Why Self-Publish?

When people ask me who published my book, I say, proudly (or obnoxiously, depending on your take), “Me!” When they ask why, my answer is a bit less glib.

“Good enough for Whitman/Thoreau/Blake, good enough for me!” sounds a bit, well, presumptuous. “Because I am impatient” sounds, well, impatient. “Because I hate the publishing industry” is true but something only librarians tend to understand. I’m still working on an elevator speech for the whole thing, but here is my attempt at a longer and more nuanced reply.

The personal

I was in a writing program for three years. I have an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from said program. For awhile, I had an agent interested in my work, and I had a couple of pieces published in literary magazines and lots more in rotation, many with lots of rejections and a few with encouraging words of rejection. I have no particular issue with rejection — I remember reading early on about how it never kept my literary heroines down, and I swore I’d be just like them — and for several years I almost always had an essay or five out. I pitched my share of newspaper and magazine stories and reviews, and I wrote and got paid for some of them. It was all very well, but of course these things do not pay the rent, and thus I ended up becoming a librarian. In the course of doing so, I encountered two ideas that changed my life: open access and readers advisory. The former I’ll talk more about in a bit; the latter, basically, is the idea expressed best by the second and third Laws of Library Science:

  1. Every book her book.
  2. Every book its reader.

That was a revelation to me. For all my prior formal education, I’d been taught there was Good Writing and Bad Writing. Few people agreed on what differentiated one from another, but the categories were nonetheless clear and absolute in the minds of whomever was speaking. That was a problem, particularly in a graduate writing program where some people were writing intense first person narratives about traumatic events and some people were writing ironic first person narratives about the worlds they’d come from and some people were writing deeply sincere pieces about the worlds they were still trying to understand and some people were writing satire and some people were writing the then-popular experimental lyric essay. Needless to say, these people are not each other’s readers. And yet by the curious logic of writing programs, they all get thrown together in the same workshops and told to critique each other’s work. This works about as well as you might expect.

The idea that these modes of writing were not right or wrong, good or bad, was explosive and wonderful and different to me, and I’ve made a career out of following that idea. My goal as a professional is to connect people with books they want to read. A great deal of that is accomplished through the mechanisms of traditional publishing, but not all of it. And when I’d suddenly written a book, I wanted to publish it in a way that made sense to me, a way that was more in line with my librarian ideals than my writing program experience. That’s a good bit of what led me to self-publish.

The political

As a librarian, the things I care about most are access to information, matching people with the books (or information) they want, and protecting patron privacy. That first one is a much bigger barrier than you might think. When information was all in print, anyone could walk into a library, go to the stacks, and look at information in books or periodicals or reference works. Even if you didn’t have borrowing privileges at a given library, you could usually look at the works in its walls. Digital information changed all of that.

When libraries started getting digital subscriptions to journals — usually in the form of “big deal” database packages — they gained storage space, searching abilities, and a lot of subscriptions they didn’t really need or even want. They lost the ability to offer that information to anyone not affiliated with their campus — and that means currently affiliated. If you’ve graduated from a college or university in the last decade or so, you may have had that terrible moment of realization. One day you have access to Lexis Nexis and ProQuest and JSTOR, and the next, suddenly, you are frozen out. And if you’ve had that experience, you know that for all that there’s a lot on the open web, there’s a great deal that isn’t.

One solution — and I think the only long term viable solution — to that is Open Access publishing. That means that, in scholarly circles, instead of doing a lot of work (research, writing, editing, peer-reviewing), giving it away, and then having your institution pay thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to buy it back, you do the work (that you were doing for free anyway) and then set the results free. You do that through open access journals and through institutional repositories — places that let you archive your own work in a way that makes it accessible to everyone.

While open access publishing is usually more the arena of scholarly work than of “creative” work (as if scholarship required no creativity!), I chose earlier this year, as soon as I realized I could, to make my MFA thesis open access. I went a step farther, in fact, and granted it a Creative Commons license, which allows people to remix and reuse its content, should they want to. I’m told I was the first person to request a CC license at Iowa.

But the limitations on access to information aren’t just in the realm of scholarly publication. In public libraries, we face restrictions on information from publishers who don’t want to sell us ebooks. On a near daily basis, I have to tell a patron, “Yes, yes, you can get ebooks through the library, but I have to warn you that you won’t find everything there that you find on our shelves.” That’s not just because our ebook collection is nascent while our print collection has been growing for decades. It’s also because some publishers and authors simply will not sell ebooks to libraries — or they’ll sell them but only under onerous pricing and replacement schemes.

Since I never sent my book out to agents or mainstream publishers, I have no idea if they’d have taken it. But I didn’t want to give them the chance. I’m too mad.

The practical

It’s true — I am impatient. I wrote this book by accident. It started as a series of blog posts in a private blog accessible only to a few friends. After awhile it was big enough I thought I might make a zine from it. A little later, it got too big for a zine, and thus I hit upon the idea of self-publishing it as a book.

This past January I organized an event at my library for self-published and small press authors. I’m hoping to do further events in the future and to create a platform whereby we can host local self-published authors’ ebooks and make them available to library patrons in much the same way that the Iowa City Public Library makes local music available to its patrons. I love the idea of libraries as incubators of local arts and culture, and I don’t think you need a MakerSpace and a 3D printer to promote that kind of creativity in your community. I wanted to learn more about the self-publishing process, and the best way I knew to do that was to do a book of my own.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it gives me more control. I can publish my work as I want it. I can set my own prices and distribute my own profits. I own my failures, but I also own my successes. And I stay true to the things I believe in most.

8 thoughts on “Why Self-Publish?”

  1. I’ve recently embraced self-publishing too, but didn’t know about all these great reasons for doing it! Nor was I aware of Open Access and Creative Commons, which I will be exploring. Thanks so much for this helpful little essay. I feel more usefully enlightened about what’s going on with publishing than I have in a long time.

  2. Writing such as yours or a conversation with someone like yourself makes life interesting. Thank you!

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