Self-publishing: is it just the vanity press wearing a DIY mask? THIS IS NOT A TEST #46 (transcript)

Published November 7, 2015

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Hello friends. It’s Michael Phillips and you know what this is. THIS IS NOT A TEST. I work in a small office building in Pasadena. It’s only three floors, maybe 20 companies or tenants. For the past year or so they’ve been renovating and the place looks pretty good. They totally gutted the bathrooms and redid them with a lot of stone and grays and marble, like a real commercial building. It’s been hard to get used to, because the previous owners were cheap and they would only patch things here and there, and you could tell they really didn’t even want to do that. But everything’s a lot better now, and you’d think people would be happy and grateful for that. But since they’re people, after all, they are not.

Someone started scratching things into the new metal elevator walls. First a small 8 year old boy’s drawing of a penis. Then another one, and the word FUCK really big. Then more penises and more FUCKs. They topped it off with a six year old boy’s crude sketch of a woman – just boobs and stick arms, really – with another penis threatening from below. They titled that piece FUCK. As you might have imagined. Every wall had a penis or a FUCK on it. Whoever did it was dedicated and thorough. Now some kids do come in to the building, but only for an ophthalmologist next door to us, and always with their parents. So I know whoever carved up the elevators was a grown man. Well, I assume it was a man, forgive my societal bias.

That was irritating, but I could live with it. They’ve since identified the guy – I think – and installed cameras in the elevators and just this week replaced all the walls with less scratchable surfaces. I don’t understand the mind that did that though. Just like I don’t understand the guy who – every day – pisses all over the floor of the bathroom, around the toilet in one of the stalls. Only the one. He has a favorite spot. Not a few drops of piss, but what looks like most of his piss. Every day. He just pisses on the floor. To me, that’s harder to understand than the penis scratcher. Though I really don’t get either one of them.

I was an asshole when I was younger, and I didn’t have any respect for anything or anyone. As horrible as I think I was, I never went into a public restroom and pissed all over the floor. I may well have written things on walls with pens, I don’t remember any specific incident, but I must have. But it wouldn’t occur to me to carve dicks into the walls of an elevator. I lived in an apartment building with an elevator, and I never wrecked or defaced anything in the building, because, you know, I LIVED THERE. I know the subnormals who piss and carve up the office building don’t live there, but I still don’t get it. They work there. They are there every day. Does the piss guy piss all over his bathroom floor when he gets home at night? Maybe he does.

There’s a not so little part of me that thinks executing people like that would be good for humanity. I wouldn’t execute people who steal, or cut off their hands or tear them apart with donkeys or anything, I’m not talking about executing run of the mill criminals. Do whatever you have to do with them. Just the people who don’t seem to get it. Who don’t understand how societies work, and that you can be a malcontent or an artist or a wayward pisser without making everyone around you miserable. If you don’t get that, you’re executed in my world. Taken to a field outside of town and unceremoniously shot and dumped into a big pit where the rest of us can come and piss on your corpse. Seems reasonable. I doubt I’d ever get it past congress though. Not these days.

Enough about piss though, what I really want to talk about today is self-publishing. Some people might think it’s appropriate to open up a conversation like this with a conversation about piss, because self-publishing is kind of a polarizing subject. Some people believe it’s the future, and others believe it’s done nothing but creative a hellish mountain range of unreadable crap. What is self-publishing? Well it’s exactly what it sounds like: someone writing something, then publishing it themselves. It used to be called “vanity publishing,” which gives you some idea of how the publishing world felt about it. The publishing world looked down on the vanity press as a bunch of lonely hearts and conspiracy theorists making their little books that would disappear into obscurity, if they ever appeared anywhere in the first place.

Vanity presses did a lot of poetry books, because the established publishers that publish poetry are almost all affiliated with universities, and only publish poets who passed through universities to get properly educated in how to write things down. They publish poets with degrees and teaching positions, just like they always have. 50, 60, 70 years ago and now today. So if you were a housewife or an uneducated dandy, pretty much the only way to ever see a book full of your genius was to go through a vanity press. To say that most of it was unreadable tripe is probably not inaccurate. But one thing to remember is that celebrated poet Walt Whitman went the vanity press route for the work he’s probably most known for, “Leaves of Grass.” The same universities that won’t publish a poet without a degree will teach you all about Whitman while you’re working on your MFA.

Whitman aside, most self-published books were not exactly chock full of high quality writing. They were full of the things that editors or readers at the big publishing houses would have rejected or just thrown into the garbage without reading. And that’s why publishers have always thought that they served some sort of noble purpose by weeding out the junk. They were experts and they knew literature when they saw it. They were the gatekeepers. They were the arbiters of taste and culture. The bestowed legitimacy onto a writer’s work. If a publisher put out your book it was legit, if you published exactly the same book yourself, it was not. The same rationale applied to music, if a record company signed you to a one-sided contract and released your song, you were a recording artist. If you did it yourself, you were not. Most of the things I’m going to say about book publishing apply directly to the music business too.

So that’s the idea that was made holy. That if some venerated company deemed you worthy, you were worthy. But if you really look a that process, it becomes a lot less lofty and what you often see is that instead of a venerated company deeming you worthy, it’s one or two people in that company. Which is kind of the basis for what turned me toward seeing self publishing as being viable. I’m pretty old, so I remember the vanity presses and their advertisements in the back of magazines, and I remember that you were just supposed to think that self-publishing was the refuge of the ugly and untalented. So that’s what I thought. For a long time, and even up through the publication of my own first book.

But a lot of things converged in our recent history to make self-publishing seem not only viable, but the only reasonable way to get your work into people’s hands. The first thing that set us down the road to that tipping point was the mimeo revolution in the 60s and early 70s. Thomas Edison did a lot for us, but his greatest invention may have been the mimeograph. A mimeograph is just a way to print pages using stencils that anyone can make. Edison started with what he called an electric pen, but eventually a mimeo stencil could be made with a typewriter, and that made a lot of things possible. In the 60s it kind of blew the doors off the poetry world, and hundreds of new literary magazines popped up, and a whole generation started to see that there was life outside of what the publishers had always fed us. It was crazy and exciting, and it wasn’t all good, but it was alive, and that’s what made it different and valuable.

Just before the Internet collided with the earth, zine culture had sprouted up doing much the same thing that the mimeo revolution had done, but zines did it for a new generation with X-acto knives, glue sticks, Xerox machines and staplers. Indie bookstores were overflowing with zines and there was a bustling mail trade going on. And right there in that tidal wave of zinery were literally hundreds of poetry and literature magazines. That’s where I came in. I started writing and sending out poetry at the height of the lit zine scene. There were so many of them that it was easy to get published. Or maybe I’m just so great that it was easy for me. But I suspect that it was easy for anyone with a typewriter – or a word processor – and a roll of stamps. Judging by some of the poems in some of those zines, that was certainly the case.

But it was really exciting for a while, getting those contributor’s copies in the mail, if they ever sent them. There was your work, in a magazine that other people were reading, not just your unfortunate friends or family. But after a few years of that it occurred to me that being published in those lit zines was not usually any more valid than publishing yourself. Literary magazines are and were typically one person sitting in a house or apartment somewhere opening mail and reading it and saying, “Like this, don’t like this. Hmm, don’t like this…” then typing it all up and laying it out in the shape of a magazine and calling it literature. That one person can be really good at putting together something literary, or they can be not so good at it. But to a writer, the publication credit is the same. They’ll list The Nincompoop Quarterly right next to a real magazine and say, “Look at where I’ve been published!”

But if the zines and the publishing houses are just people reading the mail and putting what they like into a special pile, isn’t that just one other person validating your “worth”? That’s not a huge hurdle to clear, impressing one person. It’s one more than zero, or one more than yourself, so I suppose it means something. But if you really think about it, it’s no different than your friend reading something you wrote and saying, “I like that.” Only your friend probably wouldn’t gather up a bunch of things they liked, run off a hundred copies at Kinkos, staple them together and mail them around the country. That’s what the zine editors did, and that was exposure. Exposure, the great and mighty god of the creative class. Exposure is something people offer you when they don’t think what you’re doing is worth any real money.

Exposure. Give us your work and we will show it to the people. You won’t get anything out of it, but those other people will see it. Maybe they’ll remember your name and when they do want to buy something for real money, they’ll think of you. That is the lie handed to creative people everywhere. When I was playing in Boom Shaka we appeared in a movie, like a legit Hollywood movie, and we got paid, but what we were really thinking about was the exposure. Ha. Being a band in a movie is no better than being an extra sitting at a table in a restaurant scene. You both get the same amount of exposure, which is none. Exposure isn’t a real thing. Don’t ever take exposure in exchange for your sweat and blood. Exposure is the trick that allows other people make money off your work. Next time someone asks you to give them creative work for free, in trade for the great exposure you’ll get, tell them to go fuck a frog. Or better yet, stick a fork into the side of their neck and tell them you’ve giving their blood some exposure.

Okay, I got off track there a little bit. What were we talking about? Self-publishing, yes. Okay. Well I said that I believed the self-publishing equals vanity thing, and I did. Even when I was sending poems to the lit zines, I still didn’t publish anything myself. One of those lit zine publishers though, someone I considered more of a real publisher because his magazine was twice the size of a zine and perfect bound, they put out my first book. Or I should say he, because again, it was only one guy making all the decisions. But even when it’s just one person, when they start complimenting you it goes to your head. He published my poems and short stories in his magazine ATOM MIND, but every time he’d write to me – this was pre email babies – he would say, “Send me more, we should do a book.”

So one day I thought, well this guy must be crazy, but if he wants to do a book let’s do it, so I wrote and said okay and started sending him a lot more work. But what happened was he took pretty much everything I’d send to him. Maybe because I was pre-editing, by only sending him work I thought was good. But if that was the case, it occurred to me that maybe my pre-editing was enough. If a publisher is taking – and publishing – everything you give them, then what is their role, exactly? Middle man? Distributor? No, if you produce a physical book or zine or periodical of any kind, I have to call you a publisher. Because by definition, that’s what you’re doing, publishing. Anyway, all of that made me think that maybe self-publishing wasn’t that far removed from the normal kinds of publishing that were going on every day. Maybe it even made sense. Of course it only makes sense if whoever is self-publishing self-publishes something that’s good, something that other people can actually read. We’ll get back to that.

But of course what really busted open the world of self-publishing was computers and the Internet. Typing a zine and cutting it up and pasting it all together and hauling it over to Kinkos at two in the morning when copies were cheaper is all well and good, but what was all well and better were computers. Within the span of a few years zine publishers went from work that looked like punk rock anarchy to producing things that looked like they could have come from a big publishing house. Desktop publishing, they called it, and lo the people did rejoice. There are even programs that can make your computer generated publication look like Xeroxed punk rock anarchy, for all you fans of irony out there.

It could get expensive running off your 100 copies of 16 pages at Kinkos, and it would certainly be expensive to run all of that paper through your home printer, which is why the bigger lit zines were still offset printed. If you made 250 or 500 copies of each issue, Xeroxing wasn’t a viable option. And when you use a print shop, you can also just pay them to put their big machines to use doing all the folding and stapling for you. VIOLA! Now you’re like a little publishing mogul. But all of that comes at a cost, which is why self-publishing and the vanity press used to be so expensive to do. But when the web got rolling more and more people thought, “What am I doing dicking around with all this paper and ink?” and within a span of about five years, I’d say 90% of the printed literary zines vanished. I base that only on my perception of the scene, not any actual research or numbers. If I had to rely on actual research and numbers I wouldn’t be able to say anything here.

But the web also brought a gift to those who wanted to keep the ink on paper zines alive, and that gift was print on demand joints. You could upload your pages and cover, click a few buttons, pay them and a week or two later your zines would show up, printed, collated, stapled, trimmed and ready for their eventual home in the landfill. The print on demand place can do full length books too, perfect bound books that look just like a paperback you’d buy at one of those dusty old book shops, if there were still any of them left. Well, they could look as good as a commercial paperback if you had someone who knew what they were doing making the cover art. And therein lies the Achilles heel of all self-publishing. Taste. A sense of aesthetics. You have it, sure, but most people do not. You can teach someone to use their bootleg copy of Photoshop, but you can’t teach them design. Or color or typography. And being amateurish in those areas is where most self published stuff lands, and it’s why so many people are so quick to dismiss it.

Amateurishness. That’s a big word. Pick up any random self-published book and odds are you’ll be awash in it. Amateurish writing, amateurish book layout and typography, amateurish design and art – it’s all very sad and low rent. I have some books like that, some that were given to me, some that I paid for, and they make me sad. I don’t know why. Maybe because I care about writing and don’t like to see it wrapped up in a dogshit colored ribbon. I don’t know why, but an amateurish approach to self-publishing isn’t going to win you any friends. Some people can look past it, others like me will be bothered by it, but it won’t keep us from reading, but then there is the rest of the world who points at the comic sans on your book cover and says, “See, that’s why self-publishing is shit.” And they’re only half wrong.

It is a lot of shit. Only one in every hundred – or maybe at this point one in every thousand – self-published books is worth opening. That isn’t because they’re poorly designed, it’s because they are poorly written. Some are shockingly poorly written, and no one is there with a red pencil to fix it, so it just goes out in to the world that way. That’s the problem. But that’s also what’s great and revolutionary about self-publishing, the fact that it’s all out there, the good and the bad. Now you can decide what’s good for you, rather than having someone in a cubicle in New York City decide for you. Everything that makes it easy for a really shitty writer to self-publish also makes it easy for a really great writer to self-publish. And to me, it’s worth suffering the crap to give the really good ones an opportunity to get their work across to us.

I’m not sure I believe the “cream rises to the top” crowd anymore though. I used to be one of them because I think it used to be true. But the sheer volume of creative works out there makes it a bit difficult for fringy unknown cream to breathe, let alone rise to the top. You have to be really interested in getting people’s attention and getting your work into their hands these days. But it can be done, and the cream can be dragged to the top. Or at least to the middle, where most of us live. It’s just another hurdle, but you’ve got to stay ahead of the tsunami somehow. Maybe it will calm down one day, and we’ll have less shit to sift through to get to the good stuff. Ha ha ha – that was me making a joke, because that’s never going to happen.

Everyone is a genius now, didn’t you know that? Every day a thousand more people pick up book formatting software of recording software and they are all going to write novels and make great beats. Because you don’t make songs anymore, you make beats and tracks and mixes. Get with it. They’re all coming, like the flood of law school graduates who can’t find lawer-y work so they put the beans into your burrito or sell you your lipstick. They’re coming, so if you want to be heard or seen, you have to be smarter than them. You have to know something they don’t know. Or someone they don’t know. It’s usually better to know some one than some thing, as it turns out.

And we haven’t even talked about Amazon yet, or ebooks or whatever is going to come after ebooks. If you think there are a lot of bad self-published paper books, go to the Kindle store and start looking around at really cheap books in some of the popular categories. Good lord, there are a million of them, all vying for your 99 cents. But I’ve read a few decent self-published ebooks, and I know that there are plenty of writers who actually make a living writing and self-publishing ebooks on Amazon. How can they do that? because despite what most cultural pundits and prognosticators have been telling us for the past two decades, people still love to read. Enough of them anyway to modestly support a lot of writers. Or not so modestly in some cases.

The fact is, the money spent on books has remained pretty consistent, but it’s spreading out. Certain celebrity best sellers plopped onto the world like so much elephant shit by the traditional publishers will always rake in millions, but there are mid-level authors, the novelists who you probably never heard of but who were making a good living before all hell broke loose. And by all hell I mean self-publishing in general and Amazon in particular. Now those mid-level writers who work for traditional publishers are getting smaller checks and they’re looking around thinking, “What’s stopping me from going directly to people and getting some more of that cake I’m missing?” And some of them are finding that nothing’s stopping them, and they’re leaving the traditional publishers and casting their lot with Amazon and the other online platforms.

And really, why shouldn’t they? Direct to the people is the future. It’s problematic right now because the signal to noise ration is so high, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out because we’re smart and traditional publishers and record companies are profoundly stupid, slow and frightened. They will never figure anything out, they’ll all die not having figured it out, not having seen what’s obvious to the rest of us. Technology has made it easy for me to sell you a book – and since we’re here I’ll just suggest that you go to where I will be happy to sell you an actual book – what I mean is technology has made it easy for us to sell books, directly to the people who read them.

The big publishers don’t spend any money these days promoting new authors anyway. The first thing they ask a new author is how active they are on social media, how much of a following do they have, and what is the author going to do to promote the book. Which is understandable if you remember that they are profoundly stupid. If I’m doing all the promotion for my book, what do I need you for? Printing? I don’t need you for that. Your name? Maybe. For a while. But soon those names won’t be worth anything. They are already worthless to a younger generation who never heard of Little Brown, and doesn’t care. That’s good for writers and artists and musicians everywhere.

But with every gain comes a loss, and there is definitely a loss coming for literature, just like it’s come for a lot of things. Maybe not a loss for literature, but a loss to us as a culture. And that is the shared experience. Everyone you know has read certain books – Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, those kinds of things. We all read them and we all know them. That won’t always be true. Look at how fast television changed. When I went to school on Monday morning, or I should say if I went to school on Monday morning, everyone was talking about what they’d seen on Saturday Night Live, or All in the Family or whatever popular show you’d care to name. Everyone was talking about it because everyone watched it. There were very few choices, so we got to enjoy that shared experience.

But look around. Now there may be things you watch or listen to that other people you work with or friends you know also watch or listen to, but it’s less likely, and it’s less likely you’ll have a group of 6 or 7 people standing around waiting for an elevator who all watched the same thing at 11:30 on Saturday night. It just doesn’t happen anymore. And it only stands to reason that the same thing will happen with books. Schools may cling to certain “classic” titles, but how long can they do that? How long until every region or every state or every school is deciding on different books to try to get kids to care about literature. That’s seems inevitable.

Hey, I didn’t bring up this subject because I had an answer. If it’s one thing I know we’re good at it’s change. We can change and we will change and everything we hold dear today will be gone eventually. That’s what’s so amazing about humanity. We keep reinventing what being human is. That’s pretty impressive. And you’re pretty impressive, I mean look at you, you’re still here. Thanks. Try me again next week if you’ve got nothing better to do. Ciao, babies!