All of which, with the use of this smooth, clever transition sentence, leads me to my topic, 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef, a book that has sweetened me on self-published books (even if it’s not technically self-published). A few years ago, when I was ready to publish my first book, the award-non-winning novel Barn Again: A Memoir, I learned, after a year of researching and querying agents and publishers, that no one else was ready for it to be published. Skip to the part where I finally say fuck it, I’ll publish the motherfucker myself and unlike certain people I’ll actually proofread it. And to mask the shame of self-publishing I put it out under a phony publisher name, Malarkey Books. And because of that this website exists and other people are even writing for it, and dozen of people have read my books, and I’m writing this review of a book that was published by another small-time publisher. The thing is, you won’t hear about it on the news or any of the big magazines or literary websites, but some of the most interesting books being published today are being self-published or released by extremely small presses that use the exact same publication method as the self-publishers, which is print-on-demand. Usually with either CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. Obviously Malarkey uses Ingram Spark because CreateSpace is owned by Amazon and Amazon is an anagram for Satan. Cow Eye Press, the publisher of Boiled Beef, also uses Ingram Spark. I asked, but I didn’t need to. You can tell. CreateSpace books are easy to spot because they have this crease near the spine on the front and back covers. You’re right, they should change their name to CreaseSpace. Ingram, once you hold a few, you can tell by the feel of the cover, also the barcode at the back of the book.
You’d have to be sort of nuts to buy this book. You’d have to be sort of nuts to publish it. I mean, it’s just a book of recipes, none of which is particularly detailed or—can’t even tell if this is the vegetarian in me or the old picky eater in me—appetizing, for cooking boiled beef. But it’s not just a book about boiled beef. It’s also a meditation on publishing and independent literature. What the good folks at Cow Eye Press have done is pluck an obscure manuscript from the public domain and turn it into a metaphor for the existence of the modern writer. The twenty-first-century update of Boiled Beef is prefaced by a note from a fictional intern, who thinks “no more than five people will read this new edition.” But it doesn’t matter how many people read it, the point of this book is that “Nobody’s gonna read a book of recipes for boiled beef” is not a critique but a formula. “Nobody’s gonna read a book of/about/for/by” + whatever category or genre doesn’t really sell. For writers and publishers outside the publishing establishment, we know this, and we do it anyway. Because we’re stubborn or vain or deluded—or because it’s worth doing, even if there ain’t a big fucking market for what we do.
“As an independent publisher,” writes Natalie Zeldner in a note at the beginning of the book,
I sometimes wonder why we even bother. It is unlikely that anyone will take note of the books we publish. No reviewer will discuss them. Bookstores will not stock them. The common reader, already drowning in a sea of heavily marketed titles, will never suspect that ours also exist. Our books will be excluded from the prominent “Best Of….” lists and literary awards that have become the last refuge for gaining editorial credibility and an external audience — but that to this day remain the privileged birthright of the publishing establishment and its legacy of patronage and prestige, of old money, of esoteric tradition, of economic expediency, of timeliness, of genre.
She still went and published this book. That’s what we do. Agents tell us no, so politely. Book reviewers ignore our emails. Bookstores charge us consignment fees. We keep writing. We keep publishing. We keep reading. Boiled Beef is more than a book, it’s an homage to those of us who work in the dark, whose publications exist and matter and are met, as Cow Eye Press put it on twitter, with overwhelming silence. For those of us in the independent publishing world, we don’t have publicists or marketing teams. We don’t have agents, managers, or brand strategists. All we have is each other.
“So many writers still want that traditional “validation.” They want someone else to take control of their career. They want someone else to praise their book and make it a bestseller.
They want to put their entire artistic and creative future into a machine that’s designed to chew people up and spit them out—even if those people aren’t on some blacklist.
I see writer after writer after writer who wants to sell their books to traditional publishers or who want to go into Hollywood with a “free” option or who willingly give away the rights to something just for “the opportunity” to play in this shark tank.
The film industry hasn’t yet gone through the full-fledged transition that book publishing and comics are going through right now. It’s not easy to make a film without big money backing and get it distributed worldwide. It is possible to write a book and get it distributed worldwide now.
That self-published book just won’t get the attention that a handful of books got thirty and forty years ago. But that 2018 book will stay on the virtual shelves while the older books rarely stayed on any shelf.
There’s a lot of upside to indie. A bit of downside too, which we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks. But the biggest upside to me is that we are not subject to the whims of someone who will only spend money to market a book on a writer because she’s pretty or because she meets the current cultural norm.
(I just got offered a big quick turn-around tie-in novel this past month, for which I would have been paid in the low six-figures. When I said I wasn’t interested and offered to give the person a list of writers who might have the time to write this project, she asked if any of them were female. I said no, none of them were. [I wasn’t looking at gender; I was looking at availability for a rush job.] Well, to be honest, she said, we only picked you because you were the most visible female tie-in author we could find. We don’t want men at all. Again, that flash of disappointment rose in me. I was chosen, not because my work is good, but because I’m female. I understand the corrective urge in the marketplace, but jeez, that comment felt as insulting as having my book marketed because I was considered pretty 25 years ago.)
Writers who choose to take their novels and their nonfiction books into traditional publishing are choosing to give their careers to the “tastemakers” who sometimes make their decisions based on their prejudices, their “understanding” of a marketplace that (in reality) does not exist, and who will do their best to destroy anyone who questions them.
Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I’ve been through my share of whisper campaigns too, including one that went on for nearly thirty years—from the moment that guy lost a big prestigious job to me until the day he died.
I used to tell writers that you need a tough skin to be in this business. And you still do. Although not a scaly hide that nothing can penetrate. These days, if you’re going indie, you need to be tough enough to handle the ups and downs of owning your own business. You need to be tough enough to weather bad reviews and low sales. You need to be strong enough to keep moving forward in the face of disappointment.
If you’re going traditional, you need to be made of alligator skin. You need a hide so thick that nothing can pierce it, or if something does, you need to have a system to deal with the pain so you can get up and move forward again.
Just because we’re having these conversations in the culture right now doesn’t mean that everything has changed for the better. This kind of change doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how it feels.
Remember, the news cycle is on overdrive right now, and what might seem too big and important to ignore might vanish in the wake of yet another scandal or large catastrophe that we can’t even imagine right now.
I’m hoping this kind of change we’re seeing is not a bubble. But I’ve been through enough bubbles to know that’s a risk.
Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to succeed on any terms? Is becoming a traditionally published author so important to you that you’re willing to put your career (and your copyrights) in the hands of people who still haven’t figured out that diversity means more than publishing a few books about discrimination?
And if your answer is yes, then do this: Use your imagination.”