Number 1: Do Not Assume that Anyone is going to Give A Shit.
I mean this in all possible interpretations. This is why it is Numero Uno. Taking away or losing the assumption of anyone giving a shit, for today’s writer, is top priority. At first, once you begin to accept that nobody gives a shit, you will find yourself questioning just what the hell you were even doing it for. This is good, this is a good question. At the very least you have to come to terms with the fact that no one is going to give a shit and you still have to be ok with that. Still want to continue with the self-publishing? Because, honestly, you can try and play a waiting game with the cultural gatekeepers. Start a side-hustle on YouTube. Get into a writing program that also runs an imprint. Like everything in life, who you know is going to matter. But you already know this. You, like I, are tired of waiting. But be warned; entering the valley of ‘they who don’t give shits’ will scar you and hamper your interactions with the angelic spear wielding gatekeepers.
Seriously though, I fucked up. When I sent my stories to the ink and paper publisher I made two bad assumptions based on the essence that they gave a shit and wanted me to publish a good looking book. I assumed that my naive imperfections would be ironed out, but don’t be this silly. It’s why I ended up with an oversized book, 8&1/2 by 11 instead of your standard 9x6. I didn’t pay attention to the normal dimensions and made a bad assumption that they just knew better than me. Even when I got my proof copy, which is an example of the printed book given for a final review, I assumed that they sent me a larger version so it would be easier to edit. Dumb. (But also at that stage, when they’ve sent you a proof, they de-insentivize you from making changes. They say any change at that stage will cost an extra 5 dollars, per word.)
Number 2: Yeah, formatting matters.
You are probably not like me and already knew this. One of my friends told me he used to take peyote and observe his writing from a distance as a piece of structure. A Hemingway acolyte, he planned his ‘ands’ for rhythm and spacing. I did not think of writing like this. I was and am more interested in how close sentences can be to thoughts. It’s why my book is poorly formatted.
I hardly ever used indentation. I used different fonts for different stories cause I thought it would be cool. I wrote the stories that way, in different states of mind, why not let that be represented on the page? Well, because people are looking for any excuse to not read your book, these kinds of risks are frivolous. The more professional you can look the less excuses you give. I do not particularly like this logic but it should be acknowledged. Good indentation does create a nicer looking page. I only realized this after going back and looking at other books. Noticing what I had taken for granted or ignored before.
Number 3: Honestly, it’s probably not worth it to self-publish physical copies.
In the summer of 2015 I drove the long highway to Alaska to do research for a story. When I drove back down for the winter I was looking for somewhere to put together thoughts. Combine story and research and thusly finish a collection of stories. I wound up in Arco, Idaho living in a soon to be condemned hotel for 250 bucks a month. I finished the story while growing more alone. I was convinced I had done good work but whatever literary magazine I sent the story to rejected it. Putting it in contention for a couple contests, a desperate dice roll for cash (dice roll implies better odds than reality, in truth you could do better with any game in a casino. One of my rejection emails came with a figure that I was in contest with 1100 other stories. You can’t be upset at odds like that. Just have to acknowledge that you were silly for even playing the game) with nothing turning up aces I gave up for a while. But in the meantime I met a local bookstore owner who, in my desperation, gave me his time and perspective. He was not big on the new tradition of writers created by workshop. He had self-published a book. It had sold quite a few copies. He told me I should self-publish for the pleasure of it. You get copies that you can hand to people. It’s minor proof of your labor. Plus, you get to do a release party. Get shitty and try and smooth talk a few pretty bibliophiles.
No such party has ever happened but after many years of rejection, his argument, or more accurately, his general attitude, helped push me towards self-publishing. But, in practical terms, there was still a wide divide between the two of us for actual capacity to sell copies. He had been a local figure for years and there was ‘hype’ for the release of his novel. More importantly, he runs a bookshop and has countless encounters which give him the chance to sell. Not withstanding that I would get bored of trying to sell my book (he does too); in total practicality, I did (and still do have) virtually no audience to sell to.
So, I’m just saying, unless you already know who you’re selling to, your odds, Polynesian island crapshoot bad as they are, are probably better waiting around to get published by an indie press. But again, you probably already knew that.
Number 4: Some strange benefits to self-publishing, though.
The day my pallet of printed books arrived was one of the most mentally engaging of the last decade. I opened the first box, realized the books were oversized and immediately fell to panic. In a daze I started to pack the boxes away until I started laughing. The obvious size of my blunder was freeing. It made two things true. One, obviously things weren’t going to neatly fall into place for me. Thinking I was at the top of one ridge just gave way to another higher climb. Also, the stupidity of form gave me a mental safety valve. Blunders are not the ideal safety valve; but I think it may be healthy to be afraid of one’s genius (or, better yet, to be as skeptical of one’s genius as everyone else).
I had a very good day. I felt like going to a party to toast my insignificance. Me and a buddy from my hometown got drunk went to a bar and handed out free copies. I saw someone in a booth laughing at it in a mocking way and while briefly ashamed, I think over these past couple years I’ve come to more equal terms with just what my labor is worth. That books failure to launch pushed me to write another and when the new one fails and my grieving period ends I’ll be compelled to write another after that. Perhaps this is what Steinbeck meant when he said, “One big success can really ruin a writer.”
And here’s yet one more benefit. Financially, it’s not so terrible to print your book. It’s easily cheaper than a semester of college at a state school. And you’ll learn more about yourself than taking another semester at college. Perhaps even bring a small joy to your life. A smile every time you see your boxes of unsold books, their weight a physical reminder of a time you tried.
Number 5: No One Gives a Shit, redux.
If you’ve already decided about self-publishing you probably don’t give a shit what I think, either. I mean, most of this stuff is pretty obvious, right? The true question is why would anyone care if you do or don’t? Are you doing it for yourself? Did you write for yourself? In a certain sense, for everyone, that question is yes. Just like doctors work long hours to afford Porsches. But as a writer you have to know that the money isn’t coming especially if you’re not already giving the audience what they want to hear. I remember when the stories about fake news taking over the internet broke. Anderson Cooper interviewed a writer guy who said if his readers were really paying attention they could tell that his articles were satire. Cooper then asked him how much money he was making. To his credit, the guy answered honestly, something really high like 10,000 dollars a month. That sealed it for me. You’re not writing real satire and making that much money.
It’s a big world out there with lots of people trying to peddle words. I believe more and more that the cultural game is over. It’s the information age, if you’re about being competitive or being a person of the times, learn some programming or switch to non-fiction. Or, wait, observe. Perfect your craft do a novel like Richard Powers did recently The Overstory. “Biology was phase one, unfolding over epochs. Then culture throttled up the rate of transformation to mere centuries. Now, there’s another digital generation every 20 weeks. Each subroutine speeding up the next.” A young Indian boy confined to a wheelchair muses with his friends.
There’s still lessons to be gleaned and given from the patient act of writing fiction. That nobody gives a shit is a feature, not a bug. How does this idea transfer to self-publishing? I’m not really sure. But I suppose if you have a couple extra bucks and pay attention to your dimensions, I’d support your publication. You probably aren’t going to get a return on investment, but if you were the kind of person worried about that, well, maybe you’re not cut out to be a writer.