AFTER SELF-PUBLISHING MY FIRST NOVEL Stuck Outside of Phoenix in 2003, I spent some time online trying to find other self-published writers who wanted to form a community. I wasn’t looking for anyone trying to catch on to a genre trend, or those taking advantage of the brand new print-on-demand technology because they wanted to see their name along the spine of a book. It was clear to me that self-publishing had more to offer writers than quick financial gain or self-indulgence. Namely, I felt self-publishing offered a writer the most artistic possibility.
The irony about self- versus traditional publishing back then was that doing it yourself was seen as, to put it mildly, a secondary form of art. Writer friends greeted my decision to self-publish with concerned looks. Bookstores turned me down for readings when I told them how my book was published. When chatting about my self-publishing journey online, one writer claimed I was “trying to take an inflatable doll to the prom.” It didn’t matter how good my novel was. If it was self-published, many saw it as a joke.
Snobbery aside, there were some good reasons for this perception. Historically, self-publishers have produced the worst books in the industry. Also, many of the subsidiary companies that some self-publishers have used over the years have been scam mills meant to bamboozle writers out of money. Finally, if everyone’s a publisher, so goes the theory, that makes for a cluttered book market, and good books would have a harder time getting attention.
All true, but I think there are other, subconscious reasons for this negative perception. One is that most readers receive their formative concepts of literary art through traditional publishing. Are you really going to call the mode that brought us Twain, Faulkner, Updike, Morrison and countless other traditionally published greats anything but the most vaunted artistic path? Can you name one entirely self-published writer who consistently made or makes great art, keeping in mind William Blake was three centuries ago? I admit I struggle to do so.
But in 2014, most of us in the publishing game recognize that, at minimum, things have shifted since these great dinosaurs roamed the earth. The biggest shift is that the traditional publishers who dominate the industry today are no longer owned by lovers of great literary work but by shareholders who care primarily about profit. This often leads to books that will remind you of other products brought to you by corporations: as inexpensive as possible, and just good enough that you won’t complain, or alter your buying habits. Few outside the book marketing business seem to think these works are great art. I think of them not so much as great art as strategically protecting themselves against claims they’re not great art.
If I’m going to make such declarations, I’d better offer you my definition of art, which I modified from a phrase in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. My definition of art: that which is beautiful and did not exist before. To me, art has to be appealing in some sensory way (“beautiful”), and it has to be sufficiently “new,” not derivative (“did not exist before”).
Contemporary traditional publishing produces countless works that, in my opinion, are passably beautiful—fine writing, engaging conflicts, interesting ideas. The problem with calling these works art comes from the fact that they’re often very similar to works that have existed before. If contemporary traditional publishing asks one thing of its books, it’s that they not be art but that they be marketable, which 99 percent of the time means they’re like other books that have sold in the recent past. Typically, traditionally published books take a familiar literary idea and offer a twist on it. (“It’s about vampires who also rob banks. I call it Give Me Your Bloody Money.”) This is where book genres come from. If you’re interested in science fiction, you can go to the science fiction section of your favorite bookstore and find a book that’s likely close to your interests.
Still, genre novels are one step from art for me because they’re almost by definition derivative. With genre, you’re more likely to get obvious plots, predicable characters, unimaginative milieux—in other words, something that existed before.
The problem with classifying a self-published work as art is usually reversed. All over the map in terms of style and subject matter, self-published books are far more likely not to have existed before. The good self-published books I’ve read are lovably oddball-ish: Steve Almond’s Letters from People who Hate Me, Craig Machen’s Still Life with Brass Pole. Unique, provocative, fun, and if no traditional publisher wanted them it’s probably because they’re not easily classifiable, and therefore not easily marketable.
Still, many if not most self-published books struggle to be something beautiful. As a rule, self-published books are a step down in writing, editing, proofreading and formatting from their traditionally published counterparts. The new ease of self-publishing brought on by print-on-demand technology hasn’t necessarily made for a more discerning batch of writer/publishers. Most of the ones I’ve come across over the past decade are comparable in quality to those published 20 years ago. There are just a lot more of them.
But that’s no reason to write off a book because it’s self-published, in the same way it’s no reason to write off a traditionally published book because it comes to us through the same process as, say, Sarah Palin’s autobiography. All any writer worth her salt wants is to be judged on the merits of her work and not something as superfluous as the path she happens to take to a reader’s nightstand. In the end, good books are the ones that are good, and bad books are the other ones.
Despite my rooting interest in self-publishing, I still tend to find more of what I consider art in the traditional publishing realm. Patrick deWitt, Wells Tower, Tao Lin, Zadie Smith—all corporately published writers who create books that are both beautiful and did not exist before. I’d be a fool to ignore them.
But self-publishing is just beginning its heyday, so don’t be surprised if those inflatable dolls start to look more and more like something you’d like to take to the prom. No one knows where tomorrow’s great literary works will come from, and for those of us who need them, we don’t care.
ABOUT ART EDWARDS: Badge, the third installment in Art Edwards’s ten-rock-novel series, was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011. His second, Ghost Notes, released on Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, was made into a feature film. His shorter work has appeared in The Writer and Salon, among many others.