au revoir, print publishing

My project has changed. What was going to be a large epic in one volume I am breaking down into smaller pieces—”episodes”—that I can publish faster. And since I am the publisher, it is my call to make. Welcome to the Wild West of e-publishing.

As an aspiring writer while growing up, I always imagined becoming part of the regular publishing world—the only kind that existed back then. I read of exciting publishing stories like Malcolm Lowry’s submission of Under the Volcano to Jonathan Cape in 1945. He received a personal reply from Jonathan Cape, accepting his novel on the condition that he make certain changes. Lowry returned with a response of his own, 20 pages or more, defending the choices that had been criticized by Cape’s readers, and eventually gained publication for his work mostly as first submitted. A triumph!

It’s the kind of story that writers cling to, holding it in mind like a candle to carry through the long wintry darkness of creation and rejection of their own works. “Someday I too will be accepted—just like Malcolm Lowry!”

Well, maybe. By far the most common response is rejection. And, to be sure, usually this is because the work itself is not good. But sometimes it is good, and that doesn’t help. James Joyce strove for years to get Dubliners published, and when someone finally accepted it, the publisher kept pushing changes at Joyce. In a different genre, many publishers rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before Bloomsbury finally bought it, mainly, according to Wikipedia, because they deemed it too long at 90,000 words. Bloomsbury said yes only because the publisher’s eight-year-old daughter, fed chapter 1 of the manuscript, came back and asked for chapter 2. But none of these professional publishers recognized that they were looking at a blockbuster.

I think too of a story I read years ago, in which someone, as an experiment, submitted manuscripts of already published and successful novels to publishers to see how they would respond. Sending works by John Steinbeck and Jerzy Kosinski, he was rebuffed time and again, often with withering critiques of the writing.

And I recall reading an anecdote by Stephen King, I think in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he had already reached great heights of commercial publishing success, and was his publisher’s best-selling author, but discovered that the CEO of the publishing company could never remember his name on the few times they met. Even superstar, “golden goose” authors get dissed by their publishers.

For these reasons, in addition to the more practical ones, such as the slowness with which print publishing takes place, the brief window of exposure one’s book gets on store bookshelves, and the slim share of any proceeds that are allocated to the author, I am happy to cast my fate to the winds of e-publishing and be my own publisher.

There’s a lot to do, so I’d better get back at it. Wish me luck.

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