Saturday, September 03, 2011

notes on the legitimacy goblin and self-publishing whoredom

About six years ago I was in the midst of a dilemma. I had finally finished my first full-length manuscript (well, I had declared it finished a couple times in the previous two years, but it wasn't quite). I was pretty frustrated and had spent a small fortune in postage and contest entry fees, and while the poems had all been published in journals, and I was declared finalist or semi finalist in some contests, no one was biting. All in all I was lucky since I was only at it for a little over two years from initial version to acceptance (Fall 2003-Fall 200), but at the time it was an unbearable waiting game. I felt like it was a hill I needed to get over to be "legitimate," whatever that means, before people would take me seriously as a writer. I had some chapbooks at that point, both published by tiny local presses and self-issued, largely becuase I needed something to distribute or sell at readings (also, I was dipping into chapbook publishing, dgp's first trial was my mss., Bloody Mary in 2004.) Around me, alot of poets, frustated by the same factors as I was, the publishing bottleneck, were also starting presses and releasing their own work via these venues. On one hand, I was applauding them and loving what they were doing, but on the other, I was unsure if I could do it myself.

Chapbooks were one thing, but to invest your whole "career" in issuing your own work and the sure criticism you might get for it seemed a little too brave even for me. "Legitimacy" was a scary little goblin that whispered in my ear every night, was fed and fattened by MFA program bullshit, by Po-Biz establishment, and comments by some people I even consider friends. And I secretly still of wanted certain things--grants, honors, awards, poems in the right journals, the right websites, recognition by the right people and editors. That sort of pedigree definitely didn't jive with self-publishing in any sort of way.

Eventually Ghost Road took my first book, and shortly thereafter Dusie took the second. I felt like I had been saved at first, but then of course nothing really changed. It was awesome to have pretty, shiny books, but getting them out there and read was the same challenge that the books I'd issued on my own (and it was costing me more money to give away copies to reviewers.) The moment of truth came shortly after I had released at the hotel andromeda which is still one of things I am most proud of creatively, a 3 year long project that speaks to everything I am as a creative person. Someone had asked me to fill something out about recent publications and projects and there it was in big letters DO NOT INCLUDE SELF-PUBLISHED WORK. I was stuck and a little pissed. I decided to just not finish answering on principle.

I continued on for awhile and wound up sending what was then my third longer manuscript to the press who had published the first, where it was accepted, and then sat waiting for three years before the publisher canceled the contract due to going out of business. I was crestfallen, and suddenly felt this need to start issuing all of my own work, having complete creative control over design and print run. On one hand this seemed a better alternative fiscally. I could at least a make a few bucks off my own work, which no doubt beat my teeny tiny royalty checks from other publishers. On the other hand, something was still holding me back. I could either go with the expected, sanctioned course, spend lots of money and energy finding another publisher who may or may not put out the book that I want (or when I want which is a whole other problem). Or I could just release it myself. Part of it was also just a hard dose of practicality. I regularly see the work that is out there, know my contemporaries, everything I would be in competition with. Alot of it is absolutely amazing. Book submissions are such an endless crapshoot, guaging what will appeal to a given press or editor, each batch of first round screeners. Why not just issue my own work since I run a press, have all the accroutrements at hand, can do all my own marketing and promotion to my audience base? I also feel like I am a pretty good judge and editor of my own work these days, which wasn't always the case.

Of course, some people were horrified. I got both wary and weary of talking about it among poetry friends, at publishing panels,and eventually just stopped about talking about it at all. It was like I was breaking some huge faux paux in the literary world even thinking about it. My fear was that people would suddenly stop reading or caring about my work once I didn't have other publishers backing me, which is probably ridiculous, but this is pretty much what some folks said point blank when I mentioned issuing my own work. And of course, in some ways, I was still the same girl who wanted all the cake (the prizes, the residencies, the prime publication slots in bigtime journals) but slowly I was realizing I didn't want to be her anymore, that I didn't need those hoops and should just leave them for the people who actually want to jump. I also realized the more I started to socialise with people outside of the poetry world,the less important it all started to feel. Call it perspective. The more I talked to people in other arts, the more ridiculous the stigma against self-publishing seemed to be. Also, the more energy I put into the press and publishing other peoples work, the less I felt a compulsion to divest extra energy in running all those hurdles-the contests, the brass rings, the hard push to get the right sort of recognition. I started to focus more on the work itself, on building an audience in new ways and less on the things I wasn't all that interested in so much anymore. I stopped constantly knocking on doors and my realized my knuckles weren't so bruised, I stopped ceaselessly comparing myself and my achivements to other poets and got alot happier, I also stopped expecting so much from the work and in turn my relationshop with it got alot friendlier.

Maybe, mostly I began to see that my poetic path doesn't need to follow the circumscribed one I always thought it had to. That there are all sorts of ways to "be a poet" and put work out into the world. Differering ways to find readers, especially in light of social networking and the web. Once I cracked it open, anything was possible. The reason for this rather lengthy diatribe was the completion of my latest project and the waffling of late over whether it will be a full-length or a chapbook, over whether to send it out (which I havent yet attempted) or whether to release it as a dancing girl title (and maybe subsequently all of my titles, all of which are chapbook length at this point and some of which have elements that don't make them feasible for other publishers.) I found there was alot of fluff in some of the longer projects that could be chopped, so I have several shorter projects nearing completion over the next couple of years and have basically decided to issue them via dgp in the schedule of books. I am hoping to still share alot of the work in journal publications to get it in front of people and promote the work itself, but the actual book manuscripts will be self released and designed in limited editions. I am excited about this and there is a certain breathless sort of freedom I'm feeling about this lately, sort of like stepping off a treadmill I wasn't sure I wanted to be on.

No comments: