Subjective Fact #2: Most published books are forgettable
The following two “facts” I’ve given above point out a pragmatic reality about publishing—the great majority of all books ever published have been forgotten and the majority of books that will be published, will be forgotten; that very little is good enough to survive, and in the long run, a book needs to be astoundingly, eye-wateringly, soul-changingly good in order to survive more than a hot minute after its publication.
Most writers (all writers really) are either desperate for mainstream publication, or smugly self-satisfied once they’ve gotten it. While the substantial advances and royalties are the superficial attraction of mainstream success, I suspect that the affirmation of a major publishing company (writ large in a marketing campaign) is what truly satisfies a writer. But while this affirmation is nice, it is also a fetish—an entirely unnecessary appendage to the spiritual apparatus of the writing itself. A desire for undeniable, public, commercial affirmation can be crippling, but it also reveals a deep in-authenticity on the part of a person who might be otherwise claiming to care about their art; it reveals an appetite for the trappings of a literary world rather than a commitment to the work for its own sake. If a writer really believes in their manuscript, why wouldn’t they publish it themselves? At least if, as expected, finding an agent is difficult (which it is), or placing a book with one of the big six proves difficult (which it is)—aside from having to compromise the book itself in order to satisfy an agent or publisher (or both)—then…why not self-publish?
The answer writers give to themselves—or the answer I suspect they give—is that self-publishing comes with a stigma. More deeply—and unconsciously—literary-minded writers avoid self-publishing because it comes without the affirmation(s) of traditional publishing. Book parties, readings, and general sweater-vesty schmoozing are out; cry in the wilderness is in. This binary (that is the idea that we must choose between a small or large audience) however, is largely an illusion—the type of success and lifestyle that one imagines Jonathan Franzen as having, is unbelievably uncommon. For a poet, for example—or anyone writing any kind of difficult book without a commercial market—the monetary benefit of traditional publishing might be only marginally higher, or even lower, than self-publishing. For most writers in MFA programs—with rare exceptions—a small publisher offering a small advance, or no advance, may be their only bet aside from maybe years of ass-kissing in the major publishing world. Yet those writers, at least in my observation (I did not attend an MFA but know many who did or do) have an absolute aversion to nontraditional, or even the smaller, boutique publishers they are destined for.
The conclusion I’ve come to—admittedly a generalization, but I hope an instructive one—is that in many cases, after there is no longer a pragmatic, financial incentive to continue to hope for mainstream publishing, writers, particularly those literary writers working on their “great American” whatever, will irrationally refuse to consider alternatives. The reason for this irrationality, as I’ve suggested, is an aversion to the image surrounding self-publishing; an aversion which is utterly superficial. If a writer is really “literary”—that is focused on writing “literature” (a.k.a. something that lasts)—then they ought be concerned with putting their writing into a publicly available, finished form. There are no longer any financial barriers—with POD—to stop anyone from doing this; the only barriers are self-imposed.
To self-publish, to put one’s “great American” book into existence without affirmation from a publicly acknowledged filter, is to risk being an emperor without any clothes on—this is really what paralyzes otherwise ambitious writers from self-publishing. But being the naked emperor is an inescapable, existential risk of being any kind of artist in any kind of scenario; security is only ever a convenient fantasy. I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that a mindset that leads people to spend years on a novel or poem or play also leads them to expect huge financial and social rewards for their work; a more meaningful reason to write a book is because one feels an internal requirement to do so.
Ignoring self-publication is just a way to ignore one’s fear of failure—and as long as artistically serious writers shy away from it, the traditional publishing world will go unchallenged. Joyce delayed the publication of Dubliners for years because he refused to remove the world “bloody” from his text—and ultimately received slim royalties from the book when it was published. Wallace Stevens earned enough from the first edition of Harmonium to (if he was lucky) buy himself a single lunch. Harmonium is now considered by many critics to be the best first book of American poetry ever written—except for Leaves of Grass, which by the way Whitman typeset and published himself.
Publishing a book has always, always been Quixotic adventure, but classics always survive the madness. Very few writers are able to avoid struggling, but now, no writer really should struggle to get into print. If you believe in your book, publish it—that’s what I’m trying to say—writing a successful book is its own, intrinsic reward. Anyone with an internet connection, or anyone with a friend, can find a reader, and any truly great book, once it finds a single reader, is the only kind of book that can (and will) survive—and if you self-publish your book and it finds no sympathy at all, then at least you can say you had the courage to fail.