The wilderness of self-publishing is where my excuses went to die
The digital revolution has forced traditional publishers to look a lot like Dick Cheney. It did the same thing to the music industry, too, before the record labels went out like the inflexible, teeth-gnashing dinosaurs they were. I do respect old-school publishing’s heritage of absolutism, but in the same way I’d defer to the Cigarette Smoking Man from “The X-Files” if he tapped me on the shoulder.
What I no longer fear is the stigma of bringing my book to market on my own. I’m way past the point of no return financially and self-assuredly. No, I had no idea how difficult this was going to be, nor did I know how to avoid making it harder. But then my starting point was, “Hi, I’m an ex-felon and here’s my 480-page manuscript about my prison sentence. Will you read a chapter and…”
Yeesh. I wouldn’t wish that opener on my worst enemy!
But seriously, if my journey could begin at a maximum security facility where I traded soap with murderers with open sores for pencils and paper, you, friends, have no excuse not to put your stories out there, satisfy your creative obsessions, and realize your dreams and goals.
It’s funny, though. Despite the publishing playing field’s leveling-by-iPad, some people still pity self-published authors. They dismiss these “wanna-be” writers as having been turned down by editors, agents, and publishers.
Bull’s-eye, in my case – 100% true. All for reasons too numerous to list here and equally irrelevant.
But as those rejections were rolling in, I found that the industry itself was mutating in favor of authors and author royalty structures. Before long, it became a strategic move to flip ‘em the bird and keep my vision on my terms because there was no way in hell I was going to quit.
I was also guided by a mantra you’ll find in my book that I’m not a product of what I think happens to me; I’m a product of what actually happens to me. I realized that perseverance matters a lot more than any sign people might hang around your neck, and determination is what earns you a last laugh. Just. Keep. Going.
Besides, if those Aryan Brotherhood groupies from the prison yard couldn’t pressure me into hateful tattoos in order to get along, there’s no way I was gonna let some HarperCollins hipster edit hard-won lessons out of my memoir. I’ll let you, the public, decide what’s good and what isn’t.
If someone wants to hang a sign around my neck that reads, “Loser who couldn’t get a publisher,” that’s fine. It won’t be worse than the badge they’ll have to lay it over, the one that says, “Used to wash his underwear in a Folsom cellblock toilet.”
Sure, it would be nice to have the “last laugh” of Excuses being received well. But whether it sells or not, I’ll know that I fulfilled a commitment I made to myself before I completed my parole. And I’ll get a last laugh all right, on yours truly.
I realize not everyone has the thick skin resulting from having transcended a really bad mistake or beaten cancer. But everyone does have the option to ignore the unethical used-car salesman that lurks within us all, the one who hopes to sell us another worn out excuse.
And speaking of excuses, I had to get over many of ‘em in order to announce my book’s release date of September 12, 2013.
Last week, for instance, I was invited to participate in an Internet radio roundtable on “The Road Less Published.” After I got over myself in thinking that Internet radio isn’t real radio, I enjoyed it immensely.
When I came on the air, the hosts were examining the discipline of writing and daily writing goals. Once the prison-guy thing got covered and I’d plugged Where Excuses Go to Die, Tiffany Colter of Writing Career Coach.com asked what I was doing to market myself and my work.
Before I was halfway through my answer, I realized I was listing all of the “chores” I complain and whine about daily; the to-do list that tells the world that me and my book are too tough to die. I update my Amazon Author Central page; my Goodreads Giveaway, profile, and blog; and the blog you’re currently reading. I find ways to fit thoughts into 140 characters or less or short news-y items to post, and I dart in and out of comments sections too – from aggregate sites like Huffpo, Gawker, and GalleyCat, to MotherJones, the ACLU, Right on Crime, the National Reentry Resource Center, the Private Prison Divestment Campaign, and so forth. Everywhere I go, I look for opportunities to mention the relevance of my story in the national dialogue on prison reform and criminal justice.
When I finally shut up, I felt satisfied with the answer I’d provided. It meant I was doing the footwork instead of making excuses. Even rejection notices themselves tell you you’re taking action, rather than just talking about it. That’s huge for someone whose first understanding of completing a task was reaching the end of a prison sentence.
I’ve heard others complain that all this social media activity radically decreases the amount of time one has to read and write – the very things a writer must do to stay sane. That’s true: it does take up a lot of time. I used to hide behind that as an excuse myself. I’d say things like, “I write; I don’t tweet.” Now I think, had that not been my attitude, the book would’ve been released two years ago or more. The delay is simply a consequence of putting myself above the daily footwork required of anyone hoping to see their work published.
So welcome to self-publishing, where a writer must be his or her own best advocate and wear a lot of hats. The level playing field that the digital revolution has brought us is made of interactions and distractions. Self-published or not, to have a shot at success, authors must be present and accounted for in as many places as possible, all the time. No, it’s not writing; it’s work. It doesn’t help your page count, but it does require creativity.
Once you swim out past the waves and you look back at that island growing smaller and smaller, you’ll be free, yes, but you’ll also be alone. The rules and expectations you left behind will pale in comparison to those you must first find, then comprehend, before you obey. For people like me, the discipline is intense.
As some of you know, we recently launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to print more books and get ‘em shipped to our distributor in Michigan. I hope you’ll take a look and at least consider sharing the link. The campaign ends August 11.
Kickstarter is no easy solution either, by the way. It’s just as much a part of that ocean or wilderness and amplifies your fear of what others might think and heightens your sense of being alone.
Ah, but survivalists say that when you emerge from that wilderness – if you emerge from it – you’ll have grown two inches taller and the footprints you leave behind will sink that much deeper.
‘Cause in self-publishing, the old school’s ivory tower no longer controls the toys in the sandbox. In fact, regardless of your creative medium, the tools you’ll need are probably laid out before you. If you’ve got any signs hanging around your neck, simply move those out of the way and pick up what you need to get the job done.
It’s either that or find a clearing and start waving your “I can’t” flag. Enough doers will be passing you by that eventually one of ‘em will stop and give you a lift to the road back to Excuse Town.
Tags: ACLU, Amazon, GalleyCat, Gawker, Goodreads, Huffpo, iPad, Kickstarter, Mother Jones, National Reentry Resource Center, private prisons, Right on Crime, self publishing, Tiffany Colter, writing coach