Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guest Essay: Clifford Thompson on Authors Doing it For Themselves




Friend of Ringshout Cliff Thompson has recently self-published his first novel Signifying Nothing. It's both thoughtful and original--and by no means the first novel he's written. He's been working hard and skillfully at fiction writing for a long time and has had short stories and nonfiction published in numerous fine magazines and journals. But no major publisher would take this book. That was rough--until he got tough. I asked him to share some of his thoughts on the long and sometimes difficult road to self-publishing and he sent me this. In this rapidly changing literary environment, I think what he raises here is something we all need to think about. We'd love to know your thoughts.


In early 2005 I was lucky enough to be able to take a four-month, unpaid leave from my day job. My aim was to finish my novel, which I’d been writing until then at an average rate of a paragraph a day. A father of two, I have a very supportive spouse, or my little adventure would not have been possible. I was also lucky in that the four months went well. I immersed myself in my characters and in the constructing of the story, and I completed the manuscript. Signifying Nothing, as the novel is titled, follows what happens when Lester Hobbs, a developmentally disabled man who has not spoken a word in his nineteen years, begins shouting rhymed observations and memories – raps – of life with his family. The book is really about the family’s other members, who are forced to make life adjustments because of Lester, before and after he begins to rap.
It was when I tried to sell my novel that my luck ran out. I queried fifty literary agents, sending each a synopsis and the first page or so of the book. A handful asked to see the whole novel; of those, a couple thought it was “obviously a quality manuscript” (to quote one) but didn’t think they could sell it in the current publishing climate. I also made, or tried to make, direct contact with editors and publishers – twenty-eight in all. Some didn’t respond at all. One editor just didn’t seem to get what I was doing. A couple of others, like the agents, thought the book was very good but couldn’t see getting it past their marketing departments and didn’t feel up to trying. Still others liked it okay but offered criticism, which might have been helpful, if their comments hadn’t contradicted each other.
After all that, I had what I felt was a fine novel, and . . . well, not much else, except a decision to make. I could just forget the whole thing. I could go on spending $30 a pop to have the book copied and sent to this agent or that editor, hoping that one day, maybe, a publisher would call – and that I wouldn’t be too old and deaf to answer the phone. (I was already in my mid-forties – not old, but not young.) Or, instead of trying to change the publishing world’s collective “No” to a “Yes,” I could say “Yes” to myself. In other words, I could self-publish.
It is not always easy to decide that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong. (Part of what makes it hard is the knowledge that mental institutions are full of people who have arrived at the very same decision.) But in the end you either believe in what you’re doing or you don’t. I did, and to prove it, I handed $600 to the print-on-demand company iUniverse. Before I knew it, Signifying Nothing was available.


Seth Meyers once said about landing a spot on Saturday Night Live that it’s foolish to view it as a culmination; rather, it’s the start of a lot of work. In a way, and on a much humbler level, the same is true of self-publishing a novel. Signifying Nothing now had a cover, which signified – what? If it was to mean anything, I had to get very busy to put the word out. So far, I have emailed everyone in my address book; started a Facebook account and tried to “friend” everyone I’ve ever said “hello” to in my life; made sure my book gets mentioned in the contributors’ notes for freelance articles I’m publishing; contacted my college alumni magazine; sought out readings; tried to get the book mentioned on literary and other blogs; and, most ambitious of all, started a blog of my own.


Part of the work for a self-published author, too, is readying yourself for the responses you get. Some people you tell about your project will offer a heartfelt, “Hey, that’s great!” Others will give you a blank look, or, worse, a smile oozing with pity or embarrassment. I find it helpful to remember that the content and value of the book do not change with each person’s reaction to hearing about it. And it is the book itself that matters.
Besides: the stigma attached to self-publishing, while not dead, is showing signs of grave illness. Part of it, I think, is that the Internet has blurred the distinction between traditional publishing and the do-it-yourself kind. In the old days, self-published authors (a few of whom went on to success) sold their books out of the trunks of their cars; but with the availability of print-on-demand books through the Internet, a reader purchases my novel the same way she might buy The Da Vinci Code. Gradually, the question becomes not “Did he publish it himself?” but “Is it good?”


I also feel that for black authors, self-publishing fits rather neatly into a tradition. African-Americans as a group are the original do-it-yourself people, making a way where none existed -- from the Underground Railroad, to the invention of jazz (and just about every other kind of American music), to the careers of self-taught and self-styled artists such as Melvin van Peebles, to one career path that led from community organizing to the White House. And until mainstream publishers begin taking more chances on what readers might like – a development that seems to be a ways off – self-publishing may come to seem a more and more viable option, a way for new and different works to make it into the light.

4 comments:

Carleen Brice said...

Nice post. I think more & more published authors will be considering this road. I'll link to this on Tuesday.

Lafreya said...

Great post and you have a very insightful blog. I love the cover and your title and I'm can relate about the age issue. Waiting can be a young persons game when it comes to publishing.

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