the writer-publisher on the flying trapeze

I’m reading a biography right now: Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker. I’m learning a lot about this troubled, alcoholic genius, who spent the best years of his life, by his own reckoning, living in one or another squatter’s shack on a beach 10 kilometers from here. And I’m learning that the path to publication and recognition for a writer has seldom been an easy one. Lowry’s masterwork, Under the Volcano, is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, but its genesis and its path to publication were both arduous. The book that finally appeared in 1947, and which seemed so assured in its presentation, was scarcely recognizable as the same project that the author originally drafted as a short story in 1936. The project expanded as Lowry worked and reworked the material again and again and again.

The writer in me takes heart from this fact. For it suggests that great work is not arrived at in a straight-line process, but only as as result of toil, suffering, and perhaps repeated course-changes. All the dodges, revisions, new ideas, and deletions have the effect of creating a richer work, perhaps like a house that is remodeled over the years or centuries, picking up all kinds of architectural quirks and curiosities along the way. No matter how brilliant the author, that richness could never have been arrived at in a single pass.

The publisher in me also takes heart. For now, in the universe of e-books, I am a publisher as well as a writer. Writing the book is only part of the problem; the task of getting published can often be a via crucis of its own. Earlier versions of Under the Volcano were repeatedly rejected. The version that was finally published was accepted in the form submitted only because of Lowry’s famous sales pitch to the publisher Jonathan Cape: a massive letter in which he justified the form and content of the book, chapter by chapter. Cape accepted the argument, and published the book. But the event is famous because it is so exceptional. As a rule, publishers, as the gatekeepers to the universe of readers, have lorded it over writers. And probably this has been a benefit to readers, who have received more polished, coherent works as a result. But at the top end of the literary spectrum, the end occupied by works such as Under the Volcano, rules and norms start breaking down, and publishers’ knee-jerk efforts to make books conform to them start to become counterproductive.

So this is a potentially good thing about the world of e-books and self-publishing: the author can get his work published in the form in which he intended it. But now other problems intrude. There are the technical obstacles to getting a manuscript into professional-quality e-book form; there are the administrative details of getting the thing actually published and presented on retailers’ pages; there is the time-consuming task of marketing the published work, which means writing promotional copy and finding venues in which to make readers aware of it. All these things take time and skills other than those which are associated with the creative writer, which means that they will usually be achieved at a lower level of quality than what could be done by professionals in those fields. Automation helps, but there still remains a lot of skilled effort to do. All of these things make publishing challenging, but in a new kind of way: it’s less like buying a lottery ticket and more like running an obstacle course.

But, speaking for myself, no serious regrets. Yes, my dream, like that of other writers, was always to see my work in print, to say that work we being published by Penguin Books (or whomever). But my writing career has been too willful, intermittent, and chaotic for that dream to be practicable. Whether due to character defects, personality disorder, or—who knows—the waywardness of genius, my education and output as a writer have not conduced to a normal publishing career (if there be such a thing). I have been driven, willy-nilly, into the arms of self-publishing. And, like a trapeze artist at the crucial moment in his act, I was glad to find that those arms were there when I needed them.

So I am a writer-publisher. I will be working down my publishing list, bringing out works as fast as I can, things that I have been working on over the years. This is my “backlist,” and it will be appearing in e-book form, I am happy to say. This list currently has 12 items on it. Item 1, A Tourist Visa, is already out. Indeed it is still emerging from its chrysalis, for it has yet to percolate out to all the retailers who will be carrying it. Within days, though, it will be fully out. I invite you to give it a look, and judge for yourself the merits of both the publisher and the writer as reflected in this short work.

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