I learned a lot in college. Some of it was useless trivia that I’ll never use except during the occasional game of Trivial Pursuit or maybe even 1 vs. 100. Some of it has helped me progress in life, be it by mental, spiritual or intellectual means. And then there’s a tiny bit I learned during an internship my senior year that I find I keep coming back to again and again.
Way back in late ’04, and then for the entirety of the Spring semester of 2005, I interned for my university’s literary journal, Limestone. During that period of time I learned a lot about what goes into making a book, how the submission process works, and the importance of investors. Limestone is a small, regional outfit, but has a decently sized distribution, and the folks putting it together were all students of varying years and degrees. As one of the interns, it was my job to weed through the submission pile (I hesitate to call it slush – we had a lot of good submissions that year), to send out calls for submission to other universities, sell advertising spots, and other miscellaneous duties. I took a stack of submissions with me to Pennsylvania during the holiday break and read through them in the evenings I spent with Erica before we lived together.
At some point during that holiday break, I had an idea. It wasn’t a radical idea, really, nor was it an earth-shattering idea, as others had thought it before I. And I guess it really wasn’t an idea so much as a question: Should I publish my own stuff?
I’d seen the efforts of the Limestone staff, I’d heard the conversations about bulk discounts, the costs, and so on. I knew it would be expensive. There was also this lingering question riding on the coat tails of everything else: Would people want to pay to read my work? I imagined it being a sort of underground operation, one likened to old school rappers selling their self-recorded demos out of the trunks of their cars. I carried the idea home with me, back to campus and the halls of UK’s English department. There, in that prison cell-sized dorm room, I plotted a course for myself. I had four solid stories, ranging from 2.5k words up to 25k, and a few poems (no, you can’t read them, so don’t ask). I’d get some edits from friends, I’d handle the layout, Erica would do the cover design, and somehow, someway, I’d cough up the change to pay for a short run printing of chapbooks.
Lulu (then in its infancy) was an option, but too expensive, as their cost was based on a per-book basis, and you couldn’t get the same kind of pricing as a more traditional, offset printer. I googled around and found a printer, Keystone Digital Press, based (conveniently) in West Chester, PA. I called, got a quote, and set about making this book a reality. It took a couple of months to pull together. The quote for an initial run of 100 books was going to cost about $400. Here I was, a poor college kid–an English major, no less–trying to enterprise and take on what amounted to a business endeavor suitable for a business or marketing major during my final semester of college. I barely had enough money for gas, let alone $400 for a run of books. And then there was the cost of promoting it, getting the word out, and so on. It occurred to me, then, to raise money for the cost of printing by offering a page in the book to the people who donate cash and also give them a free copy of the book. In the end I’d raised a little more than enough to cover the printing, and what was left went to Staples for bookmarks and flyers and a portable paper cutter.
So, I had money, I had promotional material, and I had a bitchin’ book cover that looks so primitive now but, at the time, looked awesome. I tossed around a number of titles and eventually settled on Written In Red (Bleeding the Edges was a very close second). The book weighed in at a little under 200 pages. Every contributor got their copy, signed by me in red ink, and I managed to pull off two events: one that coincided with the release of the annual Limestone issue, and another in my home town. It actually earned a write-up in the local paper. Some of you Corbinites out there may remember it. If I recall, one of my aunt’s coworkers said I looked like Marilyn Manson. Another asked if I’m a drug user (I’m not). The photo looked sinister enough. I wanted something serious, but something a little dark and a little snarky (hence the slight smirk).
All in all, I sold every single copy of that book that wasn’t promised to a contributor. Alongside the local, hand-to-hand sales, I also promoted them on my deviantart account, which was the closest thing I had to a website at the time. Copies went as far as China and Singapore. I had a request from someone in South Africa, but PayPal couldn’t support the conversion. The book was a success. I got my name out there. Two of the pieces in that book were later published in legit venues – one of the poems went to Limestone, and a novella (which later won an award) went to UK’s annual academic journal Kaleidoscope.
Now, almost five years later (I can’t believe it’s been that long), I find myself at a point in which I can reflect and see what led me here. That whole process of making something, from conception to production to public consumption, made an impression on me. I learned so much about the book-making process, about what to do and what not to do, which questions to ask, why print bleeds are so damn important, what font kerning means, that I hasten to say it’s probably one of the most valuable learning experiences I received in college, and it had nothing to do with my studies.
So now here I am, sort of at a crossroads. I self-published again, this time on a bigger scale, opting to go with a print-on-demand publisher instead of spending a wad of cash on a set number of books. Two years on that book is still gaining steam. This week ALT was ranked #9 in Book Movement’s Top 100 Picks of the Week. Picture proof:
It’s left me in a bit of a weird state. Surreal, I guess. Self-published authors aren’t supposed to win. We’re the shit on the publishing industry’s boot. People self-publish because they can’t get published anywhere else, because their work is crap and not worth publishing. And yet I’ve read some of the best stuff by people who decided to go their own way. For a while I regretted self-publishing. I felt I’d wasted an opportunity to get noticed. I felt I’d cheated, that if I ever wanted things to take off, I should’ve just shelved the manuscript, sent out queries to agents and kept writing. Well, I kept writing, but I didn’t want to shelve that book. I believed in it. I wanted people to read it. I knew that, if given the chance, people would get it, they’d love it and appreciate it.
Today I don’t regret doing things on my own. While I’m welcome to an agent’s representation, I’m just as comfortable without one. Would it make things easier? Absolutely. Would it mean more money? Definitely. But I’m not going to sit on my ass and wait. I won’t get beg for their attention. I won’t have to. The book will get their attention, sooner or later, and it will be because of the people who’ve read it, who’ve recommended it, and who’ve passed it along to friends. That’s the benefit of self-publishing. It’s costly, it’s time consuming, but one thing that must be remembered is this: it’s an investment. You’re investing in your readers. No publisher will pick up a book if they don’t think it will sell. And for it to sell, it needs readers. Lots of readers. Establish a readership. Be like the rappers of yore and sell those demo books out of the trunk of your car. Set up a reading and signing event in your garage. Tell anyone who will listen. Let them judge if your work is worth their money.
There they are. My thoughts for the world to read. I’ve been silent this week reflecting on everything because of the Book Movement news. If you’re here because you’re in that Alabama book club, or because your club is reading my book, I thank you for your time and money and kind words. If you like the book, tell your friends. If you don’t like the book, donate your copy to a library. Either way, I hope you’ll stick around. The best is yet to come.