Every year, hundreds of books pour into the offices of Pasatiempo — and, with limited space for reviews and author interviews, choosing which of those to pay attention to is no easy task. When it comes to fiction, memoirs, and poetry, priority tends to be given to books or authors with a local connection. Another way to whittle down the pile is to disregard books that are obviously self-published. It might sound arbitrary or unfair, but this practice is rooted in two significant challenges that hobble self-published books. The first is the long-standing assumption in the mainstream literary world that the quality of such books does not measure up to that of traditionally published ones. The second challenge reinforces the first: Self-published books are often in need of proofreading, professional typesetting, and design help for the cover. And invariably, even if a book shows great potential, it could have used an editor and a few more rounds of revisions. Self-published books often feel unfinished.
But with self-publishing technology improving over the last few years, and with high-cost vanity publishing quickly becoming a relic, more and more writers who might never have published their work are uploading manuscripts to digital services, paying a fee, and becoming, in the loosest sense of the word, authors. Some people just want to see their words bound between covers, but others want to get discovered. Though some self-published authors of genre fiction like sci-fi and erotica have done reasonably well, especially in the e-book arena, breaking into the mainstream literary world with a self-published book is demonstrably more difficult.
The power brokers of that world — New York publishers and agents for fiction, and academic and established small presses for poetry — are protected by a host of gatekeepers, including tenured professors and their students in colleges and universities who staff literary journals run by MFA programs. For the last 30 years, master of fine arts programs in writing have proliferated all over the country and exerted what many feel is undue control over what is considered “good,” and therefore worthy of attention. Some writers accept the rules set forth by this world, and some don’t.
“I’m not part of the academy, and when I read The American Poetry Review, which I do rarely, the work by university-connected poets seems to be written for each other and for their students. There’s a little bit of a wall around that writing — in-jokes and a private dialogue going on between the academic writers that doesn’t exist out in America,” John Macker told Pasatiempo. Macker, who runs the bookstore at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, is the author of nine books of poetry, the most recent of which is Disassembled Badlands, published by Turkey Buzzard Press in Kittredge, Colorado. (Macker and El Paso poet Lawrence Welsh read from their work at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8.)
Macker came of age as a poet in the early 1980s in Denver, after earning a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. His first book was published by the Bowery Press, which was headed by Larry Lake, a member of the Venice Beat community. Macker was influenced by Lake and his friends, placing a priority, as they did, on publishing journals and putting on local poetry, music, and theater events. “There was always a distinction between academic poetry and street poetry. In street poetry, you take more chances, talking in the vernacular. There’s a raw intelligence out there that isn’t so formal,” he said.
All of Macker’s books have been published by small presses — some so small they more accurately fall into the category of micropublishing, which is essentially the top-tier form of self-publishing. The quality of micropublishing tends to be so high that at Pasatiempo, such books are assumed to be from small, regional presses. In a way they are, because though micropublishing usually requires some financial commitment from a writer, it is repaid in printed books that the writer then sells, and the process benefits from experienced editorial oversight. Literary writers with knowledge of what is required to enter academia and the mainstream publishing world can sometimes find an inroad with micropublished books.
“The overwhelming popularity of literary MFAs, though it has been a net negative on society and literature, has created a larger level of self-awareness among the writers who go through those programs,” said Jonathan Penton. Penton is founder and editor-in-chief of Unlikely Stories/Unlikely Books, a small collective that publishes socially conscious journals featuring essays, poetry, prose, and art criticism — along with some books — in Lafayette, Louisiana. He’s also the managing editor at MadHat Press and a managing editor of Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. Penton has been working in micro- and small-journal publishing for almost 20 years, operating largely outside of — yet adjacent to — the academic literary scene.
“The MFA is essentially a pyramid scheme that creates lots of people with terminal degrees in literary writing who have no employable skills other than teaching terminal degrees in literary writing,” Penton said. “So unless this expands forever, the market will eventually collapse.” This level of competition means that such graduates need to have published books to secure even adjunct teaching positions, so micropublishing, Penton said, has become the backbone of the MFA industry. He concedes that, at the tenured level, mainstream publication continues to be a requirement, so anyone hoping for real success in academia still needs to work toward that. This sentiment is supported by Dana Levin, an award-winning poet who co-chairs Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s creative writing and literature department.
“I think there is still a stigma attached to self- publishing, especially where first books are concerned. It’s as if the first-book writer needs a seal of approval of some kind from an established publisher,” she said. “Once you get really famous, like Stephen King or David Foster Wallace, the stigma vanishes. It seems like authors or estates that go this route are trying to bypass the bureaucracy of big houses.”
Possibly the most negative effect to come about due to the takeover of the American literary scene by MFA students and graduates is the sense among some of them that writers who don’t follow that path are somehow not serious or are even untalented. Sub-par self-published books do not help the cause of subverting this idea. “If you self-publish, you have to be your own best editor,” Macker said. “This is what I tell people who say they can’t break in, who aren’t affiliated with the academy but have a book they want to get out there. I tell them that at least half the poems in the book should have been published somewhere else. You should be sending them to magazines, journals, and anthologies all over the country. Editors validate you by accepting you for publication. Then, once you’ve put in the work — and a lot of what I see self-published doesn’t reflect enough work — you can create your own press.”
The financial investment required to start a micropress is about $300. “The cost barrier is so low,” Penton said. “If you don’t feel you can invest $300, you can start an e-book company for less, although the only time I’d recommend e-book production without printed books is for people writing literary porn. That really sells e-books. Even with sci-fi I’d recommend having print as well. Most genres have conventions, and you can sell your book at a table at the convention.”
A lack of adequate promotion and distribution is the biggest drawback to self-publishing. How do you get the word out about your book? By way of extremely hard work. You set up a website, you draft a press release, you finance and arrange your own reading tour at small bookstores — locally, regionally, and nationally. You send your book, with a press release and reading schedule attached, to newspapers in towns where you’re reading. You can even pay for a review from Kirkus Indie, though there’s no guarantee its reviewers will like your book. And, of course, you embark on a social-marketing campaign via Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. “This is the business model for people who understand their book won’t be making a lot of money,” Penton said.
For writers, rejection happens far more often than success and has traditionally been seen as a badge of honor. The ease with which one can self-publish should not render the lengthy, admittedly arduous process of submission and rejection passé. If you’re frustrated by not being published but can’t yet wallpaper a room with your rejection slips, you haven’t tried hard enough, so the wisdom goes. Self-publishing all on your own might be brave, but it might just be an easy out.
“You have to have the critical intelligence to be able to look at your own work and know when it’s a bunch of crap,” Macker said. “You should have relationships with writers, with readers, with other editors — with people you trust — who can look at what you’ve written and say what works and what doesn’t. You can’t be the free agent all the time in this work. It might seem easy, but why should writing require less discipline than any other art form?” ◀