you feel sort of stupid sitting there, watching him fly by. You could have done the same thing he did. I think that’s why some trad-pubbed authors are indignant toward the up-and-comers who are taking a different route.
2. Self-publishing shakes up the structure of traditional publishing. In fact, it shakes up tradition. When authors go indie, they get to take control of everything from book cover design to editing to printing and distribution, which means a little more work for the author but a lot less need for the people employed or supported by the trad-pub industry. Also, in the self-pub business model, money flows directly from author to vendor (copy editors, designers, etc.), and more of the revenue streams directly back to the author. Middle men and people with overhead jobs are cut out, and if you’re one of those folks, you’re not going to take kindly to the idea of independent publishing.
3. True, there’s a lot of bad stuff out there that’s been self-published. But the problem is the assumption among the literary types that, if you’re self-published, then you (or your book) must not be any good. The problem is this: there’s no proven logic in that argument. Just because an author goes indie doesn’t mean he or she isn’t any good. (And just because an author is published doesn’t mean he or she is good, either.) What it means when you decide to independently publish is that you don’t need the validation of a publishing house, or you want to keep more control over your work, or you believe in your work and you want others to be able to enjoy it on your own schedule. Or you’re a bit of a rebel. Bottom line: good books can find more than one way onto a bookstore’s shelves and into a reader’s hands. As it should be.
I decided I don’t have time to deal with these concerns of the traditional-minded. These are issues that belong to other people, not me. Likewise, Isabella’s complaints were hers, not mine. I didn’t have to submit to them, either.
Once we got past her, we hiked the rest of the trail to a spot overlooking a lush valley. The view was beautiful, but what I appreciated most about that hike was that we’d reached the end of the trail. We’d achieved our goal. And I guess that’s how I feel about the publishing route, I took, too. My book’s out there. It’s doing well. Readers like it. I’m not rich and famous from it, at least not yet. Nor have I won any prizes thus far. But I got where I wanted to go, and better yet, I got there despite the obstacles blocking my way.