In my career, I've worked as an associate literary agent, for a book publisher, at Reuters and in magazine publishing. Because of that, the rise of new media has particularly fascinated me. Even in the '90s, I could not believe it took a year for a book to come out once it was signed up. It can still take that long. Working at a magazine, it was incredibly frustrating to try to make a monthly magazine seem fresh when it was finally printed—about the best we could do was print an issue called "March" in January to make it seem newer than new.
In particular, I've been interested in how technology has affected self-publishing, which these days is pretty much synonymous with e-publishing. Back when I was pulling terrible manuscripts off the "slush" pile at the agency and, later, at St. Martin's Press, a self-published author was engaged in "vanity publishing" because there was almost no chance the book in question could have any value if the author hadn't been able to snag a traditional publisher.
Sam Rosenthal, author of Rye, which he describes as a "genderQueer erotic novel"—sex sells in self-publishing!—points out that the stigma of doing it yourself might have been unique to book publishing all along.
"I've run my own record label [Projekt Records] for many years. In book, it's called 'self-publishing,' while in music it's called 'an independent label.'"
Regardless, the ease with which one can now publish one's own work has made the traditional publishing model feel both cumbersome and less profitable, leading to some amazing books (and quite a few financial successes) to spring out of the self-publishing craze. And, of course, some real dogs. But if it's your dog, wouldn't you rather share it than be told by some gatekeepers that it doesn't deserve a chance? 50 Shades of Grey (which started life as a piece of online Twilight fan fiction) is one of the most amateurish pieces of nonsense I've ever read, and yet it's changed publishing—and its author's life—forever.
To get some perspectives on self-publishing, I reached out to several authors with diverse works, all of interest to an LGBT audience. Their insights might be helpful if you've ever considered becoming a part of what entrepreneurial guru Seth Godin has called our new "connection economy."
His journey to self-publishing If It's a Choice, My Zygote Chose Balls: Making Sense of Senseless Controversy started when he was approached by a (major) traditional publisher.
"Wait, there are topics besides LGBT rights?" Hooper jokes when asked why he felt compelled to write his book—a top seller on Amazon since publication. "This is the fight to which I have dedicated this part of my life, and I felt that I've had an interesting journey within (and leading up to) it and that I had an interesting way to tell it—so I did." As it stands, he's ready to produce more books. "I have several ideas, some of them LGBT but most of them not. One of the more frustrating things I encountered in the traditional publishing world is the sense that LGBT books are no longer necessary. This kind of thinking blows my mind. I might help to correct that oversight."
"This began a five-year process of working within the traditional publishing world, through which I teamed with multiple agents, editors and creative groupings," he recalls. His goal was to produce "a project that would be both poignant and marketable," but it was a classic case of too many chefs.
Rosenthal agrees about the creative conflicts that can come with the old-school publishing model.
"I didn't want some publisher telling me how to write the book they wanted to see; I wrote the book that I wanted to see."
"Everyone had advice," Hooper recalls, conceding that some of it was sound. "However, we never reached that perfect balance that I felt retained my voice and mission with a project that the big houses thought would sell in a way that made it worth their time."
Hooper felt compelled to create his own imprint—Good As You—and proceed on his own.
Frank Anthony Polito, a friend of mine whose acting career is readily evident in his cinematic (think: John Hughes) coming-of-age novels Band Fags! (2008) and Drama Queers! (2009), had already worked for a book publisher as well as being published by one when he decided to self-publish his thematic follow-up Lost in the '90s last year.
For Frank Anthony Polito, Lost in the '90s was a labor of love. "Lost in the '90s came about after I'd already written two other books that were set in the 1980s. I felt that moving into the next decade was a natural progression. Because I was writing for a 'young adult' audience, I wanted to share with readers the experience of life in another, simpler time—before cellphones and Facebook took over." He's currently writing a sequel to Drama Queers! called The Spirit of Detroit. "As of now, the plan is to self-publish by the summer. Again, I want to have the creative control that self-publishing allows."
"My agent spent an entire year submitting the novel to all the major publishers," he says. "While we were all in agreement that the writing was solid, most felt that teen readers wouldn't relate to the story's 1990s setting. Since I'd already written the book, I didn't want it to go to waste—I felt I had nothing to lose."
And then there is the case of Tony Jerris, whose dishy celebrity tome Marilyn Monroe: My Little Secret struck me as the type of book a traditional publisher would drool over. Jerris was introduced to Jane Lawrence several years ago, quickly becoming fascinated by her story of having been the president of Marilyn Monroe's fan club, one who both interacted with her and who claimed to have had sexual encounters with the sex siren as an adolescent.
"As a former New Yorker, I feel I'm a pretty good judge of character," Jerris says of his gut feeling that Jane Lawrence was telling him the truth about her intimacies with Marilyn Monroe. "With Jane, what you saw was what you got. She always wanted to tell her story—not for the purpose of sensationalism, but to show a side of Marilyn that was often misconstrued by the press. With that said, I had my work cut out for me to verify that what Jane was telling me was true." Her relatives' positions in the studio system helped to show that Lawrence had the kind of access she alleged. When Lawrence died, Jerris was a man on a mission. "If anything, her death kicked me in the butt to complete the story in my lifetime."
"Her apartment was like a shrine to Marilyn, with pictures and autographs, all authenticated by Christie's. She had always wanted to tell her story, but she wasn't a writer; I optioned her life rights." Thinking he had a sure thing, Jerris learned the hard way how the establishment works. "After finally finishing the manuscript, I shopped it to some of the top dogs in the literary world, and there were several interested in taking it on—had Jane been alive." Lawrence had died "out of the blue" while Jerris worked on paid projects and attempted to get a hold on how he wanted to tell her story.
Her death was a huge blow—"I'm a writer, not a medium!"—but it was not the end of the line. "I realized after one year that I could either keep seeking more agents/publishers, or just go for it and self-publish since that seemed to be the route a lot of writers were taking. So I did."
All of the books in this piece are—in my humble opinion—well worth your time. But I still wondered if others, even self-published authors, thought the old stigma of "vanity publishing" still applied.
Hooper doesn't see it.
"To be honest, I don't think there are these clear lines any more. Just like 'blogging' is a term that can encompass a million different sites, independent publishing can mean several different things. We now have news outlets and reporters putting out instant eBooks. We have sites like HuffPo that have their own publishing arms and major retailers like Amazon creating multiple different ways to create new content (or poach backlist content). We have indie authors who are picked up by major publishing houses that think they can market the product in a new and better way. These products can be terrible, grand or somewhere in between regardless of who puts them out. But now, people have more ways to give it a shot. The process has become very democratic in a very exciting way."
"There's garbage in all the channels," Rosenthal asserts. "I run my own independent record label and it's all about short runs and the underground. Most of the really good work is coming from the underground, so I don't even think about it in terms of 'vanity.' Really, the chance the next amazing writer is signed to a traditional publishing company is pretty unlikely."
But Polito, with his experience working for a mainstream publisher, is a bit more skeptical.
"Sadly, I do think the majority of self-published books aren't very good. I've taken a look at quite a few and most are not only poorly written, but the formatting is all wrong. The lines are indented too far—or not enough. The spacing is incorrect. Chapter headings and titles aren't the right size. I know what a 'real' book looks like, so I worked very hard to make my own self-pubbed book look just as good as any other."
Speaking of format, one thing that might boggle your mind if you're not big on e-reading (of the authors I spoke to, only Hooper is "a 100% e-reader") is the technical aspect of self-publishing. Along with creative considerations (Rosenthal heartily recommends spending money on an editor, most agree that a professionally designed cover is a wise investment), prospective publishers need to have a grasp on how to make their work available.
"Because I'd already published three 'real' books," Polito says, "I wanted to make sure that I had a hard copy of my book available. I went with CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon. Overall, I found the experience quite satisfying. CS allowed me to choose my own imprint—for a $10 fee—unlike a lot of self-publishing platforms that want to be listed as the book's publisher. CS provides a template that I used to format the book's interior to the specific page size and provide services that will help writers who aren't able to do this on their own. Once the book is completed, you can order a hard copy proof or view the file digitally, and they offer discounts for writers to purchase copies.
"For Kindle, I created the file myself (using HTML on MS Word) and uploaded to Amazon via their Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Initially, I created a Nook Book on my own, but later decided to go with Smashwords."
All the bases should be covered.
Hooper says, "I use all of the platfoms (and my book is available on all three of the major e-sellers). With any form of publishing, platform is key. The consumer has so many options now and all of them are instantly available. If you don't have some sort of presence, it's really hard to make people care."
Something the authors agree on is that self-publishing, while making publication attainable, is no cake walk.
"The thing to remember is that everything is on you," Hooper warns. "Every last detail is yours to decide, which is both freeing and nerve-wracking. As someone who as been making my own editorial decisions on a daily basis for nine years, I was perhaps more comfortable with this process than others might be."
Jerris says simply, "Be prepared." Self-publishing is hardly worth it if you're just going to put the book out and see what happens. "Get the word out about your book and run with any and every article or TV/radio interview you have. The more people who know about it, the better, and that includes friends."
Polito stresses promotion above all.
"If you have the money to invest, I would say that the most important thing to spend it on is a publicist or marketing person. Or on advertising. Anyone can publish a book, but the goal is to make that book stand out—and SELL."
"Good As You is everything," Hooper says of his Web site's role in plugging his book. "Not just the site, but my social media outreach has been key to selling. Plus, through my work, I've been lucky enough to make major connections. The community really came out—from groups like HRC and GLAAD to allied sites like Towleroad to prominent voices like Dan Savage—and helped me push the product. It was an easier task than if I were an unknown activist."
This can be more challenging if your book isn't about a teenage girl seduced by an icon, you don't own a wildly successful blog and/or you aren't loaded, but there are options for any budget.
Polito has relied heavily on the free and far-reaching Facebook. "I've searched for any '90s-related fan pages and have posted about the book. It isn't as easy to do as it used to be and no one likes the hard sell, so I also did a free book giveaway via GoodReads. That helped getting people's interest in the book before it was published."
Rosenthal sought to create a book that would be unique. "It appealed to me as something that needed to be said. New ideas of gender, and relationships, and putting that into a context with interesting and humorous characters rather than serving it up as a dry, theoretical discussion. I wrote Rye to entertain myself." More than entertaining, it involved training. "It's been 15 years since I wrote my prior novel. It was a process of learning how to write in this format again, getting into the habit and working at it all the time."
And don't throw away the baby with the bathwater—plenty of traditionall methods of promotion can work as well with e-books as they do with the kind made from trees. Rosenthal did a Rye reading tour.
"In December, I was in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I arranged readings at two sex-toy stores and a kinky coffee shop. Now I am arranging readings on the East Coast."
But he's also done as much e-legwork as legwork, e-mailing 40 blogs a week in the hopes of generating what will expand into viral-level interest.
"A self-published book has to smolder before it can catch fire. That's done by word-of-mouth," he says. "I am working to get the word out."
If any of you have had good or bad experiences self-publishing in print or online, I'm all ears.