I own a license plate frame that says, “A Woman’s Place Is My Bookstore.” Come to think of it, I ought to put it on my car. It’s not just a lovely sentiment — it’s also advertising for a bookstore that used to exist in the early 1990s, before chains like Barnes and Noble put a lot of independent bookstores out of business. A Woman’s Place. That bookstore supported me as a fledgling writer. I gave a reading there, and I took a workshop with Pam Houston there that led to a wonderful writing group. But now it’s gone, as is the Red and Black Bookstore in Seattle — quite a loss.
At the same time as bookstores were consolidating, publishing houses were also consolidating. It became harder and harder to publish midlist books (books that make money but aren’t bestsellers). And books that were published went quickly to the remainder table, because they were profitable, but not profitable enough.
At the same time, the growth of MFA programs put out more and more and more accomplished writers, all of whom were submitting stories to literary magazines and book publishers.
What did all this mean? As my writing became better and better, the likelihood of publishing a collection of short stories with a traditional publisher moved farther and farther away. The rules had changed. And my strategy for getting published ought also have changed.
Here was the strategy in the early 1990s: you submit stories to literary magazines. Once you have enough, you seek out an agent or an editor and attempt to get your collection published. But by the beginning of this century, when I finally had a publishable-quality collection of short stories, that strategy was ultimately doomed.
So to me, the question is not, “Should I self-publish?” The question is now, “Why did I wait so frickin long?”
I re-evaluated everything when I sent my collection to an agent and she said, “Yes, it’s good enough to publish. But I can’t sell it until you’ve sold a story to either the New Yorker, Harpers, or the Atlantic Quarterly.” And then I sent a story to the New Yorker, and I got a note back saying that despite its evident merit, it wasn’t the kind of thing they published. Earlier in my writing career, I would have been ecstatic, because a handwritten rejection note from the New Yorker meant that you were getting somewhere! But I realized then that I simply wouldn’t get anywhere with the kind of writing I did.
And then the publishing industry changed again. Publishing houses started paying authors less and less, and Amazon made it possible for people to make money self-publishing, and now, many respected authors are self-publishing on Amazon. So I went for it.
Thank you, Ariel Gore and your book How to Be a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead!!!!
I realized a couple important things when I made the decision to self-publish. I changed my book title, my “pitch,” and even the kind of stories that were in the collection. I was no longer trying to please a publisher; I was trying to please a reader. And I know what a reader is like — after all, I am one! All I had to do was make a book that someone like me would be interested in reading.
What if nobody likes it? What if nobody buys it? That’s where my friend Brandon came in. “I want to read it,” he said. “I’ll buy it.”
One reader. Just one reader. It’s worth doing.