Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing on the Wall: the Perils of Self-Publishing

One of the most awkward things I feel I have to do as a Creative Writing professor is discourage my students from self-publishing. I say awkward because I know very well how impatient we writers are, how exciting it is to share your work with an audience, and how my warning sounds a bit like the town in Footloose that won't let the kids dance.

I really, really,
really hate doing it. It makes me feel anxious and honestly, slightly ill--specifically because I know it hurts a few students' feelings, since they themselves have self-published or are considering it (and in many cases, they're fantastic, promising writers), and it probably makes me look like a grumpy, judgmental crusher of dreams, rather than somebody who's genuinely trying to look out for them. But I do it anyway cuz, dammit, that's my job!

And here's an example of why. I saw the ad for the Emerging Writer's Contest from the wonderful and well-established magazine,
Ploughshares. From their own guidelines: "We define an 'emerging writer' as someone who has yet to publish a book, including chapbooks, eBooks, and self-published works, in any of the content genres: creative nonfiction, poetry, or fiction."

In other words--if you self-publish, or rush to publish a collection (because you're in your early twenties and shouldn't you already have a few books out by now?!), you can't enter this. And this isn't the only example.

There are the Fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, specifically for those who graduated with their MFAs but haven't published a book yet.

There's the Yale Series of Younger Poets--and you're eligible so long as you're under 40 and, again, you haven't published a book yet.

And, of course, there's the Walt Whitman Award, another career-making opportunity for those who haven't published a first book.

In fact, there are tons of first book prizes out there, plus plenty of emerging writer awards (just Google "first book prize" or "emerging writer contest"), all of which can not only get you published but be a big boost to your career. In the case of some, it's OK if you have already published a chapbook so long as it's under a certain number of pages and had a small circulation. In others, even that that will disqualify you. In ALL cases, though, it pays to take a deep breath, do your research, and weigh your options.

And don't forget--while poems in a full-length manuscript can previously have appeared in journals or chapbooks, it can't go the other way around. In other words, poems in a chapbook (self-published or not) can't be sent to most journals, since they want First Rights. That's just the way it is. And if you ignore that, you're showing contempt for the very journals you want to publish in.

Of course, if you aren't concerned with entering contests, don't particularly care about winning a first book or chapbook prize, and genuinely prefer to go the more "underground" route, that's perfectly fine. You still have to understand First Rights as it pertains to journals, but besides that, you're free to do whatever you like. Here's the thing, though: at the very least, you should know what you're doing, weigh the potential costs and benefits, and make an informed decision. Otherwise--again--you're disrespecting the biz by demonstrating that you don't even care enough to learn its most basic rules before you break them.

And to my students who have self-published (or are considering it), it's not that I don't support or believe in your work. Actually, it's the exact opposite. I believe in your work
so much that I want to see it get the biggest audience it can! If I didn't, I'd just smile, pat you on the back, and secretly be glad that another potential competitor just sold him/herself short.


  1. Another argument against going it alone: The many, many first books now-established writers would like to forget exist/have disowned because they weren't good enough yet. The example that always comes to mind is Tobias Wolff's first novel, but there are many others.

    We writers rarely know when our own work is at its best, ready to meet readers. We are even less likely to know when it's our first book.

  2. Victoria, great point! I "published" more than a few poems when I was just starting out that were FAR from my best work (though I liked them at the time) and could I have it to do over again, I'd polish them up and maybe make them into something good.

    When I think of some of my favorite poems (say, "Suicide Song" by Tony Hoagland, "Like Riding a Bicycle" by George Bilgere, "Woodwork Redemption" by James Valvis, etc), I wonder what would have happened had they been published in some kind of earlier, less polished draft. Would we ever have read or remembered them?

    I remember I was always in a huge hurry (still am) but there's definitely a big benefit to taking your time and getting some other professional opinions through vetted publishing (for lack of a better term).

  3. A wonderful post. I, too, dread having this discussion with my students, but I believe in every point you've made above. Thanks!

  4. Thanks Michael, for this post. (I laughed out loud when you spoke about earlier poems -- did I really go through a Bukowski period!??) Like Sandy, I dread having this discussion with my students.

    However, I have another dilemma -- I teach at a community college and it's not unusual for me to have 70 year olds in my creative writing classroom. They often don't have time to wait around to find a publisher, and in my limited experience, I can't find a lot of venues for "older" writers (I put "older" in quotes because I don't know what old really means in the publishing world).

    Any thoughts? Suggestions?

    1. Hi, Karen. Great question! Not to be indelicate but I had a great-aunt who was quite elderly and wanted to publish her poems so she could have a book to share with her family and friends. In special cases like that, I'd say that self-publishing might be a good idea. Again, it's just a matter of knowing the odds, what you risk and what you gain, what your goals are, etc.

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  6. Let me say a few words in favor of self-publishing:

    I self-published my first book at Kinkos. It came about pretty much by accident. I was going to give a reading and wanted to have some handouts. I ended up making a book, Language of Mules.

    That was in the late 90s. I submitted the book for an Illinois Arts Council Artist award and won $10,000. The book has gone on to be translated into Polish and Hungarian. Milosz reviewed the Polish edition describing it as "astonishing."

    Finally, let me say that I have sold more copies of this book (2200 or so) than any of my other books of poems. And all the money was profit--except for the cost of publishing, about a buck a book.

    1. Wow, good for you! That's awesome! I've heard one or two stories like this but my overall concern is that they're the exception instead of the rule. As I said, though, if the writer has the time and resources to send out the work, and things go well, it can work great. It seems like that's so rare, though, that I'd still want writers to think carefully before making a decision.