Merry Christmas To Me: The Decision To Self Publish

I gave myself an early Christmas present. After years of agonizing over the issue, I have decided to do what I have always dreamed about doing, to become a published writer, to make books, to be read, to hold the thing in my hand, a language event between two covers, a physical manifestation in the world of my brain, suitable for sharing (of course, because not everything in my brain is suitable for sharing), and to do all of these things on my own terms, to self publish.

How did I arrive at this decision?  I emerged from an MFA Creative Writing program at the age of 32, way more than a decade ago, with a book in my pocket.  I had finished my first novel–a huge accomplishment, I felt, and it was a work for which I was immensely proud. And I was confident, I thought, that through my experience in this widely respected program, I had developed enough critical acumen not to delude myself about my novel’s worth or my skills as a fiction writer.  I was on fire.

Agent after agent after agent after agent after agent (you get the picture) read my novel in full and had really glowing, often specific things to say about how great my novel was–but at this time, they would say, for this and that and the other reason, we don’t feel that we would be the right agency for this book.  Somebody else, they would inevitably say, will feel differently.  And then agent after agent after agent after agent would say almost the exact same stuff.  With that novel, I had lots of positive feedback but no takers–and I even had what I would identify as two incredibly close calls–agents who would go so far as to request revisions and even talk to me on the phone–but even these close calls, even though they felt so much different and more hopeful than my other exchanges, resulted in the same outcome. I’m a busy guy.  I had work to do.  A limited amount of time to dedicate myself to further researching agents and writing letters and sending emails and making copies and running to the flipping post-office and waiting and waiting and waiting.  I figured at this rate I might get a book published by the time I was 60.  I gave up.

I wrote another novel.  It took me almost ten years, off and on, to finish it, but it felt good to be chipping away at a new thing, to be doing the thing I really wanted to do, that is, write, instead of floundering around in the cesspool of the agent search for a novel that was already a decade old.  And then, again, I found myself in the same situation.  Time to find an agent.  I tried a few of the agents who were most positive about my previous novel.  And again, I received specific, positive, sometimes glowing comments about my book with a big BUT at the end.  I decided to stop torturing myself.

You know, I just (mostly) want to share my writing with humans.  If I could make a living, or supplement my living as a teacher, with my writing, that would be fan-flipping-tastic.  But ultimately, it’s not about a big advance or book tours or a spot on Oprah’s list.  I just want to be able to say to a friend who might be interested in my creative work, yeah, here’s a thing I made and I’d be honored if you would read it.  Or, when speaking to strangers or new acquaintances who ask me what I do, I can say, of course, I’m a teacher, and a musician, and a father, but I can also say, hey, I’m a writer, and I’ve got a book or two and you can buy these things and take them home or put them on your kindle or your iPad.  There you go.

There has been, until recently I think, a kind of hairy eyeball directed at self-publishing by the literary community.  Somehow, putting yourself out there is vain, and your stuff, because it hasn’t been vetted by the literary machine in some way, is probably not very good.  But technology, the internet, has transformed that belief, I think, and given the conventional path to publishing quality work a run for its money. And technology notwithstanding, there’s an impressive historical tradition of great writers self-publishing: Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman off the top of my head.  So I’d be in pretty good company.  And, duh, haven’t musicians been doing this all along, since forever ago?  Haven’t I, as a musician, been doing this all along, since forever ago? Yes and yes.

So my Christmas present to myself is the permission to fulfill this dream, agents and publishing houses be damned, and my new year’s resolution is to publish a novel.  I’m tired of the agony part of being a writer.  After the pleasure but sometimes excruciatingly hard work of writing two novels over a 20 year period, I think its time to share a little bit of that with the world.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

26 thoughts on “Merry Christmas To Me: The Decision To Self Publish

  1. Great post, Michael. I empathise fully with your disillusion with the whole agent/publishing scenario. We live in strange times. While the self publishing industry offers untold opportunity for writers, the traditional route seems to have closed its doors. All you can do is develop faith in your work and approach all the options with integrity. I wish you all the best with all your future ventures.

  2. It seems hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since I was safely ensconced in your classroom, reading–I honestly can’t remember what. Oh wait, yes I do: The Great Gatsby. Something about the insanely blue cover to the paperback sticks in my mental craw.

    Anyway, I want to provide you with some encouragement and, perhaps, an example of what is possible. Look at John Scalzi: he serialized his first novel on his blog, which then got picked up by Patrick Nielsen Hayden for Tor, I believe. He’s since gone on to complete a trilogy in the same universe, write a passel of more books, and consult for Stargate: Universe. Please don’t quote me on this. What I’m trying to say: it can work.

    You’re doing what you think is necessary. The positive vibes it will create for yourself makes it worthwhile.

    Oy, writing is hard. 🙂

  3. Writing is hard, marketing the … thing is worse! I have had similar experiences to you and can only say GO FOR IT! Would very much like to know how you get on.

  4. Good for you, Michael. I went through a very similar experience with my novel, and on the day that after one actual agent, 85 rejections, I got notice of a near miss on a significant contest, I finally did it. I felt hugely liberated when I hit “send” and launched my ms. to a good “self-publishing” publisher. For once, I had some control; it was an immense relief. I wish you well. This is an act of love — for you yourself, for your writing, for your work. Three cheers. The world is changing and you’re part of it.

  5. Glad to read Jan Worth-Nelson’s comment, above. She’s just the person I was thinking of as I read your blog post, Michael. Good company indeed. Congratulations on tearing the top off it all. You cookin’, man.

  6. Michael, I am completely in accord with your reasoning. Also I want to read your novel, and you are making that possible so I salute you. congratulations on taking this step.

  7. I, for one, can’t wait to read them–or anything else you’ve written, for that matter, Michael. You’re a fantastic writer and human. Thank you for believing in yourself, as you inspire me to accept my own self and my writing. Good luck and congrats!

  8. Hi, Michael, I’m late in responding, but a friend just passed me your link. I think you sum it up in the phrase, “Here’s a thing I made .” Damm it – we can do that with paintings, with wedding cakes, with custom cars and cob houses…but apparently, we can’t do it with our writing. Even when we’ve poured everything we have into it. It’s…stupid and limiting, isn’t it? I want to ask friends to recommend great paintings and superb cake and then I want to sit and enjoy and eat. So given how highly you’ve been recommended, I for one would like to read the thing you made.
    the thing yo

  9. Michael, I’ve read your blog about your self-publishing venture at just the right time. I was one of those people who managed to get two books published by a reputable lit fiction press (Mercury House, San Francisco) that is no longer publishing. I lost my home. I had an agent in NY but, after her turning down the last THREE novels I wrote, I decided to stop the pretense and go my own road. I had national awards and some hutzpah. I had a tenure-track job at U of Arizona for 4 years and dumped it to become an itinerant performer. My husband and I have a multi-media program called “Riders on the Orphan Train” with live music that we perform to a video backdrop and then I do a recitation of a part of a historical novel I wrote about the subject of the Orphan Trains. I’m bringing that up because the touring program gives me an audience beyond bookstores and Amazon. We sell books and CDs at our gig. So, for me, going the route of agent/publisher/distributor is almost counter-intuitive. I’ll sell more books directly than amazon ever will. Or at least enough for gas money. But I know you know what I mean when I say this isn’t an easy decision. Academia still has a strangle-hold on literature. Musicians never had the sigma and made the transition that John Prine and others did such a great job of paving the way to self-promotion. In book publishing, if you want to teach, give readings, workshops, visiting writer stints, it’s still not clear if self-publishing “counts.” How did we, as literary fictioneers get lumped into the category of gramma writing her memoirs for her grandkids? Do you think this is finally changing? Have you been to AWP? What is the mood there? I’m so glad you’re writing your experience and hope you keep on doing that. What’s it like now that the book is out? Would you do another one this way? The other option seems to be to go with one of the small presses like Engine Books that will “publish” the book in print on demand technology and ebook but give no advance to authors. Do you think there’s any advantage to going with one of these “presses?” Like you said, there’s too many choices. Would love to be in touch with you.
    Alison Moore, Fiction 1990

    1. Allison!

      Thanks so much for reaching out. We met once, remember, at the alumni conference held at Warren Wilson some million years ago. I’ve been hoping we’d run into each other there again. I’m going to Holyoke this summer. You? At any rate, regarding the new attitude or vibe about self publishing, let me tell you this little story. I was doing some window shopping at this morning, and right there on the home page was a message from one of the mucky-mucks of amazon promoting an individual writer who self-published with Kindle Direct Publishing. Right there, her lovely mug and a nice photo of her book cover and a little success story about thumbing her nose at the publishing establishment. I haven’t read this writer’s work and it’s not likely that I will but this impresses me–there’s no shame in this at all; there’s nothing illegitimate about it; there’s no stink of grandma’s memoir here (not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if grandma can write)–so I am heartened by all of it.

      So, needing to make a living as a writer is a dream of mine but it is not a necessity or my biggest priority. My high school English gig is secure and rewarding, albeit, often difficult and frustrating–so my biggest motivator for self publishing was primarily to have a vehicle to share my writing with people interested in what I do. The whole process of promoting the thing is daunting and I will do as much of it as I can and in as many creative ways that I can without dropping a bunch of money on services that will help me do that. So far, early on in the process, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s really satisfying to hold the thing in my hand and smell the ink and give an autograph every now and then. I’m trying to book some readings locally, trying to find out how to get hard copies on the shelves of brick and mortar establishments, thinking about literary equivalents of the house-concert, and trying as best as I can to promote myself on face plant and wordpress and with the contacts I’ve made with my musical endeavors. Again, thanks for the note. Let’s keep in touch. And I would be honored if you read my novel.


      1. Michael,
        Thanks so much for your reply. It’s heartening. And, I’ve always been a proponent of the “fuck ’em” school of thought. My father was a self-employed journalist and I spent my childhood in a series of rent houses, so it’s no accident that my husband and I live in a vintage travel trailer! Whatever it takes. And yes, a lot of grandmothers CAN write. And should be heard.
        I won’t be able to make it to Holyoke. Too far, too $$$. So, I’ll wait for something closer to Texas. Do you know when the next Swannanoa alum meeting will be?
        I’ll be honored to read your novel.

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