Publishing Conundrum, Help Requested

A friend and I have been bantering about the state of publishing in general (and literary and young adult publishing in particular), thereby crystallizing, for me, a bundle of questions I need to think through. First among them is, why do I want the books I write to be published? Other questions branch off that one: what do I want a publisher to provide? Who do I want to reach with my writing? Do I care about prestige and awards and recognition? My production and distribution ethos, as distinct from my artistic ethos, is based on the punk/DIY, mimeographed and stapled world of the 1970’s and 80’s. If you wanted to have a concert, you found a room and put on a concert, if you wanted to make a record, you made a record, and so too with magazines, books, and so forth. Quickly enough, sympathetic people began distribution networks, then other people smelled money and co-opted the same, but the premise was always that art was local and anyone could do it. This meant lots of people made bad art, but so what, people always make lots of bad art, some of it just has more slick packaging. So, considering this ethos, why do I send my books to publishers in the hope they will like and publish my work? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to just publish it myself and try to find a distribution network to amplify the word-of-mouth effect? This of course assumes there would be a word-of-mouth effect, that anyone gives a shit about what I do and would talk it up to someone else. I think I am arrogant enough to believe that. Ok, I’m sure I’m arrogant enough…

To return to the questions posed at the start of this screed:

  • Why do I want the books I write to be published? Because I like books, and think I write well enough to help shape what writing means in a small way. I write books I would like to read, and hope others might like to read them too. Is that all? Yes, that really is all.
  • What do I want a publisher to provide? Distribution. Design I can do, editing I have friends and loved ones to impinge upon, the actual printing and digitizing is simple enough these days.
  • Who do I want to reach with my writing? Friends, family, people who like to read odd things, people dissatisfied with the literary status quo.
  • Do I care about prestige and awards and recognition? No. I know many writers and other artists will think I am simply acting the tough here, pretending I don’t want something I would actually love to have… but I don’t, my view of the publishing world–of the world, period–is too jaundiced for that, I can barely accept a compliment from people I love without feeling squirrelly. The only benefit I see in awards, reviews, all the laurel leaf shit, is that it increases distribution, more people might pick up your book. The prestige machine also mangles people’s ideas of what makes good art. A bad book wins many prizes, it must be good, yes? And so people read it and their aesthetic changes as they struggle to understand why, exactly, everyone loves this piece of garbage, until they, too, come to love garbage.

All of which leads to the question I’m struggling with: why not just self publish, like Whitman and Proust and Joyce and Beatrix Potter and Twain and Sandburg and cummings and Stein and Poe and Woolf and Crane and Eggers and Blake and… well, it’s an old story. Here are reasons not to self-publish, along with my initial reaction to each reason:

  • I am not already famous, so self-publishing would not make me lots of money. (I don’t care about being famous, find it distasteful, actually, and am not enamored of money, either).
  • Self-publishing is looked down upon by most people who read literary works. (I would have no prestige. Literary snobs would be literarily snotty to me. Do I know many of these people? A few. Do I care? Not really. Sorry.)
  • I would have to be a salesman, not something I’m great at. (This is a problem. I would have to approach marketing as an art form, and make it more about distribution than profit. Fuck profit.)
  • It would lessen my chances of getting published the “regular” way. (This decision is a plunge, certainly; I am more or less consigning myself to one world or the other, it seems, unless the boundaries blur even further.)
  • I would not get invited to the right kind of parties. (I could crash them, as part of marketing-as-art. I could have my own parties, I’ve gotten good at that, as has my lovely wife. I am a party.)

That’s where I am, stuck on the question, a novel and two books of poems that I’ve half-heartedly pitched to a few places languishing on my hard drive. If anyone can help me figure this out, please comment or email me, since I can’t decide–part of me is still conditioned to think that someone else wanting to publish your work, preferably a stranger, is what renders it valuable.

CDs listened to recently, as I try to listen to all the CDs in my collection: 543) Jucifer: calling all cars on the vegas strip; 544) Van Morrison: Avalon Sunset; 545) Altan: The First Ten Years; 546) Van Morrison: Hard Nose the Highway; 546) Shane MacGowan and the Popes: The Snake; 547) Charlie Haden and Hank Jones: Come Sunday; 548) The Cars: Greatest Hits; 549) Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike; 550) Urge Overkill: Enter the Dragon; 551) Small Faces: Here Come The Small Faces; 552) Swell Maps: A Trip to Marineville; 553) Various: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield.