Calling all writers! Here's a word to the wise:
Sounds so good, let's say it again:
Self-publish, self-publish, self-publish!
The bug bit me hard in 1990. I heard someone say the open sesame words, "desktop publishing," and I flipped. By then I'd been a professional writer for two-plus decades and had three books on pop music out from big-time publishers. Now I wanted to write about writing. Lit-crit seldom creates bestsellers, but it's still a crowded scene. How could little me, with no track record in the field, get a book deal? The answer: no way in hell.
That's when "desktop publishing" came to my rescue. Why keep sending my manuscripts out? Did I need more rejection letters? No! No more waiting around for some company to give me their seal of approval. I'd write my essays and make little books of them all by myself. All I needed was a computer. Which, in 1990, I didn't have. Fortunately my brother Peter in California did, and out of the goodness of his heart Pete and his teenage daughter Kate typed my eighty-five-page typescript into an old DOS IBM file and mailed me the floppy disc.
That I took to a storefront in midtown where, for $5 an hour, I sat in front of a monitor, a black screen and yellow letters, and formatted my masterpiece, which meant, in essence, flipping the page setup from portrait to landscape and setting the margins to make a 7 by 4 inch text block on the left hand side of the page. When printed, those sheets became proofs that I then pasted up on typing paper. Making the "signature," the mock-up book that showed me how to lay out the pages, I found tricky: it turned out, for example, that page 12 had to be pasted up opposite page 61. Figuring that out gave my brain a definite twist, as you'll see when you do it yourself.
And that's why I encourage you to self-publish: DIY is the best learning experience in the world. Every step I'm outlining so swiftly — going down the block to The Source Unltd, Santo and Margaret's friendly copy center, picking out a color for the cardstock cover (I went for bright yellow), watching the machine disgorge the pages and Santo collate, fold, and staple them, then holding the first copy of the beautiful finished book — will be a richly creative experience, I guarantee. You'll get nervous, make mistakes, and tear your hair, but you'll also laugh out loud, do triumphant little dances, and glow inside: "I did it, by George, I did it."
In the past two decades I've made fifteen such books, all published, ta-da, by Patrick Press, named for my father. Recently I've had to change the name to Franklin Street Press to get a "doing business as" certificate, but I still use the same copy shop and still bring in my page proofs from which Santo makes up twenty or forty books that I send to family, friends, and professional contacts. So far none of these "messages in a bottle" have floated into the hands of a famous critic who writes the review that sets me on the road to fame and glory, but I have had one signal success: a university press discovered and published Writing and Life, the first little book with the bright yellow cover. I felt sure then, as I feel sure now, that had Writing and Life come in as a typescript, the editor never would have looked at it. Something about the neat, homemade, cheerful book made him think, "Hmmm, this could be interesting."
Today my 1990s method has slipped out of date; I'm as likely to give Margaret and Santo a flash drive or even to email them an attachment as I am to hand them pasted up pages. Recently, at the NcNally/Jackson bookstore in New York's Soho, I've discovered a dreamy Rube Goldberg device called the Espresso Book Machine (go to http://www.ondemandbooks.com to find one near you) that will accept a properly formatted flash drive and then, click-click-click, create a gorgeous perfect-bound paperback with a four-color cover in five minutes. Hard to believe, but it's true; I've done two books there already, the 71-page Now What? and the 270-page Real Writing. Next: turning my books into e-books!
Whether at The Source or McNally Jackson, the other book-making writers I meet are experiencing exactly my mental state: quivering with excitement, tingling with dream-come-true amazement. More important than the changing technology is what hasn't changed: the priceless pleasure we get from declaring our writerly independence, from speaking and acting and investing with a confident belief in ourselves and what we have to say.
Self-publishing can pay more than spiritual benefits. Digital books and online marketing are creating upheavals in the writing marketplace; no one knows where the bestsellers of tomorrow are going to come from, who's going to write them and who's going to publish them. So, c'mon, take your beloved masterpiece out of its dark desk drawer — and if you read the Visual Thesaurus magazine, I bet you have one or two such — spend a dozen hours editing and formatting it, put a few hundred bucks into making fifty copies which you place on consignment at a local bookstore and for which you send out an email blast to everyone you know in and out of the business. Then, if you're lucky and this leads to that and that leads to this, you may end up with a little but lovely Amazon hit on your hands.
Or not, in which case your unsold inventory can answer your what-to-give-Auntie-Jessie-for-Christmas questions for years to come. Either way, you'll reap the greatest benefit of self-publishing: the good it will do your writing.
Many writers, myself included, cling to the notion of writing as a "just the facts, ma'am" information medium, more rational and less magical than music, dance, or painting--even though we know full well that rhyme and rhythm, onomatopoeia and opposites are but a few of writing's magic tricks. The practical craft of making books, likewise, has its own magic. Books, sturdy bricks, have powers that looseleaf sheaves of paper do not. Being in books changes writing. The stiff covers we give books define, enclose, isolate, and protect writing. A book's close laid lines of type, justified right and left, give writing a bolder, more determined visual image than the raggedy wide open spaces of a double-space typescript. Though it cost him a fortune, biographer André Maurois reports, Balzac rewrote his novels not by editing manuscripts, but by scrawling all over printers' galleys: only in print could he see what he really did and didn't want to say.
So write with the goal of reading your words in a book, and your writing will improve. Make a book, and you'll nourish your writing by linking to the ancient history of books. Don Quixote by Cervantes, My Story by Me — what's the difference, they're both books! The blood, sweat, and tears you put into making your book will by osmosis seep into your text, will thicken and spice your soup. A book's modest self-assertion, its age-old structure of numbered chapters, its calm procession of pages from the title to "The End": all will suggest to you words and phrasings that will make your prose or poetry more plain, personal, and persuasive.
For those of you ready to try, here are a couple of tips. One: use the old cut-and-paste method your first few times. Maybe your computer can whizz you past such baby steps, but to learn how to make books, you gotta grapple with paper. Two: don't be a perfectionist, especially on your early efforts. Get your first book done however cockamamie it comes out. Then put all you learned to work on number two, and number three, and number four, and...