Self (Publishing) Help: Tell the F*cking Truth!

by Flickr user Roque Mocan

Listen, today is independence day.  Independence is cool.  Independent publishing is cool.  But some people don’t find it to be liberating.  Some people are ashamed.

In my work as a journalist, I have encountered some self-published authors who are so defensive about being self-published that their websites are full of lies.

So in honor of freedom of speech, press, and publishing, I have the following things to say to ANYBODY who’s considering self-publishing.

1. If you’re embarrassed about self-publishing, DON’T DO IT.  Get traditionally published instead.  If you’ve sent your manuscript out and nobody wants it, it probably sucks.  Work on it some more and send it out again, okay?  Don’t give up.

2.  If you decide to self-publish, call yourself a self-published author, instead of a published author.  Don’t lie about it.  It’s not cool, and journalists and anybody who needs help being impressed will find out you’re lying.

3.  This is not to say that you can’t phrase your accomplishments and achievements to maximize their appeal.  Penelope advises people to do precisely that in her post about writing a resume.

4.  But if you write on your resume that you were a manager when you were a clerk, and a potential employer calls for a reference, you will not get the job.

5.  Ergo, if you write on your website that you’re a “published author” and it turns out that you’re self-published with no other publishing credits, well, that’s a problem.  Or if you write on your website that you’ve written a dozen books, but these books can’t be found anywhere because they are nowhere linked with your name, that’s also a problem.

So focus on what you have.

6.  Self-publishing is hard work, and if you’re honest about it, people are going to be a lot happier to help you achieve sales goals, and help you to publicize.  If you’ve done it, own it!  Shout it!  Be proud!  It’s an accomplishment!

6a. But if your writing sucks because you didn’t spend any money on improving it or listen to any editors before you went to print or epub, don’t expect it to be easy to find people to be as proud of you as you are.

7.  But remember that self-published authors who spend significant money on their books do much better than those who don’t. Here’s a great post from Catherine, Caffeinated about this very topic, so you don’t have to take my word for it.

7a.  And if you think I’m reliable and want to take my word for it, here are some other Self-publishing Help posts.  Here, Here, Here, and Here.

8.  Writing your web copy in the spirit of plausible deniability has a ripple effect.  I take my responsibility to the truth as a journalist really seriously.  I know a lot of journalists who do.  We won’t, in good conscience, propagate half-truths.  We will either not mention your invented credit, or explain it in language that is plainer than you would prefer it to be, plainer than you have explained it.

9. You lose 100% of your credibility if any look deeper than the surface of what you write on your website reveals half-truths or blatant lies, or things that can’t be fact-checked (which are always read as lies, even if they aren’t, so don’t tell them!).

10.  Local press (where you are) and tons of print and web magazines welcome writing from freelancers.  These publishing credits, when you get them, are often easily linked online (which is good for your web presence or online portfolio), and a totally transparent sample of your work. They also signal that you have the chutzpah to pursue work in writing, even if it isn’t what you believe you are cosmically destined to be doing, whether that’s writing fiction or poetry or lyric essays or memoir or whatever.

11. There are HUNDREDS of literary journals that accept work from unpublished people.  Subscribe to Writer’s Market online, or go get the book, and submit, submit, submit.

12.  None of this is sexy or easy, but nothing worth accomplishing, is sexy or easy.  Most writers who make their living writing what they want to write instead of what they are being paid to write spend years in the trenches of copy editing, news jockeying, and doing work that is far outside their ideal writing life before they get to do what feeds their souls. But they do the stuff that feeds their souls anyway.  They keep at it.  Even though it’s hard and unsexy.

13.  You should, too.

14.  And always tell the fucking truth, even if you perceive some kind of stigma on your truth, okay?  Lies are never worth it.

Youth and Arrogance

I recently subscribed to Writer’s Digest and it is sincerely the best little bit of money I have ever spent.  I suspect it’ll pay for itself over and over again, plus it is a tax deduction.

There’s a terrific little section called “10 Embarrassing Moments That Made Me a Better Writer”  (This is the issue of 10s), and my favorite is from Jane Lebak.  It goes like this:  “In one college-level, short-fiction class, each student would lead a session in which we critiqued two pieces.  When it was my turn, I received a story about a military wife stationed in Germany; the writer was the mother of another student, and was auditing the course with her daughter.  In my young-writer arrogance, I critiqued with impunity, giving my unglossed opinion that the story suffered because the main character was self-absorbed and arrogant and she didn’t seem aware of it.  As I delivered this opinion to the surprised writer, her daughter covered her face with her hands. It turns out this piece wasn’t a short story, it was a memoir.”

Stick with me for a minute.

Been catching up on Mad Men.  There’re analagous anecdotes all over the place in that show, but one struck me on the episode we watched last night, somewhere in the middle of season 2.  Peggy begins to befriend this young priest.  The priest seems to be a little more interested in Peggy than is appropriate for a man of his station.  Meanwhile, Peggy’s older sister, who’s charged with the care of Peggy’s bastard son, and who lives with her mother and does not flit off each day to live in an apartment and keep a job in Manhattan, tells this priest about Peggy’s indescretion in confession.  The priest then, on Easter Sunday, hands Peggy a blue egg (blue, the color of truth, ahh, Mad Men.  You are so clever) and says, “for the little one.”  Peggy is, of course, aghast and that’s the end of the scene.

So I’ve been thinking, with some embarrassment, about the time I was a sophomore in college and somehow managed to become the editor of the undergraduate Literary Journal.  I was reminded of a particularly embarrassing event born of my similar arrogance, and here’s my story.  When I sat with my editorial board in the magazine’s office going through the pile of submissions, their duplicates, and cover pages and cataloging and categorizing the entries, we were disqualifying ones that exceeded the length requirement.  The woman who’d been editor of the magazine a few years before me, we’ll call her Pam, was in her forties and was, as far as I was able to glean, a somewhat ridiculous character.  Her piece was something like 3-5 pages over the length maximum.  So we disqualified it.  She’d been the editor 3 years running, and had transformed the journal from a very amateurish publication to something that looked professional.  Everyone was very proud of her for that, and she was in a love relationship with one of the faculty.

In my 21-year-old arrogance, I felt justified for the following reasons:  The journal was for college students.  To my mind, it was tacky for Pam to even submit work because she had 20 years more life experience than the average college student, and I felt like she’d had her share of the limelight from that publication, and I thought it was time for her to just be graceful and let the space for someone else.   I felt like she was being absurd, and it was in my power to show her I thought that, and it was for those reasons as much as for the fact of her slightly-too-long submission that I participated in disqualifying the piece.  Also, I didn’t want to be seen as playing favorites.  I wanted to treat everybody exactly the same.

Turns out, that’s not really how life works.

And now I know, like Jane learned, that Pam’s life was not easy, and that college was probably the first thing she felt successful at, and that being a woman is tricky in the world, especially if you happen to be a woman who has children and is smart.  Fairness and equal treatment exist only in really rare microcosms of society.  I should have just printed her story, disregarded maximum length and all.

And I acted like the priest from Mad Men.  I presumed to know something about Pam just by what I could see from the outside.  I had not yet learned that when people are ridiculous or absurd or insane, there’s often cause—and the cause is usually understandable, even if their behavior is perplexing.