Friday, March 12, 2021

the self-publishing diaries: feed

My latest full-length book, FEED, is now available in the shop! 

Way back in the beginning of time or at least the beginning of this blog (2005 or so) I was trying to get my first book published.  Actually, it could probably have been considered my second book if you count the monstrosity I put together on the eve of my 25th birthday and submitted to exactly one very large book contest I never had a chance of winning (hello Yale Younger Poets, I'm not so young anymore.). That book exists nowhere but on lost hard discs from the word processor I used all through grad school (thank god.)  but a better, second manuscript took shape in 2003-2004.  I submitted it to a few contests and actually, in it's various incarnations, it did reasonably well with a couple of semi-finalist & finalist nods. It was also a weird time, when many poets, mostly in the blog world were also similarly trying to get their books accepted.  Many did.  most did eventually.  I called it my  "book baby fever," what struck many of us at the same point in our careers and around the same ages, many of us already publishing quite a bit in journals and doing the things poets were supposed to do.  But it was rough.  Foetry was all the rage, and it seemed like competition was not only the thing we had to fear, but also rampant shenanigans. It seemed like there were so many poets vying for so few slots even then (today, times that by 50). The poetry book contest system sort of like an immense lottery, and even the best manuscripts sometimes lose the draw.  

I occasionally had my moments of doubt. What if that first book never got picked up?  What if I wasn't cut out for this?  What if I just sucked immensely? It made people crazy.  It also made people mean (sometimes even me).  How we were all  rushing for the same few scattered crumbs.  The wise amongst us looked for new ways to combat the bottleneck.  Publishing cooperatives.  Starting their own presses.  Self-publishing their own work. I wound up getting lucky when Ghost Road took the fever almanac under their wing, even though the press itself was short-lived and the book long out of print. Other, later books and publishers happened later sort of serendipitously through querying publishers I thought might be interested and solicitations. (Dusie, Sundress, Noctuary).  When Ghost Road shuttered and my 3rd book manuscript, girl show,  landed back in my lap, I sent it to Black Lawrence, who had caught my eye in terms of their author list (so many past dgp-ers) and design acumen. A year or so later they accepted it It reinforced my faith that good things were possible outside that contest system. But then again, it was quite a bit of luck.

Which is not to say self-publishing wasn't on my mind quite a lot. Especially at first when I wondered if I'd ever be able to see my name on the shiny spine of a paperback.  Smaller projects, I had done and done well and often . My trial run for dancing girl was actually my own little chap, Bloody Mary.  While the more academically oriented writers I knew poo-pooed self publishing, the other worlds I was steeped zines/DIY and predominantly open mic poets actually embraced it. I once sat in a publishing panel trying to argue for it against two very academic white male poets and got so frustrated I was nearly in tears. But even still, while I  loved watching poets around me seize the means of distribution and get their work out there (some very successfully at that), I was hesitant to do it for my own full lengths.  On one hand, I had a great publisher and had worked with so many others. They did the heavy lifting of design, promotion,  and distribution--all things I was well-schooled in for chapbooks, but are a little heftier with longer projects. 

Fast forward to the last 3-4 years, I've been writing a lot. At a pace I hadn't really been working at before.  Not all of it is good of course.  Some of it is quite bad.  Some feels very urgent to be out in the world. Other work, not so much. But slowly sometimes, smaller series begin to constellate into larger manuscripts. Suddenly, a book starts to come together and I let it happen. feed in particular feels important in light of my own history and obsessions, but there are others coming down the pipeline.  While I gave my current publisher (Black Lawrence)  first dibs, they, of course, aren't able to take everything that comes their way by current authors and still keep open opportunities for new voices. So that left me, after sending a couple books their way that didn't catch their fancy, with a few different options.  I could try finding other, different or new presses that might be interested, but reading fees are a beast with so little return. .  I could brave the contest system again, though options are even smaller for mid-career authors than for beginning ones, especially a few books in. Then there was self-publishing.

It sometimes gets a dirty rap. Words like "legitimacy" get thrown around a lot. I used to get mad about it, but now I just mind my business. There is of course the danger of publishing something that sucks or that you're embarrassed by, but this happens sometimes with traditional publishing, so I'm not sure it matters.  There is also a myth that no one will take you seriously, that the "literary world" frowns on it.  I actually eventually learned that if there kind of is no such thing as a "literary world" as much as there is a multiverse of small worlds and overlapping groups of poets & publishers. The worst thing that can probably happen is no one reads your book, which is depressing, but not the end of your career in writing, Even successful poetry books pale in comparison to other genres in sales figures. Even at their best, in poetry the stakes are pretty low. 

So much of the promotion of one's work falls to the author anyway, even with fancy well-staffed and heeled publishers.  I;m not sure it makes a difference, outside of doing some of that heavier lifting (design, promo, distribution). The people who will hopefully buy my book are the hopefully people who are interested in it regardless of whether it comes via another press or my own. I guess, this far along, I've run out of things to prove and really just want to share my work and find an audience.  You do this of course with traditional publishers, but if your'e willing to do some extra legwork, you can do it on your own.   I promise.

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