The Story of Self-Publishing (Part One): Past is Prologue

Past-Is-Prologue-400

In my role as an industry analyst for the tech industry I’ve followed the developments of our shifting cultural landscape with keen professional as well as personal interest. In particular, I’ve noted the ways the book publishing industry is, in many regards, mirroring what’s happened (and what’s still unfolding) in the music industry. The hot topic du jour is whether streamed services are saviors or disruptors as they relate to the evolution of music in particular and content in general. In my opinion, they are a bit of both, but practically every innovation in each industry has been. Furthermore, I suspect history will look more favorably on these services than we might imagine today.

During the last decade advancements that, I maintain, benefit artists and consumers, have all revolved around the democratization of content. What does that mean? In brief, it no longer requires archaic and expensive technologies and processes to make and acquire works of art.

As difficult as it might be for younger consumers to appreciate, the home audio business remained relatively uncomplicated for the better part of a century. The book publishing industry operated according to a fairly specific—and consistent—model for hundreds of years. Naturally the Internet came and changed everything. In the bad old days, gatekeepers held sway, overseeing the acquisition, creation and dissemination of content. These days, artists have the ability, and resulting channels, to create, distribute and promote their work.

I am old school enough to remember typewriters. More, I used them. More still, I took a class once that, in hindsight, was perhaps the most important—or at least most practical—one from my high school years. Flash forward through college (word processor), graduate school (a PC I could access only in a computer lab) to my first computer—a miracle with a printer that could produce dot matrix pages in sixty seconds, per page. Eventually I began writing for an online-only magazine, and finally created an obligatory blog. Then e-readers came along and eventually, tablets.

As an avid (if obsessive) reader and music aficionado, I have embraced each stage of progress as it relates to the ways content is made, purchased and utilized. These innovations have inexorably made it easier and more affordable to engage with our world; indeed they have opened up or created entirely new worlds. Throw in the marketing miracles inherent in social media and the people—not the self-appointed or well-connected tastemakers—are now equal, arguably more important arbiters of what matters and what is relevant. This is a very good thing.

In my capacity as a music critic, I used to receive the occasional (now, more frequent) request from musicians, asking me to consider their work. Initially, they would offer to send a self-produced CD; these days they’ll lead me to their website, where sample files are accessible. Of course, stories like this are becoming the new normal: despite what myopic naysayers stuck in the past insist, there is more incredible art being made today than most of us could hope to keep up with. As usual, the only ones lamenting these developments are the same sorts who always resist or stifle progress. These are the same folks who benefited, unfairly, from the rigged rules of the antiquated, imbalanced system.

In 2013 I made the decision, like so many musicians and, more recently writers, to go the independent route. Along the way, I’ve collected more rejection letters than I could count, but I’ve also seen the 20th century SOP steadily disappear as an unhappy memory. Today, just about anyone can publish a book, and a lot of people are trying. Does this potentially flood the market with inferior product? Certainly. Does it also ensure that more writers (and musicians, and movie makers) have the opportunity to be heard and discovered? Without doubt.

The good news: with sufficient ability, awareness and time, anyone can publish without paying for it or surviving the scrutiny of hit-seeking middlemen. The bad news: as liberating as this new DIY ethos is, the onus is now entirely on the artist. As such, I necessarily became acquainted with the nuts and bolts of creating a book, taking an idea all the way from legal pad to Amazon. Suffice it to say, this demands a proficiency at production, distribution and marketing.

The bottom line? This process represents the very essence of innovation, in actual practice. If you want it done, do it yourself. If you want it done well, understand and learn all the things you do not know. In halcyon times, writing a book was itself the hard part, and pretty much the only thing an author controlled. Too many authors had to hope that their publisher could generate sufficient interest, garner reviews, set up a book tour, etc. If that didn’t happen, there were few options other than luck or a miraculous endorsement from Oprah.

Today, even taking the independent route will cost you money (unless you happen to be a book designer, website builder and professional editor). On the other hand, it cost you money back in the day, as well: those advances given to authors were typically contingent upon future sales and the cost of assembly; editing and distribution were factored in on the front-end. I worked with the appropriate people, and worked on my game-plan with every spare second I could afford. Without a publisher or promoter I secured my own blurbs and booked my own reading events. No one to answer to but myself: equal parts miracle and mountain to climb. It’s beyond what I could have imagined, and just the way I would have imagined it, in some implausible future.

That future is real and it is now; in fact, milestones being made this moment will already be surpassed tomorrow. In the past I celebrated certain advancements from the sidelines, in solidarity. As I watch, and experience, the empowering mechanisms of innovation create previously unimaginable opportunities, I understand it’s now also the story of my life.

*This post originally appeared at The Independent Publishing Magazine on 8/5/15.

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

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Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question  that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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Rodney King, R.I.P.

Some people, like Rosa Parks, seem determined (if not destined) to make history. Some, like Parks, are successful. Others are not (many of them are appearing right now on reality TV shows).

Then there are the people, guided by fate or fortune, have history drop on them like a script. Rodney King, who passed away this weekend (obit here.), was of this ilk. He was not a hero. In fact, he was a criminal, in the process of committing a crime, when another, more serious crime, got committed and captured on tape. The rest, of course, is History.

Whatever one thinks of King, the joke of a trial that saw all the officers go free, the resulting riots, and the uneasy aftermath, there is no denying that his so-called fifteen minutes were among the most meaningful of the last quarter-century.

I wrote about him –and us– a little over a year ago on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his unforeseeable encounter with immortality.

ON THIS DAY

On March 3, 1991, in a case that sparked a national outcry, motorist Rodney King was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers in a scene captured on amateur video.

Twenty, already?

As incredible as that is to process, it also underscores on so many wonderful levels how far we’ve come as a country. Don’t get me wrong, it also casts a bright dark light on how unevolved we insist on being, and how much work there is to do (yesterday: women, minorities and homosexuals, today…workers’ pensions?).

But just thinking about the racial dynamic, it is difficult to deny that we’ve come light (skinned) years compared to how we rolled, collectively, a couple of decades ago. Put it this way: it was a leap of something greater than faith to conceive of an African-American being president four years ago. Twenty years ago? The only person who had that type of hope & audacity was Jesse Jackson, and even he wasn’t kidding himself. (And don’t kid yourself: without this man and the indescribable lifting he did, the notion of President Obama would still be a fantasy.)

It happened: we made it happen. Yes we did; we have an African-American president (even if he’s a Republican…just kidding, mostly).

In any event, looking back at March 3, 1991, it’s difficult to determine what is more unlikely: that something this barbaric happened, or that it happened to get caught on tape. Because let’s face it: if it had not been caught on tape, we would never know about it, and a great many of us would never have believed it. History usually happens quickly (in hindsight anyway) and this was definitely one of those seminal occasions where everything changes, immediately. This was exactly the see-it-with-your-own-eyes evidence America needed to be slapped upside the head with, and it began a dialogue that put us, however tardy and reluctantly, on a path toward progress.

In so many ways, this appalling spectacle anticipated what was to come in the subsequent decades (culminating in Obama’s victory): the use of amateur handheld video going “viral” (back then you still had to get through the gatekeepers at the major news outlets but those buttoned-up buffoons know a story when they see one), leading us in a crooked and narcissistic path to YouTube and Reality TV. The sensationalistic nature of infotainment where instead of letting actions speak louder than babble, we bring in “experts” to explain to us what we are witnessing, or more importantly, what we should be making of it (I’m thinking here of our number one agent of contemporary intellectual debasement, Oprah Winfrey and her stable of charlatans, all of whom epitomize a sick aspect of the American Dream as they prove you can manage to extract inconceivable wealth from gullible fans no matter how little you have to offer). We also see an engagement with current events from artists that would give rap music an edge that saw it through its golden age (post Run DMC and pre-cartoon character knucklehead solipsism) where acts like Public Enemy, Ice Cube and KRS-One began to voice defiance to the prevailing storyline (this was both welcome and distressingly overdue as we limped toward the end of the Reagan/Bush debacle).

Make it rough. That is exactly what artists started to do, and it’s possible to imagine that the next generation was poised, if not exactly prepared, for the paradigm shifting possibilities of the Internet. Within a decade after the world got its own URL, people plugged in, dialed on and woke up (ironically, right around the same time Timothy Leary got set to “explode into space”). At first a novelty, the ability of people to download music, create digital files, record themselves and the world around them –and share these advancements with people they didn’t know, half-a-world away, in real time –quickly became the new normal. Initially downplayed or demonized, blogs and (increasingly) independent sources of information began breaking stories and busting down walls.

We’re not even close to where we need to be, and we never will get that far, but recent events prove that underground voices and unauthorized agents of dissemination can challenge, even counteract the sanctioned (and sterile) storyline. Look at Wisconsin: it was business as usual, and the game-rigging mainstream media was either promoting the anti-worker talking points or else not reporting at all. But a funny thing happened: people (finally) started paying attention and talking about it; like a healthy rash, awareness quickly spread and all of a sudden we had a minor movement on our hands. (Check out how social media has energized the various uprisings happening right now across the pond…)

It still takes entirely too many of us entirely too long to see (and smell) what’s happening right in front of us, but after the last 20 years (Rodney King, Iraq, Wall Street’s Big Adventure), it’s no longer easy –it may no longer be possible– for this younger generation to set the controls for the heart of the couch and fall asleep. Now we know that things we are unwilling to even imagine are happening, daily, around us and to us. We are unable to ignore what is staring back at us, on the screens and in our mirrors. Even more important, we are finally able to acknowledge what is going on when we are not watching. That, in its own irregular way, constitutes progress.

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question (as Marjorie pointed out) that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line

I’ll learn to work the saxaphone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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