Doug's Blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Publishing independently: is it worth it?

Ms. McPartland recorded for Savoy, Capitol and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s, but in 1969, disenchanted with the business, she formed her own record company, Halcyon. “It was quite a job,” she told one interviewer. “I used to actually go to a record store like Sam Goody and tell them, ‘I need that money you owe me.’”

That’s from the New York Times’s Wednesday obituary for Marian McPartland, the English-born jazz pianist who grew to be treasured by American jazz royalty, and then by generations of public-radio listeners, for her musicianship and her gentle, self-deprecating, humor-lifted humanity. I’m among Marian’s fans, but until I read the obit I never knew that she, having worked with the big New York publishers, grew “disenchanted” (it’s possible she might have used a stronger word) and started her own.

That’s the one thing I guess she and I have in common.

 

As a writer of fiction for young-adult readers, I’ve published over the years with four New York publishers. This is every writer’s dream — until it actually happens to you. Then you often find the dream ... has drawbacks. I’m not whining, it is a privilege to get your work published — but there tend to be frustrations. And for so many writers these days, as also for musicians and filmmakers, those have grown into exasperation as publishers have grown from companies into corporations. And been swallowed into mega-corporations.

There are only five major New York City book publishing houses left. All the others, the historic pantheon of publishers, have been absorbed into these five. Pantheon Books, to take one top-quality example, has become part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which blends Knopf and Doubleday (one of my previous publishers), and is owned in turn by the German mega-corp Bertelsmann AG, which also owns (are you ready?): Dell, Times Books, the Modern Library, Vintage Books, Crown, Ballantine Books, Del Ray, Fawcett ... and Random House.

Can you imagine trying to work with an entity like that?

Neither can a lot of other people. For writers whose work does get taken up by organizations like this, the experience more and more is one of bewildering corporate-mindedness: baffling committee-think, impenetrable decision-making, and a self-defeating focus on short-term returns.

So a whole lot of us — like McPartland, along with crowds of later musicians in the digital age — have gone out on my own. And this, I can tell you, is not easy either.

I think in the end I’ll believe it’s been worth it, whether I ever make any money or not — but it definitely isn't easy. And I’ve been one of the lucky ones.

This is an age when anyone can publish. Written a book? Go to blurb.com and they’ll help you turn it into a book that is at least professionally printed. Want to publish and market your book? Go to createspace.com, and they’ll not only produce your book (though you have to produce the page layouts and covers, as camera-ready pdfs); they’ll also put it up on Amazon.com, which owns CreateSpace. Both companies have reputations for ease of use among the fast-growing number of print-on-demand services that are springing up to help people self-publish in the digital age.

But if you want to compete for real — if you want to produce a book that is as professional, in every respect, as those brought out by the big houses, and that can contend for readers and success in the same marketplace ... well, that is a bigger challenge. A much bigger challenge.

A little under two years ago, I created Long Stride Books (motto: Empowering Stories), to bring out my YA novels, and potentially the work of others if we ever make any money and can expand. I have a designer/publisher and an illustrator/art director working with me, but for the most part, Long Strides is me. I’m writing the books. I’m soliciting editorial help (mostly as donated work, so far), and I’m shepherding the work through the layout and publishing process. I’m doing all the marketing and promotion. I’m doing this with no money. I started with almost none; and now I have even less!

But I am lucky: I have a distributor. That’s the biggest hurdle, distribution, for any independent producer of books, films, or music. Yes, today you can produce the film, the CD or mp3 album, or the book — but can you get it out there? And can you learn all the things that, usually, the producer of creative work doesn’t know — at all — about publishing, printing, promotion, distribution, and how to read a balance statement?

You can. And it’s possible to find a distributor, though usually it’s not easy. But should this be easy? I don’t think so. Publishing for real is something you have to earn, however you do it. And in the end, doing it independently has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done professionally, in all respects except for the money (so far) — and I have hopes for that. I’d better!
 
I’m bringing the best books I can possibly produce all the way to market, in the highest-quality form that, with help, I can achieve. I’ve got one Long Stride YA novel out there, True Shoes, which is being read in schools from coast to coast — and I’ve got a new one coming out this October, The Prince of Denial, which advance readers seem to love.

Is it worth it, even if I go broke? Give me another few months and I may be able to let you know. But no matter what happens, I’ll always know that I did this. I brought my best work to market. People are reading these books, and more will read them. I was not stopped.

No matter how big, baffling, and blockbuster-obsessed the publishing giants grow, if you are truly determined — and if you are truly doing worthwhile work — in this age you can reach readers. You don’t have to be stopped. That’s really never been true before. It is true now.

And that is saying something.

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Monday, 30 March 2020

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